Come to the Throne of Grace, part 2 (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Let’s look today at this wonderful promise given to us in Hebrews 4:14-16…

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

There are two exhortations here: (1) “let us hold fast our confession” and (2) “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.”  Both exhortations are based on this wonderful reality that we have a better high priest who made complete and final payment of our sins so that we are completely forgiven.

“Let us hold fast” means “don’t move away from Christ” (a negative) and “let us draw near” means move ever closer and closer to Christ.  Run to Him, go to Him.

The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers not to quit on Jesus Christ, but to persevere no matter what the cost.  Failure to endure trials is the mark of the seed sown on rocky soil. Jesus explained that this seed represents those who, “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17).  Endurance is one mark of genuine saving faith (Heb. 3:6).

The word “since” at the beginning of verse 14 shows that what the author has said about Jesus as our “great high priest” serves as a reason for the exhortation to “hold fast.”  If we really understood the deep and wonderful ramifications of who Christ was, our pioneer into the very presence of a holy God, then we would not fail to “hold fast” to Him.

Physically, the word krateo, in “hold fast,” is used of grasping a person, such as when the women grabbed hold of the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 28:9), or the lame man who clung to Peter and John in Acts 3:11.  In that sense it betrays a sense of urgency and desperation.

Picture someone holding on for dear life as their raft goes down the raging rapids of the Snake River, like my mother did in 1986.  Or when you’re swept off a paddle boat in a swollen river and hang on to a slippery tree for dear life, like my nephews did.  Or when you’re holding on to a mountain ledge with all your might so you don’t fall into the valley below.  That’s what our author is encouraging us to do with Jesus Christ, to hold on to Him for dear life!

In this context it refers to determined commitment to do whatever is necessary for one’s own protection.  In Hebrews it is used to encourage us to hold on to hope (6:18; 10:23), our confidence (3:6, 14; 4:16) and the confession of faith (here and at 10:23).

The “confession” or “profession” of faith may be thought of as the act of standing before a congregation to indicate one’s initial commitment to Jesus Christ.  We make a public declaration of faith in baptism, but that profession is often put to the test when persecution arises.  They were in danger of turning away from that profession.

Paul links “believing with the heart” and “confessing with the mouth” in Romans 10:9-10.  Both are needed.  Just because someone says with the mouth that “Jesus is my Savior” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are truly saved, unless they have also believed with the heart.  Our writer has been encouraging his readers that their perseverance in that which they professed to believe was their only hope of salvation.  They must continue to believe and continue to live out their profession of commitment to Jesus Christ.

It is important that we publicly confess our faith in Jesus Christ, but the reality lies in what we believe in our hearts.

Today, in our individualistic, privatistic world, we often neglect the salutary benefit of public confession of the truth we hold.  When we are going through hard times, we need to confess Christ as our “apostle and high priest”—to own his magnificent ministry as our own—to clutch it close!  We ought not to limit our confession to congenial company alone.  There are times to confess him in unfriendly surroundings.  Such confession may be just what our soul needs.  Confess and embrace your High Priest! (R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews)

Are we willing to pay the price?

Martin Luther did.

On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood for the second day before Emperor Charles V at the diet being held in Worms.  The diet anticipated hearing his answers to the two questions that had been put to him the day before:  First, was he the author of the twenty-five works that had been gathered there, and second, would he now recant of the false teachings in them?  Luther readily acknowledged the authorship of the works and then tried to engage in a discussion of what were the false teachings in his works.  This ploy did not work, and he was informed that he was the theologian and knew full well the heresies that he had taught.

He showed that remarkable courage again in the bold words with which he concluded his address:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. [Here I stand; I can do no other.] God help me. Amen.

His profession of the adequacy of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross and justification by faith is what got him in trouble with the Catholic Church.  But he stood his ground, even though it could cost him dearly.

Notice that this is a command, an exhortation to act.  He is not saying, “Since we have a great high priest…we will inevitably hold fast our confession.”  Perseverance in faith is not inevitable.  We must energetically “hold fast” to Jesus Christ.

How can we possibly maintain our confession when it may cost us so much?  Only by running in prayer to our Savior.  The basis for our ability to “hold fast” to Christ and “draw near with confidence” is found in verse 15.

In order to tighten his friends’ grip on their confession of Christ, the writer seeks to enlarge and elevate their understanding of the tenderness of this divine priesthood:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Hold tight to your confession of Jesus, he urges, because he is capable of unparalleled understanding and sympathy.

This was an incredible revelation in its ancient setting.  The Stoics believed that the primary attribute of God was apatheia, the inability to feel anything at all.  They reasoned that if he could feel, he could be controlled by others and therefore would be less than God.  The Epicureans believed that God dwelled in intermudia, the spaces between the worlds, in complete detachment.  The Jews, of course, had a far more accurate picture of God.  But before Jesus came it was incomplete, for he revealed the revolutionary Fatherhood of God—daring to address him as “Father” and calling his followers to do the same (Matthew 6:9).

But the assertion that their Messiah entered the world in order to suffer, and therefore sympathize with our sufferings, was an absolutely staggering thought!

To do that, the “Son of God” (v. 14), though completely and fully divine, had to take on human flesh.  As he said back in chapter 2, verse 17, “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

He is fully God, but also fully man.  He was a real man, with flesh and blood, experiencing all the needs and desires, yes, and temptations that we all face.  ”He was ignorant and was taught.  He walked like a baby before he walked like a man.  He thought and talked like a baby before he thought and talked like a man.  This is why our text asserts he is able ‘to sympathize with our weaknesses.’  He lived with a human body, mind, and soul—with all their limitations, except for sin” (R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews)

Notice how our author phrases this.  By saying “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” what he really means is the positive state, “we do have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.”

But why put it in the negative?

Possibly because they were thinking this way.  They were thinking that this Jesus who is a “great high priest” who is now in heaven would be so detached from us, so distant, indifferent towards the needs and worries and fears and weaknesses and trials of ordinary people like you and me.

But no, our author says, He’s not that kind of high priest.  Let me tell you what He’s really like and why you can trust Him and why He can be counted on to understand your deepest struggles and pains. 

Jesus added humanity to deity and lived among us.  He came to our neighborhood and experienced all the temptations we have faced.

David Guzik points out that the fact that Jesus has been here among us makes a difference in the depth of his sympathies:

“When you have been there, it makes all the difference.  We might hear of some tragedy at a high school, and feel a measure of sorrow.  But it is nothing like the pain we would feel if it were the high school we attended.” (https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/hebrews-4/)

Rather than being removed from our human experience because of his exalted position, he associates with our weaknesses because He took on human flesh.

That he is compassionate and sympathizes with us does not refer to his sharing our experience of sin.  Temptations, yes, but not sin.  But the fact that He has shared our temptations and weaknesses means that he is compassionate to the point of helping us.

“Weakness” is a general word that could range from physical weaknesses to moral weaknesses and in this context refers to our propensity to sin.  It refers to the feebleness of resolve that allows temptation to lead us into sin.  It can refer to things like tiredness, hunger, aloneness, that all can make us more vulnerable to temptations.

Christ was tempted, but did not sin.  Notice three things about Jesus’ temptation.

First, he was tempted “in all things.”

Although the expressions or tools of sin have changed the past two millennia (Jesus wasn’t exposed to online pornography or couldn’t have embezzled funds through electronic bank fraud), yet the essential nature of temptation hasn’t changed.  He still experienced the temptations of lust and greed.

Expressions of temptation change over time, but the essence never does.

“In every way” doesn’t mean that He experienced every individual temptation we do (although he did experience many kinds).  He did experience the essential temptations that cover whatever we may experience in life.  There is no category of sin that Jesus did not face.  He faced “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16).

John Piper points out that Jesus can sympathize with us in our allurements to sin, because he was tempted —

  • to lie (to save his life)
  • and to steal (to help his poor mother when his father died)
  • and to covet (all the nice things that Zacchaeus owned)
  • and to dishonor his parents (when they were more strict than others)
  • and to take revenge (when he was wrongly accused)
  • and to lust (when Mary wiped his feet with her hair)
  • and to pout with self-pity (when his disciples fell asleep in his last hour of trial)
  • and to murmur at God (when John the Baptist died at the whim of a dancing girl)
  • and to gloat over his accusers (when they couldn’t answer his questions)

Jesus knows the battle.  He fought it all the way to the end.  And he defeated the monster every time.  So, he was tested like we are and the Bible says he is a sympathetic High Priest.  He does not roll his eyes at your pain or cluck his tongue at your struggle with sin.

The one sin that may have been uppermost in the mind of our author was the sin to break one’s commitment to God when under severe suffering.  Jesus didn’t do that either.  In Hebrews 5:7-8 we find that he “learned obedience from what he suffered.”  For Jesus, the ultimate temptation would have been to get around his death some way and turn his back on His Father’s will.  But He didn’t do that.  He obeyed His Father to the end.

Jesus could sympathize with the temptation to turn and run in the face of evil.  He felt the same urge, but declined it.  He can thus help us when we face this very challenge (cf. 12:2-3).  Thus, we are told to “hold firmly to our confession (of faith) and “draw near to the throne of grace” to get those divine resources we need for the battles against temptations, just as Christ did in the Garden.

