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Obey Your Leaders

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 24, 2013

Hebrews 13:17

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 13.  We’re going to be looking at verse 17 as we return to our study of this book and its last chapter.  If you were going to give a topic heading for Hebrews 13:17-19 it would be, “The Responsibility of the Congregation to Its Spiritual Leaders.”  And I think you could outline it in two parts:  obey and pray.  And we’ll look at the obey verse today, verse 17, and then we’ll look at the pray verses, 18 and 19, Lord willing.  I’m really glad that I’m getting to preach this text to you now because it will be apparent that there’s no agenda in it for me.  My purpose in preaching this sermon is not to get you to obey me.  As the text unfolds, in fact, the reference is not to one person but to the gathered spiritual leaders of the local congregation.  But in a month or so, God willing, I will be serving in another setting so what I get to say to you today is in preparation for a new ministry and in the interest of the shepherds who come behind me.  So I’m really glad that I get to preach this text at this time so that it’s apparent that I’m not trying to serve myself in preaching a message on obeying your leaders.

Now the idea of an adult obeying another adult is a little bit strange in our culture.  Outside of the military, obedience language is not common in our culture in reference to adult’s relationships to other adults.  We still use it in the context of parenting, although in some Western cultures even that is eroding.  There is a country which has actually passed a law, a Western country, forbidding parents to use corporal punishment on their children.  And in that culture, there are those who question whether the parents have the right to expect obedience from their children.  And if it’s happening there, you can imagine that sooner or later it will get to us and there are certainly people in our own culture who question whether parents ought to have authority over their own children.  And so obedience language between adults is a little bit strange in our culture.  People will often poke fun at First Presbyterian Church.  Maybe you’ve had friends and neighbors in the community poke fun at you.  “Oh, you’re the church that still uses the submission vow in the wedding services.”  And you know, there’s this background suspicion that First Presbyterian Church is home central for misogynists and male chauvinists who are sort of trying to keep women down.  

But it’s interesting that obedience and submission are not something that is for some particular sub-group within the Christian community; the New Testament has language for all us.  I don’t know whether you remember, but seventeen years ago when I took my vows before this congregation I vowed obedience.  You cannot be a PCA minister without vowing to be in submission to your brethren.  So every minister and every elder that you have has taken a vow of obedience.  Every Christian is called to obedience.  It’s just part of the Christian life.  And you know what?  When we’re doing it we’re actually following Jesus.  You remember, Jesus, on one occasion, was describing His calling to His disciples and He said, “You understand, I do not do this of my own accord.  I come to do the will of Him who sent Me.”  That’s how Jesus typically describes His life and ministry.  What He was saying was, “I’m not here to do what I want to do; I’m here to do what the Father wants Me to do.”  And so Jesus could describe His life and ministry in terms of obedience.  In fact, on one occasion, and John’s the one who records it, He says to His disciples, “It is My meat to do the will of Him who sent me.”  In other words, Jesus was saying, “I love doing what God told Me to do.  I really love being obedient to His will for My life and ministry.  It’s like spreading a seven-course feast in front of Me to get to do My Father’s will.”  So when we are obedient in the Christian life we are just following Jesus because Jesus was obedient in His Christian life. So though it’s unusual in our culture to talk about adults obeying other adults, this passage reminds us how alien our culture’s outlook is from the New Testament and from the attitude of Jesus.  

So let’s pray and we’ll read from Hebrews chapter 13 verse 17 and look at this great passage together.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word and we pray that You would teach us from it today.  Surprise us with Your truth.  Challenge us in areas where we are perhaps self-protective and self-centered.  Teach us the way of Gospel obedience.  Point us to the obedient Savior who saved us by His own obedience and gave us a salvation by free grace.  We ask all these things in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is God’s Word.  Hear it:

“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.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The one great point of this passage is that your submission in the Christian life is important for your wellbeing and for the wellbeing of those who lead you.  Your submission in the Christian life is important for your wellbeing; God in His kindness has provided to be your shepherds and watchmen in the Christian life.  It’s a direct way of emulating Jesus because the life that Jesus lived was a life of obedience and submission. He was obedient to God’s will.  He submitted Himself to His heavenly Father’s purposes.  And we’re called to do that in the Christian life.  And I want to look at this verse in great detail with you today and elaborate that one main point.  It’s one main point but there are seven things that I’d like you to see really quickly.  Now don’t worry; the sermon won’t be fifty-five minutes long!  We’ll move through these quickly!  But this I hope will unfold for you what is being asked for and why in this passage.

