Remember Your Leaders
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 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. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 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. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.*
What ought we to do with church leaders? Based on your experience, or maybe some recent headlines, you might answer, “Well, that depends. What sort of leaders are we talking about?” And you’d be right to ask.
When it comes to church leadership, the New Testament presents a fairly nuanced answer. It presents the ideal—we might recall Ephesians 4, where we observe Christ’s care coming through men he offers as gifts to his church. We could recall Acts 20, where Paul, through tears, charges the elders with what caring overseers must be. From the lists in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we could piece together their exemplary character. If we trace the shepherd theme throughout Scripture—these men must lead the flock like the One who leads us beside still waters.
At the same time, other places indicate that what some once thought to be good leaders could end up turning false, leading others astray—Acts 20:29. 1 Timothy 5:24 says the sins of some leaders are clear from the outset, but the sins of others appear later. Instead of servant-hearted leadership, others could abuse their authority. Why else would Peter have to charge elders not to be domineering over those in their charge (1 Pet 5:3)? With all the ways some leaders have strayed from the ideal, it’s no wonder that even some Christians remain suspicious when it comes to church leaders.
Then again, we also live in a culture that champions self-determination, self-autonomy, a kind of individualism that recoils at authority of any kind. For these folks, it’s not that they prefer submitting to good authorities over bad ones; they don’t want anyone telling them what to do at all. It violates their rights, their freedom to do as they please. Add to that cultural excess the internet and social media, where you can become your own authority about anything. Rather than wise counsel from the Holy Spirit, a text like Hebrews 13:17 might sound more like fingernails grating a chalkboard: “Obey your leaders and submit to them”—yes, even you, you Baptist Libertarian.
So, what ought we to do with church leaders? How should they lead us? How should we respond to their authority? Is there a way for this to work well, even with leaders who are imperfect, limited, who, like you struggle against sin? What does a healthy relationship between the church and its leadership look like? Hebrews 13 helps answer these questions. Where those leaders are faithful to Christ and his new-covenant, we must imitate them, continue in their teaching, submit to them, and pray for them.
I want us to look at verses 7-9 and then at verses 17-19. You will notice how both start with similar commands. Verse 7, “Remember your leaders…” Then verse 17, “Obey your leaders…” They function like bookends around these final commands. We’ll return to verses 10-16 next time. For now, let’s focus on what we ought to do with church leaders. You may have noticed that the leaders in view are godly ones: they spoke the word of God; they have faithful, imitatable character; they keep watch over the flock.
Other passages in Scripture show us how to respond to wayward, oppressive leaders. This one teaches us how to respond to godly, faithful leaders. When you piece together the context, it seems that God has blessed these Christians with faithful leaders. Some have moved on or died. Others are still laboring well. The writer of Hebrews knows them. He, too, was among them. He’s familiar with their example and teaching. They’ve been preaching the new covenant in Christ. But some of the members are starting to waiver. They’re on the verge of abandoning Jesus for their old ways in Judaism. The writer of Hebrews has given them all the compelling evidence on why they shouldn’t do that—that was chapters 1-12. Jesus is better. Now, he turns to some good examples of faithfulness in the leaders and says, “Follow them. Those leaders of old, those leaders you have now—follow them as they taught you to follow Jesus.”
1. Where they follow Christ, remember and imitate them.
Notice how he puts it in verse 7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” That’s the first answer to our question, What ought we to do with church leaders? Where they follow Christ, remember and imitate them.
It’s possible that verse 7 has present leaders in view. You could translate it, “those leading you [i.e., currently].” The same wording also appears in verse 17, “Obey your leaders.” Then in verse 24 he says, “Greet all your leaders.” But it’s also possible to view the leaders in verse 7 as past leaders—leaders who’ve either died or moved on to other missionary works. They’re gone and now to be remembered. He identifies them as “those who spoke to you the word of God.” Flipping back to 2:3, these might be the very same men who initially brought them the gospel. The Lord Jesus had declared it to them; then those who heard Jesus brought this people the good news.
Whoever they are, these leaders established the church on the word of God—good leaders will do that. The word of God is a theme that permeates Hebrews. “Long ago, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The word of God not only entails all that the Old Testament reveals about God’s plan; it especially includes how God fulfills that plan in the person and work of Jesus. They built the church on God’s self-revelation in Scripture and in Jesus.
These leaders also conducted themselves according to that word. The whole of their lives was characterized by serving Jesus. Verse 7 says, “by considering the outcome of their way of life, imitate their faith.” It could also be, “imitate the faith” at the end of verse 7. Meaning, if you want to know what a life gripped by the message of Jesus looks like, if you want to observe how the gospel transforms a person, consider very carefully the outcome of their conduct. Look at how these leaders did life. Look at the way they served and sacrificed. Consider the way they loved and led. Consider their humility and where they placed their hope. And then, imitate them.
