“If the church is always one generation away from extinction, historical amnesia threatens its demise as much as spiritual complacency. A call to renewed commitment must necessarily be a summons to remember.”1 So writes an author in the introduction of his recently published history of Christianity. And he is correct. This is precisely our author’s point as he begins this new practical section in this very practical chapter, Hebrews 13.
The faith, once delivered, was under attack. The writer exhorts this church to remember its former leaders who were faithful to the faith. Those former leaders left a legacy of faith by which these contemporary believers needed to be encouraged and to which they needed to be exhorted. This was an essential means to keep them from drifting from the object of their faith, the Lord Jesus Christ. And it still is.
The Encouragement We Need
Running the race of the Christian life is, to say the least, not easy. There are pressures all around us, on us and even in us to leave the God we love. Yes, we are prone to wander.
Our own propensity to sin and unbelief is a large factor, but there are other pressures as well, particularly pressures from a godless culture, which tempts us to compromise on what we know is true.
For instance, we feel the pressures of the hostility of a culture drunk on ideological pluralism. The centuries old (correct, I think) practice that we should tolerate another person’s right to be wrong has been replaced with a perverted view of toleration in which each person’s truth claim is equally valid. In other words, it is no longer right to label any idea or ideology wrong. And, of course, this presents a challenging pressure to the Christian.
We are called to absolute loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only Saviour, for He alone is the one-of-a-kind Son of God (see John 3:16).2
The apostles were loyal to Jesus Christ and so they boldly and unpopularly proclaimed Jesus as Lord—the only Lord. They were not confused between allegiance to Christ or allegiance to a mere caesar.
The gospel they proclaimed was exclusive; it was a message that both today and even back then was viewed as politically, incorrectly intolerant. When they proclaimed, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), they ended up in jail. That is still happening in many parts of the world today. Yet contemporary believers continue to maintain their loyalty to Christ, just as these leaders did in their day.
This matter of loyalty to Christ is a fundamental undergirding theme of the epistle to the Hebrews. The challenge facing these early Hebrew Christians was the temptation to drift from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ back to ritualistic Judaism, thereby effectively abandoning the Lord Jesus Christ in favour of a system that was now Christless. It was Christless because its shadows had been fulfilled in the substance of the person and work of Christ.
To summarise, their loyalty to Jesus Christ was under attack. So, what were they to do? One of the answers is given in the passage we begin to study here. A key to abiding loyalty to Jesus Christ is leaders who are loyal to Jesus Christ. In fact, such leaders aim to leave a legacy of loyalty—not to themselves, but rather to the Lord. Such leaders leave a legacy of faith. And this legacy of faith is to be emulated and passed on again, and again, and again.
The Need for Leaders
Verses 7, 17 & 24 each use a Greek word that means “leader.” It is translated variously, but often as “those who rule over you.” Its repeated presence implies that leaders were important for the welfare of the church.
Verses 9–17 tell us why. The gospel was under assault. It is for this reason that they were exhorted to remember and to emulate former godly leaders, as well as to follow the godly leaders they had now. As Hughes observes,
A church that adequately recalls its godly leaders and considers the outcome of their way of life and attempts to imitate that way of life will sail well! Remembering, considering, and imitating the virtues of departed believers is of greatest spiritual importance both to one’s family and to the broader family of the Body of Christ.3
We desire to be faithful to Christ and to His gospel. And God has given to us a wonderful heritage to help us. Godly leaders have left us a legacy of faith. Let’s be good stewards of this. And there are three truths in these verses that will help us to do so.
Be Encouraged by Those Who Left a Legacy of Faith
In the first part of v. 7 the readers are exhorted to remember what they had.
Of course, there is a particular context to this verse. Though clearly there is a change of direction, nevertheless there is a connection with what has preceded. Brown points out a major contextual connection: “The reference to those who are unafraid, because the Lord is their helper [v.6], leads the writer to reflect on the heroism and faith of this church’s former leaders.”4
But there are other contextual connections as well. Let me explain.
