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Makestraightpaths.com examines the teachings of the religious group variously known as “the Family,” “The Family International,” the “Children of God,” or the “Family of Love,” and evaluates these teachings from a Christian perspective.

This page is one in a series examining the Family teachings about spirit helpers.

 

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. NASU

One of the most controversial Family teachings concerns their long-standing belief that Christians may freely communicate with “spirit helpers.” To the Family, spirit helpers are  people who have died, or angels, or other spiritual beings who are active in the ‘spirit world,’ an unseen dimension that coexists with the visible material world. According to the Family, these beings are unrestricted by human limitations and actively assist Christians in their work for the Lord.

The writer of the book of Hebrews makes mention of a "great cloud of witnesses" that "surrounds" believers. He then urges his readers to "lay aside" both encumbrances and sin in order that they may "run with endurance" the "race" that is set before them (Hebrews 12:1).

The Family interprets this verse as support for their long-standing belief in spirit helpers, that is, they believe that the spirits of the dead may assist the living in various ways. This assistance may be (according to the Family) a word of encouragement, specific guidance when making decisions, a prophetic message or even physical manipulation of people or events in order to best accomplish God's will. The Family believes that the "great cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1 refers to believers who have died - as exemplified by the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews chapter 11 - and who are now actively involved in providing assistance to Christians. The Family acknowledges that the reference to "running the race" is a metaphor that may be applied to the struggles of Christian life, but insists that the "great cloud of witnesses" is not metaphorical. Rather, they teach that these people are literally present, literally surrounding believers in order to provide assistance.

This teaching about spirit helpers originated with the founder of the Family, Berg/ Dad, and quickly became one of the Family's core doctrines. Berg/ Dad acknowledged that this doctrine was controversial, and tried to show that the Bible actually supported his views.

This pages looks at Hebrews 12:1 in light of the Family's teachings about spirit helpers in order to determine the meaning of the "great cloud of witnesses."

 

The book of Hebrews

The book of Hebrews was written by an unknown author to some unknown recipients. It is assumed that the recipients were of Hebrew origin because the book repeatedly refers to Jewish religious customs, the Old Testament and numerous Jewish historical figures.

Among other theological themes, the book of Hebrews demonstrates the superiority of Jesus Christ – in comparison to the angels, in comparison to Moses, as a high priest, in his ministry, in the privileges the believer may obtain, and in the behavioural outcomes of the believer. It is possible that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the author was addressing a heresy that was creeping into the church in which the role of Jesus was downplayed. Of course, without Jesus as the high priest of salvation, there could be no salvation at all, so the writer urges his readers to be sure not to neglect Him.

 

Hebrews 12:1

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us NASU

Many commentators believe that the first few verses of Hebrews chapter 12 actually forms the conclusion to chapter 11. This is supported by the first word in Hebrews 12:1 "therefore." Although the English word "therefore" occurs many times throughout the New Testament, the Greek word that is used in Hebrews 12:1 occurs only twice, here and in 1 Thessalonians 4:8. It is used to introduce the conclusion to something that has gone before.

therefore NT:5105

a particle introducing a conclusion with some special emphasis or formality, and generally occupying the first place in the sentence, wherefore then, for which reason, therefore, consequently (Thayer's Greek Lexicon)

Hebrews 12:1 serves as the conclusion to Hebrews chapter 11.

The word "cloud" refers to a large group; it expresses the unity of the group rather than the individual components. It is used only in Hebrews 12:1.

cloud NT:3509
a cloud; a large, dense multitude, a throng (Thayer's Greek Lexicon)

The word "cloud" literally refers to a shapeless mass covering the sky (a mass of clouds). Here in the only NT use, nephos figuratively refers to a crowd or throng, especially emphasizing the number. Aristophanes in his play, The Frogs, uses the concept of clouds as witnesses. The picture of a cloud describing a crowded group of people is a common classical figure and expresses not only the great number of people, but also the unity of the crowd in their witness.

