We are down to the last section of this wonderful letter written to the Hebrews. The letter is over 1900 years old and yet, as we have been studying together for the past several months, I have continuously been amazed at how powerful, relevant, comforting, and challenging this letter is to those of us who are seeking to live our lives for the glory of God today. I hate to see our study of Hebrews come to an end, but I praise God for the blessing of our time together gathered around God’s Word – gleaning priceless nuggets that we can carry with us for the rest of our lives.
As we take a look at the last section of Hebrews this morning we come to a section that is a touchy subject in our day. Whenever people today hear the word “authority” or the phrase “obey your leaders,” many bristle and automatically call their best defense mechanisms to the ready. Whether we are talking about supervisors on a factory assembly line, CEO’s of corporations, teachers in a classroom, politicians elected by the people, or priests and preachers in a congregation – many are leery of placing their trust in those who hold titles or positions of authority today. I will tell you that there is good reason for this atmosphere that is so prevalent today. As a matter of fact, our day is not the first to experience this reluctance to trust people in places of authority; people have questioned authority figures for the longest time.
We’ve looked with cynical eyes at people in places of authority because we have seen how power has a tendency to corrupt. Chuck Colson, once President Nixon’s right hand man who went to prison for the corruption of Nixon’s administration, has said many times, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Other than what I hear on television and read in magazines and newspapers, I do not know so much about the pervasiveness of corruption in politics and the business world. I do know that the abuse of power by those God has called to be His servants in the Church breaks the heart of God, damages the faith of many sincere followers of Jesus, and causes cynics and skeptics to say, “I told you so.”
I remember when Connie and I lived in Plano, Texas and there were high profile ministries that we attracting thousands of people from across the metroplex. In one 60-minute “Prime Time Live” television program the walls of some of these huge ministries began to crumble like the walls of Jericho. Robert Tilton, W.V. Grant, and Larry Lea were the subject of the investigation, and when the program was over the evidence of ungodliness was overwhelming. Because of our time limits let me just give you one of the stories, the story of Robert Tilton.
Robert Tilton was the pastor of the 8,000 member Word of Faith Family Church in Dallas when the program aired. He also had a television program called, “Success In Life” that was broadcast in 235 markets in the United States alone. He bought 5,000 hours of airtime a month and made a reported $84 million a year. Pastor Tilton’s trademark pitch on the TV program was his $1,000 “vow of faith.” If you would send in your $1,000 then he promised continuous miracles and unlimited blessings from God. He told his viewers that he personally prayed over every request that accompanied the $1,000 gifts as he taught those who watched by TV and those who sat in the pews that God had destined for them to be wealthy, healthy, and prosperous. In December of 1991, Robert Tilton said, “Being poor is a sin,” while looking into the TV camera and millions of people responded by sending in their money. (Robert Tilton, Success in Life, recorded 12/14/91)
Then Prime Time showed video of thousands of prayer requests that Tilton’s employees had dumped in the trash. The envelopes were emptied of the monetary gifts, but the prayer requests were still in place – they had never even been looked at.
After the program on ABC aired Pastor Tilton’s ministry began to collapse. Three years after the expose Robert Tilton was completely off the air, he and his wife had divorced, and he had sold his mansion in Florida and his 12,000 square foot parsonage in Dallas. Tilton had once employed over 800 people, but within three years of the truth coming to light he had laid off 70% of his staff. Membership at his once-thriving Word of Faith Family Church had dropped from some 8,000 members to 320. Today, the Word of Faith Family Church is not home to Robert Tilton any longer. He is now trying to make a comeback as a traveling evangelist, but the only churches that will let him in the door are small churches that remember Tilton’s prime – before Prime Time.
It would have been a wonderful day if the expose of these three preachers would have brought an end to the corruption of leadership in the church, but you know all too well the current scandal of sexual abuse that is taking place in our day. It appears that money, sex, and power have a strong pull on the hearts of people – not just in the corporate boardroom, but in the pulpit as well.
We need a different model, a different mindset and methods for those who are called by God to lead God’s people. God’s leaders need something different than what we see going on our society today. Dr. Richard Halverson was the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and later, Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. He uncompromisingly preached the Word of God throughout his years of ministry and he once wrote,
Evangelicals seem to want power only so they can accomplish their agenda, which is not a Kingdom of God agenda. They want a spiritual revival so they can be more materialistic… But the surest way for this to be a better world is for people to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. The model for Christian leadership in America today is not the entrepreneur, not the CEO–it is the suffering servant, Jesus Christ. (Richard Halverson)
What a novel idea! What an insightful remark! What a revelation! The model of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, as the model for Christian leaders today – now that is what we need, desperately need in our churches today. Let’s take a look at our Scripture found in Hebrews 13.
