Hebrews 13 is not mainly about leadership, even though verse 7 says to imitate your leaders, and verse 17 says to obey and gladden your leaders, and verse 24 says to greet your leaders. This chapter is mainly about a radical Christian way of life, which is purchased by Jesus Christ through his suffering, and then worked out through us by God the Father through Christ.
Nevertheless, as much as any other chapter in the New Testament, Hebrews 13 relates that radical Christian way of life to the leadership of the church. So, in an unusual way, this chapter gives me the opportunity to summon you, South Cities Church, to this radical Christian way of life, and to draw attention to the gift that you and I have received for 35 years in David Livingston’s pastoral leadership.
Let me draw your attention to the radical Christian way of life in this chapter, and then we’ll focus on how it was purchased for us by Jesus and how it is worked out through us by God the Father through Jesus. Then we’ll close with a look at how leadership in the church relates to all of that, as we give thanks for God’s faithfulness to us and to David and Karin Livingston, in 52 years of pastoral ministry.
Four Marks of Radical Christian Living
The first six verses of the chapter give some examples of this radical Christian way of living. They address brotherly love, hospitality, compassion for imprisoned Christians, marital fidelity, and the dangers of the love of money.
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have. (Hebrews 13:1–5)
So, the first and overarching command is to keep on loving each other in the Christian community (v. 1). Then he gives four examples of what love looks like.
First, open your homes to Christians in need (v. 2). This command is not mainly about friends hanging out; it is mainly about Christians being driven out of certain areas into others and having no place to stay. They need brothers and sisters to open their homes, lest they sleep on the streets. You can tell that this verse is mainly about strangers because it says you might wind up “entertain[ing] angels unawares.” If you were not aware that it was an angel, clearly you didn’t know the person. The people you know are not angels. They are people you don’t know, which is one reason I call it a radical way of life.
Second, when fellow Christians are arrested and put in prison, be courageous enough to go visit them and supply what they need, even if you risk getting in trouble (v. 3).
Third, never commit adultery, and never commit fornication (v. 4). Notice how at the end of this verse both kinds of sexual immorality are mentioned: “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” In other words, sexual immorality before marriage and in marriage is not only about your own personal purity before God, but also about being a loving person toward others.
“Jesus died to provide not only pardon for sins, but also power to stop sinning and start loving.”
We are still under the banner of verse 1. It is never, ever loving to sleep with somebody who is not your spouse. It doesn’t matter how good it feels. If you, as a man, sleep with a woman who is not your spouse, you are hating her. And if you, as a woman, yield to a man who is not your spouse, you are hating him. I say that because, as you can see at the end of verse 4, you are confirming the other person in the path of God’s judgment. Only sexual purity is an act of love, no matter how “loving” sexual immorality feels.
And fourth, keep your life free from the love of money (v. 5). Covetousness and greed are great love-killers. As soon as money-craving takes over your heart, love for people moves to the back burner (at best). Money and God, Jesus said, cannot both be your God (Matthew 6:24). And when God is not your God, you can’t love people — not in a way that honors God and does people good forever.
So, there’s a glimpse of the radical Christian life that Hebrews 13 is calling for: persevering, sacrificial love expressed in open, welcoming homes; compassion for persecuted, imprisoned Christians; sexual purity inside and outside marriage; and putting greed to death so that the love of money does not get in the way of loving people.
Radical Through and Through
There are several other references to this radical Christian life. Notice verses 12–13: “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.” That’s a picture of a lifestyle of risk-taking. Going “outside the camp” means going outside the places we feel secure. Christians move toward need, not comfort. And “bear[ing] the reproach he endured” means that we are willing to follow Jesus into the very circumstances where we know people will not like us.
Verses 15–16 give us another look at the radical Christian life for which this chapter calls:
Through [Christ] 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.
So, there are two kinds of sacrifices we are called to make: the sacrifice of lips in praise to God (v. 15) and the sacrifice of life in practical service as we seek to meet needs (v. 16). When this passage says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God,” we know that this “doing good” is the same as what we saw in verses 1–5 — namely, love, hospitality, prison ministry, not defrauding anyone sexually, freedom from greed.
Let’s look at one last reference in the chapter to this radical Christian life: verses 20–21. It’s part of the closing benediction, which says, “May God . . . equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Doing God’s will — namely, doing what is pleasing in his sight — is the aim of the Christian life.
So, that’s the radical Christian way of life Hebrews 13 calls for: doing God’s will, pleasing him (v. 21); doing good, sharing what you have as a kind of sacrifice to God, praising him at all times (vv. 15–16); and persevering love, open homes, compassion for prisoners, sexual fidelity, and freedom from the love of money (vv. 1–5).
Purchased for Us
We turn now to the origin of such a way of life. Where does it come from? I suggested it was purchased for us by Jesus and worked out through us by God the Father through Jesus. Where do I see that? First, consider verses 9–12:
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.
The “diverse and strange teachings” of verse 9 are tempting Christians to go back to Jewish sacrifices and to get strength from eating meat that has been sacrificed on a Jewish altar, the remains burned outside the camp. To this the writer says, “No!” As verse 9 puts it, we will be strengthened by grace, not foods. Then he compares Christ to the old sacrifices to show where the power for our sanctification — for this new way of life — comes from. Verse 12: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”
Jesus has taken the place of all animal sacrifices. His blood replaces and brings to an end all blood-shedding as a way of strengthening or purifying God’s people. From now on, all our strength comes from the grace purchased by Jesus’s sacrifice.
