Remember your leaders ( τῶν ἡγουμένων ὑμῶν , wrongly rendered in the A.V., " them that have the rule over you;" for the reference is to departed chiefs. The word is similarly used by St. Luke (see Luke 22:26 ; Acts 15:22 ; also below, Acts 15:17 and Acts 15:24 ). St. Paul, with a like meaning, calls the rulers of the Church οἱ προιστάμενοι : see Romans 12:8 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:12 ; 1 Timothy 5:17 ), who spake to you the Word of God; of whose conversation ( i.e. course of life , ἀναστροφῆς ), considering the end (or issue , ἔκβασιν ), imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is yesterday and today the same, and forever. This allusion to departed leaders shows the comparatively late date of the Epistle. Those who had died as martyrs, and hence, having a peculiar halo round them in the issue of their lives, may be supposed to be especially referred to; such as Stephen the proto-martyr at Jerusalem, James the son of Zebedee, and possibly James the Just, the acknowledged leader of the Jewish Christians. It may be that Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, had also suffered before the writing of the Epistle. This supposition, however, which would involve a date for the Epistle after St. Paul's death also, is by no means necessary. Others, too, may be alluded to of whom we have no record, but whose memory would be fresh in the minds of the readers. But it does not follow that martyrs only are intended. Others also who had died in peace, and whose end had been blessed, might be pointed to as models for the imitation of survivors. Verse 8 must be taken as a distinct appended sentence, the watchword on which the preceding exhortation is based. Its drift is that, though successive generations pass away, Jesus Christ remains the same—the Savior of the living as well as of the departed, and the Savior of all to the end of time. It may be here observed that, though his eternal Deity is not distinctly expressed—for "yesterday" does not of necessity reach back to past eternity—yet the sentence can hardly be taken as not implying it. For his unchangeableness is contrasted with the changing generations of men, as is that of Jehovah in the Old Testament ( e.g. in Psalms 90:2-4 ), and surely such language would not have been used of any but a Divine Being.
Passing from admonitions bearing upon the individual Christian life, the writer now proceeds to exhort the brethren about matters arising out of their Church relations. He charges them to cherish the memory of their departed Christian teachers.
I. THE WORK OF THE PASTORATE . The duties of the gospel ministry, when these are faithfully discharged, may be said to be threefold.
1. To bear rule over the Church. Christ has given to his Church the "power of the keys," vesting it in her pastors and presbyters. This power, however, is simply ministerial. The rulers of the Church merely administer the laws given by the Lord Jesus Christ, her King and Head. While at liberty to frame by laws which may promote the edifying celebration of the ordinances which be has founded, they dare not prescribe new laws or appoint new ordinances. They are to admit to Church communion and exclude from it; but only upon the lines laid down in the New Testament.
2. To speak the Word of God. The main function of the ministry is to preach the gospel, and to teach Christian truth. The gospel is a definite "word;" and it is enshrined in a Book which is called "The Word." The preacher's text-book is not the newspaper, or the current literature of the day, but "the oracles of God." The great design of the Christian pulpit is to promote the intellectual and experimental knowledge of the Bible. And no minister "shall have lived in vain if it can be written over his grave, 'He made the people understand the Scriptures'" (Dr. John Hall).
3. To live a consistent Christian life. When a pastor is, like Barnabas, "a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith," it is to be expected that "much people will be added unto the Lord" ( Acts 11:24 ). A holy example lends incalculable momentum to Christian teaching. "The life of a pious minister is visible rhetoric" (Hooker).
"To draw mankind to heaven by gentleness
And good example, was his business …
And Jesus' love, which owns no pride or pelf,
He taught; but first he followed it himself."
II. THE DUTY OF BELIEVERS TOWARDS THEIR DECEASED PASTORS . Although these are removed from us, we still have duties towards them. Indeed, the relationship of pastor and people, being spiritual in its nature, may be said to be prolonged into eternity. We must:
1. Remember their official work. We should recall the strain of their Christian teaching, and think with gratitude of their spiritual supervision. If we continue to "esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work's sake," they "being dead, shall yet speak" to us. Many a believer tools that he has had one spiritual guide in particular whose influence over his heart and life must continue unaffected by change or time; viz. the pastor under whose ministry he was converted, or whose teaching helped most powerfully to mould his Christian thought and give direction to his spiritual energies.