Second, Christ was “tempted as we are.”

We don’t need to turn to psychologists to understand us.  Jesus experienced the full force of every kind of temptation we have faced, to the full.  Therefore, He can understand and sympathize with us.

Some believe that Jesus doesn’t really know temptation because He didn’t give in to temptation.  However, as C. S. Lewis points out, his experience of the struggle of temptation was even greater than ours—who give in so quickly and easily.

As C. S. Lewis explained:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means.  This is an obvious lie.  Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is.  After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You  find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down.  A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.  That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness.  They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.  We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist. (Mere Christianity, pp. 124-125)

Thomas Constable adds:

As an illustration of the thoroughness of Jesus’ temptations, imagine a large boulder on the seacoast. Since it does not move it experiences the full force of every wave that beats against it. Smaller pebbles that the waves move around do not receive the full force, because they yield to the force of the waves. Similarly Jesus’ temptations were greater than ours because He never yielded to them. By the same principle a prizefighter (Jesus) who defeats the champion (Satan) endures more punishment than other contenders who throw in the towel or are knocked out before the end of the fight.

Jesus knew depths and pains we can never know, precisely because he did not sin! No human was ever tempted like Jesus was!  “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18).

Think of this in terms of pain.  There is a degree of pain which the human frame can stand–and when that degree is passed a person loses consciousness so that there are agonies of pain he cannot know.  It is so with temptation.  We collapse in face of temptation; but Jesus went to our limit of temptation and far beyond it and still did not collapse.  It is true to say that he was tempted in all things as we are; but it is also true to say that no one was tempted as he was.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, Hebrews, 42)

He can understand and sympathize because He shares our humanity.  Did you know that if you have two pianos in the same room, when you strike a note on one piano, the same note will gently respond on the other piano, though no one has touched it?  This is called “sympathetic resonance.”  When a chord of pain or temptation is struck in the weakness of our human heart, it resonates in His!

Come to the Throne of Grace, part 1 (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Isn’t it wonderful, when you are going through a difficult period in your life, that you can find someone who says, “I’ve been there too”?

Robert Griffin’s song “I’ve Been There” talks about how Jesus came into this world as a man and “began a journey of experiences just for me, just for me.”  And he says to us, “I’ve been there so I understand; I’ve been there, walked as a man; I’ve felt the pain that you’re feeling now…”

Jesus has experienced, at least categorically, everything we have experienced, including temptations and therefore he can sympathize with us in our sufferings and temptations.

We all have need for grace.  All of us face situations that are beyond our wisdom, beyond our strength, beyond our patience.  Some people live with crippling fears and others anxious doubts.  Some live in fear of the future while others struggle with regrets about the past.

But it doesn’t matter whether your struggles are overwhelmingly catastrophic, or whether they have been crippling you for years, the only thing that matters is that you know you have a great need AND that you know you have a sympathetic Savior who can sympathize with your troubles and give you mercy and grace to help when you need it.

Not everyone has that, but oh Christian, you do!

We are looking now at the last three verses of Hebrews chapter 4, the closing of this section that started in chapter 3, verse 1, which forms our author’s second warning, not to harden our hearts in unbelief.

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

As usual, Charles Spurgeon put it well:

The sympathy of Jesus is the next best thing to his sacrifice. . . . It has been to me, in seasons of great pain, superlatively comfortable to know that in every pang which racks his people the Lord Jesus has a fellow-feeling.  We are not alone, for one like unto the Son of man walks the furnace with us.

These verses stand at a particularly important junction in the book of Hebrews, serving both as a conclusion to the exhortation not to harden one’s heart from 3:1-4:16 and also as an opening to the great central exposition on the high priesthood of Christ.  Just as Christ is superior to the angels and to Moses, He is also superior to the Aaronic priesthood.

These three verses consist of three intertwining components, two exhortations to “hold fast our confession” and to “draw near to the throne of grace,” supported by the discussion of Christ’s superior priesthood.  Two exhortations, grounded in a profound spiritual truth.

What our author is focused upon is the fact that Christ’s priestly work is finished—sins have been paid for at the cross—and now Christ “has passed through the heavens,” that is, He has ascended and now sits in session at the right hand of God.

Our writer believes that this truth should help us to “hold fast our confession” and “draw near to the throne of grace.”

As you look at these two exhortations, “holding fast” is the command not to move away from Christ and “drawing near” is the command to move forward, towards Christ.  It is the same truth that he will drive home again and again, DON’T MOVE AWAY FROM JESUS CHRIST.

Stand there and don’t move away—there are truths we should not move from.

Once you have that relationship with Jesus Christ, move into a deeper relationship with Him.  You don’t need something more, something added…just Jesus Christ.

These two exhortations fit together hand-in-glove.  They catalyze and balance each other.  “Hold fast…draw near…hold fast…draw near.”

When we are being tempted to draw away, that is exactly when we need to stay near.

“The reference to Jesus in his office as high priest in v. 14 is not an afterthought, but the intended conclusion of the entire argument.  The crucial issue for the community is whether they will maintain their Christian stance [that is, there complete, unwavering hope in Jesus Christ].  The issue was posed conditionally in 3:6b, and more pointedly in 3:14.  It was raised again forcefully in verse 14 in the exhortation to hold fast to the confession that identified Christians as those who had responded to the message they had heard with faith (cf. v. 2).  The ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary as a faithful high priest in the service of God gives certainty to the promise that God’s people will celebrate the Sabbath in his presence if they hold fast their initial confidence” (William Lane, p. 105).

So chapter 4 ends these two chapters with a positive exhortation, in comparison to two chapters of serious warnings (3:1-4:13), including the preceding image of the scrutiny and judgment of the Word upon our lives in 4:12-13.

In these last two paragraphs our author has clued us in to two resources we need in order to persevere and win the race—(1) God’s Word which reveals our hearts and (2) God’s grace which helps us.

Is right now your time of need?  Have you any times of need today?  This week?  Maybe nothing but a time of need!  The hymnist Robert Lowry expresses the reality, “I need Thee every hour.”

Our writer believes that Jesus’ high-priestly ministry on behalf of the believers, correctly understood and implicitly believed, would be a great anchor in the coming storms.

R. Kent Hughes draws the contrast between Christ’s priesthood and the Aaronic priesthood they had grown up under:

To dramatize the greatness of Christ’s priestly ministry, the author contrasts it with the ministry of the Levitical high priest who once a year passed from the sight of the people into the Holy of Holies bearing the blood of atonement.  In contrast, Jesus, our High Priest, passed once for all from the sight of his people at the ascension to the ultimate Holy of Holies, having shed his own atoning blood.  Specifically, the contrast becomes clear as we reflect on the temporal and circumscribed nature of the high priest’s work.  Once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the high priest, representing all the people, entered the Holy of Holies, where he sprinkled blood on the mercy seat to symbolically atone for all the sins of the people. But even before doing this, he had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins.  And then when he entered the Holy of Holies he only stayed long enough to sprinkle the atoning blood.

His entrance into the Holy of Holies was through three portals.  First, he bore the blood through the door into the outer court.  Second, he entered another door into the Holy Place.  And third, he entered through the veil of the Holy of Holies.  Thus, the ancient high priest had a three-portaled entrance in coming before the thrice-holy God—and he had to do it year after year.

On the other hand, Jesus, our great High Priest, after his once-only sacrifice for sins on the cross, passed “through the heavens”—going through the first heaven (the atmosphere), the second heaven (outer space), and finally into the third heaven (the most holy of all places, the presence of God, cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2–4).  And there he sat down (something no high priest had ever done!) because his atoning work was finished.  He remains at God’s right hand, making intercession for us.

The idea that Jesus is our high priest has been mentioned before (Hebrews 2:17 and 3:1) but now this concept will receive extensive treatment.

The writer of Hebrews calls attention to the unique character of Jesus as high priest.

No other priest was called great.

No other priest passed through the heavens.

No other priest is the Son of God.

Aaron was the high priest, Jesus Christ is the great high priest.  He is superior in every way.  The high priest was superior to all the other priests; Jesus is superior to the high priest.

Never was it said of any OT high priest that he was “great,” not even of Aaron the first one.  Only of Jesus is this attribute given.

The high priesthood was hereditary (Exodus 29:29-30; Leviticus 26:32), a fact to which the author of Hebrews gives extensive attention (Hebrews 7:11-28), and normally for life (Numbers 17:7; 25:11-13; 35:25, 28).  Although the high priest shared a number of duties with the other priests, he alone could enter the Most Holy Place on the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-25).

Why is Jesus superior to the high priest?

First, because He is not just a man, but the God-man, referred to here as “Jesus, the Son of God.”  That makes him the most competent high priest to represent man before God.

