Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us....
I did a little research on this passage, and found it to be more interesting than I had ever thought.
I had always thought the "great cloud of witnesses" referred to the great heroes of the faith discussed in the previous chapter, and indeed, this seems to be the popular conception, as it was the view taken by the preacher this morning.
But note the word "also".
In chapter 11, the writer of Hebrews starts out by saying, "By faith, Abel ... was approved as a righteous man..." and "...even though he is dead, he still speaks through this."
And then the writer moves on to Enoch, then Noah, then Abraham and Sarah and so on and so on.
Then in 12:1, the writer essentially says, "Like these heroes, we also are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses."
So who are the "witnesses"?
The idea of running a race is a clue. The writer likely has in his mind the Greek athletic contests that took place in the Greek stadiums built in many cities that had been influenced under Greek and Roman rule. He continues this racing theme by specifying the prize in verses 12-13 (HCSB):
Therefore strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but healed instead.Typical of Hebrew teaching of the time, he uses a small passage (v. 3 of Isaiah 35) to allude to the larger context found in Isaiah 35:
This larger context speaks of joy, and healing of blind and lame and deaf persons, and blossoming deserts, etc; in other words, Paradise is the goal of this race.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
steady the shaking knees!
The witnesses mentioned above are those people who are sitting in the stadium stands, watching the race. The world has its eyes on us, just as it has witnessed the great heroes of the faith. Not only the world, but angels, demons, and God himself are watching us run the race. You're an athlete performing in front of a crowd; run like the professional you are!
And although I doubt the writer of Hebrews agreed with the practice, he makes another allusion, this time to the Greek practice of participating in athletic games in the nude. The verb for "lay off" refers to the casting off of one's clothes. It's the same word used in Acts, when Stephen is being stoned and those stoning him "laid their robes" at the feet of the young man named Saul. The picture being drawn is that we, as participants in the athletic race, are to strip off our clothes and anything else which gets in the way of our racing. I like the way the New American Standard Bible puts it: "[L]ay aside every encumbrance...".
The whole picture that seems to be in the mind of the writer is that we are athletes running in a race; we are to run professionally, doing whatever it takes to run the race, casting off whatever gets in the way of a good run, and by so doing, like the heroes of old, we will "still speak" to the witnesses watching us, even long after we're dead.