Why Small-Town Ministry Matters: A Review of “A Big Gospel in Small Places”

This article first appeared on the TMS Blog.

“Because God loves people everywhere, he calls his church to be present everywhere. Thus his church must be in places big and small in order to be the church.”

Stephen Witmer, ABig Gospel in Small Places


I grew up in a town of 350 people. There were no stop lights. There were no doctors. There was one convenience store and one gas station (which was really a farmer’s co-op). We once had relatives visit, and the next week my parents read in the “Prescott Party Line,” the column in the neighboring town’s paper, that last weekend the Counts family had relatives visit, “and a good time was had by all.” When my parents asked the columnist how she knew that, she explained, “I saw their car in your driveway all weekend.” Surely where we live affects our view of the world.

In-between my childhood and my current ministry, I have lived and ministered in large cities, including Los Angeles, as well as suburban contexts. I never expected that I would be a pastor in a town of 5,000 people. Small-town ministry has its own unique blessings and challenges. Many pastors like me who have been called to rural areas or small towns struggle sometimes because so much of the ministry advice we hear and even the books we read are written by big-name pastors in big-name cities. We can begin to wonder, does my ministry in my little corner of the world matter? Has God put me on the Junior Varsity team? Am I wasting my seminary education by pouring myself into a small community rather than a place with more people and greater influence?

As a small-town pastor, it is easy to get stuck looking at myself or comparing myself with others. A Big Gospel in Small Places, a book by co-founder of Small Town Summits and pastor Stephen Witmer, lifted my eyes from myself to Jesus. It gently raised my gaze from my small, self-centered dreams for myself and my church to see that in my small town, the fields are white for harvest. This book helped me to long for God to work in my small town in a big way, while needing it less (which is one of the main ideas of his book).

Strategic Isn’t Always What We Think

Witmer gives a strong apologetic for small-place ministry in the first three chapters of the book. He explains how even though the trend is for people to move towards cities, there are still billions of people—about half of the world’s population—who live in rural areas (5), and they all have souls (87). He points out that “the total population of American small towns alone is about thirty-three million people, which is more than the populations of Morocco, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Peru, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Mozambique, Ghana, North Korea, Yemen, Australia, Madagascar, Cameroon…(the list continues with more than a hundred other countries)” (27).

 In the second section of the book, Witmer explores some of the nuances of small-town ministry. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that small-town ministry presents? He explains how “Strategic isn’t always what we think” (chapter 5), “Small is usually better than we think” (chapter 6), and “Slow is often wiser than we think” (chapter 7). He urges us to appreciate all that we can about the particular small town we are serving in or that we may be called to because “we can’t serve what we don’t see” (29). He explains how pastoring in a small town can be an advantage for gospel ministry because often, “the smallness of our context gives us an outsized influence” (94).

To encourage small-place pastors that their size may actually be a help to push them to Christ, Witmer quotes the Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes in The Bruised Reed,

As a mother is tenderest to the…weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest…The consciousness of the church’s weakness makes her willing to lean on her beloved, and to hide herself under his wing. (98-99).

A Big Gospel in Small Places is filled with a combination of quotes from the likes of Puritans and contemporary thought and statistics on ministry. There are many pastors in small places who need to be reminded that preaching a Bible-saturated, gospel-centered sermon to forty-five people matters. This book is oozing with that kind of encouragement.

Should I minister in a small town or larger place?

In the last three chapters of the book, Witmer provides a valuable resource not only for current small-place pastors, but also for those considering a ministry switch and for seminary students praying about where they might pastor. He pushes back against some of the common reasons given to prioritize urban ministry, all the while maintaining that one is not better than the other. Witmer is not anti-city. Rather, he is pro-gospel. But the current trend in our culture as well as evangelicalism is to prioritize the cities, and Witmer gives many reasons to reconsider this trend.

As believers who hold to the sufficiency of the Word, we often push back against pragmatism in our practice of ministry. But I wonder how often we have been influenced by our evangelical culture in thinking that we must minister in a place where we can potentially reach more people rather than seeing the harvest God may be preparing in the small places. Small-town ministry is not pragmatic, but it is beautiful in that it points to a God who proclaims that he sent his only Son to the world—which includes the billions in the cities, and it also includes the billions in the small towns.


May we be willing to say with Isaiah, “Here am I, send me!” if God
calls us to a place that looks less strategic than we had hoped.


May God’s passion for his glory spread in the small places, in the cities, in the suburbs, and everywhere as his servants faithfully serve wherever God sends them.

If you currently serve in ministry in a small town and are struggling to see value there, Witmer has a gentle challenge for you:

Will you pray boldly with faith for God to win many souls for his glory and simultaneously see your present situation as a glorious display of the character of God and the surpassing beauty of the gospel? Rather than gazing longingly at the big places where so much ministry seems to be happening, will you see all the ministry to be done right in front of you? Will you treasure the people in your small place and pour yourself out for them? Will you prepare eternal souls for eternity? (182)

Yes, ministry in forgotten communities still matters. Nathaniel was from Cana, a prosperous city in Galilee of about one thousand people. When he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, an insignificant village of two to four hundred people (32), he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel and the rest of the world learned that the answer was yes.

Just as God sent Jesus to a small place for much of his life and ministry, he may now be sending Jesus to a small place through you.

Faith That Echoes

Note from Tim: Over the last week I have been publishing a short devotional each morning (I began HERE). I originally wrote these devotions for the Winter 2018-2019 issue of Open Windows and I have permission to republish them. I pray they are an encouragement to you in your walk with Christ!

Devotional Passage: Romans 1:8-17

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” – Romans 1:8

The faith of the Huaorani people echoes around the world. When they first heard about Christ in the jungles of Ecuador through five missionary martyrs, including Nate Saint and Jim Elliot, it was simply the start of a chain reaction. I have personally been profoundly edified in my faith through the testimonies of Nate’s son, Steve Saint, and Jim’s wife, Elisabeth Elliot.

The apostle Paul encouraged the believers in Rome by letting them know that their faith echoed around the world. As people heard of faithful believers in Christ in the midst of pagan Rome, their faith was encouraged. As a result, they were more likely to live out their faith wherever God had placed them.

How have you been encouraged in your faith recently? How could you continue that echo of faith today by sharing Christ with a neighbor or friend or by encouraging a fellow believer? Only God knows the chain reaction your faithfulness may set off. And as Paul told the Romans, faith that echoes results in thanksgiving to God.

Father, whether it is to my neighbor or friend or around the world, may my faith echo for Your glory.

From the Front Lines

Note from Tim: Over the next three days I will be publishing a short devotional each morning (I began HERE). I originally wrote these devotions for the Winter 2018-2019 issue of Open Windows and I have permission to republish them. I pray they are an encouragement to you in your walk with Christ!

Devotional passage: 2 Timothy 2:1-10

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” – 2 Timothy 2:3

My friend Bill was a soldier serving in Afghanistan when his life was forever changed. An explosion rocked their Stryker vehicle, burning him badly. I will never forget him saying that he was proud to have served his country. By definition, a soldier’s duty is often difficult.

Paul exhorted Timothy to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. The incredible thing is, the apostle Paul was not doing this while he relaxed at home in his recliner with a cup of coffee. Paul was in prison, in chains. Second Timothy is a dispatch from the front lines. Timothy needed courage and endurance because of the difficulties of taking a stand for the gospel. This encouragement from a dungeon powerfully reminded him that he was in a spiritual battle and that his captain was the Lord Jesus Christ.

How is your courage and endurance for Christ today? Consider what a privilege it is to be in His army. As Paul reminds us a few verses later, “remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead” (v. 8).

Father, may I be a good soldier for You. Help me to remember whose army I am in when difficulty comes my way.

