HEBREWS 13:17a-e
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

I am blessed to be a sixth generation preacher. At 15 I surrendered to do whatever God wanted me to do and preached my first sermon. At 17 I felt called to preach. At 18 I was ordained. I can hardly remember what it was like not to be a preacher. I am grateful the Lord chose me. Ours is a high calling, as our text indicates.

Hebrews 13:17a “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves . . .”

The real leader of any Bible-centered church is the person who preaches and teaches to it the Word of God. The “power of the pulpit” is awesome.

A pastor is responsible for rightly dividing the Word to a local church, a living organism. Since believers love the Word, they look to the one properly handling it for leadership. Thus the pastor also oversees the organization which provides a skeleton for the organism.

Pastors rule, not as dictators, but as God-ordained managers, stewards, of the Word. Obedience and submission to a pastor is to issue voluntarily from hearts of love.

Pastors are neither popes, dictators, nor “lords over God’s heritage” (I Peter 5:3). Not being magistrates, pastors have no way to enforce compliance with what they preach.

As people obey a doctor when speaking about physical health, a lawyer when talking of laws, an accountant when speaking about finances, a teacher when talking about making good grades, they should similarly obey a pastor when he deals with the spiritual.

Hebrews 13:17b “. . . for . . .”

“For” is the key word for interpreting this verse correctly. Obedience should be rendered only to pastors who faithfully fulfill the office. The title “Pastor” does not make one a pastor.

A man should hold the position of elder only if he meets the high standards of I Timothy 3 and Titus 1, blameless, husband of one wife, having faithful children, vigilant, sober, holy, of good behavior, hospitable, not greedy, patient, able to teach.

“Able to teach” bears directly on our text, Hebrews 13:17. A pastor’s pulpit authority applies only to teachings in which he is true to the Bible, “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught” (Titus 1:9).

Pastors are to expound God’s precepts as revealed in Scripture, not create their own laws. A congregation should fully obey their pastor as long as he is proclaiming directives that are obviously Biblical.

Many mores, customs, and actions are not specifically dealt with in Scripture. A pastor is beholden to speak to such situations. This means he has to make certain applications of Scripture which are his own interpretations.

A pastor should not expect his people to accept his views in such matters as divine law. Final deliberation on debatable issues must be left with each individual. However, even in these situations, the people should respect their pastor and weigh his words in light of Scriptural principles and guidelines.

If a pastor says, “Do not live together outside marriage,” obey him. If he says, “Do not watch R-rated movies,” prayerfully and carefully ponder his words. If the pastor says, “Nothing is wrong with sex outside marriage,” fire him.

“Pastor” translates the Greek word for “shepherd.” Pastors have day-to-day responsibility of building up a particular flock, a local church. Holding its highest office, the pastor is a leader who cares, carrying God’s people on his heart.

“Shepherd” denotes nurturing and prodding. It entails resolute strength and protection of a flock. A pastor is not a tea-sipping sissy, but a guardian who fights wolves. He must have the heart of a lamb, and the hide of a rhinoceros.

William Barclay calls the pastorate the most important task in the whole church. It is a high honor. Pope, prelate, cardinal, vicar ( none of these find their job title mentioned in Holy Writ. However, the humblest pastor of the smallest country church can find the name of his office in the Bible.

The pastorate is an honor, but duty is assigned to it. The sheep, ever in danger of infection from a heathen world, must be protected via good teaching. Sound doctrine must be maintained. Teaching is the duty of all pastors.

The main ongoing, in-house, corporate work of the Church is the task of teaching. Nothing is more necessary for the building up of believers.

Teaching is the primary means of discipling. We will not love God and each other, pray, or evangelize as we ought for long without proper teaching.

I fear we often lose sight of this truth, and thus have preacherettes preaching sermonettes producing Christianettes. God deliver us from men who with poor sermons fill a pulpit, empty pews, and stuff themselves but starve the sheep.

A danger in our capitalistic and business-oriented society is to over-emphasize the administrative side of the pastorate. The latter is important, but some stress it to the point of taking care of teaching only as an after-thought.

They wait till late in the week, and then hurriedly put thoughts together for a Sunday sermon. Over an extended period of time, this produces starving sheep. Ironically, often the starving sheep themselves are the very ones clamoring for more administrative time from their pastors.

We preachers sometimes under-emphasize teaching because our people undervalue it. Remember to teach them that teaching is a pastor’s main public activity. If unwilling to do this for your benefit, do it for your successor’s.

Hebrews 13:17c “. . . they watch for your souls . . .”

Our forebears used the phrase “watching for souls” to describe what they deemed the greatest and most important task in the world, the work of a pastor. We no longer use the phrase much, but its validity abides.

“Watch,” a picture drawn from shepherds, conjures up images of men who keep sleepless vigil over a flock. Watching carries the idea of feeding sheep, plus tending, protecting, nurturing, healing, and seeking them. It involves willingness to sacrifice for their well being, to enter into conflict against a wolf in their behalf.

“Watching for souls” is a holy labor of utmost significance, yielding everlasting consequences. A minister of the Gospel said, “I continually hear the surges of eternity beating against my study door.”

A shepherd is a person through whom God’s choice blessings are conveyed to God’s sheep. Never take the position of local church pastor for granted.

Others flashier and more impressive come to town from time to time, or appear on TV, but a local pastor labors long to feed the Word at home regularly, dedicates babies, stands by a hospital bed, prays with people, performs weddings, preaches funerals, and says appropriate words at the grave side of loved ones.

