Hebrews 13:17

Whenever the Lord knows in advance what I’m preaching the following Sunday, He loves to lend a hand. I appreciate that. That’s why the two contacts I received yesterday arrived at just the right time.

The first was a phone call from a member from an earlier pastorate who is now retired and living in another state and serving his church in a leadership capacity. A year ago, he had been on the search committee that brought a new preacher to his church. I asked, “How’s the new pastor doing?” “He’s doing great. Everyone is very supportive and he seems to know what he’s doing.” “Be sure to say that to him,” I reminded. “Oh, I do,” he said. “We go to lunch occasionally and I try to affirm him.”

He hesitated a moment and said, “I hate that word ‘affirm.’ It sounds so effeminate.” I said, “Give me a better word.” He said, “I try to give him a pat on the back. I don’t ‘affirm’ him.” We laughed and I said, “Spoken just like an old fighter pilot.” Which he is.

Call it what you will, I love to hear of church members supporting and encouraging their ministers.

Then an e-mail arrived from another former member (I have been at this 40 years; I have lots of former members) who lives in another state and whose pastor is just retiring after a 15 year ministry. He wrote, “About 20 of us got together and bought the pastor a new Harley Davidson. Boy, was he surprised.” Now, for my money, motorcycles are an acquired taste. But his pastor loves them and that made this a special gift. I typed in reply, “I personally thank you for honoring your pastor in this way.”

So — what is my sermon this Sunday? It’s a verse I have shied away from preaching for years, lest it sound too self-serving. But, funny thing, the more I reflected on it, the more I saw the heavy burden it puts on me and my colleagues in the ministry.

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. (Hebrews 13:17)

How I finally got around to preaching it was that two months ago, I decided the Lord would have our congregation memorize this 13th chapter of Hebrews and for me to preach through it. So, now I’m down to this verse. In that sense, we could say He planned it all along.

I’m calling this sermon “The Scariest Verse in All the Bible — to Us Both.” Obviously, I’m hoping to whet someone’s curiosity with that, but it’s not much of an exaggeration. Think of the two directives in this passage.

One, church members are to obey their leaders and submit to them. That’s me. I’m a leader. A church will have numerous leaders, but one primary leader-the pastor. Now, the pastor is variously called in the New Testament an elder, an overseer (the KJV says “bishop”), and a shepherd (the word for “pastor”). But this is all one office. Denominations have built ecclesiastical systems around these as three different offices, but in the Bible they are used interchangeably. Acts 20, for instance, calls the leaders of the Ephesus church by all three names. The same people were elders, overseers, and shepherds. And the people were to submit to them, to obey them. I know plenty of church members who go ballistic over that thought.

Someone has to stand out front and lead. That is a simple fact of life in all human undertakings, from the PTA to the chamber of commerce. And if one is charged with the responsibility to lead, it’s not a stretch to see how others would be expected to follow. When both the leaders and the congregation get this right and work in harmony, the result is a beautiful thing. Like an engine purring.

The prophetess Deborah sang a song to celebrate a victory over the Canaanites. She had been the leader, but she knew how dependent she had been on the army that had supported her. She sang: That the leaders led in Israel, and that the people volunteered, bless the Lord. (Judges 5:2)

Not all church members appreciate the plan. Some are threatened by a leader who seems to know the way. If they could see the other side of the equation, they might reconsider their opposition.

Hebrews 13:17 establishes that pastors are to keep watch over the souls of the members and give account before God for them. That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard. Imagine trying to watch over the souls of the diverse bunch who make up just one of our churches. All those great metaphors notwithstanding, this is not like a shepherd standing in a field with the flock spread out before him. I’ve never seen all of mine in the same place. And some of them don’t even know my name. Now, imagine standing before the Lord and having to account for them. No one told me when I accepted the call into the ministry that this was part of the deal.

What we have here is a situation. A situation of neither of our choosing in which members obey the pastors and the pastors watch over the members and account to God for them. This is going to take some adjusting on all our part.

Church members are going to have to obey their ministers “for Jesus’ sake.” Not because they are smarter or better, but because the Lord said it would be done this way. And the pastors will have to serve their flock “for Jesus’ sake.” That is, not to take orders from the congregation as to what they will do and how they will serve, but to receive instructions from the Lord Jesus as to how to serve them.

The passage in 2 Corinthians 4:5 comes to mind —

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.

I know what I have to do. Job one is to devote myself to becoming a servant of these people God has sent me to lead. Officially, it’s called “servant leadership.” We’re not talking about a formal structure here, only an attitude. The defining servant story in all the New Testament is the little-known one of Luke 17.

The Lord Jesus asked, “Which of you who has a slave plowing and keeping sheep will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Sit down and eat something’? You will say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat and properly clothe yourself and serve me. When I’ve finished, you can see to your own needs.’ And furthermore, you don’t thank the slave afterward, do you?”

Then, Jesus establishes the standard for all who would call themselves His disciples and servants of God’s people:

So you, too, when you do all the things that are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’

It helps to remember that Jesus did not say this was how others should treat us or that we were to say this to others. This is not instruction in labor law or staff management; it’s about self-discipline and effective discipleship. He was telling us to say this to ourselves.

No one would have trouble following a leader who devoted himself to serving us. That, incidentally, is God’s standard for husbands and wives — and is conveniently forgotten by those who insist on their own rule of law above God’s. The wife commanded to submit to her husband is married to a man charged to love her “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” He has the more difficult task.

One called by God to shepherd His people will keep watch over their souls and eventually give account of them when he stands before the Chief Shepherd. That’s a scary thought, true — but it’s there, nonetheless.

Let the pastor shake in his boots at the thought. Let it drive him to his knees in prayer. Let it propel him to do a better job of serving and leading the people of God. And let the congregation follow his leadership and give thanks for such a provision by the Heavenly Father. Then, let them pray for their shepherd who bears such a mighty responsibility.

Joe McKeever is Pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenner, Louisiana.

Share This On: