Roll Call of the Saints
Rev. Mark A. Barber
Today, the first Sunday of November, is the Sunday on the church calendar which is set apart to remember the faithful service of Christians over twenty centuries who have gone on to their eternal reward. All Saints Day is commemorated in various way. For example, we had a special service at the cemetery in which we lit candles in memory of the departed. The evening before All Saints Day is called “All Hallows Eve”, or “Hallowed Evening” which is shortened to “Halloween” And the text we have read this morning is one of the texts that has been chosen for this occasion.. So let us now examine what this passage tells us.
“Wherefore, seeing we also are encompassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” – Who is this “cloud of witnesses”? First of all, the “wherefore” tells us lo look back to the text that comes before it. Chapter 11 is the famous “faith” chapter in which the roll call of the Old Testament saints are recited. Here we are reminded of the faith (faithfulness) of heroes like Abel, Abraham, and Moses, as well as many others, both named and unnamed, who did marvelous works for the glory of God. At the time Hebrews was written. This was the current list of heroes. The time was fast approaching that the Christian faithful would be added to the list. This is made clear in verse 4, where it say that the believers there had “not yet resisted unto blood”. This seems to me to be an indication that this was becoming a present reality to them. So it seems proper to me to extend this roll call of the saints to include the twenty centuries of Christians who have done similar exploits for God and in many cases become “martyrs” for Christ. It is interesting to note here that the Greek word for witness is the same word we get “martyr” from. At the time of the writing of Hebrews, the word simply meant “someone who bears witness.” But it would not be long before bearing witness for Christ would be at the expense of being tortured and executed for the faith.
The Greek emphasizes that the number of these witnesses was already vast. And the numbers to ba added from this time has added to the impressive list. These witnesses surround the believers like a crowd in a stadium. The idea of an arena where the Christian believers are participants before this crowd is certainly implied. So are these saints seated in the heavenly arena cheering us on to victory? This has been the interpretation of many expositors. In one way, it is comforting to think that these saints are looking on and cheering us in our journey, at least until we fumble the ball, as we are so apt to do.
We can only speculate what role, if any, that these saints play in our lives. The view is as cloudy as the names of countless numbers of the saints themselves. Some have suggested that the audience in the arena are not looking to us. Instead, we are looking to them. This may very well be the case. If so, is it only the inspiring witness they have left to us, or is it more. I can only thing that this is a living witness, as Jesus Himself notes that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. Instead we see that numerous saints have labored and through faith entered into their rest. These witnesses as not mere spectators watching a football game, where most have limited experience of having been on the field, yet as armchair quarterbacks think they know better how to play the game. Instead, these spectators are veterans, who had their day on the field. They have emerged victoriously from the field and are now seated in heaven, at rest. The book of Hebrews reminds us that it is through faith they entered this rest.
“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily besets us” – It is hard to determine for sure the meaning of this part of the verse, as some of the words used in Greek are very rare. But if the metaphor of us competing in the arena is correct. It is easy enough to get the idea of what is being said here. Athletes often trained with weights to build up muscle and endurance. Naturally, they would remove these weights for the competition. Or perhaps it refers to the fact that athletes in the Roman era competed in the nude, unencumbered by clothing. Perhaps this makes better sense in understanding the rest of the verse, because it would be hard to see sinning as a means of training.
What then is the writer of Hebrews understanding of sin? Is it an individual act like lying or stealing? Or does the context offer us a clue? I think that it is pretty clear that Hebrews equates sin with unbelief. The Children of Israel in Moses' day is set forth as an example of unbelief. It is because they failed to believe God's word to them that they died in the wilderness and failed to enter the promised land of rest. And the congregation to whom Hebrews is written is warned lest an evil heart of unbelief be in them, even as it was in Moses' day. There the witness to unbelief is contrasted by the roll call of the saints who persevered through their faith.
“And let us run with patience the race that is set before us” – The Greek word for “race” here is the one we get the English word “agony” from, although the Greek word properly refers to an athletic contest. But we can still see the idea of the pain involved in a wrestling contest or a marathon. The race is not a sprint. The race here is instead on of endurance. The winner of a marathon is not necessarily the fastest runner. Instead, the winner is the one who continues through pain, exhaustion, and suffering. When the legs feel like jello, the winning marathoner keeps on. When the lungs are on fire, the marathoner is not deterred. The winner of the prize is the one who does not faint.
We also see from this text that we don't set the course of our race. If we set the course, then we would make it easy on ourselves. We would do everthing to advantage ourselves and disadvantage others. Just as the course of an earthly race is set by someone else, or Christian race is set before us by another. If we understand the passive here as a Divine passive, then it is God who sets our race. And if God has set the racecourse, then it is a winnable race. The fact that the stadium is full of countless others who have finished the race proves this.
“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” – In the Roman world, there was one special seat set apart for some dignitary who was the sponsor of the games. In the ultimate sense, the Roman Emperor himself was the dignitary of dignitaries. It was to this person that the athlete looked upon before the contest and dedicated his effort to. One can see this in the gladiatorial contests where the contestants faced the seat of the emperor and said: “Hail Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!” The Christians would soon face death itself in the arena before a crowd of hostile spectators. But instead of looking to the Roman Emperor, they set their gaze upon Jesus. Unlike, the Emperor who was expected to be above the fray, except for Nero who actually competed in chariot racing, which was considered disgraceful, King Jesus ran the race we are called to run. He was tempted to faint, just like we are.
