Friday, May 18, 2007

Scripture: The "cloud of witness" from Hebrews 11-12

The following discourse took place on ccel.org (the Christian Classics Ethereal Library) between micahdaniel and myself.


Submitted by micahdaniel on Mon, 2006-10-23 08:34.
The previous verse: Heb 11:40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

Note two groups of people mentioned in this verse, "us" and "they without us." These two groups clearly do not include the dead or dead in Christ. Therefore, the immediate context for the "cloud of witnesses" is not the dead, but the living.
Submitted by japhy on Sun, 2007-02-25 12:39.
I disagree with you; I believe the context shows that the "cloud of witnesses" refers to those who have died in faith. Here is Hebrews 11:32 - 12:2 (RSV), with emphasis by me.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets -- who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated -- of whom the world was not worthy -- wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight
, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Here is what I understand the pronouns represent: And all these who died in faith, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us who live today, that apart from us who live today they who died in faith should not be made perfect.

It seems clear to me that, at the end of Hebrews 11, the author is referring specifically to those who have died without receiving what was promised, because God fulfilled all promises through Jesus Christ (something better), and that by his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, they (those who had died in faith) were now made perfect. In other words, because of Christ (and Christianity), the faithful departed have been made perfect as we are being made perfect. Therefore, the great ... cloud of witnesses refers to those who have died in faith and are now made perfect in Christ (retroactively, so to speak). We are encouraged to also lay aside every weight and to believe with the faith our predecessors had.

Jesus is the perfecter of our faith, so in him the faithful who died have now been made perfect, and they are witnesses (both to their faith, and of our struggles).
I think micahdaniel was trying to cast "they without us" as the Jewish community, or as the other Christians who were the responsibility of the Hebrews being addressed by this epistle. If the former, then "they without us" wouldn't mean "they need us", it would mean "non-Christians"; if the latter, then the "cloud of witnesses" means "the people who are depending on you, watching you".

But that disregards not only the entirety of chapter 11, but the previous verse, which is part of the same sentence. The pronoun "they" used in verse 40 relate directly to verse 39, the ones well attested by their faith [but] did not receive what was promised.

3 comments:

MMajor Fan said...

Sometimes one has to go back to the original language in order to get the nuance of meaning behind the English translation. This is especially important in terms of time, verb tense and so forth. That's one reason I tried to take a quick summer class in Ancient Greek and had my head handed to me by an "impatient with the older student" professor lol. I ended up having to learn it on my own ;-)

I recommend the Amplified Bible as a resource. While it is not a Catholic Bible, the linguistic research of Frances Siewart was very thorough and worthy. For this phrase she found the following nuance in the Hebrew and Greek:

that apart from us who live today they who died in faith should not be made perfect [before we could join them].

Her research suggests that the intent was to express being apart in time, not in community.

japhy said...

MMajor, thanks for your linguistic addendum. It supports not only my exegesis, but the belief in the communion of saints too (the more important matter at stake).

MMajor Fan said...

Often when someone says to me "the communion of saints" I see St Jude with Danny Thomas standing by him, and it makes me smile.

:-)