Here’s another question from the list of reader queries.
The “great cloud of witnesses” is part of a quotation from Hebrews 12:1-2 – “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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
It’s a powerful thought, one that many Christians down through the ages (myself included) have been comforted and encouraged by.
So who does the “great cloud of witnesses” refer to? To find the answer we need to look to the previous chapter, Hebrews 11. Here are the names of the people of faith listed there:
Abel – offered a better sacrifice by faith and was commended as righteous
Enoch – by faith he pleased God, so he never experienced death
Noah – by faith he obeyed God’s command and turned his back on a world of evil
Abraham – obeyed God and went where God told him to go, without knowing where this would be. He made his home in the Promised Land even though he was a stranger there. From him came “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky”.
Isaac – Abraham’s promised child, who by faith blessed Jacob and Esau
Jacob – who by faith blessed Joseph’s sons
Joseph – who by faith gave instructions that his bones should one day be carried out of Egypt and buried in the Promised Land
Moses’ parents – who by faith hid Moses from the edict of Pharaoh and did not leave him to die
Moses – who, though adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, by faith refused to be known as her son, and “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God”. By faith he kept the first Passover.
The People of Israel – who by faith passed through the Red Sea
Rahab – who by faith welcomed God’s spies, saving her family from the fall of Jericho
Also “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword… (Heb. 11:32-33)
In other words, the great cloud of witnesses are all those people who have lived before us — whether famous or not — who have lived lives of faith, following God, worshipping Jesus, leaving for us a rich spiritual legacy.
Thinking about their lives, how they lived, what they lived for, and how they died, is an inspiration. Their example shows us how to have that kind of faith and how to live it.
In addition to the faithful listed in the Bible, many Christian traditions give the title “saint” to people who have lived great lives of faith. But there are many, many more people in the “great cloud” whose names are not so well known.
I think of it almost like our military veterans: how many thousands upon thousands of people have served in the armed forces to preserve our freedom? And how many of those do we know by name? We know the famous ones, and then we know the ones who came from our own families and neighborhoods. I think the great cloud of witnesses is like that. That’s why I keep my own Roll of Honor to honor those whose names are not so well known (see the link above to the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” page).
So who is on YOUR personal roll of honor? Feel free to post their names here, first names only if you prefer.