An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Motives to Fidelity
(Hebrews 13:7, 8)
In seeking to ascertain the meaning and scope of the verses which now require our consideration due notice must be taken of their setting, and that, in turn, weighed in the light of the epistle as a whole. In the immediate context the apostle dehorts from covetousness and discontent, reminding his readers that God had said "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." From that Divine promise he points out two conclusions which faith will draw. First, "The Lord is my Helper." The child of God is in urgent need of an all-powerful Helper, for he has to contend with a mighty foe whose rage knows no bounds. It is a great mercy when we are made conscious of our helplessness, when our conceit is so subdued as to realize that without Divine assistance defeat is certain. What peace and comfort it brings to the heart when the believer is enabled to realize that the Lord is just as truly his "Helper" when chastening him, as when delivering from trouble!
The Second inference which faith makes from the Divine promise is, "I will not fear what man shall do unto me." If the Lord will never leave nor forsake me, then He must be" a very present help in trouble" (Ps. 46:1). O what a difference it makes to the sorely-tried soul when he can realize that God is not far away from him, but "at hand" (Phil. 4:5). Yes, even if called upon to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he will be with me, and therefore will His rod and staff comfort me (Ps. 23:4). And since the believer’s Helper is none other than the Almighty, no real harm or evil can possibly befall him. Why, then, should he dread the creature? His worst enemy can do naught against him without the Lord’s permission. The abiding presence of the Lord ensures the supply of every need: therefore contentment should fill the heart. The abiding presence of the Lord guarantees all-sufficient help, and therefore alarms at man’s enmity should be removed.
Even in the more general exhortations of Hebrews 13 there is a tacit recognition of the peculiar circumstances of the Hebrews, and more plainly still is this implied in the language of verse 6. The Jewish Christians were being opposed and persecuted by their unbelieving brethren, and the temptation to apostatize was very real and pressing. "The fear of man bringeth a snare" (Prov. 29:25). It did to Abraham, when he went down to Egypt, and later on to Gerar, moving him to conceal Sarah’s real relation to him. It did to the whole nation of Israel when they hearkened to the report of the ten spies. It did to Peter, so much so that he denied his Master. It did to Pilate, for when the Jews threatened him with "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend" (John 19:12), he unwillingly consented to Christ’s crucifixion. Fearfully solemn is that word, "But whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in Heaven" (Matthew 10:33).
Now it is in view of the trying situation in which the Hebrew saints were placed that we should consider our present passage. The apostle’s design was to fortify them against temptations to apostatize, to encourage them unto steadfastness in the Faith, to so establish them that even though they should be called on to suffer a violent death, they would yet remain loyal to Christ. Moreover, their enemies were not only intimidating them by open oppression and threats of more dire persecution, but others under the guise of being Christian teachers, were seeking to poison their minds with errors that undermined the very foundations of the Gospel: it was to them that Paul had reference in verse 9. Hence, in verses 7, 8 the apostle also calls upon the Hebrews to maintain their profession of the Truth in opposition to the lies of these Judaizers.
"Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (verses 7, 8). A number of questions are raised by the terms of our passage. Who are the rulers here mentioned? In what sense or way are they to be "remembered"? What is signified by "following" their faith? What is denoted by the "end of their conversation"? Wherein do these exhortations furnish motives unto fidelity or steadfastness? Why affirm here the Savior’s immutability?
First of all it should be pointed out that the A.V. rendering of the opening clause is misleading, and quite out of harmony with the remainder of the verse. "Those which have the rule over you" is a single word in the Greek. It is a participle of the present tense, but is frequently used as a noun, as is obviously the case here: "your rulers." That their present rulers could not be intended is quite apparent from several considerations. First, because the Hebrews were called upon to "remember," rather than submit to them. Second, because they are distinctly described as they "who have spoken unto you the Word of God." Third, because they were such as had already received "the end of their conversation" or conduct in this world. Finally, because there is a distinct precept given with respect to their attitude toward their living rulers in verse 17.
The reference is, of course, to the spiritual rulers, those who had ministered to them God’s Word. The persons intended were the officers in the Church, that is, those who guided and governed its affairs. "Overseers" or "guides" is hardly definite or strong enough to bring out the force of the original term, for while it signifies to lead or go before, it also denotes one who is over others, being the word for "governor" in Matthew 2:6 and Acts 7:10. "Your leaders" would be better, though hardly as good as the word actually used in the A.V.—your rulers. Those in view were the apostles and prophets, the elders and pastors, who instructed the saints and directed the government of the churches. No doubt the apostle was more specifically alluding to such men as Stephen and James who had been beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:2), men who had sealed the Truth they proclaimed by laying down their lives for it.
"Who have spoken unto you the Word of God": that is the mark by which Christian leaders are to be identified—the men whom God has graciously called to ecclesiastical rule are gifted by Him to expound and enforce the Scriptures, for the function of their office is not legislative, but administrative. The Christian leader, though he possesses no arbitrary power, nevertheless is to bear rule, and that, according to the Scriptures. He is not called upon to invent new laws, but simply to declare the will and apply the statutes of Zion’s King. There cannot be a properly ordered household unless discipline be duly maintained. Alas, if one section of those who profess to be the ministers of Christ have usurped His prerogatives, exalting themselves into ecclesiastical despots, another class have woefully failed to maintain the honor of His House, letting down the bars and inaugurating a regime of lawlessness.
"Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God." By this criterion are we to test the ostensible "guides" and religious leaders of the day. "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1); and never was there a time when we more urgently needed to measure men by this standard. "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Rom. 16:17). "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed" (2 John 10)—no matter how pleasing his personality, soothing his message, or numerous his followers. "For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God" (John 3:34): true of Christ perfectly, but characteristic of all whom He calls to the sacred office of the ministry. To speak God’s Word is the grand duty of the Christian teacher—not to indulge in philosophical or theological speculation, nor to tickle the ears of men with sensational topics of the day.
The next thing singled out for mention in connection with these spiritual rulers who had preached the Word of God, is their "faith," which the Hebrews were enjoined to "follow." There is some difference of opinion among the commentators as to exactly what is here referred to. "Faith" is a term which has a varying scope in its N.T. usage, though its different meanings are closely applied, and can usually be determined by the context. First, "Faith" is the principle of trust whereby the heart turns to God and rests upon His word, and by which we are, instrumentally, saved: "thy faith hath made thee whole" (Matthew 9:22), "by grace are ye saved through faith" (Eph. 2:8). Second, "faith" has reference to that which is to be believed, the Truth of God, the Christian Creed: "exhorting them to continue in the Faith" (Acts 14:22), "the Word of Faith which we preach" (Rom. 10:8), "contend for the Faith" (Jude 3). Third, "faith" is used to designate the fruits and works that spring from it, because it is their root: "brought us good tidings of your faith" (1 Thess. 3:6), "show me thy faith" (James 2:18), i.e., the effects of it.
The term "faith" is used in still another sense. Fourth, it signifies fidelity or faithfulness, as in the following passages: "The weightier matters of the Law: judgment, mercy, and faith" (Matthew 23:23), "the faith of God" (Rom. 3:3), "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace... faith" or "faithfulness" as in the R.V. (Gal. 5:22). Personally we consider this last meaning of the term to be primary, though not exclusive, significance in our present verse. The reference is not only to the grace of faith which was in them, but to its whole exercise in all that they did and suffered. Amid much discouragement and bitter opposition those Christian leaders had not fainted, but held on their way. Despite temptations to apostatize they had persevered in their profession, remained loyal to Christ, continued to minister unto His people, and had glorified God by laying down their lives for the Gospel. Faithful to their Master, they were fruitful in his service to the end of their course.
The last thing here mentioned of these spiritual rulers is "the end of their conversation," which is the most difficult to define with exactitude. The Greek word here for "end" is not "telos" which signifies the finish or conclusion of a thing, but "ekbasis" which literally means "a going up out of." It is found elsewhere in the N.T. only in 1 Corinthians 10:13, where it is rendered "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." "It is not therefore merely an end that is intended; nor doth the word signify a common end, issue or event of things, but an end accompanied with a deliverance from, and so a conquest over, such difficulties and dangers as men were before exposed unto. These persons, in the whole course of their conversation, were exercised with difficulties, dangers and sufferings, all attempting to stop them in their way, or to turn them out of it. But what did it all amount to, what was the issue of their conflict? It was a blessed deliverance from all troubles, and conquest over them" (John Owen).
