Hebrews 13:7–17 contains an exhortation to respect and obey church leaders. It begins with an invitation to “remember” those leaders of the past who spoke the word of God to them, and it closes with a call to “obey” the leaders in the present (Heb. 13:17). The leaders of the past are most likely those who first preached the word and established their faith. The call to “remember” them does not simply refer to a mental exercise of recollection nor to an external tribute honoring them. Paul explains that they are to “remember” them by considering the outcome of their conduct and by imitating their faith.

For Paul, the greatest act of remembrance and praise is emulation. In this way, Paul has added these leaders to the list of faithful heroes whom believers should carefully consider. This list includes the heroes of faith of Hebrews 11 and Jesus, the consummate example of faith, in Hebrews 12. The author further notes that Jesus is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8, ESV). He stands in stark contrast with false teachers who change with time and whose teachings become “various” and “strange” (Heb. 13:9).

The call to remember the leaders in Hebrews 13:7 is restated in more forceful terms at the end of the section. Believers are exhorted to obey the leaders, because they watch out for their souls. The leaders are described here as pastors who are in charge of the spiritual well-being of the congregation, their flock, and who will give an account to God for their spiritual state (see also 1 Pet. 5:1–4; 1 Cor. 3:10–15). Certainly, too, the idea should apply to all our church leaders, as well as to all levels of the denomination today.

The context also suggests that these leaders are under-shepherds who serve under Jesus, “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). The combination of care and faithfulness from the leaders and obedience or trust from the members will result in joy. This may mean that the leaders will be able to serve the congregation with joy, or that they will give an account of the congregation to God with joy and not with grief.

Paul continues to describe the relationship between false teachings and foods, touched on in Hebrews 13:9, which probably does not refer to the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Why?

First, Paul does not seem concerned in the epistle with the distinction between clean and unclean foods. We know from Acts 15 that the early Christian church affirmed both that believers are saved by grace (Acts 15:7–11) and that they should continue to observe some food regulations (Acts 15:19, 20). The distinction between clean and unclean foods and other biblical regulations are not opposed to grace. In fact, Paul argues that the new covenant has put the law in the heart (Heb. 8:10–12). What the author makes very clear, however, is that animal sacrifices and the Levitical priestly mediation in the sanctuary have been superseded by the superior sacrifice and priestly mediation of Jesus (Heb. 8:4, 5; 10:1–18).

Second, the context suggests that Paul is criticizing the audience for not abstaining from certain foods but for partaking of them with the hope of somehow obtaining grace or merit (Heb. 13:9). He is probably warning against participating in Jewish ritual meals that were celebrated as an extension of the animal sacrifices in the temple and which were supposed to provide spiritual benefits, or grace. But grace is not mediated through these meals; grace and salvation comes only through the sacrifice and priestly mediation of Jesus Christ. Believers “have an altar” (Heb. 13:10), the cross of Christ, from which they alone can eat (John 6:47–58).

According to Hebrews, grace comes from the throne of God (Heb. 4:16). This grace, mediated through Christ, is an “anchor,” “sure and steadfast,” which is the basis of the Christian’s hope (Heb. 6:19, 20; compare with 4:16). It is this grace that we receive through faith in the sacrifice of Christ, which provides stability and assurance to our hearts. When the heart has been “established” in this way, it will not be “carried about” by strange new doctrines (Heb. 13:9), that would cause it to “drift away” from God (Heb. 2:1).