In the previous six verses, the author has exhorted them to live right. They have been exhorted to “let brotherly love continue” (v. 1). He then fleshes out what this looks like: It looks like hospitality (v. 2); it looks like sympathy and empathy (v. 3); it looks like purity/chastity (v. 4); and it looks like generosity (vv. 5–6).
Of course, as we have seen, these Christlike qualities are more difficult to practise when we are under the pressures of affliction and persecution. But, further, at such times we might also be tempted to embrace an easier gospel if it means that we will not need to break with the world (vv. 9–17). In other words, our loyalty to Christ may come under attack.
Perhaps at this point some readers might be tempted to ask, with the surrounding cultural pressures to drift from Christ, how could they ever persevere? Perhaps they were thinking, who in fact has persevered? The writer responds, “I’m glad you asked: Your former leaders have!”
Their leaders had exemplified all that is exhorted in this passage. They had maintained loyalty in the midst of difficulties. And the result was a legacy of faith to be embraced.
Verse 7 requires very little hard exegetical work. The verse is rather straightforward. It is saying that the church was to “recall to mind” their former leaders who ran the race well. They were then to repeat such a lifestyle of faith. In the end, they too would leave a legacy of faith. The only explanation needed is the tense of the verbs.
Literally these readers are told to “keep on remembering” (continuous tense) those who “led you” (past tense). The leaders here are not their current leaders (he will address those in vv. 17, 24) but rather past leaders. Most likely, these leaders had died. At the very least, they had previously ministered among them, taught them the Word of God and now they were no longer there. Most likely, “the community was gathered in response to the word they proclaimed; the founding fathers of the community.”5 Yet they had left a remarkable legacy of faith; a legacy of faithfulness to Christ and to His gospel. These believers are being called upon to remember what these leaders had taught them and how they had lived. The purpose of their continual remembrance was to encourage them to so live.
Probably, these leaders were those who had planted this church. They may have been missionaries; we don’t know. What we do know is that they had a track record in the race of faith that was commendable. Their teaching and their lives were to be recalled as examples to be followed.
We need people in our life who are loyal to Christ and to His Word, who will lead us accordingly. But more to the point, we need those in our life who will continue to leave a godly influence long after they are gone. As with Abel, we need those who, though dead, yet continue to speak (11:4). So much can and needs to be said about this!
Paul urged Timothy, in the light of the rise of evil in his day, to remember the legacy of those who had faithfully led him in the past (2 Timothy 3:13–15). I am thankful for the ministry of my own pastor. When I face difficult pastoral situations, I always think back to his legacy and the way he led his church. There are others, too, for whose legacy I am grateful in my life, including a godly older missionary who discipled me and my own father. Whose legacy can you look to?
Remember the Exposition
The first half of this verse exhorts us to “remember those who have spoken the Word of God to you.” He is very specific, in this context, that those who are to be affectionately remembered are those who had taught them the Word of God. It was this ministry that was the ground of their authority. As Lane points out, “No other grounding and safeguarding of the position of the leaders is provided than the authority that results from the word proclaimed.”6
The word “spoken” is synonymous with teaching. This term is used throughout the New Testament to refer to the communication of God’s Word, with particular reference to teaching the gospel.
The gospel was under attack. Therefore, this church needed to remember their former leaders, who grounded them in the gospel. As Morris observes, “‘The word of God’ … reminds the readers that this is no human invention but of divine origin.”7
Legacy of Authority
A major element of the legacy that a leader can leave is fidelity to the proclamation of God’s Word. When leaders are committed to speak the Word of God rather than the mere words and opinions of men, then a wonderful foundation is laid, not only for the existing generation, but for the next generation as well.
I am the third pastor-teacher of Brackenhurst Baptist Church. Though I have never met him, I am thankful for the ministry of Jack Moorman, the church’s first pastor. I have been blessed by his legacy. The foundation that he laid was crucial to the fairly harmonious reformations through which we have come as a church. I am certain that John Grant, the second pastor of the church, shared this sentiment during his tenure at BBC.
