7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 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. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 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. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 17 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. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. 20 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, 21 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. 22 I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. 23 You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. 24 Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. 25 Grace be with all of you.
Is the church still needed in the world today?
In 1934, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote his “Choruses from ‘The Rock’” in which are included these jarring words:
I journeyed to London, to the timekept City,
Where the River flows, with foreign flotations.
There I was told: we have too many churches,
And too few chop-houses. There I was told:
Let the vicars retire. Men do not need the Church
In the place where they work, but where they spend their Sundays.
In the City, we need no bells:
Let them waken the suburbs.
I journeyed to the suburbs, and there I was told:
We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor
To Hindhead, or Maidenhead.
If the weather is foul we stay at home and read the papers.
In industrial districts, there I was told
Of economic laws.
In the pleasant countryside, there it seemed
That the Church does not seem to be wanted
In country or in suburbs; and in the town
Only for important weddings.
It is fascinating to me that the writer of Hebrews concludes his letter by saying, in essence, “Yes! The church is still needed and so it is critically important that the church actually be the church!” Then, toward that end, he shows us how the church can be the church.
I very much agree with David VanDrunen who wrote, “The church ought to be central to the Christian life because the church is the only earthly community that manifests the redemptive kingdom and grants us the fellowship of our true home, the world-to-come.”
That is so. Let us consider, then, the conclusion of Hebrews and how it calls us to be the church.
The Commission to be the Church
Hebrews 13:7-25 gives us some final pictures to consider. They all relate to the church. Specifically, this conclusion pictures the church rightly ordered, the church rightly grounded, the church rightly focused, and the church rightly empowered.
The church rightly ordered
Twice the author of Hebrews calls upon the church to have the right posture toward her leaders. In verse 7 we are told to “remember” our leaders and in verse 17 we are told to “obey” our leaders. It is very clear in each that the “leaders” here are leaders of the church, not civic leaders. In verse 7 they are defined as “those who spoke to you the word of God” and in verse 17 as those who “are keeping watch over your souls” and those “who will have to give an account.” How should the church approach her leaders?
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
First, we are told to remember our leaders. Many of the church fathers argued that “leaders” here is a reference to the martyrs and that “remember” refers to contemplating their courage and faithfulness. So Theodoret of Cyr defines “leaders” here as “the saints long dead—Stephen the protomartyr, James the brother of John, James called Just; many others as well were done away with by the Jews’ fury.” Likewise, Theodore of Mopsuestia sees these “leaders” as “those who have proclaimed the word of godliness among them and were killed by the Jews on the spot.”
The charge to “consider the outcome of their way of life” and to “imitate their faith” sits well with this idea that here we are speaking of the martyrs. They are in the past: “Remember your leaders…” And their lives left an important example.
That definition of leaders as men of integrity and obedience continues in verse 17 when the church is called upon to “obey your leaders and submit to them.”
17 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. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
Not only should these present-day leaders have the same character as the noble martyrs, but in verse 17 they are depicted as those who “keep watch over your souls” and “those who will have to give an account.” Again, we are speaking here obviously of godly men.
The church is called to “obey” and “submit to them.” I must admit some unease with this kind of language. Not, I hasten to add, with the Bible. It is the very word of God and we dare not apologize for it! But, more accurately, I should say that I feel some unease with what many men have done with these words over the years. These words are sometimes used by despotic leaders to beat down the people of God. Again, we do not apologize for Hebrews 13:17, but let us be clear that the idea that God gave us these words so that bad men can keep the flock of God subservient to their ill designs is absurd. Perish the thought!
No, once again, the “leaders” here are men of God. If the church’s leadership is showing integrity and faithfulness then, of course, the church should follow. Such men are not fleecing the people of God. Rather, they are watching over the souls of the flock! Against these the church should not take a posture of suspicion or attack. On the contrary, the church should strive to be a people that does not cause its leaders to “groan” but rather to do their work “with joy.”
The harassment of good pastors by members is as odious as the harassment of good members by bad pastors. Let us avoid both of these maladies! Rather, pray for your leaders and encourage them!
But an obvious question quickly arises. What of bad leaders, men of ill intent or bad motive? Must the church obey these bad men?
The church father Chrysostom attempted to answer the question, “But what about wicked leaders in the church?” He advised that if they are being wicked “in regard to the faith” then Christians should “flee and avoid him.” But if wicked “in regard to life” then we should “be not overcurious” because such men (i.e., sound in doctrine, unsound in their lives) “have…the dignity of office but are of unclean life” and so we should “attend not to their life but to their words.”
I would like to nuance Chrysostom’s categories a bit. I agree completely that if a pastor is preaching heresy and distorting the gospel either he must go or you must go. This call to submit to leaders cannot extend to leaders who are imperiling the souls of men through the teachings of antichrist. This seems clear.
But as for Chrysostom’s charge to bear with ministers who are corrupted “in regard to life” I think we should draw a distinction between wicked behavior that is morally bankrupt and, on the other hand, the types of imperfections and failings that simply come with the human condition that call for patience and prayer and gentle correction. In other words, even “in regard to life” (to use Chrysostom’s terms) there are lines and the church must prayerfully before God establish where those are.
Let us see how this plays out in the New Testament. In Philippians 1, Paul writes:
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
So here we see that there are some ministers who (a) are preaching true doctrine but (b) are doing so out of selfish ambition. Paul applauds their preaching but not their selfish ambition. The church would, then, need to consider how to help their ministers be people of humility and good heart and not men wedded to such ambition.
But in 1 Timothy 5 Paul establishes guidelines whereby corrupt ministers can be dealt with.
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
So in verses 17-18 we find Paul calling upon the church to honor and care for ministers who are being ministers in truth. And, in verse 19, they are told not to quickly accept a sole charge but to establish charges against elders “on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” But do notice that the assumption in this verse is that there are charges that can rise to a level where ministers must be dealt with. Then, in verse 20, we see what should happen with those elders “who persist in sin.” They should be rebuked before the church and in such a way that the awesome power of God brings trembling upon the church. I am of the opinion that the form of that rebuking will vary and certainly includes the termination of one’s position if the offense rises to that level.
The church must be rightly ordered.
The church rightly grounded
It is not, however, enough for the church to be rightly ordered. It must also be rightly grounded in Jesus. Listen:
8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
The church must be grounded in the person and work and teaching and power of Jesus Christ! He is our foundation and He does not change!
Apparently false teaching had come into the church and so this call to be grounded in Christ was especially pertinent for this church.
9 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.
So we now have some clues about this false teaching. It involved a teaching about food and it involved a teaching that somehow pitted food against grace. This may sound strange at first but not if you have read much in the New Testament. This was actually a common malady in the church: the promotion of the idea by some Jewish Christians that in addition to Jesus it was necessary to keep kosher and obey the food laws. This would appear to be what is happening here. Against this, the writer of Hebrews is calling for the church to be strengthened by grace and not go back to the old laws of food and the external rites.
To press his case the writer of Hebrews does something fascinating.
10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 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.
Verse 10 is an important clue. “Those who serve the tent” may well be a reference to Jewish priests. Have some priests converted to the faith and yet they are pressing the dietary and sacrificial laws of Israel upon the church? It is possible. Or does this just mean that some in the church cannot quite let go of the rites and rituals?
Regardless, the writer reminds the church that “we have altar” and a sacrifice. He then takes them back to the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16. There, he reminds them, after the blood was sprinkled on the altar and the sins of Israel were placed on the goat, the carcass of the sacrificed animal was disposed of outside the camp. Leviticus 16 spells this out:
27 And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire.
Then he reaches his great point:
12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
Amazing! The writer of Hebrews parallels the disposal of the sacrificed animal on the Day of Atonement outside the camp with the crucifixion of Jesus outside the gates of Jerusalem. The point is to set up what he says in verse 13: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” Yes! To follow Jesus means to leave the camp! Do not wed yourself to the old way and its kosher laws and its rituals that keep you from seeing the grace of God! Keep whatever dietary restrictions you want! Fine and good! But do not see them as the means to salvation! No, our salvation is in Christ alone!
Do not bind yourself to earthly Jerusalem. It is not a lasting city. But we have an eternal city to come! Therein lies our hope: in King Jesus and the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom that has come and is coming!
Be grounded in Jesus, not in ritual or religion!
The church rightly focused
And, as people who are grounded in Jesus, we respond naturally in praise!
15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
The church rightly ordered and rightly grounded will be rightly focused! Our gaze will be upward, on Christ, and then we will naturally “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God.” The “fruit of [our] lips” will be praise to His name!
We will love the Lord, worship, and then do good to each other! We will, in other words, love the Lord and our neighbor!
You can tell a lot about a church by how it worships or does not worship. I am not talking about forms: style of music, liturgy, organization of the service. No, that is not my point. I believe you can have heartfelt true worship with high church liturgy just as you can with a kickin’ praise band! No, I am talking about the heart of worship. Do the people of God in this or any other locale actually worship and praise God?
If we do not praise God, something is amiss. We are not rightly grounded! We have lost our way!
Church, let us praise and worship our great King!
The church rightly empowered
Lastly, the writer concludes with speaking of the church’s empowerment. How exactly is the church to be rightly ordered, grounded, and focused?
20 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, 21 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. 22 I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. 23 You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. 24 Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. 25 Grace be with all of you.
First, let us note that the letter’s conclusion includes an appeal to the resurrection of Jesus in verse 20: “may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus…” The church is a resurrection community. Whatever we do and whoever we are it must arise out of the shocking fact of Easter: that the tomb that held Jesus is now empty! The church acts out of resurrection power!
And this God who raised Jesus from the dead will, we are told in verse 21, “equip” us and will “work in us that which is pleasing in his sight.”
Well, this is amazing and comforting and beautiful! God will equip you to do that which He commands! Not only that, God will work the work in, through, and out of you that He asks of you!
It is not as if the Lord gives us all of these overwhelming commands and then steps back and says, “Whelp! Hope you figure that out!” And then walks off! No! he calls us, saves us, commissions, commands us…then equips us and works the work in us!
Thank you Jesus! Thank you for being the better Priest, with the greater sacrifice, and the greater covenant, who is doing the greater work! Thank you for equipping us! Thank you for the cross and the empty tomb!
Does the world still need the church? Why yes it does! But it only gets the church it needs if the church falls at the feet of Jesus with open hands and hearts and proclaims, “Do a work in and through us King Jesus!”
 T.S. Eliot. Collected Poems 1909-1935. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980), p. 96-97.
 VanDrunen, David (2010-10-15). Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (p. 134). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Heen, Erik. M., and Philip D.W. Krey. Hebrews. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.231.
 Ibid., p.237.