An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Praying for Ministers
(Hebrews 13:18, 19)
"Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner." As was pointed out in the opening paragraph of the previous article, this passage is closely connected with verse 17, where believers are commanded to obey their ecclesiastical leaders. Here is mentioned a further obligation of Christians unto those who minister to them in spiritual things, namely, that they should remember them before the throne of grace. A due observance of this exhortation would probably do more than anything else to counteract and countervail a widespread evil: those who plead with God for blessings upon the preacher are far less likely to go around criticizing them unto men. A spirit of faultfinding stifles the breath of intercession; countrariwise, a spirit of prayer will curb complaining and gossiping lips.
"Pray for us." The servants of Christ stand in real and urgent need of the prayers of their people. They are but men themselves, ignorant, weak, and erring, and unless they are granted a double portion of the Spirit they are not equipped for their arduous and honorable calling. They are the ones who bear the brunt of the battle, and are the special objects of Satan’s attacks. They are often tempted to compromise, to keep back that which, though unpalatable to them, is most profitable for their hearers. In the face of many disappointments and discouragements, they are apt to grow weary in well doing. It is, then, both our duty and privilege to supplicate God on their behalf for daily supplies of grace to be granted them from on High; that they may be delivered from temptations, kept faithful, steadfast and devoted.
It is to be duly noted that this request was made by none other than the writer of this epistle; if, then, the greatest of the apostles stood in need of the intercessory support of his brethren, how much more so the rank and the of God’s ministers. How tenderly, how earnestly, and how frequently Paul made this request! Here he adds, "I beseech you"—language used again in Romans 15:30, where he besought the saints to strive together with him in their prayers to God. In 2 Corinthians 1:11 he speaks of "helping together by prayer for us." A beautiful type of the efficacy of the prayers of God’s people to support one of His servants is found in the holding up the hands of Moses (Ex. 17:12), where we are significantly told, "And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand Amalek prevailed."
"Pray for us." We agree with Owen that though the apostle here used the plural number (as was his general custom) that it was for himself alone he made this request: as the "I" in verse 19 intimates. It is a pre-eminently Pauline touch, and, as we pointed out in our second article of this series it supplies one of the many details which serve to identify the writer of this epistle. There is no record in the N.T. that any other of the apostles besought the prayers of the Church. Paul did so in no less than seven of his epistles: Romans 15:30, Ephesians 6:19, Colossians 4:3, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, 2 Thessalonians 3:1, Philemon 1:22 and here. "He who labored more than the other apostles, and who was endowed with so many gifts, seems to have had the greatest craving for sympathy, for affection, for communion, and the most vivid conception that God only giveth the increase; that it is not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord" (A. Saphir).
"Pray for us": though the immediate reference was to Paul himself, yet obviously the exhortation applies to all the servants of Christ, and is binding upon all to whom they minister. They are the ones, under God, through whom we receive the most good. Oftentimes they are, ministerially, our spiritual fathers (1 Cor. 4:15), our spiritual nurses (1 Thess. 2:7), our guides, counselors, and nourishers. They are to be esteemed very highly for their work’s sake (1 Thess. 5:13), and that esteem is to be evident by our constantly bearing them up before God in the arms of faith and love. To earnestly supplicate the throne of grace on their behalf, is the least return we can make them for their loving labors, sacrificial endeavor, faithful ministrations. There is no doubt that the more diligent the people are in discharging this duty, the more help and blessing are they likely to receive through their labors.
"Pray for us." The apostle was persuaded that all the blessing he needed could be obtained from God, and from Him alone, and that prayer was the appointed means of obtaining those blessings. Someone has said that "If the due obedience of the church by all its members, unto the rulers of it, be the best means of its edification and the chief cause of order and peace in the whole body, certainly prayer for its leaders and fellow-members is the appointed channel for obtaining it." Again, by requesting the prayers of the Hebrew Christians, Paul intimated the regard in which he held them as righteous men, whose prayers would "avail much." His request also signified his confidence in their love for him: a heart that tenderly and faithfully sought their good, doubted not the warmth of their affection for him. Prayer for each other is one of the principal parts of the communion of saints.
The apostle supported his plea for the prayers of his readers by a striking and powerful reason; "For we trust we have a good conscience in all things willing to live honestly." In saying "we trust" two things were intimated. First, his becoming modesty: there was no boastful "we know." Second, his assurance, for such language in Scripture does not express a doubt. Thus though there was confidence in his heart toward God, yet he expressed himself in humble terms—an example we do well to heed in this boastful and egoistic age. It is a grand thing when a minister of the Gospel can truly, though modestly, appeal to the faithful performance of his labors as a reason why he may claim the sympathy and support of his people. It is only when he sincerely aims to do the right and maintains a good conscience that the minister can, with propriety, ask for the prayers of his people.
