“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us…” (Hebrews 12:1)
According to the calendar of Christ’s Church, “Easter Season” continues for fifty days from The Day of Resurrection until Pentecost. The word Pentecost means “fifty,” and this year it landed on Sunday, June 9th.
We have seen in our previous two post-Easter blogs how the mood of the followers of Jesus, especially the disciples, changed dramatically following the resurrection of Jesus. In the four gospels, the “eyewitnesses” (i.e., those to whom the risen Christ appeared numerous times in his resurrected and glorified body before the Day of Pentecost) were rejoicing over the victory of Jesus, his conquest of sin, suffering, and death. However, they still lacked the understanding of all that had happened until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would teach them everything they needed to know (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:12-14). Before Pentecost, they also still lacked the boldness and power they would need to begin the task of world evangelization, the ministry to which their resurrected Lord had commissioned them (see the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:16-20). The Risen Christ had told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Day of Pentecost, when “the Promise” would be fulfilled, when they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and be baptized with power (Acts 1:4-5).
However, it was on the Day of Resurrection that the grief-stricken disciples had found death and hopelessness rolled back, just as the massive stone that was used to seal and make the tomb of Jesus secure had been rolled away. It was on that greatest of all days that the hopes and dreams of the disciples, which had been buried with Jesus, were also resurrected with him. It was the dawning of a new age, the Kingdom Age, turning all their sunsets into sunrises, for they had been delivered from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the marvelous light of their Lord’s presence in his eternal kingdom. Forever and ever, no power on earth or in all creation would be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It was the resurrection of Jesus and the assurance of His abiding presence with them always that compelled the followers of Jesus to leave the upper room and reenter the city, declaring “He is risen! Jesus is alive! He has proven Himself to be the Lord of life and death, the mighty Savior. He is going to build his Church, and not even the powers of hell will be able to “prevail against it!” (Matthew 16:18).
Then in the Book of Acts, the history of the Early Church, we are told what happened on the Day of Pentecost and in the years that followed as all the believers “…scattered everywhere throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria….proclaiming the word” (i.e. the gospel of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – Acts 8:1-4), with amazing results as Christ’s Church grew at a phenomenal rate. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts and the faithful historian of the Apostolic Church, wants us to know that God is up to something big in the spread of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Judaism, something as big as all humankind, “all flesh” (i.e. all nations, all tongues, all races, all cultures – Acts 2:4-16, 10:34-35 and 44-45, 11:9-18). Furthermore, in the other writings of the apostles in the epistles of the New Testament, and in the Revelation of the Risen Christ to the Apostle John, we see the evangelists returning to this foundational fact about the Gospel of Jesus Christ time and time again (Galatians 3:26-28; Ephesians 2:13-14; Revelation 7:9): the Gospel of salvation is for all humankind is a fundamental truth of Christianity.
The Apostle Paul was apparently the first of the apostles to understand that the Gospel of salvation was “by grace alone through faith alone,” not by obedience to the Law (i.e., not an achievement, but God’s free gift to all who put their trust in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross – Ephesians 2:4-10). The righteousness that pleases God (i.e., acceptable to God) is not righteousness “gained” but righteousness “given.” This was not what Paul had been taught from the days of his youth as a devout Jew, for according to orthodox Judaism, salvation was only for the Jews. Before his conversion to Christianity, when he was known as Saul of Tarsus, the greatest persecutor of Christians, it was this belief that compelled him to become such a passionate enemy of those who had become known as “followers of the way” (for Jesus had called himself “the way”). In its infancy, Christianity was seen as a breakaway movement from orthodox Judaism. In fact, there were Jewish converts to Christianity who believed and were teaching converted Gentiles that to be a good Christian, one must first become a good Jew. By the time the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote his letter, as well as the time when Paul penned his Letter to the Galatians, many converts to Christianity (both Jews and Gentiles) were being led astray by these false teachers. Therefore, it became necessary to compare the old with the new, the old covenant with the new covenant, the old priesthood with the priesthood of Jesus, the old system of burnt offerings and ritual sacrifices with Christ’s sacrifice of himself, the one sufficient sacrifice for the sins of all humankind.
In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer “calls the roll” of the heroes and heroines of the faith in Old Testament times, for they were the faithful who helped to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah as the “Lamb of God” who would “take away the sin of the world” (Isaiah 53:3-10, John 1:24-34 and 3:16, 28-36). He was writing to Christians at a time when their only sacred Scriptures were the Old Testament writings, but he wanted his readers to know that all the redeemed since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were also in that “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding them, bearing witness to Jesus as the Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” so that we might also learn to endure such hostility and persecution (12:1-2). This is why the writer begins this chapter with the familiar New Testament word “therefore” – whenever you find this word in the epistles of the New Testament, find out what “it’s there for.” The writer is saying if you really believe this Gospel, then what do you intend to do about it? How do you intend to live? What practical difference is it going to make in your lives? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us…” Well, I suggest that you read on in Hebrews 12, verses 4-14. Then go back and read Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:11-14, 6:1, 10:19-25, 12:28-29, and 13:8-16. Notice how many times you find those same two words, “Let us,” followed by the answer to the question asked above.
Finally, consider the millions of believers who are now included in that “great cloud of witnesses.” Not only the patriarchs and prophets of Old Testament times who “lived by faith” (Hebrews 11), but the apostles of Jesus in the first century (according to tradition, all of them except the Apostle John died a young martyr’s death; John died as an exile on the island of Patmos) and the countless other martyrs since the first century, who for more than two thousand years have refused to deny Jesus (including those who have been martyred for their faith in our own time). Some of them are well known, but most of them are known only to God. All of them, however, had not only found something worth living for, but also something worth dying for! Have you? Someday all of us will be dead (physically speaking). Let us ask ourselves if we believe we will be included in that “great cloud of witnesses” in the spirit world? If you cannot give an overwhelming “yes” to these questions, then I close this blog post with the prayer the author of Hebrews offered at the close of his letter, leaving the results with God: “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete (i.e. confident in your faith, with the assurance of your salvation, never wavering in your hope of that day when you will be found complete, perfect in Christ’s own likeness), so that you may be able to do his will, accomplishing that which is pleasing in the sight of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be all the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:2021).