“It is our job to tell the stories. Tell your students what a difference people of courage and nobility and genius have made to the world. Just tell the stories!”
—Scott LaBarge, “Why Heroes Are Important” (2000)
A Cloud of Witnesses
Most Christians are familiar with the sports analogy that begins in Hebrews 12. The writer challenges us to lay aside the weights that might slow us down and run our race with patience and with our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ. The race here is the Christian life. As an encouragement to us all, the writer reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The witnesses are all the great heroes of faith described in chapter 11.
It would be easy to fill out the sports analogy and think of these great men and women as spectators who are watching us and cheering us on. But that’s not what the word “witness” actually means. A witness (martyr) is someone who can give legal testimony to something he has seen or heard. Those who make up the great cloud of witnesses aren’t bearing witness about us. They, by their faith and actions, have borne and continue to bear witness to the faithfulness of God. They are His witnesses.
This idea of giving and receiving testimony runs throughout Hebrews 11. The “elders”—all the saints of old—“received a good report,” honorable testimony, through their faith. By faith, Abel offered the right kind of offering to God and so “received a witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts” (v. 4). Enoch walked with God, and God took him straight to heaven, but before that translation “he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (v. 5). The writer goes on to mention Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others. He says they all “obtained a good report through faith” (v. 39). That is, God bore witness to their faith, the faith that He Himself had given them.
Notice the shift, though. In Hebrews 11 it is God who gives the good report to His servants. In chapter 12 these same servants are witnesses to us of how God keeps His promises, of how He rewards those who believe.
The Heroes of Faith
Abel bore testimony to the gospel by bringing God a slaughtered lamb. Noah testified to God’s promise of coming judgment by building a huge boat on dry land. Abraham testified to the reality of the New Jerusalem by forsaking his own city and setting out for a land he knew nothing of. Moses parents testified to God’s promises by hiding their infant son from the civil authorities. Moses testified to the reality of Christ by choosing persecution and exile over the throne of Egypt. Rahab testified to the grace of God by committing treason against her city and her gods. In each case, the testimony sprang from faith in the promises of God.
The testimony of the saints is always to the grace and promise of God, never to their efforts or accomplishments. But the faith and actions that constitute that testimony brings forth God’s own testimony to the world: These are My servants, He says; these are My friends: they are righteous … righteous through Jesus Christ.
Why We Need Witnesses
Scripture tells us that we are to believe the testimony of two or three credible witnesses (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16). God gives us many, many witnesses to His faithfulness. He gives us such witnesses because we need them. We need them for inspiration and encouragement. We need them as examples. We need to see how others ran the same race and how God sustained them during difficult and dangerous times. We need to see what faith looks like as others lived it out—both in circumstances like our own and in circumstances different from our own.
Some might object to the word “need.” We have Christ presented to us in the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments. How can we rightly say that we need anything more? There are at least three ways to answer this.
First, while it is true that Scripture emphasizes the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments as the primary means of grace, God also provides other things to help us grow in grace: Bible reading, prayer, meditation, fellowship, and, yes, the example of others. All of these point us back to Christ, who purposes to save men by “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor. 1:21) or “the hearing of faith” (Gal. 3:2). But each is more than a mere repetition of last Sunday’s sermon. Each has a depth and texture that goes beyond the exact words of the pastor’s previous message.
Second, when we speak of others as examples, we ought to be speaking evangelically. That is, the men and women whom God holds up to us as examples were themselves living out the gospel. They had Christ as the goal of their earthly race, just as we do. They believed the promise of God concerning the Messiah, and they moved, however imperfectly, in terms of that faith. When we look to these saints, we ought to see Jesus. When we reduce their lives to mere moralisms, then we have mistaken their lives altogether.
Third, Scripture repeatedly holds up other believers as examples for the rest of us. In Philippians Paul writes, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17, ESV). He also exhorts Timothy, a young pastor, to “be an example to believers” in word, manner of life, love, spirit, faith, and purity (1 Tim. 4:12). Peter says that all elders ought to be examples to their flocks (1 Pet. 5:3). James includes all the Old Testament prophets as examples of suffering and patience: he specifically mentions Job (Jas. 5:10-11). But in all these commands there is an implied qualification. Paul makes it explicit when he tells the Corinthians, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). We are to follow others as we see Christ in them, as we see them living out the gospel.
Witnesses as Heroes
Why did the writer of Hebrews choose the men and women he did? Why do we call these saints “heroes”? There are no doubt many reasons, but here are two. First, these saints all fit the argument of the book. Hebrews was addressed to Jewish believers who needed to abandon the Old Covenant for the New. They needed to give up the religion they thought they knew to follow Christ. They had to give up Jerusalem for the New Jerusalem. But their allegiance to the gospel was proving difficult: persecution had begun. Each saint the writer picks as an example speaks in some manner to the Hebrew situation. Each of these saints gave up something extraordinary—a city, a world, a way of life … to follow Jesus.
Second, the stories of these faithful men and women appeal to the reader’s imagination and emotions. We are drawn into their faith-adventure. We are intrigued and moved by their lives. We find that in many ways they are just like us, and yet God used them to accomplish things that mattered. Not everything they did was great as the world measures greatness, of course. Some of these heroes did subdue kingdoms and put foreign armies to flight. But others simply suffered, worshipped, and waited. Their stories can encourage us as well. We see that we can imitate heroes, even be heroes, in the course of very ordinary lives.
God could have filled Scripture with outlines or bullet points of theological truth. Instead, He told us stories about men and women of faith. And all of these stories combine to give us the one great Story, the good news of Jesus Christ. We should conclude that God intends these stories, not merely as a deposit of theological truth, but also as encouragements to our faith, imagination, and vision. Jesus is our Savior. He is also our Example. We are to be like Him. That’s the goal of salvation. To help us toward that goal, Jesus gives us Himself … in the gospel, in the sacraments, and in the stories of imperfect heroes who ran their race with their eyes fixed on Him.