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How Voices from the Past Can Encourage Us Today

Tim Chester | Jan. 25, 2021

“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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The Christian life is a long race. If we want to make it to the finish line, this verse tells us we need to do two things. First, we’re to turn away from distractions, especially the distraction of sin (“let us throw off everything that hinders”). Second, we’re to turn instead to look at Jesus (“let us … [fix] our eyes on Jesus”).

An Ocean of Grace

An Ocean of Grace

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Reflect on Jesus in the run-up to Easter with this inspiring collection of daily devotions and prayers from great Christian writers of the past.

To help fix our gaze on Jesus, we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”. For the first readers of Hebrews, these witnesses were the saints of the Old Testament, whose faith in God’s promises had sustained them through troubling times and had enabled them to achieve great things in God’s name. But as readers today, we can add names from across the pages of church history to that crowd of cheering spectators. Two thousand years on, the cloud of witnesses is larger than ever. 

Why Should We Read the Words of Dead Christians?

The key thing is that such people are “witnesses”. Like the witness in a law court, they have evidence to present and in this case, their testimony concerns Jesus Christ. Their purpose is not to draw attention to themselves but to him. Their lives may inspire and their words may inform, but their true value is that they point us to Jesus.

Why should we read the words of dead Christians when we are surrounded by living ones?

First, because these people are our brothers and sisters, as much part of the community of saints as the people in your church. God worked in them and through them in the past, and he does so again when their words are heard.

Our Puritan brothers and sisters in Christ wrestled with God through hard times, and the fruit of their labour can help us through the hard times we face.

Also, because it’s as if these people speak with a different voice. The language which can sometimes sound strange to our ears has—for that very reason—the power to speak the truth to us with fresh vigor. The phrases we have heard a hundred times are replaced by new expressions that renew our thinking and engage our imagination.

Finally, because “sitting at the feet” of those from other times allows us to view our own times from outside. These saints of old give us a perspective on ourselves—our foibles and assumptions. The emphases we miss are highlighted, and the preoccupations that distract us are put into perspective.

Be Cheered On By the Great Cloud of Witnesses

While An Ocean of Grace draws on writers from the full breadth of church history, I have a special fondness for the Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries. They keep on directing our thoughts to Christ and his work, perhaps because it was the glory of Christ that sustained them through their hardships. Here, for example, is William Bridge in his book A Lifting Up for the Downcast

If you want to avoid being discouraged in any condition, then never link your comforts to your condition … Hang a cloak or garment upon a rotten peg, and the peg will break and the garment will fall. Now there is no condition that is not like a rotten peg. Every condition is alterable. No condition is so firm and fast that it is not exposed to many changes or to a rotten hold. God, however, is a pillar … If you build upon Christ himself and upon God himself then you build upon the Rock. And, though the floods and storms and winds rise and beat upon you, yet you shall not lose your comforts because they are built upon a rock.

Our Puritan brothers and sisters in Christ wrestled with God through hard times, and the fruit of their labour can help us through the hard times we face. When we listen to the heart-warming words written by saints of old, we are encouraged to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Now that’s time well spent. 



Portions of this post are from Tim Chester's newest book, An Ocean of Grace: A Journey to Easter with Great Voices From the Past, a collection of devotions and prayers for Lent from writers across church history. 

Tim Chester

Tim Chester is a senior faculty member of Crosslands Training and has written over 40 books. He has a PhD in theology and PgDip in history along with 25 years' experience of pastoral ministry. He is married with two grown-up daughters and lives in rural Derbyshire where he is part of a church plant.

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