Whenever I read about the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11, I picture David and Moses, Abraham and Sarah, Jephthah, Gideon and Samuel sitting in the bleachers while we on the track are running the race toward Jesus.
In my mind, they yell words of encouragement like a group of spectators who love the sport, but most likely lack the training and the discipline to actually participate in it.
“You can do it,” they call to us. “Just keep your eyes on Jesus.”
Recently, my perspective has changed.
These saints are not witnessing us on the field, but are witnessing to us from their own lives.
Like coaches who know what it is to persevere when the going gets tough, this cloud of witnesses can encourage us because they’ve been where we are.
They know what it was like to lose hope and then to be strangely, wonderfully, bolstered with hope from the Holy Spirit.
They have wondered where God was and then unexpectedly glimpsed God at work in surprising ways.
The saints from Hebrews 11 have names and stories.
They lived by faith, keeping their eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of that faith.
Though some “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness,” others “were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy (Heb. 11:33-38).”
No matter what their circumstances, this great cloud of witnesses calls out to us, “Look what God has done.”
But that is not all.
The writer to the Hebrews declares that we are part of the journey of these saints who “though commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised because God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect (Heb. 11:39, 40).”
Our lives are inextricably bound with those who have gone before us even as they declare to us,
“Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Isa. 35:3,4)
God’s saints through the centuries are also part of that great cloud of witnesses.
They have names and stories as well.
Saints like Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, William Law, Martin Luther, Catherine of Sienna and Mother Teresa say to us, “Look what God has done.
If God met us and strengthened us, God will do the same for you.”
We are the saints who are running the race.
We have names and stories, but our stories are not just about us.
They are stories of the living God who is a work in each of us, molding and shaping us, transforming and empowering us by the Spirit.
We too are part of the great cloud of witnesses.
Witnessing to God’s faithfulness in our lives.
Witnessing to the hope we have discovered when all seemed lost.
Witnessing to the sufficiency of God’s grace no matter what the circumstance.
We come alongside each other, not as wannabe athletes but as those who are experiencing the strength and grace given to us for the race.
We become witnesses who cry out to others around us, “Strengthen your weak hands, firm up those feeble knees.
Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
God will come and save you”—because we have watched God save us.
To learn more about saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and Mother Teresa, register for the Readings in Spiritual Classics: Four Saints, Four Centuries (Online) course by clicking here.
Sharol Hayner grew up in California until attending Wellesley College where she majored in music. Sensing God’s call to ministry when she was a freshman, she served in many capacities as a lay leader until her late forties when she began seminary while living in Madison, WI. Sharol earned both her MDiv and DMin at Columbia Theological Seminary. Sharol served as pastor of discipleship at Peachtree Presbyterian Church and as a parish associate at Kairos Church both in Atlanta. She and late husband, Steve, authored Joy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death, a chronicle of Steve’s journey through pancreatic cancer. A musician, pastor, and writer, Sharol now lives in Madison, WI.