17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. 18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. 19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon. 20 May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. 22 Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter. 23 I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. 24 Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings. 25 Grace be with you all. (Hebrews 13:17-25 NIV)
I have no doubt that some of you never heard verses 18-25. You heard the phrase, “obey your leaders and submit to their authority,” and not another word registered in your brain. Let’s read together all of verse 17 again and try to understand the lesson for us today. Read along with me.
17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
I love Dr. Eugene Peterson’s translation of this verse in The Message. Dr. Peterson has taken the original Greek text of the Bible and has translated it in today’s language. Here is his translation.
Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them? (Hebrews 13:17 The Message)
In my opinion, Dr. Peterson has truly captured the heart of what the writer of Hebrews intended. Hopefully you can see the same as we take a look at the first word, “obey.” When you and I think of the word, “Obey” we automatically think of blind obedience. Obedience is pictured as a child who asks his mom or dad, “Why?” when they give him instructions. The child is told, “Because I said so.” That is the furthest thing from what is intended here.
The Greek word for “obey” is “pei,qw” (pi’-tho). The word means, “persuade, to make friends of, to win one’s favor, gain one’s good will, to seek to win one, to be induced to believe, to trust, have confidence, or be confident in.”
Understanding what the Greek word means we could say, “Be persuaded by your leaders.” For some, that phrase is problematic because we don’t want to be manipulated, coerced, or duped into believing smooth talking charismatic charlatans. I would absolutely agree, but would go one step further. How are we persuaded? Are we persuaded by a getting-swept-off-our-feet experience with a charismatic, electric personality or because we have watched and listened over a period of time and seen evidence that life and language align? If you will remember two week ago we read a section of Scripture from Hebrews 13:7 that is helpful for us in understanding what I am talking about. Let me refresh your mind.
7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 NIV)
These leaders that were to be remembered were leaders who taught the Word of God and there was evidence that they pursued to live a holy life above all else. They desired Christ’s glory above personal gain. They were passionate about living in the midst of God’s will rather than gathering wealth. They were focused on living a holy life rather than having their names honored in the halls of the church. They earnestly desired for others to come to know Jesus, to walk in His steps, and live a “called out” life – even if it meant more work for them, greater sacrifice for them, or extended prayer on their behalf. These leaders were examples for those that God had led into their life.
Let me give you an example of what a leader is supposed to be. Turn with me to Acts 20 and let’s read together about Paul’s relationship with the people of Ephesus. This is a powerful example of what a servant leader if supposed to look like.
17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. 25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20-17-31 NIV)
Paul suffered persecution from those who opposed the cause of Christ, but he labored on. Paul taught the Word of God so that those in the congregation might grow in their walk with the Lord. Paul wept for the people of Ephesus as he warned them about those who would come in to distort the truth after he had gone. Paul was a shepherd. He counted his own life as nothing – what mattered most was that he be obedient to God’s will.
I see something really interesting in this section of Scripture. Twice Paul says that he “shed tears:” He served the Lord with great humility and with tears and he warned the people against false teachers with tears. Can you imagine not being persuaded, not having confidence in a leader like Paul who possessed such a passion for the Lord and His people? The key is not what Paul possessed, but Who possessed Paul. The Lord had such a firm grip on Paul’s heart that he yearned to share with others the Word of God and the joy, salvation, forgiveness, and mercy of His Savior. Paul was not an authority – He was a vessel. A vessel of God’s grace and mercy.
The great preacher, Jonathan Edwards once said, “I go out to preach with two propositions in mind. First, every person ought to give his life to Christ. Second, whether or not anyone else gives him his life I will give him mine.” God’s leaders know that God’s work begins in their own hearts. They are not authorities that hold expertise in matters of theology. They are not wise sages who generously dispense wisdom to the masses. They are not those who have risen above the muck and mire of humanity. They are servants who know they are absolutely dependent upon Almighty God. They do not see themselves as saints, but as sinners in the hands of grace. They don’t grow more comfortable with their position as the years linger – they grow more dependent upon God’s Sovereign hand.
F.B. Meyer had many wonderful things to say about the great preacher Samuel Martin of London, England for whom the Westminster Chapel was built in 1840. He said the secret to Pastor Martin’s ministry was that every Friday he locked himself in the building and went round, kneeling in seat after seat, in prayer for those who would sit there on Sunday. That my friend is the kind of leader God calls into His service. Pastor Martin wasn’t impressed by his erudite sermons. He pleaded with God in prayer to move upon the hearts of the people!