"The end of their conversation," then, has reference to their egress or exit from this world of sin and sorrow. It was a deliverance from all their trials, an honorable way of escape from all their difficulties and dangers, an exodus from the land of their Enemy. Yet it seems to us that the particular term used here by the Spirit is designed to carry our thoughts beyond this present scene. What was before the mind of Paul himself as he announces that the time of his departure was at hand? First, he declared, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith," and then he added "henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness" (2 Tim. 4:7, 8). As we have said, "ekbasis" signified a "going up out of:" thus the "end of their conversation" also meant a being taken to be forever with the Lord, a sure though future resurrection, and an unfading diadem of glory.
Corresponding to the three things said of their spiritual leaders, a threefold exhortation is given to the Hebrews. They were required to "remember" those who had spoken to them the Word of God," they were bidden to "follow" their faith, and they were enjoined to "consider" the end of their conversation. "Remember" is another word that is given a comprehensive meaning and scope in its Scriptural usage. It signifies that reverence and submission which is due a superior, as in "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). It implies the holding fast of what has been received, whether instruction, promises, or warnings: "Remember, forget not, how thou provoked the Lord thy God to wrath in the wilderness" (Deut. 9:7). It means to recall that which has been forgotten: "When therefore He was risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this unto them, and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said" (John 2:22). It denotes to meditate upon, as in "And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness" (Deut. 8:2).
Here in our text the "remember" is used comprehensively, as comprising all those duties of respect and esteem, of love and obedience, which they owed to their departed teachers. Nor was such an exhortation needless. Human nature is very fickle, and tragic it is to mark how quickly many a faithful pastor is forgotten. Such forgetfulness is a species of ingratitude, and therefore is sinful. "Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city: yet no man remembered that same poor man" (Ecclesiastes 9:15)—God taxes them with their forgetfulness! "Remember your leaders" includes thankfulness to God for them, speaking well of them, putting into practice their teaching. More specifically it means: treasure up in heart their instructions; call to mind their counsels, warnings, exhortations; gratefully meditate upon their untiring efforts to establish you in the Faith.
"Remember your rulers." How fearfully has this precept been perverted! What terrible superstitions have been invented and perpetrated in this connection: such as religious celebrations on the anniversary of their death, the dedication of "altars" and "chapels" unto their memory, the adoration of their bones, with the ascription of miraculous cures to them; the offering of prayers for them and to them. True, they are to be esteemed very highly in love for their works’ sake (1 Thess. 5:13), both while they are with us and after God has removed them from us, but His servants are not to be "remembered" with idolatrous veneration, nor to the dividing with Christ any of those honors which belong alone unto Him. Not carnally, but spiritually are they to be remembered in what they did and taught, so that we are duly affected thereby.
It is at the point last mentioned we may perceive the pertinency of this precept to the apostle’s design. His immediate purpose was to fortify them against departure from the Faith. Hence, he bids them "remember your rulers," for if you bear steadily in mind their instruction, you will at once perceive the error of the "divers and strange doctrines" which he warns against in verse 9. "The sheep follow Him: for they know His voice, And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him; for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:4, 5): that is the order—if we are heeding the true servants of Christ, we shall neither be attracted nor deceived by the emissaries of Satan. Again; a loving esteem of our teachers and a grateful remembrance of their devoted and laborious efforts to get us established in the Truth, will make us ashamed to go back on their instruction. Finally; to recall their steadfastness will be an encouragement to us when encountering opposition: they did not apostatize in the face of extreme peril—shall we spurn the example they left us.
And what is the clear implication of this to present-day preachers? Is there not here a searching word for heart and conscience? Is your ministry worthy to be stored up in the hearer’s minds? Are your sermons worth remembering? The humble-minded will be ready to answer No, there is little or nothing in my simple and homely discourses deserving to be treasured up. Ah, brother preacher, it is not clever analyses of difficult passages which exhibit your mental acumen, nor lofty flights of language which display your rhetorical powers, that is of lasting worth. Rather is it that which makes sin to be more hated, God to be more feared, Christ to be more highly valued, the path of duty more clearly defined, which is what we are to aim to.
"Whose faith follow." This is the next duty we owe unto our spiritual leaders. It is closely allied to the former: we are to so "remember" them as to be effectually influenced in our own conduct. The word for "follow" signifies to imitate: it is used again in "For yourselves know ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you" (2 Thess. 3:7). "It is such a following as wherein we are fully conformed unto, and do lively express, that which we are said to follow. So a scholar may be said to follow his master, when, having attained all his arts and sciences, he acts them in the same manner as his master did. So are we to follow the faith of these guides" (John Owen). This is the greatest honor which we can do them, and is far more pleasing to God than erecting a marble monument to their memory or dedicating some "church" unto their name.