He was not merely a human exalted to this priestly place.  He is the divine Son of God who created the earth and the heavens (Hebrews 1:8–10).  This gives his sacrifice its infinite worth.  Jesus does not take the blood of bulls and goats into the heavenly temple.  Nor does he even take the blood of a mere human.  He takes his own precious blood, the blood of the Son of God (Hebrews 9:12).  And when God the Father sees this sacrifice for my sin, he says, “That is enough.  The debt has been paid.  My righteousness is vindicated.  My glory is exalted.”  And he overlooks my punished transgression and counts me as his loved and innocent child (John Piper, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/draw-near-to-the-throne-of-grace-with-confidence).

Even though the high priest could represent the nation on the Day of Atonement, he was a sinner himself and would have to offer up sacrifices for his own sins first (5:2, 3; 7:27; 9:7).  As our current text points out, in verse 15, Jesus, although tempted in every way as we are, was “without sin.”

An imperfect priest can only offer imperfect sacrifices (9:11-14; 10:1-4).  Therefore, both the covenant on which his priesthood is based (8:6ff.) and the Holy Place in which it is performed (9:11) are imperfect.  Finally, the net result is imperfect.  The old system “can never…make perfect those who draw near” (10:1).

He was also “great,” or superior, because he has been appointed by oath from God (5:4-10; 6:17-20; 7:15-22), which assures us that His priesthood is eternal (7:16-25).  He will not be succeeded by any other.

He is great because He presented His own blood in the heavenly tabernacle rather than the earthly (8:2; 9:1-28), used superior blood, His own (9:1-28) and only had to offer a once-for-all sacrifice ((10:1-18).  The high priest had to present an animal sacrifice year after year after year.

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, (Hebrews 10:12).

His blood was totally effective to cancel your guilt and deal a death blow to your shame once and for all!

In addition, the high priest, once he was finished with his offering, high tailed it out of there as quickly as possible.  Jesus, however, when he had made “purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).  This again indicates that His work was finished, final and totally sufficient.  Nothing more was needed.

The Jewish high priest entered the inner sanctuary of the temple once a year and stood momentarily in the very presence of God.  Jesus, by contrast, has entered the heavens and is always in the presence of God (Heb 9:24).  He has been raised from the dead, has ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father.  He has gone through and is “exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:26).  (William Hendriksen & Simon J. Kistemaker, NT Commentary: Hebrews, 124)

Rather than one who stands between God and humanity [like the typical high priest], Jesus takes us to God, ripping away the moral and ritualistic obstacles that prevented our free entrance to his presence.  He not only has passed through the heavens, but he also has paved the way for us to join him in that adventure (e.g., 2:10; 6:20; 10:19-20).  Thus, when we communicate the high-priest concept, we must emphasize its signification of a “means of free access to God.”  (George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 178)

Now Christ sits in heaven.  And what is He doing?  He is continuing to make intercession for us.

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).

Now, often we miss the little words and the little words really do make a big difference.  “Since then we have…” starts verse 14.

First, the word “since” is the first class conditional sentence, meaning that it is an assured condition.  We don’t have to doubt it.  We definitely do have this great high priest.

Second, notice that our author does not say, “Since there is a great high priest…” just stating it as a fact, but he says “Since we have a great high priest…” emphasizing our present possession of something very important.  It is important for us to realize that we “have” this.  It is not something that is just “out there,” but something we possess, or have personal experience of.

Blessings are fully realized and appreciated only if we “have them,” not if they just simply exist.  It’s very important that we “have them,” that we really have them as a personal possession.  And that is what our author is interested in, that we not simply talk about a priest existing, a great high priest existing, one who’s at the right hand of the throne of God, but he wants us to grasp the importance of knowing that “he” is ours, our great high priest.  And, of course, the throne of grace is “our” High Priest’s throne of grace.

As Sam Storms notes:

Having just been told in vv. 12-13 that the Word of God pierces and divides and discerns our hearts and thoughts and intentions, having been told that we are all laid bare and exposed to the God to whom we must given an account, there is a strong likelihood that some will recoil in fear.  The fear of judgment, the fear and apprehension of standing in the presence of an infinitely holy God, might paralyze some.  So, our author says, “No, no, don’t be afraid.  You must remember that Jesus is your high priest.  He is the Son of God and has passed through the heavens and has taken his seat at the right hand of God, there to intercede on your behalf.  He’s your advocate.  He’s your defense attorney.  He’s your eternal friend.”

Hard times had come upon the church.  Believers were being persecuted for their faith.  And some were beginning to think that it might be easier if they put aside their beliefs about Jesus and went back to their Judaism with its ceremonies and rituals.

Our author wanted to encourage them that they have a faithful friend, a great high priest who has not only done everything necessary for their salvation, but also sympathizes with their troubles and persecutions.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

Why?

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses [that’s the negative, now the positive…]

but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Then he comes back to the exhortation

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The Word of God: A Double-Edged Sword, part 2 (Hebrews 4:12-13)

We are looking at the characteristics of the powerful Word of God in Hebrews 4:12-13.  There, the author of Hebrews tells us…

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

We have seen that it is first, God’s Word, His very words spoken through His prophets so that we might truly know who he is and about who we are.  This Word is also “alive,” not dead and it is “active” or “powerful” so that it accomplishes its purpose.  Whatever God has said, He will do; whatever He has promised, He will fulfill.  Nothing can thwart His purposes.

We were discussing the fact that the Word of God is a sword, or maybe better thought, a scalpel, which pierces our inner person and reveals the truth about our hearts.  So, he said, that His Word is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

A surgeon uses a scalpel to begin a process of opening a patient up. The surgeon does this in order to see or understand more about a problem inside the patient.

Hebrews describes God’s Word as “sharper than any double-edged sword.” In our world today, this picture of a sword may be difficult to grasp. The idea of a scalpel may be a little easier to understand. A scalpel can open us up and reveal what’s going on inside us.

God’s purpose in cutting us is to bring healing, not to leave us wounded.  Sin is like a cancer growing inside of us.  Untreated, it will be fatal.  The sharp sword of God’s Word, as J. B. Lightfoot put it, “heals most completely, where it wounds most deeply; and gives life there only, where first it has killed” (Cambridge Sermons [Macmillan and Co.], p. 162).

God’s Word exposes our sins so that together we might put our sins to death, before they kill us!  God’s book is a dangerous tool.  It will cut you!  When it makes your conscience go “Ouch!” don’t harden your heart.  Rather let God do surgery and cut away the diseased thoughts and intentions of your heart.

As Hebrews urges us to “make every effort to enter [God’s] rest,” we soon learn why we should pay attention to that warning—“for the word of God is alive and active.” The all-powerful, all-knowing God knows us through and through; nothing “is hidden from God’s sight.”

God’s Word penetrates and exposes what is in our heart of hearts.  This Word is able to pierce “to the division of the soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Does the “division of the soul and of the spirit” mean that man consists of three parts?  Body, soul and spirit?  That there is some distinction between soul and spirit is obvious in passages like this (Hebrews 4:12) and 1 Thessalonians 5:23.  Passages like Job 7:11 and Isaiah 26:9 show that the terms are sometimes both used to generally refer to the inner man.  In other words, they are interchangeable.

If they are distinguished here, soul likely refers to the heart and mind, the processes by which we interact psychologically with this world, while spirit refers to our capacity to relate to God.

God’s Word is able to pierce into these inner processes and lay them bare before God.  Leon Morris remarks, “”What the author is saying is that God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being.  We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God. We cannot keep our thoughts to ourselves” (Hebrews Bible Study Commentary, p. 44).  And R. C. H. Lenski says “The Word of God is the only power that can penetrate so deeply and expose so completely the inwardness of our being” (Interpretation of the Epistle of Hebrews and the Epistle of James, p. 143)  X-ray machines and MRIs cannot expose the thoughts and intents of our heart.  Only God’s Word can do that.

When God wills it, his Word will pierce anyone.  George Whitefield, the great eighteenth-century evangelist, was hounded by a group of detractors who called themselves the “Hell-fire Club,” derided his work, and mocked him.  On one occasion one of them, a man named Thorpe, was mimicking Whitefield to his cronies, delivering his sermon with brilliant accuracy, perfectly imitating his tone and facial expressions, when he himself was so pierced that he sat down and was converted on the spot!  Mr. Thorpe went on to become a prominent Christian leader in the city of Bristol. (R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word: Hebrews, 121)

Fifth, the Word is a discerner of our inner being.

When we read that God can “discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart” it reminds us of the marvelous description of God’s omniscient knowledge of our inner being in Psalm 139:1-4…

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

We may hide from our neighbors and friends and even from our spouse, but not from God.  God cannot be fooled by sham or hypocrisy or cover up.  He knows what you’re thinking right now and what you’ll think and feel ten years from today.

The word translated “discerning” in v. 12 is also rendered to “judge” in other translations.  But he doesn’t mean the word “condemns” us.  He means the Word evaluates our thoughts and intentions and weighs them and assesses and analyzes them.  The Word of God penetrates deeply into the most secret recesses of our hearts and brings an awareness of what is there: is it good or bad, sincere or hypocritical, honorable or corrupt?  (Sam Storms)

James indicates that God’s Word functions as a mirror revealing who and what we really are (cf. James 1:23, 24).  

Of all forms of deception self-deception is the most deadly, and of all deceived persons the self-deceived are the least likely to discover the fraud.

The reason for this is simple.  When a man is deceived by another he is deceived against his will.  He is contending against an adversary and is temporarily the victim of the other’s guile.  Since he expects his foe to take advantage of him he is watchful and quick to suspect trickery.  Under such circumstances it is possible to be deceived sometimes and for a short while, but because the victim is resisting he may break out of the trap and escape before too long.

With the self-deceived it is quite different.  He is his own enemy and is working a fraud upon himself.  He wants to believe the lie and is psychologically conditioned to do so.  He does not resist the deceit but collaborates with it against himself.  There is no struggle, because the victim surrenders before the fight begins.  He enjoys being deceived.  (A.W. Tozer, Man: The Dwelling Place of God, 88)

This gift of self-knowledge is no small grace and we should thank God for it because when we grasp something of the serpentine ways of our hearts, we are disposed to cast ourselves even more on God’s grace.

This is how God works through his Word to protect us against sin and temptation.  You will recall that in Hebrews 3:12 God warned of the “deceitfulness” of sin.  Sin is incredibly deceptive when it burrows deeply into our souls and lies to us that we will be better off by sleeping around and ignoring God’s appeals or by amassing more wealth by illicit and illegal means or by pursuing that divorce even though we have no biblical grounds or by spreading slander about someone who stands in our way.

Sometimes we try to hide and cover up the sin in our life. But nothing is hidden from God. And God’s Word reveals things in us and to us that we might think could be hidden. It shows us the truth about us.

God will discern whether or not we make every effort (4:11) and whether or not we have truly come to faith in Christ; nothing can be hidden from God.  We may fool ourselves or other Christians with our spiritual lives, but we cannot deceive God.  He knows who we really are because the word of God is living and powerful.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Hebrews, 55)

Our only hope is that we might find something that is powerful enough and sharp enough that it can penetrate through the fog of deception and shed light on my thoughts and intentions and reveal to me the lies that I’m so easily prone to believe. And the one thing that can do that is God’s Word!

We do not always know what is in our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9), but God does.  He looks right below the extremely thin veneer of merely outward piety to the true thoughts of man.  He can test man’s sincerity.  Nothing whatever is hidden from his searching gaze.  Everything is exposed to his sight.  In view of this, how ridiculous is our pretense and how nauseating our hypocrisy.  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 92)

The wise Christian invites the penetrating, discerning work of God’s Word in his life. As wise Christians of old prayed:

O thou elect blade and sharpest sword who art able powerfully to penetrate the hard shell of the human heart, transfix my heart with the shaft of thy love. . . . Pierce, O Lord, pierce, I beseech thee, this most obdurate mind of mine with the holy and powerful rapier of thy grace (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 166, quoting from Liber Meditationum xxvii, in Augustini Opera, IX (Lyon, 1664), p. 29).

We have been speaking of God’s Word in its living, penetrating , and discerning powers. Now in verse 13 the discussion continues, but the focus switches from God’s Word to God as a knowing and reckoning God.  God works through His Word.

Verse 13 gives us one of Scripture’s great descriptions of God’s knowing: “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Other passages say: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). The psalmist likewise witnesses, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (Psalm 90:8).

A. W. Tozer sums this up in lyrical cadence:

God knows instantly and effortlessly all matter and all matters, all mind and every mind, all spirit and all spirits, all being and every being, all creaturehood and all creatures, every plurality and all pluralities, all law and every law, all relations, all causes, all thoughts, all mysteries, all enigmas, all feeling, all desires, every unuttered secret, all thrones, and dominions, all personalities, all things visible and invisible in heaven and in earth, motion, space, time, life, death, good, evil, heaven, and hell (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 63).

God sees and knows everything…everything!  There is not an action, a word, a thought, a desire, a mood that gets by God.  We cannot hide from His gaze.  We are “naked and exposed” like Adam in the garden.

“Naked” renders gymna, a word used of the soul being without the body (2 Cor 5:3), of a bare kernel of grain (1 Cor 15:37), or of a body without clothing (Acts 19:16).  Here it means that all things are truly uncovered before God. 

The Greek word for naked means “uncovered,” and the term translated exposed comes from the Greek word from which we get our English word trachea.  The word “exposed” literally means “twist the neck” or “take by the throat.” It can be used for bending back the neck of a sacrificial animal to administer the fatal stroke (Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews , p. 83).  It was sometimes used to describe a wrestler’s hold on the opponent’s throat, rendering him helpless, a choke hold (Lane, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment , p. 69).  And sometimes it was used to describe how a man being led to execution had a knife placed beneath his chin so that he could not bow his head in shame away from the gaze of the people (William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), pp. 36, 37).

Whatever the exact use of the metaphor here, its meaning is clear: all creatures are in the grip of God, totally vulnerable, helpless, and “exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

He will examine every one of us—Christians at the judgment seat, unbelievers at the Great White Throne judgment.  We will each have to give an account for every deed, every word, every thought, every desire.

God’s Word can distinguish between the raw drives of the human organism (sex, hunger, survival), and the effects those have on his thoughts.  It even is aware of the effect of his sub-conscious forces on his decisions.  So when a man makes a decision about the things of God, whether to obey or not to obey, the Word knows what is behind the decision.  (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 97)

Have you ever turned over a two-by-four or large piece of plywood that has been lying on the ground for a long time?  When you do it reveals an enormous city of bugs and spiders and ants, all dwelling in the dark, undisclosed damp place unseen by anyone.  And they don’t appreciate being uncovered, all scurrying off for cover once the light of day exposes their presence.

Many professing Christians live lives where secrets are covered up by darkness.  People live in fear that someone someday will lift up the plywood and all will be seen.  That’s what the Word of God does!  It pulls back the curtain on our souls.  It lifts the veil on our thoughts and intentions.  It shines a light into the darkness of our hearts and forces us to deal honestly with what is hidden deeply within.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, loved practical jokes.  As a joke, he once sent a telegram to each of 12 friends.  All were men of great virtue and respected in society.  The telegram simply read, “Flee! All has been discovered.”  To his shock, within 24 hours, the story goes, all 12 had left the country!

There may be some exaggeration in the story, but the point is that many people have dark secrets that haunt their consciences.  There is nothing more painful than a guilty conscience, and no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.  Thankfully God’s Word exposes our secrets and gives us freedom of conscience as we repent of those sins.

Medieval map-makers would typically write on the edges of their maps where land and sea were unexplored: “Here be dragons and wild beasts.”  Similarly, there are unexplored and mysterious dimensions to the human soul that can only be seen and known and healed by the penetrating power of God’s Word.  When the Spirit of God takes in hand the truth of God, our deepest and darkest secrets are surfaced and brought into the light of day; our conscience is pricked; our hearts are inflamed; our hidden sins are laid bare before the God to whom we must all give an account.

God cannot be fooled.  The accounting of our lives will be accurate and leave out nothing.  Happily, that means good things won’t be forgotten or overlooked.  But to the sinning, self-righteous heart, apart from the grace of God, the knowledge of this accounting brings nothing but unmitigated terror.

But this is what the Word of God is for.  It is designed to confront our lives with the reality of our behavior, our thinking and our affections so that we can align them with the gospel and then God’s commands.

Andrew Murray is right.  He said, “If we will not have it judge us now, it will condemn us hereafter.”  Submit to the searching gaze of God through the Word and let it identify the poisonous thoughts, the traitorous desires, the rebellious actions, the sin-laced conversations, so that you can repent and have a free conscience, knowing that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Remember the context.  The writer to the Hebrews trusts that he has pierced the hearts of his audience, who thought about “giving up” on Jesus.  In this passage, he makes it clear that they can’t give up on Jesus can keep it “hidden” from God.  The word of God discovers and exposes their condition.  Which is a good thing!

This solemn thought prepares the way for the second main part of the epistle in which the purpose and effectiveness of the high-priestly work of Christ is expounded.  The fact that nothing can be concealed makes all the more pressing the need for an effective representative who can act on behalf of men (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, p. 119).

The Word of God: A Double-Edged Sword, part 1 (Hebrews 4:12-13)

When I was a youngster my mom didn’t want me to have a pocket knife, knowing that I would probably cut myself.  Well, I finally begged enough to be given one, only to be carving one day on the edge of the sandbox and have the knife blade close on my finger.  I immediately started to bleed AND to scheme how to keep this from my mom.  So I ran into the well house and hide my knife in a drawer and went inside to bandage myself.  When my mom saw the cut, she asked what had happened.  I lied and told her I had cut it on a piece of glass in the yard.  Needless to say, she wasn’t fooled.  I didn’t realize that the cut was far too clean and precise to be caused by a jagged piece of glass.  She asked to see it.  So we went and searched (fruitlessly, I might add) for that piece of glass, then she followed the blood trail into the well house right to where I had hidden my pocket knife.  I thought she was omniscient.  She said she had “eyes in the back of her head.”

The Word of God, accordingly to the author of Hebrews, also cuts sharply and accurately.  He says…

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

When Peter preached his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, those who heard “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”  The Word of God, in this case the preached Word of God, pierces and lays open our hearts, causing us to be aware of our sins and desire forgiveness.

