Sunday, November 13, 2022

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

 

What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation: for I have written a letter unto you in a few words.” It is fundamentally a word of exhortation. That is, it is not something just to read and move on; this is meant to move the audience to action. It is very much like a written sermon with the same ends that a sermon has. A sermon doesn’t just attempt to inform, though it should do that. Nor does it just attempt to move a person emotionally, though it ought to do that. A sermon is a word of exhortation, a message whose content is intended to change the life.

And as we have moved through this letter, I hope you have seen that the main thing the author has tried to exhort his readers to do is to persevere in their hope in Christ, despite all the discouragements they are facing. And to do that, he has argued for the supremacy of Christ. To do that, he has argued that Christ is the eternal and unchangeable Son of God, and that he is also the Son of Man who has become our High Priest before God. As such he is better than the angels (chapter 1-2), better than Moses (chapter 3), better than Joshua (chapter 4), and better than the priests and the sacrificial system they served (chapters 5-10). In calling them to persevere in their hope, he reminds them that they are not alone in the arduous journey to heaven, that there are generations of faithful and believing saints that join him in encouraging them to endure to the end (chapters 11-12).

And so we come to the end of this great letter in chapter 13. As we come to the end, I want you to notice that it essentially ends in prayer. In verses 18-19, the author asks his audience to pray for him. Then in verses 20-21, he prays for them. Though it is true that verses 22-25 deal with some final bits of information for the audience (such as the release of Timothy from prison), the real conclusion of this epistle comes with verses 18-21, which are all about prayer. And of course, the formal conclusion of the letter is a prayer in itself: “Grace be with you all. Amen” (25).

This is the right way to end. It is the right way, because God is the only one who can accomplish the ends for which this epistle was written. God is the only one who can open blind eyes to see the glory of Christ and change hearts to receive him as Lord and Savior. And God is the only one who can guarantee our perseverance in the faith to the end. And so as we end our consideration of this epistle, I want us to consider the importance and place that prayer ought to have with us. And then I want to close by considering what kinds of prayer are requested and offered so that we will pray these kinds of prayers too. Or, to put it a bit differently, I want to consider why we pray, and then for what we pray.

Why we pray

Because God commands us to pray.

The fundamental reason why we pray is because God commands us to pray. There is no better reason than this! “Call upon me in the day of trouble,” says the Lord, “I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (Ps. 50:15). Our Lord talks about “when ye pray,” not “if ye pray” and teaches us how to pray in Matthew 6:6-15. One of his parables in Luke 18, the parable of the unjust judge, was told “to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (1).

The apostle Paul writes that prayer is the way we wear the Christian armor: “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Eph. 6:18). He exhorts the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and to Timothy he

writes, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all [meaning: of first importance], supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1), and goes on to say, “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting” (8).

On the other hand, a lack of prayer is a sign of godlessness. The prophet Isaiah lamented over the apostasy of his day, and this is the way he lamented: “And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities” (Isa. 64:7).

Because God promises to bless those who pray.

So we pray because we are commanded to pray. But that is not the only reason to pray. God gives us many encouragements to call upon his name. There are great and breathtaking promises attached to the call to prayer. In fact, you see it there in Psalm 50 – God promises to deliver those who call upon his name. But this is not in one or two places; it’s all over the Bible. For example, our Lord put it this way to his disciples: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it" (Jn. 14:12-14). A few verses later, he essentially repeats this promise: “If ye abide in me,” he says, “and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jn. 15:7).

Or there are several promises in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, in Mt. 6:6, our Lord tells us, “but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Or this: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:7-11).

The apostle James reminds us of the promise for wisdom to those who ask (King Solomon is an example of this!): “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jam. 1:5). At the end of his epistle, he gives this advice: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” (5:14-18).

The God who cannot lie has given us these promises. Let us therefore bank on them!

But there is an implicit warning in the above promises that we must not miss. If God promises to bless those who pray, if he promises to give to those who ask, seek, and knock, what about those who never ask, seek, or knock? What about those who do not pray? What about those who take God’s blessings for granted? These promises don’t mean anything if it doesn’t matter whether we pray or not. God

commands us to pray, he expects us to pray. And that means we can expect to not expect more blessings when we don’t pray.

Now God is a good Father. He will not let his children down, even if they are too stupid to pray. But those who refuse to pray are keeping themselves from wonderful blessings that they might have had otherwise.

But what about unanswered prayer?

One of the arguments that Richard Dawkins gives in his book The God Delusion against the existence of God is the fact of unanswered prayer. In his book, he cites a study that was done in which some folks were tasked to pray for selected sick people in a hospital, and notes that prayer really did not give any statistical advantage to those who were prayed for. But even apart from arguments from guys like Dawkins, I think a lot of us know by experience the reality of unanswered prayer. In fact, it’s in the Bible. Every time a Biblical writer cries out, “How long, O Lord?” he is giving witness to the painful reality of unanswered prayer (cf. Ps. 13:1-6; Hab. 1:2). God just doesn’t say yes to every prayer. In fact, the apostle Paul himself gives witness to this as well: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). God said no to Paul’s prayer; he didn’t relieve him of the thorn but gave him grace to bear it.

Now some will say that prayer is unanswered because of little or no faith. There is some truth to that: our Lord could not do many might miracles in “his own country” “because of their unbelief” (Mt. 13:58). The Lord will not honor unbelief (cf. Jam. 1:6-7). However, that doesn’t quite explain it, for surely we cannot say that Paul’s thorn didn’t get removed because of his unbelief! No, the fact of the matter is that God doesn’t always say yes to our prayers, no matter how much faith we have.

On the other hand, God seems to often give great blessings to those who are ungodly, who may in fact never pray! Our Lord himself said that God gives rain on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45). The psalmist noted: “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment. Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth. Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High? Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (Ps. 73:3-12). These are not praying people, for they don’t think God notices or cares about humanity, even if he does exist. These are prayerless people who nevertheless get on quite well without prayer, thank you very much!

What are we to say to that, especially in light of the promises we’ve considered? The problem of unanswered prayer is really only an apparent problem which you get when you get the purpose and method of prayer wrong. The following principles need to be regarded.

