When the author of Hebrews calls these believers to remember the leaders that have now passed on, we must be certain about what he is calling them to do


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"A Ministry to Remember. . . and Heed!"


April 6, 2008



Often in ordination services, there are charges given to both the church and the person being ordained.  There are certain solemn times when that approach is very appropriate and I think this is one of them.  These rare moments in the life of a church and individual are rich times for taking stock and being reminded of our privileges and responsibilities before God and each other as pastors and as the bride of Christ.  Therefore, I will use this time in the word to issue a charge to both Daniel and the church.  Neither of these charges is exclusive to the other and I trust by God’s grace both have much truth that is suitable for all of us.  My first charge is to Daniel.

The text I have chosen is Hebrews 13:7.  The author writes to these Hebrew believers, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”   We know from the verb tenses in this verse, the author is calling these Hebrew believers to remember or reflect upon their former church leaders who have gone on to be with the Lord.  It almost certainly refers to pastor/elder type leaders.  The first truth we want to bring out from this verse is—Your service to Christ’s church should be overwhelmingly marked by your ministry of the word of God.  Notice that the author’s only description of these former leaders is “those who spoke to you the word of God.”  There has never been more temptation in America for the pastor to neglect this ministry.  There are simply so many facets to the task of overseeing a church as that is expected to be done today; it is easy to neglect the ministry of the word.  George Barna of the Barna research group helps us see this dynamic.  He said this. “Our studies show that church-goers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks. That's a recipe for failure - nobody can handle the wide range of responsibilities that people expect pastors to master… Trained in theology, they are expected to master leadership, politics, finance, management, psychology and conflict resolution.”  In the midst of those manifold expectations, it is easy to lose sight of what is at the very heart of our call, which is the preaching and teaching and living out the word of God.  In the Pastoral Epistles, it is the ability to teach that distinguishes the elder from the deacon and from others in the body, all of whom are called to live out holy lives.

In the book of Acts, as the church exploded and the material needs of the church grew, the apostles set apart seven men to help fill those needs so that they could “devote [them]selves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”  These two tasks were not vacuumed sealed apart from one another.  It is the prayer behind the ministry of the word that enables the preached, taught and lived out word to cause people to treasure Christ more, hate sin more and fear God more.  Notice the author of Hebrews is not referring only to those leaders who preach from the pulpit.  This is stated more broadly than that.  These leaders are those who “spoke the word of God to you.”  This is more a way of life—a style of living and ministry that is radically oriented around the word.  This certainly should occur from the pulpit, but it is probably more likely to occur across the dinner table or in a boat or in a car or in a committee meeting or a counseling session.  The entire ministry should be saturated with the word of God—with his counsel.  We are to give it out to those for whom, in the midst of affliction, it is the first thing they want to hear. And we are to give it out to people for whom, in the midst of their blindness and idolatry, it is frankly the last thing they want to hear--in season and out of season.  There is a radical centrality of the ministry word of God implied here. 

Although we hear this message of the centrality of the ministry of the word all the time in our evangelical culture, it is too frequently not seen in our leaders.  The truth remains--if our ministries are to have eternal impact—if they are to honor God and genuinely bless people for the long haul, they must be radically centered around the word of God.  We can let everything else go for a season when things get busy, but we dare never let this one go.  The pastor’s greatest legacy, whether in or out of the pulpit, will be--he ministered through his life and doctrine the word of God to his flock.  Daniel, I have so much appreciated your willingness to do this in our midst.  I charge you to continue to make this your priority.

Another related truth seen in this passage could be stated: Your life and ministry should be exemplary to the degree that memories of you should powerfully encourage the flock after you are gone. The author does not say, remember those leaders who were pleasant or well groomed or had personal charisma or were administrative gurus or even visionary leaders.   The author of Hebrews is writing to people who have been beat up for their faith and remembering those qualities about a person frankly do nothing to inspire people who are in the midst of trial.  If I am going through trials like the Hebrew believers were, bringing to my memory a man who was simply articulate and affectionate and had a great sense of humor will not help me much.  But bringing to memory a pastor who I knew personally and who authentically spoke and lived the word, that can impel me to go on when I feel like quitting.


