Exposition of Hebrews 13:17 (continued)


It is true that in this text there is no direct statement concerning the spiritual health of the saints; the text does not mention healthy souls. Still there is an implied reference here to such health, which is more than a mere suggestion. For the text speaks in the negative of this when it says, “that they may do so with joy and not with groaning, for that is unprofitable for you.” This form of statement is called “litotes,” that is, a weak negative statement which implies a very strong reality. This means here, therefore, that it will be very hurtful for your spiritual well-being not to submit willingly to the teaching and the correction of the leader-watchmen in the church as appointed by the Lord. You will need to write the profit which you receive on the non-credit side of your spiritual ledger. You will not then grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, but you will be a prey of the wolves, who will then give you evil teaching, and destroy your soul’s steadfastness in the Lord, and rob you of the glad assurance that the anchor holds sure and steadfast in the holy place whither the forerunner of our salvation has entered, Jesus Christ a high priest after the order of Melchizedek! 

What really constitutes spiritual health we are told in many passages of Scripture. In general it may be said that spiritual health is inseparably connected with “sound words of doctrine.” The apostle Paul speaks of such sound words in his pastoral letters, both to Timothy and to Titus. (I Tim. 1:10) The adjective “sound” is the translation of the Greek word “hugianoo” from which our English term hygiene is derived. Sound words are words which give spiritual health to the new man in Christ. In I Timothy 1:10 Paul points out that a life of fleshly lust is contrary to spiritual health. These sins are: those of whoremongers, those who defile themselves with mankind, menstealers, perjured persons, etc. All who walk in such sins are not under grace and the power of the Holy Spirit but are under the law which was made for evil men. (I Timothy 1:9) This is all contrary to sound words which teach that the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience and of faith unfeigned. Those are sound words of truth. Such sound, health-affording words are, that Christ came into the world to save sinners. This word is worthy of all acceptation. Paul speaks in II Timothy 1:13 of the form of sound words to which we must hold fast! When the evil days come upon the earth, then they will not “endure sound doctrine.” (II Tim. 4:3) And in Titus 1:9 the equipment of a watchman-bishop must be sound doctrine to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. Such gainsayers must have their mouths’ stopped. And that can only be so when the preacher holds fast to the form of sound words. (Rom. 6:17) It is a form of doctrine which was delivered to the churches. The form is sin-redemption-gratitude. And that must be preached over against the gainsayers, who deny the gospel in their false preaching. And this sound doctrine must be spoken to the old men, aged women, young daughters, each according to his need and station in life. (Titus 2:1-6) Then there will be spiritual health in the congregation, and then only. It is indeed important, and also interesting, to notice that Prov. 14:30 teaches that “a sound heart is the life of the flesh, but envy the rottenness of the bones”! Soundness, health-yielding soundness of the soul is a spiritual-ethical matter of grace in Christ. It is a matter of crucifying the old man and putting on of the new man. A healthy soul is one who has true joy in God through Jesus Christ. The so-called mental depressions of the children of God are at bottom spiritual problems of sin; littleness of faith, of a David whose bones waxed old in him when he fell into sin and did not confess his transgressions!!! This accounts for such a statement as that written in Psalm 38:2, 3: “For thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness (health) in my flesh because of thine anger, neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.” 

Now the watchmen on the walls of Zion must know that unless they warn God’s people and shepherd them with the rod of the Lord, they will not be able to give a good account in the last day. They must be watchmen like the apostle John was when he wrote in III John; “Beloved, I wish (pray) above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” (verse 2) When the soul prospers (euodousthai) it presses forward on a beautiful way toward heaven, walking on the road which leads to the final rest of God. Such a soul has taken refuge in God and is assured that all is well because tile anchor holds in the holy place. Then we arc in spiritual health. And such care of true poimenics in the church and real breaking of the bread of life is the only deeply spiritual psychiatry for sick souls. And true, healthy souls will “walk in the truth.” They will desire pure doctrine and the admonitions of the gospel which conform to the form of sound words once delivered to the saints. 

