Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:7-17 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/17/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Those Whole Rule Over You”
In our race of the Christian faith, Hebrews has been reminding us of the help we have. Chiefly, that’s the help that is in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We see that again today. Today’s passage tells us of another specific way in which Jesus gives us such help. It’s through the official leaders in the church. We have ministers, and elders, and deacons who have been ordained to help the church in its pilgrimage of faith. We’ll get to see some of what that help looks like in today’s passage. But we’ll also see that Christians have a duty in how they receive such help and leadership. We’ll get to look at that as well.
We see these leaders referenced in verse 7 as “those who rule over you.” This same language is used again in verse 17 and also in verse 24. In the Greek, this is a more general word. It’s used in various circumstances and for various kinds of rulers, though here in context it refers to rulers in the church. It’s not a reference to a specific title or office, but is a word that describes someone who governs and leads with authority. So, since it doesn’t refer to any one specific office in the church, it would apply to all the offices with official authority in the church today. That means for us, all the ordained offices: ministers, elders, and deacons, in their various positions and roles of authority in the church.
So then, let’s begin thinking about these leaders in the church by looking at verse 7. There we see it talk about how we are to commemorate our former leaders. In the other verses, it’s clear they refer to current leaders in the church. But in verse 7, with the language of remembrance and considering the outcome of these leader’s faith, this is surely speaking of former leaders. Also, it says they spoke, past tense, the word of God. And so, these former leaders are ones who served the church faithfully in the past, but have since died and gone to be with the Lord. Let’s look first then at what our passage says about these former leaders.
Looking then at these former leaders, we begin by noting how they are described. They were preachers and teachers of God’s Word. They spoke the Word of God in the context of their ministry. I love the emphasis on their credentials here. It doesn’t, for example, mention that they were miracle workers. Even if they had back then experienced apostles coming through with supernatural giftings, that wasn’t the highlight of their ministry. The highlight was the Word of God. They gave the people the Word. I think of how when Paul was saying goodbye to the elders at Ephesus he emphasized to them that he did not shrink from declaring to them the whole counsel of God. Paul told them that because he was saying that this is what they now needed to be doing. As Paul left Ephesus and passed the baton of leadership onto the Ephesian elders, they needed to be teaching the people the whole counsel of God. This is at the heart of the ministry of the church. It’s therefore at the heart of what our leaders need to make sure continues to happen in the church. The Word of God with all its holy doctrines, all its righteous laws, and all its sweet gospel comforts, needs to be proclaimed. The church’s ministry is not about novel teachings. The church leadership must not think that we need to update our doctrines to fit modern sensibilities. We can’t do that, because our ministry is not to be the author of religious truths. Our ministry is rather apostolic – that means that we are messengers. The author of the message is God. So the church is to bring God’s Word to the church and to the world. And so, this is what these former leaders did. That’s where their authority ultimately came from. To the degree they accurately communicated and explained the Word of God, they were leaders coming in the very authority of God. This must continue to be the source of the authority in our church officers: the Word of God. It’s derivative authority; authority derived from God as it delivers the Word from God.
So then, the command that verse 7 gives them and us is to remember these former rulers. We are to remember them for the work in giving us God’s Word. But not only that, it says we are to remember them by considering the outcome of their conduct. This is sort of like that list of Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11. There, we were given example after example of those who lived by faith, and died in that faith, and in that faith were ultimately victorious. In a similar way, Hebrews was telling its original audience to think back on the leaders they have had. They were to think about their ministry and its fruit. They were to recognize the victory these leaders have had by standing in their faith and living by their faith.
Surely, this has applications today to why we do Reformation Rallies and have church history classes. We should remember and commemorate the ministry and faith of our former church leaders. And we should not only look to past history before our time, but we should also consider the Christian leaders you have personally known. Remember them; remember the lessons you learned from them; consider how they lived their life and how that have been victorious in their faith.
Of course, if verse 7 only told us to remember these past leaders, we might come to a big misunderstanding here. We aren’t to remember these past rulers as a way to set them on some pedestal or to praise them. We can remember leaders like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Machen, Van Til, Sproul, and others, but we don’t want to worship them. And so, verse 7 clarifies this for us when it says, “whose faith follow.” Literally in the Greek, “imitate their faith.” It goes back again to what we find in Hebrews 11. Like how we can see and learn from the faith of the Old Testament saints, we can and should see the faith of our new covenant leaders and look to emulate that. Of course, we recognize that these leaders aren’t perfect. Yet, in so far as they heralded the one true faith and held the one true faith, that’s what we want to embrace as well.