Many of you know that I enjoy working with wood. It’s a valuable craft that I’d like to pass on to my children, just as my dad taught me. Growing up, he would explain which tools did what. He would sometimes sketch plans for what he intended to build. He’d talk to me about how to construct this or cut that. But necessary to him passing along that trade was me watching him build, was him positioning my hands on the tools, was him drilling one hole and then letting me do the next. I considered his skills; then I imitated them. That’s how we’re supposed to respond to godly leaders.
God doesn’t give us godly leaders to forget. They are gifts to remember and to imitate. They become concrete examples of what it looks like to follow Jesus. For us elders, that comes as a sobering reminder: our conduct should be worth imitating. Just like Paul could say with a clear conscience, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” we should be able to say the same to you. For the church as a whole, remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; and then imitate the faith.
In some sense, that could feel rather daunting. Put yourself in their shoes. They’ve endured one season of persecution already. Some of them were imprisoned. Some lost all their possessions. They’re thinking about giving up, until this other leader who used to be with them writes and says, “Don’t do it. Jesus is better. Stay faithful till the end. Consider your leaders and imitate them.” They’re going, “Yeah, and some of them died! They suffered greatly for the faith! Life got harder for them, not easier.”
Maybe you’ve felt some of what they might’ve felt. More and more our culture has turned antagonistic toward Christianity. Perhaps circumstances have made you weary. You’ve sacrificed and sacrificed some more, but received little reciprocation. Then you read in your Bible one morning how Paul suffered and labored for the church till he had nothing left but hope in the resurrection—and you hear the Lord say, “Imitate Paul as he imitated Christ.” How do you keep going?
You keep going by leaning into verse 8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” This isn’t some random doctrinal assertion. In fact, we need to be quite careful how we use it. Before his cross, Jesus was mortal. Do we then say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”—mortal yesterday, mortal today and forever? Is that what this means? Of course, not. More specifically, it’s related to who Jesus was for those leaders who’ve gone before them. Who Jesus is for the church in the present. And who Jesus will be for those who come after them.
The reason they can follow in the footsteps of their leaders is because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is our righteousness when we fail. He is our strength when we are weak. He is our help when temptation comes. He is our access to God’s throne in times of need. He is the one who sympathizes with us. He is the one who prays for us at God’s right hand. He is the King directing history to God’s appointed end. In other words, the same Savior he was for these leaders of yesterday—in his resurrection power and new covenant glory—he is that for you today. If he helped them endure to the end, if he helped them live faithfully through suffering, he will surely help you.
2. Where they center you on the grace of the new covenant, never shift away.
A second answer to our question, What ought we to do with church leaders: where they center you on the grace of the new covenant, never shift away. Verse 9, “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.”
People speculate about what’s meant here by “foods” and being devoted to them. Foods come up in a variety of contexts in the New Testament—debates about what’s clean and not clean, meat offered to idols, quarrels over feasts, asceticism.
Within Hebrews, though, 9:8-10 is likely our most helpful clue. He’s contrasting the old-covenant shadows with the superiority of the new covenant. He says this: “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement [i.e., the old arrangement under the Law], gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” What’s he saying?
The old regulations for worship, some that dealt with food—it all existed as a symbol pointing forward to a better age, a time of reformation. Until that time came, the old order was lacking in two big ways: (1) access to God’s presence wasn’t open for the people; (2) the sacrifices couldn’t perfect the conscience of the worshiper. Access to God and perfecting your conscience—that came through Jesus Christ alone, when he died for our sins, rose from the dead, and was seated at God’s right hand. He alone opens the way to God and cleanses your guilty conscience.
So—going back now to 13:9—to devote yourself to foods was to abandon Christ’s sufficient work and return to the old regulations that can’t give you access to God and that can’t perfect your guilty conscience. That’s not how they learned Christ, though. Their leaders spoke to them the word of God. Their leaders grounded them in the grace of the new covenant. And throughout Hebrews, it is the grace of the new covenant that changes and strengthens the heart. Through the new covenant, God writes his law on our hearts—they become new (Heb 8:10). Through the new covenant, God gives us access to his throne to receive grace in time of need (Heb 4:16). Through the new covenant we receive the Spirit of grace, who makes us more and more like Jesus.
So, where your leaders center you on the grace of the new covenant, don’t abandon it for some other kind of strange teaching. Wes did a remarkable job last week centering you on the grace of the new covenant, and he did it from Psalm 13 and how David’s cries—which sound a lot like our cries—find their answer in Jesus. Never abandon that kind of teaching. The grace of the new covenant is our only hope.