The primary command in this verse is “Remember your leaders…” When the author of Hebrews calls these believers to remember the leaders that have now passed on, we must be certain about what he is calling them to do.  He is not calling them to take a sentimental trip down memory lane.  He’s not commanding the church to superficially reminisce about their past leaders.  His point is similar to his motivation for writing that great section on faith in chapter 11 where he calls to mind all those faith-filled leaders of the past.  The author is calling on these Hebrews to remember their former, now dead leaders because the great example that they set can powerfully encourage those who are now with them.  It’s one thing to remember Abraham, the patriarchs and Moses--that is incredibly inspiring.  But the encouragement that they can give is of a limited nature. That’s because the Biblical characters tend to take on a larger-than-life quality in spite of our understanding that they are fallen sinners.  We have to work at keeping them from an almost mythical status in spite of all the Bible does to show us their fallenness.  That same dynamic can be seen on a different level as we reflect on the lives of Luther, Calvin and Edwards, Bunyan, Hudson Taylor and C. H. Spurgeon.  


More importantly, another reason those figures of long past history have limited powers of inspiration is because we didn’t know them personally.  We never had a chance to see them handle a crisis—they never prayed for us.  We have no first hand experience of how their particular personalities and weaknesses were shaped and used by God.  We don’t know what most of them were like as parents or husbands—at least not in any detail.  We can only speculate wildly how Moses would have handled the emergence of television or the internet or the sexual revolution or the feminist movement or the emergent church.  We just don’t know.  But Pastor Jones, who went home to be with the Lord last year—him, we knew.  We have a skin and bones picture of him.  We saw his warts up close—we saw how he prayed and how he parented and how he handled people who hated him.  We have seen him in the furnace of affliction. We have seen him go through all of that and the author tells these Hebrew believers who are struggling to live out the Christian life that remembering these leaders will encourage them to persevere in the faith and continue to die daily for Jesus. 


F.F. Bruce is dead on when he says, “…there is something in the vivid recollection of a life that we have seen which cannot be conveyed by a record that has come to us only by reading or hearing.” [Hebrews p.375]  We know that is the burden of the author here because he says later on in the verse “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.  The author calls them to consider or to carefully reflect upon the outcome of their way of life.”  So the author wants the believers to focus especially on the outcome of the way they lived out the Christian life.  This is a difficult verse to interpret in part because of the uncertainty of that word translated “outcome.”  It’s only used one other place in the New Testament and that reference is of little help.  The word literally means “to walk out.” The author draws attention in some broad way to the way they exited or walked out of this life.  In light of other passages in Hebrews, it is doubtful that these leaders had been martyred. 


What we do know is that these readers were told to spend time reflecting on how these leaders lived and how they died.  People generally die the way they lived.  If they are people full of faith in life—if they walk by faith in life, they will generally walk by faith in death and that is a powerful witness.  It is even more powerful within a first century culture where people died without pain-killing drugs; where the dying process often took months and was filled with exquisite sufferings.  You discover what is in someone’s heart when they go through that kind of prolonged, agonizing trial—you find out what is really inside them—what makes them tick.  The author is calling these people to be inspired by the memory of how their now deceased leaders lived and how they died.  This dynamic has been proven in church history.  Someone asked John Wesley why the movement he started was growing so rapidly.  He said simply, “Our people die well.”  That almost certainly means that they also lived well.


The power of this truth is somewhat obscured today in part because medical advances have thankfully made the process of dying so much less tortuous.  This truth also rang more true within that culture because being a Christian was universally recognized as being a very hard thing and so people felt the desperate need for as many sources of encouragement as possible.  We see this within the book of Hebrews.  In 10:34, the author says of these Jewish believers, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”  The verse refers to a period of persecution Rome brought upon Jews who had converted to Jesus.  We can’t be sure of the exact dates.  We do know that these kind of mass scale evictions, where believers were forced to leave their homes and where many were imprisoned, were not unheard of during the time of the writing of this letter. 