"Whose faith follow." There are many who sit more or less regularly under the ministry of God’s servants, and they approve of their doctrine, admire their courage, speak well of them, but they do not carry out their principles or emulate their example. The whole force of this second exhortation is that we are to so "remember" our leaders as to be thereby influenced unto the living of a holy life. To "follow" their faith means to ponder their trust in God and pray for an increase of your own. Recall to mind their instructions, and continue thou in the profession and practice of the doctrine they inculcated. Meditate upon their lives, and so far as their works corresponded to their words, imitate their conduct. Copy their virtues, and not their eccentricities. "No mere man, not the best of men, is to be our pattern or example absolutely, or in all things. This honor is due unto Christ alone" (John Owen).
"Whose faith follow." The appropriateness of this exhortation to the situation in which the Hebrews were is also obvious. It is a spiritual stimulus rightly to "remember" our former leaders, for it makes them, in a sense, present again with us. The faculty to recall the past is not only a Divine gift and mercy, but it entails definite responsibilities. As we recall the testimony and toil of our ministers, their loyalty to Christ and devotedness to our interests, we are to be suitably affected thereby. When encountering opposition, we should remember the much fiercer persecution others have suffered before us. When tempted to compromise and sell the Truth, we should think upon the unswerving fidelity of our fathers in the Faith. Should we ever be under heavy pressure to apostatize, we must weigh well the fact that the principles of the faith of our former leaders were adequate to sustain their hearts, so that they met death with holy composure, and seek grace to "hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end."
Once more we would pause and notice the solemn implication of this word to those of us who are ministers of the Gospel. Next to pleasing the Lord Himself, our chief care should be to set before our flock such an example of faith and holiness, as that it will be their duty to remember and follow. This is not optional, but obligatory, for God has bidden each of His servants "be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12); and again, "In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech that cannot be condemned; that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you" (Titus 2:7, 8). Alas, how many of the present-day preachers set an example which if followed by their hearers would lead them to perdition. O for grace to let our light "so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in Heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
"Considering the end of their conversation." Here is the third part of our duty toward those whom God has placed in spiritual authority over us. It signifies to observe diligently and thoroughly, so as to have the heart suitably affected thereby. The word for "considering" occurs again only in Acts 17:23, namely, when Paul "beheld" the gods that the Athenians worshipped, so that "his spirit was stirred in him" (verse 16)! Literally, the term signifies "looking up to." The Hebrews were to recall the "conversation" of their deceased teachers, their manner of life, which was one of testimony and toil, fidelity to Christ and love for the souls of His people: a "conversation" of devoted service in the face of many discouragements and much opposition, sustained by trust in the living God; and the Hebrews were to ponder and take courage and comfort from the blessed end or issue of the same.
Thus the three parts of this exhortation are intimately related. The leaders were to be "remembered" in such a manner as to be effectually influenced by the example they had left; they were to be "followed" because their fidelity was Divinely rewarded with a victorious exit from this world. In the last clause the apostle presented a powerful motive to stir up the saints to the discharge of the duty previously described. Consider their "end" that yours may morally resemble it: you must adhere to their doctrine and imitate their practice if you are to receive the victor’s crown. "Consider what it (their "end") came to: their faith failed not, their hope did not perish, they were not disappointed, but had a blessed end of their walk and course" (John Owen). Sometimes God permits His servants today to bear witness to the sufficiency of the principles of the Gospel to support and comfort on a deathbed.
"Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (verse 8). We will not now attempt to sermonize upon this well-known and precious verse, but rather give a brief exposition of it. The first thing to ponder is the particular book in which this declaration is made, for that throws light on its scope and meaning. Hebrews is the epistle which treats specifically and at length with the great alteration made by God in His dealings with the Church on earth, the revolution which was introduced by the substituting of the new covenant for the old, the passing away of Judaism and the inauguration of Christianity. This had involved many changes of a radical character, a great "shaking" and "removing" (Heb. 12:27) of "that which decayeth and waxeth old, ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8:13). It is in view of that our present verse is to be interpreted and enjoyed. The temple is destroyed, the ceremonial law is gone, the Levitical priesthood is no more; but Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, the Mediator between God and His people, abides unchanged.