The Cloud of Witnesses
February 14th, 1960 @ 7:30 PM
THE CLOUD OF WITNESSES
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-14-60 7:30 p.m.
Now will you turn with me in the Word of God to Hebrews, chapter 11: the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews? We begin reading at the thirty-second verse and read through the first verse of the twelfth chapter. Hebrews 11:32 through 12:1 – through the first verse of chapter 12, now let us all read it together, sharing your Bible with one who might not have brought it. Hebrews 11:32:
And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets;
Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,
Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
Women received their dead raised to life again; and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection;
And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment;
They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
(Of whom the world was not worthy;) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise of God:
God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
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.
And the title of the sermon is The Cloud of Witnesses, and the text is the first verse of the twelfth chapter of the Book: "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses,"
The letter is addressed to a little church in Palestine, somewhere in Judea, possibly in Jerusalem, that is undergoing cruel trials of mockings and scourgings and the despoiling of their property. They are afflicted and tormented because of their faith in Christ. He mentions it here in the tenth chapter of the book: "Ye endured a great fight of afflictions. Ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions, and ye took the spoiling of your goods." Their property was confiscated. Their lives were made miserable by reproaches and mockings and scourgings. They were made a gazingstock, pointed out for reproach and ridicule. The little church was having a terrible trial. But the greatest trial was not the spoiling of their property, the confiscation of their possessions, [being] made a gazingstock in reproach and scorn. The greatest trial was not the bloodletting, the stripes and the persecutions, the imprisonments; these things they were bearing, they had borne them. He says here they took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, and they endured the great fight of affliction, and when they were made a gazingstock by reproaches and afflictions, they were glad to become companions of those that were so used.
But the thing that broke their spirit was when they were threatened with excommunication from the temple worship, when they were threatened with being cut off from the house of Israel and from the house of God. There never was a parallel in the history of the world like this time in the story of the Israelite people. This letter was written in about 66 AD, and the fanatical nationalism that had arisen among the people in Judea was beyond anything the world had ever seen before or has ever seen since. The intrepidity in attacking the great illimitable might and force of the Roman Empire itself was but typical of the devotion of the Jewish people to the Jewish state and to their Jewish faith.
Now, this little church was composed of Jewish Christians, and they were loyal to the Jewish state and the Jewish religion. To them, it was to be identified with Abraham and the patriarchs, with David and the kings, with all of the prophets, for them to continue their identity as a Jewish people. There was nothing in their minds of a separation in Christ from all of the promises made to the fathers and all of the prophecies uttered by the great seers of Israel. Therefore, to them, to be cut off from the temple and to have no part in the priesthood and in the sacrifices and in the altar, was, to this little Jewish church, the same thing as being cut off from the household of the faithful. To them, it was to have no other part in Abraham and in Isaac, in David and in the prophets.
It was a sore and a tragic trial. That’s why he writes the book. This author who at one time was their pastor, who himself was a Jew, who knew the temple ritual and worship from infancy – this author takes a pen in hand, and he writes to the little Hebrew congregation to encourage them to be steadfast in the faith. He says to them [Hebrews 10:35-39], "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith"; he says to them, "Cast not away therefore your confidence"; he says to them, "Let us be faithful that we might receive the promise"; he says to them, "The just shall live by faith. We are not of them which draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe unto the saving of the soul."
Then he launches into this incomparable chapter, naming the heroes of the faith [Hebrews 11]. And the reason that he does it is this: he is showing that little of band of Hebrew Christians that those names of honored glory, written large on the scroll of the Hebrew history, were men who are accepted of God and received the approbation of God, not because they offered sacrifices, not because they worshiped through a consecrated priesthood, not because they had built temples, but they were accepted of God and received the approbation of God because they trusted in the word and the promise of the Lord.
These men that he named, some of them are warriors, some of them are kings, some of them are prophets, some of them are martyrs, but they all had this one thing in common: they were men who gave themselves to a full persuasion that the word and the promise of God was everlastingly yea and amen.
They were received of God not because of any ritual, or any ceremony, or any temple worship, or any altar, or any sacrifice, but they were received of the Lord by their faith! And they were approved of the Almighty because of their trust in the word and in the promise of Jesus! So he starts off naming to them the illustrious great in the story of the people of God, and he shows them that they have in common with them this one thing: that they held steadfast to the word and to the promise of the Lord.
So he starts out in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews – the chapter of faith, the roll call of the glorious – he starts out here in his Bible; as we would say, he turned the page – as in his day, he turned the scroll – and he found, as he opened the first scroll of the first book of the Bible, he found in the first sentence the first article of faith: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" [Genesis 1:1]. And then he says: "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear" [Hebrews 11:3]. God made it out of nothing! He created it by fiat! He spoke the Word, and the world came into existence [Genesis 1:3-31].
And that, says the author, is the first foundational article of the creed of faith: "In the beginning God, ." And without that first foundational creed, there is no superstructure. And you take it by faith, for God created those things that we see out of things that are not seen, out of invisible powers, out of the great might and – and the fiat of the Almighty! Out of nothing, God created the earth in which we live; and we understand that, he says, by faith.
Then he turns the page of the Bible, and there he reads the story of Abel. And he says: "By faith, Cain and Abel – by faith Abel brought to God an acceptable sacrifice" [Hebrews 11:4]. Both of the sacrifices were acceptable in themselves. In the Levitical sacrificial system, you have the offering of meal, of wheat, and of barley, just as you have of the lamb and the herd and the flock. But the difference, says this man, this author – the difference lies in Abel’s sacrifice by faith, by which he obtained the approval of God, God testifying of his gifts. Had Cain’s offering been offered by faith, it would have been as acceptable as the offering of Abel, but the reason Abel was accepted and his offering approved was because, he says, of the faith that lay in Abel’s heart: "Abel trusted God."
And then he turned the page, and he read here the genealogy, the book of the generations of Adam. And he read where Adam lived and died, and then he read where Seth lived and died, and then he read where Enos lived and died, and then he read where Cainan lived and died [Genesis 5:1-10]. Then, in the genealogy table, there is an interruption. Here’s a man by the name of Enoch, and he turned to Enoch and it says, "Enoch was translated that he should not see death" [Hebrews 11:5], because by faith Enoch walked with God [Genesis 5:22-24]. Not by sacrifice was he accepted. Nothing in here about Enoch building a temple. Nothing about observing rites and rituals and ceremonies. It just says that by faith Enoch walked with God, and he praised God. He had that testimony, that God approved him because of his trust and his faith.
Then the author turns the page, and here he found the story of Noah. This world would have perished miserably in the flood of water had it not been for the faith of that one man who trusted God! And he believed in the Lord [Genesis 6-10; Hebrews 11:7]; then he turns the page and as he does he finds a wealth, an illimitable wealth of illustration of these men of God who were accepted in the Lord, not because of any ceremony, not because of any temple worship, not because of any ritual, but they were accepted in the Lord simply because they trusted in His name, and believed in His Word!
And so he finds here in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Genesis – he finds the story of Abraham. "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should afterward receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went" [Hebrews 11:8]. He just trusted God. God made a promise. God sent him the word, and Abraham believed the word of God, and he went out, simply by faith, trusting the Lord!
Then it says, as you read in the Book, it says the story of Abraham and his promised son, and Abraham is one hundred years old, and Sarah is ninety years old – beyond [any time] that they could ever expect to have a child – but through faith, Sarah received strength, and there springs from her and from him, as good as dead, so many as the stars in the sky for multitude, and as the sand in the seashore innumerable [Hebrews 11:11-12]. They just trusted God. God said that they should have an heir of their own loins, of their own flesh and blood, and when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety years old, they still trusted in the word and the promise of the Lord [Genesis 15:4-6].
And then he continues on:
And the day came when the Lord God said to Abraham: Take that only son and offer him up as a sacrifice. And when Abraham laid Isaac on the altar, he believed that God would raise him from the dead. Because the Lord had said that in Isaac shalt thy seed be called, accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.
Just trusting the Lord, just believing in the word of God.
Then he speaks of Isaac and of Jacob and of Joseph: ", when he died, made mention, of his bones, saying: God will surely visit you. God said so. God promised so. And Joseph believed God. And when he died, he gave commandment concerning his bones, that they take them back and bury them in the Promised Land" [Hebrews 11:22; Genesis 50:25].
Then he finds a wealth in the life of Moses [Hebrews 11:23-29]. As an infant, the little child would have died had it not been for the faith of his parents. They took the little boy, put him in a basket when he was just a few months old, set him out on the bosom of the waters of the Nile, trusting God: that God would spare the precious little child [Exodus 2:1-4].
Then he speaks of the rest of these who by faith, not by sacrifice, not by ritual, not by ceremony, not by temple worship, not by all of the priestcraft and all of the sacrifices of the altar, but just by trusting God, looking to God, "They obtained promises; they stopped the mouths of lions, they subdued kingdoms, they wrought righteousness. They quenched the violence of fire – they escaped the edge of the sword, and out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight" [Hebrews 11:33-34].
"You," he says – "you are called upon not to identify yourself with a system, with a temple, with an altar and a sacrificial priesthood, but you are called upon," he says, "to identify yourself with the heroes of faith who have just trusted God, believed in His word and gave themselves to the ultimate promise of the Lord. Hold fast that faith. Cast not away that confidence. Draw nigh by faith. We are they who believe unto the saving of the soul,." [Hebrews 10:35-39]. What if they excommunicate us from the temple? What if they deny us the offices of the priest? What if they turn us away from the sacrifices of the altar? We are they who look steadfastly in faith and in trust to the word and the promise of God.
Why, bless your heart, I can imagine, so easily imagine – I can imagine when they read this to that little Hebrew congregation – I can imagine the tears flowing from the eyes of that little band of Christians who listened as every sentence was read, every syllable, every word added to. I can just imagine their tears of amazement, and wonder, and penitence, and encouragement, and devotion.
And I can imagine in that little congregation – I can imagine one of the men standing up and saying, "Ah, it may be with us as it was with Abel, but our blood shall be used of God to speak of our devotion to Jesus our Lord." And maybe that’s where the phrase was invented: "Our blood, the seed of the church," given to God in martyrdom; and out of it shall come that witness and that testimony that shall glorify God. I can imagine another man standing up and saying, "What if we are as Enoch, living in a day when the Lord shall translate us and all of us rise to meet our Lord in glory in the air?" And another one rises, and he says, "What if we live as in the day of Noah, surrounded by evil and wicked men, and we alone in the generation trust in God, yet shall we be faithful unto death?" And I can imagine another man standing up in that little congregation and saying, "Maybe it should be with us as it was with Abraham. He was taken out of his father’s house, forsook his home and his family, turned aside from all of his property and went out alone and a stranger in a strange and friendless world. Maybe it shall be with us as it was with Abraham." And when they finished reading that marvelous chapter, their eyes filled with tears and their hearts moved with devotion, I can imagine how they felt when they came to the words of that text: "Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses" [Hebrews 12:1].
There they look upon us: Abel who died in the faith; and Enoch, who was translated in the faith; and Noah, righteous Noah, preaching one hundred twenty years without a convert – Noah, saved by his faith; and Abraham journeyed out he knew not where, just trusting the Lord; and Moses, forsaking the throne of Pharaoh that he might identify himself with the people of God, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches, than all of the treasures of Egypt. And there they are, that great cloud of witnesses: acceptable to God not by any temple worship, not by any sacrifice, not by any ritual, ceremony, ordinance, but with God in glory because they trusted in the word and in the promise of the Lord.
And then he closes with one of the most spiritually unfathomable depths that I have ever read in the Bible:
And these all, that great cloud of witnesses, these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise;
God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
"These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise." It was a far off to them. God had just said it. The Lord had just promised it. But that promise was a long, long distance through the future. They knew not when or how long. And they just trusted God for it. There was no real sacrifice for sin. The blood of bulls and goats could not wash away sins [Hebrews 10:4]. All of those Levitical ordinances were but types and pictures of a great reality that was yet to come. "These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise." They just trusted God for it and waited upon the Lord for it. I can imagine that great throng, that cloud of witnesses, these who had died in the faith.
I can imagine with what intent of care and concern they watched God through all of the providences of life. I can just imagine as they watched the incarnation of our Lord, and with bated breath beheld the Prince of heaven become a man, watched Him grow up, watched His ministry, were there looking upon the agony in the garden, and in the terrible, awful sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, I can imagine their watching the burial in the tomb. I can imagine their "Hallelujah!" when the Son was raised from the dead! And can you conceive of the ocean of exultation and honor and glory by which they receive the Lord Jesus back into glory, this great cloud of witnesses, who died having not received the promise, but they just looked at it from afar and believed in it by the word of God?
And it says "these were not perfected," even though they were in glory. And even though they died in the faith, they were not perfected. They had to wait upon that great consummating sacrifice in Jesus Christ, and when our Lord was raised from the dead and entered into glory, carrying captivity with Him, "taking captivity captive" [Ephesians 4:8], I don’t know what happened, but something did. There was something that the saints lacked that was not completed until Jesus died on the cross: until the promise was fulfilled that He should come that should take away the sin of the world. "These all, having a good report through faith, received not the promise; God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect" [Hebrews 11:39-40]. They were in glory, they were in heaven, they were in Paradise, but they still lacked yet, until that great promise in Jesus was fulfilled and our Lord atoned for their sins upon the cross.
And when that promise was fulfilled and our Lord carried them into that great and final ecstasy, something happened in heaven that I do not know and I cannot describe. All I know is this: that the thing that happened when our Lord died on the cross and was received up into glory, and that great throng of God’s witnesses received Him in ecstasy and indescribable heavenly joy, all I know is that that is a picture of, a prototype of, a harbinger of this ultimate and greater day that waits upon us.
There is still lacking in heaven a full and a final consummation: "God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." A part of that lies – I understand, I can see as I read the Bible – a part of that lies in the redemption of the body. These saints that he describes as the great cloud of witnesses in heaven that look down upon us and upon the providences of God in this life – that "great cloud of witnesses," outside of Elijah and outside of Enoch and outside of the Lord Jesus, they do not have their resurrected bodies. They are waiting for that final and ultimate denouement of the age when our Lord shall come again, and when their resurrected bodies shall be given back to their souls, and souls shall be embodied again in a spiritual life [1 Corinthians 15:51-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].
That is beyond anything I can enter into and anything I can describe, but they up there are not perfected yet. It is not a completed story yet. They still lack, that great throng, that cloud of witnesses who are with Jesus in glory, and they are not perfected yet, on account of us who are still here below. I cannot enter into that.
I cannot, for example, understand why it was that before the Holy Spirit came into the world, Jesus had to be glorified – He had to die, had to be crucified, had to be buried and raised from the dead and ascended back up into heaven. I cannot understand that. There is something in the economy and the providence and the elective purpose of God that is beyond anything I can even begin to fathom or understand. But when our Lord entered back into heaven, after He paid the atoning price for our sins, it made possible the descent of the Holy Spirit of God into the world.
And the same thing is inexplicable to me. I cannot understand it and I cannot explain it, but somehow that great throng of God’s saints in glory, are not perfected. They still lack on account of our being in a pilgrimage yet in this world, "that they without us should not be made perfect." It is not until we get there. It is not until our bodies are resurrected. It is not until our victory is won. It is not until we have arrived safely to the gates of heaven that they reach that ultimate and final perfection in the Lord.