We need to be careful to appreciate our gospel heritage, even when we have needed to reform away from some of it. We all stand on the shoulders of others and we should be careful to appreciate the efforts of those who have sought to teach us the Word. If they got the gospel right, in spite of getting other things wrong, be grateful at least for that legacy. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
We should note that loyalty to God’s Word does not guarantee infallibility in handling the Word of God. The sooner that we understand that, the better we will be. The point of this verse is not the perfection of these leaders but rather the perfection of God’s Word, which empowers and sustains us in difficult times and in easier times. These leaders had proclaimed this and, by their lives, had proved it.
These believers were blessed to have been under the leadership of men who were loyal to God’s Word. They had been well-fed and therefore they had what they needed to persevere.
Relocate to a Faithful Legacy
If you want to persevere in times like these then be sure you are under leaders who submit to God’s Word and who prove it by speaking God’s words.
One of the things that we stress as a church is that, if you move from one area to another, you should first make sure that the area to which you are relocating has a local church where such a leadership exists. Be careful not to minimise this legacy of loyalty to God’s Word.
Build the Legacy Now
But certainly we cannot leave this without emphasising that this is precisely what we want to do right now. That is, we want to so handle the Word of God as a leadership and as a congregation that there is a loyal legacy for the next generation.
Discipleship is a crucially necessary part of a local church. We must be committed to entrusting what we have learned to faithful men, who will be faithful to teach it to others. We must always look for opportunities to identify and to equip those who will be this type of leader and will leave a legacy of loyalty.
As we consider this exhortation to consider, let’s consider some applications.
First, leaders need to be challenged by this verse to live and to serve in such a way that they will continue to impact others long after they are gone.
Second, this highlights the necessity of making sure that you are in a church where such leaders are.
Third, we are all called to the same kind of loyalty to Jesus as those who loyally follow Him and who then loyally lead us.
Examine and Emulate those Who Left a Legacy of Faith
In the second part of v. 7, these readers are exhorted to repeat what they had observed: “whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.”
The Conduct of Loyal Leaders
This is the rub, as they say. It is one thing to proclaim God’s Word, but it is often quite another to practise it. Thankfully, this church was blessed with men who talked the walk and who walked the talk. That is why they were being exhorted to “remember” them. I suppose it is true that most leaders will be “remembered,” but at issue is how they will be remembered. These leaders so lived that their conduct was a legacy to be emulated.
The writer says that this church was to “remember” their founding leaders. This word is used in Acts 17:23 of Paul “considering” the objects of pagan worship. The idea is that Paul was carefully examining what he saw. This church, then, was to carefully inspect the conduct of their former leaders, obviously for the purpose of following in their “faithsteps.” “Faith is the important thing, and the readers were being tempted to unbelief in falling back from the Christian way. They should instead follow these good examples of faith.”8
But don’t miss this: He says that they are to “follow” (“imitate” in the ESV) their “faith.” We should note three ideas behind this word.
First, we are told that they left a legacy of trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. As the entire epistle has focused on this, clearly the writer desires that these believers continue to believe in the Christ in whom these leaders believed. It is important to note that “the spirit and not the form of their lives is proposed for imitation: the faith by which they were supported and not the special actions which the faith inspired in their circumstances.”9 Be careful of a wrong kind of imitation. You may end up guilty of idolatry.
Second, the legacy was one of faithfulness. These leaders believed on Christ and they proved by living by faith in Christ. They were truly faithful to Him. They proved their faith by obedience. This is the legacy that that is such a blessing to those who are left behind: not merely a legacy of head knowledge but rather of proven, saving faith; a legacy of persevering faith.
Third, the legacy was one of truth. All of the above is dependent upon the foundation of truthful teaching, or what the Bible calls “sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10; Titus 1:9), or simply “the faith” (Acts 6:7; Romans 1:5). The church is being exhorted to believe what their former leaders believed and to do so because the proof was in the pudding. He is saying, “Look carefully at their life. In fact, look carefully at their life up until the very end. These leaders had faith, and they were faithful all because of the faith. The gospel is true; they were loyal to it both by their lips and by their lives. That is the legacy that they lived. Now, you look and then live as well! If they did, so can you. Since they did, so must you.”
Let me digress for a moment, while at the same time not really digressing. Though the writer clearly has the founding leaders of this church in view nevertheless, we can make the legitimate application to faithful Christians throughout church history who have left such a legacy of faith.