That’s why verse 8 comes right after verse 7. At a first reading, you might wonder why verse 8 says what it says after talking about these former leaders: that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But let me try to bring out the point to you. Why remember these former leaders, their message and faith? Why be concerned to take their message and faith and make sure that it is our message and faith as well? Because Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, is the same, and that’s never going to change. The message of Christ hasn’t change and won’t change. That’s why verses 9-16 go off speaking against those who would bring strange, other, teachings into the church, before verse 17 returns to thinking about church leaders again. This is why our passage for today brackets a concern of false teaching with exhortation about listening to true teachers. There’s one message of the Christian faith. It doesn’t change. And so, we can and should look back at the ministry of our former gospel leaders. We can continue to benefit from their ministry because the Word they proclaimed is the same Word we need to be standing upon today. Their message hasn’t changed because there is only one Lord Jesus Christ, who has, and will continue to be the only Lord and Savior for sinners, for those who will put their faith and hope in him.
So then, that brings us to verse 17 to consider our current church leaders. Notice how verse 17 describes these current leaders. It says they are those who watch over our souls. Here, this work of watching is put in the present tense, so we know it’s talking now about the current leaders. Well, this language of watching is language of vigilance. It’s the kind of watching a night watchman would do to keep alert and on guard against enemies. This is the same word Jesus used in Mark 13 in talking about the end times. Jesus said we need to watch and pray so that we will be ready for his coming. Scripture is full of similar exhortations that Christians need to be examining themselves and watching over themselves to see that they are staying in the faith. Christians are to watch and pray concerning all the temptations that would look to turn us away from the way of the Lord. But notice what verse 17 is saying. Not only do we all need to spiritually watch over ourselves, but Jesus has also given us church leaders to watch over us as well. Praise God! And so, on this race of faith until the end, we are to be watching and prayer over ourselves. But we also have pastors, and elders, and deacons who are watching over us and praying for us. What a gift from the Lord to have such help in the journey of faith.
Verse 17 tells us more about the outcome of their watching. They are watching out for souls to be able to give an account to God. Interestingly, the word for “account” here is the same word for “word” in verse 7, logos in the Greek. So, on the one hand, such Christian leaders give the word of God to the people. But they will also give a word to God concerning the people. This reminds us that such leaders have a ministry of stewardship. God places people in their care and they later report back to God about them.
But if these leaders have an obligation of stewardship, we see in verse 17 that every Christians in turn have an obligation of obedience and submission to these leaders – even the individual leaders themselves, by the way. That’s the exhortation given in verse 17. We all are to obey and submit to such leaders in their positions of authority in the church. Let me comment first on the word for “submit”. The word for submit is a word that recognizes an authority. It acknowledges that the authority is giving you an order, and whether you agree with it or not is irrelevant. You are to yield and give way to the one who is in authority because they are in charge and you are not. Of course, this isn’t talking about submitting to leaders who sinfully abuse their authority in ways that are against God’s Word. We’ve already said that church authority is derivative, meaning it must be done “in the Lord” and thus consonant with the word of God. But as they do that, God has granted them authority and so we must submit to that authority, lest we resist God. This is especially an important exhortation in today’s post-modern, egalitarian culture, because there is a tendency today to want to make one’s self the authority. Submission to authority seems to be increasingly distasteful to our culture, but God’s Word says it’s something for us to embrace.
As to the word for “obey” here – it is a colorful word. In the Greek, it’s the passive form of persuade. So, it’s “be persuaded” by those who rule over you. Realize, it’s not saying be willing to be persuaded. It doesn’t say to consider what they leaders are telling you so you might be convinced. It’s commanding us to become persuaded by what they are telling you. What’s implied, of course, is that what they are telling you is from the Word of God, as we saw back in verse 7. When your pastor or your elders or your deacons are coming to you to speak and apply the Word of God to you, it’s never ideal to have to passively submit. That’s when you obey them even when you don’t agree with them. Sometimes, in our state of sanctification, all we can do is passively submit. But our goal should be to become persuaded by them. We see here that this is a command. We want to become persuaded by the teaching and leadership in the Lord by the rulers in the church. In so far as our leaders’ teachings are consonant with God’s Word, we are commanded by God to come to agreement with those teachings. We need to seek to get to the point where we embrace such doctrine and love it, because it comes from God’s Word.
