The Cloud of Witnesses

IN THE ELEVENTH chapter of Hebrews, the Apostle Paul put together for us a marvelous collage of the lives and faith of the Old Testament people of God. The men and women whom he referred to, and in some cases names, each had an incredible life which exhibited trust in the true and living Lord. They lived in different lands. They comprised many, varied cultures. Their lives actually spanned a period of four thousand years. Nowhere in the annals of literature, classical or modern, are there more fascinating stories than the histories of God’s people recorded in his Word. Paul called them a “cloud of witnesses.” (vs. 1) They make up a multitude which has been set before our minds to contemplate—they surround us right down to this very day.

Something made those people unique. We will endeavor to discover what it was in this lesson. Was it their wealth? No, that was not what made them unusual, since we learn that many of them were poor. Paul says that they wandered in desert places, dressed in sheepskins and goatskins—they were shepherds and herdsmen. A number of them, however, were powerful, wealthy people who held high positions: kings, counselors, priests, judges, prophets, and governors. Most of them were men, but a few women were mentioned by Paul—one of whom was a poor widow. The majority were Israelites, but some lived even before the nation of Israel came into existence. A few were called from among the heathen—some Moabites—even Canaanites—an infinite variety was included in that cloud of witnesses.

But they shared some qualities, some characteristics, that made them what they were, causing them to stand out from those around them. You could have set them down any where, in any age, or in any country, and they would have conducted their lives in the same manner. No matter if they dwelt in Egypt or in Syria, Israel or Babylon. It would not matter if they had lived during the period of the Judges, or the Babylonian captivity, or before the Flood. It would not matter if they were in the courts of Pharaoh, or working in the administrative offices of Nebuchadnezzar, or plowing in the fields. It did not matter where they were, or what they were doing, they were unique among men. They were heroes of faith. Down through thousands of years, they exhibited the rare, Godlike qualities which set them apart from the average man.

There is one prerequisite that these witnesses shared in common. This necessary characteristic which comes before all others, we find illustrated in a very touching and dramatic manner by the Apostle Paul in Hebrews 11. It is the story of a woman who was unusual in many respects. The very fact that she was a woman outstanding enough to be alluded to—when women in her time were considered chattel, the possessions of men—was unique. Secondly, her faith was unusual because she was not an Israelite. In fact she was born into a culture steeped in heathenism, one that practiced the sacrifice of human beings to its gods. And, thirdly, from a Christian perspective, she was an unusual example to choose to depict faith because she was a prostitute. We are speaking, of course, of Rahab, the Canaanite.

We find the account of this unique woman in Joshua 2:9, where we read in the New English Bible, the words of Rahab to the spies who had come to do reconnaissance in Jericho before Joshua attempted to conquer that city: “I know that the Lord has given this land to you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea.” (vs. 10) This was an amazing remark, since it had been forty years since that event had occurred, far away on the other side of the peninsula! But she had heard about the crossing of the Red Sea by Israel, and remembered how God had miraculously brought his people safely across, destroying the pursuing Egyptians. Then she said, “The Lord your God is God in heaven above, and on the earth below.”—vs. 11

That was what made her unique! She, and all the cloud of witnesses, believed in the one, true, living, all-powerful God. Do we have any idea what a rarity that kind of faith was? All other cultures during that period of time had a multiplicity of gods. They had sun gods, moon gods, tree gods, river gods, mountain gods. They had gods made from stone, wood, gold, silver. They had monumental gods; they had portable gods; they had little pocket gods. Some heathen cultures had twenty, thirty, or more gods—one for every occasion or probability. And out of that incredible mass of humanity living under those heathen cultures, how many do we suppose would believe in just the one, single, true, and almighty God? Very few. The God upon which the cloud of witnesses relied and whom they worshiped was powerful; he was wise; he was righteous; and yet at the same time this unimaginably powerful being was their friend. (Exod. 33:11) We read: “The Lord spake unto Moses face to face as a man speaketh unto his friend.”

Not only was the faith of the cloud of witnesses unique, but this God whom they worshiped was also unique in that he was all loving, all powerful, all wise, and all just: and he was kindly and lovingly interested in each of their lives. These faithful men and women could see this difference between the Lord God and the false, impotent heathen gods. They could see and appreciate the righteousness displayed in his judgments, in his laws, and in his actions on their behalf.