OBEDIENCE AND SUBMISSION ARE PART OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

The first thing I want you to see is this.  Obedience and submission are part of the Christian life.  Obedience isn’t for a certain segment of Christians; it’s for all Christians.  It’s a part of the Christian life.  Look at the language in verse 17.  “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”  Now that’s language that is used on numerous occasions in the Bible and in the New Testament.  Believers here are called to obey their spiritual leaders.  This passage isn’t a parallel to Romans 13 where Paul’s calling on us to obey government leaders; this is talking about spiritual leaders.  You see that because these are people who are called, “those who watch over your souls.”  The parallel, if you look back, is verse 7.  So if you look from Hebrews 13:17 back to Hebrews 13:7 you’ll remember that we were called to imitate our leaders and to remember them and to be thankful to God for them because they taught us the Word of God.  And so these are the leaders that are being spoken of here. These are spiritual leaders.  

But we’re not just called to obey and to submit to those spiritual leaders in the Christian life.  In fact if you look back at Ephesians chapter 5 we typically think about the relationship between wife and husband there, but Paul, if you look at Ephesians 5:21 introduces the whole section by talking about the way we mutually serve one another in the Christian life.  All of us are called to this kind of mutual servitude in the Christian life.  Obedience is a normal part of Christian experience.  And so when some Christians are called to obey others, they’re not being asked to do something that all Christians are not asked to do.  Christian ministers are asked to obey, just like I took vows to be in obedience to my brethren - and of course I’m to be obedient to God - but all Christians, in some of our relationships, bear these kinds of responsibilities.  And that’s important for us to realize because it’s a little bit strange in our culture to talk about obedience, especially between two adults.

CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP IN THE LOCAL CHURCH IS PLURAL

Second, Christian leadership in the local church, and the extended church, but we’re thinking especially about the local church here, Christian leadership in the church is plural. Now what do I mean by that?  Look again, it’s the very first phrase of verse 17.  “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”  Not, “Obey your leader and submit to him,” but “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”  The call here is for an obedience and submission to a plural leadership.  This is hugely important because all around us, especially in the evangelical world, we see cults of personality where one particularly gifted leaders, by virtue of that gifting, lords it over a congregation or a movement and has no one to whom he is accountable.  Well here, it’s a group of people who are leading a local congregation.  Not one person but a group.  “Obey your leaders.”  

Listen to this; this is hugely important in the Christian life.  This protects us from abuse of power, it makes it clear that leaders themselves are accountable.  There’s not unchecked power here.  Where there is unchecked power in the hands of one person you can expect abuses to occur.  And I’m so thankful we live in a congregation and minister in a congregation where there’s not only been faithful minister or senior pastors for a hundred and seventy-seven years, but there has been a plurality of godly leadership. We are an elder-led Presbyterian church on purpose.  I am accountable to my elders and they to one another.  And that is good for the health of the congregation and here we’re reminded of that. Christian leadership, in both the local church and the extended church, by God’s design is plural.  

If you look at the word, Presbyterian, or the Greek word behind it, presbuteros in the singular, presbytery in the plural, most often in the New Testament that word is used in the plural.  In other words, more often than not it doesn’t talk about “an elder” it talks about “elders” in the plural.  And the word from which we get Episcopalian, episcopas or episcopoi, is also found in the New Testament.  Why didn’t we call ourselves Episcopalians?  That’s a perfectly good word, episcopes, episcopoi - it means bishop or shepherd or guide.  Well one reason it, the word, presbuteros, presbytery, is used more frequently and it’s kind of the title, and episcopoi or episcopas is the job description.  The elders’ job description is to watch over our guide.  You even get that language here, don’t you?  In this very passage, you see the language in verse 17 of keeping watch.  That’s what bishops or shepherds or guards do - they watch over the flock.  But more often than not in the New Testament the reference is to a plural group of elders giving leadership in the local church and in the extended church.  In Acts 15, when Christians gather in Jerusalem to solve a problem that’s all the way in Antioch, we hear that the apostles and the elders are there.  And the principle of being led, not just by one person, but by a plurality of godly leadership, it’s just written all over the New Testament and we see that here.

CHRISTIANS HUMBLY RECEIVE AND FOLLOW BIBLICAL TEACHING AND EXHORTATION OF THEIR LEADERS

Third, what in the world does it mean to obey your leaders?  Look at verse 17.  The first injunction is, “obey your leaders.”  What does that mean?  It means this.  Christians humbly receive and follow the Biblical teaching and exhortation of their leaders.  This is not some sort of an undiscerning, check your brain at the door, absolute abdication or your personality and personal freedom to ecclesiastical authority.  That’s not what’s going on here.  Remember in this book the author of this book, preaching to this congregation, is concerned about false teachers who sort of show up with their new, novel ideas, and they begin to pervade them to the congregation.  And what he is saying is, “Now listen, receive the teaching of the apostles from the lips of your leaders.  What they’re teaching you, you’ve been hearing it for twenty, thirty years now, and your ears may be itching for something new.  Well what I want to tell you is, don’t let your ears itch for something new.  What you need to hear is the good, old, apostolic teaching from the lips of your leaders.  Obey them as they teach you the truth.  Don’t listen to the false prophets who come rolling through with their new ideas.  You listen to the tried and true apostolic teaching from your elders, your leaders, your shepherds.  Obey that.  Obey that teaching.”  