John Calvin derives an excellent application from "cloud" writing that, "Had they (the witnesses) been a few in number, yet they ought to have roused us by their example; but as they were a vast throng, they ought more powerfully to stimulate us. He says that we are so surrounded by this dense throng, that wherever we turn our eyes many examples of faith immediately meet us. (Commentary on Hebrews)

From Precept Austin on Hebrews 12:1

The witnesses

The Greek word "witnesses" comes from the same word as "martyr." It does not simply mean "spectator" but one who can bear testimony to what he or she has seen.

witnesses NT:3144

a witness (one who avers, or can aver, what he himself has seen or heard or knows by any other means); a. in a legal sense: Matt 18:16; 26:65; Mark 14:63; Acts 6:13; 7:58; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28. b. in an historical sense: Acts 10:41; 1 Tim 6:12; (2 Tim 2:2); one who is a spectator of anything, e. g. of a contest, Heb 12:1; c. in an ethical sense those who after his example have proved the strength and genuineness of their faith in Christ by undergoing a violent death: Acts 22:20; Rev 2:13; 17:6.

(Thayer's Greek Lexicon)

The following information is sourced from Precept Austin.

Witnesses (3144) (martus > root of our English "martyr") is one who has information or knowledge of something and hence can bring to light or confirm something.

According to B F Westcott, "There is apparently no evidence that martus is ever used simply in the sense of a ‘spectator." (Westcott, B F: Epistle to the Hebrews)

The Bible Knowledge Commentary agrees noting that witnesses "This does not mean that they watch believers today." (Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., et al: The Bible Knowledge Commentary. 1985. Victor or Logos)

Warren Wiersbe comments that the men and women of Hebrews 11"are the “cloud” that witnesses to us, “God can be trusted! Put your faith in His Word and keep running the race!” When you read the Old Testament, your faith should grow, for the account shows what God did in and through people who dared to trust His promises (Ro 15:4-note). When you read the Gospels, you see the greatest example of endurance in Jesus Christ." (Wiersbe, W: With the Word: Chapter-by-Chapter Bible Handbook. Nelson or Logos)

John Calvin explains that through the examples of the witnesses it is as though the writer was saying "that faith is sufficiently proved by their testimony, so that no doubt ought to he entertained; for the virtues of the saints are so many testimonies to confirm us, that we, relying on them as our guides and associates, ought to go onward to God with more alacrity." (Commentary on Hebrews)

S Lewis Johnson writes that in interpreting the witnesses "Many picture the saints who have gone before as spectators in the stadium. So we as Christians are running a race with the spectators observing us. Even your loved ones may be looking down and they are watching you carefully. This may be a motivation for you to run well. If I knew that Moses, and Paul and all the prophets were there watching, that would indeed be an incentive for me. However, that is not what he is talking about. Rather it is the lives which faithful men have lived and the stories found in the Scriptures which are witnesses to us. It is not what we see in our spectators that is to move us, but what we see in the Scriptures!...So as we look at these men and women, there should come to our minds this conviction - that the God of yesterday is also the God of today. In other words, the things that God did through Enoch, through Noah, through Abraham, through Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, the things that God did through them, He is able to do today (through you and through me beloved)!." (Bolding added)

In a parallel teaching Paul explained to the saints at Rome that "whatever was written in earlier times (referring to the Old Testament) was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope".

W E Vine writes that the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11 "were spoken of as those who had witness borne to them (Heb 11:2, 3, 4, 5, 39); here they are themselves witnesses. Not that those who are now with Christ are spectators of earthly persons, but that, as to the persons mentioned in chapter 11 , their lives of faith are so recorded in the Old Testament narratives that they seem to be living spectators urging us on to run as they did. The inspired record is like an amphitheater, and, as with the cloud of onlookers of old, so these heroes of faith utter their voices in the sacred page. As we read of their trials and triumphs, they, so to speak, “compass us about.” The writer of the epistle is here testifying to the permanence and vividness of the records of Scripture". (Vine, W. Collected writings of W. E. Vine. Nashville: Thomas Nelson or Logos)

And so if you think you're experiencing problems with your family, read about Joseph's problems in Genesis! If you think your job is too big for you, study the life of Moses. If you are tempted to retaliate, see how David handled the problem the continual curses from Shimei of the house of Saul. All of these examples, and specifically those in the Hebrews "hall of fame" chapter 11 are given for our reference that we might be instructed, convicted and encouraged to run the race with endurance.

