In this final sermon on Hebrews, we see the role that leaders play in our perseverance.


Hebrews 13:7-25

Hebrews 9-13 (WBC)William Lane

Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner

Hebrews, John Owen

Sermon Transcript

Well today we finally conclude our series of sermons through the book of Hebrews that we began last September. Today is also my last day preaching before beginning a 3-month sabbatical. My family and I will still be in Philadelphia for the majority of those 3 months and hope to gather for worship with you all some of those Sundays, though we are traveling a bit and I am hoping to visit some other churches to be refreshed and encouraged by their ministry as well. On Sundays here we’ll have a mix of guest preachers from churches throughout the city and members of our church who aspire to the office of elder. Many of those sermons will be from the Psalms, but others will be texts the preacher chooses. It is a real kindness from the Lord though that today I get to be here to close out Hebrews with you all, and I sense God’s providence not only in that, but in the topic of this last passage. The topic of this last passage is church leadership. The whole book of Hebrews is a call to persevere. The people to whom it was written, who we call the Hebrews, had become Christians, but were facing the temptation to turn back to the Judaism out of which they were saved. There is a gap of time between the hour you first believe and the hour you reach your heavenly home, and the only people who will reach that heavenly home are those who not just believe once, but those who persevere in faith by setting their hopes on Christ alone to the end. So what does it take to persevere to the end? In short, the book of Hebrews says you must believe that Jesus is better than anything else. That’s the key, we might say. And yet, if you try to do that by yourself, you’re going to be in trouble. In the passage on which we are focusing today, we learn that another key ingredient to perseverance is the presence in your life of church leaders.


To many of you I know that comes as no surprise, and you immediately think of church leaders for whom you thank God. Others of you, however, may have had negative experiences with church leaders. Others of you may wonder why you would need church leaders at all. And all of us face the temptation to some extent to, in the words of the book of Proverbs, isolate ourselves, and seek our own desires. But if you want to actually persevere to the end, to make it from here to your heavenly home, Hebrews 13:7-25 is clear that you must follow the leaders God has given you, and it gives us three basic ways to do that: Remember your former leaders, obey your current leaders, and follow the greatest leader.


Remember your former leaders


Our passage this week begins with the simple command to remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. So as we begin looking at the role of leaders in our spiritual lives, it’s important to get some sense of what a leader in the context of a church is. Verse 7 of our passage describes leaders as “those who spoke to you the word of God.” That’s what the leaders of Christian churches do: They speak to you the word of God. They do more than that, and other passages of the Bible like Acts 20 or 1 Peter 5 unpack more of what they do, but they don’t do less than that. These could have been apostles, evangelists, pastors, overseers, or elders. We use the term more loosely today, but in the Bible the office of Citygroup “leader” or Bible study “leader” or campus ministry “leader” doesn’t exist. The leadership office that remains active in the church today is pastor, elder, or overseer, words which all refer to the same office. The specific reference in the original context here is probably to those who first came to this church we now know as the Hebrews and spoke to them the word of God. Back in chapter 2 we read of how the message of salvation was declared first by Jesus while on earth, and then was attested to the author and to the Hebrews by those who heard it themselves. It appears these leaders were no longer with them, probably because they had died, and therefore the Hebrews are told to remember them.


Specifically our author tells them to consider the outcome of their way of life, and to imitate their faith. So when we remember our leaders, we should do so not only to remember their teaching, but to consider the outcome of their way of life, and to imitate their faith. Some of you may be old enough to remember when “WWJD” bracelets were popular: It stands for what would Jesus do and it’s certainly a good question to ask, but verse 7 encourages us to expand that question to, “What would my leaders, those who spoke to me the word of God, do?” In other words, the Bible doesn’t just tell you to follow Jesus; it tells you to follow the leaders Jesus gives you, insofar as they follow Jesus. So the apostle Paul could say to the church in Corinth: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The reality is that Jesus said and did many things while on earth, but we only have access to those things that are recorded for us in the Bible. No doubt those are the most important things and there is a depth of wisdom in him of which we’ve only begun to scratch the surface, but there are also many situations we will face in life that aren’t obviously the same as the situations Jesus faced, so that to simply ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” without imitating any people who were imitating Jesus is insufficient. Remember those who you saw following Jesus with your own eyes in this life and world, and follow their example insofar as it was a faithful example. Consider even who you are presently following: Are they speaking to you the word of God, or are they simply telling you what you want to hear? Are their lives worthy of imitation? Have you put yourself around leaders like that enough to even know? I’m a big fan of podcasts; I listen to someone else’s sermons via podcast every week. As a supplement, they’re great, but the obvious limitation of them is that while you can hear the word of God through them, you cannot imitate their faith, because you never really see it.