Fully Known & Fully Loved

Note from Tim: Over the next six days I will be publishing a short devotional each morning (I began HERE). I originally wrote these devotions for the Winter 2018-2019 issue of Open Windows and I have permission to republish them. I pray they are an encouragement to you in your walk with Christ!

Devotional Passage: Philippians 3:7-10

…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…  – Philippians 3:10

I don’t ever want to stop dating my wife, but I can’t tell you how glad I am to be out of the dating phase prior to our wedding 15 years ago. Now I know that my wife knows me and yet loves me. Before marriage we feel the need to impress. We hope that if we dress right, have the right conversation, and are fun to be around, we will be loved and accepted. If we do the right things, the relationship may continue.

Knowing Jesus is not like dating; it is more like a good marriage. The Bible even uses marriage as a picture of Christ’s relationship with His church. He loves us not based on the things we do or even who we are, but based on our covenant. Knowing Christ is not based on law, but grace.

When Paul met Jesus, he came to realize that all of his attempts at impressing God were nothing but garbage compared to knowing Christ. There is no greater pursuit. We are fully known–and fully loved–by the most important Person in the world. And He calls us to know Him deeper.

Father, may my deepest longing be to know Your Son.

In Life or in Death

Note from Tim: Over the next seven days I will be publishing a short devotional each morning (I began HERE). I originally wrote these devotions for the Winter 2018-2019 issue of Open Windows and I have permission to republish them. I pray they are an encouragement to you in your walk with Christ!

Devotional Passage: Philippians 1:12-21

“…as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Philippians 1:20

We might expect that somebody imprisoned for nothing more than sharing the gospel would be embittered. Surely, Paul could have been spiteful toward his guards, the government, or even God. We might even make excuses for him. Yet Paul had joy, even while imprisoned and chained to a guard. His overriding concern during his greatest trial was that he honored Christ, whether it be by the way he lived his life or by his death.

Paul expected that he would be delivered. But whether that deliverance was through release from prison or release from the body, he knew that he was invincible because the Spirit of Christ indwelled him.

Because of Jesus you can face any circumstance with boldness. This honors and magnifies Christ. During difficult times, remember that Jesus is with you. Even in death, the power of the resurrection opens the door to eternal joy with Jesus.

Father, whatever I face today, help me to know that Christ is near. May this truth give me courage to honor Him.

Love Your Wife Like Jesus Loves Her: Ten Great Loves for Every Husband

 

My article originally appeared at DesiringGod.org.

Some days, you go to Bible study and your life is slowly but imperceptibly changed. Other days, you go to Bible study and something in God’s word changes the trajectory of the rest of your life.

One spring day in 1998, as an 18-year-old college freshman, I understood marriage in a way I never had before. I had signed up for a Bible study taught by my college pastor, “Preparing for Marriage.” That day, Pastor Doug Busby gave me and all of the young men in the room an assignment that I have been working on for the last 22 years. I will continue to work on this homework until, for my wife and me, “death do us part.”

My pastor read to us, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). Then he asked us the obvious question (the question we husbands so often fail to ask in the daily grind of work and family life): How does Jesus love the church?

Ten Christlike Loves

As I have scoured the Scriptures, year after year, looking for ways that Jesus loves the church, ways that he calls me to echo his love for me in my love for my wife, I have found ten great loves. As a husband, God calls you to love your wife like Jesus loves her, so meditate on his deep, complex, and unparalleled love.

1. Stubborn Love

Jesus won’t ever leave his bride. He says to her, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). His love for your wife is based not on her performance, but on his covenant love for her. When we keep our marriage covenants through all of the challenges and changes over years of married life, we reflect his kind of stubborn, delight-filled love. May our wives know the comfort of love that says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

2. Hopeful Love

When Jesus looks at your bride, he sees her as already sanctified. This hope is anchored in the power and promise of the gospel. Paul writes to believers, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). In fact, he sees her not only as already sanctified, but as already glorified (Romans 8:30). How often would your wife say that your love for her “hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)? By keeping eternity in mind, you can have patience with your wife, just as Jesus does with her — and you.

3. Pursuing Love

Jesus never takes a break from pursuing your wife’s heart, not romantically but persistently. In fact, he cares not only about her devotion, but also her affection (Psalm 37:4). He is the tireless Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the one (Luke 15:4–7). In a similar way, God is glorified when a husband continually seeks a deeper relationship with his wife. A husband who has been captured by Jesus’s love is an incurable romantic toward his wife.

4. Forgiving Love

Jesus gives your wife grace when she doesn’t deserve it. It may be that the most Christlike thing you can do is offer your wife forgiveness on a daily basis, remembering that you too are in need of forgiveness. The picture of forgiving love that every husband should seek to emulate is Jesus making breakfast for Peter, who had sinned against him, denying him three times at his crucifixion (John 21:12–15). Is it you or your wife who is usually the first to begin to move toward reconciliation when it’s needed?

5. Joyful Love

Jesus doesn’t just put up with your wife or grudgingly but persistently love her — Jesus loves to love her. He delights to be with his bride. He receives joy by giving us joy (Hebrews 12:2). Wives who are loved this deeply, who know their husbands love to love them, are often an even greater blessing to others. Love your wife so joyfully that it’s obvious to her and others.

6. Serving Love

Jesus served her in life and death. There is nothing — nothing — that God can call you to do for your wife that would be too much! Jesus “gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Many husbands think of themselves as kings to be served, but you and I are called by God to be the chief servants in our homes. The way to Christlikeness in our marriages is through joining Jesus in taking up the towel and the basin (John 13:12–17).

7. Sanctifying Love

Jesus loves your wife by helping her to grow in holiness and by being her advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1). Do you encourage your wife to go to Bible study, even if it means you have to care for the kids by yourself for the evening? Do you regularly bring your wife before the Father in prayer? Work hard to help your wife blossom spiritually.

8. Leading Love

Jesus leads us to what is good for us. Jesus not only loves your wife with a leading rather than a passive love, but he also leads her toward what is good (Psalm 23:2). It is impossible to lead our wives spiritually if we ourselves are not being led by God through the word and prayer. One way you can lead her well is by seeking her input and then making big decisions (and accepting the consequences), rather than allowing the decisions and consequences to fall to her.

9. Providing Love

Jesus provides your wife with all that she needs. Do you notice your wife’s needs, even beyond physical provision, and do something about it? Christ nourishes her, providing an environment for growth and flourishing. The apostle Paul explains to us that “in the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28). It made a marked difference in my marriage when I realized that it was my responsibility to do what I could to fill my wife’s sails.

10. Knowing Love

Jesus knows your wife better than she knows herself. He has an informed love for her. He knows her strengths, her weaknesses, and he acts on her behalf (Ephesians 5:29–30). While we will never know our wives like God knows them, he wants us to know them as well as we can. Our prayers for them will always be hindered if we fail to know them (1 Peter 3:7). Our wives know they are cherished when we make an effort to really know them.

Defy the Serpent with Love

One evening, I walked down the hallway from our bedroom with bare feet when I saw something you never want to see in your hallway: a snake tail sticking out where the floor meets the wall. It turned out that there was a crack in our foundation, and a snake had made its way through the crack, and up into our home.

Brothers, we have an enemy, that ancient serpent, who desires to squirm his way into our homes and cause havoc. But praise God, we know the snake crusher, Jesus Christ, who has already defeated him and loved us with a supernatural love. Know that when you love your wife like Jesus loves her, the foundation of your marriage is strengthened, Satan is defeated again, and Christ is lifted up for more to see.

God, Help Me to See My Small-Town Church as You Do

This article first appeared at Small Town Summits Articles.

