RPM, Volume 11, Number 9, March 1 to March 7 2009

Hebrews 13:7-19

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing and, in fact, concluding this morning our study of the Letter to the Hebrews, picking up at verse 7 of chapter 13 and working through to verse 19 of the same chapter. If you have a Bible, let me encourage you to turn to that chapter. If you do not have a Bible, then there may be a blue one nearby that you can use, or you can simply make use of the text printed in the bulletin.

As we saw last week, the writer of Hebrews has already finished up his main arguments, wrapping things up, in that regard, at the end of chapter 12. He has, along the way, made crystal clear who Jesus is, as well as who he isn't. He has shown how Jesus stands firmly on the shoulders of all that the Old Testament looked forward to and foreshadowed and has completely and magnificently fulfilled all that was promised there. He has shown that one of the consequences of this is that the Old Testament system of temple and priest and sacrifice is no longer necessary for the people of God. This is because Jesus Christ was/is the greatest of all the High Priests, serving in the true heavenly temple, and not merely in the earthly shadow. As our Great High Priest he offered up the one, final, and completely sufficient sacrifice that would fully accomplish what all the previous sacrifices could never, and indeed, were never intended to accomplish. That is the main teaching message of Hebrews.

Interspersed between the various sections of this teaching message, the writer has repeatedly and fervently warned his readers of the dangerous and tragic consequences of falling away from the faith and denying one's profession. Equally fervently, he has encouraged his readers, through various means, to not drift away but to keep persevering, to keep being faithful, even in the midst of great trial and hardship which - although difficult - is nevertheless an indicator that the Father loves them deeply and, because of this, is treating them as his very own children, disciplining them according to his kind and good purposes.

So, having brought those main ideas home to his readers, the writer then closes out his letter with this final chapter which is a somewhat loosely connected collection of what I am calling "parting shots" - important things that the writer wanted to say, and which certainly relate to and flow out of what he has already said, but which, for reasons known only to the author, have not yet made their appearance in the letter. So, because they have not yet made an appearance, and yet are evidently too important to be left out, it seems that the writer simply assembled them altogether here at the end.

Last week, we looked at the first six verses of chapter 13, identifying four (4) main ideas that, while able to stand on their own, could also all be seen as legitimate implications of his opening charge to his readers in 13:1 that they "let brotherly love continue". This morning we will take a similar tack, looking at a number of different ideas in verses 7-19 which, on the one hand, could stand on their own as ideas that are not necessarily all that well related to one another. On the other hand, however, there does seem to me to be something of a common denominator here as well, and one that is also centered, more or less, around an important opening phrase, this time found in verse 7 when it says "remember your leaders".

That is what we'll be looking at this morning, before we go any further, let's pray together...................

Hebrews 12:7-19 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For) here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 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. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
After his opening phrase, "Remember your leaders," the writer of Hebrews goes on to follow that up with a comment that helps us to see who, in particular, he seems to be referring to with those words. He qualifies the command - "Remember your leaders" with the identifying phrase, "those who spoke to you the Word of God." And so it would seem, as many commentators have pointed out, that the writer has in mind here, at least in the first instance, those persons who first came to them preaching the Gospel and introducing them to the Lord Jesus Christ. To be sure, later on he will again refer to their "leaders" (vs 17) but at that point seems to have in view a different set of leaders - not their original ones but their current ones.

However, at this point he seems to have in mind their original leaders, whom God used to bring them to salvation and help ground them in the faith. The writer wants his readers to remember these people and, specifically, do two things: 1) consider the outcome of their way of life and 2) imitate their faith. Let us look at both of these a little closer.

First, he wants them, as they remember their leaders, to "consider the outcome of their way of life". That means, among other things, that he wants them to think about the overall picture of their life, to consider what the overall message of their life would be, to think about the thing that rang true about them in the end. What was that? What did the pattern of their life show? Where did they end up? How did they end up?

It seems to me that this is at least one thing that the writer must have had in mind. But, along with that, he may also have been referring to the outcome of their life in terms of what happened to them as a consequence of their being people of faith. In other words, one outcome of their life may have been pretty grim - it may be that some of them, in the midst of their faithfulness suffered great hardship and difficulty. Some of them may have been imprisoned. Some of them may have had their possessions taken. Indeed, some of them may have been martyred.