A number of well known, usually excellent expositors of Scripture such as Marvin Vincent, Henry Alford, F B Meyer, et al, seem to have missed the context and see these saints in Hebrews 11 as spectators looking down from heaven observing the lives of those on earth. But the writer of Hebrews does not call them spectators (which was another specific Greek word) but witnesses. Even reference to the definition of witnesses as those who give an account of what they have seen by their words and by their actions would counter the interpretation of this cloud as indicative of spectators. Witnesses give testimony, offer evidence of actual events and generally present evidence based on their direct personal knowledge. It is as if the reader is sitting in a courtroom, and have just listened to the testimony of the witnesses of Hebrews 11.

In short, the context as well as the definition of the Greek word martus, indicate that the witnesses in Hebrews 11 are not spectators looking on. Instead, the intent of the writer is that in view of the faith the lives of these men and women bear witness to, the reader is exhorted to finish the race exercising a similar faith and endurance. We have all begun by faith, are to daily walk by faith (Col 2:6-note) and must run to "finishing tape" by faith. Be encouraged by the witnesses of Hebrews 11, who all bear testimony that the race can be run successfully and that the rewards are great.

F. F. Bruce explains that those in Hebrews 11 are witnesses in the sense "that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith. It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them -- for encouragement."

Precept Austin on Hebrews 12:1

Bob Deffinbaugh writes:

The word that is employed by the author – rendered “witnesses” in our translation – is a translation of the Greek word which would be transliterated “martyr.” Biblical scholars have pointed out that at this point in time, the word meant “witness” and that sometime later, when persecution became more intense, it came to convey the sense of being an actual martyr – a witness who died for his or her testimony to Jesus. Perhaps so, but let us not forget that these “witnesses” included those who did suffer greatly and die because of their faith (Hebrews 11:35b-38). I believe the original readers of this epistle would have understood this.

The imagery our author employs is not that of a cemetery, as though the runners can look about and see the tombstones of those who have gone before us. Rather, the author speaks of this multitude of witnesses as those who are still alive, and who are actively cheering us on till we reach the finish line. Just as we have been told that Abel is still speaking (Hebrews 11:4), so here the heroes of the hall of faith are still participants in the race, now as spectators or witnesses, rather than as runners. They are very much attuned to what is going on in this world. ...

I do believe that the “also” should not be omitted in the translation because it informs the readers that we have a connection with those who make up this “great cloud of witnesses.” As they lived by faith, so must we. As they failed at times, so will we. As their faith was sometimes rewarded with success, and at other times with suffering, this will likewise be our experience. As they persevered in faith, living in the present in the light of their eternal reward, so should we.

I have focused on verse 1, and primarily on the term “also,” but let us not overlook the fact that all three verses of our text focus on the believing readers of Hebrews as a corporate body of believers, as a large group of contestants who are running a race. Changing the imagery, this is not a solo event; it is the performance of a choir, accompanied by a large orchestra.

Losing Weight by Bob Deffinbaugh.

The witnesses are the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11. They include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Gideon is there, as well as Samuel, David and Samson. There are also a number of unnamed people some of whom saw miracles, while others died as martyrs. Some did mighty deeds, others apparently lived in poverty and humiliation.

The stories of their lives stand as inspiration for believers for all time. They were ordinary people who allowed God to use them in mighty ways, yet who also experienced the depths of despair and defeat.

For example, Samson (Heb 11:32) was indeed mightily used by God to defeat his enemies, in spite of his own imperfections and sins, in spite of the cruelty inflicted upon him by his enemies. Abraham became the 'father of faith,' but he had to endure the torment of God telling him to plunge a knife into his beloved son’s heart. He is a "witness" that God's ways are indeed best.

 

Conclusion

The passage says nothing about spirit helpers. It does not imply that the saints of Hebrews 11 are physically present, whether for assistance or for encouragement. It says that their lives are a witness of the blessings of complete trust in God, and that they have earned the right to testify through their suffering. But it does not say that they function as spirit helpers.

There is nothing anywhere in Hebrews chapter 11 or 12 that implies that the text might be referring to spirit helpers.

It appears that the Family is taking the verse out of context in order to find support for an unbiblical doctrine.

 

See also

Hearing from Spirit Helpers

 

Further study

Precept Austin on Hebrews 12:1. There are many resources at this site. Highly recommended.

Losing Weight by Bob Deffinbaugh

 

 

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