Godly leaders and Godly followers (Hebrews 13:17)

Heb. 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

The author of Hebrews spends a lot of pen, paper and ink showing his audience how Jesus is the great fulfillment of the Old Testament’s sacrificial code.  And in the last chapter of the book as he is giving some final thoughts, when he again calls this imagery to mind and he tells the people that they are to go to Christ and join with him in his suffering.  Why?  Because For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb 13:14).

This world is a temporary one to which we don’t belong, but there is a world that every believer belongs, and Augustine once called that world, “The City of God.”  As people who profess Christ as our savior, the King of Creation, we have not only been transferred from death to life, but also from the Kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of God.  We have moved from darkness to light, from death to life, from self-focused to God-focused.  We aren’t looking for the temporal and immediate but rather for the eternal and ever-lasting.

Now with that kind of theological setup, what would you expect the author to say in the way of practical advice as he writes his last 180 words?  There are four things which are urged or commanded.  The first is that he urges the believers to offer to God a sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15).  The second, is a command to share with others and do go (Heb 13:16).  The third is also a command, Obey your leaders and submit to their authority (Heb 13:17). And the fourth is Pray for us [those writing the letter] (Heb 13:18).  Each of these activities is one way that we can keep our eyes off of ourselves and focused upon the Kingdom that God is building and ushering into this world.  And though we could easily spend a series of sermons on each of these four items, today, we are going to look at this third command – Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.


Why you may ask am I pulling out the third?  Simply put, Because we are Americans, and Americans living in the northwest which makes us some of the most independent people in the country, and furthermore, because we ordained elders and deacons this morning, it seems good to remind each of us of what our duty is to those who lead the body of Christ – Obedience and Submission.


We generally don’t like those words, do we?  Obedience has a negative connotation in our mind.  For obedience and submission to work in the Church, 2 things must be assumed: First, that the people we are obeying are following Christ.  Second, that our leaders really have our best interests in mind. If we will grant these two assumptions to our leaders, then it will make the act of obeying and submitting so much easier.  For then it will be like following Christ.  Then every request from our leaders can be assumed to be an invitation to Follow me as I follow Christ.


Trust your leaders, grant them the benefit of the doubt.  The council believes these people are following Christ and that they earnestly desire to see you grow into the fullness of Christ to reach maturity.  So grant them the benefit of the doubt when they ask you to go places or do things that are uncomfortable.


Trust them the way you trust your seatbelt to restrain you and hold you in.  You don’t fight against it, you simply let it secure you in place so you are safe and when it tightens up around you as danger is approaching you don’t unbuckle it and throw it off – do you?  No, you thank God for the wonder of engineering that can keep you safe.  The same is true for the leadership of the church.  Trust them.  Trust them like a climber stepping over a cliff and believing that his gear will hold him in.  Believe that God truly anoints these men and women to lead and as he anoints them, he grants them eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand things that you might not see, or hear or understand.


Now I think it goes without saying, but you aren’t called to obey every Christian leader out there.  You are, however, commanded to Obey your leaders.  Your elders, your deacons, your pastors.  They are not intrinsically better then you, nor are they worse, but God has granted them authority.  They are the ones God has entrusted with the task of leading you.


Earlier in the letter, the Christians were given a hint about why these leaders were to be obeyed. Heb. 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faithChristian leaders have modeled a way of life that is worthy of emulation, so when they ask you to do something, don’t consider if you like the thing they are asking you to do, or even if you agree with it, or even if it is convenient.  Rather, ask if it aligns with the word of God, and if it does then follow your leaders, and all the more if they themselves have practiced this action and it has produced the character of Christ in their life.  The outcome of the life we are being urged to consider is if the men and women who are leading us are exhibiting the Christ-like qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).  When we see these things in the life of our leaders, imitate their ways.  Follow their leading.  Obey them.


Some of you may think that I am being overly hard on the congregation and that I am giving the leaders of the church a free pass. Not so, any leader listening to this sermon and also listening to Christ is recognizing the great weight of leadership that they have been entrusted.  Imagine having your life under scrutiny and knowing that the life you live will be emulated and is to be a model.  That is a great responsibility.  Paul tells the Thessalonians, 1Th. 5:12-13 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Their work  is to be Christ to you, to help form Christ in you, and to call you to Christlikeness.  That is a great task.


