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, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2
This passage is oftentimes misunderstood. Many times I have heard people use this verse to say that those who have gone on before us are up in Heaven looking down upon us and witnessing what we are doing. I’ve even heard this passage misused in attempts to influence or control people’s behavior. A guilt trip is placed upon the hearer by saying something along the lines of “what do you think so and so thinks of you when they look down from Heaven and see you doing that?” If those in Heaven are in fact watching what we do, this passage does not describe that.
This verse comes on the heals of Hebrews 11, the Hall of Faith and Works, where many saints from the Old Testament are listed and we are told about their great faith, the works their faith produced, and the good report they obtained. Hebrews 12:1-2 then encourages us to run the race that is set before us. Are we to run this race because all these Old Testament saints are watching us – witnessing what we do – and we should be motivated by our desire to not disappoint them? No. We are to run the race because the testimony of these Old Testaments saints witnesses to us that living by faith will result in a good report – and in fact some better thing for us (Hebrews 11:39-40).
The great cloud of witnesses do not witness what we do, but rather their testimony is a witness to us of the value and benefit of living by faith.