Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses

Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses

Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud if witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author (archegos) and perfecter (teleiotes) of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

We wonder, don’t we, if this great cloud of witnesses just mentioned in Hebrews 11, and referred to in Hebrews 12, are actually spectators in heaven, watching us as we live out our faith, cheering us on like at the athletic games of Greece and Rome. Some take this verse literally, that these heroes of the faith just alluded to are heavenly cheerleaders for us in our race of life. Others think instead that these biblical heroes are inspiring us by their example, that they lived their lives in such a way as to encourage us in our journey. We don’t know if they are actually eyewitnesses right this moment in time or historical witnesses through their example. We don’t know, and it probably shouldn’t matter.

We do know that the author of Hebrews wants to creatively engage our imagination in these two verses by providing a backdrop of the athletic games of the Greco-Roman empire. The root word for “witnesses,” is “martus,” from which we get the word martyr. That word is actually an allusion to the spectators of the public games in the stadium. Carrying this idea further, the Greek word for “cloud,” “nephos,” refers to the highest seats in the stadium, where spectators were sitting so high up that they were referred to as the “cloud” seats. Greek scholars say that the “martyr” word for witnesses evolved into the term “testifiers.” Witnesses then are those who are able to testify to the truth of what has been seen and therefore what is believed. Interestingly, a related word for “cloud” is “crowd,” a large group of people who are spectators or who bear witness. Leaving us no doubt as to the author’s purpose here, s/he closes this first verse with, “Let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us.” One writer put it this way… “You’re not alone! The grandstands of heaven all the way up to the highest seats in the clouds are piled high with people who have stood the test of time…

This great crowd of testifiers, says the writer of Hebrews, offer us credible testimony, for they have been there before us, they have run the race of faith in the one God, and they have endured to the end. The biblical heroes mentioned in Hebrews 11 are shining examples, who will serve to inspire us in our walk with God, if we let them. They are testifiers, and they can cheer us on through their inspiration of us who are in the race of faith right now. Hebrews 11 is a fascinating list of heroes of the faith. It includes ancient men like Abel,  Enoch and Noah; the pioneering Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; matriarch Sarah; Joseph who rescued the family of Israel from famine and introduced them to life in Egypt; Moses the great deliverer, teacher, and miracle-worker; Rahab the faithful prostitute who helped bring down Jericho; historic warriors like Gideon,, Barak, and Jephthah; the great judge Samson, and the last of the judges Samuel. David the man after God’s own heart. The list offered in the chapter is clearly just a smattering of biblical heroes, and the author could have just as easily chosen to add many more. After all, what about Joshua, or Esther, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or any of the prophets major and minor? The author of Hebrews offered us enough to inspire us in our faith, but as the author says, “It would take too long to recount all the stories; I do not have time to tell you all about them.” (Hebrews 11:32).

Even considering the rock-solid faith and heroic exploits of those biblical heroes, the author of Hebrews will not allow us to fall into the trap of hero-worship. These old saints may be shining examples for us to emulate, but we are not to make the major mistake of getting stuck with stars in our eyes, we are not to dwell primarily with those powerful testimonies. As someone once said, we are to glance at the heroes but gaze at Jesus. Consider well the witnesses, but focus primarily on Christ. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” (Heb. 12:2). All these heroic figures were merely secondary pioneers of the faith who were actually following the one Pioneer, the sole archegos, and that is Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, the originator and the finisher.

Archegos (Greek): “Chief Leader” is the simplest literal meaning of archegos, but it means so much more than that: 1. Pioneer; pathfinder; trailblazer; captain; initiator; prince; one who sets a pattern; one who goes first to prepare the way for others; one who leads the way in founding something; the predecessor for others to follow. 2. Author; originator; primary source; the causer of something; creator.