But for those leaders who did speak to you the word of God, you should hold fast to their word and imitate their faith because Jesus Christ is the same today as he was then. Verse 8 says he is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The Jesus they proclaimed when they spoke to you the word of God and the Jesus in whom they lived by faith until the end is the same Jesus who is interceding for us in heaven now, in whom we too must walk by faith if we are to reach our heavenly home. You and I don’t ultimately need something new. We need Jesus, and he is the same today as he was when our former leaders first proclaimed him to us.


Therefore, verse 9: Do not be led astray by diverse and strange teachings. Diversity is hot right now; who doesn’t want diversity in the modern west? And a huge part of why diversity is hot in the modern west is because of the massive influence the Bible has exerted on western civilization. The Bible celebrates the diversity of people in God’s kingdom. The Bible even commands us to love strange people; remember we saw last week in Hebrews 13:2 the command to show hospitality to strangers, and the same root word is here in verse 9: strange teaching. Diversity of people is glorious, but diversity in teaching is not. We are to love strange people, but we are to reject strange teaching. Follow your leaders who spoke to you the word of God rather than being led away by diverse and strange teaching.


Now I know many Philadelphians today, and maybe even some of you in the room, hear a statement like that and think, “How can you say diversity in teaching is bad? You’d have to be really arrogant to claim you know the truth and anything that differs from it should be rejected.” I get that, but here’s the thing to realize: Once you conclude anything is true, you necessarily reject as untrue anything that contradicts it. So let’s say you become convinced that the proposition that every human, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, who they engage in sexual activity with, abilities, and so on is of equal value and deserves equal protection under the law. That’s a proposition very few humans in the history of humanity have believed, but let’s say you’re one of those crazy few like me and other Christians who believe it. If someone comes along and says, “White people are superior to every other race” are you really going to say, “Wow; isn’t it beautiful to have diversity of teaching?” Of course not. You’re going to say, “No! That’s false.” That’s what our author here is doing and that’s all Christians are doing. You may not believe that the only way for sinful humans to be saved is by a sinless human dying for their sins and rising from the dead, but Christians do believe that, and so of course when we hear something that contradicts it we have to say, “No! That’s false.”


Brothers and sisters, the gospel is the message of salvation Jesus himself declared, it is the message by which you yourselves were saved when you heard it and believed, and it has been handed down to us in the writings of scripture. Do not be led away by anything that differs from it. And the reason given for that in verse 9 is because it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. That statement may sound like it’s coming out of nowhere, so some background is necessary here: In Judaism, there were priests who would offer animal sacrifices to God on an altar in front of a tent, and then eat the meat from the sacrifice, and the idea was that that food strengthened them to be able to continue serving God as priests. Granted that it did that, but our author here says that such foods has not benefited those who were devoted to them. In other words, the food may have sustained their life on earth, but it never saved them. It may have strengthened their bodies, but it didn’t strengthen their hearts.


Now I’m sure that all sounds very antiquarian to you all, but how many of us can think of times when our heart has been weak and weighed down and we’ve tried to strengthen it by eating a bag of chips or a bowl of ice cream? How many of us struggle with self-control in our eating because we’re trying to strengthen our hearts by food and not by grace? On the flipside, how many are driving themselves crazy with extreme diets to find the “cleanest” and healthiest foods, as though a toned physique or a cleaner bill of health will really strengthen their hearts? It will never work.


And the author makes his case with regard to the priests by appealing to another kind of sacrifice, what Leviticus called the sin offering. In the sin offering, the blood of the animal was taken into the tent of meeting by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin, as verse 11 says, and then the body of the animal was burned outside the camp. In other words, what the heart really needs is grace, grace that forgives sin. That’s why your heart gets weak: You become more and more aware of what God requires, and simultaneously more and more aware of how you fall short. But the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin was not eaten by the priests; its blood was shed and then its body was burned outside the camp, and all that pointed forward to Jesus Christ, who, verse 12, suffered outside the gate to sanctify the people through his own blood. Jesus Christ was the ultimate sin offering, who was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem, cast out from the people, in order to shed his own blood for the sins of his people, so that we might be forgiven. So don’t turn back to the old sacrifices and eat from that altar, as though that food could strengthen your heart. That’s a divergent and strange teaching from the word of God your leaders proclaimed to you. Instead, here’s what service to God now looks like, here’s the example your leaders set: Three things by way of application, then we’ve really got to move on to obeying your current leaders: Go to him outside the gate, offer to God a sacrifice of praise, and do good to one another.


