"Obey Your Leaders"—But, Why?

Sermon Passage: Hebrews 13 (a focus on verses 7–9, 17, 20–21) | Preached to SGF | 2-28-2021 

By Peder Kling 

Three Categories of Commands in Hebrews 13

As I mentioned last week, this last chapter in Hebrews might seem a bit jumbled up in its instructions. One way to think of it is that we are receiving a glimpse into the author’s “stream of consciousness”. Perhaps you journal this way—you sit down, and you write whatever comes to your mind. You write about one topic, then you follow a bunny-trail, and then return to that first topic again without much thought. That’s how this last chapter might feel to many of us. We see in this chapter several concluding instructions without a set-in-stone organization to them. 

 

That’s not to say this chapter is not important, nor worth our meditation. These words were inspired by God, and they are worth meditating upon.

 

So, last week I pointed out that we can categorize all these instructions under three categories, which have set us up nicely for three sermons.

 

Category 1: Worship

Last week, we looked mostly at verses 9–15 where I think the most fundamental instruction is given to us in this chapter. Those verses pertain to how we are to worship and approach God. Verse 12 tells us, “Jesus suffered… to sanctify the people [you and me] through his blood”, and then verse 15 brings us to worship—“therefore through him let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God”. He sanctifies us that we would be acceptable to God through is blood—and therefore, we also offer our worship to God through his blood. We and our worship are only acceptable “through his blood” (verse 12), or “through him” (verse 15). Without his blood to sanctify you, your sacrifices of praise to God are offered from an unsanctified, unholy person. And, as you are positionally unholy before God, so also are your works and your worship. But, verse 12 reassures us that Jesus suffered under the wrath we deserved, and thus he sanctified us, so that God would accept both us and our worship as pleasing to him.
 

But notice how verse 15 illustrates the centrality of this for us. This is a command that we are to live under—we are to offer praises God “through him”. This work of praise is never-ending for the Christian. All the other commands in this chapter are fundamentally to be understood as commands to praise to God in your brotherly love and hospitality. In fact verse 16 says that we should “do good and share… for such sacrifices are pleasing to God”, as you worship God through them. Any good that you do is best understood as a sacrifice of praise to God. 

 

This matters because it this gives you freedom to worship and work before God, knowing he accepts you and is pleased with you even on that horrible, unproductive day at work. I didn’t mention it last week, but this is 1 Corinthians 15:58—the passage that has kept me reassured before God in all my work. “Be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord”—or, to use language from our passage—“continually offering up sacrifices of praise in all you do”. Why? The verse continues with this promise, “knowing that  your labor [or again, your “sacrifice”] is not in vain”. It’s accepted “in the Lord”. It glorifies God “in the Lord”—even when you look at your days’ work and think it was a wash. There’s assurance in the blood. 

 

That’s the first category of instructions in Hebrews 13, and it supports all the other instructions in this passage. These verses—verses 12 through 16—need to be pressed upon our foreheads as we look at the other two kinds of instructions in this chapter. 

Category 2: Leadership

The second category of commands in this chapter pertain to what we will talk about today. In that stream-of-consciousness, we see three different clumps of instructions that all pertain to church leadership (verses 7, 17, and 20–21). Verse 7 states, 

 

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

Then 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. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

 

Yet, perhaps more importantly than these two instructions in verses 7 and 17 are the instructions on church leadership that we see in verses 20–21. You might not expect these to fall under this category of church leadership, but they  if we are to get church leadership right. Verses 20–21 come in form of a benediction, or a blessing, rather than instruction: 

 

20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. 

 

Do you see the reference to leadership, there? “The great shepherd [or, pastor] of the sheep”. That’s where leadership begins in the church. Christ is king and Lord, he is the great shepherd who laid his life down for the sheep, to take it up again. That’s the second category of commands I see in Hebrews 13, which we will consider for today’s sermon.

Category 3: Righteous Living

Then, as we look ahead to next week’s sermon, there’s the third category of commands in this concluding chapter of Hebrews—commands which pertain to righteous living. They fill out what those “sacrifices of praise” and “good deeds” look like in verses 15 and 16. “Let brotherly love continue”, verse 1. “Be hospitable”, verse 2. “Pray for us”, verse 18—and so on. 

 

So, those are once again the three kinds of commands I see in Hebrews 13. 

Submitting to Our Leaders

Let’s now consider that second category—church leadership. To do this, we will look at three matters.

 

First, we want to make sure we root ourselves under the supreme leader and shepherd over the church. Jesus. He is the “great shepherd of the sheep”, verse 20. We need to know what that means so that we might find encouragement.

