Who are the witnesses that surround us?

“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. 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 11:39-40,12:1

I don’t know if this will surprise you as much as it surprised me, but I recently realized something key about Hebrews 12:1.

Before, I used to think that the “great cloud of witnesses” here were the people who did not yet know Jesus. They were people witnessing our lives. I used to think the point of this verse was that since there were so many people depending on us for an accurate presentation of the gospel, we needed to run with perseverance.

But that is not what the “great cloud” refers to.

Hebrews 12:1 directly follows one of the most extensive lists of people throughout history who lived by faith. People like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Samuel. Then this verse starts with “therefore.”

I think the cloud refers to all of those people. The faithful.

So the meaning of this verse drastically changes for me. The motive here moves from running for others to see, to running because others have seen. From running in order to prove a point, to running because of the confidence you find in knowing the stories of so many other people of faith.

And I think that is a purer motive. Of course, one aspect of faithfulness is teaching others and modeling Christ. But when that aspect of faith is what motivates a person to throw off sin and everything that hinders, it takes us awfully close to Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:1: “Do not do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.”

Instead of thinking about what others will think, try thinking about what others have already done, in the past, because of their faith. And then fix your eyes on Jesus and run with perseverance. I’m sure this will be a more effective way to finish the race, and some people will probably see and believe because of that.