There is a second phrase in verse 17 that is so important for us to understand. The writer of Hebrews writes, “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” The Greek word for “watch” is “avgrupne,w” (ag-roop-neh’-o) and the word means, “to be sleepless, keep awake, watch, or be attentive.”
God’s leaders keep watch over the souls of those God has called into their lives. How does this happen. The great Bible teacher and author, John R.W. Stott has said that shepherds watch over their flock by doing four things: First of all, a shepherd feeds his flock. Second, a shepherd guides the sheep when they go astray. Third, a good shepherd guards his flock against the wolves. Fourth, a shepherd heals the wounds of those sheep that become injured.
These leaders that God has raised up throughout the ages do not lead according to what they “think” is best or according to what would be most popular, but they lead on their knees knocking on the doors of Heaven and pouring over God’s Word. These leaders recognize that they are leaders who will stand before God one day and have to give an account of every word, every deed, every decision, and every detail of their ministry. Do you see why it is so important for our leaders to have such a strong sense of accountability – not just for what they say, but for how they live their lives?
The ministers, Elders, and Deacons of Britton Christian Church are called by God to lead as Jesus leads. To earnestly pray and consult God’s Word before any action is taken. To pour over God’s Word for answers instead of taking polls. Whenever leaders fail to do these important things then problems arise in the church and leaders become deluded and demonic. Peter knew how important it was to have leaders who were seeking to lead according to God’s will. He wrote in 1 Peter 5,
1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. 5 Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:1-5 NIV)
For the elders and ministers of this church it is of greatest priority that we passionately seek to follow Jesus in word and deed as God calls us to lead those that He leads to this congregation. Ray Stedman wrote,
The task of the elders is not to run the church themselves, but to determine how the Lord in their midst wishes to run his church. Much of this he has already made known through the Scriptures, which describe the impartation and exercise of spiritual gifts, the availability of resurrection power, and the responsibility of believers to bear one another’s burdens, confess sins to one another, teach, admonish, and reprove one another, and witness to and serve the needs of a hurting world.
These important responsibilities of spiritual leaders are carried out as they pray and pour over God’s Word. The leaders are to encourage one another to pursue the Lord more and more, to grow in their daily walk with the Lord before they call others to grow, and be sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings regarding sin and error so that we can be repentant before God.
We must heed the memorable words written by Robert Murray McCheyne to the Rev. Dan Edwards on October 2, 1840 after his ordination as a missionary to the Jews. Dr. McCheyne writes, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” (John R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait, Some New Testament Word Studies, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1961, p. 120)
“It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.” What a powerful truth for God’s leaders today. We need leaders today who are like Jesus. Who walk like Jesus walked. Who love like Jesus loved. Who love God so much that they are willing to suffer the ridicule of society. We need leaders like Jesus who will stand strong in the face of persecution so that others might come to know the mercies and salvation of God.
The signs of successful, godly leadership today are not a mahogany desk, a private parking place, and a summer home in Vail, Colorado, but a basin of water and a towel. When Jesus was ready to conclude His ministry here on earth He didn’t arrange a big farewell party – He gathered with those He loved, those He had walked with and taught…and He washed their feet.
Bob Moorehead wrote in his book,
God give us men…ribbed with the steel of Your Holy Spirit…men who will not flinch when the battle’s fiercest…men who won’t acquiesce, or compromise, or fade when the enemy rages. God give us men who can’t be bought, bartered, or badgered by the enemy, men who will pay the price, make the sacrifice, stand the ground, and hold the torch high. God give us men obsessed with the principles true to your word, men stripped of self-seeking and a yen for security…men who will pay any price for freedom and go any lengths for truth. God give us men delivered from mediocrity, men with vision high, pride low, faith wide, love deep, and patience long…men who will dare to march to the drumbeat of a distant drummer, men who will not surrender principles of truth in order to accommodate their peers. God give us men more interested in scars than medals. More committed to conviction than convenience, men who will give their life for the eternal, instead of indulging their lives for a moment in time. Give us men who are fearless in the face of danger, calm in the midst of pressure, bold in the midst of opposition. God give us men who will pray earnestly, work long, preach clearly, and wait patiently. Give us men whose walk is by faith, behaviour is by principle, whose dreams are in heaven, and whose book is the Bible. God give us men who are equal to the task. Those are the men the church needs today. (Bob Moorehead, The Growth Factor)
I pray today that God will raise up leaders from among us who will so embody the passionate call to serve that nothing can hinder their pursuit of that call. Before God will ever mold us into leaders we must first surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives. I want to invite you this morning to surrender.