Though this text has broad positive implications for our life and growth, in its context it functions negatively as a warning to those who disregard God’s Word.  These verses begin with the word “for,” indicating that they function to give us the reason why the exodus generation and anyone else who fails to combine faith with hearing God’s promises, experience such grim results.

An extended warning began twenty-five verses earlier in 3:7, where Psalm 95:7–11 is first quoted as the hearers are repeatedly exhorted with phrases from the psalm not to repeat the mistake Israel made at Kadesh-Barnea—disobeying God’s word and missing God’s rest (cf. 3:15; 4:3, 5, 7, all of which reference Psalm 95).

In fact, the warning against disobedience builds throughout this section and is summarized in 4:11, which introduces our text: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [i.e., to God’s word]. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. . . .”  Our author wants to remind them of the searching power of God’s Word and man’s inability to hide from that Word.

New Testament scholar William Lane has noted a subtle allusion to the tragedy at Kadesh-Barnea in the reference to “sword,” because after Israel disobeyed God’s word, God said, “None of the men . . . shall see the land” (Numbers 14:22, 23).  The people then responded in essence, “We have made a tragic mistake.  Let’s take our weapons and enter the land.  We are now prepared to believe in God” (cf. Numbers 14:39, 40).  Moses warned them not to go, saying: “Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies.  For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword.  Because you have turned back from following the LORD, the LORD will not be with you” (Numbers 14:42, 43).  But they disregarded his warning and went up without Moses and without the ark and without the blessing of God, and they did indeed fall to the swords of the Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 14:44, 45).  So we see that the mention of a sharp, doubled-edged sword in our text is a sober warning not to disregard God’s Word as Israel did in the wilderness (Hebrews: A Call to Commitment (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 69).

A strong connection undoubtedly exists between this verse and the last. The warning was based in fact on the nature of the divine revelation.  It was of such a character that its claims could not be dismissed as of no consequence.  Indeed, the powerful qualities of the word are described by means of an impressive metaphor, which emphasizes not only the activity, but also the effectiveness of the word of God.  (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 116-7)

There are five characteristics of God’s Word in this passage.

It is, first of all, the “Word of God,” none other than the communication of the one and only true God.  “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16a).  It does not originate with man, even those who are prophets, but “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).  It can refer to a word spoken directly from God without human instrumentality, but normally it refers to His words as spoken or written through his prophets.

Without God’s Word we would be utterly helpless and hopeless in understanding anything about God, ourselves or the world in which we live.  Thankfully we are not left to guess at these important issues, but God has revealed what we need to know Himself, ourselves and our world through His Word.

Let us never forget that what Scripture says, God says. It is the transcript of divine speech. Paul applauded the Thessalonians because, and I’m reading from 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

Secondly, this Word of God is alive.  It is not dead.  It is energetic and effective.  It has life in itself and produces life in those who hear and believe it.  “There is something about the Truth, as God has revealed it, that connects it to God as a source of all life and power.  God loves his word,” says John Piper.  As the living word, it endures forever, faithfully communicating God’s revelation to every generation.  As Isaiah 40:8 proclaims, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” 

Now, for many people, the Word of God is just writing on a page.  It is inert material printed on pages bound together.  It seems as dumb as the ancient idols.  But in reality, it is alive and produces life.  It brings new life to spiritually dead sinners (1 Peter 1:23) and continues to give life to the saints (Psalm 19:7).

Even though the Bible was written many centuries ago, the Spirit of God still speaks directly to us through it.  It is never out of date or irrelevant.  It speaks to the very issues that we face in our modern world.

This was the experience of E. V. Rieu, the famous classics scholar when, as an unbeliever, he undertook the translation of the Gospels for the Penguin Classics series.  Rieu described what happened during an exchange with J. B. Phillips on a now famous BBC interview:

Rieu: My personal reason for doing this was my own intense desire to satisfy myself as to the authenticity and the spiritual content of the Gospels.  And, if I received any new light by an intensive study of the Greek originals, to pass it on to others.  I approached them in the same spirit as I would have approached them had they been presented to me as recently discovered Greek manuscripts.

Phillips: Did you get the feeling that the whole material is extraordinarily alive?—I got the feeling that the whole thing was alive even while one was translating.  Even though one did a dozen versions of a particular passage, it was still living.  Did you get that feeling?

Rieu: I got the deepest feeling that I possibly could have expected. It—changed me; my work changed me.  And I came to the conclusion that these words bear the seal of—the Son of Man and God.  And they’re the Magna Carta of the human spirit.

Peter put it this way: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. . . . And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25).  James echoes Peter’s sentiment: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.”  Not by our own will but by his divine and sovereign will were we born again, and that by the word of truth.

Thirdly, the word is described as “active” or “powerful,” meaning that it accomplishes its purpose.  The same word that at creation set the elements of the cosmos to their appointed tasks and still governs the universe toward God’s desired intentions (1:2-3), has the ability to effect change in people.  It is not static and passive but dynamic, interactive, and transforming as it interfaces with the people of God.  (George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 156)

The Word of God is perfomative.  Even in your simple reading of the text, it accomplishes something.  Notice again what Paul said at the end of 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  Even if you don’t remember what you read or heard in a sermon, that word “is” (present tense) at work in you!

In those the Spirit is calling, the Word works in us to produce conviction of sin.  For us who already believe, the Word works in us to turn our focus to Jesus Christ so that we grow from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As Isaiah 55:11 so beautifully says: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  Indeed, the Word of God is alive and effectual!

This text goes on to describe the dramatic transformative power of God’s effective Word:

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle” (Isiah 55:13).

Paul David Tripp, in his pastoral theology work entitled Dangerous Calling, says, “When the Word of God, faithfully taught by the people of God and empowered by the Spirit of God, falls down, people become different.  Lusting people become pure, fearful people become courageous, thieves become givers, demanding people become servants, angry people become peacemakers, complainers become thankful, and idolaters come to joyfully worship the one true God.  The ultimate purpose of the Word of God is not theological information but heart and life transformation” (Dangerous Calling, p. 51).

Now think about this, if I have a thorn bush in my back yard and it’s nourished by the rain and the snow, what do I expect to get?  I don’t expect to get a myrtle tree; I expect to get a larger thorn bush.  It’s a word picture that makes no sense.  If I have a brier in my back yard and it gets nourished by rain and snow, the only thing I would expect is a bigger brier.  What Isaiah is doing is it’s pushing this metaphor to let us know what the Word of God is about.

The Word of God has as its primary purpose the transformation of our hearts, and in the transformation of our hearts, the transformation of our lives.  Not that we become bigger and better of what we are, but we become fundamentally different than we could ever have been apart from the Word of God.  The theology of the Word of God is never an end in itself.  The stories of the Word of God are never an end in itself.  The wisdom principles of the Word of God are never an end in themselves; they’re always a means to an end, and the end is the transforming power of God’s grace.  When the Word of God is brought to you by the Spirit of God, propelled by the grace of God, the result should be heart and life transformation.

You need the Word of God in your life because you need to be transformed.  All of us still have the artifacts of sin inside of us.  All of us still need the power of transforming grace.  If you’re not satisfied with who you are, you’re not satisfied with everything you say, everything you choose, everything that you decide, the ways that you act, then you need the Word of God every day in your life.  It’s God’s powerful tool of personal transformation. (www.paultripp.com/bible-study/posts/why-do-i-need-the-bible)

This was the bottom line in the great Reformation.  Erasmus, the brilliant Renaissance humanist, collected and collated manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, publishing a Greek New Testament that then unleashed the ineluctable power of God’s Word upon the sixteenth century.

Thomas Bilney, who became one of the English Reformers, had been vigorous about his religion, all to no avail.  Then he obtained a copy of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, and all changed.  Says Bilney:

I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in 1 Timothy 1: “It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief and principal.”  This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that . . . immediately I . . . felt a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that “my bruised bones leaped for joy.”  After this, the Scriptures began to be more pleasant to me than the honey or the honeycomb.

Martin Luther might have been overstating his case, but he said:

What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone … How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name? … I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.  I did nothing; the Word did everything.

John Calvin believed in the power of God’s Word to change lives.  His style is to explain the text in simple terms that ordinary people could understand, even though he preached directly out of his Hebrew and Greek Testaments, without notes.  After Easter Sunday, 1538, the town fathers banished Calvin from Geneva.  They later realized their mistake, and brought him back in September, 1541.  Calvin picked up with the next verse after the one he had taught in 1538, as if it had been the previous Sunday (T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, p. 60)!  His theme invariably was to show God’s majesty and holiness, our wretchedness and spiritual poverty, and the riches of grace that God in His fatherly kindness has made available to us through Christ (Parker, pp. 93-107).

Sociological trends, psychological factors, philosophical and political theories do not have the power to radically change people’s lives from the inside out.  But the Word of God does!

So Sam Storms encourages:

Let it be the anchor for your soul.  Let it be the rock on which you stand.  Let it be the compass to guide you through trials and tragic times.  Let it govern your choices and renew your heart and restore your joy and ground your hope.  Build your life on its moral principles. Embrace its ethical and moral norms.  Believe what it says about the nature of God. Believe what it says about the nature of mankind.

