(1) What do you think about the popular belief that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and the people in heaven are looking over the banister cheering us on or watching us?
(2) I asked one of my teachers if there is a possibility that my dad or other members of the family that have died saw me preach one of my first sermons. He said it is possible because we are the body of Christ and they are not really dead. They are in heaven alive and can see the activities here on earth.
(3) I heard a well-known theologian say that he gets nervous sometimes because he realizes that he is not just preaching to the congregation, but also a great cloud of witnesses, which is the body of Christ on earth and in heaven.
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This notion about “a cloud of witnesses” came from Hebrews 12:1. It says, “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.” We need to consider in what sense these past believers are “witnesses” to our race of faith.
A “witness” often refers to someone with direct contact with a subject, and so some people interpret the verse to mean that the believers in heaven are aware of our activities. Some even imagine that they are watching and hearing all that we do, so that when we preach, they are listening to the sermon, and when we sin, they are watching our transgression. However, this is not a necessary implication of the verse, and it is not even a probable interpretation.
Consider Matthew 12:41–42:
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.
The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.
Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and the unbelieving people of “this generation,” or the Jews. The men of Nineveh will condemn the unbelieving Jews, not because they were direct witnesses of their unbelief, but because they (the men of Nineveh) repented at Jonah’s preaching. The Queen of the South (Sheba) will also rise to condemn the unbelieving Jews, not because she personally witnessed their unbelief, but because she came to hear Solomon’s wisdom.
They made the Jews look bad. First, the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South were Gentiles, so they lacked the spiritual privileges that the Jews enjoyed, such as God’s revelation, miracles, prophets, and so on. Second, Jesus is greater than both Jonah and Solomon, and he is the one speaking to the Jews. If a wicked nation repented at the preaching of Jonah, if a foreign queen came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and if they listened and believed even though Jonah and Solomon were inferior to Christ, then how utterly odd and evil it is for the Jews to resist the Son of God himself? In this sense, Nineveh and the Queen will witness against the Jews. They will condemn the Jews not because of their knowledge about the Jews, but because of what they did in contrast to the Jews.
Returning to Hebrews 12:1, the previous chapters offer the context that defines the sense in which the past believers are witnesses to our race of faith. Hebrews 10:32–39 says:
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
The Jewish Christians are experiencing persecution. They are tempted to abandon the faith, and backslide to their former religious profession. Weaving together a doctrinal treatise with threats and pleas, the writer of Hebrews admonishes them to persevere in their faith.
Then, in Hebrews 11, the writer recounts the faith, courage, and endurance of numerous believers in the past, often as they faced tremendous dangers and threats. This is what he means in Hebrews 10 when he calls his readers “live by faith” and not “shrink back.”
It is in this sense that these past believers are “witnesses” to our faith. They have completed the race that these Jewish Christians are tempted to abandon, and they serve as “witnesses” to the promises of God and the power of faith. Still, “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40); therefore, we should not allow their examples to condemn us but encourage us to complete the race, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (12:2).
The point is not, “You better run well because they are watching you,” but rather, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart….Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (12:3, 12). Hebrews 12:1 does not tell us whether these past believers know what is happening on the earth. It only tells us what we should do in the light of what they did. We cannot infer more than this from the verse.
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It is possible that your father and other deceased relatives in heaven saw you preach, but only if God had decided to show them.
The reasons that your teacher gave are poor: “He said it is possible because we are the body of Christ and they are not really dead. They are in heaven alive and can see activity here on earth.” I am also part of the body of Christ and I am not dead, but I have never seen you preach, so this is not enough. Then, the fact that they are “in heaven alive” does not imply that they “can see activity here on earth.” If he did not mean to connect the two, then he has offered no reason as to why people “in heaven alive” “can see activity here on earth.”
There are passages like Luke 16:24–25 and Revelation 6:9–11.
Luke 16:24-25 says:
So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
This does not tell us how and when Abraham knew about the rich man’s life. It does not indicate that Abraham knew this by watching and hearing him. It is possible that the information was revealed to Abraham after the rich man’s death.
And Revelation 6:9–11 says:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
Again, this does not say that the martyrs were watching and hearing the activities on earth. Rather, it tells us that they were “watching” God and speaking to him about the earth. We cannot infer more than this from the passage.
In any case, examine the motive behind the question. If you are worth anything in the ministry, you preach in order to serve God, not to make your father proud. So forget about it.
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The theologian probably wished to sound pious, as religious hypocrites often do, but he failed to impress. A man is grossly perverse who, if he is to be nervous at all, is not nervous enough because God is watching him, but because he thinks that dead people are watching him. This is another form of necromancy, a mental interaction with the dead, even if it is not as blatant.
Moreover, it makes no sense to become nervous if dead people are watching. If I am not nervous that God is watching me, because he is the one who has ordained and empowered me, then I would not care if ten billion people are watching me, because my esteem for God is more than my esteem for ten billion people. On the other hand, if I am nervous that God is watching me, because I lack the boldness of Christ and the power of the Spirit, then ten billion people would not make me more nervous, since I would already be a complete wreck. There is something defective in this theologian’s faith, and the fact that he said this probably to impress people with his piety makes him more contemptible.
The Bible’s faith is “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3, NASB). Many false interpretations result from the desire to make religion more exciting, adventurous, and meaningful from the carnal viewpoint, often by making it more esoteric and complicated. The simplicity of biblical faith should more than satisfy the believer, that is, unless he has lost his first love.