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East of Eden, every calling has its toil. With Adam, we all eat bread by the sweat of our face. We all suffer pain or sorrow in our work, battling “thorns and thistles” of some variety or another (Gen. 3:17–19). There are aspects of our callings, to be sure, that we enjoy and for which we are well suited. Yet there are also those tasks that go with our callings that are like thorns in our flesh, messengers of Satan sent to buffet us (2 Cor. 12:7). Our vocations are blessings from God in which we contend with the curse of sin that causes the whole creation to groan. Toil and grief and joy are part of every calling, including the call to ordained service in the church.

Knowing that our elders will experience both joy and grief in their ministry to us, how can we promote their joy? Hebrews 13:17 connects their joy or groaning with our obedience and submission. This connection is perhaps clearer in the King James Version, which carefully follows the grammar of the original Greek language: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves . . . that they may do it with joy, and not with grief.” Our obedience and submission to our elders promotes their joy. On the other hand, our disobedience makes them groan with grief. So if you would promote the joy of your elders, according to this text, obey them.

John Owen helpfully notes that “it is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed.” That false notion of obedience to religious authorities, Owen lamented, “hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men.” He reminds us that gospel obedience is termed “reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1, KJV throughout); thus, Christian leaders are to lead by persuading from the Scriptures (see Acts 17:2), addressing the mind with sound doctrine, not demanding, “Because I said so” (see 1 Peter 5:3).

The Greek term translated “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 means to be open to persuasion, or what we might call being teachable. We all know the temptation to close our ears to teaching that calls on us to change. We can be “stiff-necked” (see Deut. 31:27), like a stubborn mule that won’t follow. We can become adversarial hearers, formulating our defense in our minds while being addressed rather than humbly listening. This resistance to learning, refusing to subject ourselves to the truth, causes our elders to groan.

Our eagerness to learn biblical teaching and our compliance with God’s revealed will bring great joy to our elders.

Conversely, our eagerness to learn biblical teaching and our compliance with God’s revealed will bring great joy to our elders. The Apostle John concurred with this connection between Christian obedience and the joy of Christian leadership when he expressed his own heart for his “children” in the faith: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).

As Christian exhortation, Hebrews presents imperatives with gospel rationale. So here, the writer not only urges our obedience for the joy of our elders but offers two good reasons. First, because “they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). Clearly, those who watched over the original recipients were godly leaders whose faithful labors warranted high esteem (see 1 Thess. 5:12–13). They remained on alert to defend the souls of their flock. It may be that this epistle echoed the concerns of these leaders for the members, concerns that they were being enticed away from the sufficiency of Christ to the ceremonial worship of the Jerusalem temple that had the appeal of greater outward glory (see Westminster Confession of Faith 7.6). If this is the case, the elders’ vigilant watch over their souls might have involved contending with ravenous wolves seeking to devour the flock with false teaching (see Acts 20:29) and issuing stern warnings to the sheep to keep them from straying after religious charlatans.

This type of doctrinal conflict can get heated with warnings, admonitions, corrections, and rebukes coming rapidly along with heartfelt appeals, godly counsel, and instruction. Because of the urgency behind the communication, it would be easy for church members to take offense. So they are reminded that their leaders have their souls’ best interests at heart.

Furthermore, they keep watch “as those who will have to give an account.” First Peter 5:4 makes clear that leaders will answer to the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. John Owen notes that this reckoning with Christ for the care of His flock is both present and future. Leaders will give a full account of their care for Christ’s people when their work is finished. And they give an account to Christ for our souls daily. They contend for our souls in prayers to the Good Shepherd, sometimes weeping, sometimes rejoicing.

This observation leads to the second rationale for obedience and submission. Hebrews says that if our leaders must give this account while groaning with grief, “that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). It is not unprofitable to the faithful watchman, though it is a grief to him (Ezek. 33:9). It is a loss of profit, though, to the disobedient. A politician who ignores the instructions of his security detail in a volatile situation does so at the expense of his bodily safety. What greater folly for us to ignore those who keep watch over our souls. How will Christ answer us if we grieve those whom He has commissioned to keep watch over our souls? Let us rather make their account of us a joyful occasion by our obedience and submission.

The Power of Joy

Being a Witness in a Hostile Workplace

Keep Reading The Doctrines of Grace

From the December 2023 Issue
Dec 2023 Issue