The author points to the fact that these believers had shown compassion on their brothers and sisters in Christ who had been imprisoned.  That was a very courageous thing to do because if you went to visit a believer in prison at this time and place in history, you were almost certainly exposing yourself as a believer and that put you at risk for being imprisoned along with them.  But they visited their imprisoned brothers and sisters nonetheless.  This was life-saving ministry because the prisons didn’t provide food for the inmates.  If someone didn’t come to visit you in prison bringing you food, you died, irrespective of the seriousness of your crime.  So these believers risked their own arrest to visit their imprisoned brothers and sisters and they also “joyfully accepted the plundering of your property since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”  Some of these believers lost everything.  Yet here we learn that they accepted the plundering of their property with the joy that comes from faith, believing that their suffering would work for their eternal good.  That’s the kind of believers these people were. 


These are the kinds of people who would need all the sources of encouragement they could find to bring them through the storms of life.  So, the author of Hebrews commands them to reflect on now deceased church leaders—their lives, and the way their faith enabled them to suffer and die.  This is still relevant today even though not many of us have had our property plundered for being a Christian.  If we are to be faithful to persevere to the end in the midst of the mine field of temptations that seek to pull us away from Christ in North America—if we are going to have the courage to be genuinely counter cultural—if we are going to have the spiritual resources to live for Christ in a godless culture, we need all the encouragement we can get as well.  Daniel, God has called us to be the kind of pastors whose lives are so conformed to Christ, that when we die, people will draw sufficient strength from their memories of us, that they will be able to withstand the idolatries of this world and face whatever trials they encounter for being a follower of Christ.  This is so sobering and yet it is also encouraging because God would never call us to be such leaders if he hadn’t also given us the capacity to live and die well in Jesus.


Now, let me turn to the charge to the church and I want to stay right here in chapter 13.  Verse 17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”   The truth of this verse has been much abused in the history of Christ’s church.  This truth has been wrongly used to justify tyrannical authority by leaders in churches and denominations.  This verse is obviously no license for that kind of irresponsible abuse.  On the other side of the scale, it has been abused—particularly in Protestant churches where the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer is taught.  In those traditions—and we are a part of that—this verse has been abused by the fact that it is often completely ignored.  Many Baptists and people within the Free Church tradition frankly have no place in their theology of the church for this verse.  The words “obey” and “pastor” simply do not belong together for them.


Why do you suppose that is?  Think about it.  We live in a North American culture that prizes a fierce independence where authority of any kind is increasingly despised.  Today, people feel they have a divine right to have a voice in deciding virtually every matter of consequence.  The erosion of authority in the home, workplace and society in general is an established fact in our culture.  This is the context in which we live and we are naïve if we think it hasn’t affected how we read the Bible.  Biblical truths like the universal priesthood of all believers—we are all priests before God and have access to God.  Our culture causes much of the church to hold that because we are all priests, therefore we all get a voice.  Baptist pastor Leith Anderson rightly counters by saying that the Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers does not mean that everyone gets a voice, but that everyone gets a job.  Knowing those potential barriers to understanding what this text means to a church and its relationship to its leaders—at least the pastor-elders; let’s unpack this verse to get some help here.


First, the words “obey” and “submit” are not weak words as if they don’t truly mean “obey” and “submit.”  The word translated “obey” here is the same one James uses in 3:3.  Speaking of horses, James says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.” That doesn’t mean that church members are to be equated with horses, but it certainly does mean is that this command to obey should not be stripped of its force by interpreting it as “give some thought to what they say,” or “Hear them out, but if you don’t happen to like what they tell you, then feel free to ignore them.”  The word translated “obey” simply does not mean that.  Likewise, “submit” means to “give deference to them.”  Respectfully honor what they tell you and the grammar communicates that this submitting is to be a continuous action.


Again, this is not a license for dictatorial leadership on the part of pastors.  There are no Protestant popes and pastors are called to servant leadership.  Peter tells pastors in First Peter 5:3 that they not to be “domineering over those in your charge, but [be] examples to the flock.”  Peter knows the authority of the undershepherd is substantial and, like all real authority, is open to possible abuse.  So he reminds pastors not to lord their authority over those who are in their care.  The wonderful thing about this text in Hebrews 13:17 is that the author is careful to back up these commands to obey and submit to leaders by giving his reasons why the church should comply.  I see two reasons here.


