It was near the end of the book of Hebrews that I found some verses that have been bouncing around in my head for some time now. With the epistle drawing to a close, the pastor who authored this letter exhorts the believers to remember the men who had once led the church, to consider how these men lived, and to imitate their faith. “Remember your leaders,” he says, “those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
That verse has given me a lot to think about. God, working through the written words of an anonymous pastor who lived 2,000 years ago, challenged me to consider men who once spoke the word of God—men whose lives I should consider that I might imitate their faith. Unlike the recipients of this letter, I do not have a long legacy of being in a church where leaders have served for decades and have finished well. I have been more of a church pilgrim, often moving from one town to the next through my childhood and early years of my marriage. At long last we’ve settled in a town and in a church where we hope to remain for the long haul. But as I considered these verses I thought of a church like Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, a church that has prospered under the long ministries of men like Donald Barnhouse (33 years), James Montgomery Boice (32 years) and Phillip Ryken (12 years and counting). People who attend churches like that and who have been members of such churches for many years will be able to look to the past and to consider how these men lived. From there they can learn about the faith that sustained these pastors and then imitate that faith.
Not all of us have been so privileged. But we have the ability to find heroes in history by reading good biographies. And this is, I think, one of the reasons I am so often drawn to biographies of great Christians. Through these books we are able to read about the faith of Christians who served God through their lives and then finished strong. John Piper says, “This is why dead heroes are more important than living heroes. Living heroes are important, but they might cease to be heroes before they die. They might let you down. Rather, he says, ‘remember’ – that’s a word that reaches into the past. Remember those whose conduct you can survey from beginning to end, and consider all of it – especially how it ended.” It is really only when the final chapter has closed in death that we may know how a man has lived. Dead heroes harbor few surprises.
It is important to note that the exhortation is not to imitate these men—it is not to ponder their lives and then to imitate their conduct. Rather, the author exhorts people to ponder the outcome of these lives, to see how these men finished their races, and, having found worthy examples, to imitate their faith. John Piper sounds an important warning about imitating the conduct of others. “If you try to imitate their conduct, you become a religious fake, a spiritual counterfeit. This is a frightening reality when you see it – people who have learned the forms of godliness and know nothing of the power that comes from genuine faith. Instead he says: look at the whole course of their conduct and how they finished their course, and get the same motor that made them what they were: their faith.”
Verse seven cannot be separated from the verse that follows. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus Christ is the same today as He was when these men led the church and when they encouraged your faith. Jesus was worth serving then and He is worth serving now; Jesus sustained these men even through times of hardship and He can and will sustain you in the same way. Though months and seasons and years come and go, Jesus remains the same—still available, still powerful, still in control. Richard Phillips writes, “The writer’s confidence is not in men of God; it is in the God of men.” Though we are to imitate the faith of these men, we are to see this faith as a gift of God and to place our confidence in God who gives faith, not in men who express it.
By way of conclusion, Richard Phillips says, “This is the greatest legacy any of us can impart from the pattern of our lives, and it is by providing such examples that Christian leaders most powerfully serve the Lord and his church.” The questions I had to ask myself were these: First, whose faith am I imitating? Who are the Christians of days gone by whose faith serves as an example to me. And second, what will my legacy be? Will I leave behind a pattern of trust and faithful service that another person may find worthy of imitation, or will I be fearful and faithless, leaving behind a legacy I’d want no one to imitate?
Perhaps your faith would also be served by pondering those same questions in light of Hebrews 13.