Verse 13 says, “Therefore, let us go to him outside the gate and bear the reproach he endured, for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” To his original audience, this meant a willingness to be excluded from the Judaism in which they had grown up. It meant being willing to be excommunicated from the synagogue and even being told by the people and priests you grew up looking up to that you were going to face God’s judgment for what you were doing. That’s the kind of reproach Christ endured: He was numbered with the transgressors, and his own people chose to release a convicted murderer rather than release him. People really, really, did not like him. Are you willing to bear that kind of reproach to whatever degree it comes to you for following Jesus, even if it should come to you from others who claim to follow Jesus?! Here’s why you can: Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Even if you could succeed in getting everyone on earth to like you, which you can’t, it won’t last! Why would you waste your life on that? Instead, we seek that city that is to come, and the only way to that city is outside the camp. Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.


And, second thing, verse 15: Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. The offering up of animal sacrifices, or sacrifice of food or drink or other things was common to all kinds of religions in the ancient world. And so we can miss the novelty of a Christian worship gathering like this one, in which we offer no such sacrifices! You know why we don’t? Because the final sacrifice for all our sins was already offered when Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people with his own blood! So what do we offer God instead? We offer him a sacrifice of praise. We proclaim with our words, especially in song, what he has done for us in Christ! And, we share what we have with one another, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God, verse 16. As Luther said, “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbor does.” Some in this room have more than others, but everyone in this room has something. Whatever it is, however much it is, consider how you can use it to do good to others. Maybe you have a home; how could you welcome others into it? Maybe you have money; how could you use it to help those with less? We have a benevolence fund you can give directly to that it is set up to do just that. We send money as a church to support church plants and missionaries so they can devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word; you all pay a pastor for the same reason. Maybe you have a car; who would be blessed by having a ride somewhere? Amazingly, verse 16 is saying that these seemingly mundane, material things: Money, car, house, clothing, whatever else, can actually become sacrifices that please God when we share them with others for their good.


Verses 13-16 capture the basics of the Christian life in a nutshell. It begins with faith: Let us go to him outside the camp. Trust Christ, not some priest on earth or the food he offers, though it will mean bearing reproach on earth. Then, faith works through love: Love for God expressed in the sacrifice of praise, love for one another expressed in doing good and sharing what we have. That’s the life we are now free to live brothers and sisters! We don’t have to spend our days pacifying an angry God with complex rituals. Jesus Christ has sanctified the people by his blood, so let’s use the time we have on this earth to praise God and love one another. That’s the example the former leaders of the Hebrews set. But those weren’t the only leaders God gave them. Next, let’s talk about obeying your current leaders.


Obey your current leaders


Ok, so only one verse here really, 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. There is a lot in that one verse, and I actually preached an entire sermon just on it on March 6, 2022 in our series on authority, and you can find that on our website if you are interested. Today I’ll begin by just pointing out the obvious: The command with respect to current leaders is different than the command with respect to former leaders. You remember your former leaders because they are no longer around to obey. But your current leaders you obey and submit to. Obedience and submission are closely related in scripture. A few weeks ago Chad Van Dixhoorn preached here on 1 Peter 3:1-7, in which wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, and the positive example given to them of that is Sarah, who it says obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.


Now, remember that the basic task of a leader in the church is to speak the word of God to the people of the church. That’s why you’re told to obey your leaders and submit to them here. If a leader were to instead begin saying something diverse and strange to the scriptures, you should not be led away by that. If you are a Christian, you know the gospel, and you should only obey leaders who teach the gospel. That’s one reason it is important to only appoint leaders you trust to do that, and to only join a church in which you trust the leaders to do that, much like a woman should only marry a husband she trusts enough to submit to. Once you join a church, its elders become your leaders, and you are then required by God to obey and submit to them.