Notice, too, that he says diverse teachings (in the plural). There’s all kinds of teachings that abandon God’s grace in the new covenant. Maybe it’s various forms of legalism. Sometimes it’s not beyond us to raise our personal preferences to a level that says, “Our ways are more acceptable to God than yours. Or, what he or she deserves for their sins is worse than what I deserve for mine.” Sometimes it’s an overemphasis on dress codes and external behaviors. Maybe you think attending a Reformed Baptist church makes you better, more acceptable to God—baloney! Other times it’s a moralism that builds on Christian principles but neglects the grace of the new birth and the centrality of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes it comes in the form of nationalistic pride.[i] In a desire to commend what’s good about our nation, some have equated godliness with patriotism, loyalty to the flag, even where that loyalty skews ones devotion to Christ. Within some Christian subcultures, it’s easy to believe or act as though “God’s ultimate plan for all the nations is inextricably bound up with the fate of the United States.”[ii] Not only does this view often misapply the old covenant to America, but it replaces grace with political alliances.
Or, as another example, consider what some have called the “social justice movement.” In a desire to seek justice in society—a desire commended by Scripture, I might add—some have attempted to synchronize the gospel of grace with divisive ideologies as observed in identity politics, intersectionality, and critical theory. These teachings deny our nature as image-bearers, they reject our common identity in Adam, they often redefine justice to suit their own political agendas. Moreover, they look to effect change by a political activism devoid of the grace and forgiveness in the cross.
Here’s another: when someone confesses their sin, is this your opportunity to pounce? Does that become your opportunity to punish? Is it an “Aha! I’ve gotcha now! You’ve confessed!” moment? Then, instead of full and free forgiveness, you reduce your brother or sister to their sin. It becomes who they are—what defines them, in your eyes—when the grace of the new covenant says that they are new creations.
According to Titus 2, grace also teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires. The grace of the new covenant actually changes the heart. It saves us as we are, but it doesn’t leave us as we are. Any teaching that says otherwise is teaching a different kind of grace than that of the new covenant. Be careful, brothers and sisters, we must remain alert and vigilant in our study of the truth. Otherwise, we too will be led away by teachings alien to the gospel of grace. Where your leaders center you on the grace of the new covenant, never shift away. Only by grace are we pardoned and cleansed from sin.
3. Where they administer Christ’s care, obey and submit to them.
Next, where they administer Christ’s care, obey your leaders and submit to them. Verse 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.” God puts leaders in place—what does it say—to keep watch over your souls. By “soul,” think whole person here. Care for your inner self is crucial. But our care would fall way short if we didn’t also tend to your whole person. Your mind, your emotions, your physical rest, the way you use your body to serve others or protect others. I don’t mean we’re telling you exactly what to do in every moment, but good care will take these matters into consideration.
Speaking of that care, the word “keeping watch” could also be translated “be alertly concerned about.” It carries the idea of losing sleep to make sure that you’re cared for. We are to do this as those who will give an account to Jesus one day. How sobering to think that I will stand before the Lord and give an account for you—for how I taught you, knew you, cared for you. Name by name. This is serious business. God paid for the church with the blood of his own Son. His people are precious; and the leaders must treat them so. Like the Good Shepherd, they too must lay down their life for the sheep—not in the same sense of atonement, of course. But the path of love will mean great sacrifice on the part of the leaders to see that the sheep persevere till the end.
Where that leadership is present, obey your leaders and submit to them. That’s a counter-cultural word, by the way. We live in a society that bristles at the mention of submission. Yet Scripture is full of commands about submission: submitting to governing authorities, submitting to one another, wives submitting to husbands, children submitting to their parents, and also church members submitting to their elders.
Notice that he also says, “Obey your leaders…” Your—meaning, the leaders over you in your local church, who know your name, who observe your interactions, who pray for you weekly. With so many internet personalities and pastors with podcasts, it’s easy for a Christian to be part of a church but the primary voice they’re following isn’t their own pastors. It’s whoever they’ve chosen to lead them, quite apart from the ones who actually know them and keep watch over their souls. It’s not wrong to listen to these other voices. Sometimes I listen to them and read their books. But men like John MacArthur or Doug Wilson or Matt Chandler or John Piper aren’t your pastors.
Obey and submit to your leaders. To obey and submit means listening to their advice carefully; then yielding to their direction and counsel. Show deference to their lead as they guide the church through tough situations. That doesn’t mean checking your brain at the door, blindly following us into sin. But insofar as we ground our leadership upon the truth, upon God’s revelation, submit to your leaders.
