Sunday, January 29, 2017

Peter's denial, a little clarity

I hope to provide a little clarity to how we read about Jesus' prediction that Peter would deny him. For most of us, we read that prediction through lenses of how we have been taught rather than by what we have read in the Bible.

I will give special focus here to the record of Jesus' prediction as it appears in the book of Luke. All four Gospels record the prediction but Luke includes a detail about Peter's restoration. Peter's restoration seems to also be predicted.
31 “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 (NRSV)
Peter voices a kind of objection in verse 33. In Matthew and Mark, Peter's protest is that he will not desert. Matthew follows Mark's order in which Jesus informs the disciples that they will all desert (Mark 14:27 = Matthew 26:31). John's record resembles Luke's in that Peter claims that he is willing to die for Jesus (John 13:37). However, John's record seems to come from a different witness than Mark, possibly that of the beloved disciple who was present at the time of the conversation.

In all four cases, Peter's denial is predicted and the sign of the morning rooster crow is offered.

We know the story. Peter did indeed deny Jesus and the rooster crowed.

Here is how we tend to read the Lord's prediction. We read that Jesus foresaw Peter's denial as a fixed feature of the future. Fortunately, that kind of predictive foresight is not taught in the Bible. Fixed-future foresight is definitely not taught in this passage. All we need do to see that Peter's denials were not certain is to look down the page a couple verses to Luke 22:40 where Jesus took the disciples to the Mount of Olives and went off alone to pray, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). He told the disciples to pray. The suggested prayer was for God to keep them from the time of trial.
When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Luke 22:40. see also Luke 22:46)
If Peter's denials were that certain, Jesus would be asking Peter to pray for something that could not possibly be answered in a good way.

The obvious conclusion is that Jesus' prediction of Peter's denials was not a prediction of something that was fixed in the future; but it was something that could be changed now that Peter was warned about it. The lesson for us, especially in light of Peter's claim that he would never desert is that Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Indeed, we who have children know what it means to know our children better than our children know themselves. Thus, it is also possible for a friend or fellow Christian to know me better than I know myself. If we brag about our loyalty to God, we should watch out (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Did Jesus "foreknow" Peter's denials? Yes, in the Biblical meaning of the word "foreknow" (which does not appear in this passage; but it is inferred). Foreknow [Greek, proginōskō] means to know something in a predictive way. Sometimes, the word is simply translated as "know" because the predictive aspect in context is too soft. Consider these examples.
"All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have known [proginōskō] for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee." (Acts 26:4-5)
You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned [proginōskō], beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. (2 Peter 3:17)
Simple foreknowledge in the Bible usually means an anticipatory prediction that can be changed if the people involved make different decisions than anticipated (foreknown).

In few places in the Bible, God foreknows something that people will do but actual events do not work out as God anticipated. We don't need many examples of God being surprised by people's choices in order to undo the notion that foreknowledge is exhaustive and definite. We need only one. I offer Jeremiah 3:6-7.
6 The LORD said to me in the days of King Josiah: Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and played the whore there? 7 And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me”; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it.
In the above example, God fully anticipated that Israel would return to God after they had their little season of pegging out. Boy, was God surprised when they did not repent! God thought they would; but they did not. When God foreknows someone's future behavior, actual events may turn out some other way. In the case of Peter's denial, Peter might have taken Jesus' prediction as a warning and assessed himself. He might have cautiously considered that he is not as strong as he thinks and he might have spent more time praying to be spared temptation and, if tempted, that God will give him the strength to endure it. Then, the rooster might have crowed without Peter having denied Jesus.

The above quote from Jeremiah is pertinent to the other prediction mentioned in Luke. Jesus predicted that Peter would repent (Luke 22:32). Did Peter's repentance have to go down as Jesus predicted? It was no more a certainty than was Israel's repentance in Jeremiah 3:6-7. However, Jesus knew Peter well enough to be fairly certain that Peter would repent. He was not at all certain about what kind of disciple Peter would be after his repentance. Many people who have fallen away, after they repent, they return in a broken state. They come back as ineffective Christians. Here is where Jesus steps in and gives Peter direction. "When once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." If I may paraphrase, "When you turn back, you will feel pain and shame for a long time. Don't let those feelings prevent you from working for your brothers. Strengthen them." Darrell Bock (InterVarsity Press Commentary on the New Testament, Luke) says, "Peter will be able to strengthen fellow believers after his fall because he will understand how easy it is to fall."

