Hebrews 13:7-8: Looking Forward by Looking Back
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
- Hebrews 13:7-8
When Scripture speaks of the faith that should motivate us to live for Christ, it speaks almost exclusively of a forward-looking faith. Backward-looking faith, including things like gratitude for past blessings, is important, as we will see. But when Scripture speaks of the kind of faith that should drive godly behavior, it almost always speaks of faith in what God has promised for the future. At the same time, Scripture speaks repeatedly about the importance of backward-looking faith, as it does even in this passage. And the connection between past-based faith, future-based faith and motivation is an important one. The only way we will live the kind of life God calls us to live is if we trust him for the future. And one of the most important ways to build trust in the future promises of God is by looking to the past. We look back for the purpose of looking forward.
In this case, the writer of Hebrews is urging us to look back on those who have benefited us spiritually by teaching the word of God to us. This can apply both to those who have taught us directly and to those who have handed the word of God down through past centuries. Whether we have known them personally or have been separated from them by many years, the lives of those who have faithfully taught the word of God have a powerful lesson to teach us.
But their lesson is not about them. Notice that we are not called specifically to imitate them, but to imitate their faith. Their conduct was a result of their faith, and we are to imitate that faith so that our conduct will be like their conduct, and will be used by the Lord to produce the same result. Look at what the writer says about them: their faith produced conduct which produced a result. We are supposed to consider the result, because when we see how valuable the result was, we will recognize the value of what produced it. The result was produced by a particular type of conduct, which was produced by a particular type of faith. And their faith is what we are supposed to imitate.
The question then becomes, what was so great about their faith? Was it, in some general way, their elevated ability to believe? Did they possess some kind of psychological or personal holistic superiority? Are they a particularly good example for us simply because they could rightly be described as people of eminent faith? To extend the question one step further, could we benefit in this way from the example of faith found in sincere Muslims or Hindus or atheists?
The simple answer is no, and the reason is simple. Faith has no value in and of itself. It is only as valuable as its object, and only as a way to take hold of its object. Faith could perhaps be described as a hand that takes hold of unseen things for us. If the unseen things of which it takes hold are valuable, then that faith is worthwhile. On the other hand, if it connects us to things that are either illusions or dangerous, then the faith itself is empty at best and destructive at worst. This is very important to keep in mind in a society where faith is treated as an unqualified virtue regardless of its object.
Perhaps a different example would be helpful. Imagine yourself using a metal detector on a beach, when all of a sudden the device begins responding to something. You begin to dig, and the beeping grows louder. Suddenly, two feet or so under the sand, you hit something solid. After some effort, you unearth a large, flat metal box, clasped tightly shut. You take it home, and as carefully as possible, you loosen the clasps. The box is shut in such a way as to be completely airtight, and when you finally open it, what you find amazes you. It is a large painting – a portrait – of a somber looking old man sitting in a straight-backed chair. At the bottom of the portrait is the signature – “Whistler”. Some eager phone calls to art galleries confirm that you have evidently unearthed a work long thought to have been lost: Whistler’s Father. The painting is perfectly preserved, and is virtually priceless. You are the first person to have seen it for at least a hundred years. (And as far as you know, you are the first person in history to have found something of significant value while searching a beach with a metal detector.)
What would you do? What would people think of you if you were to call an art gallery and offer to put yourself on display with your metal detector? A sufficiently avant-garde gallery might be interested for the sheer absurdity of it, but what would a normal gallery really be interested in? Not in you as the finder, or in your metal detector as the tool by which you found it, but in the treasure itself. And this is the way it works with faith. Like a metal detector, faith has the potential to connect us with great hidden treasure. And like a metal detector, faith is only valuable if it actually accomplishes this. The superiority of faith over a metal detector is a question of degree. The treasure to be apprehended by faith is infinitely more valuable than a priceless work of art.
This story reminds me of a comedian who thought it would be fun to bury metal objects on the beach with things like “you’re a loser” or “get a life” written on them. Faith is similar to a metal detector in that it has the potential to connect us with unseen treasures. On the same token, if a metal detector points us to a tin can with “you’re a loser” written on it, or perhaps to a land mine, such a device would be either worthless or hazardous. It is only worth what it gets for us. And it works the same way with faith.
And all this fits with exactly where this passage points us. The faith of those who taught us about Christ was great, but not because they were simply great people of faith. Their faith in Christ was great because Christ is great. Their faith in Christ produced service to Christ, which produced a result empowered by Christ. To phrase things as Jesus did, their abiding in him produced lasting fruit (John 15:4-16). This is abundantly clear from verse 8. The reason we are to look back on the lives of faithful believers and imitate their faith is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”. The Jesus who was faithful and sufficient and merciful and holy and wise and loving in the past for men like Abraham and Paul and William Tyndale and John Newton is the same Jesus who will be all those things for you and me today and tomorrow and forever. Consider the results of their conduct, and imitate their faith in him.