What does it mean to be surrounded by a “cloud” of witnesses?
Not long ago I was preaching on Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in regard to the existence of life after death. In Luke 20:27-38, Jesus reminds them that Moses called God, “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus implies that it would be foolish to say such a thing in the present tense if they were not, presently, alive. Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
The Apostle Paul described life as a sporting event in which we are called to give our best, saying,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” (Hebrews 12:1)
Paul expands on the idea of resurrection and the afterlife to remind the church that those who are alive in the next world are watching those of us who remain in this one. Paul specifically refers to the prophets, saints, and martyrs but it isn’t difficult to imagine that this also includes all of those who have always loved us and cared for us, but who no longer remain among the living of this world. I know that my grandmother prayed for me nearly every single day of her life and I have no reason to imagine that she has stopped doing so today.
Let me share a mental picture that I have found meaningful. Have you ever held a newborn baby, yours, or your grandchild, niece or nephew for the very first time? Do you remember how that made you feel? It is a magnificent feeling. Hold on to that feeling. Now, imagine the moment when you first arrive in the next world, right after you have “crossed over” and passed through Saint Peter’s pearly gates, right after you’ve met Jesus face to face, or however you might image your arrival. Now, you see, standing before you, a group of people. Some you know, but many you do not. In the front are your parents, lost children, and dear friends, but there are many more, perhaps hundreds, even thousands of faces that you do not know. As you embrace your family and your friends, your father, or perhaps your grandfather, takes you by the hand and says, “There is someone here, that I have wanted you to meet for a very long time.” And he turns to a an unfamiliar face and says, “This is my father" or "This is my grandfather.” And then, for hours on end, they in turn introduce you to their fathers, and their wives, and their children, all of whom have known you since you were born, and have been watching you grow, and have been praying for you that Jesus would watch over you and guard your steps.
And the feeling that you have is the feeling of holding that newborn child in your arms, multiplied by ten thousand, or more.
Every moment of your life that you were in trouble, every moment when you faced difficult choices, every moment when you needed prayer, all of these hundreds and thousands of friends and family who love you, were watching and praying for you.
Think of this, when we walk outside in a heavy fog, that moment when the clouds lay upon the surface of the earth, we are not near the cloud, or next to the cloud, we are completely engulfed and surrounded by the cloud.
This is the picture that Paul draws for us. With every choice that we make, with every success or failure, with every crisis or ordinary day, we can imagine that this cloud of people who love us, family and friends, surround us, watch over us, and pray for us.
Because our God is the god of the living and not the dead, we are constantly watched over by those who love us, care for us, and who are, even now, praying for us. Paul says that because we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses” we should cast aside everything that is holding us back and have the confidence to forge ahead into the unknown toward whatever God has placed in our path.
May we all have the courage to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”