First, the promise of answered prayer is always associated with asking in the Lord’s name, with abiding in him and in his word. And we should not think of asking in the name of the Lord in terms of a mere formula. This is praying so “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn. 14:13). In other words, there is a type of prayer to which the promise is attached: it is the kind of prayer that brings glory to the Father in the Son. Not every prayer we pray does that, and we should thank God he does not answer those types of prayers. God would neither be wise nor loving to do so. The apostle John puts it this way: “And this is the confidence that we have in him [Christ], that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us” (1 Jn. 5:14). Not every prayer is a prayer according to his will even when it is prayed by someone with a lot of faith.

Second, the purpose of prayer is not so that we can make our lives as comfortable on this earth as we can possibly be. If that were the case, then perhaps the problem of unanswered prayer and the prosperity of the wicked might be a problem. But that is not the only or even the main reason we pray. We pray because God is our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. We pray because it is natural for children to bring their burdens to their father. We pray because it is right for us to express our dependence upon Christ in every way and at all times. We pray because it is in prayer that we experience fellowship with God. In other words, the main purpose of prayer is to express through praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication our relationship with God as our Father through the Son by the Spirit. This is the point that the apostle makes in his letter to the Romans: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).

But there is another roadblock to praying. This doesn’t come from a lack of belief in God but from a very robust view of God. It comes from the conviction that God is sovereign and that whatever he ordains comes to pass. The question is then asked: if God is sovereign, why pray? Won’t his will get done anyway?

So what about the sovereignty of God?

I believe that God’s decree is sovereign and all-encompassing. I believe this because this is what the Bible teaches: “in whom [Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things [not some or most but all] after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). I also believe that prayer is effective and necessary, and that it is right to say that certain blessings depend upon our praying for them. But how do we put both these things together?

Well, let me put it to you in the words of C. H. Spurgeon. He put it this way, and I don’t think I can improve upon it, so I’ll give it to you in his own words:

Why should the Church continue in prayer? For several reasons, and the first is, God will answer her. It is not possible that God should refuse to hear prayer. It is possible for him to bid the sun stand still, and the moon to stay her monthly march; it is possible for him to bid the waves freeze in the sea, possible for him to quench the light of the stars in eternal darkness, but it is not possible for him to refuse to hear prayer which is based upon his promise and offered in faith. He can reverse nature, but he cannot reverse his own nature, and he must do this before he can forbear to hear and answer prayer. The prayers of God’s Church are God’s intentions—you will not misunderstand me—what God writes in the book of his decree, which no eye can see, that he in process of time writes in the book of Christian hearts where all can see and read. The book of the believer’s desire, if those desires be inspired of the Holy Spirit, is just an exact copy of the book ofthe divine decree. And if the Church be determined today to lift up her heart in prayer for the conversion of men, it is because God determined from before all worlds that men should be converted; your feeble prayer today, believer, can fly to heaven, and awake the echoes of the slumbering decrees of God... Prayer is a decree escaped out of the prison of obscurity, and come to life and liberty among men. Pray, brother, pray, for when God inspires you, your prayer is as potent as the decrees of God.1

Do you hear what he is saying? If God has ordained that something should happen, he will put it in the hearts of his people to pray. You see, it is precisely the sovereignty of God that makes our prayers both effective and necessary. We pray, not in spite of the fact that God is sovereign, but because he is sovereign!

What we pray for

Well, let’s look now more particularly at the content of the prayers here at the end of Hebrews 13. I want you to notice that he requests prayers from them (Heb. 13:18-19) and then prays a prayer for them (20- 21). Let me just notice in passing that these are prayers from the saints for the saints. We need to pray with each other, and we need to pray for each other. Let’s beware of becoming entirely self-focused in our praying. It’s not for no reason that our Lord teaches us to pray with plural pronouns: Our Father, give us this day our daily bread, and so on.

The prayer from them

“Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (18-19). You might think that since each believer has God for his or her Father, it makes no difference whether we pray for them or not. After all, won’t God take care of them? Yes, of course he will. But again, this mistakes the meaning and purpose of prayer. We don’t pray to inform the Father of our needs or the needs of others, for he already knows our needs before we ask (cf. Mt. 6:8). Instead, we should see prayer for each other as an important way our mutual dependence upon God is expressed and as an important way that our hearts are united together. And for that reason, God is pleased to hear the prayers that the saints pray for each other. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us; Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf” (2 Cor. 1:8-11). Thus, the apostle asks the Roman Christians to pray for him: “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints” (Rom. 15:30-31).

The fact that he encourages them to pray for him because (for) “we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly [well, good]” probably indicates that he wishes them to continue to pray that these things would be true of him. He is asking them to pray for him so that he will be able to continue to have a good conscience and in all things to live well before God (cf. Acts 24:16). He wants to be holy, and he is asking the saints to pray for him to that end. This is how we ought to pray for each other. Let’s pray that God’s kingdom come more and more in our lives, that his will be done more and more in our homes and in our church. That’s not to say we can’t pray for other things (like physical healing or a better job, etc.), but this ought to be the main thing we pray for each other (think about how Paul prays for other believers in his letters and let this also be a pattern for us).

His prayer for them

Verses 20-21 is one of the great doxologies of the New Testament. But it is also a prayer: “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (20- 21).

What is he praying for? He is praying that they would do God’s will more and more, indeed, that God would equip them with everything they need to do this. He is praying that they would do what pleases God. Just as he desires to be more holy himself, he prays for them that they too would be holy.

In other words, he is praying that they persevere in holiness. Not just that they barely make it over the finish line, but that they flourish in their walk with the Lord and bear much fruit for his glory. This final prayer really is therefore connected to the overall burden of this epistle. For at the end of the day, perseverance in the faith to the end is not just a matter of focusing on the end; it’s also a matter of daily life. It’s a matter of daily dying to sin and self and living to God. It’s a matter of daily refusing to be conformed to the world in the little things as well as the big things. It’s a matter of daily being transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Thus, it’s a matter of daily holiness and of growing in holiness. So the prayer that they are made perfect in every good work to do God’s will really is a prayer that they would persevere in faith and holiness to the end.

Now prayers like this are very instructive, theologically. The object of the prayer is that they would do something, namely, God’s will. He is hardly imagining them passive in this. This is something they are very active in doing. They are the ones doing God’s will. But the one making them, equipping them, is God. The one working in them so that they work, is God. What they are praying for is a reminder that we are active and responsible to live holy lives. Who they are praying to is a reminder that God is ultimately decisive in enabling us to do his will. It is the prayerful expression of Phil. 2:12-13, “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

Hence, we notice the basis of our confidence in prayer. It is not confidence in man but in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is confidence in the grace of God over our sin (for the blood of Christ was shed as a sacrifice for sin), in the victory of God over our death (for Jesus who died was raised from the dead), and in the faithfulness of God over our broken promises (for the blood is the blood of the eternal covenant). It is the benevolence and love that our Lord Jesus has for us, for he is the good shepherd of the sheep. He gives his life for them so that they might have eternal life. This reminds us that God desires to and in fact will save and sanctify his people. This is therefore no idle prayer.

Over it all stands the God of peace. For the Christian, God is the God of peace, for he has through Jesus his Son brought those who believe in him into fellowship and friendship with him.

And it is ultimately a prayer for the glory of God, which is why it is also a doxology. God is glorified in us when the good in us is the result of his work for us and in us. God gets the glory for the good works of his people because we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10). God gets the glory because he doesn’t just put us in a position where we can on our own please him – he actually recreates our hearts so that we willingly please him and do his will. We don’t therefore praise ourselves but the Lord from whom all our good comes.

Brothers and sisters, this is why, despite the opposition of Satan and a hostile world, and despite our own weakness and frailty, we can have confidence that we will glorify God through lives that please him. We can have confidence because God is the one who enables us to do so. And the end of God-pleasing lives is the glory of God which is the end for which God has created everything. You can be sure then that God will do it. The book of Hebrews ends on prayer because prayer centers the heart and mind on God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer takes the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world and makes it personal. In prayer, we call upon the name of the Lord and are saved. We are saved because the God to whom we pray is the sovereign God, the gracious God, the promise-keeping God, the eternal God, the unchanging God.

Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 7. Sermon No. 354, “A Sermon for the Week of Prayer”

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Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Exclusive and Superior Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:8-16)

As we come to the end of this letter, what we find is that the author is summarizing the argument of the whole in these final verses. And what we find here are several of the great themes of the epistle in the compass of a few short verses. We see the priesthood of our Lord underlined once again in verse 12, where we are reminded that he is the one who sanctifies his people by his own blood. Indeed, he is the altar of verse 10. We also see the superiority of Jesus, especially over against the claims of a Christless Judaism. In fact, as we shall see, this is the burden and heart of this paragraph. Finally, we see the exclusivity of Jesus, for we are told, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (10). “Those who serve the tabernacle” is shorthand for those who reject Jesus and his New Covenant in favor of the Old Covenant. The author of Hebrews is arguing that those who do so have no right to our Lord’s altar and sacrifice. In other words, the benefits of the atonement of our Lord are exclusive in the sense that those who reject it have no rights to it. There is no other way to the Father apart from Christ (cf. John 14:6).

Now we live in a world which frankly rejects this. It rejects the exclusivity of the claims of Christ and argues that any kind of vague spirituality will do when it comes to relating to God. It also rejects the superiority of Christ and argues that the Christian religion in particular is a relic that needs to be discarded into the wastebin of history. Of course, the world in which we live generally does not see any need for an atonement for sins before God, for it has no categories for a Biblical understanding of who God is and what man is, what sin is, and the need for cosmic justice.

Over against the culture’s rejection of Christ and his claims, I want to hold up through the lens of Hebrews 13:8-16 our Lord’s exclusivity and his superiority in light of his role as our priest before God. And I hope that you will see this and be so convinced of the greatness and goodness of Jesus that you will not be tempted by desires and hopes for other saviors and salvations. My desire is that you will see Christ today and hear him today through his word and that in seeing and hearing you will love him and trust him and obey him as your priest before God.

The Exclusivity of Jesus

To see this emphasis in these verses, I think it will be important for us to consider the background to the text before us. What is meant by the reference to foods in verse 9? And what is the reference behind verse 11, and how is Jesus being compared to that in verse 12? Well, to understand this we need to understand the Day of Atonement and what happened to the sacrifices on that day. This feast is one of the most holy days in the Mosaic calendar and it is chronicled for us at length in Leviticus 16.

As you might know, it was on this day, and on this day only, that the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, that inner chamber of the tabernacle or temple where the Ark of the Covenant lay. On that day, he would take the blood of a bullock and the blood of a goat and sprinkle their blood on the Mercy Seat as a sin offering. In this way, the sins of Israel were ceremonially cleansed, and the Israelites were granted the favor of God’s continuing presence in their midst.

Now usually, the priests ate a part of the sin offering (cf. Lev. 6:26, 29; 10:17). But not so on the Day of Atonement; on that day, the entire sacrifice was burned up. Not only was it burned up, but it was burned outside the camp. The key text is Lev. 16:27 – “And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh and their dung.” Of course, the way this would have worked in the days when the Jerusalem temple had replaced the tabernacle, the offerings would have been burned outside the city.

This is the background to our text. It illuminates the reference to foods in verse 9 as well as the following verses. All this is a reference, in other words, to the rituals surrounding the Day of Atonement in particular and to the Law of Moses in general. In other words, those folks who “have been occupied” with “meats” are folks who are concerned with keeping the food laws of the Old Covenant. They are concerned with what was clean and unclean, as set down by Moses. In other words, these are people who are trying to relate to God, not through Jesus Christ, but through their keeping of the Law of Moses. It is for this reason that we read in verse 9, “For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The Law came by Moses; grace and truth by Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). Those who reject Jesus but keep the Law are left with nothing more than various food laws and other religious regulations than cannot give heart-establishing grace.

Moreover, those who do so have no right to Jesus (10). He is the altar at which every believer in Christ worship and approaches God. Those who “serve the tabernacle” in this context are those who keep the Law while rejecting Jesus. Thus “they have no right to eat” at this altar. They have their own meat and food, but it is not the food that gives life. Do you remember what our Lord said? “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). The altar is Jesus, and his flesh is the food that gives life, the very thing that those who served the tabernacle rejected.

Now in verses 11-12, the point is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. He is the one to whom the entire holy day pointed. It is his blood and his sacrifice that it pointed to. But more than that: it pointed to the fact that he would suffer outside the city walls of Jerusalem, just as the bodies of the sacrifices were burned outside the camp.

So with all that in mind, there seems to be two big points that the author is making. First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and in particular of the Day of Atonement. Second, it is in light of this fulfillment that he can say that it is at the altar of Jesus that God’s people find food that gives eternal life, whereas those who reject Jesus for the Law are left without. They have “meats,” but this is not the food that gives life, for that can only be found in Jesus. Just as the priests on the Day of Atonement couldn’t eat those sacrifices, even so those who clung to the Old Covenant while rejecting Jesus couldn’t eat of his sacrifice.

In other words, our author is establishing through the language of OT figure and type the exclusivity of Jesus. Those who reject Jesus have no right to eat at the altar of his sacrifice (10). But who then has this right? The apostle John answers the question, doesn’t he? “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the power [authority or right – same word as in Heb. 13:10] to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:11-12). Our Lord had explained it this way in John 6: those who eat his flesh and drink his blood – in other words, those who partake in the benefits of his sacrifice – are those who believe in him. As he puts it in John 6:35, “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me will never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.”

But why is the exclusivity of Jesus so important? You might say, “So what? I don’t care whether or not I have the right to eat at his altar.” Well, let’s consider what you can only get through Jesus, and in no other way. It is here that we now meet with the superiority of Jesus.

The Superiority of Jesus Christ

What I next want to point out from these verses is that Jesus gives us three things that no one else can give. But each of these three things depends fundamentally upon an even more basic and wonderful attribute of our Lord: his unchanging character. This is highlighted in verse 8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In an ever-changing world, these are sweet, sweet words. As the hymn- writer put it:

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day; 
earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away. 
Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

This reality is especially sweet when we see what they are connected to. We see from these verses that our Lord is unchanging in the grace he gives, in the atonement he provides, and in the city he builds.

Jesus is unchanging in the grace he gives.

Recall verse 9: “Be not carried about with divers [varied] and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The different and strange teaching to which the author alludes is the effort of some to draw these believers away from Christ and his saving work and to rely instead upon their identity as Jews and their keeping of the Law of Moses. But the Law does not give grace. It can provide a witness to Jesus, but if you don’t acknowledge him, it’s not even good for that. On the other hand, Jesus gives grace. In fact, all grace from God comes through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). The “exceeding riches of [God’s] grace in his kindness toward us” are “through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).

The thing is that you don’t have to be a first-century Jew to feel the pull towards the Law as the basis of your relationship towards God. Ask most people why they think God will let them into heaven, and the most common answer will be something along the lines of, “I’ve been a pretty good person. God knows my heart. He knows that I’ve always tried to be kind to others.” In other words, they are not really banking on grace; they are trusting in their own righteousness. They believe that their good works will get them into heaven.

The problem with this is that when we trust in our good works, we aren’t thinking of our responsibility before God on the terms that God demands. We are only thinking of how we treated people, and we are only doing so in comparison to other people. We treat escaping God’s holy and just wrath the way we might treat escaping the claws of a bear: as long as we can outrun other people, we’ll be okay. And so we think that as long as we are as good as, or maybe a little better than, most people, we won’t have to worry about the judgment of God.

This is tragically wrong on a number of levels. First of all, our main problem is not how we treated other people; our main problem is how we’ve failed to love God with all our hearts. We haven’t been thankful for God’s gifts. We don’t care about God’s law; we have been a law unto ourselves. We may profess with our lips that God exists and even call ourselves “spiritual,” but unless we have been changed by a miracle of the heart-renovating work of the Holy Spirit, unless we have been born again, we will live as if God doesn’t even exist. Second, there’s a problem with our standard. The standard is not how we compare with other people. The standard is the perfection of the holy law of God. Being better than others won’t get anyone into heaven; only perfect obedience will. God is holy; why should he let a sinner into heaven?

You might reply, “Because God is loving.” Yes, God is loving. But God’s love is a holy love. It is also a sovereign love, and he is under no obligation to love a corrupt and wicked worm. We cannot get away from the fact that God is holy and that our sins bring us under his just and holy wrath.

This is what the Bible says about those who try to relate to God on the basis of their own goodness: “as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). This verse is just saying that God only accepts perfect obedience and that anything else brings you under his just curse. But who can say that they are perfect before God? No one can! For as the Scriptures teach, and as our own consciences testify, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

So if you’re hoping that “being good enough” is all you need to guarantee eternal life, you are grievously mistaken. No one can be justified before God on the basis of good works. No one.

How then are people rescued from the eternal consequences of their sins? The apostle Paul tells us: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14). What this verse is saying is that Christ suffered the curse of the law in the place of his people, “the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement; he is the sin offering whose blood is sprinkled before God for the forgiveness of sins. He is the sacrifice on whose head the sins of his people are laid, enduring the punishment for their sins, so that they might be released from the penalty of their sins. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). As our text puts it, he sanctifies the people with his own blood (Heb. 13:12).

Why go through all this? Well, for one thing; it’s the good news of the gospel. But you need to understand this if you really want to understand what grace from God really is. Biblical grace is gospel grace; there is no other kind (cf. Acts 20:24). What grace means is not just that God goes easy on you. It’s not just that you don’t get what you deserve. It’s much, much more than that. To have God’s grace, you must belong to God’s Son, to Jesus Christ. And if you belong to him, it means that he took all your sin, and it means that you get his perfect righteousness credited to your account. How do you know you belong to him? The answer to that question is the answer to this one: do you believe in the Son? Do you trust in him? Have you received him as Lord and Savior? That is the test.