How’s that hit you? There can be something nostalgic and sentimental about remembering former leaders, but what about obeying and submitting to current leaders? It’s one thing to obey and submit to Jesus; we know he’s perfect. And yet, shouldn’t the fact that we often still struggle to obey and submit to Jesus suggest that the challenge in our obedience and submission to leaders is not merely their imperfections? Isn’t there also something in us that simply resists being led? Isn’t that why many refuse to join a church? I mean yes, you can say you are following Jesus without following any church leaders, but the danger of that is that is it’s far too easy for you to simply be doing what you want while telling yourself you’re doing what Jesus wants. Nobody who is above reproach, who holds firm to the trustworthy word as taught and so is able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (those are a couple of the biblical qualifications for elders) holds an office in your life that gives them permission to say to you, “Do this, don’t do that. Believe this, don’t believe that” and the Bible itself says you should have people like that keeping watch over your soul. Who are you or I to say, “Nah; I don’t need that. I’ll keep watch over my own soul thank you very much, or I’ll ask these 2 or 3 friends I hand pick to keep watch over my soul”?


Now look, I happen to love this church and would love for more people to join it, but don’t hear me saying you have to join this church. The point is that to follow Jesus, you and I do actually need to follow some imperfect leaders on earth who hold the office of elder or pastor, and joining a church is simply how you identify who those leaders are who you will follow. You definitely should not obey and submit to everyone who claims to be a leader, but you must obey and submit to some leaders to obey verse 17. So how do you identify which leaders you will obey and submit to? You join a church. And while in rare cases you may need to not obey and submit to your leaders if they are bringing you diverse and strange teachings, the command of verse 17 is to obey and submit to your leaders, not to question and criticize them. It’s to do what they tell you to do; it’s to not do what they tell you not to do. When they lead you to make decisions on the infinite number of decisions that aren’t matters to which the scriptures simply spit out an obvious answer, submission means following their leadership. Good leaders will want the input of those they follow, and even sometimes their criticism. I thank God for the loving and respectful criticism some of you in this room today have given me in my years as a pastor and even recently from which I’ve learned and grown. But it is worth noting that there are no biblical commands telling us to criticize our leaders. Instead, we find ones like this, and there are others like it: Obey and submit to them. Is that reflective of how you treat your elders? Is it reflective of your heart posture toward them?


The reason it gives I’ve already alluded to: They are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. In other words, they are there to help you spiritually! They don’t just speak the word of God generally; they keep watch over your souls and prayerfully consider what of all that God has said applies to your situation. They ask you challenging, intrusive questions about your soul, just like your doctor or dentist asks you intrusive questions like, “Have you been flossing? Are you exercising regularly? Have you been laying off the sweets?” because they care about the health of your soul like your doctor and dentist care about the health of your body. And yes, sometimes that means correction, but that’s for your good, and often times it means encouragement! In either case, you should have confidence in submitting to them and obeying them because you know that in the end they will give an account to God for how they kept watch over your soul, and he will handle justice with them.


It’s a weighty task your elders have been given, and so the verse goes on to say that you should obey and submit to them in such a way as to make their work a joy and not one they must be do with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. If you want what is best for your own soul, obey and submit to your leaders in such a way as to make their work of keeping watch over your soul a joy to them. You see what this is saying? It’s saying you have a role to play in cultivating the joy of your leaders. And I can just say from my years serving in the role of a leader, the most joyful people to lead are not necessarily those who know the most or those who do the most. The most joyful people to lead are those who want to be led! If you come to a pastor with a conclusion already fixed in your mind of what you are going to do, and then you make it his job to affirm it, you will wear that pastor out. But if you come willing to be led, you will make his work a joy. Just recently when Chad was here, a guest speaker, to teach a Sunday seminar for us, it was a joy for me to get to brag to him about Matt and Kerith, a couple in our church with whom I’ve just finished pre-marital counseling and whose wedding I’m co-officiating later today, Lord willing. We had some hard conversations in pre-marital counseling, but I could confidently tell Chad that they wanted to be pastored through those conversations, and therefore the pre-marital counseling was a joy to me. And honestly, that’s been my normal experience as a pastor in this church. You all do make pastoring here a joy, and I thank God for you!


Finally, before I move on to the next point, let me just point out verses 18-19. The author of this letter was apparently not one of the leaders of this church; probably he was an apostle, a unique office in the early church that had leadership authority over all churches. So in verse 18 he says, “Pray for us” and since we don’t have living apostles today, I’m just going to go ahead and claim that verse for myself and the other pastors of this church. Would you pray for me, Mark, and Michael? Don’t obey us without praying for us. I think often of how we will one day give an account for how we kept watch over your souls, and I realize how weak I am to that task, and how many times I have fallen short of doing it in the way the Lord would have me. I know Mark and Michael feel the same way. Might you consider even just committing a regular time like a day a week to praying specifically for us if you are a member of this church? Pray for us in particular in the coming months during my sabbatical. Pray we’d know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge for us, pray the Lord would fill us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Pray we’d love our wives and give ourselves up for them. Pray we’d bring up our children in the discipline and instruction of Christ. Pray we’d have strength and wisdom from God to keep watch over your souls. Pray we’d speak the word of God boldly and without wavering. Pray the Lord would refresh me and give me direction on my sabbatical. Pray the Lord would sustain Michael and Mark as they take on more of the shepherding work while I’m gone. Pray even for Dave as he takes on more responsibility on staff while I’m gone.