 

Second, we are going to consider the Biblical merit for “under-shepherds”—for earthly pastors. This is actually assumed in our passage today—our passage does not explicitly tell us how or why leaders are put into a place of authority overs us.  But we live in a society that does not assume God-given leadership in the church. So, I’ll take you to a few passages which help us see how the Bible commands us to invest certain men with authority under God. 

 

Then Third, we will consider two ways we should regard church leaders. We should imitate their faith (verse 7), and we should submit to them (verse 17). 

 

And again, just so it’s in our minds—God offers all of this leadership so that we would keep our lives and work rooted at the cross, to be acceptable and pleasing to God.

 

1. The Great Shepherd Who Leads Us to God

So, let’s consider “the great shepherd of the sheep” in verses 20–21. This is one of the most powerful benedictions in our Bibles. Look at these verses with me—

 

20   Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

 

This benediction is something like a prayer to God. “May the God of peace… equip you”. We’re talking about the triune God, here: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. “May [that] God of peace... equip you with everything good, that you may do his will”. That’s the guts of this sentence, in its barest form. 

 

But isn’t that prayer awesome? May God equip you with everything you need to do his perfect will of righteousness and peace and faith; gratitude toward him and goodwill toward men. God equips you with all you need in these areas. And how does he do it? This passage goes directly to Christ, and his ministry to you as your high priest; his leadership over you as your great shepherd. 

 

Look at these verses. How does God equip you in Jesus? 

Equipped with Blood

He equips you “by the blood of the eternal covenant” (verse 20). That’s the foundation for your acceptance before God. Hebrews has been giving us long, painstaking arguments over 13 chapters in order to show us this. Christ became a human to shed human blood for human sin, so that God’s wrath against humanity would be propitiated (satisfied). That’s chapter 2 verse 17. Jesus’s blood was shed upon the altar of an eternal covenant made in heaven rather than the Mosaic covenant made on Earth so that we would be forgiven in heaven forever rather than on earth for a moment. That’s chapter 9 verses 11 and 12. And this means, then, that we are positionally and eternally holy—free from wrath and accepted—before God in heaven. Hebrews tells us that this ought to effect the deepest part of your soul—even the conscience, that voice deep in your soul that often condemns you. “The blood of Christ shall purify our conscience” so our very souls are free from self-condemnation, chapter 9 verse 14. To what end? Verse 14 continues, “so that you may serve the living God”—and I think the implied adjective there is “joyfully”, or “gratefully”, or “freely”. A person who is plagued with an inner self-conscience that continually condemns is either completely immobilized (“there’s no point in serving God if I’m judged”), or committed to works of self-righteous religion that can never bring peace to the soul. But, the great shepherd of the sheep leads you to his cross, he laid his life down to free you from that situation, so that he could take his life back up and lead you to glory.

 

“May the God of peace… by the blood of the eternal covenant [that gives you freedom to serve him] equip you with everything good.” Here, at the cross in the blood, the good you are equipped with is assurance that you are accepted—a clean conscience, and a guiltless standing before God in heaven. That’s a good thing to be equipped with.

 

Equipped with a Pastor in Heaven

But also in this passage, God also equips us through Jesus’s ministry yet another way. “May the god of peace… through the great shepherd of the sheep... 21 equip you with everything good so that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.” In other words, Jesus works “that which is pleasing in God’s sight” into you. Brotherly love, patience and endurance through suffering, gratitude to him, joy, forgiveness toward your family members, wisdom. James 1:5 says—

 

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously… 6 let him ask in faith, with no doubting… 7For that [doubting] person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord. 

 

“The Lord”—that’s Jesus, the Lord who was raised from the dead. The Lord Jesus gives wisdom and everything we need to please God. Why? He’s the great shepherd of the sheep, he’s risen and victorious, seated in heaven with all power given to him from the Father. He has no lack in what he can give to his people. James says we need only ask by faith, and he will give generously if it would serve our good and his glory. To use a passage in Hebrews that I have appealed to many times in the last few months, Jesus is “able to save completely to the uttermost [from the moment of belief, all the way to the moment of death] those who draw near to him, since he always lives to make intercession for them”. Your great high priest, the great shepherd “always lives to make intercession” for you. He is praying for you and equipping you with his word and Spirit so that you would persist in the faith. He is like a shepherd with a rod who corrects us, and keeps us on the right path, and who satisfies us with good so that “we shall not want” (Psalm 23). 

 

In John 10, we find one of the greatest passages about Jesus’s pastoral care and leadership over us. In verse 11 he says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep”. 

