Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrew 12:1-2)
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. But, who are these witnesses, what do they witness to, and what does it mean to be surrounded by a great cloud of them?
What do we find in this “cloud”?
The “who” is simple enough. We just need to look one chapter prior in Hebrews. We see the old testament saints, the hall of famers! People like Noah, Jacob, Sarah, and Abraham. We throw in others like Moses, Rahab, Samson, and David. These are the ones we point to as our best examples for living. Because that’s what you do with the Old Testament stories. You find examples to follow. At least, that’s something I often heard, especially at my first church. It seemed we were always encouraged to strive to be the best examples of these men and women.
But even they couldn’t be the best example of themselves. We know they did some amazing things. They conquered giants, built arks, ruled as kings, rescued spies, the accomplishments could go on. But, they also had pretty bad moments as well. In those moments we see drunkards and liars, murderers and adulterers. We see people whose character may be a little shady, and some even overly fearful for their own lives.
They’re a mix of good and bad. They’re a testimony of what Martin Luther called, “Simul Justus Et Peccator.” These old testament saints weren’t perfect examples of faith and obedience. They were sinners, just like us.
They were righteous, but they were righteous because God declared it so. Just like us.
Let’s look at Noah. Before God calls him a “righteous man” in Genesis 6:9, In verse 8, Scripture states “he found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The Lutheran Study Bible, from Concordia Publishing, which I love for its focus on Jesus and the Gospel, states about Noah finding favor, that, “The Lord’s favor is found not won.”
Some versions of the Bible even substitute the word grace for the word favor.
I see Noah finding favor with God, finding… grace. And it reveals to me a God who is always consistent. He doesn’t change as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
God’s favor, God’s grace, always finds us, as it found all the old testament saints. Noah was faithful to do what God commanded not as proof of his righteousness, but in light of that favor bestowed on him by God. The book of James states that, “Faith without works is dead,” and that’s true. But it’s not an accusatory litmus test for our salvation, it’s a statement of fact. Faith existed in Noah, and there were works that followed.
Faith existed with all the old testament saints.
But so did sin.
We see this played out in Noah’s drunkenness. We see it played out in Jacob’s lies, We see this played out in David, this man after God’s own heart, in his capacity to steal a man's wife, get her pregnant, and murder the husband to cover up his sin.
So, what do these witnesses testify to? What does this cloud represent?
It cant be a perfectly realized life, fully committed and sold out to God. There are too many flaws for us to see, no matter how hard we try to hide them behind their shinier exteriors of faith in action.
When I see this great cloud of witnesses, I see an imperfect cloud, called out by God, and at times rebellious toward God, but also kept by God.
I see in the witnesses, the testimony of God working out their salvation, past their sins and flaws. Calling them to follow, saving them, entrusting them to do his will, despite themselves. Like Noah, Giving them favor, when they don’t deserve it.
Its Grace, God’s favor, as always.
These saints are witnesses for us to the kindness of God to rescue them. We see all these things, and know we are not condemned by our own struggles and failings. That we have found favor in his eyes.
From these witnesses, we can lay down the weight of condemnation. We can put aside any idea that we can’t measure up. That we are not worthy. We put aside sin, not that we never sin again, but we put aside the idea that God is looking to immediately banish us the moment we mess up.
We see our reflection in this cloud, the whole reflection, the good and the bad.
And it encourages us to know God found favor with them, and today, he finds favor with us.