God, I confess that I can’t see anything as I should without you opening my eyes. Just as the Psalmist cried out to you so he could behold wondrous things in your law (Psalm 119:18), and just as the Apostle Paul begged you to give him clearer vision of all of the blessings of the gospel (Ephesians 1:18), I ask you now to help me see my small-town church as you do. Please change my occasional glimpses of the glory of your church and the advance of your gospel to a steady gaze. Give me the gift of seeing through your eyes.

Father, help me to see my small-town church as you do. Where I sometimes see needy people, you see your chosen and beloved ones (Ephesians 1:4) in whom is all of your delight. Help me to see your precious people as you do. Where I sometimes see the problems or concerns more than the blessings, you see the church of God, sanctified and called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). Where I sometimes see people that I have grown familiar with and taken for granted, you see your sons and daughters who are heirs of no less than you yourself (Romans 8:16-17)!

Spirit, help me to see my small-town church as you do. Where I sometimes see a few people struggling but striving to make a kingdom impact, you see an outpost of your kingdom, pushing back the spiritual darkness with the light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Where I sometimes see a lack of ministries compared to bigger churches in larger towns, you see a church that has all of the resources it really needs because you have amply and sovereignly supplied each of the members of your church with the gifts that are needed (Romans 12:4-6). Where I sometimes see young believers who I wish were more mature in their faith at this point, you see young believers who are sealed by you (Ephesians 1:13) and who you are working in and through.

Jesus, help me to see my small-town church as you do. Where I sometimes see an unimpressive building and tired believers, you see your Bride as beautiful and resplendent, being prepared for that great Wedding Feast (Revelation 19:7-8). Just as I saw nothing but beauty in my bride on our wedding day as she walked down the aisle toward me, help me to see that your Bride, your church in this small town, is washed clean by your blood (Revelation 7:14) and adorned with your glorious gospel (Titus 2:10-11). You can’t take your eyes off of her because your love is constant and covenant-like, while my love is fickle and intermittent. Jesus, give me more glimpses of how beautiful your Bride is to you so that I can serve her better as I work with you to prepare her for yourself.

God, just as you opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant to see that you were working all around them when it seemed so dark (2 Kings 6:17), open my eyes to see that you are always working for the advance of your kingdom around us. Give me clearer vision so that I can see you and your work in my time and place. Help me to see this small place, with all of its blessings and even all of its quirks, through the lens of a big gospel and a big God!

The only way that I can see your church this way is if you brighten my eyes with your glory so that new light is shed on everything around me. God, help me to see my small-town church as you do.

Absolute Certainty About Jesus AND…

This article was featured on the Baptist Convention of New England blog.

To be a Christian in today’s cultural context takes courage and commitment. When we are talking with friends, relatives, and neighbors about something as personal as what will happen to them after they die, it can sound strange and offensive to them that Jesus is the only way to Heaven.

But it will help us hold firm to our convictions if we remember that they and us trust that other people in our lives have absolute certainty about life or death situations all of the time.

  • A pharmacist better have absolute certainty about the pills that he or she is dispensing. I have a severe penicillin allergy, and a pharmacist giving me the wrong medicine could not only hospitalize me, it could cost me my life.
  • An engineer must have absolute certainty about every centimeter of a bridge that he or she is planning. A bridge on an interstate over a large river near where we used to live collapsed due to an engineering error. Two cars plunged into the river, cars piled up as they slammed on their brakes to avoid going in the water, and several people almost died.
  • A surgeon must have absolute certainty of what they are doing, especially before he or she operates on a vital organ like your heart! Can you imagine going ahead with surgery if your doctor explained, “I think that I know how to do this heart surgery. It just feels right–to me, anyway.”
  • An explosives expert in the army who is deployed in the Middle East must have absolute certainty about which wires to cut!

Given that we have no problem understanding that people need to have certainty in these life or death situations, we should not be surprised that Jesus says that He is THE way, THE truth, and THE life, and no one comes to the Father but through him (John 14:6). Since Jesus claims to be the God-man come from Heaven to bring us eternal life, it makes sense that he is certain about who he is and clear that he is the only way to Heaven.