Now if this is true of you, it means that there is nothing for you to do to merit God’s favor. Did you hear that? Nothing! It means that there is no sin that threatens your acceptance with the Father, and that there is no good work that you need to do to keep that relationship with the Father. The child of God doesn’t work for God’s favor; he or she works from God’s favor. We only fight forgiven sins:

He breaks the power of cancelled sin.

This is what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace. Grace doesn’t mean that Christ did most of the work of salvation and now the rest is up to you; no, it means that all the righteousness needed for the everlasting favor of God is found in Christ, not in us. So you see that grace is not just God looking the other way; nor does it mean that God just goes easy on us. It is that all the demands and requirements of justice have been fully satisfied in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, this is grace from him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The grace of our Lord doesn’t wear out or grow old. He doesn’t change, which means that he is always gracious towards his people. It is the backdrop of passages like Heb. 4:14-16, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

These verses also show that grace doesn’t just mean that God is favorably disposed towards us; it also means that he moves to our help. That is the sense in our text: God’s grace establishes our hearts. He cleanses and purifies them; he unites our hearts to fear his name. But the fact that God calls the help he gives us grace is a reminder that the help we ask for is not help we get because we deserve it but help we get because we are in Christ.

So go to Christ for grace. And go and go and go, because his grace is an unchangeable grace, it is a never- ending grace.

Look, there is no one and no place you can go for this kind of grace. You won’t find it in people; you won’t find it in any religion apart from Christ. He is superior to every competitor, for his grace is greater than all our sin.

Jesus is unchanging in the atonement he provides

Our Lord sanctifies his people by his blood. He is the altar at which we find peace with God. He is the one by whom we find redemption. By him we can be released from the penalty and power of sin. By him the guilt of our sin is fully dealt with. By him we can be reconciled to God, so that we who were once enemies can now be friends. By him we can be released from the holy wrath of God against our sin.

And this atonement our Lord provided is not something that has to be achieved over and over again. Remember the words of this epistle in chapter 10: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (10-14).

In other words, the atonement is unchanging in its effectiveness. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever in terms of his ability to save all who come to him. There is no need to add to his work; no need to contribute to our own redemption.

Jesus is unchanging in the city he builds.

I love verse 14: “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” It is the city that Abraham sought: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:8- 10). And, “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (16).

We may be strangers and pilgrims in this world, but we have an eternal home. It is an inheritance which is both imperishable and unchanging, reserved in heaven for those who belong to Jesus (1 Pet. 1:4). The greatest inheritance in this earth will be taken away. Death allows us to take nothing with us. As the apostle Paul put it, we came into this world with nothing, and we will go out with nothing (1 Tim. 6:7). But for the Christian, death is only the door to glory. It is the entrance into our eternal home.

But I think it’s important for us to also remember the first part of this verse: “For here have we no continuing city.” He has not promised that if we have enough faith and keep our noses clean that we will have a nice life or achieve the American Dream. Our Lord’s life was not like that; the apostles’ lives were not like that. So we shouldn’t get upset with God if our dreams for this life aren’t coming true. He hasn’t promised you a nice ride this side of heaven. What he has promised is an eternal city in the presence of God forever. There is no bait and switch. He hasn’t promised earthly health, wealth, fame, and comfort, so if we don’t have that it’s not because God is unfaithful. He is faithful. If you belong to Jesus, you have a city, a home in heaven, a place prepared for you.

In these three ways, our Lord demonstrates his superiority over his competitors. No one gives grace like Jesus, provides an atonement like him, or prepares a city for his people like he does.

How we should respond to these truths

On the one hand, we should not think that we relate to God and gain his favor through sacrifices that we make. But on the other hand, there is a kind of sacrifice that pleases God. They are not sacrifices to gain his favor, but rather sacrifices in response to his grace. Three are mentioned in verses 13-16.

The first is the sacrifice of the self, the taking of the cross to follow Jesus. You see this in verse 13: “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” The language here carries the exact same meaning of our Lord’s words to his disciples that to follow him they must take their cross. Jesus took a cross; so must we. Jesus endured the reproach of sinners outside the city gates; so must we. We must be willing to be considered outsiders because we are. We have no continuing city here, but we seek the one that is to come.

But it is only when we are convinced of the exclusivity and superiority of Jesus to everyone and everything else that we will take our crosses and follow him like this. Why would you otherwise? If there are other options out there, why would you follow Jesus? If it doesn’t matter if you follow him or not, why would you? But the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to the Father shows us that this is not optional. On the other hand, if there are better options out there, why would you follow Jesus? If something else can give you something better, why not go for that? But no one can give you gospel grace. No one can give you salvation from sin that you didn’t merit. Only our Lord can do that. No one else can truly and fully atone for your sins in your place. No one else can give you an inheritance in heaven; only Jesus Christ can do that. He is the exclusive and the superior way to the Father.

Then there is the sacrifice of praise. You see that in verse 15: “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” Of course, the language of sacrifice here is not to indicate that praising God is a hard thing! Rather, the language of sacrifice is used in the sense of something offered to God. And it’s praise, not propitiation. Again, we don’t offer to God to get his favor or to merit his love. We offer praise to God in response to his grace towards us in and through Jesus Christ. In fact, the only appropriate response to the gift of God to us in Christ is to receive it with faith and thanksgiving.

Note that word, continually. Paul wrote the Corinthians and warned them, in light of the example of the Israelites in the wilderness, “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). Murmuring is never good because it betrays a lack of contentment in God. It shows that we do not believe the Lord is taking care of us. It is the evidence of a lack of faith and joy in God. Hence, what should characterize us is therefore continual praise, an ongoing recognition that God is good and that God is faithful. It means that our praises should not be determined solely by our emotions, but that our heart should be calibrated by the doctrines we believe. Do you believe that by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourself; do you believe that salvation is from beginning to end a gift of God? Then praise him!

Finally, there is the sacrifice of good works. Note the order, this is so important. We don’t do good works to atone for our sins. We do good works because we have been atoned for our sins. Hence, we go on to read, “But to do good and to communicate [share, the word here is 𝑘𝑜𝑖𝑛𝑜̅𝑛𝑖𝑎] forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:16).

