Christians have struggled with the concept of imitation in recent decades. On the liberal end of the American church spectrum, Jesus has largely been reduced to serving as a nice example, the kind of guy whose love and inclusiveness should be imitated. On the other end of the spectrum, some conservative evangelicals have reacted with alarm, avoiding or even decrying imitation.

In evangelicalism’s messy middle, Daniel’s diet plan is a model, Jesus is an exemplar for CEOs, and moralistic “be like” sermons shorn of the gospel sometimes beat down without mercy on the souls of the saints.

Anyone who grew up in the “messy middle” has stories that illustrate the confusion. I remember walking around a church property seven times in an attempt to pray away a drainage problem. Our church’s leaders were inspired by the book of Joshua and Hebrews 11:30. We were attempting to imitate biblical characters’ actions in hopes that we would achieve success like they did.

Moralistic ‘be like’ sermons shorn of the gospel sometimes beat down without mercy on the souls of the saints.

For those confused or concerned about imitation, the final three chapters of Hebrews (Heb. 11–13) function as a brief training manual for faith, obedience, and the imitation of Jesus and the saints. We’ll look at two important features in these three chapters that help us avoid errors and put imitation to work.

1. Biblical Definition of Imitation

This section of Hebrews helps us define imitation. Indeed, confusion often arises when we define it too narrowly. For those living in the era of cloning and photocopiers, this may be hard to grasp, but exact duplication is rarely the point of biblical imitation. This is where the messy middle often goes wrong. When Paul told the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), he wasn’t calling them to take exactly 12 disciples or to speak Aramaic (or walk around their church property seven times). Rather, he was calling them to a cross-shaped, self-sacrificial pattern of life.

That’s precisely what we find when we examine Hebrews 11 in its literary context. The author doesn’t necessarily expect his readers to be crucified like Jesus, nor does he invite them to conquer Canaan or win wars. Rather, he wants his audience to prepare to do good and suffer (Heb. 12:4; 13:1–25).

Exact duplication is rarely the point of biblical imitation.

There’s an especially strong emphasis on what these characters lost because of their faith and obedience. While there are some impressive successes, the losses that mounted through the centuries make for an impressive list: life, family, land, household goods, inheritance, health, prosperity, social importance, and reputations. These Old Testament saints denied themselves and bore their crosses just as we’re required to do (Mark 8:34), and thus are worthy of contemplation and imitation.

As Hebrews 13:7 suggests, the imitation of belief should be precise. But when it comes to behavior, Jesus and the saints become more imitate-able when we engage in creative reflection of their godly patterns in life. In neither era are the saints engaged in “precise duplication” of Jesus’s crucifixion. But in both eras, a cross-shaped pattern marks the saints’ lives.

2. Faith as the Motivator for Imitation

With the refrain “by faith,” the author of Hebrews shows us the necessary theological context for our imitation in chapter 11 (see also Heb. 13:7). Charles Drew notes that the “limited knowledge” of the ancients “did not keep them from looking to the same Savior in whom we trust.” This is true even though we have fuller revelation on this side of the cross and resurrection. Faith that attains the hoped-for things promised by God (Heb. 11:1)—believing that God exists and rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6)—is the entry point and ongoing context for a faithful life in every generation. 

The Old Testament itself taught that religious works avail nothing apart from faith, even if we’re striving to copy Jesus. This is why the moralistic left-wing form of imitation fails. But the other side of the coin is equally important. Hebrews repeatedly coordinates faith and obedience (and unbelief and disobedience) in ways that show how faith and works go hand-in-hand (Heb. 3:18–19; 4:2, 6; 5:9–10; 10:23–39). The characters in Hebrews 11 are our ancestors in faith, and our ancestors in good works. And they’re our ancestors in good works because they’re our ancestors in true faith.

The characters in Hebrews 11 are our ancestors in faith, and our ancestors in good works.

For Hebrews as for James and the rest of the New Testament, true faith is never inert, but always working. As Luther famously put it in his preface to Romans, faith “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing. . . . It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.” Whether the task was building an ark, offering up a son, hiding spies, or conquering Canaan, good works flowed “by faith” in Hebrews 11.

The list of saints shows us how, in Luther’s words, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.” Throughout Israel’s history, faith-filled men and women dared to stake their lives on the belief that God’s promises would come true. As a result, they obtained promises. They forsook idols. They died or risked death, choosing faithfulness to the God of Israel over the gods of the nations. They looked forward to a better inheritance than they could obtain in one earthly lifetime.

Moreover, Jesus is “the perfect model of their imperfect faith.” His trust in the Father shows us what kind of faith-filled children we should be in the face of suffering (Heb. 12:1–11). We, too, are called to stake our lives on God’s goodness and entrust ourselves fully to his ability to keep his promises, just as Jesus and the Old Testament saints did.

Don’t Waste Biblical Examples

Regardless of where on the contemporary church spectrum we’ve been, Hebrews 11 invites us to refine our approach to imitation, reminding us that faith in the God who keeps his promises is always the essential context for imitation.

A faithful life in Israel’s day and our own requires faith and holiness rather than unbelief and worldliness. Hebrews 11 suggests that if we fail to take Old Testament believers as patterns of faith and obedience, we’re robbing ourselves of an invaluable ingredient in Christian discipleship. Perhaps the author includes so many of our ancestors in the faith in order to say, “We need all the examples we can get.”