Whatever the case, the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to remember and reflect on the lives of these people that God had used in such a big way in their lives. When they have done that - and this is the second thing - the thing he wants them to imitate is their faith.

To be sure, the writer would be under no illusions about their leaders. He would have known that these leaders, no matter how God may have used them, were still, nevertheless, sinners. He would have known that, as such, there would have been any number of things about their lives that, upon reflection, ought never be imitated. Which is why the writer tells them to consider the lives of these leaders first. He is not looking for facile imitation. He is not looking for them to blindly and thoughtlessly imitate their leaders. He wants them to considerately imitate their leaders - and more to the point - to imitate their faith - to be faithful in the same way that they were faithful and to the same Lord that their own leaders had trusted.

Which is the reason then for the magnificent and stately verse 8 which, at first glance, may seem to be a bit abrupt but which, when seen in relation to verse 7, is simply putting in a very compact form that which is, in fact, the very substance and object of their leaders' faith. What IS the ground of that faith? Jesus Christ - who is the same "yesterday and today and forever". The faith they are to imitate, the faith their leaders had was faith in an unchanging Savior, in a final word by God through that Savior, and in a finished work by that Savior. That truth - that revelation which came in and through Jesus Christ was sufficient, complete, and eternal. It would never need changing or upgrading or editing in any way.

This truth, of course, goes right to the heart of the very issue that was facing the readers of this letter. Because changing their minds about who Jesus was, and transferring their faith to something else was the very thing that they were being tempted to do, as we have seen on a number of occasions now.

It is at this point that the writer of Hebrews, after urging his readers to have an unwavering faith in an unchanging Savior - just as their leaders did - but it is at this point that he seizes the opportunity afforded by this to get in one last warning and challenge to his readers to not abandon Jesus and return to their former system of beliefs and practices.

While it may seem strange to say so, that is what this reference in verse 9 to "diverse and strange teachings" is all about. This becomes clearer as you read the verses that follow verse 9. Taken as a complete unit, verses 9-14 seem to be a pretty clear reference to the (now) Jewish system of belief and practice which many of the readers, apparently, had once embraced before coming to faith in Christ.

But that's the problem, you see. Practices that once were legitimate before Christ have now become, since the coming of Christ, practices that are no longer necessary. And for someone to teach that they were still necessary, or for someone to come to believe that the Old Testament system was a valid option to which they might return - such teaching or belief was, indeed, "strange and diverse" to say the least. Returning to that former way of belief and practice now would do the readers of this letter no good. Adherence to the many and various food laws contained within that system would not accomplish anything, it would not benefit them in any way, it would not strengthen their hearts in any way. Only the grace of God in Jesus Christ could do that.

It is important, I believe, to have some sympathy for what it must have been like for these early believers to leave behind their Jewish beliefs and embrace the Christian faith. Because they were coming out of a system of belief that was very visceral, tangible, visual. It was a system that involved a number of feasts and festivals. It was a system that involved a temple, and numerous regular sacrifices and then one really, really important sacrifice once a year.

So their former beliefs and practices included a great deal of visual drama, and an imposing temple, and various sounds and smells and sacrifices and offerings, as well as all the pageantry associated with the priests who were put in charge of all these things, especially the High Priest with his highly ornate robe, as well as other vestments.

That was the system they were coming out of. To come out of that sort of experience and practice and into the Christian faith was something of a shock to the system. When they embraced Christianity they soon discovered that it was, by comparison, pretty simple and spare and certainly not nearly as elaborate. Gone were the various feasts and festivals and, in their place, was the very simple Lord's Supper. There was no longer any need for animal sacrifices, and thus no need for a temple, or for priests to look after it and oversee its services. So, given those realities, you could hardly blame believers going through that kind of transition for occasionally feeling that their new-found faith might be lacking, or otherwise suffering by comparison.

Now why do I point that out? Because it seems to me that what the writer says in verses 10 and following show an awareness that this dynamic might be in play here. So, while some of his readers may be troubled by this feeling that something was missing, verse 10 seems to say just the opposite - i.e., that it was the former system that left a great deal to be desired.

Now, to be sure, the writer has already made this point in a number of different ways throughout this letter. Nevertheless, he makes it again here, pointing out yet another way in which it is true that the Christian faith is superior to the Old Testament system that it came to fulfill and replace.

