February 9, 2020
Jason Meyer | Hebrews 13:17
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.—Hebrews 13:17
I want to raise a question here at the outset of the sermon that takes us back to last week. In Acts 20, Paul says that the Spirit chose or appointed elders. Acts 14:23 says that Paul appointed elders in every city. The Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9) have a list of elder qualifications and they talk about people aspiring to be elders. So what is it? Do people appoint elders or does the Holy Spirit appoint elders or do elders just aspire and nominate themselves? When we put these texts together, we see that they form a more comprehensive and coherent picture of how God calls elders for his flock.
Paul did not appoint the Ephesian elders (Acts 14:23) apart from their elder qualifications (character and gifting) but because of them (1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9). And those elders were not appointed at gun point—kicking and screaming—to do something they did not want to do, because that external call has to correlate to an internal call (i.e., aspiration). The internal call (individual) and the external call (Paul or the congregation) both come from and operate under the superintending work of the Spirit. Acts 20 simply shines the spotlight on an essential part of eldership—the Spirit has chosen and prepared people who are to be ministers.
In other words, Paul appointed elders in Acts 14:23, and now this text throws the process further back and higher up. Paul only appointed the elders that the Spirit himself chose. Paul could see the Spirit chose them for this work, and the people can see that the Spirit chose them for this work. Part of the external evidence that the Spirit chose them is the character he worked in them and the gifts he gave to them. The internal evidence of aspiring is also a work of the Spirit within the elder.
All of this raises the question about how we nominate people for the office of elder at Bethlehem. Our ethnic harmony task force really challenged us and helped us over the past year as task force members and individual elders together looked at elder process and pipeline.
As we looked at our documents for eldership, we saw that they state that Bethlehem has three ways that an elder is brought forward: congregational recommendation, self-recommendation, or elder-recommendation. However, we concluded that in practice only one on-ramp is being used (elder recommendation) and the others are underutilized.
So I am trying to correct that right now. The elders do not want to be the only people in this process. You play a part. So we are asking for your help – especially in our minority communities or cultural contexts in which someone might not put themselves forward. You know the people you look to as leaders. Nominate them! Tell us about them and how they have ministered to you. Please embrace your part as the Spirit works in you and through you as well.
And in terms of self-recommendation, let me issue a word of clarification for how we read one of the elder qualifications: “aspiration to eldership.” The concept of “aspiring” is a biblical qualification that cuts across all cultures, and it can look a little different from culture to culture. Some cultures have no problem being self-assertive because they are self-directed cultures, and they are likely to talk about God’s call on their life and this does not feel self-promoting.
Other cultures are going to be more community directed. They think it is self-promoting to put oneself forward, and so they feel an extra burden to wait for others to recognize what the Spirit is doing in his life to be asked to be put forward. And even then, it may be considered more culturally acceptable to decline that invitation a couple of times.
These cultural differences are still under the sovereign appointment of the Spirit. This is a drawing work, a haunting work that you will not be able to shake. And the Spirit will stir the congregation too. And before he calls an elder, he makes an elder. This work of the Spirit is essential to eldership because it is a calling in which one signs up for a stricter judgment, as our text today makes clear.
Text: Hebrews 13:17
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
People: Obey your leaders because they are working for the everlasting good of your souls and they will receive an everlasting judgment for it.
Leaders: Be a joyful shepherd and not a groaning shepherd because that will not benefit your people.
We will break this passage up into four parts:
Obey your leaders and submit to them.
The author of Hebrews uses two terms for the relationship between the people and the leaders. The people are to “obey” and “submit” to the leaders. The call to obey and submit is found frequently in Scripture. Obey and submit are not simply raw terms of obedience because Scripture uses other terms to describe how the people relate to their leaders.
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.—1 Thessalonians 5:12–13
The particular words that Hebrews uses here are unique and strong terms. We must not water them down in our anti-authority age. Let us start with the second term first. One commentator notes that this particular verb only here in the New Testament, but it was used frequently in secular Greek literature in the sense of “submission to someone in authority.” So the second word means “submit to authority.”
The first word is a word for obedience. When paired with the first word, the sense becomes even stronger: “Obey and submit to authority.” These two words could give the impression that elders have absolute authority. Bethlehem is a congregational church that is elder-led. We are not elder-dominated. Elders are not “authoritarian.” In other words, do elders simply bark out orders and the congregation is supposed to get in line and not ask questions, and if they do, do elders just say, “Because I said so”?
Here is where it is so helpful to look at the first term for obey in more detail. The word translated “obey” normally means “to persuade” in the New Testament, but it is often used with the nuance of obedience in certain contexts. Just consider some texts in this regard.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.—James 3:3
But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.— Romans 2:8
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?—Galatians 5:7
Here is the key. Embracing the authority of the elders is directly dependent upon the authority of the word of God. Scripture is the royal scepter by which King Jesus rules his church. Scripture is the shepherd’s crook of the Chief Shepherd that pulls a sheep away from wandering into danger and disaster.
Scripture is God preaching. So elders do not subject the people to the subjectivity of our opinions. We never say, “submit to our ideas, flights of fancy, or our stream of consciousness.” We together live by every word that comes from God’s mouth—not our mouth. We do not put ourselves over the Word, but under it. We do not try to add to the Bible or improve the Bible. We are not beauticians that give the Bible a makeover; we are preachers who give it a voice.
So we preach the Word, shepherd you with the Word, submit to it, and obey it together (because we are both sheep under the Chief Shepherd’s authority). When the leaders rightly divide and handle and teach the word of God, it is God calling the people to obey the truth. So we invite you to test our claims. We will show you our homework. Please feel free to check it and do the math for yourself.
One way to test even that claim would be as follows. Someone may say that the word “preaching” or “teaching” is not in view here because the word is not found in this verse. Are we importing the link between leading and teaching into the discussion about eldership? No. Just take my word for it! Just kidding—seeing if you are following what I am saying. Don’t take my word for it. Let’s go to God’s word to see it. I invite you to see that the same word for “leaders” was used earlier in the chapter in verse 7, and it provides a bookmark for this section. Let’s read it.
Hebrews 13:7 has already connected leading and teaching:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
This vital verse connects not only leading with teaching, but leading with living. Are leaders just sitting back like Pharisees and putting heavy burdens on you without lifting a finger to help? Are they asking you to obey in ways they are not? We invite you to look not only at our teaching but at our way of life that comes from faith. Do our talk and our walk cohere and serve as a flashing neon sign that says: “Faith!”?
This text also relates to the warning against false teaching that we saw in Acts 20:29–30. Look at the connection between speaking the word of God in Hebrews 13:7 with the threat of false teaching in verse 9.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.—Hebrews13:7–9
Now, think through the logical connection between verse 7, 8, and 9. What is the word of God that the leaders spoke? What was the essence of their teaching: Jesus Christ! Verse 8 is an encapsulated Christological confession—it’s an identity statement, and it is what Hebrews is all about: the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. He is better than angels and better than the sacrificial system and better than the Jewish food laws. He brings a better covenant. He is a better high priest who offers a once-for-all sacrifice that forever takes away sin and is able to save to the uttermost. Don’t you dare move away from him and go back to Judaism!
Verse 9 “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings”—like what? Don’t think the heart can be strengthened by food. It goes into the stomach not the heart. Why not turn away from Jesus and put your hope in food? Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Grace is found in him. That will not change because he does not change. He saves to the uttermost. You don’t have a salvation deficiency and need to supplement it with certain foods. One commentator puts these verses into an overall picture of what the author is addressing:
Former leaders had carried out the preaching of the word of God, which was foundational for the community (v 7). That word, crystallized in the confessional formulation of v 8, was distorted by the “various strange teachings” (v 9), which threatened to move the community from its foundation. The current leadership now exercises a ministry of vigilance for the community, so that they do not forget the word of God or exchange it for mere human tradition.
Therefore, the call upon your lives is to obey your leaders provided that they are leading you according to Scripture in obedience to the leading of the Chief Shepherd. Respect the authority God has given to the leaders if it is in accord with the truth and authority of the word of God. That is why we are doing this preaching series. We are commending to you the texts that Christ has been speaking to us and the call we have been trying to discern carefully and prayerfully from him. We do not have ultimate authority and so we don’t say, “Just do what we want to do.” We also cannot abdicate our leadership and the appointment of the Holy Spirit and say, “So what do you want to do.” We are leaders who say to you, “This is what we see God calling us to do and we commend it to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. If it accords with his word, it has his authority.” It should go without saying, but I am going to say it in order to explicit: You are not called to submit to falsehood—you are called to not obey what is false.
For they are keeping watch over your souls.
A shepherd exercises oversight as an overseer, which means, “keeping watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17). This is such a fascinating reason given for obedience. Obey your leaders because they are for you. They are working for your eternal good, so receive the work they do for you.
