So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

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Topical Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-2

Ty Williams was a linebacker for the Georgetown Hoyas. While making a routine tackle during his team’s 2015 season opener, he sustained a fractured vertebra and lost the ability to move his lower body.

He underwent numerous surgeries and spent the last two years in medical rehab working to walk again while completing his degree in government. Last weekend, he walked for the first time since his injury as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma. He got a standing ovation.

Michel de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers in Western history, noted: “Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul.” Such valor requires a purpose worth its cost and more.

George Bernard Shaw wrote:

“This is the true joy in life . . . being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one . . . being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. . . I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

This weekend our nation remembers the 1.1 million men and women who have died in the service of America and freedom. How do we honor their sacrifice and further their cause? How do we hold up the torch they have handed to us?

Is your life dominated by a mighty purpose, by a cause worth its cost and more?

“A great cloud of witnesses”

Our text begins: “Therefore.” The writer has just described the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. He began at the beginning, with Adam and his descendants. He moved to the persecutions they suffered for their faith. He concluded in verse 38, “The world was not worthy of them.”

Now he calls them a “great cloud of witnesses.”

“Great” is the Greek word “mega.” “Cloud” was a common figure of speech, signifying a vast multitude. “Witnesses” comes from the word “martyr,” people who bear witness to their faith no matter what.

The text pictures us in a Roman arena, preparing to run a long and difficult race. In the stands are all those who have run it already. Because they have done it, we can do it.

We look into the stands, and who do we see?

There’s Noah, a man who spent a century to build an ark to survive a flood when he was on dry ground. His neighbors mocked, his friends laughed, but he warned them and preached to them, and trusted God. He’s watching you tonight. You may be tired, or tempted to quit, but he’s saying, “You can do it.”

Over a little further is Moses, eighty years old, tending sheep on the back side of nowhere. Then comes a burning bush, a holy voice, holy ground, a rod into a snake, the Red Sea, the edge of the Promised Land. You need to trust God in spite of opposition, and Moses says, “You can do it.”

There’s Peter. Three times he denied his Lord, cursing his name. Then Jesus forgave him, redeemed him, used him to start the Christian movement. You’ve sinned and failed and fallen and wonder if you can get up and go on, and Peter says, “You can do it.”

They’re all around us. Godly parents and grandparents who have gone before you; those who have been where we are today. Those who taught us in Bible study and preached to us in church, those who prayed with us and walked with us and loved us. They’re part of the “great cloud of witnesses.” They say to us today, “You can do it. You can go on.”

“Let us run with perseverance”

What are they urging us to do?

“Throw off everything”—this is an athletic metaphor for a runner who strips off his coat and jacket and gets down to his running shorts, or a basketball player who strips off his warm-ups to enter the game.

“Hinders” is literally “swollen flesh” or “fat,” that which has built up around our spirit. The text calls us to go on a spiritual diet. “And the sin that so easily entangles” is literally “that which clings close to us.” A robe that tangles up your feet, clothes that hinder your competition. A golfer in winter must remove his parka to swing his club.

For what purpose?

“Let us run with perseverance”—the word means endurance, refusing to quit or give up or give in. “The race marked out for us”—the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). Do what God has called us to do. Commit ourselves fully and only to his perfect will for our lives. Get rid of everything which hinders us from doing the purpose and plan of God for this day.

“Fix our eyes on Jesus”

How do we “run with perseverance,” no matter our obstacles?

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus”—the words mean to focus with intent and purpose. “The author”—the word for “architect,” the one who designed all that is. In the New Testament, this word is applied only to Jesus. He designed our lives and our faith.

“And perfecter”—the word means the finisher, the first one to finish the race. He’s been where we are going and knows the way. He’s done what we are to do now.

Jesus has obeyed the will of God. In Gethsemane he prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” He knows what it is to obey the plan and purpose of God. He has done what this text is now calling us to do.

Why did he do it? “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.” Jesus ran his race of sacrifice and suffering because he had a larger purpose. He did it to obey his Father and to purchase our salvation.

Now he calls us to do the same.

How to win this war

My father fought in the Second World War, and his father in the First World War. Both fought for freedom, for America, for our survival and way of life.

Today, nearly 1.3 million men and women are deployed in active military duty around the world. They are fighting to preserve and promote the freedoms we exercise by meeting for worship this morning. To protect us.

How can we live in a way which makes their sacrifice worthwhile?

Some of us are called to military service. All through Scripture, God calls and uses his people to fight their enemies and win their peace. In the same way, some are called to arms today.

Some of us are called to political service. God used Jewish kings to lead his people and foreign kings to free and serve them. Some of us are called to similar service.

And all of us are called to spiritual service. Scripture teaches that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

How do we fight this war? Paul commands: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (v. 18).

Pray with gratitude. Not just on an annual Memorial Day weekend, but each day. If America’s wars had ended differently, we would still be British subjects; or we would still live in a world of slavery; or German, Japanese, or Communist aggressors would rule our globe; or jihadists would determine the future of our nation and our faith. If the men and women we remember today had not defended our nation and our freedoms, those freedoms would not exist today.

Pray with urgency. As you thank God for their sacrifice, pray for the loved ones they left behind. Intercede for grieving mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Pray for those who are fighting for our freedoms today. Fight at their side in prayer.

And pray for spiritual victory in the spiritual war for souls to which we are called. This is a mighty purpose, a cause worth its cost.


On this Memorial Day weekend, remember George Bernard Shaw’s words: “This is the true joy in life . . . being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” Are you dedicated to a mighty purpose? One which is worthy of the sacrifices made by millions on your behalf? One which is worth your life and your all? A cause worth its cost?

Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “If a man hasn’t found a cause worth dying for, he isn’t fit to live.” Nineteenth-century British missionaries found such a cause. As they departed England for Africa, many packed their belongings in long, narrow wooden boxes—their own coffins. They knew that, more than likely, they would return home in those coffins. Felled by disease and violence, many did. But their cause was worth its cost and more.

In the movie Chariots of Fire, the English runner Harold Abrams races against the Scottish champion Eric Liddell and loses. It’s the first loss of his life. The pain of his failure is so great that he tells his girlfriend he will never race again. “If I can’t win, I won’t run,” he insists. She wisely replies, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”

Today we remember 1.1 million men and women who ran the race for us and won the freedom we celebrate this day. Now we must answer their sacrifice with our own. We are called to a mighty purpose, to a cause worth its cost.

We can do no more to honor their sacrifice. We must do no less.