An archegos can found a school that others may follow him or her into learning; an archegos can found a city that others may dwell in; an archegos can blaze a trail that others may follow; an archegos can begin a family that others may be born into; an archegos is the one who swims from a foundering ship with the safety line to tie it to an anchor on shore.” (John Ritenbaugh)

Teleiotes (Greek): Perfector, finisher, completer, consummator. The word is used only once in Scripture, right here in Hebrews 12:2, and refers to one who reaches a goal so as to win the prize.

Christ originates our faith. “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.”  (Ephesians 2:8, NJB). Jesus is the author of our faith story. Our faith is of His creation. He began it by drawing us to Him, by dropping a mustard seed of faith into our hearts to get things started. God’s gift. The believer didn’t start the faith. We have no reason to boast about whatever kind of shape our faith is in. We don’t have the right to pat ourselves on the back for walking down the aisle to be saved. We didn’t open the door to a life of faith. We didn’t put ourselves into the position of becoming believers. Christ gave us a seed of His perfect faith, which perfectly trusted in the Father and steadfastly finished the race. He completed what He started in His faithful life. So, Christ has the kind of faith I want. If I have to choose between the faith of Christ or the feeble faith that I manufacture on my own, I will choose Christ’s faith. I want to participate in and be shaped by His perfect faith, not my imperfect faith. I want Christ’s faith to live through me. I want to adopt the faith of Christ as my own. I want my faith to be hid in Christ. I have done nothing to be especially proud of in my faith life. It has been the faith of Christ that is triumphant. It is the faith of Christ that I have been living into. It is a free gift of grace, and I owe it all to Him who originated my faith. I find that the more I recognize the faith of Christ Himself inside me, the easier it is to disengage my ego in my faith development. My own faith is a house of cards. The faith of Jesus within me is a solid house built on a foundation of immovable rock. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.”  (Galatians 2:20).

Christ completes our faith. “For the righteous shall live by My faith, says the Lord.” (Hab. 2:4)As we participate in the faith of Christ within us, as we live into Christ’s faith, we will notice that our faith depends on Him from beginning to end. Just as He finished what He started in His own life, He wants to finish what He started in each of us as well. He has a strong desire to bring our faith, His faith within us, to full maturity. He wants to perfect our faith, to make our faith complete. Faith continues to be a gift from God, and Jesus wants the faith that we have in Him to be full of life and growth. The job of Christ’s Holy Spirit is to transform us until He consummates our faith at the end of the race, to finish our faith as we reach the finish line. “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6). God will sustain His good work of faith in you. We didn’t originate our faith, and we won’t complete our faith. We didn’t start the race of faith, and we won’t finish it on our own. Christ’s perfect faith finished His race as He now sits at the right hand of God, and His faith within us will enable us to run until we also get the prize. This is how we share the life of the risen Christ. We imperfectly participate in His perfect faith. This takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? We don’t have to somehow concoct the perfect faith. Christ’s perfect faith is already within us. We need to instead mature in our participation in His faith, by feeding it, following it, submitting to it, studying it and growing in it. We don’t have to possess a perfect faith. We instead imperfectly live into Christ’s faith within us. And He will be sure to perfect our faith at the finish line.

We believers are running in a race of faith, and we need to run it with patient endurance and active persistence. Keep our eyes on Christ, who mapped out this race and is our Pioneer. He designed the course we are running, and we need to follow His instructions. He has been there before us, so let us follow Him as the Source of our belief. He saw joy ahead at the finish line, and that helped Him endure the shame and pain of the Cross. He persevered against stiff opposition from sinners and the devil himself, but he didn’t lose heart. Let us follow our faithful leader who has made a path for us. And look now, He is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven! We will all join our Pioneer in heaven if we run the race He has set before us, running it the way He Himself ran it for our salvation.