We can be thankful for the legacy of men like Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Carey, Taylor, Judson, Paton, Spurgeon and Machen. We need to “call these to mind” when we begin to throw in the towel on the apparent failings of the church. This highlights the importance of reading church history and biography. This can serve as a great tonic to our faith. We need this.
Hywel Jones is correct: “There is hardly anything that is more destructive than a public fall of a leader in the church.” In light of this, it is important for us to consider the danger of erecting statues too soon. Plenty of statues in honour of supposedly great men have been torn down or removed once all of the facts were in. Biographer Ian Murray has only ever written a biography of one living individual: John MacArthur. Murray made an exception in this case because he felt a burden to encourage ministers, but he normally waits until the dust has settled before setting up a life as exemplary. There is wisdom in this.
It is very important to see that the kind of leaders being presented as worthy of emulation are those who have been proven. They were connected to these believers’ past, and the proof was in the pudding of their life.
Some time ago, a young pastor wrote a review on a couple of my books. He said to me that he was glad to do so for two reasons: first, because I am a “local” and he is glad that some locals are writing; and second, because I am over fifty years of age.
This young pastor is exceptionally gifted. He could write books if he chose to do so. But he feels that he is not old enough. He does not plan to write (at least for publication) until he is of the ripe old age of fifty. His reasoning is that he believes he should have a long track record before assuming that he knows anything.
I can assure you that he knows a lot, but I get his point. There is something very important about building credibility before going public.
I raise this to make the point that the writer is emphasising the need to follow the example of those who have proven themselves.
Don’t misunderstand: We are called to submit to the leaders whom God has placed in our lives regardless of their “experience” (see v. 17). At the same time, leaders who have been proven over the long haul are essential for the heritage of faith and loyalty to continue.
A Sad Illustration
Recently, a man destroyed his legacy. A well-known pastor and author confessed to, using his words, “having an affair.” More to the point, he committed the sin of adultery. One of the most well-known churches in the United States is reeling from the fallout. The name of Christ is being mocked.
I was asked this week whether we should still read his books. A ministry group in our church just finished studying one of his latest books. What is the answer to that question? At the risk of being simplistic, I would point to this verse and ask another question: Does this man have credibility? No doubt, much of what he has written is true. But a message comes through a messenger, and when that messenger is tainted, it is difficult to hear the full message. My point is that looking at the outcome of this man’s life—at present—we would be hard pressed to follow.
Experience the Cause of their Legacy of Faith
Next, the author exhorts his readers to rely on the one on whom their former leaders relied: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (v. 8).
In v. 7 the writer exhorts following the example of godly leaders who are no longer on the scene. Then v. 8 tells us why they were godly: because of the gloriously unchangeable Jesus Christ. “Since he is ‘the same’ today as he was then, the community may with confidence emulate the faith of the leaders.”10 But, of course, this means that they must also experience the Lord Jesus Christ as their leaders did: by faith as they remained faithful to the faith. And they could do so precisely He never changes!
Though v. 8 seems to enter the scene, abruptly the fact is that it is intimately connected with v. 7. In v. 7 we are told to consider carefully the outcome of the conduct of previous leaders. But a couple of dangers arise at this point.
The first is the danger of hero worship. This has always been a danger, and particularly perhaps in our day when there are so many MP3s and a plethora of conferences. Sadly there is an unhealthy malady of celebrity Christianity. There are a couple of dangers associate with this.
For one, there is the temptation to the sin of jealousy by those of us in the ministry who are not celebrities! We get our feelings hurt because we preach and teach only to then be told that doctor-so-and-so disagrees with us. So we decide that celebrity Christianity is wrong—because we are not counted among the celebrities! This is kind of like a well-known preacher that I listened to thirty years ago who quipped that that the only thing he hated more than a standing ovation was not getting a standing ovation! At least he was honest.
Another danger related to celebrity Christianity is that we tend to let others do our thinking, and even our believing, for us. While respecting the many gifted leaders in the church at large, at the same time we must study the Scriptures ourselves and come to conclusions that we can defend. We must know not only what we say we believe, but prove it by knowing why we so believe.
