When I was in high school I had a job working for the janitorial company that cleaned my school. Every day after class I would change clothes and head to the boiler room for my trash bin and mop bucket.
I worked on a team with one other guy. We had several cleaning duties like taking out trash bins, vacuuming, wiping counters, and mopping on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Oh, how we loathed mopping! Maybe it was the waiting for the bucket to fill with water, the disgusting plop of slapping that wet woolly wig onto the tile floor, or the back-breaking heave of dumping the dirty mop water down the drain. Whatever it was, we hated mopping.
So being stupid mop-hating teenagers, and wanting to finish work as quickly as possible so we could hang out with friends, sometimes we would cut corners. One event in particular is burned into that area of the memory which vividly stores the most embarrassing moments of one’s life. My co-worker and I decided that we would “speed mop” the classrooms we were assigned, so we could get out of there early and shoot hoops. We even made a race out of it.
After filling our little yellow buckets, we were off. We literally sprinted through the hallways from classroom to classroom, sloshing puddles of dirty mop water on the floor at every turn, lazily swiping big wet stripes across the floor and leaving stray mop strings under desk legs and door jams.
We were moving so fast that we were oblivious to the fact that our little mop race was held before an audience of every single teacher who had stayed late to grade papers and prepare for the following day of classes. They watched in horror as we ran through their classroom sanctuaries spreading filthy tripping hazard puddles across the floor at random and then running back out the door like zamboni bandits.
By the end of our mopping-spree my co-worker and I were both exhausted, soaked with a mixture of sweat and soapy floor water. We had finished quickly, that was for sure, but far from having actually cleaned the floors we had been tasked with mopping, we had left an even bigger mess in our wake. And that’s when my phone rang.
It was the boss.
Apparently, a lot of teachers whose rooms we had “mopped” were none-too-pleased by our efficient work habits. Boss man was not happy.
What were we supposed to say? That we had a race? That we were trying to get done quickly so we could play basketball with our friends? There really was no excuse.
That day I learned what it means to give an account for one’s labors.
Now, cutting corners in janitorial work is one thing, but imagine having to give an account for the souls of human beings. And having to give that account not to an earthly boss but to the risen Son of God Himself—your Lord and Master Jesus Christ. Well, that is exactly what every pastor is required to do. And it is that fearful prospect that should make our blood run cold.
Called to Give an Account
In Hebrews chapter 13 the writer enjoins church members to obey their leaders, willingly submitting to them.
Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. – Hebrews 13:17
In other words, every church member should take care to submit to the leaders in the church because those pastors and elders will be held responsible before the Lord Jesus Christ for how they kept watch over the souls in their care. A tall order indeed.
While this passage is directed at church members, it would be difficult for any sober-minded pastor to read those words without a shot of ice water running through his veins. This is a terrifying responsibility. And there are at least three reasons this passage should strike fear into the heart of every pastor.
1. Souls are Eternal
The verse says that church rulers keep watch over people’s souls. The first reason this charge to pastors and elders is so serious is that these souls being watched over are eternal. While the job of pastor doesn’t look as dangerous as a firefighter, soldier, or a sky-diving instructor, ministry is actually very high stakes. The cost of ministerial failure is the eternal destiny of those very people the Lord has entrusted to our care.
Certainly, the responsibility for believing the gospel is on the individual. Ezekiel 18:20 makes it plain that it is individuals who are judged for their own sins. But ministers are charged as watchmen, undershepherds of the Great Shepherd with the responsibility of warning sinners of the impending judgment of God. If we do not issue this warning to that hell-bound man in our church, God says in Ezekiel 33:7–9, “his blood I will require at your hand.”
When a pastor reads that he is accountable to God for the souls in his care, the first reason his blood should run cold is that the souls he is accountable for are eternal. If we fail to warn them about God’s wrath and tell them of the gospel which can save them, we will have a reckoning with the Lord Himself. And He takes this matter very seriously.
2. Souls Were Bought with Christ’s Blood
This responsibility of soul-watching is not just about evangelism. It also concerns the care for those eternal souls whom God has already regenerated. We are responsible for the soul-care of Christians. Our failures to steer them toward Christ-likeness and greater sanctification may not damn them, but it will rob them of earthly joy and eternal rewards—or worse by our neglect or bad example we may cause one of Christ’s precious children to sin. The Lord gave a stern warning regarding this, “And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.” (Mark 9:42).
Why does the Lord take the spiritual condition of his saints so seriously? Why does he value them so highly? Because they were purchased at a very steep price. Back in Hebrews 13, a few verses earlier, in verse 12, we are told that Jesus suffered so that he would “sanctify the people through his own blood.” And Acts 20:28 puts it even more clearly, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
So we have the second reason every pastor’s blood should run cold at the reading of Hebrews 13:17. Because the souls he must give an account for are not only eternal, they are eternally valuable to Jesus Christ. He bought them with His own blood. This is a sobering responsibility indeed! Who is sufficient for such things?
3. We are Far Too Weak for the Task
John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer came face-to-face with the weight of the call to ministry. When some of the men with whom he was serving verbally confirmed that call to ministry which was no doubt already groaning loudly in Knox’s heart, he is said to have burst into tears and he initially rejected the call. And bear in mind that John Knox was no weakling, and certainly no coward. Having served as a galley slave on a French vessel and been employed as a broad-sword wielding body-guard to the preacher George Wishart, this was not a man given to wimpiness. How could a call to ministry have struck such a fear into this burly man’s heart?
Knox knew to whom he would have to give an account.
It’s so different in our day, isn’t it? Any knucklehead with a modicum of charisma is apt to take on the title “pastor” and carelessly mark himself worthy of teaching God’s people. To these hirelings, the warnings like the one in James 3 are merely suggestions for someone else. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1) They read Hebrews 13 and would never dream of reacting like Knox did. They don’t take it seriously. They think their personality, vocabulary, and vision are enough to qualify them to teach God’s people.
But what every serious minister who takes on the care of souls must face is the humbling terror of his own inadequacy for the task, especially in light of the fearful prospect of giving an account to the Master someday.
Sufficiency, Dependency, and Seminary
Only the humble realization of the weight of the task will drive us to the dependency necessary for fulfilling it. For He who calls also supplies, “who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6) When you read Hebrews 13:17 and your blood run cold, let it drive you back to the warmth of the Son. Cling to Him who supplies and equips His undershepherds for the noble task to which He has called them.
And that same humility which drives us to dependence on God-supplied sufficiency for ministry ought also to drive us to seek out whatever equipping is available to us. Seminary is not a requirement for ministry, but if you are able, and knowing the seriousness of the call to gospel ministry, why would you not avail yourself of every opportunity for preparation?