Cicero wisely said, “To remain ignorant of what has happened before you were born is to remain always a child.” Imagine if during every summer break a student forgot everything she had learned during the previous school year. After kindergarten, her mind is wiped clean. Then, after struggling through first grade and barely keeping up, the next summer vacation clears her once again, and she starts over again for second grade. What would be the result? Although she might grow physically and keep advancing in grade levels, she would never have the necessary knowledge upon which to build. She would remain forever a child, needing somebody to instruct her over and over again about basic, foundational principles.
Similarly, the whole church must continue to pass along what she has learned throughout the past two thousand years of growth and development if she is to continue to understand and behave in a mature manner today and to continue to grow in the future. It only takes one negligent generation to forget the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the entire history of the church. To prevent this tragic amnesia, the church must continually look back at its history in order to apply its amassed knowledge to present circumstances and to pass it on to the next generation.
Besides the benefit of corporate maturity, individuals can grow in both knowledge and wisdom by reflecting on the past. That is, history provides us with bad examples to avoid as well as good models to follow. The more lessons we learn from the victories and defeats of those who have gone before us, the more mature we’ll be today. This concept of looking back to the saints of old for inspiration goes all the way back to the first century.
After Hebrews 11 reviewed the lives of the Old Testament men and women of faith, the author concluded, “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” (12:1). The words and works of those saints who have gone before us still surround us like a cloud, inspiring us to follow their examples and avoid their mistakes (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1, 5–6, 11).
It shouldn’t surprise us that immediately after the age of the apostles, their disciples began to look to the apostles’ lives as examples as well. We see this already by AD 95 in a letter from Clement of Rome, who could have been the same “Clement” Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3. Clement wrote:
But to pass from the examples of ancient times [the Old Testament], let us come to those champions who lived nearest to our time. Let us consider the noble examples that belong to our own generation. Because of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars were persecuted and fought to the death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles. There was Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy endured not one or two but many trials, and thus having given his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. Because of jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize for patient endurance. After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the east and in the west, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the west. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance. (1 Clement, 5:1–7)
Throughout church history, Christians continued to remember the examples and teachings of earlier believers who had followed Christ in both life and death. At first glance these believers may seem remote, distant, and completely irrelevant in our modern Christian context. However, a closer examination will reveal that these men and women struggled with faith, hope, endurance, suffering, persecution, patience, and other matters of spiritual growth common to every generation. Like objects in a rearview mirror, the Christians of the past are spiritually “closer” than they appear. Today we can also gain wisdom and inspiration from the lives of those saints who have gone before us: church fathers, theologians, Reformers, preachers, missionaries, and martyrs.