Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. And I urge you all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you the sooner.
Turning the People's Attention to their Leaders
The letter to the Hebrews is almost at an end. The writer is not sure he will ever see them again. He asks them in verses 18-19 to pray for him and his team so that they might, if God wills, be restored to this church for ongoing fellowship. But that may not happen. Where then will the people look for spiritual leadership? The answer is that they will look to their leaders in the church.
So it's not surprising that in this last chapter the writer refers to the leaders of the church three times (and not till now in the letter). Verse 7: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." Verse 24: "Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you." And our text, verse 17: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."
So we may take as a given that this church had leaders. And we may also assume that this writer of Scripture approved of that fact and wanted to strengthen the relationship between the people and their leaders. He is almost finished with his influence through the letter, and so he begins to turn the people's attention in this last chapter to their leaders. When he is finished, the leaders will still be there and will carry on the work of being teachers and examples to the people.
Even Baptists and Americans Are Given Leaders by God
This is very important for us to see. We are Baptists by conviction and Americans (most of us) by the providence of God. Americans (as most humans) have a love affair with individualism and do not like being told to submit to anyone. And Baptists believe in the Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:9). So we Baptist Americans are prone to be very wary about leadership and the call for submission. Therefore it is important that we be checked by these passages. The New Testament is unmistakable in its teaching that the local church should have leaders.
The way this teaching relates to all that has gone before in this letter is simply this: When the book has been read in the congregation, leaders live it and teach it and apply it to the lives of the people; and people watch them do this and imitate them and become responsive and compliant to their leadership. In other words, the Biblical truths - about Christ and his saving work and the power of faith in future grace - that we have been savoring for the last two years are meant to be embodied in the leaders of this church so that you see them lived out, and hear them taught, and have God-centered models to imitate and God-centered teachings to follow.
Now let's develop this by opening verse 17 in more detail. I see three points: the aim of leadership, the means of leadership, and the response to leadership.
What Is the Aim of Leadership According to Verse 17?
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
Two phrases in the verse point to the aim of leadership. One is, "that would be unprofitable for you." And the other is, "they keep watch over your souls" (or literally: they keep watch on behalf of your souls). So I conclude that the aim of leadership in this verse is the "profit" or the "benefit" of the people. The leadership and the response to the leadership should not be "unprofitable for you," but rather "profitable for you." That's the aim - the benefit or profit of the people.
And when it says that the leaders are watching, or staying on the alert, "on behalf of your souls," it means the same thing: it is for the good of your souls that leaders are vigilant and awake and watchful. So in both phrases - the one at the end, "that would not be profitable for you," and the one in the earlier part of the verse, "they keep watch on behalf of your souls" - the point is the same: the aim of leadership is the profit or the good of the people, especially the good of their souls.
We may ask, What sort of profit or good does he have in mind? The answer is plain from the entire book, but let's take a specific verse to see it. Consider Hebrews 10:39, "We are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul." The aim of this book is to help people not shrink back from faith and have their soul destroyed, but rather to persevere in faith to the end and preserve their soul. The book of Hebrews is about perseverance. Over and over, it calls us to be vigilant concerning our souls and to endure to the end in faith and obedience (2:1; 3:6,12; 4:1,11,16; 6:1,11-12,18; 10:14,22-31,35-39; 12:1-2,12-17,28; 13:13).
So the aim of spiritual leadership in the church is mainly the salvation of the soul. And that salvation is not seen in the book of Hebrews as a one-time event of decision, but a life-long battle against temptation and unbelief. The job of the elders of this church primarily is to help you persevere in faith and be saved. In other words, since perseverance is at stake day after day, the aim of leadership is not simply to get decisions for Jesus at the front end of Christian life, but to so teach and so live and so admonish that professing Christians in the church "not shrink back to destruction, but . . . have faith to the preserving of the soul" (10:39).
This is one thing that makes the ministry so serious to me. I believe what Jesus said in Mark 13:13, "The one who endures to the end will be saved." This is the message of Hebrews. And it means that all messages and all meetings are salvation meetings. Not because they only aim at the first decision for Christ, but because our final salvation comes to us through persevering faith, not just a one-time decision. Salvation of the soul is the ongoing work of God month after month to preserve us safe in Jesus by preserving our faith. And that happens through the teaching and modeling and admonishing and correcting by faithful leaders in the church.
