My friend, Wes Callihan, of Schola Tutorials fame, an avid historian, appreciative student of Eastern Orthodoxy, and a thankful Protestant writes in comment on my recent post on the invocation of the dead in Christ:
“I was just reading your post of last Monday on invocation of the dead in
Christ and your reference to Hebrews 12.1 and the “great cloud of
witnesses.” It seems to me that the proper sense of this phrase and
especially of the word “witness” is almost universally missed — almost
everyone takes it as meaning that all the old saints (the “hall of faith”)
in Hebrews 11 are witnessing, or watching, *us*. But the sense of the verse
seems rather to be that they are witnesses, as in a court trial, to the
validity of *faith*. That’s the whole point of chapter 11 — that they are
called, one by one, to the witness stand to testify to faith, and so we are
to imitate that faith.
The verse does not at all say that they are watching us. And this seems to
weaken even further the case for invoking the dead in Christ.”
I think Wes’s point is really well taken. And it actually fits better with the beginning of chapter 11 where faith is described as the ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.’ They are “witnesses” and thereby provide the “evidence” for our faith. And their “evidence” is all their acts of faithfulness during their lives. Their good “testimonies” are their faithful lives.
The sense of the passage is that they are not presently “watching/witnessing” our lives so much as their lives in the flesh which were lived “by faith” were themselves witnesses/evidence/testimonies for our benefit. It was what they did when they were alive in the flesh that is a witness for us, and not something they are currently doing in heaven primarily.