The Ruling Elder: Past & Present

I don’t know about you, but I find it interesting that Hebrews 13 ends with an encouragement to obey and submit to the elders of the congregation. In fact, leaders are mentioned three times from v. 7 to the end of the chapter. Now, we’re not told why it ends this way but one certainly wonders. And as I have wondered about that question the answer dawned on me.

In verse 7 the pastor speaks of past leaders and in v. 17 he speaks of present leaders.  But a cursory reading of these eleven verses reveals no apparent rhyme or reason.  Let me put it another way.  Taken as individual sayings what the pastor says makes sense.  In fact, even the words and expressions tie us back into the letter itself.  But when we try to understand the basic theme between verses 7 through 17 it is difficult to say the least.  In fact, it seems almost dizzying! 

Let’s think about it for a minute.  Verse 7, as we said, begins with an encouragement to remember past leadership; but quite abruptly the theme changes.   In verse 8 we have what appears to be an ontological statement about the person of Christ.  Then, just as hurriedly, the preacher makes a statement in verse 9 about being carried away by false teaching.  But before we have time to wonder about any of these things the author leads us to think about Judaism.  In fact, from verses 10-14 the preacher returns to what appears to be the Day of Atonement, which the author already dealt with in chapters 8 and 9!  And then the theme changes again.  In verses 15 and 16 we find an admonition to do good.  And finally, in v. 17, we are brought back to leadership. 

Remember that the people in this congregation had left the temple.  They no longer returned to Jerusalem and the Temple mount for the yearly triad of feasts, which obviously meant that in their worship experience there were no priests, no vestments, no incense, no sacrifices, no temple structure, no altar – nothing.  They had left all of the accoutrements of Judaism behind.  There were no smells, no sounds, nothing to hit their senses.  It was all very plain, all very unremarkable. 

Keeping that in mind notice what the preacher says in v. 10.  He says, “We have an altar…”  Now that is a remarkable claim.  But notice what he goes on to say.  Not only do we have an altar but it is an altar from which the priests who were functioning in the temple have no right from which to eat!  Now, we need to pause for a minute to ask ourselves a question.  What does the author mean?

He simply means that we have Christ.  And by drawing a contrast between the food from our altar, which is Christ, and the food from the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, which is the animal sacrifices the preacher is in effect saying, “We have Christ.  The priests, however, are not fit to eat from our altar nor are they able to do so.  They are not able to partake of Christ.” 

Consider verses 8 and 9.  Listen to v. 8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  In verse 8 the preacher is giving us a compass by which to hear verses 10-16.  In other words, whether presented under types and shadows of a bygone covenant era or proclaimed through the gospel in someone's home, Jesus is the same.  He is unchanged and unchanging.  Let me make that a bit plainer.  Despite the fact that Jesus was presented under the symbol of a slain lamb or bull God expected the people and especially the priests to recognize His Son in the substitute.  Furthermore, God expected his people and priests to look to His Son through those types and shadows. Why? Because whether the Son is given under types and shadows or proclaimed in the gospel He is God over all (Romans 9:5) and He has not changed. 

This then is why the preacher warns them saying, “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings.”  He obviously has Judaism in mind.  And that becomes even clearer when he says, “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.”  Do you see what he is saying?  The food at Jerusalem will not nourish.  The grace of Jesus is our food. 

Brothers and sisters, let me bring this back to where we started, the bookends of the passage.  Do you see how the preacher of Hebrews ties all that we have said to the elders of the church?  If Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity and therefore independent, immutable, and simple, then not only is there no shadow of turning in Him but there is no mutability in His message.  And if there is no mutability in the message, then there will be continuity between the leaders of the past and the leaders of the present because they shepherd the flock of Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

Jeffrey Stivason