God has invested the biblical text with the power to change human lives and transform the experience of the church.  If for no other reason we must think about, meditate upon, and study the Word.

To put it simply: the Word of God pulsates with power. It is active and energetic.

The Word is not a written document of past centuries.  It is alive and current; it is powerful and effective; and it is undivided and unchanged.  Written in times and cultures from which we are far removed, the Word of God nevertheless touches man today.  God addresses man in the totality of his existence, and man is unable to escape the impact of God’s Word.  (William Hendriksen & Simon J. Kistemaker, NT Commentary: Hebrews, 118)

Fourth, the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, so that it can pierce even infinitesimally small spaces.  In mathematics, an infinitesimal or infinitesimal number is a quantity that is closer to zero than any standard real number, but that is not zero.

Notice that our author describes the Word of God as a sword.  There are many other metaphors of God’s Word in Scripture.  Besides being a sword that pierces, it is a mirror that reveals (James 1:23); a seed that reproduces (1 Peter 1:23) in good hearts (Luke 8:12-15); milk that nourishes the Christian (1 Peter 2:2); a lamp that shines, lighting our path (Psalm 119:103); a fire that consumes (Jeremiah 23:29a); and a hammer that shatters (Jeremiah 23:29b).

The Word is not used to slay us.  In fact, in this context a better image might be the surgeon’s scalpel, which is used to heal us.  First it has to lay us open to see what is wrong with us, then it may have to cut away cancerous cells or some other diseased part—all for our good.

The two-edged sword in view (Gr. machairan) was originally a small one, like a boning knife that cooks used to cut up meat.  In its double-edged form it was a symbol for judges and magistrates in the Roman world.  It illustrated the power of those officials to turn both ways to get to the bottom of a case.

It has no blunt side, another way of describing its effectiveness in accomplishing its purpose of exposing us, exposing what is really happening on the inside where no one but God can see.

Strive to Enter God’s Rest, part 3 (Hebrews 4:6-11)

This modern age could be called an age of restlessness.  People are agitated and stirred up by the slightest thing, satisfaction and contentment are in high demand but short supply.  Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the French “personalist” philosophical movement, writes that human life is characterized by a “divine restlessness.”  The lack of peace within our hearts spurs us on a quest for the meaning of life–a command imprinted on “unextinguished souls.”  (Charles Colson, The Good Life, 10)

I’m convinced that if our civilization were to be uncovered by curious archaeologists thousands of years from now, they would see relics of an anxious society.  Vacation destinations provide havens for those approaching the critical zone of “burnout.”  Treatment facilities house countless victims of mental, emotional, and physical breakdown.  Therapists help calm the fretful, and physicians routinely prescribe antidepressants and anxiety medications.  Our generation is marked by all the ingredients of a society dominated by anxiety, which include feelings of apprehension, uneasiness, worry, and dread.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Hebrews, pp. 60-61)

We ended last week talking about God’s rest.  This is the rest that God has promised to us through the gospel and it is God’s rest.  It was the rest displayed at creation when God brought everything into existence with each day and called it good.  The seventh day, however, is endless.  And on that day He rested. 

At the conclusion of God’s magnificent creation, there was nothing more to add.  It was perfect, complete, harmonious.  It was exactly the way God wanted it to be.  It was “very good.”  And that’s what God’s rest is: perfect satisfaction, perfect peace, perfect contentment in the knowledge that God has done very well. 

John will expand on this in Revelation 21:3-5: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” 

Rest was promised to the exodus generation, enjoyment of the land of promise in peace and prosperity.  Because of their disbelief the vast majority of them didn’t experience it.  It was available to Joshua’s generation, but because of their disbelief, they didn’t experience it (v. 8).  It was available to the audience of the book of Hebrews in the first century, but they were in danger of not experiencing it because of unbelief.  It is available to you and me today, but we have to believe it as well.

These are the words of the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 4:6-11

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

So today we begin with a third principle from this passage:  Ultimate rest is a promise God still extends.  Verses 6 and 7: “Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

The promise of entering God’s rest still stands.  And we can be thankful for that.

How do we know that the promise still stands for us today?  Because centuries after the exodus generation and Joshua’s generation, God’s Spirit is still exhorting us, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  He’s still holding out the promise of rest to us today.

If you have heard of Christ, if the Holy Spirit is convicting and calling your heart to repent of your sins and embrace Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith, now is the time to believe.  Don’t put it off another day!

That rest is available right now!  Don’t the words of Jesus Christ sound so inviting?

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus doesn’t “pay” you rest as if you’ve earned it after a few decades of hard work.  He “gives” you rest because He has already done the work.  All other religions are spelled “D-O.”  Christianity is spelled “D-O-N-E.”

That rest is available to you…right now!  Verse 3, which introduced this section on the nature of our rest, says, “For we who have believed enter that rest.”  The verb “enter” is in the present tense, which means that as believers we are in the process of entering.  There is a now and then to our rest.  Now, in Christ, we have entered and are entering our rest.  Our experience of rest is proportionate to our trusting in him.  A wholehearted trust, for example, brings his rest into our souls in all its divine, cosmic, and ideal dimensions.  But there is also a future rest in Heaven—the repose of soul in God’s rest, forever joyous, satisfied, and working —“work that never becomes toil nor needs repose.”

Sam Storms points out these dynamics of our current rest.  See if these express your current experience.

  • Rest = the soul’s sigh of joyful relief and satisfaction that comes from experiencing release from the anxiety and tension of constantly wondering whether or not I’ve done enough to gain favor with God.
  • Rest = the soul’s sigh of joyful relief and satisfaction that comes from never again fearing death as some dark and unknown termination.
  • Rest = the soul’s sigh of joyful relief and satisfaction in knowing that even if everyone else abandons me, God never will [leave me or forsake me.]
  • Rest = the soul’s sigh of joyful relief and satisfaction in trusting the perfect and finished work of Christ for me rather than trusting the imperfect and never-ending effort on my part to work for Christ.
  • Rest = the soul’s sigh of relief and satisfaction that comes when you forsake the endless and ultimately empty legalistic demands of religion and find everlasting peace and joy and hope in what God has done for you in Jesus.

In God’s rest we are forever established in Christ.  We are freed from running from philosophy to philosophy, from religion to religion, from life-style to life-style.  We are freed from being tossed about by every doctrinal wind, every idea or fad, that blows our way.  In Christ, we are established, rooted, grounded, unmovable.  That is the Christian’s rest.  (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, pp. 96-97)

Our future experience of rest is that final and perfect and never-ending state of complete satisfaction and joy and fulfillment and pleasure and fascination that will be ours when our bodies are glorified and our hearts are entirely joined to Christ’s.

Joshua’s experience of taking and settling into the land of Promise was only a shadow, a foretaste of the future experience of rest promised here.  That’s why verse 9 says, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.”

So the obvious conclusion is: 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

The author argues that the purposes of God are not frustrated because Israel of old disobeyed him and failed to enter the rest he had promised his people.  The promise remains.  If the ancient Israel did not enter God’s rest, then someone else will; namely, the Christians.  But this should not lead to complacency.  If the Israelites of an earlier day, with all their advantages, failed to enter the rest, Christians ought not to think there will be automatic acceptance for them.  They must take care lest they, too, fail to enter the blessing.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, 39)

Restlessness is a gift of God.  If we are not restless, we would never search for God.  Simon Guillebaud, in his little book Choose Life, 365 Readings for Radical Disciples, has this little poem: “Look around and be distressed; look within, and be depressed; look to Jesus, and be at rest.”

Jesus said, “Come unto me and I will give you rest.”  He gives that invitation to those who “labor and are heavy laden.”  Does that describe you?  Are you laden down with expectations?  With guilt?  With shame?  Are you just tired of trying to be “good enough”?  I don’t know how many people I have talked to who, when asked about their salvation, said “Well, I hope I’m good enough.” 

We aren’t!  We are not good enough!  But Jesus was good enough.  He was perfectly righteous and died on the cross for unrighteous, ungodly sinners like you and me.

When we come to faith in Christ, we move away from every attempt to try to work our way to heaven.  We repent of trusting in our own righteousness, our own good works.

We don’t have to work for our salvation, our rest.  But once we’re saved, we have to work at staying in that rest.  We won’t lose our salvation, but we may let our satisfaction drain away.

We can taste the firstfruits of that ultimate rest now.  Full rest, God’s rest, when all the toilsome work, labor, pain and sacrifice will one day be brought to an end.  Revelation 14:13 says, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”

This is an offer that God still extends to you and me. (1) Ultimate rest necessitates belief in the gospel.  (2) Ultimate rest is the experience of God’s own rest.  (3) Ultimate rest is a promise that God still extends today and you and me.

And Principle Four: Ultimate rest merits our most serious consideration.

