October 29, 2020

A Crowd of Witnesses

butlertanyacloudofwitnesses.jpgOne of these days I am going to write a tribute post to the wonderful reformed historian and biographer, Iain Murray. Murray has created a legacy of something we desperately need in Christianity: the lives of the “saints” that surround us on the journey. That’s a valuable and powerful gift to the church. Consider how scripture points us to the crowd of witnesses around, behind and ahead of us.

I was contemplating this as I prepared to preach today and reread Hebrews 12:1-4.

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.* Because of the joy* awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. 3 Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people;* then you won’t become weary and give up. 4 After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.

I’ve been in many large crowds of Christians at various festivals and events, but I realized today the New Testament really has nothing to say about the power of crowds to encourage us in true godliness. Gatherings in the New Testament era were small, and no one dreamed of a “stadium event,” except in the Kingdom to come.

The experience of being in a crowd can do a lot of things for us, but the New Testament seems remarkably uninterested in whatever they might be. On the other hand, Revelation 7 tells us that we are part of a great gathering of the redeemed that cannot be numbered. Hebrews 12:1 says we are, even now, surrounded by that number. This crowd is supposed to inspire us. In that “cloud of witnesses,” we can find some of the energy for running the race all the way home.

In the Service of Lessons and Carols at Cambridge University, there is a bidding prayer that moves me deeply each year. It certainly moves me more as I have more family members and friends on the other side. As Christians gather to hear the story of the Incarnation, a prayer always includes this paragraph:

Finally, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore, and in a greater light—that great cloud of witnesses, that multitude that no one can number, with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one forevermore.

The Christian commitment to look at this crowd of witnesses is a reminder that the witness of a life in Christ is not just to the lost, but to all of us. At my place of ministry we have a rich tradition of witnesses; some staff, many volunteers; of course students and friends. Our buildings are not named after people who wrote checks, but after people who spent decades of life in bringing this ministry through 107 years. This is just a small window of the crowd of witnesses that has sustained the church throughout the centuries.

We live in a world that chokes us with celebrities, athletes, musicians, criminals, actors, politicians and people whose significance to the public certainly escapes me. As Christians, it is a conscious choice to step away from and renounce this celebrity culture and idolatry of fame and significance. It is difficult to help our children understand what is at stake when they wear a name on their jerseys or a face on a shirt. Our ability to sort through the human “crowd,” and find God’s windows of grace will constantly be tested.

My heroes/saints are people like Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, OBI President Barkley Moore and recent fellow staff members John and Erma Smith. These are some of the crowd that surrounds and encourages me. They join with the names and faces of the Apostles, martyrs and servants of the King from past ages in making a “witness” to the worth and way of Jesus Christ.

Some would say our heroes cannot be flawed, but it is the flaws of our saints that make them unique windows of the glory of God. Men like MLK faced unique challenges in their time, but their flaws are common to all of us who are sinners. As we follow their life stories, we learn where we’ve been and what we can expect around the corner. We learn God is faithful, and he will see us all the way home, no matter what our journey is like.

Along this journey, we all need companions, teachers and saints/heroes. Remember to choose and honor all three. We honor them by looking through and beyond them to our Lord Jesus Christ. We walk a way that may seem alone, but when we look at the road less taken, we will see that others have been this way before.

I don’t mean the kind of “in-house” celebrity worship that goes on on the various “teams” in evangelicalism. I want and need more than someone with two books (or a CD of greatest hits) and a big church to encourage me. Teachers and preachers have a part in the journey, but saints/heroes are different. They teach us with lives finished and well-lived.

In my office, I have a board with pictures of my “saints” and heroes. Some ancient, others contemporary. Some I know well; others just a bit. They encourage me along the way. I never feel quite alone. Each one is a specific kind of encouragement. Each one reaches me somewhere that few others do.

In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating takes his class to a trophy case, where pictures of long deceased students and teams stare back at them from days gone by. Keating asks the boys to know that all those young men are now dead, and to take inspiration for their lives from the brevity of life itself.

We have a different experience. I look at my saints/heroes and I know they are not dead, but alive. And while on earth, they reminded me that life is a gift from God, to be lived for his glory, and in his light, but with eternity in mind.

Pick your saints and surround yourself with their evidences and “remains.” Not relics, but words and stories. (Though if you have a Merton note or letter, I do have a birthday later this year.) Be encouraged that others have been this way before and they beckon you on toward the light on the other shore.


  1. I’m a big fan of Iain Murray as well. His two-volume biography of MLJ, his works on Spurgeon, “The Puritan Hope” – great stuff. It helps that he writes wonderfully well.

  2. I can’t agree with you more on the fact that we look to many of our heros as flawless. Many a times I have had people I hold on pedestals and when they fail that pedistal comes crashing down. Who I thought was Superman was actually Clark Kent, what I thought was the Hope Diamond was no more than crystal zirconium. Those people were only human, and I can’t blame them for that.
    The older I get, the more I realize that we don’t need a diety to look at, we need an actual person. I love what you said yesterday,Michael when you compared MLK’s flaws to David in the Bible, and that even though David made countless flaws he was still used by God nonetheless. I think a lot of people lose sight of that.

  3. Could you recommend some of Mr. Murray’s titles? I work at a University library which is feverishly purchasing books for “collection development”. There is about a 75% chance of actually putting a book on the shelf after I suggest it. I know there is an active Reformed Christian Bible study on campus who would appreciate the reading material.

  4. Look at the link on Murray.

    All his Spugeon books are excellent.

    I love his book on Wesley, and his book on The Old Evangelicalism.

  5. Crowd or cloud?

  6. The NLT uses the word crowd, but the actual word is cloud. I used both.

  7. Thank you for this post. I enjoyed the focus on seeing those before us and with us as witnesses and testimonies to God and His work. Reminded me of Paul writing in a letter that the people in the church (forgive me, I’m forgetting which letter!) could look to him for an example of the Christian life. He also wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians: where he is weak, he is strong because of Christ.