One of my heroes of the faith is a pastor 20 years older than me. He was the first pastor I had who preached expositionally verse-by-verse. His family has been an example to my wife and I for family devotions and what godly discipline and love looks like, as they often welcomed us into their home. He officiated our wedding and preached a short wedding sermon that I still remember to this day. I have called him when I didn’t know who else I could get wisdom from for certain sticky counseling or church situations. I admire his love for missions and his willingness to go build up and encourage the church where others fear to go. If you can’t tell, this mentor and friend is someone I have looked up to and benefited from for the last 24 years of my life and ministry. I look to him as an example. But I don’t look to him to give me daily strength.
Faithful Christians whom we love and know can inspire us, but they cannot be our source of strength. We look to them, but we fix our eyes on Jesus.
My devotional life and pastoral ministry have been greatly shaped by the writings and lives of faithful men and women like Luther, Spurgeon, Corrie Ten Boom, Elisabeth Elliot, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I look to them as examples of great faith and faithfulness. But I don’t look to them for strength.
Although faithful Christians who have gone before us can inspire us, they cannot strengthen us. We look to them, but we fix our eyes on Jesus.
As we prepare our hearts to remember Christ’s death and ultimately his triumph over death, I have been thinking about this distinction. We gather encouragement and help from others, whether our friends and mentors or people we admire from church history, and in that sense you could say they strengthen us. But only the Spirit of Jesus lives within us (Romans 8:9). He alone is always there for us.
In Hebrews 11, we have the “Hall of Faith” in which the writer of Hebrews lays out example after example for us, 39 verses, about faithful men and women who inspire us. In fact, as he turns the corner to Hebrews 12, he uses them as motivation for godly living today: “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.” (Hebrews 12:1) He tells us, “Look–they faced incredible challenges and obstacles to their faith, but they made it. You can too.”
But in those 39 verses of chapter 11, while he holds them out as examples to look to, he never tells us to fixate on them. In fact, he never commands us to look to them. They are simply mentors, guides, brothers and sisters in Christ, who were also frail, as we are. As the saying goes, they were “beggars showing other beggars where the bread is.” But Jesus is in a different category entirely.
After wanting us to consider the lives of believers who have gone before us by explaining for an entire chapter how they were able to be faithful, in Hebrews 12:2 we see a difference between them and Jesus. We run this race of life and ministry “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.”
My heroes of the faith, both living and before my time, are a grace from God. They are an encouragement and I can look to their lives and gather inspiration, wisdom, and hope for whatever circumstances God has me in.
But they are not always with me. They are not seated at the right hand of the Father. They never promised, and never could promise, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Only Jesus can do that.
Look to your heroes of the faith, but fix your eyes on Jesus. He is closer than your breath. Always. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) And at the end of the day, only he can uphold you.