Probably the reason why Paul here made particular reference to his earnest endeavor to maintain a good conscience, was because he had been so bitterly denounced by his own nation, and no doubt (for Satan was the same then as now) the most unfavorable reports about him had been circulated among the Hebrews. He had been cruelly scourged by his own countrymen, and unjustly imprisoned by the Romans, yet he had the witness within his own bosom that it was his desire and determination to always act with integrity. "Though my name be cast out as evil, and though I be suffering as a wrong-doer, yet I appeal to my faithfulness in the Gospel ministry; I do not walk in craftiness nor handle the Word of God deceitfully, nor do I make merchandise of the Gospel: I have genuinely sought to act honorably under all circumstances." Happy the man that can say that.
"For we trust that we have a good conscience." As we pointed out previously, the conscience is that faculty with which the Creator has endowed man, whereby he is capable of judging his state and actions with respect to the judgment of God. Its office is twofold: to reveal sin to us, and to discover our duty, according to the light shining into it. There is a twofold light which men have to illumine conscience: natural reason and Scripture revelation, and the Spirit applying the same. If the conscience has only the twilight of nature, as is the case with the heathen, it passes judgment on natural duties and unnatural sins, but if it enjoys the supernatural light of the Word, it judges of those sins and duties which can only be known by Divine revelation. It registers a permanent record in the soul. The more light we have, the greater is our responsibility: Luke 12:48.
Though the heathen possess not the Law delivered by revelation of God to them, yet they have, in their moral sensibilities, the substance of its precepts written in their hearts: Romans 2:15. When Paul said he had "lived in all good conscience before God until this day" (Acts 23:1), it was parallel with his "touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless" (Phil. 3:6): there was a conformity of his outward conduct to the light which he had in his conscience. Thus "those that say there is no use of the moral law to the Christian, may as well say there is no more use of the faculty of conscience in the soul of a Christian. Tear that faculty out of a man’s heart, if you will tear out that other, namely, the obliging precepts. Even as if God would annul colors and light, He must also take away and close up the sense of sight" (Thomas Goodwin).
"The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly" (Prov. 20:27). This moral sense has been rightly denominated the Divine spy in man’s soul. Its checks and reproofs are a warning from God: it acts in His name, citing us before His tribunal. It receives its instruction and authority from God, and is accountable to Him and to none other—alas how many are regulated by the customs and fashions of this world, and live upon the opinions and reports of their fellows. Conscience is a part of that light which "lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9). In many passages both the "heart" (1 John 3:20) and the "spirit" (Rom. 8:16, 1 Corinthians 2:11) signifies the conscience, while in Psalm 16:10 it is called the "reins." In yet other passages it is likened unto the physical "eye" (Luke 11:34-36): as the eye is the most sensitive member of the body and its visual faculty so is the conscience to the soul.
Conscience, then, is God’s witness within man: it is the voice of His Law directing and admonishing the heart, conveying to us a knowledge of right and wrong. Its functions are to give testimony and force a moral verdict. Its business is to pronounce upon each action, whether it be good or evil, with the reward or punishment belonging to it, and then by a reflex act it deposes or witnesses that we have done righteously or unrighteously. Yet while conscience convicts of sin, it in no wise helps us to believe the Gospel: on the contrary, its workings withstand faith. No matter to what extent the natural conscience be enlightened, it conduces nothing to faith, nay it is the greatest enemy to it that the heart of man hath. Faith is the gift of God, a supernatural bestowment, something which is the operation of the Holy Spirit, altogether apart from and transcending the greatest height to which the unaided faculties of fallen man can reach unto.
What has just been pointed out above may, at first sight, surprise the reader; yet it ought not. Conscience is fully capable of hearing what the Law says, for it is but the Law written in the heart naturally; but it is quite deaf to what the Gospel says, and understands not a word of it. If you speak to natural conscience about a Savior and urge it to believe on Him, its answer will be like unto that of the Jews (and it was this principle of conscience which made them so speak), "as for Moses we know that God spake unto him, but as for this fellow (Christ) we know not whence He is" (John 9:29). Talk to a man of the Law, and conscience responds, for it knows what he ought to do; but as for the Gospel its voice is that of a stranger to him. Conscience is quite incapable of pointing out the way of deliverance from the condemnation and penalty of sin, yea, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
It is true that the more conscience be enlightened, the more will it discover to us all manner of sins, and rebuke us for them; yet conscience alone will never discover unbelief to us, and convict us of its heinousness—only the immediate light of the Holy Spirit shining in the heart will do that. There are two great sins which lie outside the jurisdiction of conscience to set them upon the heart, ordinarily. First, the guilt of Adam’s original transgression, which has been justly imputed unto all his posterity. An instructed conscience may perceive the depravity and corruption of a nature which has resulted from our fall in Adam, but it will not convict of that fatal condemnation we lie under because of our first father’s offense. Second, conscience will not acquaint us with our lack of faith in Christ, and that this is the sin of all sins; only the special operation of the Spirit upon the quickened heart can accomplish this. Examine those who are most troubled in conscience, and it will be found that none of them are burdened because of their unbelief.