As we are inspired by all those heroes of the faith mentioned in Hebrews 11, let us not forget that we are completely encircled by the faithful witnesses after that time as well, up to and including right now. The huge crowd of inspiring testifiers includes saints and martyrs since biblical times. The martyrs of the early church are worthy examples for us, of faith, courage, wisdom, and endurance. Meditating on these profound words of early martyrs, early testifiers, who are inspiring to say the least. As the Orthodox Chruch has said repeatedly, “If they can do it, so can we, in the strength and power of Christ.

“The glorious company of apostles praise you. The noble fellowship of prophets praise you. The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.”  (from the Te Deum, a poem of praise by Nicetus, 414 AD, modern day Serbia).

1st Century

St. Stephen in Jerusalem – “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!… Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:54-60).

St. James the Just – “I beg you, Lord God our Father. Forgive them, for they are unaware of what they are doing.” 

St. Peter in Rome – “I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me… Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and in the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 1:13, 3:18).

St. Paul in Rome – “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed, the time of departure has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. And now the prize awaits me, the crown of righteousness.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

2nd Century

Shamuna of Syria – “You are God of all, and to you belongs glory and praise, because it has pleased you that we should carry on to its close the conflict we have entered and that we should receive at your hands the brightness that shall never fade away. God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in peace receive our spirits to yourself.” 

Sharbil of Syria – “Christ, be merciful to me, as you were merciful to the penitent thief. Receive me, like those who have turned to you, as you have turned to them. I have entered your vineyard at the eleventh hour, deliver me from judgment. Let your death, which was for the sake of sinners, restore me to life again in the day of your coming.” 

Clement of Rome – “Lord, we beseech you to help and defend us. Deliver the oppressed, pity the poor, lift those who have fallen, be the portion of those in need, return to your care those who have gone astray, feed the hungry, strengthen the weak, and break the chains of the prisoners. May all the people come to know that you only are God, that Jesus Christ is your child, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture. Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant, we pray, that we might be grounded and settled in your truth by the coming of your Holy Spirit into our hearts.” 

Ignatius of Antioch – “My desires are crucified, the warmth of my body is gone. A stream flows whispering inside me: Deep within me it says, Come to the Father. Near to the sword, I am near to God. In the company of wild beasts, I am in company with God. Only let all that happens be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that we may suffer with him. I can endure all things if he enables me. I am God’s wheat. May I be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts until I become the fine white bread that belongs to Christ.” 

Polycarp of Smyrna – “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Child Jesus Christ. I bless you that you have thought me worthy of this day and this hour, that I may be able to share in the number of the martyrs, to drink from the cup of your Christ, that I may rise and live forever, body and soul, in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit. May I be admitted with those martyrs to your presence this day, as a welcomed and acceptable sacrifice. You have made my life a preparation for this; you let me see that this was to happen, and now you have brought it to pass, for you are the true and faithful God.” 

Justin Martyr – “I ask nothing more than to suffer for the cause of my Lord Jesus Christ. If I can do this, then I can stand in confidence and quiet before the judgment seat of my God and Savior, when in accordance with his will, this world passes away.” 

Apollonius the Apologist – “I enjoy life, but love of life has not made me afraid to die. There is nothing greater than life – that eternal life which gives immortality to the soul of the righteous.” 

3rd Century

Hippolytus of Rome – “Christ is risen: The world below lies desolate. Christ is risen: The spirits of evil are fallen. Christ is risen: The angels of God are rejoicing. Christ is risen: The tombs of the dead are empty. Christ is risen indeed from the dead, the first of the sleepers. Glory and power are his forever and ever. Amen.”

Arcadius of Caesarea – “Lord, teach me your wisdom. Let all my members truly belong to you in this time of sacrifice. You alone are the true God, for you alone I will suffer and die. To die for you is to live.” 

Cyprian of Carthage – “Good God, may we confess your name to the end. May we emerge unmarked and glorious from the traps and darkness of this world. As you have bound us together by charity and peace, and as together we have persevered under persecution, so may we also rejoice together in your heavenly kingdom.” 

