By Whitney Hopler, Crosswalk.com
Do people in heaven watch our lives on earth? If so, can they pray for us when we need help? The Bible mentions “a great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1, a verse that encourages us to run the race of faith well. Here’s the meaning of that famous scripture, who is included in the cloud of witnesses, and the purpose of what they do in heaven.
Where Does the Bible Talk about a Cloud of Witnesses?
In Hebrews 12:1-2, the Bible encourages us: “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. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
This first passage of chapter 12 begins with the word “therefore”, indicating that it is a continuation of what Hebrews says in the previous chapter. So, it’s important to also read Hebrews chapter 11 for more information about the cloud of witnesses that Hebrews chapter 12 mentions.
Who Is in the Cloud of Witnesses?
We see in Hebrews chapter 11 that the cloud of witnesses refers to people who have gone to heaven before us. This chapter focuses on the importance of faith, which it defines in verse 1: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Then, in verse 2 it points out that faith “is what the ancients were commended for”. Finally, the rest of the chapter gives examples of people with commendable faith. This faith hall of fame mentions many biblical figures from the Old Testament, such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, and David. The chapter also extols the strong faith of men and women who aren’t named, but who put their faith into action. They chose to trust God even during intense challenges like confronting injustice, standing up for what’s right, overcoming their fears, relying on God for help during suffering, and living with love and purpose.
The cloud of witnesses in chapter 12 includes people just like chapter 11 describes – people who pleased God by choosing faith, and relying on God’s help to live out that faith well. There is no limit to the amount of people who can join that great cloud in heaven. The last verse of chapter 11 tells us that “… only together with us would they be made perfect.” Although the Book of Hebrews presents famous examples of faithful people who are in the great cloud of witnesses, it doesn’t exclude others. In fact, it looks forward to other people of faith, who will experience the rewards of their faith all together in the future.
Every single soul who chooses to live in faith through a relationship with God can become part of the great cloud of witnesses. So, not only do the famous saints in heaven get to participate, but so do the huge amount of other people throughout history who have decided to live in faith. That includes the people we know personally who have passed away after earthly lives of faith, trusting Jesus for their salvation. Many of our departed friends and family members may be a part of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.
What Does the Cloud of Witnesses Do/What Purpose Do They Serve?
The people in the great cloud of witnesses watch us from heaven in order to help support us in our spiritual journeys. While these witnesses are aware of our spiritual progress on earth, they’re not spying on us. They’re not concerned with every mundane detail of our lives, but with the state of our souls. They’re simply caring brothers and sisters in Christ who want to inspire us to live with faith, as they did.
They bear witness to the wisdom of choosing faith in God. These witnesses serve as inspiring examples of what faithful lives look like. We can learn about the power of faith by learning how they relied on God through victories and defeats, joy and sorrow, celebrations and challenges. Since we are living after their times in history, we can look at the entirety of their lives and see the results of their wise choices to live with faith.
Besides giving us examples of how to live with faith on earth, the people in the cloud of witnesses may also pray for us from heaven. Revelation chapter 5 describes “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (verse 9) in heaven together and they are aware of “the prayers of God’s people” (verse 8). Revelation 8:3 describes an angel adding incense to “the prayers of all the saints” and placing them on an altar in heaven. While we should only to pray to God (not to people or angels in heaven), those who are in heaven with God are aware of our prayers and may join us in prayer, if God leads them to do so. Ephesians 6:18 encourages all believers to keep praying for each other, and people in the cloud of witnesses may continue to pray for their spiritual brothers and sisters from heaven.
Praying inside a historic chapel, I once experienced the love of the great cloud of witnesses in a way I could tangibly feel. My book Wake Up to Wonder shares what happened at the Portiuncula in Italy, a small church that Saint Francis of Assisi loved to pray inside during the 1200s, and where many generations of believers have prayed in since. As I joined others praying in the pews, I felt a powerful sensation. I sensed a strong connection to God, the people who were currently praying nearby, and those who had prayed over the centuries in that little chapel. While I had previously known that a cloud of witnesses surrounded me, then I actually felt that happening. I praised God for the blessing of being part of the family of believers throughout history – souls who are all connected by his love.
A huge crowd of faithful people who have gone before us to heaven are cheering us on as we run our own race of faith on earth. So, let’s do what Hebrews 12:1 urges us to do, by throwing off everything that hinders our progress and running in God’s direction with perseverance. When we reach the finish line, we’ll get to celebrate with God and our supporters in the cloud of witnesses. What a wonderful time that will be!
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Jelleke Vanooteghem
Whitney Hopler is the author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). She has also written the young adult novel Dream Factory. Connect with Whitney on Twitter.