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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Cloud of Witnesses

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the

endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

This verse could be in brackets. Paul is at a point in his letter where he is telling believers to bear with each other. He quotes the Old Testament, in this case Psalm 69, to make his point. And then, it's as if he has a thought. Paul is, in effect, saying, 'Oh, by the way, do you know this, are you aware of this extra-ordinary truth, that everything written in the Old Testament was written to teach us?' How amazing this is. All of it was written to help believers now, to give them encouragement and to help them endure.

Naturally speaking, the ability to endure hardships, to carry on when things are difficult, is probably universally accepted as being a favourable characteristic to have. If we cannot endure when times are hard then they will be harder still. In life, for all people, whether believers or unbelievers, resilience is something that is important to develop.

But Paul is not giving general life advice here. He isn't writing this message to all people. In truth, it has no application to the majority of people. If I wrote a letter to my wife and told her that I loved her, and someone else picked up that letter and read it, would it mean that I loved them, because they had read my message? Could they reasonably assume 'hey, Paul loves me'? No, they couldn't. They would know that it wasn't addressed to them.

One of the things that, over the years, has caused the message of the gospel to be diluted; to lose its strength, is a lack of distinction. People have used the bible in ways that it wasn't designed for. Even Paul's letter here to the church in Rome has been used as though it had advice for all. It didn't seem to matter whether we believed in Christ as our Saviour. 'Follow the practical teaching in this letter and you will be closer to God'. What nonsense! The New Testament message has distinction. It sets people apart. You are either a believer in Jesus Christ or you are not. And Paul is writing to believers. His letter was sent to the city of Rome, but not to everyone who lived there. No, and I quote from his opening statement, it was sent 'to all... who are loved by God and called to be his holy people.' This message is to them. It is to them alone.

Paul is encouraging the church of Jesus Christ to endure spiritually. What does this mean? Its a good question to consider. Essentially, Paul wants them to continue to persevere in the Christian life. He wants them to continue to obey the will of the Lord, even though it is proving difficult.

Again this 'spiritual endurance' is a distinct thing. Only believers can do it. It's hard, but for unbelievers it is impossible. Our ability to continue to obey the will of God was lost in Eden. Since then, we cannot do it. We are born into this world as sinners. We go on in our lives as sinners. We die as sinners. We begin our lives by ignoring the will of God and continue to do so until our very last day. Spiritually, we have the endurance of a 'Rich Tea' biscuit. If you've ever dunked one into a hot drink, you will know what I mean. The 'Rich Tea' instantly disintegrates. It's apparent strength is shown to be an illusion. And that is the strength that we have to do God's will when we enter this world. None whatsoever.

But then the good news comes. We hear the message of salvation, the promise of A NEW LIFE in Christ Jesus. We have faith. We become believers, by confessing with our mouths that Jesus is God's promised one, and believing the truth of it in our hearts (Romans 10:9). And in this new life of faith a great change has begun. As promised in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:24-31), and realised in the New (1 Corinthians 3:16), we are given a new heart, and a new spirit, and God's own Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:19) dwells within.

Before, we couldn't continue to endure in the spiritual life. We couldn't even start. But, now, we can. How wonderful is the bible's teaching that, '...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!' (2 Corinthians 5:17). In the AV this is expressed with great emphasis, 'old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.'

Now we have new demands placed on our lives. We have faith, that is the starting point. But we are called to endure. As his people, the Lord demands that we become less 'Rich Tea', and more 'rich towards God' (Luke 12:21).

Peter tells us that we have 'escaped' (2 Peter 1). We have been rescued from our old corrupt life, full of anti-God desires. He says that we can 'participate in the divine nature'. Wow! And then, '(v.5) for this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That is a long list. Are we trying to add these things to our faith? We'll need perseverance, that's for sure! We will need to endure. If we don't, then we will become ineffective and unproductive in God's Kingdom. Do we want that? I'm sure we don't.

So, back to Paul's letter. Everything taught in the Old Testament was written to teach us. Some people may tell us that the Old Testament doesn't have much to offer now. We do need to be careful to always read it under God's full light. We have to understand it as it is opened up to us in the New Testament. But the truth is that, if you think the OT has little relevance now, then your thinking is different to the apostle Paul's.

How, though, is endurance taught in those scriptures? I suppose that there are principles in the 'wisdom literature' of Proverbs, for example, and in other places, that can furnish our 'new houses' with good things. But, I think, in the main, the endurance that is taught, is taught in picture form. It is seen in the details of the lives of God's people. Hebrews 11 makes much of this as it lists people that endured 'by faith'. At the end of that chapter it mentions the faith that they had in what God had promised. What the Lord had promised, and what they based their belief upon, was that someone was coming. We are told that, '(v.39) these were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.'