Let us not overlook this point. Jesus did not predict that Peter would be a great strengthener of the brothers. He commanded Peter to take on that role.

Real repentance is a major theme in Luke. It is not enough to repent. It is not enough to be baptized. Repentance must be visible in the converted person's actions. Many people came to John the Baptist repenting and being baptized. John said what they have done is not the end of the story. There is more to do.
Luke 3:7-14
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
That is our lesson from Peter's ordeal. He fell and he repented. We fall and repent. Now, let's get to work.

Friday, January 27, 2017

How do I know when my kid is ready to be baptized?

How do I know when my kid is ready to be baptized?

This question has been asked of me rather frequently over the years. Most Christian parents raise their children to have Christian values. Christian parents may ponder within themselves whether their children are "ready" to become Christians. I propose that parents are better positioned to recognize when their children are "ready" than are the children themselves.

I have five children and four of them have become Christians by confessing Christ and being baptized by immersion for the forgiveness of sins (see my articles on The necessity of baptism and Acts 2:38). I am certain that this experience does not make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination; but I can at least speak from experience. I present in this article my thoughts on the question of how to recognize when your children are "ready." Here are some indicators.

Does he ever show that he feels guilty about something he has done? If you have more than one child and they are roughly close to the same age, they will interact and sometimes behave harshly towards each other. If you have only one child, you may have to look for other evidence. Watch for evidence that the young person has done something that inflicts damage (hopefully emotional rather than physical) on another person and then feels guilt about it without being rebuked for it. Everybody feels guilty when they are rightly rebuked and sometimes the rebuke feels sufficiently like punishment to make up for the damage done to another person. But what if there is no rebuke? Does the young person still show evidence of feeling guilty? I am talking about the kind of guilt than cannot be paid back. This is a good time to talk with him and ask him how he feels. What is he willing to do to make right what damage he has caused? If he is willing to try to soften the pain caused to the other person, it is a really good sign that his own conscience feels pain. He is able to feel the right kind of guilt that only Jesus can cleanse. He should be encouraged to apologize and to do something nice for the other person. If the offended party is a sibling, maybe he will volunteer to do the other's chores for a day or week, or he may help to tidy his/her room. You should suggest something. It will only be a token deed; but it will show genuine remorse. It shows his desire for a clear conscience for what he has done (Hebrews 13:18; 1 Peter 3:16, 21). It's better than a simple "I'm sorry. Now do your duty and forgive me" response. Recall that it was a sense of guilt that moved the people on the day of Pentecost to ask for baptism.
Acts 2:36-38
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Has she acted in genuine repentance? What we are watching for is evidence of a real effort to change a bad habit or to take steps to avoid acting again in some harmful way. One act that is a really good sign of repentance is apologizing to someone for acting harmfully towards him without anybody else (like you) suggesting she apologize. If the apology includes a statement like "I do that a lot and I am going to try to stop" or "I wish I had not done that and I will try to not do it again" she has verbalized genuine repentance. Now, if she takes steps to avoid the behavior, you really do have witnessed repentance.

Repentance sounds like some pretty advanced thinking, and indeed it is. It is recognizing that the feelings of someone else matter as much or more than my own. I have seen it in my own children when they just try to treat one another more nicely. They say "please" and "thank you" more. They do little courtesies like letting them go first in line. Just little stuff. It gives you the heads-up that in their minds they are doing the right thing not just because that's what they were taught but also because it is the right thing to do.

When you see the above behaviors, it is a good time to point out to them what they have just done. They may feel bad but they have also taken some very good steps that they should be encouraged to keep on taking. "Do you know what that is called?" you may say. "That's called 'regret.' That's what Jesus came to help people with." You may, if appropriate, say something like, "As bad as you feel about what you have done, it looks to me like you want to quit doing it. That's called 'repentance.' Being willing to repent is a good thing. When you repent of your sins, it means you want to try to quit sinning. Let's read Romans 6 together."