Montanus of Africa – “We all have the same spirit, and this is what unites us in our actions and all that we do together. This is the bond of love that puts evil to flight and that which is most pleasing to God. It is by our praying together that we receive what we ask. These are the ties that link our hearts together, and make mere mortals the children of God. To inherit your kingdom, O God, we must be your children. To be your children, we must love one another.” 

Genesius of Rome – There is but one king I know. It is he that I love and worship. If I were to be killed a thousand times for my loyalty to him, I would still be his servant. Christ is on my lips. Christ is in my heart. No amount of suffering will take him from me.” 

4th Century

Shenoufe of Egypt – “I bless you, Jesus. To you belong all blessings. I bless you, Jesus. You are the only begotten of the Father. I bless you, Jesus. You are the true vine, the crown upon the throne of the Father. I bless you, Jesus. You walked upon the water, and your feet remained dry. I bless you, Jesus. You made the bitter waters sweet. I bless you, Jesus. You are the unmovable rock. I bless you, Jesus. You command the angels. I bless you, Jesus, and your good Father, in whose hands is our breath, and who gives us life. For yours is the power and the glory, forever. Amen.”

Julitta of Caesarea – “Let the estates I own be ravaged, or given to others. Let me lose my life, and let my body be destroyed. Rather that than I should speak one word against you, O Lord, who made me. If they take from me a small portion of this earth and its wealth, I shall exchange it for heaven.”

Severus of Thrace – “I ask you, Lord, do not count me unworthy of the suffering that has been endured by my brothers. Allow me to share the crown with them. Allow us to be together in glory as we have been together in prison. Allow me to find my rest with them, as we have confessed your glorious name together. Amen.” 

Philip of Heraclea – “Lord, you have shown me what I must suffer. As a dove descending, offering me food that is sweet, so I know that you have called me and honored me with a martyr’s death.” 

Thelica of Africa – “Thanks be to God. O Christ, Son of God, deliver your servants by the power of your name. O God most high, do not consider the actions of my persecutors as sin. God have pity upon them. Lord, for the sake of your name, grant me the strength to endure what I must. Release your servants from the captivity of this world. My God, I thank you, though I cannot thank you as I should.” 

Jonas of Beth-Lasa – “Our life is seed, sown in the earth to rise again in the world to come, where we will be renewed by Christ in immortal life. I did not frame this body, nor will I destroy it. God, you gave me life, you will also restore it.” 

Peter of Alexandria – “Jesus Christ, Son and Word of God, hear me, your suppliant. Silence the storm that rises against your church; let the pouring out of my blood, as your servant, be a seal of the persecution of your flock.” 

Saba the Goth – “Blessed are you Lord, and may your Son’s name be blessed forevermore. I can see what those who persecute me cannot; On the other side of this river there is a multitude waiting to receive my soul and carry it to glory.” 

Methodius of Olympus – “Blessed Father, eternal, binding all creation together by your strength, taking the heavens as your abode. May we also pass beyond the gates of life, welcomed by you, O Father, and your Son.” 

5th Century

James Intercisus – “This death, which seems so terrible, is little enough to gain eternal life. Savior, receive a branch of the tree. It will decay, but will flower again and be clothed with glory. The vine dies in winter, yet revives in spring. Shall not this life which is cut down rise again? My heart rejoices in the Lord, and my soul has exalted in your salvation.” 

A Word of Encouragement from St. Paul: 

“What then can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or difficulty? Can persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger, or the sword? We are put to death all the day long for your sake, as Scripture says, ‘We are prepared like sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet despite all that happens to us, victory is ours through him who loves us. For I am fully assured that neither life nor death, nor powers in the world, nor out of the world, nor the heights nor the depths of the universe, no, nothing in all that is created can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

Last Word:

“Seeing that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us set aside every weight and all that hinders us, and run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).

(Reference, Prayers of the Martyrs, by Duane Arnold, 1991).