Bible boy_reading_bibleThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 13:17-19

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.

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The verses in last week’s post were a final warning against falling into apostasy by following teaching that goes against Scripture and the Good News.

The first verse in today’s selection is a rather substantial one relating to the clergy or, as they were called at the time, overseers (verse 17).

The author of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, counsels his Jewish converts to obey their overseers and submit to them spiritually, because being an overseer is all-consuming work as, at the end of it, he has to give an account to the Lord. Therefore, we should respect their position, the onerous responsibility of that position and allow them to get on with their work without putting obstacles in their way. If a good clergyman leaves as a result of petty obstacles, ultimately, the congregation loses.

Matthew Henry explains the issue impartially — and well (emphases mine):

It is not an implicit obedience, or absolute submission, that is here required, but only so far as is agreeable to the mind and will of God revealed in his word; and yet it is truly obedience and submission, and that not only to God, but to the authority of the ministerial office, which is of God as certainly, in all things belonging to that office, as the authority of parents or of civil magistrates in the things within their sphere. Christians must submit to be instructed by their ministers, and not think themselves too wise, too good, or too great, to learn from them; and, when they find that ministerial instructions are agreeable to the written word, they must obey them.

It is sometimes difficult in our era to submit, especially to clergy who are quasi-agnostics (I have known a few). To them, I have kept my distance beyond civil pleasantries of a greeting and a kind word on Sundays.

As far as clergy are concerned, Henry — who was an Anglican clergyman himself — says that they are not to lord their position over the congregation:

They have the rule over the people; their office, though not magisterial, yet is truly authoritative. They have no authority to lord it over the people, but to lead them in the ways of God, by informing and instructing them, explaining the word of God to them, and applying it to their several cases.

Henry explains the heavy responsibility of a clergyman:

They watch for the souls of the people, not to ensnare them, but to save them; to gain them, not to themselves, but to Christ; to build them up in knowledge, faith, and holiness. They are to watch against every thing that may be hurtful to the souls of men, and to give them warning of dangerous errors, of the devices of Satan, of approaching judgments; they are to watch for all opportunities of helping the souls of men forward in the way to heaven.

After they have exercised their solemn duties on Earth, they will have to give an account to the Lord:

[3.] They must give an account how they have discharged their duty, and what has become of the souls committed to their trust, whether any have been lost through their neglect, and whether any of them have been brought in and built up under their ministry. [4.] They would be glad to give a good account of themselves and their hearers. If they can then give in an account of their own fidelity and success, it will be a joyful day to them; those souls that have been converted and confirmed under their ministry will be their joy, and their crown, in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Therefore, we should think of our clergy as we would a shepherd busy with his flock or, as John MacArthur says, a triage nurse:

I’ll tell you something, that’s a joy. The sweetest joy that comes into the life of a pastor who’s committed to the things of God is when he sees somebody walking in truth and bearing fruit. Believe me, that’s sweet. And the tragedy of all tragedies in the life of the man of God is when he sees those in whom he invests his life who do not bear fruit, who do not walk in the truth, who stray away. That grieves – worse than anything else. We’re like nurses, you know, with critical care patients. We care for your souls …

It’s a serious thing to be a critical care nurse in the church. It’s a serious thing to be a wakeful shepherd of a flock that has sheep that are forever going astray. And we have to labor as those – and I say this even with a sense of reluctance in my own heart to – to even admit that this is true, that I must give an account to God for the way that I minister to the care of the souls that He entrusts to me. And as I’ve said before, that’s why I’m not real anxious to have more people. I’m not too sure I’m doing the right job with the ones I’ve got.

What humility. He preached this in 1973, and, since then, his team’s ministry has gone international. That said, I bet he still has the same concerns — and rightly so.

MacArthur points out that St Paul had his share of faithful and rebellious congregations. The faithful ones made him joyful and the rebellious ones grieved him:

I think sometimes the saddest group of people, the most grieved group of men, are very often ministers, pastors. And I think sometimes the reason is because of the fact that they are dealing with a stubborn and rebellious people who, because they will not submit, rob them of the joy of their ministry.

The idea of the word “grief” here is groaning, over a thankless task, and there are many men whose ministry is a very thankless thing. And he says you ought to submit, just for the joy of the one who labors with you. You know, the Apostle Paul knew about that joy, apparently especially the Philippians were a submissive bunch. He didn’t express a whole lot of joy over the Corinthians. In fact, they were a pain in the neck as well as the heart. But in Philippians 1:4, he says, “Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy.” He said to the Philippians, “You make me happy.” And the reason was because they were submissive.

The author of Hebrews then issued a personal message, requesting the converts’ prayers for him and Timothy (verse 18). (I’ll have more on Timothy next week.) The author is sure both have clear consciences as they attempt to act honourably in all their undertakings.

Henry says this request came because the Jews hated Paul, wrongly so, but the author and Timothy were taking great pains to not offend anyone unnecessarily:

Many of the Jews had a bad opinion of Paul, because he, being a Hebrew of the Hebrews, had cast off the Levitical law and preached up Christ: now he here modestly asserts his own integrity: We trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. We trust! he might have said, We know; but he chose to speak in a humble style, to teach us all not to be too confident of ourselves, but to maintain a godly jealousy over our own hearts.

The author asked for their prayers so that he might be with them again that much sooner (verse 19). MacArthur explains:

And so he says, pray for me, I deserve it. Secondly he says, pray for me, I need it. I need it. Verse 19, “I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner.” I want to get there. You say that guy actually believed that prayer works? Does he believe that if he was going 30 miles an hour and they started praying, he’d go 90 miles an hour to get there? He believed that. Doesn’t sound too much like fatalism to me. Not at all. He knew God heard and answered prayer. There’s no blind fatalism.

Sadly, next week’s verses conclude the Book of Hebrews. However, I will follow up with posts on the first eight verses of Hebrews 13, which explain how to live the Christian life. Fortunately, those verses are in the Lectionary.

Next time — Hebrews 13:20-25