Since she may have not thought about it, you should wrap up your short conversation with a statement like, "Since you feel responsible for the things you have done, you ought to consider giving your life to Jesus and being baptized for the forgiveness of sins." An appropriate verse that applies to clearing a conscience messed up by feelings of guilt and sin is 1 Peter 3:20.

Does he ever do something nice yet unconditionally? I mention this pseudo-litmus test because it is a good sign but not necessarily of real readiness. Children (and many adults) do nice things for others because they want to get something. If your child does something nice for someone else but does it in secret, that means the act was unconditional. That means he is selflessly thinking about what is good for someone else. It is a symptom of emotional development in a very good direction. Here's a personal example. When our children lost their baby teeth, we did the over-night gift thing. We didn't give them money; but we gave them little gifts. One evening when my son went to bed after having lost a baby tooth, us parents began to plan for a gift he would enjoy in the morning. His older sister approached with some of her money and said she wanted to help to get her younger brother something for his tooth. That offering was a sign that she was thinking of people outside herself that she can do nice things for. I was encouraged. Doing something for someone in a way that prevents repayment is Christian behavior.
Matthew 6:3-4
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Luke 14:12-14
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
There is a saying (author unknown), "A good deed is its own reward." Maurice Maeterlinck said it this way: "An act of goodness is of itself an act of happiness. No reward coming after the event can compare with the sweet reward that went with it."

Watch your children for evidence of an unfulfilled need to deal with their own bad behavior. When you see it, it is a good indicator that they are ready to appreciate the sacrifice for sin given by Christ. Your child may be ready to make Jesus her Lord.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Spiritually starving the laity: Comments on Isaiah 28-29

The professional clergy in the church today sometimes appear to be actively stifling strong Biblical teaching. They seemingly filter out any difficult teaching in order to keep everybody comfortable and calm.

Jerusalem, in Isaiah's day, had a problem with weak teaching. It was a struggle for Isaiah and he wrote about it in chapters 28-29. His message was one of warning regarding the coming threat from the Assyrian Empire. The Northern half-nation of Israel was about to come to an end (or it had already been decimated by the time Isaiah wrote chapter 28). His warning was that the Southern half-nation of Judah was equally threatened as Israel from the Assyrians. Isaiah warned that any international political alliances were a mistake for Judah. Unfortunately, the religious leaders in Jerusalem believed they had a better understanding of international affairs and a better plan of action concerning the Assyrians. Their plan involved international politics. To them, hashing out treaties was the wiser and more prudent action. For one, it was easier to forge treaties than to call for moral reform of the people of Judah. Politics is easier than godliness. Isaiah's message was that the people need to be taught to practice righteousness and then God will be their defense against the Assyrian army. He reiterates his point in Isaiah 28:16-17 which says that as much as the building of the temple was God's work, so is the righteousness of Jerusalem. If Jerusalem lives up to the righteousness implied by the resident temple, then God will be the defense against Assyria. Here is the text with my comments.
Isaiah 28:7-29:16
These also reel with wine
    and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
    they are confused with wine,
    they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
    they stumble in giving judgment.
All tables are covered with filthy vomit;
    no place is clean.
That is, the office of the priesthood has become the office of decadence. The priests are more interested in excelling in their positions than in actually teaching. They say,
9 “Whom will he teach knowledge,
    and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from milk,
    those taken from the breast?
These people are simple people. We need to keep it basic and what you are trying to teach them is upsetting. Our preaching needs to be totally directed at the spiritual babes in Jerusalem.
10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little.”
The language sounds like mumbling; so Isaiah is accused of teaching gibberish. The charge is that the people get lost trying to follow Isaiah's sermons. All they hear is the kind of talk adults make in the Peanuts cartoons.
11 Truly, with stammering lip
    and with alien tongue
he will speak to this people,
I think Isaiah is still quoting his priestly critics. Since common people cannot accept Isaiah's message, they say, he might as well be up there stuttering. It is possible that Isaiah's Judahite accent is being mocked by listeners in Ephraim (Isaiah 28:1); but we soon learn that Isaiah is preaching to Jerusalem (Isaiah 28:14), not Ephraim. Thus, Isaiah is accused of preaching a message so complicated he might as well be preaching in a foreign language.
12 to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
    give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
    yet they would not hear.
Isaiah's message to Jerusalem was to relax and focus on righteousness; but the priests taught that they should relax because Jerusalem has a treaty―and they made no mention of moral reform. That would be too upsetting.
13 Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them,
    “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little;”
in order that they may go, and fall backward,
    and be broken, and snared, and taken.
Isaiah means that if the people ignore his preaching, they will suffer when the Assyrians come to Jerusalem.
14 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers
    who rule this people in Jerusalem.
15 Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
Because the priests have sabotaged Isaiah's preaching in favor of a treaty agreement ("covenant with death") with Assyria...
16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”
17 And I will make justice the line,
    and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
    and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
I will hold Jerusalem to a moral standard the same way I held the temple builders to an architectural standard. It is not an unreasonable moral expectation. If God finds righteousness in Jerusalem, then God will be their refuge. If not,
18 Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
    and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    you will be beaten down by it.
19 As often as it passes through, it will take you;
    for morning by morning it will pass through,
    by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.
20 For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it,
    and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.
If you try to hide from the terror under your bed covers, you will find the covers to be too short.
21 For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim,
    he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon
to do his deed—strange is his deed!—
    and to work his work—alien is his work!
Perazim and Gibeon are mentioned in 1 Chronicles 14:11-16. This is strange and alien work for God because he would rather bless than punish.
22 Now therefore do not scoff,
    or your bonds will be made stronger;
for I have heard a decree of destruction
    from the Lord GOD of hosts upon the whole land.
There follows an example of farming. Farmers plant and harvest at the proper times and with the right tools and methods. This is God's wisdom. God's counsel has purpose and it is best followed. International alliances, in this case, rebuff God's wisdom.
23 Listen, and hear my voice;
    Pay attention, and hear my speech.
24 Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?
    Do they continually open and harrow their ground?
25 When they have leveled its surface,
    do they not scatter dill, sow cummin,
and plant wheat in rows
    and barley in its proper place,
    and spelt as the border?
26 For they are well instructed;
    their God teaches them.

27 Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
    nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin;
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
    and cummin with a rod.
28 Grain is crushed for bread,
    but one does not thresh it forever;
one drives the cart wheel and horses over it,
    but does not pulverize it.
29 This also comes from the LORD of hosts;
    he is wonderful in counsel,
    and excellent in wisdom.

29:1 Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
    let the festivals run their round.
2 Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and Jerusalem shall be to me like an Ariel.
On the meaning of the word "arial," John Goldingay says,
It means "God's lion," but a similar word means "hero" in Isaiah 33:7, while "Ariel" sounds the same as a word for the hearth around the temple altar where animals were burnt in sacrifice (see Ezekiel 43:15-16). (Understanding the Bible Commentary on Isaiah)
In other words, Isaiah warns that if the current ignorance persists the city of Jerusalem (Ariel) will become like one giant altar (ariel) on which the whole city is sacrificed.
3 And like David I will encamp against you;
    I will besiege you with towers
    and raise siegeworks against you.
4 Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
    from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and your speech shall whisper out of the dust.
When I (God) am done with you, you will be dead. Then, the only voice you will have for preaching is the voice of the dead.
5 But the multitude of your foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of tyrants like flying chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
6 you will be visited by the LORD of hosts
with thunder and earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
7 And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold, and who distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
8 Just as when a hungry person dreams of eating
    and wakes up still hungry,
or a thirsty person dreams of drinking
    and wakes up faint, still thirsty,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion.