You remember Jesus told His disciples to, “Go, make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.”  So in other words, Jesus was not just saying to His disciples, “Fill people’s heads up with knowledge and make them assent to that.”  No, He said, “No, no, I don’t want them just to know what I taught; I want them to obey what I taught.”  So when he says, “Obey your leaders,” he’s saying, “Listen to that good old faithful apostolic preaching and teaching, which the apostles received from Jesus, and make sure that your people obey that.  Receive the teaching of your leaders and obey it.

SHOW DUE DEFERENCE TO GODLY LEADERSHIP

Well what does he mean by “submit to them”?  “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”  He means, this is the fourth thing, to show due deference to and follow the godly leadership of these shepherds.  Again, this doesn’t mean that shepherds and leaders in the Christian church have absolute authority.  They don’t.  If we’re out of accord with the Word of God we’ve got no authority; none whatsoever.  And anything that we say that is out of accord with the Word of God ought to be rejected out of hand.  But, by God’s grace, you have been given a hundred and seventy-five years plus of faithful, godly, Biblical shepherds in this congregation; not just pastors, but elders.  And we’re to give due deference and follow the godly leadership of those shepherds.  

One of the things that’s given stability to this church - a friend of mine, when I first came to Jackson I worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church in town which used to be on Northside Drive where Redeemer is.  And one of our young officers in that church, he became a deacon during my time there, had come out of an Independent Congregational background.  And when I came to the church we were already in a ministerial transition.  My boyhood pastor, Gordon Reed, was the interim pastor and he has just taken over from the previous pastor who had resigned and had gone on to another field of service.  And after Mr. Reed, Mike Ross came to the church as the new pastor.  And my friend, who became a young deacon in the church, said to me, “This was so strange to go through a pastoral transition and for the church not to split.”  He said, “I’ve never been in a church that didn’t split when the pastor left.”  Well one of the reasons was, that church was not built around one person but around the plurality of godly leadership and the congregation had learned to defer to the wisdom and the leadership of those godly leadership and they went through a pastoral transition just fine, just like this church has twelve times, because there was a continuity of godly leadership that the congregation trusted.  So Christians show due deference to and follow the godly leadership of their shepherds.

GODLY LEADERS ARE CALLED TO A PROTECTIVE WATCHFULNESS

Fifth - why?  Now the fifth and sixth points are why you do this. The fifth point, look at the middle part of verse 17 - “for they are keeping watch over your souls.”  In other words, the reason why you do this, the reason why you humbly receive and follow the Biblical teaching of your leaders and you show due deference to them and follow their godly leadership is because they are called to a protective watchfulness over your souls.  Now I love this language.  “Keeping watch over your souls” - there are at least two Biblical pictures of keeping watch.  And we’re just about to enter into Christmas season. You know one of them.  “There were in the same country, shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  That’s an Old Testament and a New Testament picture that’s applied to leaders in the church.  Their job, like shepherds, is to make sure that wolves don’t creep in and snatch sheep and take them away.  So what are they doing?  They’re looking out for the wellbeing of the flock.  The other picture, though, comes from the Old Testament prophets.  And the prophets often called themselves, “watchmen,” people who keep watch - why?  Because of the image of watchmen who stood up on the city walls at night and during the three watches of the night, while you slept, they watched on the walls to make sure that you were not attacked by a marauding enemy while you slept.  What was their purpose of standing on those walls?  To protect the city from attack.  So there are the two pictures of keeping watch - the watchmen on the walls and the shepherds watching their flocks.  

Well what is it that these leaders are called to do?  They’re called to watch over your souls.  Now this is huge because all of us are tempted in this life to care more about being happy now than eternally.  And sometimes we seek our happiness and our satisfaction here apart from God, and when we do that, we endanger our everlasting happiness.  These leaders have the job of always watching over your souls. They want you to be happy now, but more than that, they want you to be happy forever.  You were created with souls that will never die and you will live for eternity in one place or another.  And these leaders’ job is to watch over you and to sometimes tell you uncomfortable things so that you do not forfeit happiness forever because you wanted to be happy now.  They’re keeping watch over your souls.  And sometimes making sure that you don’t miss the forest for the trees and sometimes so that you don’t miss eternity for now.  They’re looking out for the wellbeing your souls.  That’s why you ought to obey and to submit to them.

