The writer of Hebrews is actually very specific about who comprises this community of faith and love. Hebrews 11, the “runway” to the chapter commending us to the great cloud of witnesses, essentially tells the story of Israel, from Abraham to David, praising them for their faith. And what is faith? It is “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is also the understanding that the seen world, the universe, was created by the unseen, the word of God (Hebrews 11:2). Of course, the only way these things are possible is because faith “is not from ourselves – it is a gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). As Rich Mullins sings, “I did not make it, no, it is making me. It is the very truth of God not the invention of any man.”
The people of Israel, the Chosen people of God, were convinced of things not seen. Theirs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, is a story of faith, and yet, “these all died, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar…” (Hebrews 11:13). Those who suffered persecution and death for the faith (Hebrews 11:35-38) are indeed commended for their faith, their assurance of things hoped for. But they did not receive what was promised. Apparently, this is because “God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40).
It is these folks that Hebrews means by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). Those who kept the faith though they did not see the promise fulfilled. Those who lived as exiles and strangers on earth (Hebrews 11:13), longing for their homeland (11:14). Those…did you catch this…that should not be made perfect apart from us (11:40). Who is the “us” and what does “being made perfect” mean? Lest we twist this into some form of Christian chauvinism or anti-Semitism, the word “perfect” can also be translated from the Greek as “complete.” There are those much better educated who I will let tackle the “Jewish/Christian question” but I’ll suffice it to say that the writer of Hebrews is clear: without Judaism, there would be no Christianity. The “us” may be those who have seen Jesus but Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
And in a way, we all have still not seen. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). This language of the mirror relates to what Paul writes to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Mirrors are about reflecting an image…in this case, the image of God. Humanity, male and female, was created in this image (Genesis 1:27), the perfection – the completion – of which is Jesus Christ, who was fully human and fully God. We bear this image more fully as we know God, and we know God as we are fully known by God.
To know God is to bear the image of God, which Jesus did to perfection, to completion in His Incarnation (human and divine in one person without compromising either), His Passion (suffering and succumbing to death) and His resurrection. We know that “this is eternal life, to know God and the one whom God has sent” (John 17:3) and this is because Jesus, a human as much as He was God, rose from the dead. As such, as One who now has eternal life even as He was “the Word through which all things were made” (John 1:1-3), He is the first among creation, both the ailing creation we now see and the new creation we have yet to witness.
In this way, we are all waiting to be made perfect. Even as we perfect so great a cloud of witnesses, we would not have a race to run were it not for their steadfast progress, through split sea, wandering wilderness, destitute desert. We race with – not against – one another through the turmoil of this world, overcoming by the blood of our Lamb and the word of so many testimonies. May we edify and strengthen the legs of our jogging partners, which so often starts in kneeling with a bowl of water and some dirty feet.