Volume 12, Issue 1: Exegetica
Those Who Rule
Faith comes by hearing the word of God faithfully proclaimed. We are established in that faith as the word is preached by those rulers whom God has given His church. In this concluding chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the author exhorts his readers one last time to stand firm in the faith, which had been declared and exemplified to them by the rulers of the church in Jerusalem.
“Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Heb. 13:7). The church at that time and place was greatly blessed by the ministry of those apostles and elders who labored among the circumcised. The early church leaders suffered much for the gospel at the hands of their countrymen—enduring beatings, stonings, and the sword—yet they stood fast. The author commands his readers to remember such men, to recall and put into practice the word which they spoke to them, and to follow their faith.1 We should consider the faith of those same apostles and prophets, and build straight walls upon their foundation. We should consider as well the lives and faith of the leaders of the church throughout her history, especially those martyrs who were faithful to Christ unto death, that we may exercise the same faith when we are called unto it. And in like manner, we are to consider the elders whom God has placed over us in our churches, who have been duly ordained to the ministry of the word among us. Watch their lives and imitate their faithfulness. Consider the outcome of their conduct, and follow them as they follow Christ, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
“Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb. 13:9-10). “Those who serve at the tabernacle” are the Levitical priests ministering under the old covenant, though of course at this time they served in the temple. This sets the context of the command. The Hebrew Christians were in danger of wavering in their faith, of being carried about with “foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances” (Heb. 9:10), doctrines foreign to the new covenant. It pleased God to establish His people in the faith, not by profitless works of the law, but by the grace of Christ alone. Anyone who would turn back to such works after receiving a knowledge of the truth has forgotten that under that system “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:26). Such apostates “crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (Heb. 6:6), forsaking His cross of glory and grace for a defunct altar of dead works. For the Lord Christ in the sacrifice of Himself is our altar; those who reject Him have no right to a seat at His table.
The sacrifice of Christ was clearly prefigured in the old-covenant sin offering. “For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Heb. 13:11-12). Some of the sacrifices of the old covenant, such as the peace offering, allowed the meat of the animal to be eaten within the camp (Lev. 7:15). But the rule for the sin offering was clear: “No sin offering from which any of the blood is brought into the tabernacle of meeting, to make atonement in the holy place, shall be eaten. It shall be burned with fire” (Lev. 6:30), having been carried outside the camp (Lev. 4:12). So Jesus was crucified outside the city gate as the final and effectual sin offering, shedding His blood for the sanctifying of His people as our High Priest.
“Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:13). As Jesus left Jerusalem carrying His cross, He foretold its destruction (Luke 23:26-31). This prophesied devastation was fulfilled by the troops of Titus in ad 70. The author calls his readers to leave the city as well before the Day falls, renouncing its former glory and privileges, following Christ. “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:14, cf. 11:16). Thus that covenant, now “obsolete and growing old” (Heb. 8:13), finally vanished away.
Having our sins removed by the once-for-all offering of Christ, the sacrifices which remain are those of praise, thanksgiving, and Christian service:
“Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16). With consciences cleansed and hearts strengthened by faith, we can now serve one another in love, presenting our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
The final duty enjoined to forgiven Christians is an ecclesiastical one: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). As we were earlier instructed to remember and imitate the rulers of the church for our benefit, we are here commanded to obey their teaching and submit to their rule for the same reason. The authority of church officers is real and clearly established in the word, but it is scoffed at by those only lightly connected to a church body. You who have no membership in a church: how can those who are responsible to watch out for your soul do so with joy? Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive.