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OBEYING & PRAYING – Hebrews 13:17-19

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on June 28, 2017 under PM Bible Study |

PM Home Bible Study Group; June 28, 2017

Hebrews 13:17-19

Theme: The writer encourages his persecuted readers to relate rightly to their spiritual leaders.

(All Scripture is taken from The New King James Version, unless otherwise indicated).

The writer of Hebrews has taken his beloved Jewish Christian readers through a long journey—reminding them of the superiority of Jesus over the Old Covenant system that they had formerly been under; encouraging them to resist the temptations to go back to their old Judaism, but rather to faithfully move forward with Christ (even though they were being persecuted for their faithfulness to Jesus); and encouraging them to embrace the practical implications of faith in Jesus’ finished work on the cross. In Chapter 13 particularly, he had been exhorting them toward faithfulness together as believers during the hard times of persecution; showing them how to conduct relationships in the body of Christ (vv. 1-3), how to pursue practical holiness (vv. 4-6), how to maintain doctrinal purity (vv. 7-10), and how to be established in the doctrine of grace (vv. 11-16). And now, as a closing exhortation, found in verses 17-19), he encourages them to relate rightly to their spiritual leaders within the church.

In a time of persecution, it’s easy for believers to forget—or even tempting to neglect—to do the things it should do with regard to its spiritual leadership. The followers of Jesus, under such pressure, may be inclined to make compromises along the way in the area of obedience or doctrine, or to think that the unusual circumstances require something different than the usual lines of submission within the church family. But it may be, in fact, that times of persecution make it more necessary than ever to rightly relate to the spiritual leadership that the Lord Jesus provides for His church. After all, the Lord Jesus Himself gave those very same spiritual leaders to the church as a necessary and indispensable provision; so that individual believers can be equipped to do the work of the ministry (see Ephesians 4:11-12).

In 1 Peter 5:1-4—as Peter himself also addressed the context of Jewish Christians under persecution—the apostle wrote these words directly to the spiritual leaders:

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. (1 Peter 5:1-4).

And now, as the writer of Hebrews shows us, it’s not just the leaders who need to be exhorted to devotion in their leadership; but it’s also the people of God who need to be exhorted to devotion in the way they respond to that leadership.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Notice, then that the writer exhorts his readers to respond to their spiritual leaders rightly, first …


A. He begins by telling them, “Obey those who rule over you …” It’s clear in this chapter that those who “rule” are not meant to be understood as Jewish leaders under the Old Covenant (since that Old Covenant is no longer in effect and its priesthood no longer needed; see Hebrews 10:11-14), nor civil leaders (although the Bible clearly instructs the saints to be submitted to governing authorities; see Romans 13:1-7; 2 Peter 2:13-17). Rather, these “rulers” are meant to be understood as the biblically appointed spiritual leaders within the church. In this chapter, they are mentioned three times; and each mention is instructive. In verse 7, it appears that these leaders are referred to; some of whom, apparently, were no longer living, but who have departed from the scene through death and are now with the Lord. These are to be “remembered”: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” In verse 24, the writer asks that those leaders who were currently serving the body be warmly “greeted”: “Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints.” And now, the saints in the body of Christ are urged to obey them. “Remember … obey … greet …”; these words demonstrate a high regard for those who are in positions of spiritual leadership in the church.

B. The word “obey” is one that—in this context—means more than simply a blind obedience. It carries with it the idea of a loving esteem. The word itself (peithō) means “to persuade”; and here, the idea is that of ‘assenting to’ or ‘listening to in a respectful way’. Spiritual leaders are not to be obeyed in a way that sets them in the place of complete obedience that should only be occupied by the Lord. (Paul, for example, gives instructions to Timothy regarding the treatment of elders in the church who were ‘sinning’; see 1 Timothy 5:19-20). But when the spiritual leaders are faithful followers of the Lord, and when they themselves are clearly placed in the position of leadership by the Lord’s calling and commission, their leadership and instruction ought to be obeyed with the utmost respect—as if to the Lord who called them. The people of God, we might say, are to allow themselves to ‘be persuaded’ by their instruction out of love and respect to the Lord. The writer in fact goes on to say, “and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.” These spiritual leaders—teaching elders, ruling elders, deacons and deaconesses—must stand before the Lord one day and give an accounting of their service. It is an awesome and sometimes dreadful responsibility. Pastor James once wrote;

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment (James 3:1).

