“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
(Hebrews 13:7 ESV)
The Hebrew Christians who were initially addressed in the book of Hebrews were experiencing persecutions from the Jews for their Christian faith. So severe was this opposition that they were tempted to renounce their newfound beliefs, revert back to the Law-oriented Judaism, and harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit. This would have been eternally disastrous (see Hebrews 6:4-6).
In order to bolster their spirits, the writer gave the Hebrews many examples of Old Testament believers whom God blessed with strength of heart to remain in the faith to the very end (see Hebrews 11), who received the crown of everlasting life.
Now, in Hebrews 13:7, the Hebrew Christians were directed to contemporary religious leaders. These spokesmen of God provided the persecuted ones with indispensable help.
The Hebrews were exhorted to keep in mind exemplary leaders who delivered to them the pure Word of God. It is through that Word that the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith, and helps us fend off temptations to abandon it.
These spiritual guides also had been faced with religious persecution. And by the grace of God they held firm to the faith in the face of opposition. Bringing these faithful ones to remembrance, the Hebrews were exhorted to imitate them.
They were also instructed to consider the final outcome of those who died in the faith. This would help them realize what was at stake. Those who keep the faith are eternally blessed in heaven, whereas those who fall away lose the gift of eternal life.
Some of those leaders that come to mind are Stephen and the apostles who suffered martyrdom (according to tradition, only one apostle—John—died a natural death).
In the case of Stephen, who was stoned to death by the Jews, the Holy Spirit helped him by blessing him with a glimpse of heaven, beholding the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (see Acts 7:56). It was the Lord Who gave Stephen the strength to keep on confessing Christ, to pray for his enemies, and finally to say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59)
The apostle Peter was another contemporary the Hebrews could remember. Jesus had foretold to Peter his martyr death (see John 21:18-19). When Peter was about to die, he declared, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me.” (2 Peter 1:10-14)
Certainly, a prime example every Christian wants to imitate is the apostle Paul. Read the long list of tribulations he willingly suffered for the sake of the Gospel
(see 2 Corinthians 11:23-27). When Paul came to the end of his earthly struggles, he declared, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
(2 Timothy 4:7-8)
We would also do well to remember our exemplary religious leaders of both past and present, and imitate them!
May God help us to keep the faith to the end, and to receive the crown of everlasting life through our Savior Jesus Christ.
Mark Gullerud is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bowdle, South Dakota, and Zion Lutheran Church in Ipswich, South Dakota.