Hebrews 13 is a good chapter for pastors to visit regularly. Hebrews 13 ends the fascinating book with some personal and pastoral exhortations and a concluding, majestic benediction. The author’s concern is for the enduring, holy stability of the Christian community that is facing hostile and turbulent circumstances. The author has some pertinent directives for the people in relationship to their leaders. We must remember, however, that the author is addressing a first century community in survival mode, not a 21st century middle-class, comfortable church fretting over first world problems like what kind of coffee should we serve in the church’s coffee bar?
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. …Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you (13:7-8). In exhorting the church, it seems the author has two groups of leaders in mind: the founding leaders (7-8) and the current leaders (17). I think the last phrase of verse 7—“imitate their faith”—interprets the opening exhortation of that verse- “Remember your leaders.” When people imitate the Word-based, incarnated faith of their leaders, they “remember them.” Remember is not mere mental recall; it is displaying a steadfast way of life. The “outcome of their way of life” was their perseverance to the end. No apostasy on these leaders’ part. The warnings in Hebrews against apostasy are not hypothetical or rhetorical; they are real. Verse 8 reminds us that Jesus Christ is the supreme, controlling reality for any Christian community. Not a vision statement. Not a purpose statement. Not a set of Bible-based values. The controlling energy for any church is the Person who was faithful in the past, present in the now, and an enduring hope forever. Good pastoral leaders are saturated with Jesus Christ. (I am not putting down vision, purpose and values. I am just cautioning against the idolatrous place those things can take in the local church.) These verses present a gritty challenge to pastors and teachers who are charged with communicating God’s Word and leading God’s people.
Verse 17 concerns current leaders and the author exhorts the community again. The verb translated “Have confidence in” (peithesthe), which can mean simply “obey,” has within it the nuance of persuasion. Dangerous choices with serious consequences are being made in this church. The pastoral leaders by communicating God’s Word and by demonstrating a way of life are intent on persuading the church to endure, to stay true, to persevere to the end. “Be persuaded!” the author exhorts. Why? For these leaders literally “watch over your souls.” This is a poignant pastoral metaphor. “Soul care” was for ages the metaphor for pastoral work. For that responsibility the pastor-leaders “must give an account” to the one described in verse 20 as “the great Shepherd.” The author suggests that everyone benefits when people obey (are persuaded by) and submit to their church leaders (vs 17).
Many people in the church today do not know and, thus, do not appreciate the truth that pastoral leaders must give a two-fold reckoning in the final judgment. In some congregations the pastor is a punching bag to be batted around by controlling, mean people. Pastors, like all Christians, must give a personal account to God for their lives (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10b-12). But wait! There’s more. Hebrews 13:17 presents another pastoral accounting. Pastors will be judged on their ministry of 1) communicating the Word of God, 2) their way of life as a pattern for the church to imitate, and 3) watching over people’s souls with the aim that spiritually wavering people persevere. I have passionately expressed these truths in my former church and in the church I now am pastor. I say something like this: “When I stand before the Lord and give my account, not just as a person, but also as a pastor, I want it to be a good account for all of us. While recognizing that I am not perfect nor are you, let’s all endeavor to report that we kept our eyes fixed on Jesus and ran the race set out before us until we reached the finish line. Let’s be ready to celebrate that day of reckoning.”