Myth of Supersaints
But in addition to the malady of celebrity Christianity, another danger that may arise as we consider the faith and the faithfulness of others is our unwarranted conclusion that they were special. After all, he was Paul the apostle. Or, she was Susannah Wesley. Or she was Katherine Luther. She could endure heartache and not lose her faith when her little girl died, but I am no Katherine Luther! Perhaps not, but you do have who she had when she laid her child in the grave. You, like her, have Jesus, the one who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
In other words, the reason that these leaders left behind a legacy of faith is because, in their lifetime, they experienced the loyalty of their Lord. The one who never left or forsook them could every moment of every day be depended upon—regardless of the trials they faced. You see, yesterday Jesus laid down His life for them. Every day they could say, “Today Jesus is interceding for me,” and now they are experiencing that forever He is keeping them. He proved Himself to be the same Saviour to them that He had always been (1:11–12).
To summarise, what was the “outcome of their conduct”? It was a faithful and fruitful testimony to the unchanging grace and everlasting ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Westcott helpfully comments, “The thought of the triumph of faith leads to the thought of Him in whom faith triumphs. He is unchangeable, and therefore the victory of the believer is at all times assured.”11 Or as Jay Adams writes, “Anything worthwhile in their lives, ultimately, was brought about by Jesus Christ; and He is ‘the same yesterday, today [and] forever.’”12
Leaders are human too, so consider their lives honestly and hopefully. They were flesh and blood as much as you are. But you can emulate them, for “the object of faith has not changed nor passed away.”13
Bruce says it so well:
Yesterday Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death (Ch. 5:7); today He represents His people in the presence of God, a high priest who is able to sympathize with them in their weakness, because He was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Ch. 4:15); for ever He lives, this same Jesus, “to make intercession for them” (Ch. 7:25). His help, His grace, His power, His guidance are permanently at His people’s disposal; why then should they lose heart?14
Extending the Legacy of Faith
Though we will not expound vv. 9 and following now, we will conclude by noting that the emulation just called for is exhorted again in those verses. Just as previous leaders faithfully clung to the gospel, so must this church. And because of v. 8, they could. They were to continue the legacy of faith by faithfulness to the faith.
This is precisely what the recipients of this letter needed to hear and heed. The source of the faith and of the faithfulness of their esteemed leaders was their source and their stewardship as well. Yes, since Jesus is the same today as He was thirty previously, this church could persevere. And so can ours. And so can you.
Tozer was right. What God do in the past He can do today. And what God could do in the past through others He can do today through me.
What is the point? Think about it: The point of a legacy, by its very definition, is the continuance of the legacy. We at BBC have such a legacy and we need to continue it. And many of us have such a legacy of faith in our family. What a grace, and what a responsibility.
Brothers and sisters, we have a legacy of faith. Let us now use our opportunity, pass on this legacy of faith. Let us look to Jesus and love Him. Let us grow in our loyalty to Him. And then we will leave a legacy of faith, to the good of those who come behind us, and ultimately, to the glory of God.
It is true that we face interesting times—and, in some ways, unique challenges. But as Phillips helpfully observes, “All times are different in some ways, but Jesus Christ is always the same.”15 And we because of this reality, we need to realise that we
are called to be the people of the truth, even when the truth is not popular and even when the truth is denied by the culture around us. Christians have found themselves in this position before, and we will again. God’s truth has not changed. The Holy Scriptures have not changed. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has not changed. The church’s mission has not changed. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.16
- Joseph Early, A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), Kindle edition. ↩
- In John 3:16, the term “only begotten” is a translation of the Greek word monogenas, which literally means “one of a kind”. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 2:227. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 255. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:527. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 2:526. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:148. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:148. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 434. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 2:528. ↩
- Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 435. ↩
- Jay E. Adams, Hebrews, James, I & II Peter, Jude: The Christian Counselor’s Commentary (Woodruff: Timeless Texts, 1996), 135. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:377. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 394–95. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 595. ↩
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Everything Has Changed and Nothing Has Changed—The Supreme Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage,” http://goo.gl/XvA2q2, retrieved 28 June 2015. ↩