Even more, make their ministry a joy. You can’t see it as well in the ESV, but there’s a purpose statement linked back to the command: “Obey your leaders…in order that they might do this [i.e., this ministry of keeping watch] with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” It’s to your advantage—it’s to this church’s advantage—to submit to your pastors, because it enables them to do their work joyfully and without groaning. It’s true that some pastors become rather crotchety when they don’t get their way. That’s a different sin problem that needs addressing. But I know faithful men, who’ve labored well, who’ve pour themselves into the people, and yet the members ignore their counsel. They fail to see God’s gift to them in their leadership. They treat them miserably and make their ministry most burdensome.
It shouldn’t be so. To continue with that sort of disposition toward your pastors isn’t good for you or the church. To hold them with unwarranted suspicion, to insinuate things that would erode trust quite apart from speaking with them, to tell your social media following the way you think Christians ought to respond when your pastors have counseled the opposite, to reject their counsel outright because it doesn’t fit your personal preference—that’s harmful to you, and it’s harmful for the unity of the church.
Maybe an example would help illustrate what verse 17 is getting at. A couple years ago, we had a young person addicted to porn. They confessed their sin, which is great! They brought it into the light. But they still lacked self-control. So, based on Jesus’ teaching to take radical measures to fight sin—like gouging out eyes and cutting off hands—we counseled them to get rid of the devices they were using to access it regularly. Not forever, but until they matured in self-control. They rejected that counsel; and doing so wasn’t to their advantage. I also remember the elder who gave that counsel weeping for his soul. The groaning here isn’t some sort of whininess; it’s grief that ties your stomach in knots for days, because you know what sin will do and how it will deceive.
On other occasions, we’ve met with brothers and sisters about what they post on social media. We’ve written articles about things to think through before posting something on social. Yet we still, at times, will learn of something a member posted online that doesn’t square with our counsel. What a joy it is to hear, when we might sit down and talk with a brother or sister, “You know, I never thought of it that way. I’ll take it down.” Or, “You know, thank you for that input. I’ll clarify that point further.” One time, Ben had to call me—I posted something in a hurry. He called me two minutes later and says, “Hey, I think the way it’s worded can be seriously misunderstood.” Before he finished explaining why, I was taking it down. Why? Because I trust my elders. I believe Ben has my best interest in mind. He sees things that I don’t see. He’s caring for my soul and the unity of this church.
Yes, follow no man farther than he follows Christ. The elders of a local church don’t have all authority. That belongs to Christ alone. At the same time, Christ did give elders some authority to lead his church (Heb 13:17); and we try our best not to abuse that authority. Our authority works for the good of Redeemer Church insofar it reflects the character of Christ and esteems his word. Wherever that’s the case, the Scriptures ask the church to submit, and in so doing make it so that we can serve you with joy.
4. Where they need more grace, pray for them.
Last answer to our question, what ought we to do with church leaders: where they need more grace, pray for them. If there’s one thing we’re regularly aware of, it’s how needy we are of God’s grace. We cannot serve you in our own strength. The writer of Hebrews knew that as well. Listen to what he says in verse 18: “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.”
That verb, “to act,” is the same language used back in verse 7: “consider the outcome of their way of life [i.e., their conduct].” He desires to continue in the same faithful conduct as those leaders who first brought them the gospel. But in order to do that, he needs prayer. He needs them to go before the throne of grace and ask for God’s help. Leaders need so much prayer. Some of you not only pray for us regularly, but you let us know through cards or texts or phone calls or at a gathering. We are so grateful. Keep praying for us. We need so much grace to lead you.
Leaders will also encounter specific circumstances for which they need prayer. Look at verse 19. He says, “I urge you the more earnestly to do this [i.e., pray] in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.” According to verse 23, Timothy was in jail. The writer of Hebrews was now with Timothy and they want to visit. Prayer is God’s means of accomplishing his purposes, even in something like a trip to visit a struggling church. In the face of trying circumstances, these leaders needed prayer.
We do to, brothers and sisters. The year 2020 brought with it numerous hard circumstances, and you prayed for us. The Lord heard your prayers and helped us lead you through it. 2021 is now upon us. We don’t know what kind of trials await us. But we do know God. We do know that, in Christ, he has opened the way for us to the throne of grace. And we do know that he will never leave us or forsake us. So, please pray for us.
What ought we to do with church leaders? Where those leaders are faithful to Christ and his new-covenant, imitate them, continue in their teaching, submit to them, and pray for them. And may the Lord help us grow up into Christ, our Chief Shepherd.
[i] In 2009, Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford published a book titled Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape Our Lives. One worldview they critique is nationalism. See also Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford, 2020).
[ii] Wilkens and Sanford, Hidden Worldviews, 67.