Good works should be the outflow of grace in the life. It will be, in fact. Where there are no good works, you can be sure that there is no grace. And in particular, one good work that is mentioned is that of sharing what you have. If you are a recipient of God’s free and sovereign grace, and knowing that you have received salvation this way, how can you not want to share freely what you have with others? Is it not incongruous for a person to say that they believe in salvation by grace and yet be selfish and stingy? Sharing is the natural outflow of God’s grace in the life.

This is in fact how the apostle Paul sought to motivate the Corinthians to contribute for the poor saints in Jerusalem. In fact, he calls it a grace. He speaks to them “of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia” and goes on to describe how “that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (2 Cor. 8:1-2). “Therefore,” he writes, “as ye abound in everything, in faith, and in utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also” (7). But he not only motivates them by the example of the Macedonians; above all, he points them to the grace of Christ: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (9). We show grace in concrete and specific ways because we have been given grace in Christ.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s not just get by. Let’s abound in grace and in the showing of grace. Let the praises of God be often on our lips and always in our hearts. Let us be willing to lay down our life for our. Lord and his kingdom. Why? Not to earn salvation, but because in Jesus it is the gift of free and sovereign grace.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Spiritual Leadership in the Church (Hebrews 13:7,17)

I think we all recognize that good leadership is important in almost every facet of human endeavor. Whether it’s a family, or a sports team, or a business, or a military unit, or a political party, you need good leadership in order for each group to obtain the maximum benefit. It should not surprise us, therefore, if this is true of God’s people. And it is. It was one of the lamentable and tragic effects of poor and wicked leadership in the nation of Israel that led the prophet Ezekiel to write, “Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them” (Ezek. 34:2-6).

Now some might think that the best solution to bad leadership is no leadership, and that the best thing is to go off by yourself and do your own thing. But that is not good for God’s people, either. In fact, one of the things that Ezekiel mourns is that this is the result of bad leadership, that the sheep end up fending for themselves. Our Lord made a similar observation in his day: “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (Mt. 9:36).

It is therefore to be expected that one of the very first things the apostles did when they constituted churches was to ordain elders, spiritual leaders, in every church. It was with respect to the apostle Paul’s first missionary journey that it is written, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23). Paul didn’t wait until the second or third journey to do this; he ordained good leaders from the start. And Paul writes to Titus with a bit of urgency, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). What this tells me is that a church without elders is a church out of order.

So it also should not surprise us that believers who are weak and wavering are believers who are not relating correctly to the spiritual leadership of the church. If, as it seems, elders are important for the health of the church, then to be without them, or to relate poorly to them, will only leave the church in a weak and unhealthy position.

This seems to be at least one of the reasons we have the verses before us. The Hebrew Christians in Rome were in danger of veering off the path of faithfulness to the Lord in part because they weren’t listening to and following the example of the spiritual leaders in the church. They were like sheep who didn’t believe there were any wolves around and so they went off to do their own thing, and lo and behold, they ended up getting chased around and wounded and killed by the wolves after all.

It is therefore important for us to ponder the meaning of verses like 7 and 17, for they tell us that a healthy church is a church with good leaders. But these verses are also important for at least a couple of other reasons. First of all, they are important because in pointing out their spiritual leaders, the author tells us who they are and what they do, and in doing so gives us a Biblical portrait of what a godly leader looks

like. In other words, these verses give us Biblical parameters for the expectations we are to have of our spiritual leaders. But this is important for a second reason: not only do these verses address themselves to the responsibilities of the shepherds for the flock; they also address themselves to the responsibilities of the flock towards the shepherds. The leaders are to lead, and the church is to follow, and these verses tell us both how the leaders are to lead and how the church is to follow. So it is to that end that we want to address ourselves to this text.

How the leaders lead

First of all, I think we need to address ourselves to the question of who these guys are. They are described as “them which have the rule over you” (7, 17). Who is this describing? Well, from what I have already said, you have probably guessed my take, that these are the elders of the church. I want to start by defending that interpretation.

Let’s begin with the word itself, for the phrase “them that have the rule” actually translates one Greek word, and it’s the root behind the English word hegemony, which, as you know, refers to the leadership of one group over another. This word is used in Acts 15:22 to describe Barsabas and Silas, who were chosen by the church to bring the decision of the church of Jerusalem to the Gentile churches abroad and are called “chief men” (KJV) or “leading men” (ESV). They were leaders in the church, and it is in this sense that the word is used in Heb. 13:7, 17, 24.

This word is also used in Mt. 2:6, where we have a quotation from the prophesy of Micah describing the birthplace of our Lord. It reads, “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Now in that text, the word Governor is the word which is translated in Hebrews 13 as “them that have the rule over you.” This fits well with the fact that a governor, according to Mt. 2:6, is indeed someone who rules: “that shall rule my people Israel.” But what I want to notice here is this other word which helps us to understand the function of a governor, and it’s the word poimaino, translated “rule” and which literally means to shepherd. This is what I’m interested here in this verse because that word (“to shepherd”) is used of elders in Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet. 5:2. Let’s look at those texts.

In Acts 20:28, Paul is speaking to the elders in the church of Ephesus, and this is what he says to them: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed [that’s the word, to shepherd, trans. in Mt. 2:6 as to rule] the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Spiritual leaders are like shepherds, and the way they lead or rule is by feeding the flock and guarding them from the wolves. As Calvin put it, “The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both.”

Then in 1 Pet. 5:2, the apostle Peter exhorts his fellow elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you.” Once again, we see that the word “feed” here means to shepherd. This is how spiritual leaders lead and govern: they do so by feeding the flock of God which is among them.

Incidentally, the verb to shepherd is poimaino; the noun shepherd is poimen, which is translated in Eph. 4:11 as “pastor.” A pastor is a shepherd; a shepherd is a leader. These are just all different ways of describing the elders of the church: elder, overseer (bishop, 1 Tim. 3:1; Acts 20:28), pastor-shepherd, leader.

