A cloud of witnesses, part 1
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
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This talk introduces the series, based on Hebrews chapter 12 verses 1 and 2, and then looks at Abel, Enoch and Noah using Hebrews 11 verses 1 to 7.
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Hebrews Chapter 12 and the first two verses say this,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Just before that, in the first seven verses of Chapter 11. The page before, entitled, in the NIV [New International Version of the Holy Bible], “By faith.”
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. That sounds pretty special, doesn”t it? Imagine being supported on your life”s journey by a group of encouragers, those who pick you up when you”re down, carry the load when you can”t carry on. A few weeks ago, I think I mentioned that I used to volunteer with a local Duke of Edinburgh group going on their expeditions this time of the year. You might remember that I spoke about a little lad, Ryan, who is both small in height and stature, which meant he was tiny and skinny.
The weight that all Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme expedition members can carry on their back can only be a third of their body weight. For Ryan, it would have been a pitiful amount being so slight, which, for the rest of the group, meant that they would have to pull together to carry stuff which wasn”t theirs or they would have to carry their own stuff plus somebody else”s because that”s what teamwork is all about.
I remember the arguments that they had around this little lad. “Why can”t he carry his own tent? What about Ryan? He can carry more than that surely.” When you”re walking as parts of a team, you can only go as fast as the slowest member. You have to think as part of a team. You can”t just think about yourself. One hot Sunday afternoon in the middle of a road in the Kent countryside, you can imagine this whole bunch of 14-year-olds unpacking and repacking their gear so that the lightest, slowest member of the group can keep up.
I think I can recall one of the taller, more muscular, lads actually carrying Ryan for a little while because that”s how the team works, right? The right to the Hebrews is pointing out that this life journey isn”t run alone. It”s done in community. It”s done best when we live and work in community. The community of faith. Hebrews 12 unsurprisingly comes after Hebrews 11. Clever that. That”s for a reason. If we had not read Hebrews Chapter 11, Hebrews 12 wouldn”t make sense.
Over the next few weeks and in the light of Hebrews Chapter 12 verses 1 and 2, we will be looking at some of those heroes of faith of the Old Testament. A few of the big-hitters, if you like, for one reason or another have managed to get to their names into the New Testament. The reason why they made it wasn”t because they were superhuman. It wasn”t because of anything they did. It was because they took God at his words. They believed.
They didn”t see the end results. They never even saw Jesus, but yet they believed. That”s it. That”s all you need to do to get into God”s hall of fame, is believe. I”m calling this series “Cloud of Witnesses.” We are looking at some of the characters of the Old Testament and we”ll be looking at some other Old Testament characters in our afternoon and evening Bible studies. This week, we”ll be finishing Nehemiah in the afternoon Bible study at two o”clock here in the lounge.
Then, on Tuesday evening, I will be next door at Marilyn”s house. We”ll be starting a new series at 7:45 on Tuesday. Today, I want to put into context our next few weeks” studies by looking at this interesting phrase, “Great cloud of witnesses.” Then, as time allows, we”ll be looking at these three people who made the cut into Hebrews 11: Abel, Enoch, Noah. Today is a bit of a quick run-through these characters.
As of next week, we”ll be looking perhaps in a little bit more depth at some of these characters of faith that we find in Hebrews 11 to see how they can encourage us as individuals and as a faith community. Hebrews, as a book, is according to a theologian called Raymond Brown, one of the most polished writings of the New Testament. I think that this means that there”s a lot of good stuff in it as well as how well the writer described how Jesus is the promised Messiah not only for the Jewish people but for the whole world.