9 Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not from wine;
    stagger, but not from strong drink!
10 For the LORD has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep;
he has closed your eyes, you prophets,
    and covered your heads, you seers.
That is, the people have been happily blinded. This blindness came upon them through their own resistance to the truth of Yahweh.
11 The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot read.”
The priests were asked to teach something that was written in a scroll. It may have been something that Isaiah himself wrote. The priests declined to teach from the scroll claiming that it was sealed. The uneducated commoners wanted to study the scroll; but unfortunately, they could not read. This lack of learning was thus entirely the fault of the priests whose responsibility it was to provide good teaching (Hosea 4:6). Incidentally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) believe Isaiah 29:11-12 is a prophecy predicting the coming of the Book of Mormon. This connection is made because Joseph Smith was allegedly given the Mormon revelation as it was written on some tablets; but the tablets were written in a dead language and Smith could not read them. We observe here that these verses are not predictive. In them, Isaiah explains the plight of the people in Jerusalem due to the overly simple teaching of the priests. The scroll of the vision was not sealed. It had become to them "like the words of a sealed document."
13 The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
At least the priests taught the proper order of worship so everyone knew what to do in the assemblies.
14 so I will again do
    amazing things with this people,
    shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
    and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.

15 Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”?
The priests thought they knew a better way to go with contemporary conditions. They say, There is no need for too much focus on moral behavior. That kind of teaching is antiquated. We have thought about it and we have a better way.

Today in our congregations, there is a desire to teach in ways that do not challenge the believer to more meaningful righteous living and greater knowledge of God and Christian godliness. Are we afraid we are going to upset someone?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Obey your leaders and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17): Caution!

Beware when someone quotes Hebrews 13:17 and says that it means the eldership should manage everything in the church. Below I will suggest some reasons someone may teach Hebrews 13:17 this way; but first I must present what I believe to be a proper understanding of what this verse really means (as best I can exegete it).
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.
In the near context of this verse is Hebrews 13:7 which says, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith."

The rhetoric says that the leaders in verse 7 are teachers but the leaders in verse 17 are elders. Why? because we are supposed to obey them and submit to them. This rationale usually carries the day because most of us have in our minds that the church elders are church rulers. Surely the Hebrews author does not mean that we are to obey anyone in the church that steps up to the leadership plate! So what humans in the church are we supposed to obey? Well, we suppose, they must be the elders.

Many scholars are on the side of these leaders in verse 17 being elders; so I must confess to feeling a little bit alone out here as I dispute the connection.

But let's look at the train of thought from verses 7 to 17. I believe the flow of thought is smooth.

In verse 7 the ones who originally taught the members of this church (or churches) should be an example for the members.  Their way of life was an example. (I say "was" because it appears from this reading that many in this group of teachers have died). Did the Hebrews author mean that some specific feature of these teachers' faith should be followed? Yes. Skipping verse 8 for a second,
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them. (Hebrews 13:9)
The writer wants his readers to imitate their teachers' steadfastness. They believed what they believed because they had good reason to believe it. They were not easily moved by new teaching. Just because it is new and cool does not make in right (or wrong, for that matter). The preaching must be persuasive and it must be consistent with what they learned directly from the apostles or from teachers who heard the doctrine directly from the apostles. According to verse 9, this particular threatening teaching promoted the observance of the Jewish kosher regulations. If they teach observance of Mosaic regulations at the expense of the grace of Christ, it is a strange teaching in the context of the church. Thus, verse 8:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
If the Mosaic regulations were set aside by grace, there is no reason to restore them.

The next several verses explain retrospectively (because they are discussed in detail earlier in the book of Hebrews) how much superior was the Lord's sacrifice to those that the Levitical priests offered.
10 We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.
There is a lot to be studied in the above several verses. Suffice it here to note that the Hebrews author is worried that the church is following the teaching of preachers who want the church to observe the temple sacrifices at the expense of the grace of Christ, and at the expense of the teaching of the church leaders.

The city of Jerusalem is not core to salvation:
For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:14)
Sacrifice is no longer temple-based; but it is praise based.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. (Hebrews 13:15)
Sharing with others who are in need is a Christian sacrifice.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:16)
That is, we have sacrifices that are no longer Law based. They are Christ based.