In olden days, when a pastor went to one place and stayed there a long time, we better appreciated the pastor. We called him “Reverend,” because we revered him. He was often referred to as “Parson,” meaning “the” person, the most important individual in a community, the most significant person in people’s lives outside their own immediate family.

Today such a scenario, pronouncing high accolades for pastors, would sound like a passage from a novel written long, long ago in a land far, far away.

Hebrews 13:17d “. . . as they that must give account . . .”

If a pastor wants to use this verse as a club to bludgeon his people, he had best watch out! For pastors, “must give account” contains thunderbolts, not words (Erasmus). It makes the verse a boomerang recoiling with a violent kick.

When a shepherd returns home from watching a flock in the field, he has to make a numeric reckoning of all the sheep which were entrusted to him. He must prove he lost none.

God’s sheep are owned by the Good Shepherd who is seated in the ultimate fold, Heaven. While His sheep wander in the field, Earth, away from the fold, He entrusts them to under-shepherds, pastors. As each pastor comes to the heavenly fold, he must give an account of his handling of the sheep in the field.

Chrysostom deemed Hebrews 13:17 a dreadful passage. He preached nearly every day. His messages were so powerful that some said, “Better the sun shine not than Chrysostom preach not.” Nevertheless, even the golden-tongued orator said he never read this text without trembling.

Every pastor will someday give a reckoning of how he discharged his duty, and what became of the souls committed to his charge. I will someday stand before God and be evaluated for my dealings with my church members.

Were any scattered through my neglect? Did the wolf snatch away some while I slept? Did they grow under my teaching? Such questions will rise up to confront me. I pray they won’t haunt me.

Due to our high calling, pastors are expected to live by a higher standard of conduct. Holiness matters most. Pastors must teach the Word well enough for it to be remembered, and live well enough to be imitated.

What pastors say and do thunders loudly. They must talk of the Bible, and show the Word in their lives. A pastor needs to be a talking, walking Bible.

Pastors must stay true to the end. Endurance to the end is ever the ultimate test of faith. God has written Himself, and staked His reputation, on the lives of godly pastors who have lived and died in faith.

Quintilian, Roman master of oratory, said, “It is a good thing to know, and always to keep turning over in the mind, the things which were illustriously done of old.”

We are edified by imitating trustworthy pastors, men faithful in life and death. George W. Truett, in his final days, was found in a semi-conscious state standing at his hospital window. Seeing pedestrians below, he extended his arms, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, pled, “Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus!”

R. G. Lee, near the end, asked for his family to come to his bedside “that they might see how a child of God should die.” David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, close to death at age 81, told his family, “Don’t pray for healing, don’t hold me back from the glory.”

The Church, ever an heir of her own past, must never forget her inheritance. We are indebted to people of faith who showed us how to live, and in the end, how to die.

Thank God for ministers of the Gospel who in life and death displayed faith worth following. Livingstone died on his knees in prayer. Brainerd died in a coma praying for the conversion of the American Indians.

Adoniran Judson died at sea. His last words were, “I go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school. I feel so strong in Christ.” At the martyr’s stake, John Hus sang a hymn so loudly that it could be heard above the crackling of the flames.

John Knox, too weak to speak, was asked to give a sign that he heard his friends and died in peace. In answer, he lifted one of his hands and pointed to heaven.

Whitefield spent his dying hours praying God would give him another chance to preach. Philip Melancthon, asked near death if he wanted anything, replied, “I want nothing but Heaven.” Thank God for believers who verified their lives of faith by dying in faith.

Hebrews 13:17e “. . . that they may do it with joy, and not with grief . . .”

Accepting the call to be a pastor entails making the decision to be willing to be hurt. The pastorate can be brutally tough.

Nothing grieves a “watchful” pastor more than unmanageable sheep. If the flock is not listening or following, a shepherd feels his words and leadership are in vain. It is hard to keep the mouth open when the sheep’s ears are closed (Calvin).

Sometimes church members act as if they do not care about the mental state of their pastor. Their lack of submission in and of itself reveals a self-centered spirit. It is no surprise when such people are not concerned about the grief they cause.

The pain of the ministry can be inexpressible. Jeremiah, rightly called the weeping prophet, knew what it meant to be grieved by his people. His opponents could not silence him or thwart his ministry, for God was with him.

“But even God could not prevent them from breaking the prophet’s heart” (MacArthur). Jeremiah lived a life of anguish due to the sinful, self-willed, people over whom God had appointed him.

Pastors, prime targets of Satanic attacks, bear the brunt of his assaults. Lucifer knows, if he can undermine a shepherd, many sheep go down with him.

When a shepherd falls, a flock on the hillside soon looks like a bomb has exploded in its midst. Some sheep are destroyed, others maimed. Some limp the rest of their lives. Many scatter, never to return or be seen again.

Satan, wanting pastors to stumble, seeks primarily to sidetrack them by making them grow weary in well doing. For each pastor rendered ineffective by sex, money, or power scandals, many more are nullified by a grief which leaves them disheartened and careless.

Sex-mongers, money-grubbers, and power-grabbers are a bane to the ministry, but relatively few. They’re not nearly as numerous as the multitude of grieving discouraged pastors who sadly whisper to themselves, “What’s the use?” Of the latter, many quit, or perform their ministries at a substandard level.

May God strengthen our hearts, dear pastors. God loves us, and is proud of us. Never forget, ours is a high calling.