Now there are two implications that we should draw out here. First, it is obvious that one cannot watch over the flock without knowing the flock. Pastoral ministry cannot be a disembodied voice speaking to a people that the pastor does not know and does not watch. “Speaking to” and “watching over” at least means “knowing well.”
In fact, there is a certain type of “watching” in view here. Just like Acts 20, the word calls for careful, attentive, alert watching. One commentator says that this Greek word (ἀγρυπνέω) “keep watch” has the etymological sense of chasing away sleep.
This term “watching over” has special reference to the Final Judgment. Consider the pattern of usage elsewhere.
“Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.”—Mark 13:33
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”—Luke 21:34–36).
You do not want to sleep through life and wake up in hell. Eternity is at stake, so shepherds are to chase away sleep and stay awake and alert. Hebrews reinforces this eternal perspective on shepherding in the next part of the verse with a reference to the Final Judgment.
For they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
This is a sobering and haunting truth. Every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. But a shepherd will also stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account to Christ for that person, too. We are like Ezekiel’s watchmen. If we warn them, we are innocent of their blood. If we do not, they will die for their sin but their blood will be on us as well.
This verse balances two concepts together: Yes, God gives elders pastoral authority, but he also gives them pastoral responsibility and that authority carries with it divine accountability.
This word for give account is used for people in general as well. And you will give an account not just for what you do, but even what you say. Consider Matthew 12:36–37,
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If it is true that people in general will be held accountable for their careless words, how much more is it true of leaders and teachers who handle weighty words.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.—James 3:1
All of history is headed toward a final judgment and leaders and people are going there together. The eternal weight of shepherding will mark all pastoral labor. Preaching is preparing people for the Final Judgment.
I have the words of Lemuel Haynes ringing in my head. I just did a biography on him on Wednesday for our Pastor’s Conference. He is someone you should get to know. He was a Black Puritan, and he impressed on me more than anyone else that preaching is preparing people for final judgment. It marks every part of our ministry. It marks how we preach.
“Oh! With what zeal and fervor will he [the preacher] speak! How will death, judgment, and eternity appear as it were in every feature, and every word! Out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will speak.”
It marks how we shepherd.
“They who watch for souls as those who expect to give account will endeavor to know as much as they may the state of the souls committed to their charge, that they may be in a better capacity to do them good. They will point out those errors and dangers that they see approaching; and when they see souls taken by the enemy, they will exert themselves to deliver them from the snare of the devil. The outward deportment of a faithful minister will correspond with his preaching: he will reprove and rebuke, warning his people from house to house. The weighty affairs of another world will direct his daily walk and conversation in all places and on every occasion.”
The weighty affairs of another world will be the aroma of our life and ministry. We are walking this road to eternity together and we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ together. Pastors and people—our stories are intertwined and interdependent. That is what Hebrews emphasizes with the last part of the verse.
Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
This verse puts the leaders and the people together as an interdependent relationship. Hebrews highlights the “joy” of the leaders and the “advantage” of the people. The people really do influence and have an impact on the leaders. They can give occasions for groaning or occasions for joy. This interdependent relationship is perhaps best captured by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:24–2:4.
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.
[Paul says that we are not lords over faith, but workers for your joy. Then he lets them know how intertwined his joy and their joy really are.]
For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
Bethlehem should be the best place to shepherd because we believe the best leaders are Christian hedonists, that is, people who find their greatest joy in Christ. The truth about Christ is not just known and preached and believed, but enjoyed! And if we are getting our eternal joy from Christ and not our people, we can feed on Christ instead of feed on our sheep. And Christian hedonists should be the best people that leaders could lead because they are not feeding on their undershepherds but on the Chief Shepherd. They hear Christ proclaimed and they know him, believe him, and enjoy him! And they want their leaders to be joyful. We are working for their joy and they are trying to respond for the sake of our joy and their benefit.
Our 20/20 Vision seeks to more fully embrace this interconnected journey toward eternity.
We want to see our people more clearly, watch over them more alertly, speak to them more specifically, and lead them more effectively. And we want to do all these things more joyfully! We know that this is the joy of partnership: your full participation and engagement. We want the joy of leading you and we want you to have the advantage of having joyful leaders who really know you and love you.
We have to keep the main claim of the 20/20 Vision in front of us. Why do the elders think that more regular campus-specific preaching will help us to live out these texts better? We are not saying we are changing our mission, vision, and values. We are not saying: “We have never attempted to obey these texts before, and now we would like to have a go at it.” We are saying, “We want to do them better.” Why do we think this move will be better for the flock?
