Hebrews 12:1-2, 12-17

Watched Over!

By Richard Niell Donovan

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. It was written to strengthen them in their time of suffering. The eleventh chapter recounts the exploits of great men and women of faith:

• It talks about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, and David—the great heroes of the faith.
• It talks about their steadiness under fire.
• It talks about their heroism and sacrifices in God’s service.
• It tells us of their achievements.


• Conquered kingdoms,
• Administered justice,
• Shut the mouths of lions,
• Quenched the raging fire,
• Won strength out of weakness,
• And put foreign armies to flight.

Then it says:

“Therefore let us also,
seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us,
and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (12:1-2).

“Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” If he had been talking to Americans:

• He would have mentioned Washington and the bitter winter of Valley Forge.
• He would have talked about Lincoln and the heartbreak of the Civil War.
• He would have talked about FDR and the terrible early days of World War II.

Note that he did not talk about people lying about on the beach. He did not talk about people living in luxury. Luxury does not breed heroes. A basketball coach once said, “Great players don’t come from homes with three-car garages.” Luxury doesn’t breed heroes!

The author of Hebrews talked about heroes—people of great faith—people of great sacrifice—people of great achievement. He reminds us that we are surrounded by these great heroes, and then calls us to be heroes too.

It always helps to be surrounded by people whom we love and admire, doesn’t it! Parents attend a play in which their child is performing, not because it is great theater, but because it is great family.

Ruth Ryan is the wife of Nolan Ryan, the great pitcher. At some point during every game, Nolan steps out of the dugout and scans the stands until he sees her face. Then he grins or snaps his head as if to say, “There you are; I’m glad.” That means a lot to her, because it obviously means a lot to him. “Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses—the most important of whom is his wife, Nolan Ryan is inspired to greatness.”

Arthur Ashe, hall-of-fame tennis player, wrote his autobiography, Days of Grace shortly before his death. The frontispiece of the book is two facing pages:

• The first says, “To the memory of my father and mother, and to Jeanne and Camera.” Jeanne and Camera are his wife and daughter.

• The facing page reads, ” …since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1)

Ashe explains the verse from Hebrews. He talks about feeling the eyes of those who watched him.

• He felt the eyes of his mother, who died when he was seven. He remembers the last time that he saw her alive. He was eating breakfast. She stood in the doorway, dressed in a blue corduroy dressing gown, looking lovingly at him. Then he remembers her in a coffin at home, wearing her pink satin dress and holding a single red rose.

• He talks about how he would love to see her again. Then he says, “She is with me every day, watching me in everything I do. Whenever I speak to young persons about the morality of the decisions they make in life, I… tell them, ‘Don’t do anything you couldn’t tell your mother about.'”

• Then he talks about his father. A television interviewer once asked Ashe why he was always on his best behavior—a goody-goody. Ashe said, “I guess I have never misbehaved because I’m afraid that if I did anything like that, my father would come straight up from Virginia, find me wherever I happened to be, and kick my (tail).”

Ashe told that story at a church gathering, and people laughed. They knew what it was to have a father who would track you down and straighten you out—regardless of how old you were.

Ashe tried to live an exemplary life, because he was conscious, not only of his own reputation, but of his family. He was never alone; they were right there with him. He was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. They watched, and they cared. They set a high standard, and they encouraged him to live up to that standard. Even though his mother had been dead for years, he felt her watching over his shoulder—calling him to excellence.

Ashe lived up to their standard and more. In tennis—a game that often breeds people who are great on the court and terrible off it, Ashe was great—period! He was a great tennis pro, and he was a great man! He was great, because he was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who called him to be great—who expected him to be great—who had set the example of greatness!

Too often today, we don’t expect greatness. We expect mediocrity. Schools have practically stopped giving D’s and F’s, because parents will not support honest evaluation. Schools graduate young people who can’t read.

• We excuse people who won’t work.
• We excuse people who commit crimes.
• We excuse people who use drugs.
• And we have reaped the whirlwind!

Look what has happened to families! We don’t expect much of families anymore. Not long ago, people expected to marry and to stay married. They didn’t always accomplish that, but that was their expectation. What do we expect today? Not much!

As families have crumbled in America, our expectations have crumbled with them. We no longer expect much, and are teaching our children not to expect much. Year-by-year we expect less and less. Each year we lower the mark further and further in the hope that we will find a standard that we will meet. But families deteriorate even faster than our standards.

It is odd, isn’t it, that many standards today are higher than they were twenty years ago. A good secretary from twenty years ago could not survive in today’s office. A good surgeon from twenty years ago could not survive in today’s operating room. A good scientist from twenty years ago would be lost in today’s laboratory. But, as General Omar Bradley once said:

“We have too many men of science, too few men of God.
We have grasped the mystery of the atom,
and rejected the Sermon on the Mount….
Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

What is the answer to our troubled world? What is the answer to the pain that we feel? What is the answer to the enormous challenges that we face today?

The author of Hebrews was writing to people whose world was even more troubled than ours.

• He was writing to Christians who were being crucified along the roadside because they would not say, “Caesar is Lord.”

• He was writing to Christians whose loved ones had been torn apart by lions in the Coliseum because they would not deny Christ. What did he tell them?

He reminded them of the great men and women of faith who had preceded them. He reminded them of their sacrifices and courage. He reminded them that these men and women had kept the faith in the face of overwhelming foes and imminent death. And then he said:

“Therefore let us also,
seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us,
and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.”

“Run with patience,” he says. We start with enthusiasm, but are tempted to quit when the going gets tough. In the New York City marathon, there is a long hill near the end of the race that they call “Heartbreak Hill.” Even though the finish line is near, runners are tempted to quit when they hit “Heartbreak Hill.” That’s how it is when we are faced with the “Heartbreak Hills” of life. But the great heroes didn’t quit, and we don’t need to quit either. “Run with patience!”

And then he says, “Looking to Jesus!” We have more than a cloud of witnesses to encourage us. We have Jesus, the great runner who gave “Heartbreak Hill” its final defeat!

“Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses!” This church is a cloud of witnesses. Here we strengthen each other as we love and serve Christ!

I am reminded of friends from my youth. They lived in Colorado Springs for many years, and then moved to Southern California. A year later they were divorced. She says, “In Colorado, we had deep roots in the church. We went out with other couples from the church. When we moved, we didn’t establish those roots. It was then that our marriage started coming apart.”

“Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” they were strong! By themselves, they were weak!

The author of Hebrews concludes:

“Therefore, lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees,
and make straight paths for your feet,
so that which is lame may not be dislocated,
but rather be healed” (12:12-13).

“Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” let us love and serve God!

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006 Richard Niell Donovan