There are few things that cause us to hesitate like the unknown. Most

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Hebrews 12:1

The Great Cloud

Oct. 28, 2001

Reformation Sunday

There are few things that cause us to hesitate like the unknown. Most
people are uncomfortable with plowing ahead when they are not sure what lies
beneath the surface. We express anxiety a
bout going into a situation without a
clear picture of what awaits us. Rare is the person who really enjoys being a
trailblazer. Some do it out of necessity, but few because they like it.

Sometimes the life of faith seems like one trail blazing experien
ce after
another. We often feel like the thing we struggle with is somehow unique to us
and we cry out when no one else is around, “Why me?” Rather than sounding like
Paul, who proclaimed contentment in all circumstances because of Christ, we
sound like

Job, who cried foul until God reminded him which one was the creature
and which one was the Creator. It is easy to grow weary of fighting the good fight
when it seems that we are the only ones doing it.

Well, this morning I have good news

we are not a
lone. In the letter to the
Hebrews, the writer has left us message of hope as we strive to live the life of
faith. To understand the hope offered us this morning, we need to first understand
the context in which the hope is given. So this morning, we ar
e going to explore
our text, both where it is located in the letter and the picture the author is drawing
for us. This will help us understand what the author means when he says we are
“surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Then we are going to expl
ore the
great cloud surrounding us. Finally, we are going to talk about living the life of
faith, drawing upon the picture given to us by the author.

The NIV study Bible introduces the Book of Hebrews in this manner; “ The
theme of Hebrews is the absolut
e supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the
revealer and mediator of God’s grace.” When one looks at the structure of
Hebrews, it becomes apparent that this thematic statement is dead
on. The first
ten chapters of the book are spent showing the su
periority of Christ and the New
Covenant in comparison to the Old Covenant and the facilitators of that covenant.
Christ is shown to be superior to angels, to Moses, and to the priesthood
established through Aaron. Christ’s sacrifice is shown to be great
er than the
temple sacrifices of the Mosaic Law. In every way, Christ is shown to be superior

to be the only sufficient object of faith.

As the writer defends Christ’s superiority throughout the first ten chapters,
he makes continual calls for his read
ers to properly locate their faith. In other
words, what the writer is doing in the first ten chapters is defining what the true
object of faith is and then he points his readers in that direction. One of the ways
that he does this throughout the book is

by demonstrating that the facilitators of
the Old Covenant were actually foreshadows of the New Covenant

they were
pointing the faith of the people toward Christ. He used promise and fulfillment.
The promise accepted in faith by the Old Testament beli
evers finds its fulfillment
in Christ.

I say all this because in chapter eleven of Hebrews, the writer begins
pleading for his readers to persevere in faith. He has spent the first part of the
letter pointing them to the proper object of faith and now he

calls on them hold
tightly to that object. As he makes this call he runs through a litany of Old
Testament heroes showing that although they never saw the complete fulfillment
of the promise, they believed God to be true to his word

they maintained fai
From Abraham to David and nameless others, the writer presents us with a host of
the faithful believers who clung to the promise of God without ever seeing the
fulfillment of God’s promise in Jesus Christ. Listen to these words from Heb.

d all these, having gained approval through their faith, did
not receive what was promised because God had provided
something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be
made perfect.

It is after these words that the writer begins in chapter t

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses
surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the
sin which so easily entangles us and let us run the race that is
set before us,

The picture the writer is presenting us is one o
f an athletic competition taking
place in an arena or coliseum before a huge crowd of cheering fans

with one
significant twist. By using the word “therefore” the writer ties the picture to the
previous chapter. So the “great cloud of witnesses” he refe
rs to is the host of the
faithful he spoke about in chapter eleven. What he is saying to us is that as we run
the race of the Christian life, it is like we have a huge crowd of cheering fans made
up of all the people who have gone before us in the faith,
crowding in around us,
calling out encouragement, letting us know that it is possible in Christ to make the
finish line. In a very real sense, the writer is encouraging us to take a look at the
crowd and to draw courage for the race from their stories. L
et’s take a moment to
do that.