 

Let me ask you: When does a shepherd risk his life? When there’s a threat (a bear or a snake). Sin, the devil, and the world were all threats to Jesus’s sheep, and he willingly laid down his life for them, and eliminated the threat. But will a dayworker risk his life for the sheep, even at the face of this kind of threat? Probably not. Jesus goes on in the next few verses to say that hired hands on the pasture (or ranch, for us AZ folk) won’t risk their lives because someone else’s sheep and inheritance are not worth their life. But Jesus is the great shepherd, he owns the sheep, and therefore he will lay himself down for the sheep. When Jesus says he lays his life down for the sheep, he is illustrating his ownership over them—and therefore, his commitment to them. The sheep intimately know his voice because he owns them. In verse 28, Jesus continues, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them from my hand.” The reason is simple: Jesus committed his life to you, and he is a good shepherd who does not make mistakes. He is a high priest who intercedes for you, “working in you that which is pleasing”. Say, the fruit of his Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, and so many others like wisdom and strength. And thus, on the basis of Jesus’s blood and pastoral commitment to you, we hear the good word (i.e., benediction) that is spoken over us in this passage—

 

“May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ”—and, lest we miss what all this implies—“to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”. 

 

This all raises the obvious question for us this morning: What’s the need for appointing and submitting to pastors today, in the local church? If Jesus offers us that kind of pastoral ministry from heaven, why do we need local church leaders? Aren’t they superfluous? In fact, Jesus even says in John 10, “there will be one flock, one shepherd”. He’s saying there that Jews and gentiles will be brought together into one flock, one pasture, with one shepherd. So, what’s going on with all these New Testament references to other shepherds? Our passage assumes their authority. But our American Christian culture definitely does not assume it. In fact, we resist religious authority at all costs. We have a certain suspicion toward them at worst, and at best, we simply want to be our own authority on matters of faith. That’s what it means to be American, right? 

 

2. The Great Shepherd’s Appointment of Under-Shepherds

So, let’s consider for a moment under-shepherds, or local church pastors. Specifically, just so we aren’t assuming these questions—where does their authority come from? and, how far does their authority extend?

 

Where Local Leaders Get Their Authority

Scripture speaks of a pastor’s authority as coming from God. Perhaps you might recall that well known passage in Ephesians 4:11 which says that “he gave”—that is, God gave “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers”. These are unique callings in the church, and notice that they all pertain to a ministry of the word. Apostles wrote God’s word under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Prophets spoke God’s word in the early church. Evangelists proclaimed God’s word to the lost, that they would be saved. Then, the next is a pair that work together—the shepherds and teachers, who proclaim and teach God’s word to God’s people for their growth and edification. And, what’s awesome about this passage is that it says that God gave these offices to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building them up to maturity. God gave local shepherds, or pastors, to equip you and his church with what is necessary for Christian maturity. 

 

Does this concept of God equipping us sound familiar? Maybe, possibly, you recall that language from our passage in Hebrews? “May the God of all peace… equip you with everything good that you may do his will” (Heb 13:21). It’s the same word. One of the good things God gives you—or, equips you with for your good and maturity—is a pastor with a certain spiritual authority over you. 

 

Another passage which clearly illustrates God’s intent for you to have a religious authority over you is Acts 20:28. Here, Paul is speaking to local elders (not apostles) in Ephesus. He says,

 

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

 

So there, Paul says that it was the Holy Spirit himself who made gave these local leaders their authority of oversight in the church. He actually calls them “overseers” here, not just pastors. That’s just another way to refer to this office of leadership in the church. In 1st and 2nd Timothy, and Titus, they are called “elders” who exercise oversight, and who shepherd sheep like a pastor. These various titles of the same man simply highlight the various functions God gives them.

How Far Does Their Authority Extend?

Now, this all serves to illustrate that God has equipped you, his church, with the blessing of spiritual oversight. He appoints, or ordains these men to their office and position of oversight and authority. But what I’ve said doesn’t simply explain the source of authority, but it also has given us a quick taste of the function this authority serves. A pastor’s oversight serves a specific purpose, and with purpose there are boundaries. Pastor Charlie in Prescott cannot tell you what you should eat for lunch this afternoon. He is a minister of God’s word. He can bind your conscience on matters of sin which God is clear about in his word, and he can assure you of God’s forgiveness only as God gives forgiveness—through faith the gospel. Beyond this, he can offer wisdom and warnings, but he cannot bind your conscience with teachings or commandments which are not reasonably clear in Scripture. 

 

And this is so important. Far too many pastors have overstepped their boundaries and placed unbiblical burdens upon God’s people. I once heard a pastor say “I expect 100% participation in our small group ministry by this summer”. Or, some pastors might decide to preach politics, or teach about their “life experiences” rather than God’s word. 

 

Perhaps the most stunning statement about a pastor’s task and influence in the church is found in 1 Timothy 4:16. Here, Paul speaks to his associate who was an elder in the church—

 

16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

 

Isn’t that something. Keep a close watch on yourself—don’t fall into a compromising sin. And, keep a close watch on your teaching—don’t bind consciences with the commandments of men; don’t preach forgiveness through anything faith in Christ. “For by doing so, you will save yourself and your people”. 