What a joy for the minister when he sees the congregation walk in the truth! He is a good servant of the chief Shepherd of the sheep, and he goes in and out before the sheep. He has no greater joy than to hear that “my children walk in the truth.” If he is not heeded then he groans with the groan of a shepherd for the sheep. He knows so profoundly what the implications are of the injunction to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” 


The matter of accountability of the watchmen is here stressed by the writer. It is not impressed so much upon the minds and hearts of the watchmen of the souls as upon those for whose souls the watchmen care. The sheep must not suffer loss under the watchful care of the shepherd who is diligent and vigilant. The warning “for that will not be profitable for you” has been variously interpreted. The stronger interpretation is that, in such a case of insubordination, the rulers, the leaders who are to watch for their souls, Will complain to the Lord when they groan in their work as did Elijah when “he made intercession to God against Israel,” saying, “Lord they have killed thy prophets,” and as Ezekiel would experience from the Israel of his day. (Rom. 11:2, 3Ezekiel 3:25-27) That is a cry of the preacher who is free, against the gainsayers, from the blood of his congregation. However, there is on the other hand the less severe interpretation which holds that the writer here implies, that, when we do not heed the Watchmen and the sound words of doctrine, we suffer spiritual loss in life and in vigor. In either case the text gives ample motif that we should heed the teaching which comes to us from the chief Shepherd of the sheep, by those whom he authorizes for this work of caring for our souls.


There is nothing strange in this petition for the prayers of all the saints for the apostles and all who labor in the word. Preachers are like Elijah, men of like passions with all the saints. (James 5:17) Their hands need to be strengthened like those of Moses when Israel fights with Amalek. (Exodus 17:11, 12) Paul often asks for the prayers of the churches. (I Thess. 5:25II Thess. 3:1Rom. 15:30;Eph. 6:18Col. 4:3) God gives His grace and Spirit to be experienced only in that church where the elect cry day and night unto God. And there He answers speedily. He says in the Psalms that we shall open our mouth widely and that He will fill it with good things. (Luke 18:7;Matt. 6:5-8Psalm 81:10) The Lord Who is our God says that we shall cry to Him, and we shall be heard. Paul was deeply conscious of this and so is the writer here in Hebrews, whoever he is. And well may this be the request of all the servants in the church of Christ: professors, ministers, elders, and deacons. Jesus says: pray, lest ye fall into temptation! 

The writer does not merely ask for the prayers for himself personally. Yes, he too is included. He asks the: prayers for all the watchmen, who must give account one day. “Pray for us.” The tense of the verb is in the present. It is the term which covers all forms of prayer. It refers to prayers, askings, and thanksgiving. But it is the intent of this injunction that this prayer be such that it is not just once, but constant and fervent: ask, seek, knock on the portals of heaven and God’s throne. It must be prayer which reaches God, Who has providential care over all things, all events, in heaven and on earth, and Who so rules that Satan and all his hosts cannot stay His hand, saying, “What doest Thou?” For prayer is directed to the one, true God as revealed in God’s Word. And His hand is never shortened, so that He cannot help. He says, “before they call I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:24Psalm 32:5Dan. 9:21) And to this God prayer must be made for all the servants of God, for the writer and those who are with him. 

When the entire church (churches) will be instant in prayer, God will heed as He did in the case of Peter in Jerusalem, when he was thrown into prison by Herod, after Herod had killed James. Peter is to be killed after the feast by Herod. But they are watchful unto prayer even in the night. (Acts 12:12) Upon their prayers Peter is delivered from the prison in a very miraculous way by an angel, and he is returned to the church the sooner. This happened more than once. Whether the writer here refers to such a restoration, or whether, he has in mind the overall controlling providence of the Lord in regulating the events so that the writer can be restored the sooner, the text does not say. Paul speaks of Satan’s hindering his coming to the saints at Thessalonica. (I Thess. 2:18) At any rate, the Lord would surely restore the writer the sooner up6n their prayers. 

The writer gives a reason for this request. He has a good conscience with the Lord. He is a faithful servant. He writes of his good conscience in order to excite them to pray. And it is meet that it be so. If God does not hear the prayer of the wicked, He also does not hear the prayer which is offered in behalf of those who do not have the Lord’s cause at heart, and who do not have a good conscience. The writer trusts that the congregation is deeply convinced that their prayers will be heard, just as were the prayers of the Jerusalem saints for the release of Peter, the apostle, in Herod’s prison. What a motivation for us to remember our ministers, missionaries, and professors in prayer. We should be found instant in prayer for our officebearers. They need our prayers, and not our carping fault-finding.