And notice in verse 12 precisely what he suffered to achieve: “Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” In other words, this radical, sanctified way of living that we have seen in Hebrews 13 was purchased for us by the blood of Jesus. Jesus died to provide not only pardon for sins, but also power to stop sinning and start loving.
It’s power for sanctification, power for the radical Christian life that Hebrews 13 describes. God’s power for this kind of life flows to us because the death of Jesus removes the barriers of guilt and wrath. When they are gone, omnipotent grace flows out to help us live this life.
Worked Out Through Us
I said this life was not only purchased for us by Jesus, but also worked out through us by God the Father through Jesus. You can see this fact in the chapter’s beautiful benediction, verses 20–21, which we partially read before:
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 us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The radical Christian life of Hebrews 13 is not only purchased by Jesus; it is worked out through us by God the Father through Jesus. We see this twice in verse 21: he “equip[s us] with everything good that [we] may do his will,” and he “work[s] in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” This is how it happens. We don’t just wind up our willpower and become radical risk-takers. It’s a gift. It’s a miracle. God works in us and through us.
And one of the ways he does this work is by securing all his promises for us in Christ. How shall we be freed from the love of money? How shall we be freed from the deceitful promise of sexual sins? How shall we have the courage to visit the prison and open our homes and take the risks of love? How can we have contentment in God that frees us for risk-taking love? Look back at verses 5–6: “Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
“We break the back of sin’s deceitful promises by believing the superior promises of God.”
We break the back of sin’s deceitful promises by believing the superior promises of God, who says, “I’ll never leave you. I’ll never forsake you. I’ll always help you. Don’t be afraid of strangers, prisons, a lifetime of sexual chastity, or the scarcity of money. Don’t be afraid to go outside the camp. Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Look to the blood of Jesus, and realize how committed I am to you! I will keep my promises.”
Imitate the Faith of Past Leaders
We have seen the radical Christian life Hebrews 13 calls for, and we’ve seen the way Christ purchased this radical, holy life by his blood, alongside the way the Father works it in us through Christ by his superior promises. Now we look, finally, at how leadership in the church relates to all of this, as we give thanks for God’s faithfulness to us and to David and Karin, through 52 years of pastoral ministry. Three times, the writer calls us to think about our leaders in the church.
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. (Hebrews 13:7–8)
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. (Hebrews 13:17)
Greet all your leaders and all the saints. (Hebrews 13:24)
The “leaders” of verse 7 are leaders of the past. You can see this in the words remember (your leaders), spoke (to you), and outcome (of their way of life). Evidently, significant leaders had passed off the scene. They had spoken the word of God. They had modeled a life of faith.
The way these leaders relate to this radical Christian life of love is that they spoke it and they lived it. They spoke the word of God — the will of God and the work of God in Christ. And they lived a life of faith in God’s promises. This is Christian leadership: preach the word, and practice what you preach. Then the job of the church is to listen to the word, to look at the life, and to imitate the faith. After 52 years of pastoral leadership in three churches, David Livingston never brought any reproach on the gospel. He has spoken it, and he has lived it, and many of us have been inspired to imitate it.
I think the reason this word about leaders in verse 7 is followed by verse 8, which says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” is because the writer wants us to realize that even though those beloved leaders are gone, Jesus is not gone. The Jesus those leaders trusted — the Jesus that enabled them to live the radical life of risk-taking love — is the same Jesus who is alive and at work in the church now. The turnover of leadership is never a turnover of lordship. He is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Gladden the Hearts of Present Leaders
But the leaders in verse 17 are present, not past: “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.” The basic idea is this: when your leaders — your elders — bring forward a proposal, a vision, a plan, let your inner response be support, not suspicion.
We know that all the biblical relationships of authority and submission are not absolute. Government and citizen, husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant, pastors and people — all of these imply real authority, but it is not absolute. Allegiance to Jesus is always greater than allegiance to any human authority. Nevertheless, God has put in place these authority structures for the good of his people and the good of the world. In a healthy church, the elders are wise and loving shepherd-leaders, and the people are glad supporters of that leadership.
But the really unusual thing about verse 17 is the second half: “Let [the leaders] do this [watch-care over your souls] with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In other words, your job as a church is to gladden the hearts of your pastors and elders. Do all you reasonably can to make the ministry of your pastors a happy ministry. Why? Because a sullen pastor, a groaning pastor, will be of no advantage to you.
“If you seek the gladness of your pastors, you seek the health of your own souls.”
Which has this amazing implication: If a pastor does not find his own delight in serving his people, he will be of no advantage to them, and he will not be loving them. To love them is to delight in serving them. Unhappy pastors make unhealthy churches. This means that if the people would be a happy and healthy people — if they would flourish in this radical, risk-taking life — they must seek the joy of their leaders. If you seek the gladness of your pastors, you seek the health of your own souls.
Over Fifty Years Faithful
So, David, thank you for speaking the word of God to your people — to Olivet and to Elkhorn, to Bethlehem and to South Cities Church, in season and out of season, to groups large and small. Thank you that the outcome of your faith has been 52 years of ministry unsullied by moral failure. You have never brought disrepute on the people of God. Your stability and constancy in Christ are worthy of imitation.
And thank you for being a glad pastor, a happy partner in the work. We were on the same pastoral team at Bethlehem for 26 years. We have been friends for almost 50 years. You have been a rock of happy constancy for me in the ups and downs. You have made me healthier in the ministry and in my marriage, and you have been a glad shepherd of a healthy South Cities Church from the beginning. We thank you.
The other text about leaders in this chapter is verse 24, which simply says, “Greet all your leaders.” You might say that this is what this day is for — to greet you and Karin and to say, “Well done.”