They could see his kindness displayed on their behalf. He was not a god who vengefully required human sacrifices; he was not a god who created the earth or humanity in vain; he was not a god who toyed with his creatures, giving them a taste of the joys of life, but in the final analysis having a plan which provided for the saving of just a few of them, and unmercifully punishing the majority by torture, forever.

They became aware of all this information concerning God, and they communicated their knowledge to those around them. That is why they were called God’s “witnesses.” They continue to witness to us today through their recorded lives. As they followed his laws, trying to please God, the gap between them and their fellowmen widened. They were so moved by what they saw in their wonderful God that their lives were changed. His ways became their ways, and their motivation gradually evolved into the desire to be pleasing to such a wonderful, righteous Creator. Their belief in the one God made them what they were.

Another distinguishing quality which this great cloud of witnesses possessed was what we call righteousness. It came to them as a direct result of their belief in God. Ezekiel was, historically, right in the middle of the ‘cloud’. But from his standpoint he could look still farther backward at earlier witnesses making up that ‘cloud’ and he saw three ‘righteous’ men—Noah, Daniel and Job. (Ezek. 14:20) When we become acquainted with their stories, we indeed see the quality of righteousness in each of them.

Let us take a brief look at Daniel’s life. In Daniel 6, we find that he so distinguished himself among the administrators of the kingdom of Babylon—which had, as an empire, ruled many nations—that the new king, Darius, planned to place him in the highest office over the entire kingdom. This was despite the fact that Daniel had been a slave, captured by Nebuchadnezzar during the overthrow of Israel.

We read: “They [Daniel’s competitors for the high position] tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of governmental affairs, but they were unable to do so.” They could find no corruption, lack of judgment, or incompetence in him. “Finally these men said, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.’” (NIV) Daniel was a righteous man in whom they could not find any faults.

Although we know the ones who made up this cloud of witnesses were not actually perfect, as was our Lord Jesus, yet we find that they did have an astonishingly dear perception of what righteousness was. They saw the leadings of their God, and they followed them despite the cost. Often it cost them very dearly—their reputations and sometimes even their lives. Men such as Joseph, Noah, Job, David; women like Hannah, Naomi, Esther, and Elizabeth. Righteousness was the fabric of their lives. They tried to the best of their abilities, as much as their imperfect bodies would allow them to do, to adopt the characteristics of their God.

Do we see a parallel to the faithful men and women throughout the Gospel Age? There is a counterpart in the lives of the true children of God to those faithful ones of old. Jesus is our forerunner and our pattern. He was truly righteous—perfect in every respect. There will be righteousness exhibited in our lives if we follow faithfully in his footsteps. That we must have morality of the highest type there is no doubt. There is not even to be an appearance of evil in our lives; there is to be no evil speaking, no evil surmising. We must speak only the truth, and that in love.—Eph. 4:15

The righteousness of these faithful people of old led directly to their third unique characteristic, and that is that they suffered great afflictions. (James 5:10) Righteousness leads directly to affliction. There is no way that Satan will tolerate the attempts of any to follow in the paths of righteousness without mounting a strong counterattack.

Paul emphasized suffering for righteousness’ sake, in Hebrews 11. The cloud of witnesses endured terrible afflictions, cruel mockings, scourgings, and death involving excruciating pain. Paul lists some of their trials as being ‘bonds and imprisonments’. They were tortured—they were afflicted—they were stoned—one actually had his body sawn into pieces. But this group was unique because they suffered these persecutions joyfully, and continued to give honor and glory to God, whom they worshiped and adored.

It was not just that they suffered afflictions—many persons on the face of this imperfect earth have suffered affliction, either due to their own wrong actions, or through injustice, or because of ill health or accidents. Thousands of people have been stoned into unconsciousness, and death; thousands of people have died by the sword. But this group suffered in a special way—they suffered for righteousness’ sake. We cannot miss that lesson.

There is another great example to be found in Daniel’s life. Nebuchadnezzar, the king, was furious with several of his foreign advisers. On a particular occasion, set aside with great pomp and ceremony for the worship of a huge image—which in fact represented Nebuchadnezzar, himself, and his universal kingdom—three Hebrews refused to worship that image, even at the threat of being burned to death in a fiery furnace. The reason they gave for their refusal was this: “If it be so, [we know that] our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not [if we die in the fiery furnace], be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”—Dan. 3:17,18

We see the beauty of their willingness to suffer for doing what was right. Not even the threat of death by the excruciating pain of incineration, could change their decision. They did not worship their God because he would save them, nor because he would make them rich, or keep them healthy. They worshiped and served God because he was the very embodiment of righteousness.

The worldly mind down through the centuries, nor even today, does understood the principles exemplified by this cloud of witnesses. Neither do they understand Jesus’ followers’ willingness to suffer reproach, disrepute, lack of respect, or their willingness to forego ‘making their mark’ in this world. This is considered irrational behavior. Neither can they harmonize pain and the forfeiting of wealth or position as a result of faithful service to God, with the concept of a God of goodness or benevolence.

“If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye.” (I Pet. 3:14) The Apostle Peter comforts and exhorts us with these words, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” (I Pet. 4:16) Let us see that we are careful not to suffer for our own lack of Christian graces, but because of exercising our Christian graces.

Sometimes suffering makes people impatient, irritable, or bitter. But suffering had a different effect on the Ancient Worthies, and also on Christians—an ennobling effect! It crystallizes the righteous character in all the fruits and graces of the Holy Spirit of God. When we consider that we are suffering for a particular purpose, to learn specific lessons, then we realize that we are filling up that which is behind of the ‘afflictions of Christ in our flesh’. (Col. 1:24) Our afflictions are permitted so that we can serve God more wisely and well now, but especially in the future, as part of the great sin-offering process.

Still another distinguishing characteristic of the great cloud of witnesses is patience. (James 5:10) Often in the Scriptures this word means ‘cheerful endurance’! But in this instance its meaning is ‘longsuffering’. The prophets, and all those who made up the cloud of witnesses, suffered long and patiently. They adopted the model of their longsuffering God. In describing his ‘name’—the essence of his very being—to Moses, God said: “The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exod. 34:6,7) See also Numbers 14:18; and Psalm 86:15

In the New Testament the word longsuffering is made up of a combination of two Greek words. The first, makro, means ‘big’. The second is thumia, which means ‘passion’. When we think of the word passion, we think of undying love for a person or a pursuit which one cannot get enough of. Day and night their passion fills and consumes their thoughts, their time, their resources—their entire life. This is true concerning the cloud of witnesses. They had such a passion for God, and for his ways, and for his service, that they could not get enough of them. Whatever they experienced, of weal or of woe, made no difference to them—they would not have had it any other way.

There are other features which round out the description of this company. They believed in God’s promises of a future kingdom of righteousness here on earth, when all will honor and glorify God. Of Abraham it is written that he “looked for a city [government] which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Heb. 11:10) Joseph requested of his children to make certain that his bones would be taken back to the Promised Land. And Jacob also believed in God’s promises to bless all the families of the earth.

Think of what an extraordinary ambassador John the Baptist was, as he laid down his life bearing witness to the presence of the Messiah! He was one among the cloud of witnesses. It would be a great honor to be associated with him, or with any of them! Women like Ruth, the Moabitess, who returned in faith to her homeland, Israel, seeking a blessing from the Lord. And what a blessing she received—she was the grandmother of King David, through whose line the Messiah eventually came.

These Ancient Worthies all worked hard while following God’s direction for their lives. We recall how Noah worked for decades, building the ark according to the plan given to him by God. The faithful men and women of old were fine ‘role models’ for us to follow today. We need role models after which to pattern our lives. Early in life our parents are our role models—later our teachers, our friends, those with whom we meet in our Christian fellowship become our ideals. Still later we look farther afield for role models. Men and women we read about in books and newspapers or magazines: past and present men and women whose lives inspire us to higher goals. The Apostle Paul is one of our best role models. Ah, but our Lord Jesus is by far the most elevated role model we could take for ourselves, in every respect.

But the cloud of witnesses has been given to us for this very purpose—as our role models. The one thing that is so important about the ‘cloud’ is that they show us what levels of attainment are humanly possible. When we look to our Lord Jesus we realize that he was a perfect man and we are children of Adam—fallen human beings. We can never hope to attain the perfection of righteousness which Jesus exemplified. Although this is true, it is still requisite that we reach for the goal of perfection. But, as encouragement, the Lord provided us with the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who were also fallen human beings, and showed us what heights of faith and longsuffering can be reached even by sinful man.

The Apostle Paul was inspired to pen the eleventh chapter of Hebrews—the most eloquent tribute ever written about the faithful men and women of God. Here are just a few excerpts: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” and by the exercise of faith the ancients received “a good report.” (vs. 1) “By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice by the which he obtained witness that he was righteous.” (vs. 4) “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, prepared an ark to the saving of his house.” (vs. 7) “By faith Abraham, when he was called … went out, not knowing whither he went.” (vs. 8) “By faith Moses … refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.” (vs.24) “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also and Samuel.” (vs. 32) “They were stoned they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy.” (vs. 37) “These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.”—vs. 39

And in verse forty we read: “God provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” Yes, they will receive the reward of perfect, everlasting human life here upon the earth, but not until the church has been completed—tried and found worthy, and glorified. Then, after that phase of God’s plan is finished, the Ancient Worthies will be resurrected to rule and judge and teach the world of mankind here upon earth during the thousand-year kingdom of Christ and the church.

The parallels are there between the Ancient Worthies and their lives of faith, and the faithful followers of Jesus Christ during the Gospel Age. Each story is a little different, but in every case the sacrifice is just as great, the faith exhibited is just as strong, the afflictions are just as deep. The names are changed, but the results are the same.

Even as Paul was writing his account of the early ‘cloud’, his own history was being enacted—one of unending faithfulness to God and the truth, and to service of God’s people. His life was consecrated until death, and the promise of restitution to perfect human life was given up, in exchange for the hope of a glorious spiritual reward. His afflictions experienced daily were those of the spirit-begotten.

In a living sense, new names were then being plugged into this eleventh chapter. Paul could have added these words: “Now faith is the basis of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, for by faith the brethren of the Early Church obtained a good report. By faith Barnabas offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Ananias and Sapphira. By faith Philip went out to preach, not knowing whither he was going. By faith Lydia, the seller of purple, received strength to begin an ecclesia in a heathen land. By faith Saul refused to be called a Pharisee of the Pharisees and chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God. These all died in the faith. They saw the promises. They were persuaded of them and they confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Yes, Paul could have added the stories of the Early Church to his record in Hebrews 11.

If the prize for following in Christ’s footsteps is so much greater than the prize offered to the Ancient Worthies, could the trials and sufferings be less than they endured? No, certainly not. The experiences of the Little Flock of faithful Christians must be as severe, or even surpass in severity, the experiences of the ‘cloud of witnesses’. Barnabas gave everything to help the poor in the church. While Peter, James and John left their businesses, their homes and families to follow Jesus. They suffered worthily for Christ, to call and establish the Early Church. What an increasing ‘cloud of witnesses’ we can draw from the Early Church!

Paul said of the Old Testament group, that the world was not worthy of them. The same thing could be said for Paul himself. The world was not worthy of Paul. The world was not worthy of Barnabas, or Lydia, or Peter, or Priscilla, or Aquilla, or any of the faithful members of the church at the beginning of the age, named and unnamed.

We must follow their example, as they followed the Lord. We must strive to be worthy of having the same expression used concerning us, the saints at the end of the Gospel Age. If we have to live in sheepskins and goatskins, if we have to live in the mountains and the caves and the deserts, as they did—literally or symbolically—then so be it.

They were unique, that cloud of witnesses, and so must we be unique. We believe in righteousness, and despite our feeble flesh we are trying every day to do his will for us in our lives. Nothing will shorten our long-lived passion for righteousness, or for serving God. We have committed our lives into his hands until death. And so, the eleventh chapter of Hebrews could be rewritten today, containing new names and stories of faithfulness.

Those who made up the cloud of witnesses are our examples of faithfulness as they strove to win an earthly inheritance. But the members of the church class being chosen now offer an even more excellent sacrifice. They will die in the faith. They will refuse to be called anything but the sons of God. They will work. They will be generous. They will sacrifice. Finally it will be said of them, as of their Master, that they endured the cross, despised the shame, and are set down at the right hand of the throne of God.—Heb. 12:2

Our prayer is that this will be said of all of us who are now faithfully striving to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, encouraged by the great cloud of witnesses God has given us to urge us onward.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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