When we have people we know go the big football game in Knoxville, we might try to pick out their faces amongst the thousands in the stadium. Usually we don't have much success. And we may have been inspired by some saint and want to try to find them in the cloud of witnesses. The testimony of the faithful is a true testimony. Their faith caused them to overcome the obstacles. The record of their heroic acts are set before us. Yet we are not admonished to gaze upon them, but unto our Lord Jesus.
“Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame” – This is why we are to look upon Jesus. He is the supreme example of endurance and faithfulness. The book of Hebrews itself is a book or comparisons and contrasts from the very beginning in which Jesus is compared to the Old Testament prophets. God did indeed speak at various times and ways to them. But this is compared to the full speaking og God by His Son. In the same way here, the witness of numerous Old Testament saints is contrasted to the one witness of Jesus. As important as the contribution of our saints might be, it is not to be compared to the cross of the Lord.
“And is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” – Jesus has won the race and has entered into rest at the right hand of God. This is the seat of honor in God's stadium. As the pioneer of our faith as well as the perfecter of our faith, He is the example we are to follow, even to the bearing of the cross and its shame. As we are called to endure, ha has already endured. As He was shamed, we shall be shamed. As He shed His blood, we may be called to shed ours. As He has conquered, we shall also conquer through Him –if we endure to the end. As He has sit down in Heaven, we can sit down alongside Him and join the roll call of the saints.
For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. 4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. 2 – We know that Jesus resisted temptation unto blood and was faithful to the end. But even before His suffering on thew cross, Jesus had to suffer increasing rejection from His own people who did not believe in Him. Starting from the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus suffered the taunts and slanders from the Jewish nation. This I feel would resonate well will the first hearers of Hebrews. They had not yet resisted unto blood, but may very well have suffered ostracism from the Jews and Greeks alike. If they could not persevere under these circumstances, how could they stand when their very lives were on the line. It behooved them to train for the real race of the cross by standing under these circumstances. So many times earlier, the writer of Hebrews had to interrupt the development of a rich theological topic like that of Melchizedek to exhort the listeners to continue on.
What about us? What does this text speak for us today? We certainly can look at the thousands of years of the faithful witness of so many saints, far more than those of Hebrews' day, for encouragement to continue to run the race. But ultimately, we must still look to Jesus. In the games, only the winner is crowned. But in the Christian race, everyone who finishes the race will receive the victor's crown.
It is becoming more difficult every day to be a Christian. The protections of freedom of religion and the public acceptance of at least some form of Christianity is quickly fading in this country. Those who try to live the Christian life in any more than a superficial manner face ridicule, even among their fellow “Christians”. But this should not catch us by surprise as Scripture tells us that all who would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. Christians have been persecuted from the very beginning. They are being persecuted today in many parts of the world, even to the shedding of blood.
In America, we have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against unbelief and unbelievers. The storm clouds are on the horizon, just as it was here in the early church. They were about to be separated from the Jewish religion which was a legally protected religion. This would open them up to severe persecution, arrest, confiscation of goods, torture, and death. This reality may come to us.
In the meantime, we need to prepare for this eventuality by learning to endure lesser persecution. As the Bible says, if you cant keep up with the foot soldier, how will you keep up with the cavalry? We may need to endure the road that leads to the cross, but now we need to endure railings and insults. We always pray that we be spared from these times, just as Jesus prayed in the garden to be spared from drinking the cup. But as the course of His race was set, even so the course of our race is set. We need to fix our eyes upon Jesus, then endure to the finish line.
There are some here this morning who are going through some mighty struggles. And the tempter may be saying to you to give it up. But do not let this temptation lead you into the deadly sin of unbelief. As Job was tested by Satan, not only did he have to endure terrible losses and miserable health, he had to endure the suggestion of his wife to “curse God and die”. That is what Satan would have us do, to die in the wilderness. To die short of the goal is the most terrible loss. Keep on, O Pilgrim! There is joy at the end of the journey! There is a finish to the race. Keep on looking to Jesus who endured to the end, until He could say: “It is finished”.
The story is told about Sir Winston Churchill, that he was invited to do a commencement speech. Those of us who have had to endure one of these speeches when all we want is the prize of the diploma, can understand that the last thing a student wants to hear is another lecture, “Get on with it!” There are some who would say the same thing about the preacher's long sermon when one is thinking about going to the restaurant after church. Churchill was the man who encouraged and saved England during World War II. So it must have been a great honor to have him come. So when it was his time to speak, he got up, put on his glasses, and opened up a sheet of paper. The audience no doubt expected a speech of some length, but at least the honor of having so great a person giving it made it worth the investment. What words of wisdom would he give to these graduates? He opened up his mouth and said with his British accent: “Nevah give up!”, Then he folded up the paper, put away his spectacles, and sat down. The crowd was stunned. Perhaps thinking that they should get their money's worth, he stood up again and said: “Nevah give up!” He sat down again. Then he stood up a thrid time and said: “Nevah give up!”
That was it. Those three words spoke more than an hour's speech. These are the words I leave for you this morning as well. “Never give up”.