They believed in the fulfilment of the Lord's promise. They looked forward. But in their lifetime they never received the realisation, the actual taking place, of that coming of God's anointed one. We look backward. We believe that he has come already. We believe that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, the Son of God and our very Saviour. Joined with us, the Old Testament saints are 'made perfect'. There is a completeness of God's people in both ages together, and both have 'faith', by believing in God's eternal purpose to save a people for himself.

In order for us to endure, we must believe that God's promise holds true, his promise that we can endure and that we will endure. We can take much consolation from those in the Old Testament, some of which had much more scant detail of what was promised, than the 'better' things that we have. We can follow their example of persevering, by believing that every word of God is true.

The circumstances of the saints lives are 'coloured in' in the picture we are given. They are coloured in with dark colours. It's as if the writer to the Hebrew believers only had purples, greys, blacks, nothing brighter than navy blue, in his pencil case when he drew the backdrop to their lives. He 'draws' the picture with words. Words like 'sacrifice, mouths of lions, fury of the flames, edge of the sword, weakness, foreign armies, tortured, jeers, flogging, chains, imprisonment, death by stoning, sawn in two, destitute, persecuted, ill-treated'. But then, into that dark, dark backdrop of hate and trouble and shame, he needs to draw God's people and what they are doing. His pencils cannot do it. If he drew them in the same colours as their surroundings then they wouldn't stand out. But the faith of these people acts like a masking fluid. It blocks out the background.

And then, 'behold, all things have become new'! He now finds his other pencil case and it's full of brightly coloured felt tip pens. There are oranges and yellows and vivid reds. He can now paint them and their actions 'through faith', using words, and adding words, like, 'conquered, administered justice, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury, escaped the sword, weakness turned to strength, became powerful, gained a better resurrection.'

Hebrews 12 calls these people a 'cloud of witnesses'. What do they witness to? They teach us that if we follow the Lord then we should expect trouble in our lives. Peter says (1 Peter 4:12), 'do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.' I think the opposite is also true. If we consider ourselves believers, yet we do not face hardship, difficulty, opposition to our faith, in our lives, then we should think it strange. These witnesses tell us so.

But they tell us more. It is possible to endure. They did just that. They did it by 'faith', looking to their Lord to be their strength in their time of trouble.

They are called a 'cloud'. If the Christian life is meant to be hard, then maybe we can picture it like a journey through a harsh, hostile environment. It is just that. But imagine it is like someone walking through a desert. Like David in Psalm 63, when he was in the desert of Judah. He said that it was like being 'in a dry and parched land where there is no water.'

So, we are walking in a desert, hot and thirsty. And then a cloud is sighted. What promise is in that cloud, what hope it gives. And then it rains, and the body is cooled and refreshed by that shower. This 'cloud', of witnesses, should be like that. We should be refreshed and strengthened by the accounts of their lives. We cannot be refreshed by the knowledge that their lives were easy, because their lives weren't easy. But we can be refreshed by the knowledge that they persevered because of what they saw.

And why? And how? Hebrews 11 details Moses, 'the man of God', and the fact that 'he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.' He had faith. 'Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see', as Hebrews 11 tells us. It is easy for us to think that these people persevered because they were special, because they were essentially different from you or me. James 5 puts paid to that lie. One of my favourite verses in the New Living Translation is the concise statement of James 5:17. Consider the great things that Elijah did by faith. James tells us that 'Elijah was as human as we are...' You have got to be kidding?! No, he was just like you, he was just like me. And they all were.

Look at David. How human was he? He had murder, adultery, deceit, cowardice, unfaithfulness, and more besides, just running through his veins. But, by God's grace, he was able to overcome these things and do remarkable things for the Lord.

David has a link to Romans 15, which we have read today. Paul quotes from the prophets again, “(v.12)...Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse (David's father) will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

David's promised son (descendant), who was also David's Lord, is mentioned in those verses. We can be much encouraged by the lives of those who have gone before us, but we must not hope in them as people. We must hope in the one who they hoped in.

Because the endurance of Jesus was like no other. We can draw endurance from others, but how much more should we draw from him, as we (Hebrews 12:3), 'consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.' 'He (Hebrews 12:2) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.' Yes, he really did endure. And then he really did... sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. His life was painted in the blackest of hues. But when he rose in triumph from the grave, and ascended to the Father, why, I don't think we have the colours, in the palettes of our minds, to accurately paint the brightness and pureness and loveliness of that picture.

We can endure because he did. We endure through him. We can only endure as we are found in him. We must, as his believing people, endure for him. We owe it to him, pure and simple.

And how much hope does this give. Paul says here, 'you may overflow with hope'. It's like our souls are a cup where, as the promises of God are poured in, we have more than we can hold. David, in his most famous writing (Psalm 23) expressed exactly the same thing, when he said 'my cup overflows', and then added 'surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.'

What hope is this? And I will finish with something else. We can now include the whole of the New Covenant revelation in those things, 'written long ago to teach us', and so I will quote James again. (James 1:12) 'Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.'


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