First, because pastors keep watch over your souls.  The author says, “they are keeping watch over your souls.”  The phrase translated “keeping watch” is a metaphor that stirs up images of a shepherd watching over his flock.  John Owen says this phrase “denotes a watchfulness with the greatest care and diligence…”  Another commentator paints this picture.  He says, “Many a minister of the Gospel is often awake, burning the midnight oil, while the members of his flock are asleep. Many a one can say, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you” (2 Cor 12:15).  He continues, “The ministerial office is no idler’s one; it makes demands on heart, mind, and nervous energy, such as none other does.”  One application is that pastors who are faithful—(and that is a crucial qualifier) don’t sit around and dream up things for their people to do so that they can feel important.  No.  They are shepherds who are watching out for the most precious commodity conceivable—your eternal souls.  If God has given them that work to do, then their people can obey and submit to them when their directives are Biblical and properly communicated.  Notice, the concern is not that the church should obey so as to not bruise the pastor’s fragile ego.  The concern of the author is not ultimately with the well being of the pastor here, but with the entire church.  They keep watch over your souls.”


That’s even more explicit in the second half of verse 17 where he says, “Let them do this [watch over your souls] with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”  Again, see his heart is for the advantage of the entire church.  The pastors, when they are consistently opposed cannot serve with joy.  They are instead “groaners.”  That is, they sigh in their souls—they become discouraged and downcast.  Joyless shepherds are not simply a curse to their wives and families.  They are bad news for the entire church—there is no advantage to the church in that.  The logic is simple—obey and submit to leaders so that they can serve with joy so that the church might be blessed.


A second reason why the church should obey and submit to the pastoral leadership is because pastors will have to give an account to God for their ministry.  This accounting speaks of the judgment seat of Christ. The pastor is given a stewardship and he, in ways that others in the church will never be called upon, will stand before God and answer to how he oversaw that stewardship.  Again, let this sink in.  The most precious commodity imaginable—more precious than gold or silver or diamonds or reputation or children—is your soul.  God entrusts your soul to spiritual shepherds.  That doesn’t diminish individual responsibility for believers to learn to walk with Christ.  No one will be able to stand before God and justify their idolatries or their spiritual immaturity by blaming bad pastors.  But what is clearly implied is that the health of a person’s soul is tied in some way to the pastoral leadership they have received.  That’s clearly taught in this verse and I can guarantee you that this truth is intensely sobering to any faithful pastor here today.


At another level, this reason for obeying and submitting to pastoral leaders is because this is simply an example of God displaying his wise management principles.  What I mean by that is this—if anyone is to be successful with a responsibility they have been assigned, they must be given enough authority to actually do the job.  If new military recruits are told at basic training, “Here is your drill sergeant.  He is going to be held responsible to turn a bunch of 18 year old adolescents into disciplined soldiers in10 weeks.  If he doesn’t do that, he will be disciplined.  But you new recruits don’t have to pay any attention to him—he has little or no authority over you.”  Is that fair to that drill sergeant?  No.  He’s given significant responsibility, but no commensurate authority.  Likewise with pastoral leaders.  They are given the intensely weighty responsibility of watching over the souls that the Father has purchased with the blood of his Son.  It only follows that God would give people with that kind of responsibility commensurate authority. 


Please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not teaching this because there has been a pattern of rebellion at Mount of Olives.  This is simply a reminder of the nature of the pastoral office to which Daniel is being ordained and that bears on all of us, not just him.  It’s also a call to all of us—myself included, to not be the kind of sheep that causes Daniel to groan unnecessarily.  Instead, where you can, work for his joy because that’s in your best interest and more importantly, in the best interest of Christ’s church.  Paul says in First Thessalonians 5:12-13, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,  13and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.”  May God grant to our church the grace to excel even more in that for his glory and all our joy.


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