Verse 11 says, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

He includes himself in this exhortation, “let us” do this.  True Christians need to do this too!  It also reminds us once again that genuine assurance is a community project.  Remember Hebrews 3:12-13, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

To be concerned about one’s own salvation is commendable; to pray for one’s fellow man is praiseworthy; but to strive for the salvation of everyone within the confines of the church is exemplary. We ought to take careful note of members who may be drifting from the truth in doctrine or conduct and then pray with them and for them.  We are constantly looking for spiritual stragglers.  (William Hendriksen & Simon J. Kistemaker, NT Commentary: Hebrews, 104)

Do you know what a gibbet is?  It is a structure, a gallows, on which the body of a criminal already executed is hung on in a town square to continue to serve as a warning to others.

This is what the writer does as he closes this warning passage:  He holds the exodus generation up once again as a warning to his first century audience and to us today, showing what can happen to those who come up short of authentic faith.

“Strive” or “make every effort” is not saying that we have to work endlessly for our salvation.  He is saying, however, that we do have to do everything possible to insure that we are not deluding ourselves, thinking that we have entered God’s rest when we haven’t because we are not truly trusting in Jesus Christ, but because we are trusting in ourselves.

There is a place for close, microscopic scrutiny, testing the quality of our faith, to see if it is indeed the real thing.  More than merely acknowledging the truth of historic facts, more than mere assent, but an absolute throwing ourselves upon the mercy of Jesus Christ in urgent trust that He is faithful to save us.

Is that what you possess?  If not, you’re still short of the mark and will fall short of entering God’s rest.  There is only one way to enter that rest—through faith in Jesus Christ, by trusting fully and only in Him.  There is no other way.  God doesn’t offer another option.

Our work now is merely an extension of his continued work in us.  As Andrew Murray says, “We work, because He worketh in us to will and to do” (The Holiest of All, p. 152).  That is a reflection of what Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

God is still at work.  He initiates my working by placing in me both the desire to do his good pleasure and the power to be able to do his good pleasure.  I would be unable to “work out my salvation” without his prior work in me but because he does do it my desires and abilities are secured.

So “striving to rest” is not an oxymoron.  We only work out what God is working in us, in his power.  Listen to these verses:

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

“For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).

Hebrews 13:21 continues our author’s benediction with these words: “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.”

We enter his rest by working out his working in us.  It ultimately is his power and strength, not our own.

There’s something else interesting to take note of in this text.  It’s there in the Greek text.  These readers read Greek.

The name Joshua, in verse 8, and the name Jesus, are both spelled exactly the same way in Greek.  And remember, the name literally means, “Yahweh saves.”

Verse 8 does refer to the historical Joshua, but the first century readers would hear or read these words and their minds would have been directed very powerfully to both a Joshua who led their ancestors into the land, but not to rest; and a second Joshua, who didn’t lead them into the land, but does lead us into rest.  And that Joshua is Jesus Christ.

Therefore, make every effort to enter into that rest.  There is no other way in.  The greater Joshua is not interested in a piece of geography, but he is interested in your heart.  He wants your heart to enjoy the contentment and satisfaction in knowing that everything is good in Jesus Christ.

It’s not just the facts, it’s an act of trust in Jesus Christ.  So, let us strive to enter God’s rest.  Or, in other words, let us labor to quit laboring!  Trust, lean on Jesus Christ, put all your hope in Him.  Be “all in” for Jesus.

Spurgeon says: “It is an extraordinary injunction, but I think he means, let us labor not to labor.  Our tendency is to try to do something in order to save ourselves; but we must beat that tendency down, and look away from self to Christ.  Labor to get away from your own labors; labor to be clean rid of all self-reliance; labor in your prayers never to depend upon your prayers; labor in your repentance never to rest upon your repentance; and labor in your faith not to trust to your faith, but to trust alone to Jesus”  (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, 99).

If we continue to look to ourselves, to our own efforts, to our own goodness, our hearts won’t be at rest.  They will be troubled, saddled with the disturbing thought, “Have I done enough?  A, I good enough?”

When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he was saying, “paid in full.”  Nothing has to be added, or can be substituted for, what Christ has done for us.

Strive to Enter God’s Rest, part 2 (Hebrews 4:2-5)

Strive to enter God’s rest.  That seems like an oxymoron.  He’s saying “work hard not to work hard for your salvation.”  Don’t go back under the Mosaic law and be weighed down by the onerous burden of having to perfectly obey every law.  Not only that, but the encrustations to the law that the Pharisees had added over the years.  Don’t go back to that!

Why would anyone want to go back to that?  Well, because it was familiar and comfortable.  Because they would escape persecution.  Because then their peers would accept them.

We are in Hebrews 4.  The author of Hebrews is drawing a conclusion based upon the historical experience of the exodus generation that he had recounted in Hebrews 3.  They had forfeited their rest due to unbelief in God’s goodness and God’s promises, and the current generation of professing Jewish Christians were in danger of doing the same.

The “rest” for the exodus generation was freedom from slavery and victory over their enemies so that they would be able to live and flourish in the Promised Land.  The exodus generation forfeited that.

The “rest” for these first century recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews was not a strip of geography, but an infinitely more glorious and valuable antitype, the full and final and ultimate experience of salvation, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from slavery to sin and Satan, freedom from judgment and death.

Hebrews 4, starting in verse 1:

1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

Unbelief caused the exodus generation to forfeit their rest, and unbelief would be the cause that this generation (or any generation) would forfeit their rest.

I want to establish four principles regarding this promised rest.

First, ultimate rest necessitates belief in the Gospel.  Look at verse 1, “therefore” (as a consequence of this historical example of unbelief and failure with the exodus generation)…” while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.”

We talked last week about the doctrines of eternal security and perseverance, and that true Christians will persevere, in other words, they will not fail to reach that rest.

Two important observations can be made.

First, the failure of God’s people, the Jews, to enter the promised land because of unbelief, did not in any way nullify God’s promise to bring his people into rest.  God always keeps His promises, even though some individuals or generations may forfeit them.  They are still in effect.

Thus, God is still extending this promise of rest to people today.  The promise of entering God’s rest still stands in this current day.

Now, it is clear from this present application that the promise of entering into his rest does not mean the Promised Land.  The current audience of this letter, and we today, are not being promised a piece of geography.  We aren’t being given citizenship in the land of Israel whenever we trust in Christ.  Rather, the author of Hebrews is talking about something better and greater—the fullness of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ.

That promise is still available to us this very moment.

If you are not a Christian, you need to know this promise.  God’s promise of eternal rest is open to you.  It is possible for you to experience reconciliation with God, peace with God, forgiveness of all your guilt and shame, freedom from slavery to sin and Satan, freedom from judgment and eternal damnation.

However, it was clear in chapter 3 and again here in vv. 7-9 that this offer is extended to us “today,” at this very moment.  It may not continue to be offered tomorrow.  We have no assurance of that.

What this means is that a positive response to this promise should be made today.  I think if you are still exploring it and thinking about it tomorrow, that God extends his mercy.  But if you refuse Him today, there is no guarantee that the Spirit will be calling you tomorrow.

Second, falling short of ultimate rest ought to be of great concern to every professing Christian.  It you are a believer, you should give some concerned thought to the question of whether you are, or could ever, fall away.

Somehow there are people today who have come to believe that what the doctrine of eternal security means is that no Christian ever needs to look at himself with any kind of scrutiny or assessing—that it is always and in every way sinful to ever doubt one’s salvation, that any kind of questioning or critiquing of oneself is out of bounds.

But the writer of Hebrews, and Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5 and the apostle John throughout 1 John would say otherwise.  Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5)

In the original of Hebrews 4:1, the word phobos is used, revealing a strong concern.  Literally, it reads, “let us be fearful…let us be scared!”

“Such warnings against apostasy are misunderstood when they are thought to teach that true believers may fall away and be lost.  For just as accidents are avoided by obeying the road signs which are put up for our safety, so we are persevered from the dangers of our pilgrimage by paying heed to those warnings which are annexed to the promise of salvation.”

True believers shouldn’t have to live in fear because they prove themselves; they do persevere.

In Acts 27 Paul was traveling to Rome and a hurricane comes up that tosses them to and fro and this goes on for days.  Finally, the men on the ship give up hope and they panic and they ready themselves to die…but Paul speaks up.  He says (summary of vv. 1-25), “God has given His word that no one on this ship will be lost.  This ship will be destroyed, but everyone on it will be saved.”

At that point, God had spoken.  Those men could stake their lives on that promise.  The sovereign God had given his word.  It was unqualified; it was final.  “The ship would be lost, every life would be preserved.”

Yet, several days later, as the hurricane persisted, several men attempted to escape from that ship in a lifeboat.  Paul had no hesitation going up to the Roman soldiers and say, “No one will be saved at all if they try and get away from this ship.”  So the Roman soldier cut the rope to that “alternative method of salvation.”

The point is this: Those ordained to salvation, only obtain it by using the appointed means to that end.

We depend upon the preserving grace of God.  So we do not say, “I’m going to live as a please and believe what I want, because after all, I’m eternally secure.”

No, you do the very opposite.  You guard your heart with all diligence.  You make no provision for the flesh with regard to its lusts, precisely because you are very mindful of the possibility of your own apostasy.  You know very well that you could fall away, were it not for the grace of God keeping you.