Now, since the time of the writing of Hebrews, a few more have joined the
ranks of the “great cloud” to cheer us on to a faithful life in Christ. Allow me to
first read some of chapter 11 of Hebrews to give you a taste of t
he “great cloud”
the writer had in mind and then offer just a sampling of others who have joined
their number since then. Beginning is ch.11 v.4:

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By
faith he was commended as a righteous man, whe
n God spoke
well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he
is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not
experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken
him away. For before he was taken, he was c
ommended as one
who pleased God.

And without faith it is impossible to please
God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he
exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in hol
fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned
the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later
receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he

not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the
promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in
tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the
same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with
ndations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age

and Sarah
herself was barren

was enabled to become a father because he
considered him faithful who had made the promise.

And so
from this one man, and he as good

as dead, came descendants as
numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on
the seashore….

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a
sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to
sacrifice his one and only son,

even though God had said to him,
“It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”
Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and
figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death….

And then moving down to v.36.

Others were tor
tured and refused to be released, so that they
might gain a better resurrection.

Some faced jeers and flogging,
while still others were chained and put in prison. They were
stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the
sword. They went a
bout in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute,
persecuted and mistreated

the world was not worthy of them.
They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes
in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them
received what

had been promised. God had planned something
better for us so that only together with us would they be made

So the writer sees the great heroes of the faith in the stands. Abel, Abraham,
Moses, Rahab, Esther, David, Isaiah. These are just a fe
w of the witnesses who
stand along course of the race calling out for us to have courage.

Added to their number are men like Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna during
the mid

century. Polycarp is said to have learned the Christian faith at the feet
of t
he Apostle John. At an advanced age he was arrested for his faith. As he stood
before the proconsul, when the time came for him to recant his faith in order to
spare his life he responded this way, “Eighty
six years I have served him, and he
never did me

any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” As they
burned him at the stake, he is reported to have given thanks to God for being
counted among those martyred for the faith. Onlookers said that the flames
appeared unable to harm him so the pro
consul had him run through.

Or consider the life of Alban, a Roman soldier in Britain during the 4

century, who concealed a priest fleeing for his life. Although a pagan, he hid the
priest and after spending a few days with him converted to Christianity
. When the
soldiers who sought the priest finally caught his trail, Alban put on the priest’s
clothing allowing the priest to escape while he was slain in the place of the priest.

Another person to consider is John Huss, one of the precursors to the
mation. John Huss, about a century before Martin Luther, preached against
the abuses of the Roman Church of his day, including the use of indulgences for
political gain in the church. He also maintained that the office of pope was not a
divine appointmen
t, rather it was the construct of the church so that the business of
the church could be carried out in good and decent order. In 1415, he was burned
at the stake for heresy.

A final person among the great cloud I want us to consider is Constance, an
ican nun in the late 1800’s. Constance was the head of Community of St.
Mary in Memphis along the Mississippi River in 1878 when a yellow fever
epidemic nearly wiped the city off the map. Those who could afford to moved out
of the city, but Constance and

her order stayed in the city to care for those unable
to flee. So devastating was the epidemic that Memphis lost its charter as a city
and was not reorganized for fourteen years. Constance, along with the majority of
her order also died of yellow fever.

These people, also, are part of the “great cloud.” They, too, stand as
examples in their imitation of Christ. Yet, when we consider the cost that they
paid, and if we are honest, we hope that our lives do not follow their pattern.
Consider these words
by Mark Tabb, author of
Names of Heroes of the Faith

I have to be honest with you. I don’t want to trade places with
those so numerous the writer of Hebrews could not list their
names. I’m in no hurry to be beaten because I am a Christian or
to lose eve
rything I own as a price for following Jesus. Jeers
would be bad enough, but floggings? I shudder at the
thought…. The hardest part of thinking about all this is
knowing that “I” could become one of “them” at any moment.
Somewhere deep in the recesses
of my heart I always think,
“Better them than me” when I pray for people in tragic

I cannot speak for anyone else in this congregation, but I suspect that just as Mark
Tabb’s words ring a chord of truth in my heart, so it does in the hearts o
f most
North American Christians. Our faith in the United States is a cushy faith. We do
not face floggings or threats of being sawn in two. Sure we might face
discrimination by employers or neighbors, but how often has that come in a form
which threate
ns our very lives? How, then, do we prepare ourselves to live out the
faith in the face of resisting to the point of shedding blood? Look with me one
more time at v.1 of chapter 12.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of
witnesses, l
et 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.