There is discussion as to who wrote it, to whom it is written and indeed when it was written. That said, it seems to have an essence towards people who know the Old Testament because it speaks much about Old Testament things in the context, in the lens, if you like, of Jesus Christ Messiah. The book begins with, “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times in various ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his son. The radiance of God”s glory and the exact representation of this being sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
It goes on to say that Jesus is greater than Moses, that Sabbath rest is really important for the people of God. That Jesus is the great high priest in the line of Melchizedek, a most high priest in Genesis Chapter 14. There”s talk of a line of a new covenant, a new promise between God and his people. As we will discover, through our own walk through Hebrews Chapter 11, a number of faithful Old Testament heroes are mentioned in depth.
We will come back to what faith is as part of our final message, but for now, we”re going to be looking at these three heroes of faith. When I was growing up, my heroes were Super Ted, the Banana Man and Dogtanian and The Three Muskehounds. Paul is agreeing with me, we”re of a generation. All goods wholesome role models, but the problem was, they”re all cartoon characters. They weren”t true to life. Although I could identify with them to an extent, their world was not my world. Super Ted was made of stuffing, but magic dust made him come to life. That”s not my experience. Neither is eating a banana, because I don”t like bananas. Neither is eating a banana to become a superhero nor in fact, is listening to a cartoon version or watching a cartoon version of the three musketeers where the characters are played by dogs.
Abel, Enoch, and Noah are all famous for being in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis. They”re all famous in Jewish circles, but why on earth do they appear in quick succession here? There are bigger and more prominent characters in the Old Testament. Even in Genesis, we”ve got Adam and Eve, we”ve got Abraham, we”ve got Moses. Perhaps later on, we”ve got King David. He doesn”t even get a look in until right at the end of the list, almost feeling like an addendum where the writer says, “I forgot. I”m running out of time. I haven”t even got time to talk about all of this lot.” Including King David.
One commentary calls these three “righteous men,” which gives us a clue as to why they were commended in Hebrews Chapter 11. Let”s look at Hebrews 11:4–7. That”s the bit about the three. Abel was famous for being the first person to be killed, in Genesis Chapter 4. He was killed by his brother Cain. That”s why we often remember the story. Why did one brother kill another? It seems that Abel”s offering was somehow better than Cain”s. Maybe there was a sibling rivalry, something to do with Abel”s offering being better or different.
Cain”s offering was fruit from the soil, whereas Abel”s offering was some fat portions from the firstborn of his sheep. Both were bringing an offering to God, something to be thankful for, perhaps. But there”s something more behind the offering. Somehow and for some reason, Abel”s sheep fat offering was acceptable and God looked down on Cain”s fruit offering with less favour, and so he becomes downcast, as it says in the NIV, or very angry in the Revised Standard or the King James version. The message version says he went into a sulk.
Have you ever been angry? I mean really angry with God. I”ve got a friend who when she was angry with God, put him in the garage. She would effectively put him out of the way until she was over her annoyance. Putting God in the garage. In this incident, Cain”s face fell. Not just a case of sad face falling, but he turned his face away of not wanting to relate to God. Turning his face away.
An interesting – According to John Goldingay, this is the only time in the Bible where this expression is used. Hebrews 11 speaks of Abel”s offering being better, more acceptable, pleasing than Cain”s offering. In what way better? I didn”t know that God was into little preferences like this. There”s got to be something happening under the bonnet a bit more.
There”s not a lot to suggest why Abel”s offering was better. Literally, God paid attention to it because it was the fat parts of the animal, because it was perhaps something risky in bringing the first flock as an offering. Genesis doesn”t say that Cain brought his first fruits, but there”s some implication that Abel”s offering was somehow more impressive than Cain”s. We don”t really get much more about it, about why it was a better offering. It leaves the story hanging about why things happen or why good things happen to them and not to me. It doesn”t seem to be clear cut.
Back in Hebrews, the writer uses Abel”s offering as a statement of faith. Three times when looking at Abel, the writer says, “By faith, it was a better offering. By faith, he was commended as righteous. By faith, Abel still speaks today.” There”s something righteous. Perhaps about the simple faith of an offering. An offering with the right spirit. An offering that is perhaps not competitive or second best.
