DUNCAN/Obey your leaders
Please turn to Hebrews 13:17. The one great point of this passage is that our submission in the Christian life is important for our wellbeing and for the wellbeing of others. Jesus was obedient to God's will and submitted Himself to His heavenly Father's purposes. As Christians, we are called to emulate Jesus because the life that Christ lived was a life of obedience and submission. In this verse, the author of Hebrews is telling us that God, in His kindness, has provided spiritual leaders to be our shepherds and watchmen in the Christian life. Specifically, there are seven things that the author of Hebrews is saying to us in this one verse regarding obedience to the spiritual leaders that God has called.
I. Obedience and Submission are Part of the Christian Life.
First, the author of Hebrews says, "Obey your leaders and submit to them." Specifically, he is talking about spiritual leaders who "are keeping watch over your souls." This verse is a parallel to Hebrews 13:7 where we were called to imitate our leaders and to remember them and to be thankful to God for them because they taught us His Word. However, we are not just called to obey and to submit to those spiritual leaders in the Christian life. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5:21 that all of us are called to this kind of mutual servitude in the Christian life. In other words, obedience is a normal part of Christian experience. And that is important for us to realize because it is a little bit strange in our modern culture to talk about obedience, especially between adults.
II. Christian Leadership in the Local Church is Plural.
Secondly, the author tells us to obey our leaders not a leader in verse 17. The call here is for an obedience and submission to a plural leadership. This is hugely important because all around us, especially in the evangelical world, we see instances where one particularly gifted leader, by virtue of that gifting, lords it over a congregation or a movement and has no one to whom he is accountable. Well here, it is not just one person but a group of people who are leading a local congregation. This is significant in the Christian life because it protects us from abuse of power and makes it clear that leaders themselves are accountable. In Acts 15, when Christians gather in Jerusalem to solve a problem that is in Antioch, we read that the apostles and the elders met there. And this principle of being led, not just by one person, but by a plurality of godly leadership is seen throughout the New Testament.
III. Christians Follow the Biblical Teaching of Their Leaders.
Thirdly, it is important to remember that the author of Hebrews is concerned about false teachers who show up with their novel ideas, and they begin to pervade them to the congregation. As a result of this concern he is saying, "Now listen, receive the teaching of the apostles from the lips of your leaders. Do not let your ears itch for something new. Obey them as they teach you the truth. Do not listen to the false prophets who come rolling through with their new ideas. Listen to the faithful apostolic preaching and teaching, which the apostles received from Jesus, and make sure that your people obey His truth."
IV. Show Due Deference to and Follow Godly Leadership.
Fourthly, the author of Hebrews encourages us to show due deference to and follow the godly leadership of spiritual leaders. Again, this does not mean that shepherds and elders in the Christian church have absolute authority. If leaders are out of accord with the Word of God then they have no authority. Furthermore, anything that leaders say that is out of accord with the Word of God ought to be rejected. But, by God's grace, there are churches that have experienced many years of service from faithful, godly, biblical shepherds in their congregations. And one of the things that gives stability to a church, particularly during times of transition, is that the church is not built around one person but around the plurality of godly leadership where the congregation has learned to defer to the wisdom and the leadership of godly elders.
V. Godly Leaders are Called to a Protective Watchfulness.
Fifthly, the author of Hebrews says that godly leaders "are keeping watch over your souls." There are at least two biblical pictures of keeping watch. First, there is the picture of shepherds "keeping watch over their flocks by night." That is an Old Testament and a New Testament picture that is applied to leaders in the church. Their job, like shepherds, is to make sure that wolves do not creep in and take the sheep away. The other picture is of Old Testament prophets who protected the city. The Old Testament prophets often called themselves, "watchmen," who stood up on the city walls during the three watches of the night to make sure that the people were not attacked by a marauding enemy while they slept. We were created with souls that will never die, and we will live for eternity in one place or another. And the job of spiritual leaders is to watch over you and me and to sometimes tell us uncomfortable things so that we do not forfeit happiness forever with God in eternity. We should obey and submit to our leaders because they are looking out for the wellbeing of our souls.
VI. Christian Leaders Will Give an Account to God.
Sixthly, the author of Hebrews says that godly leaders "will have to give an account." In responding to a minister of a small church, minister and theologian John Brown of Haddington once said, "I know the vanity of your heart and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small in comparison with those of your brethren around you. But assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ at His judgment seat, you will think that you had enough." Reverend Brown's words remind us that all spiritual leaders are accountable to God in shepherding His flock.
VII. Godly Leaders Find Joy in Seeking God's Grace.
Lastly, the author of Hebrews says, "Let them do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you." In other words, he is saying that members of the congregation are to aim for their leaders to have joy in their ministry and to listen and receive the Word of God from their lips with delight, submissively taking it in. And in so doing, they will be following Jesus who loved to obey His Father and do His will. May we continually thank the Lord for godly leaders who watch over our souls.