“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.” [Hebrews 12:1]
Given the context of this reference – immediately following Hebrews 11, the great Hall of Faith of past believers – it is not uncommon to consider that believers from previous generations are among the cloud of witnesses. Not an unreasonable assumption. And it’s fair to ask, What is the purpose of witnesses, if not to testify? Hmm.
Some believers have had experience with individuals in this great cloud of witnesses, consulting with believers from years gone by, hearing their testimony, receiving encouragement or counsel.
Other believers have raised questions about the practice of interacting with the cloud of witnesses. They point out that Scripture forbids God’s people to consult the dead [see Isaiah 8:19 and 19:3]. “That’s necromancy!” they shout into otherwise peaceful conversations. Sigh.
There is real reason to question from a cultural perspective what the OT verses are saying. This principle is solid: Scripture cannot say to us anything that it did not say to its original readers, and I’m pretty sure that the things that are forbidden in Isaiah and other places in the Old Covenant are about “consulting mediums and spiritists,” and not actually about believers interacting with saints of bygone ages. But that’s another issue, and that is not where I’m going today. Moving on.
Rather, I’m looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith. I see two stories about Jesus in Scripture that look to me like they shed light on whether interaction with the great cloud of witnesses is approved of or forbidden by Scripture.
1) Luke 9 tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ statement in v27, where he says, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the
“Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at
I observe that otherwise mature believers freaked out when Jesus did this, too [see v32 & 33], so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when otherwise mature believers today freak out as well.
2) Luke 20 tells the story of Jesus being tested by the Sadducees and their make-believe story of seven brothers who shared one wife. There are lots of important lessons to be found in this interaction, but the one that concerns this conversation is verses 37 & 38:
“But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
Jesus is specifically teaching that believers who have gone before – and apparently that will include the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 – are not dead. “…for to him all are alive.”
It’s not unreasonable to point out that this was completely contrary to what the Sadducees, the first-century cessationists, confidently believed. Jesus turned their theology upside down with this teaching; it’s not unreasonable that it would turn the theology of some believers today upside down as well.
I still don’t know what I think about consulting with believers who have passed on. But I think that Scripture is very clear: this is NOT the thing that is prohibited in the Old Covenant. Jesus himself practiced it, and he very clearly taught that those believers are not dead, therefore consulting with them, as he himself did, cannot be consulting with the dead.
It looks to me like these are deep waters, and I surely don’t recommend the practice to immature believers. This is not “milk” [see Hebrews 5:12-14]. But I am convinced that this is not the practice of necromancy that some have accused it of being.