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...
As part of my ongoing study of Acts, I've been thinking about the titles Luke uses with reference to the disciples: office (episkopen), ministry (diakonia), apostle, obviously, and witness (martur). The last is interesting to me in light of Peter's insistence, in Acts 1:22, that one of the assembled post-ascension pre-pentecostal group must also become a witness. Two questions: why does Peter insist on someone else becoming a witness to what the 120 were all witnesses to (or is he just combining witness with apostolic office)? Second, witnesses to what, exactly? Presumably all the things in his great sermon in Acts 2.
I was thinking about the word martur and how it takes on a very different meaning in English, one that changes the underlying concept, I think: martyrdom is taken to be the act of witness--if it weren't true (or believed true), why die for it?
The passage I cited in Hebrews, which also makes reference back to martur in this sense, is usually taken to refer back to the collection of saints who are observing all our actions (do a google search of the Greek title of this post and you'll see what I mean). The second question above is relevant: witnesses to what? The usual conception, I think, is witnesses to us, the communion of saints that watches over and cares for (/prays for) those who are left on earth. But I don't think they're witnesses in that sense.
Consider two other passages from Hebrews 11:
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. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But 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.
39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
They are witnesses, then, to Christ, insomuch as it was given to them at any point in time. They are commended for their faith even though they weren't given the object of that faith. All these people have run the race well, with less than what we have now. If the writer to the Hebrews really is writing to the Hebrews, then he is saying: look at how well our people have always witnessed God, in all their limits and imperfections. We, who have more, ought to do as they did. 12:2 closes the thought:
...looking 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.
That is, the witnesses are witnesses to Christ; we should imitate them where they were good, but realize their orientation (Christ alone) and seek to model that, too. Thus the Second Helvetic Confession:
At the same time we do not despise the saints or think basely of them. For we acknowledge them to be living members of Christ and friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world. Hence we love them as brothers, and also honor them; yet not with any kind of worship but by an honorable opinion of them and just praises of them. We also imitate them. For with ardent longings and supplications we earnestly desire to be imitators of their faith and virtues, to share eternal salvation with them, to dwell eternally with them in the presence of God, and to rejoice with them in Christ. And in this respect we approve of the opinion of St. Augustine in De Vera Religione: "Let not our religion be the cult of men who have died. For if they have lived holy lives, they are not to be thought of as seeking such honors; on the contrary, they want us to worship him by whose illumination they rejoice that we are fellow-servants of his merits. They are therefore to be honored by the way of imitation, but not to be adored in a religious manner," etc.