Who is “the great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12:1?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Does Hebrews 12:1 suggest that our loved ones in heaven are watching us live our lives right now? It is definitely a common view (I used to believe it), but is it a Scriptural view? What would be the Bible’s view; what would be the Bible believer’s position? As Bible students, we are bound to study the Bible about the matter.

It comes as a surprise to many that the Bible can be used to teach just about anything. If you study the cults in professing “Christianity,” they all quote Scripture to some extent, and they even use verses to teach some very strange—and absurd—material! They may quote a few Bible verses here and there, or use a few Bible terms here and there, but they fabricate the rest of their “Christian” doctrine (using extra-biblical books, their imagination, et cetera). What they never do is quote the Scripture in its context; they seize Israel’s verses and apply them to us, they take verses that apply to Jesus Christ and apply them to us, they take verses that apply to the Body of Christ (us) and make them fit with Israel. They “wrest”—yes, wrestle with!—the Scriptures as the Apostle Peter says (2 Peter 3:15-16)!

Beloved, context is critical during Bible study. If you ignore the context of a verse, you will absolutely miss the Bible’s teaching in that verse. The confusion regarding Hebrews 12:1 would never have come about had people stayed with the context instead of quoting that single verse. This is largely because of the chapter break. Still, even if the chapter break causes us to overlook the previous verses, the first word of Hebrews 12:1 shows us that there is more to the concept than what is found in that verse.

Notice Hebrews 12:1-2: “[1] Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, [2] Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The first word of Hebrews 12:1—”wherefore”—points back to Hebrews chapter 11. “Wherefore” means “as a result of which.” Hebrews 12:1 is the result, the conclusion, so we must look to the previous verses to grasp its meaning. Logically, we must look at chapter 11 if we are to understand the opening statements of chapter 12.

Hebrews chapter 11 lists many Old Testament saints: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Joseph, Moses, Israelites who left Egypt, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthae, David, Samuel, the prophets, et cetera. It was to these people of faith that God promised an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that He had promised since He created the world (Matthew 25:34). Had sin not come into creation, God would have come down and dwelt with Adam and Eve some 6,000 years ago. Hebrews 11:39 says, “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.” These saints are still waiting to see their kingdom, thousands of years later!

The author of Hebrews encourages believing Jews to endure the adversity and persecution of the future seven-year Tribulation. The “great cloud of witnesses,” not our loved ones watching us from heaven, is actually the saints listed in chapter 11. They testify to God’s faithfulness, that He will see them through all the vicissitudes of life. Believing Jews living during the awful events of the seven-year Tribulation will be reminded of those saints of old who endured persecution and yet God was faithful in delivering them (Hebrews 11:33-38). These Tribulation saints are encouraged to endure those seven years—”the race” of Hebrews 12:1—by following the ensamples of the saints of old (that “great cloud of witnesses” of God’s faithfulness, the importance of relying on Him).

Hebrews 13:5-6 says: “…for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” Hebrews is not written to us members of the Church the Body of Christ, but we are comforted in that just as God will not forsake those Jewish believers enduring the horrible Tribulation, He will not abandon us in Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

God will keep His promise to those saints to bring them through the Tribulation and into their earthly kingdom, so we can be sure He will keep His promises that He made to us in Paul’s epistles! If God will comfort those believing Jews during the worst period of human history, surely, God will comfort us in our Dispensation of Grace, to one day deliver us and usher us into our heavenly kingdom.

Finally, it should be noted that Romans through Philemon, Paul’s epistles, never say that deceased believers in heaven watch us in this the Dispensation of Grace—1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 seems to have been the place to write it, had it been true. Our assumption is that believers in heaven do indeed remember us, and they know we are still here on earth (because they see we are not in heaven with them), but we see no reason why they would need to watch us. Rest assured that they are at peace, and one day we will meet them, to be with them and the Lord Jesus Christ forever. “To be with Christ; which is far better (Philippians 1:23). For now, we must remember that our earthly ministry must be completed. Let us not lose sight of our Christian ambassadorship. Dear friends, let us be faithful in teaching and preaching God’s Word rightly divided while we still have opportunity!

Interestingly, according to the book of the Revelation, during the seven-year Tribulation, during Israel’s program, martyred Jews in heaven will be aware of their brethren suffering at the hands of the Antichrist down on earth (Revelation 6:9-11).

Also see:
» Do people become angels when they die? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» What are Christians doing in heaven right now? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» Is it really true that angels watch us? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)