But when we look at the way these leaders are described in the text, we see further that these guys (and they are guys, not gals) are the elders of the church. For one thing, they are men who preach the word. They are to remember their leaders, and they are described as those “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” They are told to follow and to imitate their faith. In verses 17, they are described as men who “watch for your souls.” In other words, the author is not describing a boss or a political leader here. He is describing their spiritual leaders, their pastors, their elders. These are shepherds who feed the flock of God which is among them.

So I don’t think there’s any question here that these are the elders or pastors of the church there in Rome. By the way, I find it interesting that it was only the spiritual leaders in the church of Rome who went by the title “them which have the rule” in later years. According to all the available evidence we have in later Christian ecclesiastical literature, no other church used this title for their leaders except the church in Rome, which gives credence to the argument that the epistle to the Hebrews was in fact written to a house church there.

Now, that having been established, let’s ask ourselves the question: what do these two verses have to say about how the leaders lead? To answer that question, I want to notice three things about them from these two verses: (1) their task, (2) their character, and (3) their authority.

The task of the leaders

There are two main tasks of the pastors. They are to preach the Word of God and to watch over the souls of God’s people. The pastor pastors in the pulpit and he pastors one-on-one. He pastors in the proclamation of the word of God to all the congregation and the pastors in personal discipleship. That is the task of the pastor.

First of all, he is a man who preaches, not his own word, but the word of God. Do you remember what Paul told Timothy? They are inspiring and convicting words: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:1-4).

According to Paul, a good minister of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 4:6) is one who preaches God’s word, and he does so in a personal, convicting, experiential way. He speaks words of reprove, of rebuke, of exhortation, and he does this clearly and distinctly and lovingly, grounding his exhortations in the teaching of Scripture. He patiently explains the path the saints are to take by painstakingly showing them from God’s word that this is the way to go. A good minister is someone who doesn’t convince people to go down a certain path on the force of his own personality; he does so on the force of the authority of God’s word. He doesn’t rouse them into action on the basis of an emotional appeal but by the force of the power of the gospel. It’s what Paul is getting at when he told the Corinthians, “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). I don’t want your faith to stand in my wisdom, for I have none to give you; I want your faith to stand by the power of God, as he witnesses by the Holy Spirit to the wisdom of his word.

Or think about the words of the prophet Jeremiah. They too are riveting, as they contrast the empty words of false prophets who only give people their own minds and the words of God: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord. I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart; Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:21-29). Faithful, good pastors, preach God’s word which is like wheat to fill the hungry soul and like fire to burn away lies and sin and like a hammer to break the hard hearts of hard people. Why would you preach anything else? Don’t go for preachers who preach themselves or about themselves. Don’t go for preachers who entertain you with funny anecdotes or seek to move you through tear-jerking stories. Rather, listen to men who preach Christ and give you his word.

These are men who don’t preach themselves but Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:5). They don’t present themselves as the solution to the problems of others; they give them Christ, because they know both by experience and by the Scriptures that we are all sinners before God and that it is only by the free and sovereign grace of God given through the person and work of Jesus Christ, received by faith, that we can be saved and have our sins forgiven and be made members of the family of God.

Of course, behind every message should be a man of prayer. The apostles told the early church, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). In other words, you don’t want a company man, you don’t want a man whose primary interest is to promote denominational differences. You want a man of God, who knows God, who walks with God, and who preaches God’s word.

The other part of his task is that of personal discipleship, the one-on-one aspect of the pastoral role. This is described in the words, “for they watch for your souls” (17). They don’t just throw the feed out and then go back to doing their own thing, but they observe each sheep to know its state. So you don’t just want someone who is good in the pulpit, but someone who knows how to pray at the bedside of the dying. You want someone who can counsel God’s word to particular people in particular predicaments. You want someone who loves people and who is available. You want someone, in other words, you is like Timothy, whom the apostle recommends to the Philippian church in this way: “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel” (Phil. 2:19-22). You want someone who doesn’t do this because he has to, but because, like Timothy, he wants to – it’s natural to him.

The character of the leaders

But you don’t just want men who fill a certain role well; you need men of character. You see this in the descriptions of these men in our text as well. Their lives are worthy of imitation: “whose faith follow” (7). It is noteworthy, I think, that in both lists of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, only one of the qualifications is related to a task, and it’s the fact that an elder needs to be able to teach. All the other qualifications are character qualifications. Thus, the apostle writes to Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:5-9).

In other words, they need to be men who are not only good in public but above all good in private. They are not something in the pulpit and another thing at home or when they are alone. What you see is what you get. These are the kinds of men that you want as pastors and elders. These are how the Bible describes spiritual leaders.

It is a common consensus among commentators on this text that verse 7 really is directed towards their past spiritual leaders, whereas verse 17 to their present. The reason for this is that in verse 7, their ministry of the word is spoken of in the past tense, “who have spoken unto you the word of God.” It also makes more sense to say of the past, “Remember them.” These were men, in other words, whose memory was worth preserving. Their lives were good to the very end. Like Paul, they had finished their course, fought a good fight, and kept the faith. So the author says that of such the church should consider, “to look back carefully upon,”“the end of their conversation” – that is to say, the outcome of their lives here upon the earth. They were men who were faithful to the end.

And certainly the present pastors were meant to be like that as well. We need men of such character that they are not like a shooting star that burns out and burns up. No, we need men of faith to the end. That is the kind of pastor you want as a shepherd.

The authority of the leaders

Now there is no doubt that these pastors are leaders because that is the very word that is used to describe them. Pastors are shepherds and shepherds lead. But there are right ways to lead and there are bad ways to lead. How then do godly leaders lead the church?

It seems to me that there is a problem in many churches in our day on just this issue. It stems partly from a reaction to the past. In the past, many churches had pastors that didn’t really lead and didn’t really provide spiritual oversight in any significant sense. So people, desiring to recover a Biblical vision of the church, looked at the text of Scripture and noticed that in the NT the churches has multiple elders who really did lead the church. So in response to this, some churches have gone to what is sometimes called an “elder-rule” policy. Now I believe in elder rule to a point, but I believe it has been abused in many churches. What has happened is that some churches have opted for a system of church government where the elders make all the decisions, and the congregation has no say. They’ve flipped the system, do you see?

