I just came from the funeral of a dear friend to our family. I was asked to say a few words, not a sermon, just something the “Lord would lay on my heart”. I had some quiet time on the drive to think it through. I thought of how this friend has known me my entire life, has supported my family through our entire ministry, and has probably prayed for me every day.
The thought of coming up with what to say made me sad at the realization that one of my biggest prayer warriors was gone. Who would replace her? I counted her as one of the “greats” in that “cloud of witnesses” who cheered and encouraged me on in “the race”.
My mind went to the Olympics we just watched where the pandemic kept stadiums empty, void of fans, coaches, friends, family, and other loved ones. I assumed that this lack of support would have affected the athletes adversely. I hypothesized that likely these games, void of fans support would have resulted in lesser performances than previous Olympics. To my surprise, the converse was actually true. The 2020 Olympics actually had an unusually high occurrence of Olympic and World records. This revelation actually ruined the great sermon illustration I had planned, but on further meditation, became even more intriguing.
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Hebrews 12:1
I went back to the drawing board about my interpretation of this passage. In fact, I did something I haven’t done since seminary, I diagrammed the Greek version of this text. This part of my studies was a challenge for me in seminary, but it was necessary on this occasion for me to understand this correctly.
Running the race is the focus of this passage, with patience, laying aside the weights and sins that cause us to be distracted. The present participle translated in English as “are encompassed” expresses that the subject, “the runner”, has been benefitted by “so great” a cloud of witnesses.
But the word means far more. Literally, the athlete has been surrounded by witnesses who have been “many, great, and for so long”. Some went out to the field and practiced with him. Some went to his practices and cheered him on. Some sat in the stands at the games and endured the rain and cold to show support for the athlete, so when the game of the athlete’s life came along, the “big game”, whether these “witnesses” were in the stands or not, the athlete had the confidence to “run the race” that they have trained for all their life. These witnesses were crucial in forming this athlete, but the athlete alone has to run it.
Understanding this passage in this context introduces a monumental responsibility for believers. We surely have to be training for “the race”. But are we giving enough attention to supporting and preparing the other athletes, being the counted in the “cloud” that every athlete needs for his formation?
Dr. Ronald J. Barnes Jr.
August 30, 2021