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As a follow-up to Monday’s post, I want to continue pursuing the concept of keeping our focus on Jesus Christ and not letting other things, including ourselves, obscure the view or distract our attention from the Savior.  All too easily our walk of faith can become “all about us” instead of “all about Him.”

A subtle and unintentional shift of focus can even happen when interpreting and applying texts of Scripture that are explicitly intended to urge us to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”  Consider Hebrews 12:1-3:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

The figure that the author of Hebrews uses in these verses is that of an athlete in a race (compare I Cor. 9:25-27; II Tim. 2:5; 4:7-8).  As runners in this race of faith in Christ we are to cast aside anything and everything that would bind, weigh down, or otherwise impede our spiritual progress.  The race takes endurance; it is a marathon, not a sprint.  Our view must extend beyond the hardships and trials of the present to our ultimate goal and prize, to join the One who has run the race before us.  “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” “Consider Him.”  That much seems clear.

So why do we tend to take the “witnesses” from verse 1 and put their focus on us?  We interpretively place them in the stands of the stadium in which we are running the race.  The great heroes of faith who are chronicled in Hebrews 11, along with Christian friends and family members who have passed on before us, are pictured cheering us from their seats to keep running and enduring.  It is indeed a marvelous thought!  Encouraging!  Inspiring!  Comforting!  I’m just not certain that this is what the writer intended to communicate.

I’ve used this interpretation and application myself.  I’ve related it to a personal experience of participating in the Great Aloha Run in the late ’80s.  The 8.15 mile course takes thousands of competitors from Aloha Tower in downtown Honolulu to the finish line in Aloha Stadium.  After completing the race, runners and walkers fill the stands to enjoy refreshments and live entertainment.  Since I finished way back in the pack, it gave me quite a buzz to enter the stadium through the tunnel, then run the length of the turf to the goal line at the far end of the football field while earlier finishers offered up chants of encouragement to all of us stragglers.  Their voices picked up my pace and lengthened my stride even though I felt like my tank was empty.  That’s how I envisioned the cheers of the “cloud of witnesses.” 

I really hate it when Scripture gets in the way of a perfectly good illustration!

The word translated “witnesses” in Heb. 12:1 is the plural form of the Greek word martus (or martys) which generally means “one who testifies; one who serves as a witness, testifying to what has been seen or heard.”  Rarely does it refer to a mere spectator or passive onlooker.  One possible exception (other than here, for those who are predisposed to see “spectators” in Heb. 12:1) is I Tim. 6:12 where Timothy is reminded of the many witnesses who were present when he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ.  However, even there it may point to the fact that Timothy uttered his confession in the company of many others who were testifying to their faith in Christ as well.  The very next verse references Jesus who testified (“witnessed” – marturesantos) before Pilate.  Just as Jesus, the faithful and true Witness (Rev. 1:5; 3:14), suffered and died, so also would multitudes who faithfully followed Him.  This ultimately led to martus being applied to those who died for holding to their testimony (marturia) of faith in Him: martyrs.      

So, I’m not sure that the author of Hebrews meant for us to envision God’s departed faithful ones, like basketball fans during March Madness, sitting around a celestial sports bar with an infinite number of flat screen TVs watching the races of the saints still on earth.    

F.F. Bruce writes:

“But in what sense are they witnesses?  Not, probably, in the sense of spectators, watching their successors as they in their turn run the race for which they have entered; but rather in the sense that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith.  It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them – for encouragement.  They have borne witness to the faithfulness of God; they were, in a manner of speaking, witnesses to Christ before His incarnation, for they lived in the good of that promise which has been realized in him.” 

Is Bruce’s interpretation more correct than that of the significant number of commentators who hold to the “spectator” view?  I don’t know for certain, and neither am I sure that it makes a whole lot of difference in the end.  But, I find Bruce’s view more palatable and more consistent with the balance of Scripture and its use of martus.  The “cloud” or “host” are witnesses of God, not spectators of me.  I am inspired and encouraged by looking to these forerunners in the faith whose lives testify that the race can be successfully run, not by the thought of them watching me.       

I believe that Scripture describes a much clearer role of encouragement for the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us and journeys alongside us here on earth.  More on this subject over the next couple of days…

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March 2011