The thing that he seizes on to get this point across is a particular element of the former temple practices and which was related to some of the offerings that were made by the priests. In short, the temple priests were permitted to take as food for themselves, the remains of some of the sacrifices that were made. That was a provision made for them in the Old Testament.

However, the one sacrifice that this was NEVER done with was the annual sacrifice made on the DAY OF ATONEMENT - which was a sacrifice for the sins of all the people. Because of the special nature of this sacrifice which dealt, representatively, with the unclean-ness and defilement of all of God's people, there was to be nothing left that might be consumed by the priest but, instead, after the blood had been spilled and spread upon the altar, the animal had to then be taken outside - thus symbolically removing the sin away from among the people - and then completely burned up outside the camp. No priest, not even the High Priest, had the right to eat anything of that particular sacrifice, that had been made upon that particular altar, contained within the holiest part of the temple.

But this - says the writer of Hebrews - this altar from which no one had a right to eat in the Old Testament system — that is the very altar that all of God's people have now been given access to and is the altar to which all of them have come whenever anyone comes to Jesus. By responding in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, the believer, as it were, "eats" or "partakes" of Jesus, the lamb of God sacrificed on the holiest of altars, to take away the sins of the world. That is the clear implication of these verses and is the very same sort of thing that John's Gospel talks about in chapter 6, verse 53 and following, where it says:

....So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me....
So, in case they are feeling that there is something lacking, in case this IS part of what may be tempting them to walk away from their Christian profession and return to their former way of life and practice, and in addition to all the other ways he has already shown the superiority of Christ, the writer adds this statement about the privileged position that God's people now have, as opposed to what they had before Christ came. The privilege they now have is that of entering into the holiest place of all, and approaching the altar that none but the High Priest could approach before and to partake of the one offering that no one - not even the High Priest himself, could ever partake of - by partaking of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But the writer is not finished. After making this point, he goes one step further to say that, just as the bodies of the animals sacrificed on the Day of Atonement were always taken outside the camp and burned, so too was Christ, taken outside, to a place of reproach and defilement, when he was crucified. The writer's reason for making this comparison is simply to say this: that IF God's people are to partake of Jesus, and feed on him - i.e., to trust in him, then they are going to have to go where he went - outside of the city, out beyond the safe walls into a place of reproach. They are going to have to identify with this one who was himself reviled and outcast.

To put it another way, the high and superior privileges that belong to God's people now are also accompanied by a very high cost - the cost of identifying with a rejected and crucified Lord. That is the cost that many of the original readers of this letter were currently experiencing in a very real and painful way. That was the cost that was making them begin to wonder about this whole thing.

In the face of that, the writer presses home one last time the reality that it is a cost that cannot be avoided if they are to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Judaism that they are being tempted to return to, that they think will offer them relief and respite and safety from hardship will, in the end, fail them utterly. They cannot go back to Jerusalem and all it represents because that is a city that cannot, and will not, last. Indeed, at the end of the day, the only city that will last, is the City of God that lies in front of them, the heavenly Jerusalem where Christ is Lord.

This ultimate and glorious reality then becomes a point of praise for God's people, even in the midst of suffering, and so the writer tells us,

...Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God....
To be sure, the coming of Christ certainly did mean the end of a number of things, including the end of the need for any more animal sacrifices.

But that did not mean that for those that had converted to Christ there was no concept of sacrifice. On the contrary, sacrifice remained a vital reality for God's people, only in a different way. The sacrifices that remain for God's people are now very different in purpose and intent and the writer here outlines two examples of what these new and different sacrifices are all about.

On the one hand, there is the sacrifice of praise - meaning, the spontaneous and natural praise and thankfulness that God's people express - in various ways - because of who God is and what He has done. This is the "fruit of lips that acknowledge His name" referred to in verse 15.

The other sacrifice mentioned here is that which takes place when God's people "share what they have," as verse 16 says, and when they do good works. When the people of God, when you and I give of ourselves, our time, and our resources we are, quite literally, sacrificing, giving up and giving away something - diminishing ourselves in order that others might be built up, impoverishing ourselves in order that others might be enriched, disadvantaging ourselves in order that others might be advantaged. These are the sorts of things that are now regarded by God as "acceptable sacrifices".