2. Consider their consistent Christian life. When a man's career is finished, it can be surveyed as a whole, and its moral worth appraised. So the character of a godly minister comes to be appreciated at its full value only when we are in a position to "consider the issue of his life." The early spiritual guides of the Hebrews had all died in faith; and some of them, it may be ( e.g. Stephen, James the son of Zebedee, and James the Little), had obtained the crown of martyrdom. And what an evidence still of the truth of Christianity is the blameless, unselfish, beneficent career, continued through perhaps two generations, of a faithful Christian minister! What a magnificent sunset the close of the life of the pastor who can say upon his death-bed, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith" ( 2 Timothy 4:7 ).
3. Imitate their holy fidelity. These primitive pastors had been sorely tried; yet they had never swerved from their loyalty to Christ and to his truth. Like the heroes of the old dispensation, whose exploits are recounted in Hebrews 11:1-40 ., they had "lived by faith." Why, then, should any of the members of the Church, whom they had taught, be guilty of apostasy? Those doctrines of grace which the teachers had held fast were surely worthy of the adherence of the disciples. Let us also continue steadfastly in the pure gospel truth which our departed spiritual guides adorned in their lives, and let us copy their holy and persevering fidelity to the Redeemer.
III. A BLESSED ENCOURAGEMENT TO DISCHARGE THIS DUTY . Hebrews 11:8 is to be read as an affirmation: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday," etc. It expresses the glorious thought of the changelessness of the Redeemer. He is ever the same in his Divine nature, in his true humanity, in his mediatorial power, in his love and tenderness, in his gospel and its promises. More particularly here he is immutable:
1. As the theme of the pulpit. The preacher of the gospel dies, but "the Word of God" which he spoke is immortal. That Word has its focus in the person and work of the Savior. Its central fact is the death of Christ. The backbone of evangelical preaching is the scheme of redemption by him. And the singular vitality of the pulpit, as compared with other institutions—as, e.g. schools of philosophy, scientific societies, commercial guilds—is due to this undying theme; undying, because coeval with the deepest needs of men in all time. We should, then, remember those who "spake the Word of God," because the Word which they spoke is indestructible.
2. As the confidence of the sailors. The apostolic missionaries who had first preached to the Hebrews had made Jesus Christ their own Stay during life, and their "Guide even unto death." It was he who had succored them under all their afflictions and persecutions as ministers of the Word. And, although they were now dead, the same Savior still lived. It was fitted to be a powerful stimulus to the Hebrews to imitate the faithfulness of their ministers, that the immutable Redeemer remains forever with his people; and that they, too, could link their souls with him, and share in his immutability.
3. As the perpetual Pastor of the Church. The under-shepherds are taken away, but the chief Shepherd abides. Each of them was one of his "gifts for men," lent only for a season. But the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ himself is perennial and inexhaustible. During the "yesterday" of the Jewish dispensation he made his sheep "to lie down in green pastures" ( Psalms 23:2 ). During the today of the Christian dispensation he presides over his flock by his Spirit, "that they may have life, and may have it abundantly" ( John 10:10 ). And, during the blessed "forever" which shall begin with the second coming, when all his sheep shall have been gathered from their various folds into the infinite meadows of heaven," the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their Shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life" ( Revelation 7:17 ).
Treatment of the leaders.
In properly treating all Christian leaders and rulers four acts are enjoined, coming in a regular and appropriate sequence.
I. LISTENING . These men lead and rule because they speak the Word of God. If they spoke their own word then it would not be right to follow them. And because they speak the Word of God we have no choice but to listen. The writer has just been quoting a word of God intended to guard against a great spiritual peril—the love of money. All who really speak the Word of God are to be reckoned as our leaders, Jesus himself in the very front, giving in his own words a sure test whereby every other word is to be tried.
II. REMEMBERING . All instructions and promises must be at hand in the mind when they are wanted. Spoken before being wanted, they were ready when the want came. Hence the value of regularly and penetratively reading the New Testament. We cannot go far anywhere in it without coming across the most profitable directions for our daily life.
III. STUDYING THE EXPERIENCE OF THE LEADERS . As they spoke they acted. The Word of God they pressed on others they first of all believed themselves. There was no inculcated duty in which they did not lead by practice as well as by precept. Some of these leaders, at least, had now passed beyond the vicissitudes of earth. Their whole Christian life was open to observation. Results could be seen. Take a life, for instance, like that of Stephen, consummated by a revelation of glory and reward such as might well inspire any follower. And especially the faith of the leaders is to be studied. Examine the true riches that have come to men by trusting in God.
IV. IMITATING THEM , or rather imitating one particular thing in them—their faith. We are no real followers of any Christian leader unless we do this. It is not peculiarities in a man's teaching, commanding influence of a personality, that should make him a leader. It is the reality of his faith in God. Such a leader we follow most and honor most when his example makes us as true believers as himself.—Y.