Tag Archives: Hebrews

The Pastor’s Travail

In Galatians 4:19, you can hear Paul’s words of angst about the Galatian church. They had fallen into legalism, which Paul described as being deceived into choosing a state of slavery. In this passage Paul says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (ESV). This is an excellent picture of the pastoral condition.

While it would be inaccurate to describe Paul as the pastor of the Galatian church, he does have a pastor’s heart for them. Remember that “pastor” comes from the word for shepherd. It is someone who leads people from one place or condition into another, by example and guidance. So, while Paul did not hold an office of “Pastor,”[1] he does express the heart experience of all good pastors.

In Paul’s statement, he speaks of being in the anguish of childbirth. He had addressed them as little children. This idea of anguish involved in childbirth would be very well known to the ancients. It was not uncommon for women to die from the exertion and complications of childbirth. All people understood this. Also, since there was little privacy in ancient homes, and children were born at home, most if not every individual would have heard or seen the travail of a woman in the throes of labor. Paul draws upon this shared experience to illustrate his own personal experience in dealing with their wayward behavior.

Think for a moment of this image which Paul uses. I’m a husband and father. I have watched my wife labor with four children.[2] Now, I know the worst thing a husband can do is imagine he understands what she is going through.[3] But we can see and understand that great pain and suffering is involved. We also understand that there is great promise as well. Push, struggle, strain, suffer and in time a new life is brought forth. This is what Paul is speaking of. This is also the common lot of the pastor of any church.

The pastor sees what God wants his people to be. He has been tasked with bringing forth the fruit of that, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He sees what should be, while also seeing what is. He knows the great work that is needed and the great travail that will be involved. He struggles and strains to inspire, to teach, to transform. Of course, true transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but one tool used by the Spirit is the pastor. As just as the wrench in my hand must be tempered to take the strain of a stuck bolt, the pastor must be tempered to take the strain involved in transforming fellow sinners into saints.

The life of a pastor is often marked with depression. He is taught to keep his eyes on what should be. He is taught to expect the miraculous. But he also experiences the failures. He is with people when they confess their failures. He is there when his people reap the whirlwind because of their sin. He is there when people question his teaching. He is there when people demand he stop calling them to holiness and only speak to them of nice things. He sees them kicking against the goads, and knows (from his own experiences and studies) that discipline will be brought to bear upon God’s wayward sheep.[4] He also knows, as under-shepherd, the Chief Shepherd may task him and the other elders with enacting and enforcing the discipline. The pastor’s heart breaks. He struggles and strains expecting final fruitful delivery often to only find himself anticipating the next spiritual contraction.

This struggle is the spiritual basis for the authority which a pastor (elder) wields. The author of Hebrews tells the church to submit to the elders because the elders are working so hard for the people’s own good. They should not make it harder on them, because that would be self-destructive (Heb 13:17).

Paul gives vent to the struggle of every pastor. It is a life of travail to bring forth fruit in the lives of their people. It has its own benefits, of course. But it also has unique problems. How many times have you lost sleep over the spiritual condition of someone who was not even your own kin? I can assure you ever good pastor in this country does this regularly. He prays for you. He seeks to model the Christ-life at all times—failing miserably as often as you. But when he fails he worries about the effect on you. He sees where you are and where Christ wants you to be. He bears very heavily the weight of duty to do his best to get you from here to there. His life is defined by a powerful contradiction. When you are transformed and become more like Christ, the pastor declares it was only by the work of the Holy Spirit. But when he sees you untransformed he doesn’t place blame upon the Holy Spirit and only places part of the blame upon you. The lion’s share of the blame for your failings, the pastor takes upon himself.


[1] In the first century, there was no office of Pastor. The two offices in the local church were elder and deacon. Pastor/shepherd was a gift given for the transformation of God’s people into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

[2] I saw three born, because one was delivered by C-Section because of being breech.

[3] The only thing worse thing he can do is say that he understands what she is going through while she is in a full-on contraction. Take my advice—just don’t go there! I promise you I’ll never do that again.

[4] Scripture uses the image of sheep for the people of God for good reason. Sheep can be very docile and obediently follow a shepherd from location to location. But the same creature can also put itself into the stupidest, dangerous situations then bawl for help. Sheep kick, butt with their heads, bite and stink. There is no better metaphor for the Church and the people who populate her.

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Only Sacrifice for Sins

The Old Covenant provided sacrifices to be performed over and over for sins. The New Covenant also provided a blood offering for sins, but the two are quite different. Heb 10:3-4 (ESV) says, “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Under the Old Covenant the sacrifices had to be completed year by year, day by day, over and over. Sin was not actually removed, it was merely covered. We too often make the mistake of believing sins were actually removed by these sacrifices, but such offerings could never remove sins.

There was only one sacrifice ever offered that actually removed sins. This offering was the last one performed under the Old Covenant—the sacrifice of Christ. Once this was completed sins were removed (not just covered) and the Old Covenant sacrificial system was abolished. The New Covenant was ushered in.

There was only one sacrifice efficacious for the removal and forgiveness of sins. All the others were merely a shadow of the true sacrifice for sins (Heb 10:1). Don’t make the mistake of thinking anyone was actually forgiven for offering bulls or lambs. Instead those who made these offerings had their sins “laid aside” or “overlooked” without punishment, until God offered the only sacrifice that would forgive us and them. No one in any age has ever been saved outside of Jesus Christ. No one in any age will ever be saved outside of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not an alternative route of salvation offered by God. Jesus is the only route of salvation offered by God.

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Sailing into Deeper Truth

shipHebrews 6:1 (LEB) says:

“Therefore, leaving behind the elementary message about Christ, let us move on to maturity…”

The second part of this “let us move on to maturity” draws a mental picture. The word used for “let us move on” is the Greek word φερώμεθα. Unfortunately, in the English translations we lose a great deal from this word.

First of all, the word is actually passive. This means we do not move on to maturity; we are carried on to maturity. The action is done to us. Someone else moves us to maturity. Stanley Porter translates it as “let us be brought to maturity” (Idioms of the Greek New Testament: 2nd Ed.). This is an important distinction to understand. I cannot mature myself. Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit must mature me—must bring me to maturity. However, I do have a part in this. I must leave off the elementary teachings. We don’t become more mature without going deeper into the Word, seeking deeper knowledge. Rather than studying the same things over and over we must move into other questions, issues and problems seeking answers in the Scripture. This doesn’t mean rejecting the earlier elementary teachings. This means seeing them as the foundation upon which greater knowledge is built. Nothing gets built if the foundation gets laid again and again. Eventually we have to leave the foundation as is and start building upwards. In the same way, there comes a time when we no longer spend a great deal of time in the elementary teachings of the Word and begin digging deeper for more knowledge; for greater understanding. John Chrysostom complained in Homily IX, that those who should be teachers are handicapped in their learning because they keep hearing the same messages and teachings over and over:

“[…] but ever hearing the same things, and on the same subjects, you are in the same condition as if you heard no one. And if any man should question you, no one will be able to answer, except a very few who may soon be counted” (Schaff, Early Church Fathers).

We must learn the basics and lay a good foundation. But once the foundation is laid we must go deeper into the Word, and rely on the Holy Spirit to move us to maturity, which brings up the second part of this passage and a beautiful word picture.

The Greek word φερώμεθα gives the image of something moved along by natural (or even spiritual) causes. Among other things, this is the movement of a ship being pushed by the wind against its sails. As you move away from the more elementary teachings of the faith, going deeper into the Word think of the Word as your sails. The Holy Spirit uses what you find in the Word to move you to maturity. You move out into deeper and deeper waters, learning more and more. The Holy Spirit acting through the Word carries you forward.

I love that the author, who here brought in imagery of a sail beinganchor pushed by the wind, later (in 6:19) describes the hope we have as an anchor for our lives keeping us firm and secure. As we go deeper into the Word and become more and more mature, we are used by God in different locations and settings. Some of these will be stormy and dangerous. Some experiences will be deceptive. However, we are always kept safe and secure by the anchor of our hope in Christ.

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