The spiritual value of reading history

When I was in school, one of my least favorite subjects each year was history. Each history lesson just seemed to be a tangle of confusing names and random dates. If there were any compelling stories to be found in history, it didn’t seem that any of my history teachers knew them. And then in 8th grade that began to change.

I don’t remember the teacher’s name or what facet of history she taught and I don’t remember anything about her teaching style, but she captivated my attention. And not just my attention, but the whole class. In fact, I remember that administrators from the district were sent to her classroom to find out why 8th graders were suddenly interested in history and scoring well on tests. Whatever else she did, she ignited an interest in history in a class of some 25 adolescent students.

Since that time, I’ve had other history teachers that seemingly did there best to make their student’s eyes glaze over with boredom, but I’ve not lost my interest in history. In my library, the history and biography section is one of the largest sections. In fact, I have put those volumes on a shelving unit in front of my desk to symbolically remind myself each time I enter my office that I am following after their tradition and everything I do is built on their foundation.

We need history. We need biography. We need to be reminded of how faithful men and women of God have lived for Christ in past ages. And that’s one of the reasons that we are taking seven Sunday mornings to think about the Reformation and the theological truths that arose out of the Reformation.

But is it appropriate to preach about history and biography and extensively use history to illustrate biblical truth and theology? Is mimicking the life patterns of others warranted in the Bible?

Scripture does seem to indicate that it is appropriate. While we don’t preach the lives of men, and the lives of men do not have authority in themselves, there is biblical warrant for looking back at the lives of those who have preceded us. Consider some of the following passages:

  • Hebrews 13:7 — “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” The writer to the Hebrews is not exhorting his readers to remember the biblical patriarchs, but to remember the people who had individually taught them the gospel and trained them in biblical truth. They were to consider the lives of real people whom they really knew and emulate and follow their lives.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:1 — “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Of course Paul was worth following because he was an Apostle; and we still follow his example as we read his writings. But the NT points to other examples of following godly men. Paul uses the same word for imitation in 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; Heb 6:12. Those verses contain a broad list of people to imitate (not just apostles). In other words, use the lives of faithful believers as a pattern for your own life. I think it was Tozer who said, “Find the man who follows God and follow hard after him.” We need worthy examples to follow and we need to follow those worthy examples.
  • 1 Cor. 10:6, 11 — “Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.…Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The events of history (particularly as recorded in Scripture) have been given for us to consider, follow, learn from, and heed. History is our example of how to follow and obey Christ. Consider what John Piper has written about the significance of learning history:

“…never debunk history. Never scorn the past. Never stop learning from the providence of God and what He has put forward as our lesson book. Knowing history will increase the urgency and preciousness of our present life, because it will make this life look very short against the unrelenting flow of centuries. That is a good lesson to learn. Life is a vapor. Anything to help us see this will make us wiser…Gain some knowledge of the past every day. And let us give ourselves and our children one of the best protections against the folly of the future, namely, a knowledge of the past.” [Life as a Vapor]

  • Romans 15:4 — “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The stories of Scripture are not just interesting stories; these are historical events and people that are given so that we might live hopefully in our world; those who preceded us were hopeful, so we can be also.
  • Hebrews 11 (esp. vv. 32-40) — This entire chapter is given to teach us what it means to live by faith; and the way the writer teaches us is by pointing to real people who lived in adverse circumstances and still persevered with Christ.

There is value in looking at the lives of real people of God who have preceded us and been faithful to Christ and imitate their example. Now this is not to say that the life of Luther or Calvin or the person who led you to Christ is as authoritative as Scripture; they are not. And that’s why we don’t preach sermons about men not in Scripture. But it is to say that history is “His story,” and by looking at past events and people, we can be pointed to the faithfulness and character of God. And that’s, in part, what we’re doing in this sermon series.

So look to the past. Heed the examples. Look for errant and godly theology. Imitate the wise and godly. Shun the foolish and ungodly. And, as Luther himself reminds us, let Scripture be supreme over all things, including your examination of history, and let history drive you always to Scripture and the God who breathed out that Word:

“The writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time, in order that through them we may be led to the Holy Scriptures. As it is, however, we read them only to be absorbed in them and never come to the Scriptures. We are like men who study the sign-posts and never travel the road. The dear fathers wished by their writing, to lead us to the Scriptures, but we so use them as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought all to work and toil.”

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