A Bible Study Inspired by a Hymn
Primary Bible Passages: Hebrews 11:1–12:3; Matthew 25:21; Philippians 3:12–14
(Lutheran Service Book 667)
Saints, see the cloud of witnesses surround us;
Their lives of faith encourage and astound us.
Hear how the Master praised their faith so fervent;
“Well done, My servant!”
These saints of old received God’s commendation;
They lived as pilgrim-heirs of His salvation.
Through faith they conquered flame and sword and gallows.
God’s name to hallow.
They call to us, “Your timid foot-steps lengthen;
Throw off sin’s weight, your halting weakness strengthen.
We keep the faith, we shed our blood, were martyred;
Our lives we bartered.”
Come, let us fix our sight on Christ who suffered,
He faced the cross, His sinless life He offered;
He scorned the shame, He died, our death enduring.
Our hope securing.
Lord, give us faith to walk where You are sending,
On paths unmarked, eyes blind as to their ending;
Not knowing where we go, but that You lead us—
With grace precede us.
You, Jesus, You alone deserve all glory!
Our lives unfold, embrace within Your story;
Past, present, future—You, the same forever—
You fail us never!
By Steven Starke (1955- )
Rev. Steven Starke is yet another contemporary Christian musician who would not be called a Contemporary Christian Musician because he does not write in a pop style. I guess I keep pointing this out because it points out the misimpression the phrase Contemporary Christian Music gives people in general. It should be call pop-culture Christian music (PCCM), or something like that. Of course, my pension for accuracy will not change anything.
Rev. Starke is an LC-MS pastor who has composed over 175 hymns, thirty-two of which are in the Lutheran Service Book. Concordia Publishing House is selling a CD with a dozen of his hymns (We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God). In an interview back in 2011 Pastor Starke said, “The thing I really like about hymns is that they are miniature sermons, little commentaries on the doctrinal truth of God's word.” Whether you say it as clearly as Starke, or just feel it, we all know his observation is true. What we sing becomes a part of us, so what we sing is very important. There have been many people I’ve sat with as their minds fade, but they remember the hymns they have sung all their lives. The music and words penetrate as deeply as the words and music of the liturgy they have sung all their lives. So let’s see what we are singing into our very souls with “Saints, See the Cloud of Witnesses,” which will be our closing hymn this coming Sunday.
Clearly the overarching passage behind this hymn is Hebrews 11, the great “Heroes of Faith” chapter in the Bible, and the first few verses in chapter 12. The best way to get this study off the ground is to simply read (or at least skim) those verses.
11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. 5By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 20By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. 21By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.
23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. 24By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.
29 By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—33who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—37of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 11:1-12:3)
The writer of Hebrews sets these “saints of old” (verse 2) before our eyes to encourage us, and that is what Starke does in this hymn. Their lives of faith not only encourage us but also astound us (verse 1). It isn’t just the things that look glorious to human eyes (conquering “flame and sword and gallows”) but also the strength to live as exiles, endure shame and martyrdom. All these saints form a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1; verse 1) as believers go through various trials today. When we face persecution we join in the same tradition as these heroes of yesteryear. Yet on our journey we are not to keep our eyes fixed on these believers, but on the same thing they had their eyes fixed: “Jesus” (12:2; verse 4). Jesus is, after all, the founder of our Holy Spirit gifted faith. He endured the cross to pay for our sins; He rose and returned to heaven where the saints of all ages join Him.
Throughout the hymn Starke moves about in Hebrews 11:1-12:3. Most of the examples are easy to put names to if you are versed in the Old Testament. The “pilgrim-heirs of His salvation” in verse 2 are the patriarchs, people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (11:8-12). They lived by faith and not by sight, that is to say, they lived in the promises, (11:13-16). They were living looking forward to their heavenly home, just as we are. Sure, they knew God would provide a physical home for His chosen people, but heaven was their true home, just like heaven is our true home. We should understand “heaven” to mean living in the presence of God and not some non-physical, disembodied, existence. The ultimate “heaven” is the new heavens and earth ushered in on the Last Day. With this heaven as their true home, the saints of old were able to face many trials (11:36-37).
The Old Testament saints were commended by God (11:39-40) or, as Starke puts it while alluding to Matthew 25:21, 23, “Well done, My servant!” This faithfulness came in spite of the fact that they never saw, in their flesh, the promised Messiah (11:39). That privilege was reserved for the believers in the first century (John 1:14), who saw Jesus during His ministry, Passion, and after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). Today we have the Scriptures to show us how God has fulfilled His promises, and provide us with assurance that He will continue to keep his promises. He will take all His chosen to heaven.
Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
Like the saints of old, Paul presses on towards his heavenly calling. These saints who have gone before us call (so to speak) to us to carry on (verse 3). Don’t lose heart! How do we do so? We do it as the saints of old did, but treasuring and using the means provided by God to bring us the strength to endure – clinging to our Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Scripture. This is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper often. This is why we make a big deal of Baptisms and remember our Baptisms often. This is why our worship services are saturated with Scripture. This is why we sing the hymns we sing.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable about how a master puts some of his servants in charge of some of his property and charges them to use it wisely until his return. The two that faithfully fulfill their commission are told, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” The central truth of the passage is that God has given us all gifts to use in His Church to witness to those outside the Church (and each other). We don’t all have the same gifts, just as not all of the master’s servants in the parable received the same amount of money. The question for us is “How do we use what God has given us?” not, “Why didn’t God give me the exact same gifts as someone else?” We may not know where we are going with the gifts given us (verse 5), but we walk in the faith He has given us. We do know our final destination, thanks to the God-given faith we have: And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13).
Just a small aside, the expansion of our liturgical calendar with many commemorations of saints from the past seeks to do for us the same thing this hymn is about. We are encouraged by the faithfulness of those who have gone before us. Their lives are worth remembering. This is true, not only of Biblical saints, but also many post-biblical saints. We aren’t saying they were perfect during their earthly pilgrimage. Far from it. But the atoning death of Jesus covered their sins. They were justified by grace through faith. So are we.
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert