Question: "Who are 'the cloud of witnesses' mentioned in Hebrews 12:1?"
Answer: Hebrews 12:1 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.” Here the writer to the Hebrews exhorts all who profess faith in Jesus Christ, the “author and perfecter of our faith” (v. 2), to do two things. First, we are to remove or put off any burden that keeps us from Christ-likeness, especially sin because sin ensnares us and keeps us in bondage to itself. Second, we are to persevere, patiently enduring all things until we grow and mature in the faith. James reminds us that trials serve to strengthen our faith and bring us to maturity (James 1:2-3). Hebrews 12:1 is reminding us to persevere through those trials, knowing that, by God’s faithfulness, we won’t be overwhelmed by them (1 Corinthians 10:13).
So who are the “cloud of witnesses,” and how is it they “surround” us? To understand this, we need to look at the previous chapter, as evidenced by the word therefore beginning chapter 12. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the rest of the Old Testament believers looked forward with faith to the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews illustrates this eloquently in chapter 11 and then ends the chapter by telling us that the forefathers had faith to guide and direct them, but God had something better planned. Then he begins chapter 12 with a reference to these faithful men and women who paved the way for us. What the Old Testament believers looked forward to in faith—the Messiah—we look back to, having seen the fulfillment of all the prophecies concerning His first coming.
We are surrounded by the saints of the past in a unique way. It’s not that the faithful who have gone before us are spectators to the race we run. Rather, it is a figurative representation and means that we ought to act as if they were in sight and cheering us on to the same victory in the life of faith that they obtained. We are to be inspired by the godly examples these saints set during their lives. These are those whose past lives of faith encourage others to live that way, too. That the cloud is referred to as “great” indicates that millions of believers have gone before us, each bearing witness to the life of faith we now live.