Within the phrase “Therefore, since…” in the original language is a sense
of “we also.” In other words, the writer

of the Hebrews is saying that since we
have the examples of others who have run before us, we also should do what they

throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run
the race with perseverance.

The picture that the

author is drawing for us here is one of an athlete who
prepares for competition. In ancient competition, it was not unheard of for a
runner to shed two things in preparation for a race. The first would be unwanted
body weight; the second would be his cl
othing. In order for the runner to run at
peak efficiency for longer periods of time, he would remove anything that might
weigh him down or produce drag as he ran. The writer alludes to this practice to
encourage us to put aside anything that would hinde
r us from our life in Christ.
Like the heroes who have gone before, we should fix our eyes on the goal

promised fulfillment and press on in the faith. Or as the writer of Hebrews puts it
in vv. 2

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perf
ecter 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.
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so
that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

You k
now what the wonderful thing is about setting our eyes on our goal? Our
goal is also our supreme example. Look at the exhortation the author of Hebrews
gives us. He commends the example of Christ to us who, rather than caving to the
fear and weariness h
e felt in his flesh, bore our sin all the way to Calvary. Oh, and
one note we mustn't forget

he went alone. His disciples left him, abandoned him
in his hour of need. The fellowship he knew with the Father was severed because
of our sin, which was lai
d upon him. He, in every sense, was a trailblazer. And
you know what else, he was a trailblazer because he wanted to be. It was his
Father's will and he delighted to do it. When we see what Christ has done for us,
how can we help but be inspired to ren
ounce our weariness, renew our heart and
press to the higher calling of Jesus Christ?

Today we celebrate Reformation Day. Part of the celebration is to
remember that the church is to be always reforming

constantly progressing
toward the perfection that

Christ calls us to and for which he gave his life. In light
of our text this morning, I want to suggest something for ensuring that we are
continuing to progress in reforming our faith.

What I want us to do is take note of the "great cloud." This morni
ng I have
only given you a taste of the riches waiting to be discovered in the lives of saints
who have run the race before us. You don't even have search the history books to
do it. We've all known people in our lives who we know are now part of the
eat cloud.” Gary was telling me just the other day about Garret Bolton, his
Sunday school teacher. Gary said whenever he thinks of a holy man, Mr. Bolton
is the image that comes to mind.

In a time and place where we suffer very little for our faith, it

is easy for
our faith to grow soft and flabby

sort of like what happened to me after I left the
service and entered the world academia! People of God, we can never lose sight
of the fact that our faith can cost us our life. When we do, we grow tired;
we slack
off the pace. After all, why continue to run with urgency when there doesn't seem
to be any reason to run at all? Studying the life of the saints before is a wonderful
way of reminding ourselves about the power of the life lived by faith. Use t
lives to spur you on to greater works of faith.

A second suggestion is contemplate the cross. Never forget what it cost to
purchase our freedom from sin and death. Salvation is free

God's gift for his
people, but it didn't come cheap. Remember t
hat the next time you grow weary of
living the Christian life.

When I was learning to drive a stick shift, my oldest brother Kevin did me
an invaluable service. Rather than putting me behind the wheel and trying to talk
me through the process of using a
clutch, he put me in the passenger seat and had
me lean across him and watch his feet as he drove. Up to that point, I just couldn't
get it because I was simply being told the way to go. Kevin showed me the way.
He let me see him do it first and then le
t me follow in his footsteps. Here's the
good news, people

we don't have to be trailblazers. The path we tread is well
worn. Christ blazed the path and the saints who have gone before us have walked
it ahead of us. Instead of stumbling and growing we
ary, let's examine how they
walked, drawing courage from their faithfulness and follow in their footsteps.