Until conscience be subordinated unto faith, it is the greatest hindrance to believing which the natural man hath. What is the chief obstacle which an awakened and convicted soul encounters? Why, the greatness of his sins, his heart telling him that he is beyond the reach of mercy, and it is naught but the accusations of a guilty conscience which produces that sense of hopelessness in the heart. Conscience brings our sins to light, makes them to stare us in the face, and terrifies us with their enormity. Conscience it is which tells a distressed soul that salvation is far off from such an one as I am. Conscience will set us working and doing, but only in a legal way: so far from leading us into the path of true peace, it will take us farther away from it. Thus it was with the Jews of old, and thus it is still: "For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness" (Rom. 10:3).
In the case of a Christian, conscience and faith supplement each other in their workings. If conscience convicts of sin or rebukes for the omission of duty, faith eyes the mercy of God in Christ, penitently confesses the fault, and seeks cleansing through the precious blood. "The worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins" (Heb. 10:2)—no more apprehensions of them as standing against us. It is the believer’s bounden duty to maintain a good conscience: 1 Timothy 1:19; 3:9, but in order to that there must be a continual judging of ourselves and our ways. The revealed will of God is its only rule, for nothing else can lawfully bind it; therefore it is infinitely better to offend the whole world than God and conscience. "All my familiars watched for my halting, saying, Peradventure he will be enticed and we shall prevail against him," and what was the prophet’s response and recourse? This, "But Thou, O Lord of hosts, that triest the righteous and seest the reins and the heart, let me see Thy vengeance on them: for unto Thee have I opened my cause" (Jer. 20:10, 12).
The sole rule to regulate the conscience of the Christian is God’s written Word, for "whatsoever is not of faith (and therefore according to the Word: (Rom. 10:17) is sin" (Rom. 14:23); that is, whatsoever is not done from a settled persuasion of judgment and conscience out of the Word, is sin. The defects of a good conscience are, First, ignorance or error: some children of God are very imperfectly established in the Truth and are much confused as to what is right and wrong in the sight of God, especially in things indifferent, concerning which there is much difference of opinion. They understand not that liberty which Christ has purchased for His people (Gal. 5:1), whereby they are free to make a right and good use of all things indifferent—i.e, things not specifically forbidden by Scripture. "Wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine" (Ps. 104:15), which goes beyond bare necessities; to which we may add those innocent recreations which refresh mind and body. How to make a proper use of such things is defined in 1 Timothy 4:4, 5.
Second, and closely connected with the preceding, is what Scripture calls a "weak conscience" (1 Cor. 8:12), which is due to lack of light, wrong teaching, to personal prejudice and idiosyncrasies. It is often trying and difficult to know how to act towards those thus afflicted: on the one hand, love desires their good, and must be patient with them and refrain from acting recklessly and needlessly wounding them; but on the other hand, their fads and scruples are not to he so yielded to by us that our own spiritual liberty is annulled—Christ Himself refused to bring His disciples into bondage by yielding to the traditions of men (Mark 7:2), even though He knew they were spying for some fault in Him, and would be offended by His conduct. Third, a doubting conscience: Romans 14: 22, 23. Fourth, a wounded conscience, whose peace is disturbed by unrepented and unconfessed sins.
The benefits and blessings are indeed rich compensation for every effort we make to maintain a good conscience. First, it gives us confidence Godwards. When we have sinned away our peace there is a strangeness and distance between the soul and the Holy One. When our inward monitor convicts and condemns us, the heart grows shy of God, so that we cannot so comfortably look Him in the face. It is only when everything is made right with God, by contrite confession and faith’s appropriation of the cleansing blood of Christ, that we can approach the throne of grace with boldness. "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience" (Heb. 10:22)—i.e. a conscience which no longer accuses us before God. "If I regard iniquity in my heart (which is inconsistent with a good conscience) the Lord will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18); but on the other hand "If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God; and whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandment and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:21, 22).
