Sometimes I find it hard to stay motivated. If my confidence and energy is low, I can look to the author and perfecter of my faith and feel insignificant and feeble, rather than energised and encouraged. I feel small and weak, and in a world that seems full of people doing significant things, I feel profoundly mediocre. I can feel like it’s not worth trying anything because if I do it will go badly, or it just won’t matter in the bigness of this world.
This can be a general feeling, but also in my Christian life. Nobody will care about my testimony, what I have to say doesn’t matter, I can’t even get control of my sinfulness. I’m distracted and moody, emotional and lazy. I catch myself in pridefulness and all manner of other states that Jerry Bridges would call “respectable sins“.
It all makes me feel lost and in a mess. And who do you turn to at those times? I have my Christian community and my trusted friends of course. But there’s a promise in the Bible that, even on the surface, is amazing, but is even more encouraging when you dig deeper.
Hebrews 12:1-2a says “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.”
We often focus on the bit about throwing off the sins because, as humans, we tend to err on the side of the things that clearly tell us what we’re supposed to do. But the bit that I think is equally important is the “cloud of witnesses”.
Hebrews 11 gives a list of these witnesses who lived by faith. At first sight they are intimidating – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Then judges, prophets and David himself. Great! A list of witnesses to remind me how horribly under par my life is.
But look again. All of the witnesses were not perfect – far from it in fact. Murderers, prostitutes, drunkards, liars, swindlers. The judges were all comparatively rubbish and David himself did some ghastly things. I haven’t done any of those things but it helps me to remember that these people are not the perfect witnesses that I might first think.
And then there are other witnesses mentioned, the tortured, the flogged, the imprisoned, the persecuted, poor and destitute – all mistreated for the sake of their faith. I have not had this misfortune (praise God) but this is starting to sound more like normal people – people just like me, who rose to the occasion on the strength of God.
But there are two things in particular that are important here. First, there is a cloud of these witnesses. Now for us, we might think “cloud” and envision fluffy bundles in a blue sky. But the Greek nephos is hardly used in the New Testament. Where it was more used was in Greek literature:
In a work by Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian, he says “We have driven away so mighty a cloud [nephos] of enemies” when describing a battle in the Persian Wars. Homer in the Iliad says that “In front fared the men in chariots and thereafter followed a cloud [nephos] of footmen, a host past counting”.
A cloud of witnesses – and a cloud that has a military inference, and is a host past counting. Think about that:
Imagine all those people who have come before us – as flawed and as broken as they are. Imagine they are shoulder to shoulder fighting for us. They are our army. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not alone. It tells us that God has not left us unprotected.
The second thing that is significant is that when we look at these witnesses and try to measure up, we are looking at it all wrong. Those witnesses aren’t there because of who they are or what they did. They are there because of what their story tells us about God.
Through the stories of these people, we see God’s faithfulness. We see God’s grace. We see his mercy and love. We see God’s patience and his commitment to his people and his promises. We see God’s continuing work to provide support and protection for his people. For us.
These witnesses are not perfect. Many of them are just like us. They’ve done great things, they’ve done some pretty awful things. They are flawed and imperfect and broken – just like us. I find that fantastically encouraging. A cloud of perfect people might make me feel a bit self-conscious. Or it might be a barrier to me believing that they really are on my side because I am broken and flawed. Or it might make me focus on how perfect they are and how that is such an impossibly high bar.
But a cloud of witnesses who are just like me – well that’s a proper army. That makes me feel like I’m not alone. That sustains me. That motivates me. That makes me feel I can deal with my sinfulness. That helps me to know that I can stand before God, because I have all these people standing with me in whose lives God already worked and through whom his plans were brought into effect.