50. Hiking in Hebrews: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

 

Have you ever wondered if you’re being watched by dead people?

Or should I say, people who have died and now dwell in the next realm?

 

The newly bereaved often report sensing their loved ones nearby. I experienced this myself, years ago, in moments of connection that felt profoundly real. But the sense of nearness faded within weeks. This phenomenon is backed by cultural beliefs from around the world: many believe the dead sometimes hang around a bit before moving on.

 

While I’m not aware of any Scripture that directly teaches this, there are several Bible incidents where we see the dead interact with the living:

  • Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), shows the rich man in hell, aware of where he is and why he’s there (he’s not arguing to get out), and able to see Lazarus in heaven, next to Abraham. He begs Abraham to send someone to warn his five brothers, still alive, so they won’t also end up in “this place of torment”. In this case, it’s the dead communicating with the dead, hoping to send a message to the living. But is it a stretch to assume the rich man would continue to be aware of his brothers’ spiritual condition? (Some may argue that this story is a parable, but it’s not designated as such.)

 

  • During Jesus’ transfiguration, three of his disciples witness him talking with Moses and Elijah. Is it a stretch to imagine both prophets had been avidly watching Jesus’ ministry from heaven, and would continue to do so?

 

  • In John 8:58, Jesus told the unbelieving Jews that Abraham, their forefather, had rejoiced to see {Jesus’} day. There’s more than one way to interpret this passage, but I like to think Abraham got to watch Jesus’ ministry unfold—thus witnessing the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him the father of many nations and the father of our faith.

 

  • Witchcraft and summoning the dead are soundly denounced by Scripture, but when King Saul secretly went to visit the Witch of Endor (because God was no longer answering him), she actually brought Samuel up from the dead–and was shocked when he appeared! This indicates she was probably a fraud and therefore stunned when her séance actually worked. Samuel, abruptly brought back from paradise, had been Saul’s advisor and frequent rebuker, and was aware of Saul’s faithless activities even after he died. (You can read the whole story in I Samuel 28.)

 

None of this proves anything definitive, except that in some cases, at significant times, the dead DO interact with those still living on earth. Let’s now consider the following verse:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb.12:1)

 

The “great cloud of witnesses” refers to the faith heroes lauded in Chapter 11—men and women whose faith honored God, achieved the impossible, and even led to their torture and martyrdom. In this image, they’re watching us as we run the race marked out for us: the epic marathon of staying faithful to the end. And, in keeping with the metaphor, I imagine they’re cheering us on.

 

I feel honored and humbled to be included in such great company. Next to theirs, my faith battles seem small and definitely surmountable. Yet here’s the paradox: when I look back on my journey to date, the toughest times and challenges summoned my greatest faith. It’s those in-between times—call them the doldrums, the long plateaus, the desert places, whatever—where my faith grows weak. Where I’m tripped up with distractions, blasé about hindrances, and indifferent to those pesky but pervasive sins that spell entanglement.

 

Picture trying to run a race with weeds and dead branches grabbing at your ankles. You’re falling, not hard, but enough to completely lose your pace. Maybe you start walking to protect yourself. You lose sight of crossing the finish line as your fellow runners surge out of sight.

 

Feeling sorry for yourself, you start to resent their focus and confidence. You manufacture excuses for your lack of persistence. Everyone has it easier than you. You had no idea how long these middle stretches could be. You started off sprinting; now you’re ambling like an 85-year-old. But you’re not 85, and there’s a lot more road to cover before you cross the finish line. Worst of all, you start envying those who never signed up at all. You start watching them, instead of the road ahead.

And the weeds get thicker.

Have you been there? I certainly have. And being under pandemic shutdown hasn’t helped. It’s like we’re walking a treadmill, unsure about next week, next month, the future. Disconnected from our spiritual routines and from each other. Zoom worship meetings feel like weak facsimiles. Life feels static, on hold. From day to day, I vacillate between craving my former productivity and wondering if it’s OK to simply exist. My faith in God has not wavered, but my prayer life feels dull and repetitive, and I wonder how God sees me.

I need encouragement, and that great cloud of witnesses are shouting it:

You’re almost there! You can do it! Keep moving! You won’t believe what’s waiting at the finish line!

If you’re running with God, you’re part of that great, unbroken chain of the redeemed and joyful. Can you hear them? Can you see them? Are you ready to pick up the pace?

7 replies »

  1. Thank you for this message. You are deep, honest and relatable and I love you dearly.
    So many are studying by ZOOM and being baptized, be encouraged. We recently moved so are going around to meet the neighbors and ask what to pray for them about. I bake breads for people. It’s encouraging as people are lonely.
    Given your proclivity for walking I think you could have a walking club. People can be far enough separate not to worry. But often people will stand around and chat before and after…
    You are and always will be one of my great heroes in the faith. Be encouraged, “you are almost there, keep moving, you won’t believe what is waiting for you at the finish line!”

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    • Thanks, Mary. I’m humbled by the creative efforts you’re making to reach out during these times. I think my secular Canadian neighbors would be taken aback (not in a good way) if I knocked on their doors for prayer requests. But maybe i’m being too skeptical.

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  2. This is so good and honest. Thankyou for sharing your gift!!!!

    Thank you,

    Cheryl Toscano ,RN, BSN Outreach Liaison 2 Alive Hospice 615-788-5869

    >

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  3. Marilyn – this is so real from the heart and describes my life quite often. You really struck a chord when you talked about falling down along the race, slowing to a walk, and then making excuses; all the while the great cloud of witnesses is still cheering you on. Wow – I’ve never thought of it that way! It’s almost embarrassing to think that when I want to give up sometimes, I’m still being cheered for. On a good day I would dust my knees off get back up and start trying to ride. On a bad day I would shake my fist at the clouds! You’ve given me new perspective on the importance of dusting off my knees off and getting up!

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    • Thanks for your encouraging response, Terri. I need to remind myself of the same things all the time. Hope you’re doing well in these strange times.

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  4. Marilyn, it certainly feels like a strange time, almost like living in slow motion but this time has been really refreshing and revealing for me because it has revealed how much I’ve depended on externalities–either our dynamic church services, riveting sermons, professional grade worship music, and our impressive diversity. Now we don’t have the trappings of any of those things. It’s us and our Bibles, our faith, and our walk with God with minimal fellowship except by zoom calls which are nothing too thrilling. These past months we have never been so busy studying the Bible with people. No more barriers of proximity (my family group alone has four international Bible studies going on) and no to minimal excuses of why folks don’t have time. I feel that our cloud of witnesses are cheering us on! Before they may have gotten bored watching us swap kingdomly things for lesser things, but now we are back on the path. Thanks again Marilyn for this reflection. What a gift you have for expressing your spiritual thought-life. It’s inspiring!

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    • Wow, that’s so encouraging! I’m humbled…my life has shrunk very small these days, and I haven’t been reaching out as you and your family group obviously are. Thanks for sharing your inspiring perspective! I’ll bet the angels and the great crowd of witnesses are very pleased.

      Like

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