But I don’t think this is wise. It’s like these churches have adopted the Presbyterian system on a local scale without any of the checks and balances of the global system of Session, Synod, and General Assembly. These churches have a cabal of elders who make all the decisions. All the authority is concentrated in the hands of a few men.

Now I don’t think that is wise or Biblical. The Presbyterians do have checks and balances for their system, but they do this by pushing the authority and the accountability up, ultimately to the General Assembly. In other words, the local elders are held accountable by other elders outside their own group. That is one way to do it. But I think the congregational model is best. Baptist churches are congregational churches. In our setting, we push the accountability down rather than up, down to the congregation. In the NT, the deacons were chosen by the church, not just by the apostles. Silas and Barsabas were also chosen by the Jerusalem church for their mission representing them, even though they were leading men. In other words, the elders, even though they lead, are ultimately accountable to the congregations which they lead. This seems to me to be the most Biblical and wisest policy.

So how do the leaders lead? How do they exercise their authority? Well, look at the text of Scripture. They don’t do it by beating the members of the church over the heads with the stick of authority. They do it by the examples of their lives and by persuading them from the Word of God. You see this here in Hebrews 13. In verse 17, the word for “obey” is a word which can often refer to the effort to persuade. Thus, the chief priests persuaded the crowds (same word in Mt. 27:20) to choose to release Barabbas instead of the Lord. In Heb. 13:18, in fact, the word is translated “trust;” here it has the meaning “to be persuaded.”

Now that doesn’t mean that the church is not to really submit to the teaching of the pastors. The text clearly says that. But it is not so much a submission to the authority of the pastor as it is a submission to the authority of the Word of God which they speak. They lead by persuading the people they lead that the path they are leading them down is not a path they have chosen but the path God has marked out for them in his word. Thus Peter exhorts elders in his day to take the oversight of the church (1 Pet. 5:2) – they really are to lead – but they are to do without abusing this authority. So he goes on to write, “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (3).

A wonderful illustration of this is given in a book I’ve recently gone through.A group of tourists in Israel were told by their guide on a tour bus that in Israel shepherds always lead their flocks from the front; they never drive them from behind. But as he was saying this the people in the bus noticed some sheep being driven from behind. They asked about this, so the guide got out of the bus and went to investigate. He came back with a smile on his face and explained that the man wasn’t a shepherd; he worked for the slaughterhouse and was sending them there! Pastors don’t drive, they lead the way.

Another way to illustrate this is in the relationship between husband and wife. In Ephesians 5:22-24, wives are exhorted to submit to their husbands. Husbands are told, on the other hand, to love their wives as Christ loved the church (25-33). In other words, the submission envisioned here is a willing submission on the part of the wife to loving leadership on the part of the husband. In such a context, it seems to me to be quite incongruous for a husband to be always having to remind his wife of his authority. If he is having to do that, I would bet the problem is not with the wife as much as it is with the husband. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t women who might need to be reminded of this, but I would bet that nine times out of ten a wife that has a hard time submitting to her husband is because the husband has abused his authority in some way. In the similar way, a pastor who is always holding forth the stick of his authority and waving it in the faces of his people is probably a bad shepherd. Good pastors lead by example and persuasion so that the congregation willingly leads.

Now the opposite problem can occur too; congregations can take on an attitude that resists any effort on the part of the pastors to get them to change. This is probably in fact what had happened in this church in Rome, and which is why our author is having to remind them to obey and submit to the leadership of their pastors. There are people and even congregations that take on an attitude that no one is going to tell them what to do. Every pastor knows people like this, and it is incredibly sad. It is sad because they know what is going to happen to this person, and it is not good. A healthy congregation is one in which there is mutual trust and respect between the pastor and the congregation so that where the pastor leads the congregations follows willingly and joyfully.

It is really a bad thing when this atmosphere of trust and respect does not exist. It’s why we go on to read, “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (17). Churches that refuse to follow their spiritual leadership make life miserable for their pastors. Now some in the church may just want to do that! But what this verse says is that you are not helping yourself when you do this; you are hurting yourself. It is not profitable for you to have a pastor or pastors whom you have made miserable in your task.

Now we are told that the pastors “must give account.” It is important to remember that here the account is not given to the church but to God (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1). But that does not mean that the church gets off scot- free, does it? We will all give an account to God. Beware how you treat God’s servants, for you will give an account of this before God.

This of course leads naturally to our next and final point.

How the faithful follow

First of all, respect them. This is the clear implication in the exhortation to remember them (7). Now this is a respect and a trust that is earned. It is not something that they can expect just because of their position. Verse 7 is really dealing with past leaders whose lives can be seen in terms of their total outcome. In other words, they had demonstrated by their very lives that they were faithful. It is such men that the church is to respect. But of course, even for present leaders, there must be some measure of trust in order for him to lead effectively. A church needs to constantly cultivate this spirit of mutual cooperation and trust and respect in order for the mission of the church in this world to be effective.

Second, follow their faith. Look at their lives, and in so far as they follow Christ, you follow them. As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Their faith in Christ will also make them faithful to the words of Christ and will make for healthy preaching. You need to listen to Bible-centered, Christ-exalting, God-centered preaching. If I ever stop preaching the word of God, then you need to stop listening to me; in fact, you should remove me from this pulpit. But as long as I – or anyone else in this pulpit – is preaching the Bible, then you need to listen, regardless of how much you like it or not! Both Elder Bradley and I make it a point to always ground everything we say in the Scriptures. At the end of the day, we refuse to be wedded to a particular theological or denominational system, for our allegiance is to Christ and his word. Listen to God’s men who preach God’s word.

Remember that one of the main problems of this church in Rome is that they had stopped listening to God’s words, and one of the main ways they had stopped listening is that they had stopped hearing it communicated through their pastors.

So, brothers and sisters, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The ministry does not exist for its own sake, but for the good of the church. Let us therefore work together. Hold us responsible to preach the Bible. And as the pastors of this church, we will faithfully seek to preach God’s word and live it out in faithful obedience to the Lord who gave his life for the church, who loves his church and has given her pastors and teachers so that it is built up in love and faith.

P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Eerdmans: 1977), p. 569.

Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R, 2010).

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