An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
In the preceding article we have deviated from our usual custom in this series of giving a word by word exposition of the verse before us, deeming it well to first give it a topical treatment. This magazine, small as is its circulation, goes to hundreds of the Lord’s people who are found in many different branches of Christendom. Some of them are sorely perplexed by the babble of tongues which now obtains in the religious realm. The high claims so dogmatically put forth by various sects and systems, assemblies and circles of fellowship, bewilder not a few honest souls, who are desirous of doing that which is most pleasing to the Lord. It was with a desire to afford them some help on what is admittedly a most difficult and complicated subject, that according to the light which God has granted us (or withheld from us), we sought to point out some of the fallacies pertaining to the leading positions taken by ecclesiastical writers.
To say that the diverse denominations, even the evangelically orthodox, cannot all be right, and therefore that among them there must be one much more closely in accord with the Scriptures than the others, sounds very feasible; nevertheless, the writer is satisfied that, generally speaking, it has more of error than truth in it. Comparisons are proverbially odious. As no one believer has all the graces of the Spirit equally developed in him, so no one church or denomination has all the Truth. Think of attempting to draw invidious contrasts between Andrew and Peter, Paul and John, as to which was the more Christ-like! As well might one set the rose over against the lily of the valley, or wheat against oats. As 1 Corinthians 14:10 tells us, "There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification." So in the providence of God each particular denomination has filled a place and served a purpose in His plan concerning His cause upon earth.
Nothing is more offensive to God than creature pride (Prov. 6:16, 17), and nothing is more to be deplored among those who bear the name of Christ than that a company of them (be it large or small) shall claim "we are the people"—the people who meet on the most scriptural ground, the people who adhere closest to the Word. A spirit of bigotry ill-becomes sinners saved by grace, while jealousies and contentions, enmity and reviling, among members of the same Family are most reprehensible: "the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:20). Differences of opinion are inevitable while we are in the flesh—permitted by God that we should have occasion to be "forbearing one another in love" (Eph. 4:2). That form of church government which accords most closely to the N.T., and where every detail is scrupulously correct, would be valueless in the sight of God unless it were conducted in love and its worship was "in spirit and in truth."
Let it be attentively considered that at the dawn of Christianity the first officers of the church were immediately called by Christ (Gal. 1:2), which none now are, nor have any since the decease of those who were so called at the first; that they were endowed with extraordinary gifts and power, but Christ has not continued to communicate such to His servants; that those original officers were blest with Divine inspiration and infallible guidance, both in preaching the Gospel and appointing things necessary for the churches, which none can rightly pretend unto today; that those first officers had a commission giving them authority towards all the world for evangelization and over all churches for their edification which no servant of Christ can claim today. How utterly vain, then, is the claim, either unto a "succession" of those officers, or to a perfect emulation of their order of things. Nevertheless, church-rulers—bishops and deacons—were to continue, as is clear from 1 Timothy 3, etc.
Now in every orderly society there must be rulers, and in all ages and dispensations the same have been mercifully appointed by God: Moses, Joshua, the judges and kings over Israel, are so many illustrations of this principle. It is the same in this era, nor does the presence of the Holy Spirit render unnecessary rulers in the churches. Christ is not the Author of confusion: but endless confusion and turmoil is inevitable where there are no accredited and acknowledged leaders. True, the rulers Christ has instituted for His churches possess no arbitrary power, for they are themselves subordinate to Him. Their office is that of a steward (Titus 1:7), who is neither to lord it over the household nor to be entirely under subjection to it, but to superintend and provide for the family.
Take the chief steward or "lord chamberlain," of his majesty king George, and while it may not be strictly parallel with the position and duties of an official servant of Christ, yet there is sufficient in common for the former to help us understand the latter. While on the one hand the "lord chamberlain" has to be regulated by certain rules and well established precedents, yet on the other hand he is far more than an automaton mechanically acting according to a written code. As one qualified for his position, he is allowed considerable freedom in making many arrangements for the Royal household; nevertheless, he is not free to act arbitrarily or follow naught but his own preferences. No, that which regulates him is the well-being of his august master: he plans and arranges so as to please him, to promote his comfort, to serve his interests and honor; and when he is in doubt as to his procedure, consults the king to ascertain his will.
