On 4 March I lost my father-in-law, my friend, my mentor, my Pastor, my colleague in the ministry and seminary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland—the man who under God has had more influence on me for good than any other: Ted Donnelly. Barry York has already paid a deeply personal and fitting tribute to Pastor Donnelly on this blog and I don’t want to reduplicate what he has said or multiply tributes—no doubt most if not all of the authors of Gentle Reformation could add their own testimonies of how much blessing and grace the Lord poured into their lives through this man. Instead I want to share the main points of the two messages I preached the day after his death in the congregation he pastored for thirty-five years and where I have served for the last ten. The text for that momentous day in our life as a congregation was Hebrews 13.7: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
The Bible warns us not to put our trust in mortal men—not even princes, the greatest and most powerful of mortal men (Psalm 146.3-4). Ted Donnelly was a prince in the Church of Jesus Christ—an outstandingly gifted preacher and pastor, but ‘The best of men are men at best’ – only the Lord is strong and mighty to save. And yet the same Scriptures also exhort us to remember our leaders and not to forget their teaching and example. How then should we respond to the death of faithful leaders in the church?
We are to remember them, and the tense of the verb means we are to keep on remembering them. It is easy to forget because life is busy and we get preoccupied and distracted by other things. But how should we remember past leaders? Not by idolizing or idealizing them, which would be all too easy to do. Remembering them doesn’t mean pining for them and wishing them back. We don’t honor their memory by refusing to accept new leaders, especially if they don’t have the same degree of gifts as their predecessors. Perhaps that was an issue for the readers of this letter—especially if their previous leaders had been apostles! I had big shoes to fill coming after Ted Donnelly, but imagine replacing the apostles Peter or Paul! Verse 17 makes it clear what the attitude to current leaders ought to be: Obey your leaders and submit to them…
The whole point of remembering former leaders is not so that we will be stuck in the past but more useful, devoted, holy church members in the present.
In particular we are to remember former leaders for their preaching. That is the particular characteristic of their leadership that is singled out by the writer: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Of course they did all kinds of things for their flock, but above all they spoke the word of God to them—from the pulpit, from house to house, in small groups and one-to-one, in season and out of season.
Ted Donnelly was preeminently a preacher, and those of us who had the privilege of sitting under his regular exposition of the word as our Pastor were blessed with a rare gift from the Lord. If you ever heard him preach at a conference, or listened to his messages online you will have known something of this: suddenly just a simple phrase or question or single word cast a flood of light on the passage being preached so that you saw wonderful things out of God’s law that seemed so obvious that you wonder how you didn’t see it yourself. Ted always said that one the greatest compliments a preacher could ever be paid after a sermon was, ‘I don’t know how I didn’t see that before!’
You may have enjoyed a spiritual feast listening to his preaching at some special event or other, but how thankful we his congregation were to sit under that preaching twice each Lord’s day, week after week, year after year. To be preached to by our own Pastor who knew us, loved us and tailored his sermons with us in mind—our families, our struggles, our congregation in our community. How many times we were challenged, rebuked, comforted, encouraged, stretched in our understanding and searched in our consciences—very often all in the same sermon!
One of the Lord’s greatest blessings to his people is to give them a faithful Pastor who will love his flock, pray for them, care for them and preach the Scriptures to them. To be given a Pastor of exceptional giftedness is an unusual privilege. But it also brings a correspondingly great responsibility. Jesus said that much is expected from those to whom much has been given. He said this to the cities where he, the Son of God incarnate, had preached with authority and power like they had never heard before, warning his hearers that they had a much greater accountability before God than places like Sodom and Gomorrah who had never heard such preaching.
So if the Lord has given you faithful leaders in the past who preached the word of God to you, remember them above all by responding to that preaching. What have you done with the riches God has lavished upon you? Maybe you can remember every series your former Pastor ever preached—you have notebooks with almost verbatim transcripts of every sermon. Maybe you were moved to tears time and time again by his preaching. But what are you doing with all that spiritual treasure? Does your zeal for the Lord, your personal holiness, your commitment to Christ and his church correspond to all you’ve been given? We will have to give an account of how we have stewarded the resources the Lord has given us. So many brothers and sisters throughout the world put us to shame by their zeal and love for the Lord and the lost, who survive on little scraps of teaching here and there. And what of those who sat under faithful ministry like Ted Donnelly’s and yet never responded to the gospel they heard preached so powerfully and clearly? How fearful will their judgment be on the last day.
Hebrews 13.7 exhorts us to reflect on something as we remember our leaders: consider the outcome of their way of life. We are to carefully observe not just their words but their actions, their lifestyle—the kind of men they were. Some leaders, tragically, are very able, powerful, passionate preachers with an international reputation but their way of life contradicts their message. They preach Christ for what’s in it for them—for money, fame, power or influence.
Ted Donnelly was not like that. He lived a simple life of holiness. He wasn’t perfect, but he was consistent in his godliness. I shared a study with him for three months while my wife and I lived with her parents while we began ministry in our first congregation and no better ‘on the job training’ could be desired! I was able to observe carefully his way of life and the outcome of it. How he got up early for his personal devotions, took some exercise and was at his desk in good time. How he labored hard in the study preparing for preaching and teaching. How he fielded numerous phone calls dealing with all kinds of pastoral matters. Often I found him on his knees praying. He was always available for people who were going through a crisis or in need of guidance. He and his wife were exemplary in hospitality, opening their home to strangers and friends alike. He didn’t leave himself much spare time, but what little he had was spent on simple pleasures like reading or walking, watching sport or a movie, usually with his wife or family. The lion share of his life was given over, in one way or another, to the work of ministry.
He served the Lord with gladness, laboring hard for six days and delighting in the Sabbath. I never heard him complain about his workload or saw him shrink from difficult or unpleasant responsibilities. He could easily have spent every week of the year touring the world on the conference circuit, but his priority was the flock over which God had made him an overseer. Ted despised the cult of the celebrity preacher. He was one of those men who could be the main speaker at a conference, holding hundreds spellbound as he preached the word of God with power and clarity, but during the day was happy to sit and talk to anyone who wanted to chat or ask his advice.
Hebrews 13.7 especially calls us to reflect on the outcome of the way of life of our past leaders. It may refer to the outcome of their way of life in this world. Where did their life of self-denial and sacrificial service lead? A life of tedious misery and drudgery? Not at all! It produces a full, happy, fruitful life. A holy life is a happy, fulfilled life. That was certainly Ted’s experience. He wouldn’t have exchanged it for all the riches in the world.
Or it may refer to where our past leaders are now, in glory. John Brown puts it like this: ‘Reflect on how your departed leaders are standing before the throne and the Lamb, clothed with white robes and with palms in their hands, worshipping the Lamb. These had the rule over you and have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.’ In other words, ‘Reflect on where they are now and what bliss they are experiencing! Do they regret a single second of pain and effort for Christ in this world? Not one bit! This is the outcome of their way of life!’ What an incentive to remember their example and so follow them to glory. Which is the final thing the text tells us…
Imitate their faith.We are not to become clones of our leaders and to imitate them in every respect, but we are to imitate their faith. This may mean one or all of three things:
(i) Imitate their strong faith in God. Ted Donnelly had to endure many hard providences in his life, not least over the last thirteen years since he was struck down with encephalitis. The Lord spared his life at that time and gave him a miraculous measure of recovery, but his health was never the same again and his retirement was blighted by several other serious illnesses over the course of these years. He didn’t understand them, but he never doubted the Lord’s sovereignty, wisdom or goodness. That is the essence of strong faith—trusting God when we don’t understand why he does what he does. We should imitate that faith when we see it in our leaders.
(ii) Imitate their firm adherence to what they believed. That seems to be the focus of v9: Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings… Ted Donnelly was as unshaken in his doctrinal beliefs on the day of his death as on the day he took his ordination vows as a minister of the Gospel. As we remember faithful servants of the past, let’s recommit ourselves to the truths they taught us and the faith they contended for so earnestly.
(iii) Imitate their faithfulness. Ted Donnelly ran a hard race and fought a good fight. It was tough: there were many stresses, heartaches and disappointments (as well as many joys and encouragements). But he kept going to the end without wavering. He continued to serve as best he could over the last thirteen years in spite of the obstacles and challenges of his health. As we remember past faithful leaders who persevered to the end, let’s imitate their faithfulness and not slack off, frittering away precious time and opportunities in front of trivial rubbish being spewed out of a screen; let’s not slack off when the pressures of life pile up and our strength begins to wane—by the grace of God, let’s imitate the steadfast faithfulness of those who showed us the way by their own life as well as their words.