What is This Great Cloud of Witnesses That Surround us?

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This past summer, I signed up a 50-mile bike race. I hadn’t been cycling long, and this was going to be the longest ride I had ever done.

I prepared well. I did months of training and stretching, I practiced each stage of the route, and most importantly, I became an expert in carb loading. (Donuts!)

About halfway through the race, I felt great. I was going faster and doing better than expected, so I increased my pace above what I had planned. But around the 42-mile mark, the wind picked up, my water ran out, and every turn of the pedals felt like a struggle.

And that’s when my help arrived.

Up until this point, I had been pedaling alone, so I could keep my own pace. But now, I needed encouragement, support, and motivation—I needed another cyclist. Another racer and I had been passing each other back and forth over the past few miles, and he pulled alongside me and asked how I was doing. “I’m struggling! You?” He was struggling too.

Together, we pedaled the final eight miles side by side. We didn’t talk a lot, but we gave each other just enough support to keep going. We both wanted to quit—or at least take a long pit stop at a fast food joint—but wouldn’t let the other give up.

We finished the race side by side, thanked each other, and never saw each other again.

Where Do We Find Encouragement?

When I felt like quitting, when I couldn’t go an inch further, I found encouragement in one who understood my struggle and could remain with me till the finish line.

We all need this help. Every day. Coming alongside us, identifying with our struggle, and saying, “You got this! Keep going! Don’t give up!”

Where do we find such true encouragement for a marathon-long life of faith and endurance? In the witness of the saints throughout God’s Story.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has written this to us:

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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. —Hebrews 12:1-3

The Cloud of Witnesses

Have you ever recognized the power of these verses? What is this “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us—and how do they impart gritty, real-life courage to us today?

As Kyle Idleman describes in his new book, Don’t Give Up, this is no ordinary cloud. This heavy, all-encompassing fog is a crowd of people. You don’t see this kind of cloud; you feel it. The Living Bible translates the phrase like this:

Since we have such a huge crowd of men of faith watching us from the grandstands…

This cloud of witnesses gives us a powerful picture: A packed-house throng of history’s greatest heroes watching you, cheering for you, calling out to you, “Get up! Keep going! You’re almost there!”

In context, Hebrews 12—which starts with the transition word “Therefore”—provides encouragement based on the truths of Hebrews 11. And Hebrews 11 is a famous chapter we often call “the Hall of Faith.” In it, the author reminds us of the faith and endurance of our forefathers and spiritual mothers.

  • Noah—who built an ark in faith of God’s words alone
  • Abraham and Sarah—who left home and family to follow God to an unknown place
  • Jacob—who tried to run from his problems and found himself wrestling with God
  • Moses—who refused to let Israel be oppressed and led God’s people to the Promised Land
  • Joshua—who simply walked in faith until the walls of God’s enemies fell in a heap
  • Gideon—whose little army was empowered by an all-powerful God
  • David—whose sin was not too great to keep him out of God’s plans
  • Nehemiah—who worked day and night to rebuild Jerusalem while surrounded by doubters
  • Paul—who finished the race, kept the faith and passed on to us the charge to build the church
  • These were all witnesses of God’s power and goodness to his people in the unlikeliest of scenarios. They were all pressed to their limits, hit the wall of desperation, and had to fight back the temptation to give up. And as a result, they experienced God’s deliverance in historic ways.

    Strong Encouragement

    So often in life, what we need is not some soft, gentle inspiration for the moment. What we need is gritty, real-life, battle-tested encouragement. As the word hints, we need courage in us.

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    The witnesses of Hebrews 11 stand for us and cheer us on today.

    Just like Kyle Idleman in Don’t Give Up, we often want the soft encouragement but need the strong encouragement of the Scriptures.

    We want Mister Rogers to come knocking on our door—but we need William Wallace… He grabs you by the shoulder, and he says—he even growls—stuff like this: This is not the time to give up and go home! It’s time to fight! Don’t you dare back down. Counterattack! You’re tired. You’re discouraged. But don’t give up!

    So you don’t really need the blue sweater guy. You need the blue-face guy. You may feel the need for sympathy, but what you need is strength. You may appreciate a little genuine pity, but you need a kick to the posterior in the form of a challenge.

    The witnesses of Hebrews 11 stand for us today; they cheer us on; they call out to us in specific, tangible encouragements.

    The crowd is chanting: Don’t give up!*

    *Adapted from the Introduction and Days 1 and 2 in the Don’t Give Up Study Journal.

    7day_devo_bannerGo deeper into Hebrews 11 and 12 with our Free 7-Day Devotional. Each day provides grace-centered devotional content and thoughtful discussion, perfect for personal or group study. DOWNLOAD NOW

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