We are weak and sinful men, for sure. And though we don’t know exactly who wrote this letter, we know he was a weak and sinful man as well. But he could say, it is important for a Christian leader to be able to say, and I do feel that Michael, Mark, and I can say the words of verse 18: We are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I can’t go so far as to say I have acted honorably in all things; I know all too well that I have not. But when I think about the work we do as elders of this church, the meetings, the prayers, the sermons, the time spent with you all, the decisions we make, I can honestly say that I believe we try in each of those moments to do what we believe the Lord wants us to do, as best as we can tell. You can and should expect that of your leaders. You cannot and should not expect perfection of them. In fact, the longer you are around your leaders and the more you get to know them, the more you will probably realize how imperfect they are. But hopefully you will also see them desiring to act honorably in all things. And if you do, don’t adopt a critical and suspicious posture toward them. Obey and submit to them. But ultimately, follow the greatest leader.


Follow the greatest leader


At this point we’ve come to the close of the body of the letter, and what’s left is the benediction in verses 20-21 and then a few closing remarks. I won’t say much about the closing remarks, but given that you’ve probably heard the benediction many times at the end of our services, let’s look at it. It, much like verse 17, could have a sermon of its own, but for today I just want to point out a few things. Throughout the letter, the author has told the Hebrews, and through them, us, to do various things: Pay close attention to what you’ve heard, consider Jesus, exhort one another every day, strive to enter God’s rest, draw near to the throne of grace to receive help when tempted, go on to maturity, hold fast the confession of our hope, encourage one another, don’t give up meeting together, lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely, strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord, let brotherly love continue, hold marriage in honor, keep your life free from the love of money, remember your leaders, bear the reproach of Christ, praise God, do good and share what you have, obey your leaders, and that’s not even all of them! I mean, forget keeping watch over peoples’ souls, who is even sufficient to just do the things God wants from all of us as Christians for an entire lifetime?


None of us are. So the letter ends not with a command, but with a prayer, for God to do what only he can do. The prayer in verse 21 is that God himself would equip us with everything good, that we may do his will. We must do his will, but God must equip us with everything good. It is he who works in us that which is pleasing in his sight, verse 21 says. So Augustine said in one of his better known prayers, “God, command what you will, and give what you command.” God commands what he wills, but he also gives what he commands. This is, without a doubt, the most common way we pray for you as your pastors. In our own times of private prayer we pray through the members’ directory, and monthly at an elders’ meeting, we pray for about 20 of you, and the most common way we do is by asking the Lord to in some way work in you all that which is pleasing in his sight. We recognize that though we must keep watch over your souls, we cannot equip your soul with everything good, that you may do God’s will, any more than we can equip our own souls with these things. Would you pray not only for us, but for one another, in that same way?


And notice, finally, who all these good things come to us through: Jesus Christ. Verse 20 calls him the great shepherd of the sheep. Do you know what a shepherd is in the Bible? Sometimes Christians use that term to refer to a certain aspect of Christian leadership, the aspect of caring for or sympathizing with hurting sheep. Certainly that’s a vital aspect of a shepherd’s work, but a shepherd cannot be reduced to a sympathizer. A shepherd in the Bible is simply a leader. It was a term the Bible and the ancient world applied to kings, whether they were sympathetic or not. It’s why although the Bible can tell us to bear one another’s burdens, it never tells us to shepherd one another. To shepherd is to lead, and not all Christians hold the office of leader, pastor, or elder. But there is one great shepherd over all the weak, sinful, shepherds, and it is our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd, whose blood inaugurated the eternal covenant, who God the Father led out of death, and who lives and reigns now at his right hand in heaven. Why imitate the faith of your former leaders? Because they were imitators of Christ. Why obey and submit to your current leaders? Because ultimately you are obeying and submitting to Christ. Why will you all be just fine while I go on a 3-month sabbatical? Because I’m not your great shepherd. Jesus is, and he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be led away from him by diverse and strange teachings. He is the truth. He is the final word of God, the final sacrifice for sin, and he is the final leader God has given us.