Help them by submitting to their authority, not as people lording it over you but as people calling you onward ad upward.  Remember, you have been commanded to submit to their authority.    That word, submit, means to yield to, as in a Yield Sign, it means defer to and follow behind.  When you yield to traffic, the lane yielding must merge into the other lane that is going through, effectively putting you behind the one that is near you.


Matthew Henry once wrote – “Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.”


Implications – if pastor, elder, deacon asks you to do something, do it.  If they desire to meet with you, go out of your way to meet with them.  If they ask you questions, strive to answer them respectfully.  If they invite you to attend something, read something, join something, then by all means join them.  If they are directing the church down a certain path that is congruent with Scripture but which you don’t like, defer to them and participate whole-heartedly.


Why do we obey and submit?  Well, if the fact that we are looking toward a different kingdom that is not of this world isn’t enough, then consider these next words in the epistle. Obey your leaders and submit to them. (For) They keep watch over you.  The English doesn’t include the “For” but it is present in the Greek as a conjunction that explains why the preceding commands are being given.  These leaders have been charged by God with the task of guarding the flock.  They will loose sleep, spend much time reflecting, praying, and worrying about each of your lives.  They are Called to be on guard, looking out for things that may attack, hinder, cripple you.  They are the Shepherd in the field at night, the Watchmen on the walls looking for enemies, the Point person in a battalion clearing the way, and pointing out the dangers.


These leaders have a great concern not only over your physical life, but also over your eternal life.  They desire

your thoughts and your actions to be conformed to Christ.  Again, Matthew Henry writes,  “They are to watch against every thing that may be hurtful to the souls of men, and to give them warning of dangerous errors, of the devices of Satan, of approaching judgments; they are to watch for all opportunities of helping the souls of men forward in the way to heaven.”


God has granted your leaders this task and he will hold them accountable for their work.  Like a bookkeeper who must present a record or the use of the fund entrusted to them, so also God will demand an accounting of the shepherding they do or fail to do, and of your life.  So help them.  Let their work be a joy not a burden.  Let them be able to declare words of thanks and praise and gratitude for you.  It is of no benefit to you or your leaders if they must get up each day and say,  “Oh, another hard day with stubborn people unwilling to be led to water.” It is no good if they feel like leading this congregation is a burden, a cause for groaning, or worse yet a reason to mourn.  Don’t cause the prayers of your leaders to be cries to God about the stubborn Israelites he has given them.  No, my people.  Joyfully follow so that


They will be excited and joyful about leading you?  Make life easy on your leaders so that it is a wonderful cause for rejoicing.  Show them a desire to truly grow so they can find joy in serving you.  Make it easy for them to serve you, because you are willing to be led for that will be to your advantage and benefit in becoming like Christ.


As we come to communion, this morning, you might be thinking that I haven’t presented enough Gospel to go with these instructions, but let’s think for a moment about the communion table.  Isn’t the communion table a celebration of the Jesus as follower and leader?


As a follower, Jesus yielded to the Father’s will in everything.  He spoke what he heard God saying.  He did what he saw God doing.  He yielded when to his Father when his desires were not the Father’s and that yielding led him to great suffering and pain at the cross, but it also brought about the fulfillment of the Father’s plan to redeem humanity from sin and death.  Jesus was the perfect follower.  Communion reminds us of this.


But Jesus was also the perfect leader.  Because he knew how to follow his heavenly Father in obedience and submission, he was entrusted with the Father’s authority to lead the Church – all authority has been given to me.  First he led the 12, then the 72, then every believer throughout time and space.  He leads them into cruciform living calling them deny themselves, to take up their cross and to follow.  He leads them to righteousness and holiness.  He leads them to the grave to bury their sin and he leads them to new life to live in the freedom of love.  In the communion table, we find a call to follow the one who followed all the Father desires.  So when he says this is my body given for you and this is my blood poured out for you, Jesus is leading you towards God’s ultimate goal for you – the conformity of your life to his sinless life.  And that is a gospel worthy of proclamation!

About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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