LEADERS IN THE CHURCH WILL GIVE AN ACCOUNT TO GOD 

OF THEIR LEADERSHIP

And then, sixth, look at the end of that middle section - “for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account.”  In other words, they are accountable to God.  They will one day give an account for how faithful they were in keeping watch over your souls.  That is an awesome thought, that one day the pastors and elders of this congregation will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and we will give an account for how faithful we were in watching over your souls.  I hope you’ll pray for us.  It’s an awesome thing.  John Brown of Haddington is one of my favorite Presbyterian scholar-theologians of the 19th century in Scotland.  Haddington is a town east of Edinburgh, and it’s famous because Haddington was where John Knox was born.  But John Brown was from Haddington.  And there are so many John Brown’s in Scotland you have to say which John Brown it is so they call him John Brown of Haddington.  “Oh, that’s the Presbyterian minister and theologian who was from Haddington.”  

When he was a young man he had a young ministerial student who had just graduated from Edinburgh and who had been called to a church and it was a tiny little church and that young man was embarrassed about how small his church was.  And so his professor, John Brown, wrote him a letter.  And here’s what he said.  “I know the vanity of your heart and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small in comparison with those of your brethren around you.  But assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at His judgment seat, you will think that you had enough.”  You see the picture.  He’s got thirty-four people to give an account for before the judgment seat of Christ while others have three thousand.  And on that day he’ll think, “Thirty-four was plenty enough, Lord.  Plenty enough to give account for.”  One day, I’ll give an account and your ministers and your elders will give an account because Christian leaders are accountable to God.

GODLY LEADERS FIND JOY IN SEEING GOD’S GRACE 

WORK IN THE LIVES OF CHRISTIANS

One last thing we see in this passage.  Here’s the seventh thing.  It’s the final phrase - “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you.”  Isn’t that interesting?  He said that you are to aim for your leaders to have joy in their ministry.  He wants you to be conscious of them having joy in ministering to you.  Now I want to tell you, the Gospel ministry has joys like nothing else in this world.  When you have seen someone lost as a goat gloriously transformed and found and changed by the grace of God, there’s nothing like it.  When you see someone advanced in years devouring the Scriptures and growing in grace like they were a sixteen year old right out of a revival meeting, there’s nothing like it.  When you see people who had relationships that were broken but because of the Gospel able to forgive one another, there’s nothing like it.  There are joys in the ministry that I would not trade for anything in this world.  And there are sorrows and heartbreaks that I can’t even describe to you.  And the older you grow, the more of those heartbreaks that you know and they’re always there.  

The joys are there, but always in the background, even when you’re baptizing someone, even when you’re teaching someone the Scriptures, even when you’re getting to proclaim the Word of God to a congregation that believes the Bible and listens to what you say, and you’re saying to yourself, “I can’t believe I get to do this!” in the back of your mind there’s someone that you poured your life into who’s made a shipwreck of the faith and fallen away.  And there’s someone who just won’t repent.  And you’ve told him over and over and over again as nicely as you can, as persuasively as you can, as importunately that you can that his soul hangs in the balance and you’ve gotten nowhere.  Or there’s a relative, there’s a relative that you love is headed for hell and every time someone comes to faith in Christ under your ministry in the back of your mind you’re saying, “Lord, why can’t he come to Jesus?  Four people have come to faith in Christ under my ministry this year, Lord, and my own flesh and blood haven’t come to faith in Christ.”  And so the author of Hebrews says, “Look, make sure that you respond to the ministry of these leaders in such a way that they have joy in it.  That’s good for you. It wouldn’t be good for you if they didn’t have joy in their ministry to you.”  It’s interesting, isn’t it, Paul and Peter elsewhere in the New Testament will say to leaders, “Now make sure that you’re serving not out of compulsion but willingly and gladly.”  So Paul and Peter are kind of working on the leaders and saying, “Make sure you do this, not because you’re made to but because you want to and you have joy in it.”  But the author of Hebrews is looking at it from the standpoint of those who are being ministered to and saying, “Make it your standing business that your leaders have joy in leading you.”  

Now this is why I am so glad I get to preach this message now.  You’ve given me joy for seventeen years.  Do that for your next pastor.  You were patient with me when I didn’t know how to preach my way out of a paper bag.  Do that for your next pastor.  Be patient with him.  Give him joy in his ministry.  Don’t say, “Well that’s not like Ligon did it.”  Don’t say that to him.  Now a lot of you will be really glad that it won’t be like Ligon did it, okay, but don’t say, “That’s not how Ligon did it.”  Give him joy in his ministry because as many joys as he’s going to have in this congregation of three thousand plus souls, on any given day there is enough sorrow to weigh anyone’s heart down.  So you give him joy in his ministry and you listen and receive the Word of God from his lips with delight, submissively taking it in.  And in so doing, you’ll be following Jesus, who loved to obey His Father and do His will. 

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word.  Work it into our hearts we pray, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Let’s sing about the church we love using number 353, “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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