Analagous is the position occupied by the pastor of a local church. "Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing" (Matthew 24:45, 46). Note carefully the following points in this passage. First, the use of the singular number: one servant for each local household! Second, that this servant is made "ruler over the" household! Third, that he is given that position for the purpose of supplying them "meat in due season," which, in its wider signification, means to superintend all the arrangements, to care for all its members, to protect and promote their well-being. Christ does not call dolts and idiots to occupy this place, but men endowed with good common sense, to which He graciously adds spiritual wisdom and discernment.
Now the ruler of Christ’s household is neither a supreme sovereign or pope, nor a mere figure head without freedom of action. He, in turn, is the servant, responsible to Him, there to uphold His honor, care for those who are precious in His sight, and to whom he must yet render a full account of his stewardship. Therefore, while on the one hand he must act within the bounds of certain general rules and principles prescribed for his conduct, and must not introduce anything which would dishonor his royal Master or be inimical to His interests; yet on the other hand he is required to use his own judgment in applying those general rules to particular cases and to make whatever minor arrangement he deems most for his Master’s glory and the good of His household; and when he is in doubt as to his right or best course, it is his privilege to plead and count upon the promise of James 1:5.
To extend our analogy one point further. As the "lord chamberlain" has other servants under him to assist in the discharge of his honorable duties, servants who cooperate with him by carrying out his instructions, so Christ has provided the pastor of a local church with deacons, and, as many think, with "ruling elders" (or where the church is a larger one as was the case with many of those in apostolic times—with fellow-pastors or "elders"), to help him in his official duties. So that when our text says "obey them that have the rule over you" it takes in all the officers of the local church, whatever be the technical names they now go under. These additional church officers not only provide assistance for the chief ruler, but they also serve as a check upon him, for if they be endowed with the qualifications specified in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, they will not be a party to anything which is obviously dishonoring to Christ.
If it be true (as many students of Scripture have concluded) that the seven epistles of Revelation 2 and 3 furnish a prophetic outline of the ecclesiastical history of Christendom, then it appears that the trend of church government has passed from one extreme to another, from Nicolaitanism (Rev. 2:6, 15), which signifies the subjugation of the laity, to Laodiceanism (Rev. 3:14) which means the domination of the laity. Nor need this surprise us, for the same change has taken place in the political and social order. It is indeed striking to observe how close is the resemblance between them. The development of Nonconformity and the rapid spread of Independency in the religious world was quickly followed by the rebellion of the American colonies and the formation of Republics in the U.S.A. and in France. Side by side with the growth of a democratic spirit in the churches, has been the spread of "socialism" in the state, the one more and more re-acting on the other.
One of the most radical and far reaching movements of the last century was that which sought to obliterate all distinctions between the clergy, and the laity, establishing a network of "assemblies" all over the English-speaking world, wherein there are (professedly) no officers, where a one-man-ministry is decried, and where the Spirit is (avowedly) free to use whom He pleases. This modern movement also claims to be founded entirely upon the Scriptures, yea, insists that all other bodies of professing Christians are the daughters of Rome and form part of that mystical and apostate Babylon from which God commands His people to come out. This movement has also split up into scores of conflicting parties, each claiming to be the only one which truly "represents" the Body of Christ on earth. But enough; let us now come to closer grips with our text.
"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you (verse 17). In these words respect is had to be the ministerial office. To bear "rule" intimates both the duty and dignity of Christ’s official servants. God has graciously appointed them to subserve His honor by maintaining decency and order in His churches, and because they are necessary and for the good of His people. To obey and submit to their spiritual leaders is what church-members are here exhorted unto. In verse 7 the apostle made known the particular duties unto those of their guides who had finished their course; here he presses upon them their obligations toward those who were still with them in the body. To ignore those rulers or to rebel against their authority, is to despise the One who has appointed them.
"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves." It is abundantly clear from these words that in the days of the Apostles there were two distinct classes among God’s people, namely, the rulers and those that were ruled, and as this is not merely an historical statement but a specific exhortation, it is equally clear that the same is binding upon Christians throughout the entire course of this dispensation. This, of course, presupposes a settled church state among them, in which the distinctive duties of each class is here distinctly defined, according to the office of the one and the obligation of the other. The duties here prescribed contain a succinct summary of all that relates to church rule and order, for all that concerns its welfare is comprised in the due obedience of the church to its rulers, and their due discharge of their office.
The Greek word for "them that have the rule over you" ("hegeomai") is rendered "chief" in Luke 22:26 and "governor" in Acts 7:10—"and he (Pharaoh) made him (Joseph) governor over Egypt and all his house," which sufficiently intimates its scope. They have received power from Christ to preside over His assemblies, to declare His will and execute His laws, to reprove, rebuke, exhort with all authority and longsuffering. They have no arbitrary power except what Christ has given them, yet within the limits He has prescribed, they are rulers, and it is the duty of their members to obey them. "It is of equal importance that the office-bearers in a church should not aspire to a higher degree of authority, and should not be content with a lower degree of authority, than that which their Master has assigned them; and that the members of a church should equally guard against basely submitting to a tyranny which Christ has never instituted, and lawlessly rebelling against a government which He has appointed" (John Brown).
John Owen declared that the twofold duty here enjoined with respect to the ecclesiastical leaders has respect unto the two parts of their office, namely, teaching and ruling: "obey their teaching and submit to their rule." While it be true that their doctrine or preaching is to be obeyed (so far as it accords with the Truth), and that their authority is to be yielded unto as it respects their ordering of the church’s life, yet we rather regard the two exhortations as having a distributive force, the second amplifying the first. The word "obey" in our text means an obedience which follows a being persuaded: the mind is first carried along with the preacher so that it believes, and then the will acts—note the marginal alternative in Acts 5:36 for "obeyed" is "believed." "And submit yourselves" seems to us to have reference unto the spirit in which they were to obey—obedience was not to be merely an outward act, but prompted by submissive hearts.
Thus, we take it that "obey them that have the rule over you" is not to be restricted to their teaching (as Owen defined it), but includes their ruling of the church as well; while the "submit yourselves" has a wider significance than yielding to their rule, referring to the spirit which was to regulate the whole of their obedience. As Calvin well expressed it, "He commands first obedience and then honor to be rendered to them. These two things are necessarily required, so that the people might have confidence in their pastors, and also reverence them. But it ought at the same time to be noticed that the apostle speaks only of those who faithfully performed their office; for they who have nothing but the title, nay, who use the title of pastors, for the purpose of destroying the Church, deserve but little reverence and still less confidence. And this also is what the apostle plainly sets forth when he says, that they watch for their souls—a duty which is not performed but by those who are faithful rulers."
The duty here enjoined, then, may be summed up in: cultivate an obedient, compliant, and submissive spirit unto your pastors and church officers. To "obey" and "submit" denotes such a subjection as of inferiors to superiors. It is not a servile subjection, but that reverent respect which God requires, a "submission" which issues from love, and which has for its end the honoring of those to whom honor is due. It would therefore include the doing of everything in the power of the members which would make the lot of their rulers easier and lighter, and, of course, would take in the providing for their temporal sustenance. Those rulers are appointed by God, standing in His immediate stead, so that the Lord Christ declared, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth Me; and he that receiveth me receiveth Him that sent Me" (John 13:20).
"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves." It scarcely needs pointing out that those words are not to be taken absolutely, any more than are "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers" (Rom. 13:1) or "As the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing" (Eph. 5:24). Each of these exhortations is qualified by others: the members of a Gospel church are no more required to receive the pastor’s teaching when it be flagrantly opposed to Holy Writ, or to submit to any ruling of his which is manifestly dishonoring to Christ and injurious to His people, than they are to yield to a mandate of Nebuchadnezzar if he sets up an image to himself and commands all to fall down and worship it, or if an ungodly husband required from his wife anything contrary to the laws of nature. No, it is not a blind and implicit obedience which is here enjoined for that would be quite contrary to the whole tenor of Gospel obedience, which is "our reasonable service."
The subjection required by our text is only unto that office established by Christ Himself. If any usurp that office, and under cloak thereof do teach or enjoin things contrary to what Christ has instituted, then no obedience unto them is required by this command. But it is just at this point that most difficulty is experienced today. For many years past large numbers of professing Christians have been demanding that the religious leaders should speak unto them "smooth things," yea, prophesy unto them "deceits," declining to listen unto what condemned their carnal and worldly lives and refusing to heed the holy requirements of God. In consequence, He has suffered their descendants to reap the evil sowings of their fathers, by largely withholding "pastors after His own heart," and allowing thousands of unregenerate men to occupy the modern pulpit. Instead of "obeying" and "submitting" to them, God requires His people to turn away from and have nothing to do with them.
The true servants of Christ are to be identified by the marks specified in 1 Timothy 3. They are men who are "apt to teach," being qualified by the Spirit to open up the Scriptures and apply them to the consciences and lives of their hearers. They are "not greedy of filthy lucre" nor covetous, demanding a salary which would enable them to live above the level of their members, and declining to serve if there were no pay attached to it. "Not a novice," with little or no experience in the spiritual ups and downs of God’s tried people, but one who has himself tested and proved the reliability and sufficiency of what he recommends to his hearers. He must be a man who is "not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine," but "a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate" (Titus 1:7, 8), or otherwise he could not commend what he teaches by his own example. The servants of Christ, then, are endued with a measure of the spirit of their Master, and it is by that they are to be distinguished from the false.
To refuse obedience and submission unto such, to contemptuously rail against "the one man system," is to despise a Divine institution, for the office of the "pastor" is as much the Lord’s own appointment as is the church itself, or the gifts and graces of its individual members. It is true that men will and do abuse the good gifts of God, but if some pastors are arbitrary, are not some members unruly? If there be pride in the pulpit, is there none in the pew? Alas, in this Laodicean and communistic age, when it has become the fashion to "despise dominion and speak evil of dignities" (Jude 8) and when "the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honorable" (Isa. 3:5), almost every individual considers himself qualified to judge and direct both civil and ecclesiastical rulers, to prescribe for both state and church, to scrutinize and criticize everything that is being done, and to say what ought to be done. May the Lord have mercy and subdue the turbulent ragings of pride.
"For they watch for your souls." This is adduced as a reason why we should show proper respect unto Church rulers. "The word used is peculiar unto this place, and it denotes a watchfulness with the greatest care and diligence, and that not without trouble or danger, as Jacob kept and watched the flock of Laban in the night" (John Owen). The true under-shepherds of Christ have no selfish aims, but rather the spiritual and eternal good of those who are entrusted to their care. Many a minister of the Gospel is often awake, burning midnight oil, while the members of his flock are asleep. Many a one can say, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you" (2 Cor. 12:15). The ministerial office is no idler’s one: it makes demands on heart, mind, and nervous energy, such as none other does.
Here, then, is a motive, to move the members to gladly be subservient to their rulers. The more labor any one undertakes for our sake and the more difficulty and danger he incurs for us, the greater are our obligations to him. Such is the office of bishops or elders; and the heavier the burden they bear, the more honor they deserve. Let, then, our gratitude be evidenced by giving them that which is their due. "We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves" (1 Thess. 5:12, 13). Let us also add that, young men aspiring unto the ministerial office need to think twice about entering a calling which demands ceaseless self-sacrifice, unremitting toil, and a love for Christ and His people which alone will sustain amid sore discouragements.
"They watch for your souls as they that must give account" supplies a further motive. They are placed in a position of trust, commissioned by the Lord, to whom they are immediately responsible. They often render an account to Him now, keeping up a constant intercourse with Him, spreading before Him the state and needs of His people, seeking supplies of grace. A full and final account must be rendered of their stewardship in the Day to come. Unspeakably solemn consideration is that, and this it is which actuates them, for they "watch for the souls of their church as those who must give account." They bear in mind the awful warning of Ezekiel 33:5, and seek to heed the exhortation of 1 Timothy 4:16. "That they may do it with joy, and not with grief." Here is a further reason why church members should give to their rulers that which is due them. If on the one hand nothing is more encouraging to a pastor than for his people to be responsive and docile, it is equally true that nothing is more disheartening and saddening to him than to meet with opposition from those whose highest interests he is serving with all his might. Every Christian minister who is entitled to that designation, can, in his measure, say with the apostle, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 John 4).
"For that is unprofitable for you" furnishes the final motive. For the members of a church to so conduct themselves as to be a constant source of grief unto their minister is to despise their own mercies. It not only prevents their receiving his instruction into their hearts, which results in their spiritual barrenness, but it also saps his vigor, quenches his zeal, causing him to proceed with a heavy heart instead of with cheerfulness. What is still more solemn and serious, the Lord Himself is highly displeased, and the tokens of His favor are withdrawn, for He is very sensitive of the mistreatment of His stewards. "We cannot be troublesome or disobedient to our pastors without hazarding our own salvation" (John Calvin)—alas that such erroneous ideas of "salvation" now so widely obtain. May the Lord mercifully pardon any thing in these articles displeasing to Him, and graciously add His blessing to that which is acceptable.