As I ponder Hebrews 11, I find Jesus giving us coaches, teachers, and teammates who cheer us on to the finish line of life and beyond.
Sometimes people refer to Hebrews 11 as the “heroes of faith” chapter, and I guess that’s true enough, if we don’t deny the glaring faults of saints such as Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel, who are included in the list at Hebrews 11:32. Jephthah’s story includes savage folly and unspeakable sadness; David’s story includes notorious sins, and Samuel seems like someone I would want to avoid, if I saw him coming to anoint me for some position beyond my capacity, as he did with Saul. But according to the author of Hebrews, these forgiven sinners form “a cloud of witnesses,” who help us “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) So as I run my race, I welcome their examples, their instructions, and even their edifying critiques.
I think it takes a hero or a saint to offer critiques that build up rather than tear down. Way back in my playing days, when I struck out, some coaches made me wonder if I should quit baseball all together; others made me all the more eager to grab a bat, keep practicing, and play ball. In my student days, when I wrote a bad paper, some teachers made me want to slink out of their classroom; others gave me critiques that made scales fall from my eyes and made me all the more eager to learn. Jesus is a Teacher who restores, and one way he restores is through the communion of saints—a communion that includes “the spirits of just men and women made perfect” by their communion with Jesus in the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24)
A Bible teacher and translator named J.B. Phillips had reached the height of his powers when he experienced a crisis in which “all vision, drive and energy…vanished almost overnight” (The Price of Success, p. 193). Suddenly, and for the remaining twenty or so years until his death, he felt “scooped out” and often could barely cling to life. Heaven seemed empty, and he tortured himself by brutal self-condemnation. In that desolate time, the Lord sent some rays of light not only through the Scriptures but also through a visitor from “a better country.” (Hebrews 11:16)
Phillips writes that, a few days after C.S. Lewis died, he “appeared” to Phillips “and spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing” (Ring of Truth, p. 118). Phillips had barely known Lewis and had not been thinking about him, but on that and on one other occasion, Lewis was “just there—‘large as life and twice as natural’” (Ring, p. 119), and he helped Phillips to persevere.
For me, Phillips’ encounter with Lewis holds all the more encouragement because Lewis had a reputation for intimidating people. Known by some as “Heavy Lewis,” he could make even smart people at Oxford feel stupid. So I thank the Lord that he encouraged Phillips, and I find myself hoping that saints whom I find intimidating can instead inspire me. I don’t expect C.S. Lewis to appear to me, but as I run my race, I can look to him to encourage me to run “further up and farther in.” Lewis writes that as the citizens of Narnia ran together in a new creation, they found they could gallop like unicorns. “Faster and faster they raced, but no one got hot or tired or out of breath.” (The Last Battle, p. 171)
As you persevere in your race toward new creation today, I hope you will welcome some cheers from “the cloud of witnesses” that have been made perfect by their communion with Jesus. The communion of saints is a team of friends who are on your side.