The great practical theme of this letter is hold fast to Christ. No matter how ferociously the world attacks or how great our fears may be, we must not drift away from him. It is easy to drift away from him. If you know yourself at all, you will confess this. We make resolutions, but forget them. We are happy one minute or day, but then discouraged and sad the next. Old sins come back to haunt us, and sometimes we simply learn to live with our sins, when God says to mortify and forsake them. He says to be joyful and look to Jesus for strength; we say there is no point and prefer to lick our wounds. The challenge of staying constant in Christ, consistent in love and obedience to him, is the great challenge of Christian discipleship. But we must be clear. Facing the challenge of staying constant in Christ is not bearing the miserable burden of constant uncertainty as to whether or not I am a Christian. Too many look at their failings and conclude they are not Christians. Did God ever love you or me because we had no sin? Did not fail? Were not complete disappointments to ourselves and others? God saves sinners. Having saved us by his grace, staying constant in Christ is really the pursuit of knowing Christ better, serving him with more intelligence and zeal, and enjoying his fellowship. Thus, the imperative verbs in these lines are designed to show us some ways we can remain constant in Christ, hold fast against the weakness of our flesh, and overcome the world by his grace in us.
Remember Your Leaders (v. 7)
They Ruled Over you in Christ
The first of these verbs is to remember your rulers. Although the participle, those ruling over you, is in the present tense, it means simply “rulers,” with special attention to the past pastors and teachers of the congregation. “First things” these believers were always forgetting: their first teachers (2:3; 4:6), the first principles of the gospel (5:12), and the former days (10:32), when they were filled with confidence and suffering patiently for the sake of Christ. He calls upon them to remember their leaders in those days. This does not exclude their present pastors and elders. Indeed, whether past or present church leaders, it is one of the great tragedies that we are ungrateful for them. Especially those who first brought the gospel to us, we must remember them. Later, we may outgrow them in knowledge or holiness, have a falling out with them, which is common among sinners, but we must not forget them. Anyone who brings God’s word to us, however weak he may be, we must receive him as if he were an angel sent from heaven (Gal. 4:14). And yet, we forget them. Often, we vilify them. Rather than praising God for sending us his word, we complain and condemn the very ones who have helped us to heaven.
These men were Christ’s appointed rulers. We should notice this word “rule,” for although it is a delegated authority, it is nonetheless a real authority from Christ to guard over us as his flock, feed us with his word, call us to repentance, and exercise a careful discipline over us. Perhaps if we felt how much we needed Christ’s rule through his elders in our lives, we would remember our leaders more fondly and repent of a judgmental spirit. This is the problem throughout our land. We do not feel our need to be challenged for our sins. But repentance, seeking after God and finding him, and holiness of life receive their strongest impetus from a sense of need. Closeness to Christ, willingness to submit to those in authority over us, and hungering for Christ Jesus to preach to us are all born of a conviction that we are not sufficient, need help, and do not have it altogether. The sins of our heart and the challenges of modern life are too great for us. We need all the helps Jesus has provided, and one of the most important is the gift of leaders (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Cor. 12:28), the church’s pastors and governors or ruling elders. If we had any sense of thankfulness to our Savior for providing them for us, that their private prayers, teaching, and passing counsel were his hand guiding us back into the right way, we would remember them fondly. The memory would be powerful to keep us on the straight path.
They Spoke God’s Word to You
That he has in mind their former preachers, perhaps the first ones who brought the gospel to them (2:3), is evident by the fact that these men spoke the word of God to them. While all elders share equally in the government of the church and must be ready to give a word of counsel and instruction, it is to pastors or preachers alone that Christ has called to be stewards of the mysteries of God, to proclaim his everlasting gospel. This one consideration should make us remember our former pastors with great affection: that they brought God’s word to us. A few lines down and in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, he commands us to extend the same respect and support to our present pastors. Nothing is more important than for us to have God’s word preached to us. This was our Savior’s resurrection hope on the cross – that despite his present sufferings, he would soon rise again and preach the Father’s gospel to his congregation of saints (Ps. 22:22; Heb. 2:12). The preaching of the gospel is God’s power unto salvation. There is a great hatred for this even in the church. What else was the institutionalism of a new Judaism and ceremonialism in the papacy but a hatred for the preaching of the gospel? Protestantism today has little preaching; it relishes group therapy and religious discussion, but the imperative, personal, searching, expository preaching of God’s word, it cannot abide this.
We shall not be able to endure it, unless we are persuaded that we must hear God’s word to live and thrive in Christ. This is what it comes down to – not the elevation of a group of preachers, or a personality cult, or elders doing what the preachers say, or anything of this nature. In fact, the only thing that makes a faithful preacher is not that he is liked or preaches as everyone would prefer or never steps on toes but that he gives us God’s word, searches our hearts with it, and calls upon us to turn to Jesus Christ for cleansing and strength. These believers had such preachers, and they were gifts from heaven. They must not forget them, but we do forget them if we think we have outgrown them, forget the gospel lessons they taught us, or despise them because we think we now know more than they did. God used them to show us that our hearts were fast-sealed by sin, to lead us to Christ the door and the key to heaven, and to bring us to receive and rest upon him along for salvation. We will now forget them? Do we think ourselves too wise to confess that we are but children whom the Lord has patiently guided to his kingdom? Thus, for every teacher or pastor who has helped and encouraged us along the way, fed us with the heavenly bread for the next stage of our pilgrimage, we should remember them fondly, pray for them if they are still alive, speak well of them, and day and night bless God for sending us so many angels from heaven to keep us in the right way and to bring us closer to his heavenly kingdom.
Imitate Your Leaders (v. 7)
Follow their Faith
Since the Head of the church shepherds us through human guides and sends his word to us through preachers, we must follow them. The word means to imitate their good example. Faith either means teaching or life, doctrine or morals. In this instance, it seems to be their leaders’ consistent, persevering lives of faith that receives prominence. The Christian faith is unique in that it is not only or even primarily a system of doctrine; it is a way of life, with doctrine showing us the way, but nonetheless a personal following of Jesus Christ. The claim to be a Christian is suspect unless one is seeking to obey Jesus. “Why do you call me ‘Lord,’ if you do not what I say” (Luke 6:46)? And, “Then, I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). It is important to believe and defend God’s truth (Jude 3); it is equally important to walk God’s truth, for the obedient walk is the way to joyful fellowship with our Savior (John 15:9-11; 1 John 1:3,6). And with respect to our leaders, we must know them well enough so that we can watch the way they live with Christ, relate to their families, and endure under difficulties. We do not need professional gurus and heady talkers, with which the church is plagued; we need faithful walkers, humble men who walk with Jesus, so that we can imitate them as they follow him (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:7,9).
Consider their Lives and Deaths
This is a humbling command – and a command it is! It assumes that none of us is a sufficient guide for himself, that as we all endeavor to follow Christ (1 Pet. 2:21), we need to have godly servant-leaders in our lives whom we can follow. This is a far cry from two spirits that ruin many. The first is a prideful spirit that believes itself sufficient to govern its own life. This command from the Spirit of holiness says otherwise, and we must never indulge the arrogance of the flesh. We have all felt it, some more than others – that sense of “I know better than this man,” or “I do not need anyone else to correct or teach me.” Our graduation date from Jesus’ discipleship school is death, and this kind of arrogance plays truant against his authority in our lives. He says that we do need models of faith to follow, so we must pray for them and make the best of those around us, thanking him for giving them to us. Perhaps we would have better guides if we were less stubborn. The second is the ambitious spirit that desires preeminence and will not bow before the example and guidance of others. Justification for this is often found in the faults of our human shepherds, but the Lord Jesus has ordained this to test our faith and our submission to his providence in our lives. What if I give you leaders that do not agree with you in every jot and tittle, or who are evidently weak in some areas, as Paul was? Will you still submit to my hand through these men? Will you humble yourself under me to follow them, even though you may know more and be holier than they are?
And, by the way, why do we measure our need of leadership and of our Savior’s word by how much we think we know? Being a Christian and following Christ is not about adding to our store of knowledge, so that we are impressed with a sermon only because the preacher said something we have not heard before. If he does say something like this, examine it closely, for at this stage in the history of the church and world, novelty is likely a sign of danger or even heresy. We are to walk in the old paths, and if Peter did not hesitate to remind the saints in his day of truths they are already knew – when it was really the Holy Spirit doing so – we must humble our pride and be willing to receive whatever our Savior has for in a particular sermon. In fact, the humbler and less gifted the preacher, humanly speaking, or the more you may find him an embarrassment to your refined tastes or opposed to your particular preferences, if you will listen and yield to him because you love the Lord Jesus and would hear his voice, you will be more blessed than if Knox thundered again this morning or Spurgeon wove his beautiful lines.
It is not only the lives of our godly leaders that we are to remember, but also and especially their deaths. In this instance, I suspect that it is the first teachers’ perseverance in the faith unto death, like Stephen, that must be particularly considered. Remember that these believers were thinking of drawing back in the face of persecution – wait! How did your first leaders respond to hardship for the gospel’s sake? Did they draw back? Did they renounce Christ? Did they consider saving their skins and their possessions worth more than Christ? They did not. Think of the way you watched them die in good faith, poor and wretched, yet eyes bright with the expectation of soon seeing Jesus Christ. Think of the way some of them were persecuted for their bold witness but did not draw back but sealed God’s truth with their blood.
And even if some of them died of old age and did not pass through particularly hot fires, see how they nonetheless died in good faith and gave a parting testimony to you to hold fast to Christ. Think of him, and stop being afraid. What do you fear? The loss of possession? The loss of your life? The axman who severs the head of the confessing martyr does him a great favor by sending him straight to Jesus Christ. In one instant, fear and the flesh trembling; in the next, joy unspeakable and full of glory. Remember these things. Consider them carefully. Turn off your phones, the Holy Spirit says to us. Will anything you are looking at now help you in the hour of death? Help you to stand faithfully for Christ when tempted or to stand boldly before God on the day of judgment? Consider the things that are most important. Frankly, the reason most of us fail under much less pressure than these believers faced is because our mind is filled with worthless information and our free time spent frivolously. We must learn again the importance of watching – in prayer, thinking about serious matters, and viewing the trivialities of life that men think important as invitations from the devil to throw away our souls upon the altar of waste, stupidity, and distraction.
We need some good deaths again in the church – not necessarily martyr’s deaths – but at least deaths with parting words of wisdom and challenge. If there is a Christian dying soon in your family, and he or she can still give a witness to Christ, take your children there so they can hear how important it is to believe in Christ at the hour of death, to be holding fast to him when the body is twisted with pain and disease, and yet heaven’s light shining through the eyes. Lacking these, read the accounts of dying men, when the dying were not farmed out to professional death facilities but died in their beds, with family and fellow-believers watching their final breaths, hanging upon their every word, anxious to receive witness and warning from the soul hovering between this wilderness and the golden shores of Canaan. If you can, resolve to die such a death. Resolve to die confessing Christ to all around you. If you would die like this, you must hold fast to him in life. No one can throw a faith switch when on his death bed. Whom you follow in life will be whom you follow in death. May it be Christ! May it be those who have gone ahead of you, who also followed him across Jordan and received their crowns to cast at his blessed feet!
But for most of us, we have something else to do first. We need to remember those who have spoken the word of God to us. Where we have lost affection for them, we must repent before God of our ingratitude, repent to them for our neglect, and endeavor to start praising God for sending us ambassadors of peace. For some of us, a phone call is in order to express repentance for never thanking former pastors for their labors on our behalf, or elders for admonishing and encouraging us. For all of us, where we have allowed coldness and distance to creep into our hearts toward those leaders whom God sent to us in the past or even those whom he has given us now, we must remedy it. And the rulers also must do all they can to make sure they are being what Christ has called them to be – servants of the flock to build them up in their holy faith. Preachers must not seek to be novel or clever, although these are all the rage today, but only to speak God’s truth and apply it to the heart (Neh. 8:8). These are precious gifts of Christ. Let us not push away his help and try to make it on our own. The journey will be much rougher by our rebellion.
It is clear that the apostle joins constancy in Christ with remembering the teaching and lives of our leaders. This assumes, and here a word should be given more directly to the rulers in the church, that pastors, teachers, and elders are taking seriously their responsibility to model following Christ in their own lives. In our particular church communion, we spend a great deal of time and money making sure men are doctrinally grounded and able to develop sermons. These must not be omitted, but no ministerial education is worth its salt unless it also challenges and teaches the future leaders of the church to follow Christ passionately. This is not an addendum. It is the reason we are Christians; it is the meaning of “Christian.” Lest we underestimate the importance of this, the apostle says that we must remember our faithful rulers so that we can imitate their faith and be motivated by their example to lay down our lives for Christ and persevere to the end of our course. Do we have such leaders? Do we expect such in our leaders? Are pastors and elders today zealous in modeling faithful Christian living? They must be. The Lord calls them to this solemn work of discipleship. Our children need to see it, a winsome, constant example of following Christ. A whole generation is following social revolutionaries, perverse celebrities, and hip pastors in the church – do they have holy leadership to imitate? The apostle believed that these believers would be encouraged to stand fast to the end if they would consider carefully the example of faithful believers before them.
Trust the Unchanging Savior (v. 8)
Ever the Same
But however much good we obtain from the godly example of faithful church rulers, nothing is as stabilizing and strengthening as looking unto our Lord Jesus. This line is so remarkable that the context often fades away before its brilliance. We must not forget him. We must remember him constantly, the faithful obedience he gave unto death, his sufferings and shame for us on the cross, his endurance to the end. He is the same. Some have seen in this a reference to his eternity, and none but heretics and crazed cultists will deny the eternity of the Son of God, the Word of God (John 1:1-3). But “ever the same” does not seem so much an ontological statement as a glorious declaration of his absolute, unchanging faithfulness to us. He is not up and down, as we are. He is not so overwhelmed by the state of his poor church in the world that he loses heart or finds it necessary to alter his plans or is gospel. He is constant, an immovable anchor that will hold in the storm, a polestar seen in every stormy sky. Though there is no imperative in the line, it seems to be implied – trust him. Our leaders sometimes fail us; he never will. Those whom we thought the best and truest will often prove weak and false; Jesus Christ will only go from strength to strength, glory to glory, full of endless supplies of grace, unsearchable riches. If there is no one else around you to trust and follow, imitate him.
Sufficient for Every Season
“Yesterday, today, and forever” unite all times in his hand, all his people under his headship, all seasons under his wise guidance and power. Through whatever we pass, we shall find him constant and reliable, sufficient in his wisdom and word. Look back over the course of your life. Think of the different times you have called upon him, the different needs that have led you to do so. Try to recall the different ways he answered your prayers, the diverse truths he showed to you, the ample grace he gave to you. The apostle throughout this letter has never tired of telling these struggling believers to “consider Christ, look to Christ, draw near through Christ, do not drift away from Christ.” You would think that Jesus Christ is absolutely the most important personal imaginable. He is. Is he to you? Are you remembering his example, considering his faith, and his death? Do you recall how he trusted his Father on the cross, forgave his enemies from the cross, expected to be in paradise later that day with the thief on the cross? Never has there been such a horrible, glorious death, one that breaks our heart beyond all boundaries of grief and one that inspires and empowers imitations, should he ask it of us.
Think often of his death, child of God, and thinking of it, call upon him. We receive so little benefit from Christ because we do not truly believe how constant he is, how really and truly alive he is at the Father’s right hand, reigning there to hear and help us. O, that we took him more at his word, that we took him more seriously. He is the same. He will not stop loving and helping you. If you look at your life and wonder where he has gone, it is not he that has moved, but you. If as a young adult you look back upon the simplicity of a childlike faith and wonder how you could have been so naïve and blind, you describe yourself now, not then, for then you saw more clearly the truth. If once you had hope for your marriage, or for the world, or that the gospel was sufficient to right wrongs, bring peace through righteousness, vanquish Satan, and build the church, but now you are hopeless, it is likely that the glory of Christ has been somewhat diminished in your heart. You cannot see him as he is and not be settled, grow more hopeful, feel more energized. Did not our hearts burn within in when he spoke the word to us? Ask him to speak the word of promise to you this morning. He has not changed. His word has lost none of its power. We move about too much, are too worried, and think too little upon things that matter most. Then, the smaller and more distant God becomes to our faith, the bigger our problems seem and the more unsettled we become. Do not leave this place of fellowship with the Most High without repenting, telling him your cares, and asking him to be the center of your faith and life again.