All these things overwhelm me. The church is one: some there and some here. The body of Christ is one: some there and some here. The great elective purpose of God is one, for them there, for us here; and we labor as one in our prayers and in our devotions and in the commitment of our lives to Jesus. They bow in His presence there; we bow in His presence here. They sing of His glory there; we sing of His glory here. They look full into His face there; we, by faith, look into His face here. They love our Lord Jesus there; we love our Lord Jesus here. We are one in Him. And they are not perfected until we have won our battle, have finished our race, and are together with them in glory.
Ah, how we ought faithfully, marvelously, wonderfully to run that race that is set before us. They, a cloud of witnesses, looking down upon their comrades in the faith; you, you, us, the people of God who by faith, by trust in the word and promise of Jesus, lift up our faces to that great ultimate victory that God shall bring us someday in Christ Jesus our Lord: a little of it now, an earnest of it tonight, a harbinger of it in this blessed hour in which we live, but the great and final consummation of it in that glorious day that is yet to come.
Are you in that number, with these in glory, with God’s people in the earth? Are you in the fold? Are you a member of the body of our Lord? Have you ever by faith taken Jesus just at His word? He said it in the Book; I trust it in my soul, and like Abraham, I am going out, a pilgrim in the earth, trusting Jesus: "Just because God said it, I believe it. I believe He can live in my heart, and I receive Him tonight. I believe in the resurrection someday of the dead; that we shall live in His sight. I trust God for that great and final victory that someday shall be given us in His blessed and nail-pierced hands. And on that profession of faith, I stand before God’s congregation tonight."
Would you do it – somebody you, somebody you? "Tonight, in faith, in trust, in belief, in persuasion of the Word of God, I commit my soul and life and destiny to Him." Would you do it tonight? Is there a family to come into the fellowship of the church? In this balcony round, somebody you, on this lower floor, a family you, somebody tonight to whom the Spirit of the Lord speaks a word of invitation and appeal, would you come tonight? Down one of these stairways, at the front, at the back, into the aisle, on this lower floor and down here to the front, "Pastor, I give you my hand. I give my heart to Jesus. I am coming tonight. This is my time. This is my hour. I feel God’s call in my soul, and here I am." For any reason God would say, as our people pray and as we prayerfully sing this song of invitation, would you make it tonight? "Here I am, preacher. Here I come. Here I stand. I make it now." Would you? Would you? While all of us stand and sing the appeal together.
sore trials of this little Judean Hebrew congregation
the greatest trial – their excommunication
Purpose of the author to encourage them in their steadfastness to Christ (Hebrews 10:35-39)
heroes of the faith, showing they were accepted of God because of their trust
in the word and promise of the Lord
II. The roll call of faith
at the very opening of the sacred Book – first article of faith in the first
sentence (Genesis 1:1, 3-31, Hebrews 11:3)
The genealogical tables interrupted at Enoch (Genesis
5:1-10, Hebrews 11:5)
of Noah (Genesis 6-10, Hebrews 11:7)
faith of Abraham(Hebrews 11:11-19, Genesis
Jacob, and Joseph(Hebrews 11:22, Genesis 50:25)
life of Moses (Hebrews 11:23-29, Exodus 2:1-4)
These who by faith obtained promises, stopped lions, subdued kingdoms, wrought
righteousness, escaped the sword, made strong (Hebrews
III. Called upon to emulate the heroic
confidence of their ancestors
to identify with a system, temple, priesthood, but with the heroes of the faith
who just trusted God(Hebrews 10:35-39)
hearts filled with devotion as they reached the text (Hebrews 12:1)
IV. Having obtained a good report, received
not the promise(Hebrews 10:39)
cloud of witnesses waited upon the Lord
They have to wait upon the consummating sacrifice in Jesus Christ(Ephesians 4:8, Hebrews 10:40)
has provided a better thing for us – part of that lies in the redemption of the
body, yet to come(1 Corinthians 15:51-53, 1 Thessalonians