|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 4, Number 28, July 17 to July 24, 2002|
Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL
There are some passages of Scripture that a pastor finds difficult to preach to his people. It's difficult for the pastor to preach on gossip, for instance, because people are tempted to say, "Oh, he's talking about Mrs. so-and-so." After church, indeed, folks may get together and gossip, trying to figure out who the gossiper is. And, of course, it's difficult for a pastor to preach about himself. There are texts in the Bible, for instance, that talk about pastors' salaries. There are also texts that embarrass all us ministers about how we ought to be examples to the flock. But those are hard for any man to preach in a congregation that knows him well.
But these passages are in the Bible, God's Word; so it's important for a congregation to hear them. So a guest preacher can perform a useful service by purposely choosing some of those texts. Our text, Heb. 13:17, says that you ought to make your leaders happy, by obeying them. It's hard for any pastor to go into the pulpit and to tell the congregation, "Make me happy — " especially, "Make me happy by obeying me."
But someone ought to tell you that, because God wants you to know it. Three points, then:
IT IS IMPORTANT TO KEEP OUR LEADERS HAPPY.
I'm afraid that in our Reformed circles we tend to play down the concept of happiness, for understandable reasons. We hear songs on the radio about how someone found Jesus and has been happy ever since; and there's something about that that rings false. Christians just aren't totally blissful all the time. The Christian life, even the ideal Christian life, includes sorrow over sin and its effects, anger at the devil and his works, complaining (as in the Psalms) to God about the evil around us and within, and suffering: sometimes individual pain, and, sometimes, when we're not in pain ourselves, sharing the sufferings of our fellow believers. Even Jesus wept, angrily rebuked the Pharisees, complained on the cross asking why God had forsaken him. Jesus doesn't seem to be the author of the modern "happy Christianity"— a Christianity, it often seems, with all the profundity removed.
But look at the other side: The Bible is full of joy. The Psalms are full of rejoicing. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount calls his people "blessed" or "happy," even though they are poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. The little letter to the Philippians refers to joy or rejoicing about 14 times.
Now the Book of Hebrews does not neglect the dark side of the Christian life, by any means. It tells in chapter 11 of great saints who faced ridicule, were beaten, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, executed by the sword, wandered in sheepskins and goatskins in the deserts and on the mountains — and did not receive the promise. Heb. chapter 11: "chapter 11 bankruptcy." Chapter 12 talks about God's discipline — not pleasant, but painful. Back in chapter 5, we read about Jesus himself, who prayed with "loud cries and tears" and learned obedience through suffering.
Yet, the Book of Hebrews is also a joyful book. Jesus' loud cries and tears were heard, bringing salvation to all of his people. In chapter one, we read, "You (Jesus) have loved righteousness and hated wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy. And in chapter 12, Jesus, "for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Jesus went through the misery, pain and tears, anticipating joy. And God calls us (13:12) to follow his steps: to accept disgrace and hard times — for the sake of joy. Joy in the next world, to be sure; but also in this life, as our text indicates. Praise God, he cares about whether we are joyful or not. Underneath all the pain, sorrow, heartache and persecution, God wants us to have deep — a profound — happiness. Not a plaster smile, but an abiding delight in God, in Christ, in his Word, in his people.
So God cares about our happiness, and here especially, the happiness of our leaders. If we become "problem" church members, becoming burdens to our leaders and robbing them of joy, we will have to answer to God. There are many types of "problem" church members: those who are guilty of obvious sins, like adultery or hatred or gossip, those who must be pleaded with to come to services but are always around to register complaints, those who demand that everything be done to their specifications or else they will yell and scream — or sulk. Such people, we know, are in spiritual danger because they are displeasing God. But our passage says that one way they displease God is by making life hard for their elders — robbing them of joy!
Do you realize what an evil thing it is to rob someone of joy? Because of our self-centeredness, we don't often think about our sins in that way, that they rob others of joy; but we should. That's an important perspective on sin. And it's especially important when we grieve those who are working their heads off to keep us on the right path, to tend and feed us as Jesus' lambs. But it often happens.
So we can see how our leaders' happiness is important to God and, obviously, to the leaders themselves. But it's also important to you; the text says that if their work is a burden rather than a joy, which would be unprofitable to you. Why is this?
Well, joyless preaching and church leadership can be awfully boring. But, even worse than that, a joyless teaching ministry can easily distort the very content of the gospel. The gospel is a joyful message about God's free gift of Christ. When someone preaches it without joy, it generally comes out sounding like a harsh burden which he and you must bear — a list of things we must believe and must do — things that will inevitably add to our misery, but we must believe and do them anyway. In such joyless preaching, in other words, grace turns into works. Such a gospel is no gospel at all; it is "unprofitable" for us.
WE KEEP THEM HAPPY BY OBEYING THEM.
How, then, do we keep our leaders happy? By obeying them! That's what the text says. Now that's an even harder pill to swallow, especially today. Authority, obedience — those terms are decidedly out of fashion in these days of situation ethics, feminism and liberation theology.
I think I can sugarcoat this a little bit for you today. The biblical idea of submission, obedience, is not as bad as it sounds. In the first place, the authority of your leaders is limited by the word of God. They may not be totalitarians; they may not try to run your lives. They can say only what Scripture authorizes them to say, and if they go beyond that, you would be quite right to protest. In the second place, the biblical concept of authority is one that is saturated with love. Authorities are your servants. That's a lot different from "taking orders" in the military or getting memos from the boss at your secular job.
But no matter how much I sugar coat it, there is a pill here to be swallowed. The passage says that we must obey. That means that sometimes we will just have to bend our wills to do what someone else wants instead of what we want. The sin within us rebels at that. As twentieth-century Americans, we crave our independence. But God calls no independent Christians. None of us is free-lance. God calls us to be members of a body, which moves with one mind and heart, in one direction.
Hebrews 13 speaks of Jesus' sacrifice for our sins — the terrible suffering and disgrace he bore to make us a holy people (verses 10-14). In the next verses, God calls us who trust in that sacrifice to bring our own sacrifices out of thanksgiving: sacrifices of praise (15) and sacrificial giving (16). Obedience to our elders is a third sacrifice (17), one which we should delight to make, if we follow in the steps of Christ who suffered so much for us.
THEY REJOICE IN TELLING GOD GOOD THINGS ABOUT US.
But I must raise a nasty question here. Why does obedience make elders happy? This could sound like some kind of ego-trip, as if your leaders got some sadistic thrill out of ordering you around. Well, as I said before, it's not like that; these are your servants. But if they are your servants, why should they care about your obedience?
Our passage answers that question in this sentence: "They keep watch over you as men who must give account." Remember in Luke 16, the steward who wasted his master's goods? The master calls him in and says "render an account;" same word as here. A shepherd must give an account of his flock: how many sheep have been born, how many have died, how many are sick, how many have been lost? Similarly, your elders will have to report to God about this church, about you. Did the church grow? did it shrink? Did it increase in knowledge and holiness? And what about individual sheep: did Bill grow in Christ while he was a member here? Did Jane become godlier?
Well, of course, giving a good report makes you happy, and giving a bad report makes you sad! A good church, in fact, is one of the greatest causes of rejoicing to an elder. Nothing makes him quite so happy as a strong church. If you don't believe that, I've got a list of 14 New Testament passages that say just that. I was actually quite surprised at how often this theme comes up in the New Testament. Let me just share three passages:
For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy (I Thess. 2:19-20).
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? (I Thess. 3:9).
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth (III John 4).
Also see Phil. 1:25f, 2:2, 4:1, Rom. 15:32, II Cor. 2:2, 7:4, Col. 2:5, Jude 24, and I Peter 4:13.
That first passage is especially interesting. What will you be thinking about when Jesus comes again? I expect to be so overwhelmed by the Lord's majesty that I won't be able to think of anything else. But Paul says that when Jesus comes, he's going to be thinking about the little church at Thessalonica! When Jesus comes, Paul is going to glory in that little church — and doubtless many others. Much of his happiness, even on that great day of triumph, will be happiness in giving a good report about that little church.
I'm not Paul, but I think I know a little about how he feels. The greatest tragedy of my life so far has been seeing a church I really cared about destroy itself in a divisive internal battle. The greatest joy, next to my marriage, has been to see what God has done at New Life to raise up a strong testimony in Escondido and now here on the coast. I won't be surprised if I mention New Life to the Lord when he returns. That's not an ego trip; I know I've had very little to do with it. Dick and Doug have had a lot more to do with it. But my reason for rejoicing is that I see God at work in it. It is his church; it has his trademarks on it — marks of truth, power, joy, and righteousness. May God make this church, also, more and more a church that provokes good reports, a church that brings joy to its elders and to the Lord.