How we go about this obedience and submission is important. We see that here in verse 17 when it says that we should so obey and submit that the rulers in the church do their job with joy instead of grief. That implies what hopefully is obvious. When your pastor or elder or deacon is trying to shepherd you with the Word of God, you can either make their work a delight or a great burden. These leaders are trying to be vigilant for your souls – don’t make them literally have to be vigilant for your soul in the sense of keeping them up at night. Be shepherdable. That means instead of fighting against the shepherd who’s trying to keep you in the safe place with all the other sheep, gladly accept his correction. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be Bereans, commendably checking that what we are taught is in accordance with God’s Word. But it does mean that we are quick to listen and quick to consider any biblical admonitions that our leaders bring us. We should be humble and meek when church officers bring a concern to us, instead of jumping to pridefully trying to justify yourself. When a church leader brings a matter to you, and you recognize that their word is of the Lord, then don’t delay in putting their exhortation into practice. Let them know you appreciate them taking the time to care for their soul. Thank them and encourage them. Let them know that you need such help and want such help. Honor them for their office, in general. But especially when they take the time to give you some biblical direction and admonition, honor them for the stewardship of your soul that they are doing.
As it says in verse 17, if you aren’t doing this, it will be unprofitable to you. Think about that, from the simple pragmatics of it. If whenever your church leaders look to shepherd you, you resist their biblical admonitions, you are obviously in the wrong and are fighting against the Lord’s revealed will for life. That won’t help your spiritual wellbeing and growth. But not only that, if you are always fighting back against your leaders, the sad reality is that they are likely to be less inclined to try to shepherd you the next time you need it, because you’ve always caused them so much grief whenever they’ve tried to help you. And so, if you are in a church with godly leadership, embrace their leadership. It’s for your good, and its to the glory of God.
As we’ve been describing this obedience and submission to leaders, we keep noting that such is demanded in so far as they are bringing us the Word of God. This again comes back to verse 8. When you have leaders that are faithfully bringing you that same old message of Christ, don’t spurn that. Embrace that. Because, Christ Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
When we see the context here, it seems that a fair deduction would be that some people that Hebrews originally was written to had begun to falter in this regard. Surely some of them were coming into conflict with their church leaders who were trying to be faithful to Jesus Christ. Some of them were probably starting to be intrigued by some of these “strange doctrines” mentioned in verse 9. Their local church rulers were surely urging them to faithfulness and they were resisting. Hebrews then speaks to that sort of situation and calls the sheep who are tempted to stray to listen to the shepherds God has given them.
That is application for today. There are always movements in and around Christian circles that look to bring the church away from orthodoxy into some other “strange” teaching. But Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. Instead of giving ear to any strange doctrine that comes up, we need to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
And since this Jesus hasn’t changed, we also rejoice in that means he is still our ultimate leader and ruler over the church today. As we have thought of these rulers in the church today, and how much of a blessing they are to us, we remember that they are the undershepherds, but Jesus is the chief shepherd – he’s called that in verse 20 even. And so, where verse 7 said our leaders have spoken to us the Word of God, we remember that chapter 1 said how God has spoken his word to us humans at various times and in different ways, but how he has now especially spoken his word to us in Jesus. And where verse 17 said how in the end our rulers will speak a word of account to God regarding us, we remember that Hebrews 7:25 says how Jesus always lives to make intercession for us; in other words, even now he speaks a word to God on our behalf as our Great High Priest. Let us indeed then hold fast to the ministry of our faithful teachers who proclaim Christ to us. Let us do so, recognizing that this is what we need. We need the unchanging Christ with his gospel of salvation to be wrought and grown in our hearts by faith.
And as we see the fruit of church leaders in our lives; as we see them being used by God to form Christ within us, let us praise our God knowing that it is by the grace of God that such growth ultimately comes. Our human leaders might plant seeds, they might water those seeds, they might even be involved in the harvest of those seeds; but it is God who gives the growth. We praise and thank our God again today for such grace.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.