Second, a clear conscience affords his chief relief when the believer is falsely accused and aspersed by his enemies. What unspeakable consolation is ours when we can rightfully appropriate that benediction of Christ, "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake" (Matthew 5:11). This was the case with the apostle Paul: "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that In simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world" (2 Cor. 1:12). Third, a clear conscience vindicates its possessor against the accusations of Satan. The great enemy of our souls is constantly seeking to take away our peace and joy, and we are powerless against his onslaughts when a guilty conscience confirms his charges. But when we can appeal to a pure conscience and expose his lies, then his fiery darts are successfully quenched. The Psalmist was very bold when he said—see Psalm 7:3, 4, 5, 8.
Fourth, a pure conscience gives great advantage to its possessor when he is lawfully reproving others. The admonitions of that Christian whose life is inconsistent have no weight but he who walks closely with God speaks with authority. That man who is upright before God and his fellows, wields a moral force which is felt even by the ungodly. Finally, a peaceful conscience affords unspeakable comfort in a dying hour. When one has the inward witness that, despite many failures, he has sincerely endeavored to do that which was right before God and unto his fellows, he has an easy pillow to rest his head upon. "Remember now, O Lord, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thy sight" (Isa. 38:3): that was an appeal to a good conscience by one who was "sick unto death."
Paul’s testimony of his having a good conscience consisted in this: "in all things willing to live honestly." A resolute will and a sincere endeavor to act rightly under all circumstances is the fruit and evidence of a good conscience. Being "willing" signifies a desire and readiness, with an accompanying effort and diligence. "In all things" takes in our whole duty to God and man, expresses the strictness and exactness of the apostle’s course to maintain a conscience "void of offense" (Acts 24:16). What a striking commentary upon this declaration of Paul’s is furnished in the account of his manner of life at Ephesus: see Acts 20:18-27. How his devotion, fidelity, and constancy puts to shame the flesh-loving indolence of so many preachers today. What strictness of conscience God requires from His servants: as the least bit of grit in the eye hinders its usefulness, so any sin trifled with will trouble a tender conscience.
We are commanded to "Provide things honest in the sight of all men" (Rom. 12:17): a good conscience respects the second table of the Law equally with the first, so that we owe no man anything and are not afraid to look anybody in the face. Any faith which does not produce an impartial and universal obedience, is worthless. All the mysteries of our most holy faith are mysteries of godliness (1 Tim. 1:9; 3:16). But if the Word of God has come to us in word only and not in power, then are we but Christians of the letter and not of the spirit. Alas, how many today are sound in doctrine and have a carnal assurance of eternal life, yet who exercise themselves not to maintain a conscience void of offense. Alas, alas, what a conscienceless age our lot is cast in. How many souls are stumbled by the loose living of the majority of those who now profess to believe the Gospel.
"In all things willing to live honestly." We are exhorted to have our conversation "honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Pet. 2:12). The Greek word in our text expresses more than is commonly understood by "honestly," being the same as that used in "He hath done all things well" (Mark 7:37). Its real force is "excellently" or "honorably." In his "in all things willing to live honestly" the apostle again expresses his humility and truthfulness. A sincere desire and a diligent endeavor so to act is the highest perfection attainable in this life, for we all fail in the carrying out of it. Thus, in all ages the saints have prayed, "O Lord, I beseech Thee, let now Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servant, and to the prayer of Thy servants, who desire to fear Thy name" (Nehemiah 1:11). It is blessed to be assured by God Himself that "For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not" (2 Cor. 8:12).
"But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner" (verse 19). In this verse Paul added a further reason why he desired the Hebrew saints to pray for him. Many things are intimated therein: that he had been with them previously, but circumstances over which he had no control now prevented his return—the best of ministers may be kept from their people (1 Kings 22:27, Jeremiah 38:6); that he greatly desired to come to them again, which shows that not his own comfort (deliverance from prison) but their good was uppermost in his mind; that he had strong confidence in the prevalency of prayer and of their affection for him. "When ministers come to a people as a return of prayer, they come with greater satisfaction to themselves and success to the people. We should fetch in all our mercies by prayer" (Matthew Henry.
The language used here by Paul denotes that he believed man’s goings are of the Lord, that He disposes the affairs of the Church much according to their prayers, to His glory and their consolation. "That I may be restored to you the sooner" is very striking, showing that Paul was no blind fatalist: if God had decreed the exact hour, how could prayer bring it to pass "the sooner"? Ah, it is utterly vain for us to reason about or philosophize over the consistency between God’s eternal decrees and prayer: sufficient for us to be assured from Scripture that prayer is both a bounden duty and blessed privilege. It is God’s way to make us feel the need of and then ask for the bestowment of His mercies before He gives them: Ezekiel 36:37. We know not if this prayer was answered, nor is it at all material: "according to our present apprehensions of duty we may lawfully have earnest desires after, and pray for such things, as shall not come to pass. The secret purposes of God are not the rule of prayer" (John Owen).