Let me say it again from Hebrews 10:39, "We are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul." That is the aim of leadership: the preserving of the soul for eternity in the presence of God for everlasting righteousness and joy.
How Shall the Souls of the People Be Preserved in Faith and not Destroyed?
Let's turn now to the second point, the means of leadership. I see three answers in verse 17: their first is watchfulness, the second is joyfulness, and the third is seriousness.
First, leaders preserve the souls of the people by watchfulness "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls" (or: they keep watch on behalf of your souls). The spiritual leaders of a congregation are the watchers, the wakeful ones, the ones who above all others are alert and vigilant in spiritual matters. The word "over" (in "keep watch over your souls") does not mean that leaders just watch the souls of their people. The word (huper) means "on behalf of" or "for the sake of." So the watching is "on behalf of" your souls or "for the sake of" your souls.
What do leaders watch so that the people's souls will be preserved and not destroyed?
I would suggest four things from this book.
1. Spiritual leaders watch the word of God. They must ever be alert to the accurate meaning and the preciousness and the truthfulness and the power of God's word. Verse 7: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you." This is the main function of leaders: they lead by the word of God, not their own word. They are men under authority, not just with authority. This is why the people are called to obey them and submit to them.
The main issue in perseverance is whether we drift away from the word or keep hearing it, believing it, loving it and obeying it. Hebrews 2:1 said, "We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard (the word of God), so that we do not drift away from it." The job of leaders is to help a congregation pay close attention to that word and so not drift away from it and so persevere in faith in it and so be saved.
2. Spiritual leaders watch Christ. Christ is what the word is about. Hebrews 1:2: "In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son." The Son is the word we need to hear most of all. Hebrews 3:1: "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus." That's what leaders say over and over again: consider Jesus. To do that, leaders must watch Jesus, and be alert to Jesus, and know Jesus and love Jesus above everything. Hebrews 12:2, "Fix [your] eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith." If it is the aim of leaders to preserve faith, and if Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, then leaders must relentlessly say with their mouth and their lives: Fix your eyes on Jesus!
3. Spiritual leaders watch their own conduct. Hebrews 13:7: "Remember those who led you . . . considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." The people are called to consider the leaders' conduct and imitate their faith. This means that leaders are more accountable to God for their behavior than other Christians and must watch it! All Christians should be godly and set good examples, but on top of that, God himself instructs the church to look at the lives of its leaders and follow. That is why there should be higher standards for leadership in the church than for membership in the church. This is also why failures in leaders are worse than failures in members. And why restoration to leadership should be much more difficult than restoration to membership.
Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 4:16, "Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." So again, the salvation of our hearers depends in some measure on the faithfulness of leaders to be watchful over themselves - their conduct as well as their doctrine.
4. Spiritual leaders watch the people. Hebrews 10:25 says, "Let us consider one another for stirring up to love and good deeds" (literal translation). If the people are to watch each other for the sake of stirring each other up to love, how much more the leaders. In fact, in view of this word in Hebrews 10:25, it is plain that the watching over the flock is a shared effort among leaders and people. This is one of the reasons we believe so deeply in the small group ministry at our church. The elders cannot know all of you with the depth that one needs to know you to give you the kind of personal care and exhortation you should have. That is why we give a lot of energy to creating a system of cells where you can watch each other and strengthen each other's faith, and stir each other up to love, and call each other to account.
So watchfulness is the first means of leadership: watchfulness of the word, Christ, ourselves and the people.
Next, We Will Consider the Leaders' Joyfulness and Seriousness
Here is where we will have to stop this week. We will pick it up here next week. Perhaps we have seen enough this morning at least to set you to praying for us as leaders. Our responsibility, as you can see, is immense. We do not think of the work in terms of rights of authority as much as responsibility for spiritual leadership. Next week I will try to show you how you can help us and how you can respond Biblically to this charge that we have.