Enoch. Enoch was also commended. This time, as somebody who pleased God. Wow. Wouldn”t that be something? For you to be known as somebody who pleased God. In my last job, I was made up to learn that one of my closest colleagues had been awarded a commendation by the Queen. Paul Murray, MBE, for services to the community. Sounds very smart, but not as cool as being taken from this life so that Enoch didn”t have to experience death. That”s something.
Another character from Genesis chapter 5 and verses 21 to 24, Enoch was commended for his faith. All we really know about this chap is that he lived 365 years. He was the father of the oldest person who ever lived, Methuselah, 969 years, and that then he was no more because God took him away. Some commentators suggest that Enoch only walked with God after he became a father. I”m not too sure.
Perhaps there is something in this faithfully walking with God that made God decide that he wanted to continue doing this with Enoch, so he merely just took him away. Just took him in a mysterious unknown way into his presence so that they could have that ongoing relationship. I really don”t know. The only other person who has translated, I think that”s the official title for people that God just took away, was Elijah in this Chariot of Fire. He”s a massive, massive figure in the Old Testament, Elijah, but not mentioned at all in this hall of fame of Hebrews 11. That”s a bit odd. What we know for certain is that whatever he did, Enoch pleased God.
How do I please God? Because I know how I don”t please God. I”m good at remembering how I don”t measure up to God”s perfection, but God”s not interested in that. One of my favourite authors is a guy called Rob Bell. This is what he has to say about what”s not interesting. [See Rob Bell, How to be here, pages 41ff.] We all have a list of things that we”re not good at. The things you can”t do, the things you”ve tried and things that don”t go well. Regrets, mistakes that haunt you, moments when you crawled home in humiliation. For many of us, this list is the source of a number of head- games usually involving the words not enough, not smart enough, not talented enough, not disciplined enough, not educated enough, not beautiful, thin, popular or hard-working enough. You can fill in the blanks.
Here’s the truth about those messages, he says. They aren”t interesting. What you haven”t done, where you didn”t go to school, what you haven”t accomplished, who you don”t know, what you are scared of, simply aren”t interesting. I”m not very good at math. If I get too many numbers in front of me, I start to space out. See? Not interesting. If you focus on who you aren”t and what you don”t have, or where you haven”t been or skills or talents or tools or resources you”re convinced you don”t have, precious energy will slip through your fingers. In the same way that “who you aren”t” isn”t interesting, when it comes to getting out of your head, “who ‘they’ are” isn”t interesting.
We all have those ‘they’, our friends, our neighbours, our co-workers, our family members, superstars who appear to skate by effortlessly, whilst we slug it out, they are the people we fixate on, constantly holding their lives up to our life, using their apparent ease and success as an excuse to hold back from doing our work and pursuing our path in the world. Siblings who don”t have to study and get better grades, brothers-in-law who make more money without appearing to work very hard, friends who have kids the same age as ours, yet they never seem stressed or tired, and always look great.
There”s a moving account in one of the accounts of Jesus” life, where He is reunited with one of his disciples, a man called Peter. Peter is the disciple who had denied that he had even known Jesus earlier in the story. You can feel his relief when Jesus forgives him, telling him he has worked for Peter to do. How does Peter respond to this powerful moment of reconciliation? He points to one of Jesus” other disciples and asks, “What about him?” All Peter can think about is someone else”s path. He”s with Jesus having a conversation and yet his mind is over there wondering about John. Peter asks, “What about him?” Jesus responds, “What is that to you?”
Next, and finally for today, we come to know good old Noah. Noah and his good old Ark. Good faithful Noah in Genesis 6, just a quick reminder, he is the only man on earth good enough for God not to destroy the whole planet. Genesis 6, and just four verses, “The Lord saw how great man”s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man, on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So, the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I”ve created from the face of the earth, man and animals and creatures that move along the ground and birds of the air, for I am grieved that I have made them” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.”
