A funny thing happened on a recent Sunday morning. Not only did we lose power at the church during the service, but our church vehicle ran out of power on the way to take people home after the service. I was standing in the church parking lot when the vehicle was towed in by another church member. When I asked the driver what happened, he said that the vehicle ran okay in first gear, but as he went to second and third it lost power.
As we lamented over the history of this particular vehicle, the three of us questioned whether or not it was time to officially put the vehicle out of service—and us out of our misery!
Early this week, a mechanic looked at the vehicle to assess the problem—and the cost. When we got the report, the mechanic said, “This particular model tends to lose power when it runs out of petrol!”
None of us thought about checking something so basic. The vehicle, in fact, is in pretty good shape. It has great potential to do what it was designed to do—as long as it has fuel to power it. What a relevant illustration of our text for this study!
Too often, the reason that congregations struggle along in spurts and stammers is because their spiritual fuel tank is empty. They lack power, and this is because they lack prayer.
When things are not going well in a congregation, it is easy to blame one another. And sometimes the leaders get the brutal edge of such verbal swords. But perhaps the leaders would do better, and perhaps the congregation would be healthier, if the congregation prayed for its leaders and the leaders prayed for the congregation. In other words, we will experience more Spirit-given power if we pray. This, it would seem, was at the heart of this writer’s appeal in vv. 18–19. He is simply and yet passionately saying, “Please, pray!” Though, of course, this can be misunderstood and possibly misapplied, in a very real sense it is true that there is power in prayer. May we learn this today.
Some have seen in Hebrews 13:15–19 a unified passage revealing what kind of sacrifices please God under the new covenant: the sacrifice of praise (vv. 15–16); the sacrifice of submission (v. 17); and the sacrifice of supplication (vv. 18–19). This may be the case, but whether or not this was the author’s deliberate intention it is clear that these three areas, embraced and lived out by the Christian, will yield a life that honours God and produces a healthy church.
Previously, we studied v. 17 and saw how both leaders and congregation are to be submissive to the Lord, resulting in a harvest of joyful growth to the glory of God.
As we now move to the next two verses, it is quite possible that the author meant to connect what he writes here with what he said in v. 17. That is, he may be exhorting the congregation to pray for its pastors.
Though I see it a bit differently, nevertheless no one can miss that the writer is making a very important point concerning the need for a congregation to pray for its leaders. We will approach this text this morning by speaking of the need to pray for three types of leader.
Pray for Limited Leaders
The writer begins simply: “Pray for us” (v. 18). The good leader is the leader who knows his limitations. And because he knows that he is made of the same stuff as those he leads, he urges those he leads to pray for him. We see this in these opening three words. Perhaps the most important words a leader can say are, “Pray for us.”
Some argue that the writer is using the majestic plural, but I think that he is using the plural to make the point that all leaders, not just him, need the prayers of God’s people. They particularly need the prayers of those for whom they will give an account (v. 17).
The writer was not with them. Some have suggested that he was one of the former leaders of whom speaks in v. 7. There is no way to say for sure, but whether or not he is included in v. 7, it is pretty clear that he has some kind of authoritative, shepherding relationship with them. The exhortations and strong admonitions throughout the epistle can only be explained by such a relationship with them. And yet, in spite of his obvious profound knowledge of the Scriptures, in spite of his incredible giftedness as a teacher, in spite of what appears to be godly courage, this man is asking those whom he has led to pray for him.
I recently read that when the great Bible teacher, pastor and author, James Montgomery Boice, died, a man in his congregation was overheard at the funeral saying, “It never occurred to me that he would need my prayers.” Well he did. And every godly leader needs prayer.
The apostle Paul frequently asked for the prayers of those whom he ministered to. Consider some sample texts:
Romans 15:30–31—Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints,
Ephesians 6:18–19—praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel,
Colossians 4:1–3—Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. Christian Graces Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains,
1 Thessalonians 5:25—Brethren, pray for us.
2 Thessalonians 3:1–2—Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men; for not all have faith.
As has been frequently observed, if a man like Paul needed the prayers of God’s people, how much more do we! Amen to that.
A leader who seeks the prayers of others is a leader worthy of being followed. After all, he is the kind of person who is humble, who realises his dependence upon the Lord. In a word, such leaders recognise their limitations.
Anyone who has been in the ministry for any length of time will soon discover the pathos behind Paul’s words, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). And the answer thunders back: Not you!
Sometimes the leader enters those dark understandings of just how inadequate he is for the task of shepherding God’s people. He knows something of his own heart and feels like a hypocrite as he ministers to others. Or he realises his mental and perhaps his educational inadequacies to communicate God’s Word and he feels like a fraud. But I would suggest that this can actually be his strength. For, in fact, as we are taught in Scripture, when we are weak, we experience God’s strength.
So, when your leaders ask you to pray for them, be encouraged because they realise that, in and of themselves, they are nothing. They understand all too well the words of Jesus: “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
What to Pray for
Perhaps you wonder how you should pray for your leaders. As a pastor of a church, let me suggest some things.
First, pray for their wisdom. They need wisdom to lead the church biblically. If you wish to be led biblically, pray for wisdom for your leaders.
Second, pray for their perseverance. Leading others in God’s ways can be discouraging, and leaders can be tempted to quit. They need to persevere if they will lead faithfully, and they need prayer if they will persevere.
Third, pray for scriptural understanding. If they will lead you in the things of God, they need to understand the Bible and how to apply it. Pray for them.
Fourth, pray for the ability to articulate truth clearly. They are called to teach you the Scriptures, and they want to articulate the truth in a way that you can understand it. They need prayer for this.
Fifth, pray for their health.
Sixth, pray for their joy. Your elders are “fellow workers for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24), and they need joy if they will help your joy.
Seventh, pray for the power of the Holy Spirit in ministry. As with any ministry, fruitfulness in leading a church requires the power of the Holy Spirit. Pray for them!
Eighth, pray for the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of your leaders. All Christians ought to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. Pray that this will be seen in your leaders.
Who to Pray for
When we speak of praying for leaders, we can rightfully include anyone who is spiritually leading us. We are speaking not only of pastors, but of those who disciple us, Sunday school teachers, Grace Group leaders, parents, and your husband.
My wife once commented that it had just dawned on her concerning the weighty responsibility that a husband carries. It helped her to pray more for me.
A Word to Leaders
If you have been placed in a position of authority over others, the sooner you realise and admit your limitations the sooner you will be a better leader.
At present, there is a political sideshow happening in the United States. Donald Trump is running for president. His campaign is interesting to say the least. He has provided a whole new picture for the definition “foot in mouth.” And even though some of what he says makes sense, I would have a difficult time trusting him. The reason is simple: He is arrogant. A man who cannot—or rather, who will not—confess his limitations will make a rotten leader. He would rather experience ruin than the supposed humiliation that he does not know something.
The only exception to this, of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ. He had no limitations and He was (is) the epitome of leadership. After all, He is Lord. But then again, is not a facet of His glorious beauty precisely the way He limited Himself? And what do we find Him doing, having embraced this self-imposed limitation? We find Him time and again praying. In fact, when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane, we hear Him asking His disciples, if not to pray for Him, at least to pray with Him. It was precisely because His willing self-surrender to the Father’s determined limitations for Him that was the source of His great power and authority. And, in a similar and yet much less glorious way, so it is for the leader. As we confess our limitations, we are in a position to both pray ourselves and to seek the prayers of others for the otherwise insuperable tasks at hand. It is precisely then that we are blessed to experience God’s unlimited power to His glory and to the good of His people and His purposes.
Pray for Loyal Leaders
In the second part of v. 18, the writer appeals for prayer on what may seem to be a strange basis: “for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honourably.” To paraphrase, “You should pray for us because our conscience is clear with reference to our motives and concerning the way we are living.” In other words, “Pray for us, your prayers will not be wasted.”
It is quite possible that rumours were swirling about concerning why the writer (and perhaps other leaders with him) was not with the readers. Perhaps, as in Paul’s case, they were being accused of cowardice or of duplicity (2 Corinthians 1), and therefore their leadership was suspect. If so, then this man seeks to put such nonsense to rest as he appeals to them concerning his clear conscience with reference to his life and ministry.
It is always lamentable when a faithful leader is slandered and his motives questioned, or when his actions are always interpreted in the worst possible way. If such slander spreads, then the leader’s effectiveness is greatly hampered. And in the case of a local church, when the congregation buys into the lies, it is doubtful that they will be praying much for their leader(s)—unless, of course, the prayers are for his (or their) removal and/or replacement.
It seems that the writer is here is making the point that he has been loyal to the Lord and therefore to them and so he is “worthy” of their prayers.
This is not some heady, bragging statement. These are not the words of a megalomaniac. Rather, they are the heartfelt words of a leader who is devoted to the Lord and to His people. And therefore they should be considered and responded to by prayer.
Paul said similar words, on several occasions. And again, these were not proclaimed with sinful boastfulness but rather with humble sincerity. Whether Paul or this author, in either case the point being made is that they desired the best for the flock and therefore they needed the flock to so trust them so as to pray for them.
No leader is perfect and this is not a claim to perfection. It is, however, is a serious claim that the readers can trust him (them) to be the real deal. The writer desires that this congregation believe the best about their leaders and therefore to pray for them. And our congregations need the same approach to their leaders.
Speaking for myself, I fail and at times fall. And though it grieves me more than I can express, I fail my church at times, both corporately and individually. There are times when I am impatient, when I offend with my words, when I display a lack of wisdom, when I make wrong judgements and decisions. At the same time, as God is my witness, I strive to have a “good conscience” and to “live honourably.” My desire, and my aim in life, is to be of helpful and holy service to my flock. I really do desire to be loyal to the Lord and to the Lord’s flock. And, for that reason, I request prayer. And I am certain that I can do so on behalf of the entire elder ship of our church.
Note that this confident statement is made within the context of requesting prayer. I think that it is a fair implication that he may be asking them to pray that this will remain a true characteristic in his life. And I would make the same request.
Please pray for your leaders, that their conscience will remain clear before God and before you. This does not mean that they will always be popular, for to maintain a clear conscience will require that, at times, leaders cross swords. But that is for your benefit. Far better for us to have a clear conscience because we spoke and implemented the Word of God, and perhaps at least initially upset you, than for us to tickle your ears, soil our conscience and mislead you in the end.
So, pray that we live honourably. Pray that we do what is right before God, before you and before the church. Without wanting to make us appear special, please understand that the leaders of the flock are probably special objects of Satan’s attacks. Spiritual leaders are in the direct line of fire, for if we fall then Satan supposes that the congregation will fall as well. So, please, pray for us. We know our limitations and we trust that we are loyal. We need to keep remembering these limitations and we need to maintain and, in fact, grow our in our loyalty to the Lord and to His flock.
So, pray for us rather than merely pointing fingers at us. I understand that it is easy to point fingers, but it will serve neither you nor us well.
Pray for Loving Leaders
The writer, finally, exhorts prayer for loving leaders: “But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (v. 19).
The writer, in some way, had been hindered from coming to this congregation. It is clear from the contents of the letter that he had a personal relationship with them. As we noted earlier, it is possible that he was one of their former leaders (v. 7). Since he sent greetings from those from Italy (v. 24), we can assume he was in that region of the world. As I have argued previously, I think that he was in Rome (cf. Acts 18:2). And, in the light of v. 23, it is also possible that the author had been incarcerated. Of course, we can only speculate concerning the exact situation, but it is clear that he was absent from them, that he desired strongly to be with them, and that he loved them. It is this that motivated him to request their prayers for his providential reconnection to them. He wanted to be with them and so he urged them to pray towards that end.
It is one thing to write a book and to proclaim truth from a pulpit. It is quite another to have face to face ministry with others. But true shepherds long for this.
In a survey several years ago, an overwhelming majority of pastors admitted that they felt lonely. Most pastors reflected on what was, for them, the reality that, in the midst of being surrounded by people, they were probably among the loneliest people in the church. That may sound strange, but most pastors can relate to this. One of the fundamental reasons is that their vocation places them often in a position of being confrontational. Though they do so for the purpose of helping struggling or wayward sheep, they are often viewed as adversarial rather than as advocates. In most cases, this is unfair. Yet, fair or not, this is often how they are viewed. And, of course, this can breed a sense of being on the outs; it can yield a harvest of loneliness.
But, though such scenarios are more real than merely imagined, the true shepherd continues to love the sheep and, because of this, continues to try to connect to them. He wants to be with them.
I was recently asked for a bio for a conference that I am speaking at next year. The conclusion of it says, “In addition to enjoying time with his family and with his local church, he also enjoys reading and running.” Of course, I supplied that information, and it is true. This is for any God-called shepherd of a flock. It should go without saying that shepherds love the sheep. And so they desire to be with them. What does this have to do with prayer?
First, this urgent appeal for prayer needs to be seen within the context of the epistle. Because he was so concerned for the spiritual condition of the flock he desired to be on the ground with them. He has warned them over and over concerning the danger of drifting and he obviously here expresses his strong desire to be there in order to hold the ropes and to help them drop their anchor in Christ. I don’t doubt that he wanted to be reunited with them for relational reasons, but even then his desire was certainly foremost for their spiritual benefit. He knew that they needed his personal ministry. This is an important principle to grasp. The local church needs shepherds who are present. I had some humorous messages from some church members this week telling me that they recently heard the best sermon they have heard from Hebrews 13:17 on MP3. These were members who were out of town when I preached a message from that verse, in which I warned against letting sermon downloads take the place of submission to a local church pastor. But, seriously, in this day of such easy and universal access to good preaching and teaching, we must understand that there is no substitute for face to face and personal proclamation of truth. And by this I mean much more than a church merely being a preaching centre. In other words, there is a danger of a local church worship service morphing into nothing more than a lecture hall. But when the pastors know their flock, and when the flock knows its pastors, then the worship service takes on an ethos of intimacy and transparency. Someone recently commented that the thing they have come to appreciate about BBC is that, regardless of the setting and regardless of who is speaking, there is a sense that the proclamation of truth is aimed at a congregational purpose. In other words, he has noticed that there is a deliberateness about the preaching and teaching that is congregationally focused. It is personal to the glory of God. Let me illustrate.
There are several famous churches in London. Some have a long history. I think of the great preacher Charles Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. When I read his sermons, I hear the heart of a pastor. His illustrations often include his congregation and he is not afraid of using personal illustrations revealing is own weaknesses and needs. When I read his sermons, there is a sense of God-centredness and congregational concern. That church is still faithfully in existence today. But let me contrast this with another great church in London, which will remain anonymous to protect the guilty.
I also have read many, many sermons from two of the most well-known pastors of this church. Both were outstanding teachers and preachers, and a large church was built. In fact, at one point two to three thousand people congregated on Friday nights to listen to hour-long expositions of Scripture. That church today is also in existence—as a building. Yes, it still has services, but the church is a mere shadow of what it used to be. Why? I suppose there are several reasons. But I want to suggest a major one: Though there was great exposition, there was little by way of Body life. And I place the blame at the feet of the pastor-teachers.
In both cases, the pastors, from what I have gathered from biographies, were not personally engaged with the congregation during the week. They were excellent expositors of truth, but they did not seem to be too involved in the lives of their people. In fact, these two pastors, who laboured together for five years (one preaching in the morning and the other in the evening on Sundays), were such a duo that the church hall was filled morning and evening. But under neither’s ministry were men developed as leaders. And I believe that this was largely the result of a failure to connect with the congregation on a more face to face level. Preaching was the emphasis, but I suspect that pastoring was not. The result was a church that did not thrive as a body from generation to generation. Mere preaching centres never do.
I have belaboured this point to highlight, first, that your elders do love you and we want to be with you. And because of this, as I have said before, you can expect that the only ones who will leave the premises later on a Sunday than the elders is the lockup team! We are here to mingle and to minister as needed. And though this may against our natural personality grain—in some cases, at least—nevertheless we dig deep to do so.
Second, we must protect such a relationship, and prayer has much to do with this. Please pray for us, that we remain approachable and accessible. This is important.
The writer was asking these church members to pray for the removal of whatever was hindering him from being with them. You should do the same. Pray for connection. Pray for increased affection between you and your leaders. And then put feet to those prayers.
When the people want to be with the pastors, and when the pastors want to be with the people, then Lord wants to be with us. Such mutual affection will go a long way towards building a healthy, God-centred congregation, for our good and for the good of the world all to the glory of God.
Perhaps a third observation is worth noting. If it is true that there was some tension between the author and this congregation then this appeal indicates that he was not happy for this sad state to remain. He was reaching out to them by this appeal for their prayers. He wanted them to know that he loved them and that, in the words of Paul, he remained willing to “spend and to be spent for them” (2 Corinthians 12:15).
When a congregation is assured of the love of its leaders then it is easier to pray for their leaders. May we both improve in this.
As we draw to a close, there is one very obvious point in this passage: The congregation is called upon to pray.
Prayer is a major pillar in the life of the Christian. We saw earlier how Paul emphasised his need for prayers. The Lord Jesus Christ prayed, often. The Bible exhorts us over and over to pray (see, for instance, James 5:13–18).
Prayer is to the Christian life what breathing is to human life. You need it to be sustained and to survive. But you also need it to soar.
When we recently travelled to theUnited States for the Boston Marathon, my daughter and I went for a run together. Coming from Johannesburg, it was a huge difference to run at sea level. Breathing, and therefore running, was so much easier. In the same way, the Christian life is simpler when we pray. Prayer is indeed to the Christian life what breathing is to biological life
For this reason, your leaders make much of prayer as an essential part of church life. Prayer is one of God’s good gifts to us. It is a source of much blessing. The Bible makes clear that it is because we do not ask that we do not have (James 4:2). It is also true that we lack devotion and affection for God because we do not prioritise prayer.
Prayer is not merely about petitions but rather these petitions flow from praise and adoration of God. Once we realise and recognise the majestic glory of God, then we find ourselves trusting Him enough to ask things of Him. In fact, once we realise something of God’s glory then we will specifically be praying for those who feed us in order to lead us to this glorious God.
In short, when the leaders call you to pray, please pray. When we appeal to you to gather with us to pray at corporate Sunday prayer, do so. When we ask you to please pray for us, please pray for us.
Perhaps we can learn from these verses that what is good for the goose is equally good for the gander. In other words, the congregation will pray as it factually realises and then faithfully recognises its limitations. As we grow in cognisance of our dependence, and as we confess this, we will work on our communion with God. Further, we will realise our need for spiritual shepherding and so, rather than sitting with a critical spirit towards spiritual leadership, we will rather stir ourselves to pray for them.
Do you realise your soul’s dependence upon the Lord? Then pray.
Are you concerned for the health of the flock for the spread of the fame of God’s name? Then pray.
But this is true of v. 19 as well. In other words, just as our leaders are to love us, we are to love them. And we will pray about this.
Much could be said about this subject, but for our purposes I simply wish to encourage you, to exhort you, to urge you, to pray. Yes, pray for us, but also pray with us.
We live our Christian life in a hostile environment. We need God’s help. As the gospel is assaulted around us, we need to pray for one another. We need to pray not only for the protection of the gospel but also for its proclamation and for its progress.
Congregation, we need your prayers. Congregation, you need our prayers. So why don’t we meet and offer these prayers together? May we all learn to say, “Please, pray for us,” knowing that such an appeal will be heard and positively responded to. In other words, let us pray.