What does “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” mean? Are people watching us from heaven? Can my mother and my grandparents see me since they are already in heaven?
The verse you are referring to is found in Hebrews 12:1. The word translated “surrounded” (NIV) is perikeimenon. This is a compound word from peri “around” (Gingrich, p. 169) or “to be completely encircled by something” (Renner, p. 45); and keimai “lie, recline, be laid out” (Gingrich, p.114) or “to lie down” (Renner, p. 46). When you put the two words together into their compound form, “they mean to lie around, as if something has been piled high and is lying all around you on every side. This is the portrayal of being completely encircled by something that is stacked high on every side” (Renner, p. 46).
The word “therefore” (NIV) in Hebrews 12:1 refers to that which has been written before, namely, chapter eleven. When you consider Hebrews 11, you see that there were many people in the past who were faithful. Although they are now dead, their lives are an encouragement to us to be faithful, too. Their lives can be stacked up all around us as evidence to persevere in the faith. There is no indication here that the deceased can see us, observe our activities, or fellowship with us.
Renner translates Hebrews 12:1 in two ways, “Wherefore seeing we have lying around us on every side…” and “Wherefore seeing these biblical examples are piled up and lying all around us…” (p. 46).
The MacArthur Study Bible (footnote, p. 1889) says, “The deceased people of chap. 11 give witness to the value and blessing of living by faith. Motivation for running “the race” is not in the possibility of receiving praise from observing heavenly saints. Rather, the runner is inspired by the godly examples those saints set during their lives. The great crowd is not comprised of spectators but rather is comprised of ones whose past life of faith encourages others to live that way.”
It occurs to me that if people in heaven could see us down here on earth that it would not be heaven for them. To look down and see the vices of mankind would cause a pure heart to weep and experience sorrow. Revelation 21:4 tells us that in heaven there will be “…no more death or mourning or crying or pain…”
In short, I do not believe that the saints in heaven are watching us. They are surely preoccupied with Jesus and their glorious home!
My understanding of the “communion of the saints” is the fellowship we experience together while we are on this planet. No doubt we will experience a greater fellowship in heaven, but there is no mixing of the two.
I do not know where the thought that “loved ones are up in heaven looking down on us” originated. It is possible that it comes from a misinterpretation of Hebrews 12:1. I do know that the enemy of our souls loves to deceive and thereby ruin lives. Satan will distort Scripture if it suits his purpose. If the devil can get people to think that their loved one is “up there” watching when their loved one was not a person who trusted in Christ, then the enemy can steal another soul. Such a person might think that she will also go to heaven just because she thinks a relative or friend is there. She might even desire to go to heaven, but the reality is that if she has not been born again by a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit in her life she will not get there. Such a person is living on sentiment instead of acting on the facts of the Bible. Emotions can lie.
~ Pastor Chris