The apostle Paul once wrote to a group of gathered pastors:

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears (Acts 20:28-31).

To serve in the spiritual leadership of God’s household—according to His call and in such a way that is recognized by the assembled church family—is a truly great work, requiring the highest standards of holiness and faithfulness (see 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). And therefore, those who serve faithfully in that capacity should be honored and esteemed and obeyed and submitted to in the household of God.

Note in addition to this that the writer also says something more to the saints with regard to the service of the leaders: “Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” Because those leaders are provided by the Lord and appointed by Him over His flock, the believers themselves gain the benefit from faithfully submitting to their leadership. On the one hand, submitting in such a way as to not cause grief to the work of their leadership makes for better leadership; because God-reverencing leadership is always made more effective when exercised in the context of God-reverencing submission. And on the other, a God-reverencing submission on the part of the saints will be a submission remembered by the Lord as a good work done before Him and for His sake. Dr. F.F. Bruce wrote this helpful comment:

There would always be a tendency throughout the churches for visitors who came purveying new and esoteric doctrines to be regarded as much more attractive and interesting personalities than the rather humdrum local leaders, who never taught anything new, but were content with the conservative line of apostolic tradition. Nevertheless it was those local leaders, and not the purveyors of strange teaching, who had a real concern for the welfare of the church and a sense of their accountability to God in this respect. If the discharge of their responsibility and the ultimate rendering of their account were made a burden to them, the resultant disadvantage would fall on those who were led as well as on the leaders (The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICTNT, p. 408).

Note also that the writer encourages his readers to respond rightly to their leaders …


A. It’s easy to forget that leaders in the church are only human; and that they too are subject to the temptations of sin, or the attacks of the enemy, or to periods of discouragement or depression. The care and nurture of God’s household is an overwhelming task—greater than mere human capabilities allow. And so the writer adds this personal note; “Pray for us …” (v. 18a). The “us” here may suggest that the writer is a part of the body of apostles; and that he thus includes not only himself but all the others in this request. It may, however, refer to himself as a pastor or teacher, and those who so serve along with him. In any case, this is a great reminder of how much the leadership of the local church is dependent upon the prayers of the people of God. In the church, it’s important to remember: You get the preacher you pray for!

B. Note that the writer gets specific about the motive for his request: “for we are confident that we have a good conscience …” (v. 18b). There are suggestions in this letter that the writer may have been in prison or some kind of confinement at the time of his writing (see verse 19; possibly 11:36 and 13:3). Or it may be that some of the other leaders—not the writer—were in prison. If the possibility of imprisonment for the gospel actually was the case—and particularly so with the writer—then this gives significance to his appeal to confidence of having a good conscience. If he is in prison for having preached the word, then he appeals to the saints for prayer in the confidence that he himself has done no wrong but has acted faithfully before God and man. (Paul, you’ll remember—when he was being tried before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:1—testified boldly, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”) And more, he and the others purpose to continue to do so; “in all things desiring to live honorably …” (v. 18c). As Robert Murray M’Cheyne once wrote, “A mighty weapon in the hand of God is a holy man! Like the jaw bone of an ass in Samson’s grip is he in his Master’s hand.” A church is wise to pray for its leaders to live a holy life; and that they themselves would also desire to live a holy life in all things—both publicly and privately; both in matters of the church and in the eyes of the world. As Paul wrote of his own ministry in 2 Corinthians 6;

We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).

The writer adds this note also in the context of the request for prayer: “But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (v. 19). It could be that the writer was separated from his beloved readers because of the demands of his labor in some particular area of ministry; but the language suggests that it may be that he was, indeed, in prison or some kind of confinement; and that he longed to be back with God’s people. If this is the case, then how much more he needed prayer for faithfulness!

* * * * * * * * * *

The saints in the body of Christ expect spiritual leaders of the church to faithfully do their duty; and it’s absolutely right that they expect this of them. But as this passage shows us, the saints themselves also have a duty to perform toward the leaders; and that the leaders cannot effectively to their duty unless the saints also faithfully do their duty. The duty of the saints is summed up in two words: to “obey” and to “pray”.

May it be that, just as the leaders of the church are called upon to serve the people of God with their prayers, that the people of God would respond by faithful obedience to and faithful prayers for their appointed leaders. What a difference the church can make in the world if this happens as it should!

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