If you can trust your heart surgeon, you can have absolute certainty in the Son of God.

As Christians, we need to be clear that we have absolute certainty about who Jesus is and what he claims to have done for us if we will trust him. Of course we still love our friends and family if they reject Jesus for themselves, but may they at least always be able to say that they know we have absolute certainty about Jesus being the only Savior. It’s the very least we can do for them.

The examples I gave that everybody in our society accepts as people who need to be certain about their jobs are not even as clear of a parallel as our certainty about Jesus because we know that pharmacists, engineers, surgeons, and explosive experts do sometimes make mistakes. They are only human. But Jesus is not only human.

We can have absolute confidence in him both for our eternal salvation and as the only hope for our yet unbelieving family and friends. As John the Apostle explained, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)

Father, Help Us To See

img_7476

This article was featured at The Baptist Convention of New England blog.

Father, help us to see.

Father, help us to see you. We are spiritually blind without your Spirit giving us eyes to see (Ephesians 1:18) and we need to see you, first and foremost. If we can see you in all of your glory, all of your power, all of your justice, and all of your grace, then we will know that you are at work in us, for us, around us, and through us.

Father, help us to see the work you are doing in us. We so often feel like we take one step forward and two steps backward in our pursuit of you. We so often end up needing to learn the same lessons again, or struggling to believe what you have promised us in your Word. Help us to see the little victories, the little inclinations of our hearts when we lean towards you more quickly than we used to. Help us to see temptations overcome hour by hour. Help us to see that you are committed to us. Help us to see that you will complete the work you have begun in us (Philippians 1:6).

Father, help us to see the work you are doing for us. In this fallen world it is often hard to believe that you are working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). Help us to adopt your definition of good, the highest goal of becoming more like Jesus (Romans 8:29). Help us to see that there is no greater love than your love that will never let us go (Romans 8:38-39). Help us to see how you are working for us in ten thousand ways, because as John Piper says, we can only see about three of them right now. Like the Israelites standing on the edge of the Red Sea in front of them with enemies coming at them from behind, help us to see that you will fight for us if we are still and will trust you (Exodus 14:14).

Father, help us to see the work you are doing around us. Just as you opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant to see that you were working all around them when it seemed so dark (2 Kings 6:17), open our eyes to see that you are always working for the advance of your Kingdom around us. We so often can’t see it, but you are working around us every day. People are reading the Word and coming to an understanding of who Jesus is. People are finding out they have cancer and coming to grips with their mortality. People are asking questions about you and your Son because of something they heard when they were children. Father, we need your help to be able to see the work you are doing around us, because without your light we only see darkness.

Father, help us to see the work you are doing through us, for the advance of the gospel. We are laboring in your vineyard but the sun is hot and we are weary. It seems that often where we plant seeds, weeds spring up. Father, help us to see that you are at work through us for the advance of the gospel. Help us to see that you are more zealous for your own glory than we are (Isaiah 48:11). Help us to see that you don’t just work in those places and those times, but you are at work among us and even through us today. Help us to see the single mom coming to church and growing in her love for Jesus. Help us to see the teenager sitting in the same pew he has been in since he was a baby, who is beginning to believe–really believe–that Jesus is his Lord and Savior. Help us to see the tired married couple beginning to love each other the way you tell them to for the first time, as they are discipled through your church. Help us to see the friend beginning to ask questions about the gospel, the friend we never expected would ever be interested in Jesus.

Father, help us to see you, and help us to see what you are doing in us, for us, around us, and through us. Just as Jesus touched Blind Bartimaeus when he called out to him and he gave him his sight (Mark 10:51-52), we are calling out to you and asking you to restore our sight, so we can see you and your work in our time and place. We await your touch. Father, help us to see.

Look to Faithful Believers, But Fix Your Eyes on Jesus

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.