Now comes our verse.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
If this verse is suddenly talking about the eldership, it does not follow what came before. Not obeying the elders does not in any obvious way nullify the sacrifice of Christ. It does not put the readers at risk of re-adopting the Law of Moses. If the leaders are teachers who are teaching against the strange doctrines, then the verse makes sense. The leaders may not be the exact people in who are mentioned in verse 7; but they have the same role. They teach. They were very worried about the church because some were swallowing up the strange teachings of preachers who advocated a return to the Law of Moses. Certainly, the temple-centric regulations had more pizazz. I recall a playground discussion I was a part of when I was in third grade. We were talking about our various church homes. One kid said, "My church is the best because we have candles." That kind of misplaced focus seems to be the trouble with the original readers of the book of Hebrews. They were attracted to the ceremonial at the expense of the grace of Christ.

But what about this word "obey?" I am no Greek scholar so I have to rely on the language helps. "Obey" looks like a bad English translation. Here is the Strong's definition:
To convince (by argument, true or false); by analogy, to pacify or conciliate (by other fair means); reflexively or passively, to assent (to evidence or authority), to rely (by inward certainty): ― agree, assure, believe, have confidence, be (wax) conflent [sic?], make friend, obey, persuade, trust, yield. (Strong's Dictionary, OliveTree Bible Software)
Note that "obey" is one way this word can be translated; but it is a kind of obedience that has to do with being persuaded. It appears that the better way to translate the single Greek word is something like, "Permit yourselves to be persuaded." The meaning behind the NRSV's "Obey your leaders and submit them" is "Respect and comply with your leaders." The fact that these people are leaders because they teach lends the meaning, "Listen to your home-boy teachers and follow their teaching." The implication is that their leaders were teaching their hearts out and they were worried sick about the spiritual health of the members of the church.

In summary, the verse does not teach that the leaders are in any way church managers. They teach. The church membership is encouraged to obey and submit to their teaching. The lesson for us is to listen to our leaders and weigh what they teach against the Bible. If it is sound teaching, submit to it.

This "obey" understanding is supported by a few English translations of the Bible. Here is the Common English Bible.
Rely on your leaders and defer to them, because they watch over your whole being as people who are going to be held responsible for you. They need to be able to do this with pleasure and not with complaints about you, because that wouldn’t help you.
Here is the Bible in Basic English.
Give ear to those who are rulers over you, and do as they say: for they keep watch over your souls, ready to give an account of them; let them be able to do this with joy and not with grief, because that would be of no profit to you.
Here is New International Version 2011:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
So, why do so many translations render the Greek as "obey?" The "obey" translation may result from occasional difficulties translating committees have agreeing with one another. If they argue and argue and come to no agreement, quite often they just go with a traditional reading. In this case, they would be following the King James Version.

There may be another reason that involves economics. Bible translation owners want to sell Bibles. This verse is regularly invoked by preachers who call themselves "pastor" to show that the pastor is a manager. It is not so frequently invoked in the churches of Christ that way. When it is, it is usually by a preacher who wants to show that the elders are church managers. In other words, the managerial authority of the eldership is much more expansive than laboring in teaching and spiritually guiding. What are the actual responsibilities of elders is a topic for another article.

From what I have witnessed in my years of being a member of churches governed by elders, invoking this verse and over-applying the meaning of "obey" is done by preachers. I suggest caution. When a preacher reads Hebrews 13:17 and tells the elders, basically, that they manage everything in the church, the preacher thinks the eldership can be manipulated. It is rarely a good thing that a preacher will tell the elders such a thing. If you are an elder and your preacher misapplies this verse to magnify your authority in the church, it is not a compliment. He is not on your side.

Do you see the little circular rationale with the traditional modern teaching from this verse? It goes like this: Hebrews 13:17 is talking about elders because we are supposed to obey and submit to them. Therefore, we are supposed to obey and submit to the elders in every aspect of church life.

It is not about the body of elders, although there may be some elders in the group of teaching leaders indicated by this verse. It is also not about strict obedience. It is about obedience with respect to the things the leaders teach.

There are many pastors and preachers invested in the "obey" reading of this verse and I think that is why most mainline English translations say "obey" in Hebrews 13:17. It gives pastors and preachers Scriptural authority to exert undue control over the church membership. Bible translation owners want to sell Bibles.