Just as with Nazi Germany, or the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, people had done their absolute worst to one another. As with the loss of millions of lives through genocide, so by the time of the world of Noah, the world was hurtling towards its end. Nothing can change God”s mind about destroying this corrupt Earth except verse eight but Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord. That”s it. God regretted having made the world, then he was hurt, having seen what a mess it was and thirdly, we read that this astonishing decision of God was going to wipe out humanity.
John Goldingay says, “Ethnic cleansing on a species scale.” But then, Noah found favour, he found grace if you”d rather, with God. God showed a positive, accepting, generous attitude towards Noah. In this verse, we find out why the world does not come to a final end. Noah, we read, finds favour with God. He was a man of faithfulness, and a man of integrity just like Enoch before, he also walked faithfully with God. Then God somehow exempts Noah from his plan to smite the earth and then in a turn of events, gets him to build an ark to contain the DNA of all that”s needed. In doing so, gets Noah to become the head of a new humanity after the flood.
Having spent months in the Ark, with all the creatures that had come together, we read later, after everything that lived on dry land perished, after everything the breath of life had in its nostrils died, after every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out, God remembered Noah. God had not forgotten about this little box that was floating around the surface of the world. That”s not what”s suggested here. It”s more that God was mindful of Noah. God was mindful of Noah in such a way as to take the appropriate action.
The next step of having uncreated the world was for God to recreate the world. We have Noah, the man who faithfully walked with God as a perfect, well, probably not perfect as you might read later on, example of somebody who accepted God”s word, won God”s approval and recognized God”s power when nobody else did. Noah built the Ark on God”s say -so, events as yet unseen. However long it took Noah to build his Ark, this faithful persistence and right-believing literally saved him from death. In closing, Abel, Enoch, Noah, three righteous people, each seem to have found favour with God. Just like Jesus in Luke 2:52, “He grew in wisdom and in stature, gaining favour with God and people.” They had found favour with God.
They believed God, they took Him at his word for each of these characters, their stories were prefaced with “by faith.” They were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what they had been promised. This is something we”ll be coming back to in future weeks. We all know people who have lived by faith, those people that didn”t take a salary but God somehow looked after them. We all know people who we feel, perhaps are further along that faithfulness walk than we are and often we feel like we are trailing behind. Our faith doesn”t look like much, but often it”s the best that we can offer as that Carol says, “What can I give him poor as I am, yet what I have I give him, give my heart.”
It”s not about how much faith we can muster up inside us to make us feel acceptable to God because it never was, it”s not about feeling that we have enough faith. The good news is that Jesus talked about faith being like a mustard seed, tiny, and insignificant. He said that faith is small as a mustard seed, can move mountains. Wherever we are with God, be content that he knows. Be content that he understands. Whether your faith is strong, whether it feels fragile or whether it”s just in this plodding kind of a way, please know that you are in good company.
It”s just as well that we have a kind and gracious, loving Father God who merely wants us to believe that he exists, which encourages us to follow him, which somehow translates into his accepting us just as we are. That”s God”s grace at work in you and in me, and that”s the power of this little word called faith.
Shall we bow our heads?
Lord God, I thank you that you that you were faithful to these three heroes of faith. Not because of anything that they had done but because of your faith and love of them. Father, I thank you for the community of faith to which I belong here. I thank you for the encouragement, which I draw from my brothers and sisters here. I pray that, as we walk our faith life together, that we would be able to be faithful and encouraging one another. That we would bless one another and, in doing so, we would be faithful to you.
I pray for anyone who is struggling for one reason or another. I ask that you would meet them in a powerful way that they would know that it”s you. As we were praying for ourselves earlier, may that be helpful for us. I pray that Jesus would be walking beside us every step of the way because he promised never to leave us or to forsake us. Father God, I thank you for that promise that we hold on to. In his name. Amen.
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Scripture quotations marked NIV1984 on this page and in the talk are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the talk are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.