We believe preaching is part of shepherding and leading. It is a key part of the final account we will give for how we have kept watch over the souls entrusted to us. Preaching should be particular and specific in pointing out specific errors and dangers. This particular congregation that the author of Hebrews addressed were in danger of drifting toward the belief that foods would somehow supplement their salvation and give grace to their hearts. That needed to be directly challenged—with the sufficiency of Christ for salvation.
Obviously, video preaching becomes challenging on this point because each campus has a campus identity with specific strengths and challenges/weaknesses/problems. Campuses face different struggles and thus need specific instruction and specific warnings.
Preaching is also shepherding in terms of leading the flock somewhere. It is not only warning or correcting, but leading. Shepherds want to guide the flock into particular pastures and it becomes challenging to cast vision for these things by simply referring to them in the announcements as a way of encouraging people to attend them. Therefore, the connection between the pulpit and the ministries of the campus can feel disconnected at times. The congregational elders have a nuanced discipleship plan for the flock and they sometimes have specific burdens for specific initiatives. For example, the South Campus has focused more recently on the gifts of the Spirit, while the North Campus has given time and attention to a Befriending initiative and a Counseling One Another initiative.
This feels like such a weighty sermon to me. Listen to Charles Wesley’s hymn for Shepherds:
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.
Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!
Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall forever die.
But this gravity begs a question. Why would people like leaders willingly and even joyfully take on a stricter judgment?
I think the answer to that question goes back to the introduction of this sermon and a reminder of what we saw in Acts 20:28. God has made men shepherds and appointed them as shepherds. It is the work of God. And one of the things that God works within us is a love for the people and the work of shepherding.
I have been reading a powerful book on Shepherding called The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil. The author uses a word for pastoral ministry that has really captured my heart. It is the word habitus. It is the Latin word for “habit,” but it means much more than our typical sense of a habit. He goes back to the classical texts in the history of the church on pastoral ministry.
“The classical texts of pastoral care have always called the cure of souls a habitus, a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means. … To make pastors you need the person and power of the Holy Spirit who forms and shapes men inwardly to be fit vessels for the treasures of God’s transcendent and transforming gifts in his gospel and sacraments.”
Notice you don’t adopt a habitus; you acquire it. You might say you don’t find a habitus, rather the habitus finds you. When “occupation” becomes vocation, when calling and work merge as one, it’s a happy combination in any line of work. When your work becomes more purposeful and fulfilling, then you know you’re well on your way toward acquiring a habitus, no matter what you do day by day. Farmers, physicians, dads, moms, computer programmers—or the proverbial butcher, baker, and candlestick maker—there’s a habitus that informs and shapes every essential enterprise.
There’s a lot about pastoral work that still frustrates and pains me after all these years, yet to this day there’s a sense of quiet contentment and satisfaction in a sermon well-crafted and delivered, a soul consoled and strengthened, hearts enlightened and inspired through faithful teaching. It’s the very same satisfaction and peace I experienced as a youth after a long day of exhausting manual labor, gazing at a field of new-mown alfalfa neatly windrowed in the waning light of the setting sun, waiting for the harvest. That, I think, is genuine habitus: doing all you’ve been given to do in the full realization that you’re only an instrument for the Lord to do his work through you.
I have to close by adding something to the list that Harold Senkbeil made. It is not only “quiet contentment and satisfaction in a sermon well-crafted and delivered, a soul consoled and strengthened, hearts enlightened and inspired through faithful teaching.”
One of the moments of greatest gravity in my ministry is every January when I read the names of those members at my church that have passed away in the previous year and entered the glory. I remind everyone of Mark 12:26–27 when Jesus rebuked the Sadducees for failing to believe in the resurrection.
“And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
I read the names and say: God is the God of _________. God is the God of __________.
I believe that when I read their names—they are not dead. If they are with Christ, they are more alive than ever before. If they are not, then they are more dead—in eternal death—than we can scarcely imagine.
Do I consistently apply this to the way I think about pastoring? Those moments are so clarifying for my ambition to love my people as a faithful shepherd. Pastoring is not a popularity contest. Do they think I am funny or kind or wise or intelligent or eloquent? How much did they like me or love me?
Did I love them much by preparing them well for eternity?
 William Lane, Hebrews 9–13, Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word, 1991, p. 554
 Ibid, p. 553
 F.F. Bruce, Hebrews, revised edition, NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, p. 385
 TO COME, pp. 33–34
 Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart, p. 18
 Ibid, p. 22
Pray for a grace for leaders and people to joyfully keep in step together as we walk together into our Chief Shepherd’s eternal pastures.