 

So, one way God equips us with good things for salvation is that he gives us leaders with a certain word-based authority, that you might be saved and grow in maturity.  Christ, through his Spirit, appoints elders to carry out his work. He’s the chief shepherd, they’re his under-shepherds. They are bound to his words in Scripture, his forgiveness, his Spirit and ministry. Not their own. 

 

3. Two Ways we Should Regard Our Leaders

Now, again, these matters are all assumed in our passage. Let’s go back to Hebrews 13 and look at the two ways we are called to regard our leaders.

Remembering and Imitating the Leaders of Yesterday (Verse 7)

First, look at verse seven. 

 

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.

 

So, here we are called to three things. We are to remember our leaders and the word of God which they taught us; we are to consider the outcome of their lives; and we are to imitate their faith. Now, at first, this might seem like an odd command. You might question, “So, I’m supposed to remember Charlie who I see every Sunday?”. What most translators see in this passage is a reference to leaders who have died. Remember those faithful men and their words. Look at the fruit of the Spirit, Christ’s work which came out of their ministries. And as you do, imitate their faith. 

 

Notice that it doesn’t say “imitate them”. There is a fine line between worshipping our heroes of the faith through our imitation, and honoring them through our imitation. To worship our heroes is to imitate them—their personalities, the way they talked and ministered. To honor them is to consider their faith in Jesus, and aspire to their faith. “What made that man tick?”, you might ask. It was an unwavering commitment and assurance in Christ that moved him forward. Remember your leaders and say, “I want his faith which might point me to Christ, rather than that personality which only directs me to a mere man”. Any godly pastor would be honored if they were remembered in a way that led people to trust Jesus the way they did. They would be dishonored if people couldn’t look past their personality. So again—imitate their faith, not them. 

 

This is why the next few verses say what they say. “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever”—meaning, the same God whom these men trusted in is the same God you can trust in. Imitate their faith in the same Jesus because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today! Isn’t it awesome that you can look back at a man’s faith in Jesus from 1500 years ago—say, St. Augustine—and claim the same living savior, the same gospel? 

 

And of course, as you remember the faithful teaching of these men, verse 9 falls into place. “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace.” We have 2000 years of faithful teachers in church history who have fought for the gospel, so that you would have a massive platter of grace to feed upon. Remember those faithful leaders, imitate their faith, and be encouraged because Jesus is the same yesterday and today.

 

Submitting to the Leaders of Today (Verse 17)

But then, there’s the last command in our passage. And this command has to do with submitting to the leaders God has given to you today. Verse 17—

 

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.

 

So, it is advantageous for you to submit to local church leaders joyfully and willingly, so that they might joyfully lead you. It’s advantageous to you if your local leader loves serving you. Keep in mind they have a weighty responsibility! This verse actually says they are “keeping watch over your souls, as those who have to give an account”. If the verses I mentioned earlier about God’s appointment of leaders in the church didn’t convince you, this ought to. Church leaders, appointed by the Spirit, will have to give an account for every soul God placed in their care. It’s a very weighty matter, here.

 

But the reality is, many pastors do groan because American Christianity has rejected the thought of leadership in the church. Why? Because Americans love to be their own master. We love freedom. We think we know what’s good for us, that we are wiser than God. But the gospel says that Christ died to save you and claim you as his own. He is Lord, he is wisdom incarnate, and he knows what’s best for you. If he says the organized, local church with leadership is good for you—then you better well receive his word by faith. John Calvin said, 

 

We are not our own; therefore neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him (Rom 14:8). We are God’s; therefore, let his wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God’s; to him, then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed!

 

Isn’t that humbling, and true? God doesn’t give you commands in scripture to harm you. The benediction in our passage prays a rock-solid prayer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “May the God of peace [through Christ]… equip you with everything good that you may do his will”. He does equip you with everything good. Many Christians are just too wise in their own eyes to receive the good things God gives them. Things like local church leaders whose ministry of the Word is designed to edify, strengthen, rebuke and warn with the very words and wisdom of Christ in Scripture. 

 

So, even if your flesh squirms at the thought of submission to local church leadership—receive these words and these promises by faith. It is not advantageous to you if you resist Christ-exalting leadership over you. It is advantageous, and obedient to God, if you receive it. 

 

Conclusion

Today, we have seen that we have a supreme, great shepherd who oversees our souls from heaven. And, he equips us with good thing we need to worship and praise him—forgiveness, a clear conscience, the fruit of the Spirit. Yet, he also equips us with his under-shepherds whose job is to speak his words in Scripture to us. They’re job, you might even say, is to ensure that our worship is continually offered up through him as a sacrifice of praise. May God truly equip us in all these ways, and may we eagerly receive every good thing that he gives us for our salvation.