I graduated from a Christian high school a couple
years – um, decades – ago. Since it was a Christian rather than public school, we had a class verse. I heard it many times throughout my four years of secondary education – many, many times.
You may also be familiar with this verse – it’s a fairly popular one. Sometimes constant exposure to a particular passage makes us think we know what it says. However, sometimes we hear the words over and over while the message never penetrates our lives. Or, we get part of the message but more awaits us right beneath the surface.
Last month I asked my friends to share their favorite verses with me. I then picked one each day to use on our Grow Barefoot social media. This one happened to be on my list.
I made my picture to post on social media that day while pondering the verse. As I did so, a new thought occurred to me, “Who are these witnesses and why are they surrounding me?” For all these years, those questions had never occurred to me.
Who are the witnesses?
Never casually skim over a “therefore” in the Bible. We tend to divide one chapter from another as if their two topics aren’t related but when we see the word “therefore” we should pay attention because what we’re about to read is a culmination of what's been said.
It turns out the previous chapter is one of the most powerful and inspirational in the entire Bible! Followers of Christ commonly refer to Hebrews 11 as the “Hall of Faith” or the “Faith Chapter.” It lists a group of people known for their faith; people who sacrificed all – reputations, homelands, friends, prosperity – even their very lives.
What did they witness?
The Old Testament (OT) is the best source to understand the New Testament. In the OT, a witness served one of two possible duties. They either testified of the wrongdoing of another person like a witness does today in a court of law. Or, they testified to an agreement between two other parties, much like a witness at a wedding. In fact, even inanimate objects such as stones often witnessed an agreement between two parties. Remember that.
Going back to our cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12:1, no one has done anything wrong of which these OT heroes of the faith need to testify. So I don’t see that the first possibility fits our situation. The OT heroes of the faith are witness to an agreement made between us and God.
The book of Hebrews calls this agreement a “promise;” it begins describing the promise in chapter four…
Some may have fallen in the desert as they wandered for forty years (Hebrews 3:12-18) but “the promise to enter His rest remains” (Hebrews 4:1). The Israelites entered the Promised Land as they crossed the Jordan River but rest in a spiritual Promised Land still remains today.
- A land promised to “those who inherit the promises through faith and perseverance” (Hebrews 6:12).
- A promise confirmed with an oath by an unchangeable God (Hebrews 6:17).
- A promise passed down through Abraham (Hebrews 7:6).
- A promise on which Jesus Christ founded and mediated a new covenant (Hebrews 8:6).
- A promised eternal inheritance made possible by Jesus’ spilled blood and sacrificial death (Hebrews 9:15).
- A promise for those who persevere in doing the will of God until the end (Hebrews 10:36-37).
- A promise passed down through Isaac and Jacob (Hebrews 11:9).
- A promise of a city built by God, of a country in heaven (Hebrews 11:10, 13-16).
- A promise of countless descendants through a sacrificed son (Hebrews 11:17).
We’ve been building through most of the book of Hebrews. We reach the final mention of the promise just a few words before our great cloud of witnesses. In Hebrews 11:39-40 we read, “These [the OT heroes of the faith] were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better…” (Click here to read what God had planned. It’s in an article I wrote a few months ago.)
Why do they surround us?
As I’ve studied through this, a single word keeps popping up in my mind. Gilgal. You may not be familiar with it; if you are, you may not see the connection. So here we go.
I mentioned earlier that the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for forty years. “After the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord spoke to Joshua: ‘Choose 12 men from the people, one man for each tribe, and command them: Take 12 stones from this place in the middle of the Jordan where the priests are standing, carry them with you, and set them down at the place where you spend the night’” (Joshua 4:1-3).
The men did as Joshua instructed. “Joshua set up in Gilgal the 12 stones they had taken from the Jordan” (Joshua 4:20). The name Gilgal means wheel or a large circle of stones. The stones served as a memorial, in short, “that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord’s hand is mighty, and so that you may always fear the Lord your God” (Joshua 4:24).
What does this have to do with Hebrews 12:1? The word for “surrounding” means to lay objects around something or to encircle it with those objects. Joshua laid the stones in a circle at Gilgal to remind the people that God is mighty and they were to fear Him as they entered the Promised Land. Likewise, God lays the witnesses around us to testify of His might and to remind us to fear Him – not our circumstances. In other words, to live by faith.
God has made this incredible promise to us that we may enter the Promised Land – an eternal home in heaven with Him. The great heroes in chapter 11 witnessed that promise and, by faith, held out for the greater home of eternity.
Their stories encircle us as memorial stones. But God didn’t give us only twelve stones; He set up so many stones around us that He couldn’t even list all of them in the verses of chapter eleven (See Hebrews 11:32-38). He set up so many that together they form an indistinguishable and seemingly unlimited cloud around us.
They stand as a witness to the promise made between God and us that by our faith He will bring us into the Promised Land.
They stand as a witness to remind us of His power in our circumstances.
They stand as a witness to fear Him, not our situation.
They stand to remind us to live by faith.