With that statement then, the writer returns to his opening theme or "remembering their leaders." It should be said here that, even though the section we just considered was something of a digression, it too can be seen, from one perspective at least, as one particular way in which the readers of this letter could "remember" and honor those leaders that first spoke the word of God to them - namely, by being faithful to the things that those leaders first taught them, by not going back to former beliefs and practices which now, for Christians, would be diverse and strange things to embrace.

So, having made that point, the writer moves on. In addition to all that has been said thus far, the writer, in verse 17, outlines a further way in which they can remember and honor their former leaders: namely, by obeying and submitting to their current leaders. And as the writer issues this command, he strengthens it by including at least three reasons why they ought to do these things: 1) Because their leaders were keeping watch over their souls and 2) because they have to give an accounting to God for how they have led and 3) because, frankly, making their task more difficult than it already is would only, in the end, create problems for themselves, and thus prove to be of no advantage to them. Let me take a moment to expand on those things.

Let us think about the second thing first: those who lead God's people are going to have to give an account of themselves and their actions to God. Whatever that means, it means at least this: They are answerable not only for themselves, but for others which, in our day, means YOU. Leaders are answerable in a way that you are not. Which is one reason why the Scriptures say, in another place, that, with regard to those leaders who teach, they will incur a stricter judgment.

In order to think about this, think about parenting for a moment. As any good parent will tell you - if being a parent meant being your child's friend, and that was it, then parenting would be a whole lot easier. But the reality is that you are not, and cannot be, first and foremost, your child's friend or buddy. At the end of the day, you have to be the grown up in the relationship.

That means you have to say the things that their friends - unless they are unusually good friends - won't say to them. It means you have to be the one that doles out the consequences, that pushes them and guides them and sacrifices for them and serves them in ways that no one else will. Why? Because you are the one who is accountable before God, who is answerable to the Lord - and the knowledge of that changes everything, doesn't it? It feels very different when the buck stops on your desk.

It is the same way for the leaders that God has placed over you in the Body of Christ. It is not their job, first and foremost, to be your buddy and friend. It is their job to shepherd and guide you - and that means a lot of things. It can, of course, include friendship, and typically does. But it goes way beyond that. It also includes a kind of "spiritual parenting" if you will. It includes saying the things that you do not want to hear. It includes disagreeing with you - for your own good. It includes being the one to remind you of the vows and promises that YOU made, that nobody forced you to make, but that you took upon your own self. It includes sacrificing for you, and serving you, and a million other things.

Why do they do this? Because they are accountable to God in ways that you are not. Llet me just say, I feel a little funny being the one to stand here and say these things to you. I am sure it could easily come across as pretty self-serving. But I don't have any choice but to share these things with you because it is what the Word of God says to us. However, if it helps you to hear this better, think about me saying these things, not just for me, but for the sake of all the other leaders that God has brought into your life - for Andrew, for Michael, for Keith, for Tory, Nick, Barrett, Eric - for all these people and others not even connected to this church, but who serve in that capacity for you in some way. I say these words for them.

Even saying them on behalf of other people, they are still not easy things to say. The words "obey" and "submit" are just not popular words in this day and age. They are never easy for people with hearts like ours to hear. But one thing that makes them a little easier to hear and bear is remembering that these leaders that God has so gifted and providentially put in place - these men have to give an account. They are going to face a judgment and scrutiny that you are not going to have to face. I have never met a single Christian leader worth his salt for whom the thought of that reality is not, at times, the source of extreme agony and trepidation. It is a necessary, but also heavy burden to bear at times. So, you remember that as you are considering whether you will submit to the leadership that God has provided.

The second thing to remember is the fact that not only will your leaders have to give an account, but they also, and this may surprise you, they actually do care for the state of your soul before God. They are concerned for you. They actually care for the flock they are shepherding. Not just because they have to give a status report at the end of the month, but because there is a genuine affection and pastoral concern that you are becoming the child of God that you ought to be, that you are growing in the love and knowledge of the Lord, and the service of the Gospel and Kingdom. In short, your spiritual well-being is hugely important and is the guiding factor in their response to you and in the decisions that are made which impact on your life.

To be sure, their responses are not infallible. Good intentions do not always lead to good and wise actions. Many times hindsight will reveal that a better way might have been taken. Hopefully, being reflective as a pattern of living and leading WILL, over time, lead to doing things better the next time around. But keep these things in mind as you are in one of those places where you have to decide whether or not you are going to listen to your leaders and submit to them. Do not become part of the growing statistic of Christians who, every time they are presented with this sort of situation, they vote with their feet - walk away and move on to the next church where things will be just great and fine - until they are once again in the same place - and they move on again. That is a second reason why you should submit to and obey leaders that God has placed in your life.

A third reason is, in the end, a fairly pragmatic one. Basically, as the writer says at the end of verse 17, to make life un-necessarily difficult for your leaders "would be no advantage to you." Now when we come to this verse, we have to be careful. There is a danger here in that I think sometimes people will read this verse and will decide not to go to their leaders about things, or seek help in areas because they "don't want to be a burden". That is a mis-reading of this verse. This verse is not talking about people going to their leaders with struggles and concerns that are legitimate and that are difficult, but which ought to be addressed. Those things need to be brought up.

Can I say - yes - they are sometimes a real burden. They ARE difficult. I feel the need to say this because one of the things that I have heard from a lot of you, when you have brought a matter to my attention, is this very statement: "I don't want to be a burden" or they will say, "Is this going to create a burden for you? I hope this isn't going to give you extra things to do." Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiment behind that statement. I really do.

But the simple answer is, yes, frankly, it IS going to give someone extra things to do - How could it be otherwise? And yes, it is going to be a burden - but here's the thing: It's okay. It goes with the job description of a leader. Being a leader means dealing with things that FEEL burdensome because they ARE burdensome. And that's not just a description for leaders, but for Christians in general. We are all meant, sooner or later, to carry one another's burdens.

Having said that, let me say, however, that the sort of thing that the writer has in view here that is the cause of groaning and un-necessary burden for one's leaders are not when people bring their legitimate concerns and problems forward, but when people aren't willing to obey, when they aren't willing to submit to their leaders. When that sort of thing is going on, then situations that are already difficult and a burden - legitimately so - become situations that are excessively, unnecessarily, painfully burdensome and difficult and, at times, impossible.

That is the sort of thing in view here. That is the sort of thing that makes the work of shepherding and leading God's people discouraging. That is the sort of situation that, over time, can beat a man down, can make the work of leading God's people to be a joyless, thankless, bitter and disillusioning sort of task. That's the sort of thing that breaks the heart of even very godly men and leads to their walking away from leadership in Christ's church. And when that happens, it not just them that suffer. The whole church suffers. There is no advantage there.

So, remember that your leaders are people too. The work is hard, and if you care at all about them, you will not make it harder than it inevitably will be, by your stubbornness and pride, and unwillingness to recognize the authority that it gives them no pleasure to sometimes exercise.

Finally, and very briefly, the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to remember their leaders, not only by considering their life and imitating their faith, and not only by clinging faithfully to the one that they clung to - i.e., the unchanging Jesus Christ, and not only by not returning to their former Jewish practices, and not only by obeying and submitting to them for all the reasons just stated, but finally they were to remember their leaders by remembering to pray for them,

...Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner....
Contained in this appeal, we see two particular points of prayer - one that is specific to the writer and so not immediately transferable to our context, and one that is. The last thing the writer asks is that his readers pray for his ability to return to them, to be among them once again. That seems clear enough. The other request, however, arises from the comment made in verse 18 about their having a clean conscience and desiring to act honorably. The writer says that is currently the case, but clearly his point, in mentioning this, is that they would pray that this would continue to be the case, that they would continue to carry out their ministry in a way that left their consciences clear, and that would be honorable and honoring to the Lord.

Let me just tell you, friends, this is the pressing need of the hour. One of the commonest strategies in a war is to do whatever you can to take out the officers on the opposing side because, if you can do that, you can introduce chaos and confusion and despondency into the ranks. Well that, let me tell you, has been the concerted strategy of the Enemy for quite some time: to take out the leaders in God's churches and thereby introduce chaos and confusion into the Body of Christ. Make no mistake. This is war.

Brothers and sisters, let me appeal to you and plead with you to not fail your leaders by failing to pray for them. Let me ask you to take seriously the urgent need and responsibility that falls to you to pray for all those that lead in the Body of Christ, that their consciences will remain clear, that they will act and live and minister in ways that are honorable, and honoring to the Lord.

Hebrews 13:20-21 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, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us1 that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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