Believers overcome.  1 John 5:4 says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.”  Our writer, is afraid that those who had heard the gospel were now, in the face of opposition, in danger of the possibility of turning away from Christ.  To do that would be to “fall short” of the promise.

Here is the current application, verse 2 in Hebrews 4, “For good news came to us just as to them…”  They heard the good news.  Now the exodus generation did not hear the gospel, but rather the promise of inheriting the land.  They heard that promise about the land, but it did them no good.  Why?  Because they did not combine the hearing with believing.  Faith has to be joined to listening, believing must proceed from hearing.  As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

Israel had heard the “good news” (that is, the good news brought by Caleb and Joshua that the land was theirs for the taking, the Nephilim notwithstanding).

So confident were Caleb and Joshua in heralding the good news that they said, “They are bread for us” (Numbers 14:9), or in today’s language, “It’s a piece of cake!”

But Israel’s response to the good news was tragically deficient: “the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”  Literally, “they didn’t mix it with faith.”  As the NEB says, “They brought no admixture of faith to the hearing of it.”

This is amazing because they had had constant witness of God’s character and provision.  They had the spectacular historical examples of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  And there were also the ubiquitous pillars of cloud and fire and the day-in, day-out provisions of manna.  But now, faced with a new challenge, they simply did not trust God and so failed to enter their rest.  Many, perhaps thousands, were believers (they believed in God), but only two really trusted God and found rest.

Be afraid, he tells us in vv. 1-2, that what happened to them might happen to you.  Be careful lest you become bored and indifferent and eventually become hardened in your heart and fail to embrace God’s promised rest by faith in Jesus.

So, am I saying that living in fear of forfeiting your salvation is the ideal way to live.

Well, there are passages that tell us to have a greater concern than we often do: such as “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:13) and “let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

But there really is only one thing to fear: faithlessness, refusing to believe or refusing to continue to believe.

But this is like a child whose parents tell him or her to “stay out of the streets.  It’s dangerous out there.”  As long as they don’t play near the streets, they have no need to live in fear and anxiety.  Fear only arises, and it should, when one gets close to the street, or maybe we should say, when one gets close to the street without holding a parent’s hand.

Use the bad feeling of fear to cause you to run back to the safe yard of God’s goodness and promises.  The normal Christian life, then, is aware of the fearful danger of unbelief, but does not live paralyzed or terrorized by it.  It lives in faith.  Fear only rises where faith starts to weaken.  As long as faith remains strong, there is no need to fear.

So, hear the gospel and believe the gospel.  Hearing is not enough.  There will be a great number of people on that final day who have had the opportunity to hear the gospel, but will be ushered into eternal damnation and separation from God because they did not believe.  The prerequisite for spending eternity in heaven is not hearing the gospel, but believing the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again.  The promise of ultimate rest is the reward that God gives to believers.

What did Paul say when the Philippians jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  Very simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  That’s it.  That’s all that God requires.

John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…”  It’s just that simple.  Those who inherit eternal life do so by faith…and only by faith…and by faith alone.  We are declared “just” before God on the basis of faith alone.

Have you believed the gospel?  Heaven is for those who have set their hope on the work of Jesus Christ alone.  It is not enough to hear the gospel, or to know the facts of the gospel.  To have all of that but not believing in it, not trusting in it, is to fall short of the promise.

The gospel is to be embraced by faith.  That is the way God ordained for you and me to enter that rest.  You will not experience rest unless you believe in the gospel.

Principle Two is ultimate rest is the experience of God’s own rest.

Look again at verse 3: “Now we who have believed enter that rest.”

“Trust brings rest,” says Alexander Maclaren, “because it sweeps away, as the north wind does the banded clouds on the horizon, all the deepest causes of unrest.”  It sweeps away the guilt and shame, the uneasy conscience, and gives us peace and assurance and confidence.

The principle is so simple: the more trust, the more rest. There is not a fretful soul in the world who is trusting. “The message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (v. 2)—and so it is with us. Our belief or unbelief makes all the difference.

Now, what is the rest that the author of Hebrews is referring to?  Verse 3 goes on to say “as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'”  My rest, God’s rest.  He quotes from Psalm 95, but only so that we will clearly hear those last two words.  In verse 1 it was called “his rest.”

God rested?  Of course He did, not because He was tired, but because He was finished.  Verse 3 goes on to say, “his works were finished from the foundation of the world.”  The “foundation of the world” was the time and act of creation.  Verse 4 clarifies, “For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’”

The first mention of “rest” in the Bible is found in Genesis 2:1-2.  There it obviously describes God resting after the work of creation.  God entered into a time of celebratory joy and a glorious satisfaction that came with knowing that all he had made was “good,” in fact “very good.”

The second instance of “rest” focuses on its geographical dimensions.  Simply put, the promised land of Canaan was an expression and offer of “rest” from God to his people.

A long time before the promised rest in the land of Canaan was ever an issue, God entered into His rest…a rest into which He fully intends to bring His own people.  A rest of which the land was merely symbolic.

Let me explain.

If you read the creation account carefully, you will see a repeated refrain throughout the six days of creation that reads like this: “There was evening and morning…the first day…the second day…the third day…the fourth, fifth and sixth.”

That phrase marks out the boundaries of each day.  But when we come to the seventh day, there is no such demarcation.  All we read is this: “On the seventh day God rested from all His work.”  But there are no boundaries, no parameters, no limits to close off that period of time…as if it goes on forever.

When he finished the cosmos, he entered into an unending epoch of rest.  It wasn’t because God was tired and needed to catch his breath, nor was it because God doesn’t do anything anymore (deism).  God’s rest is not inactivity, for Jesus said in John 5, “My Father is always working.”

Now, we’re to understand God’s rest like this: At the conclusion of God’s magnificent creation, there was nothing more to add.  It was perfect, complete, harmonious.  It was exactly the way God wanted it to be.  It was “very good.”  And that’s what God’s rest is: perfect satisfaction, perfect peace, perfect contentment in the knowledge that God has done very well.  John will expand on this in Revelation 21:3-5: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” 

Strive to Enter God’s Rest, part 1 (Hebrews 4:1)

Hebrews 4 promotes the “rest” that was introduced in Hebrews 3:18-19, the rest that the Exodus generation forfeited due to their unbelief, which led to grumbling and complaining, and disobedience, eventually turning to other gods.

As Christians, we understand there is no rest for the soul apart from Christ. St. Augustine, in the fourth century, gave this truth its eloquent, classic expression in his Confessions : “Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Book I.1.1) (Philip Schaff, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , vol. 1, The Confessions of St. Augustine , trans. J. G. Pilkington (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 45).

Blaise Pascal, perhaps the greatest of French minds, wrote even more explicitly in his Pensées :

What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. (VII, para. 425) (Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 33, Pascal , trans. W. F. Trotter (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), p. 244).

The Exodus generation did not experience their rest because they doubted God’s Word.  They didn’t believe God could deliver them from their enemies in the Promised Land.  They perceived these enemies as bigger, stronger and better fortified.  Because they didn’t believe God’s promised victory, they died in the wilderness.  The next generation entered the land and conquered most of it, but forfeited their rest because they failed to eliminate all the godless Canaanites from the land.

Our author’s current generation was in danger of forfeiting their rest.  They had found it in Christ, but were in danger of returning to the more familiar Mosaic law.  They wouldn’t be persecuted for returning to the law; but they would forfeit their rest.  Their experience of Christ was not living up to their expectations.  They had given up their old religion but now they were suffering for their faith in Jesus.

So it is to these people that the author of Hebrews is writing.  And to us, because we, too, are in danger of giving up our faith in Jesus Christ because it is just not popular today to be a Christ follower.  The world calls us homophobic, racist, hypocritical, uncaring, and leaving our brains at the door.  It is clearly not popular being a Christian anymore.

Will we jettison our faith for something easier?

Back in Hebrews 2:4 our author exhorted us not to neglect this great salvation.  Is this the way you think of it?  A great salvation, a marvelous salvation?  Do you see it as so valuable, that like Paul, you would give up everything for the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ?

Just think of our salvation, how God redeemed us out of sin, judgment and death!  Just think of how he adopted us into his family to enjoy fellowship with him and be joint-heirs with Jesus!  Just think how he justified sinners through faith!  Let it sink in how he reconciled rebellious enemies to himself through the death of His only, beloved Son.

Or I could speak of the blessings that come with salvation, things such as peace with God, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a sure and solid hope for the future, the promise of eternal life in the new heaven and new earth, forgiveness of sins, and the guarantee that we will one day be transformed or changed into the moral likeness of Christ himself, what the NT refers to as glorification.  (Sam Storms)

And one of the most precious gifts of this great salvation is rest, the ability not to have to work for or strive for God’s approval.  Jesus said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29).

In the context, Jesus was speaking of the rest that comes from having one’s guilt and shame removed not by the works of the law, but simply through faith in Jesus Christ.

You can clearly see that this promise of “rest” is the focus of our author’s appeal here in Hebrews 4:1-11.  

1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

We read in Hebrews 3 about the tragic events that followed in the wake of Israel’s exodus out of slavery to Egypt, how the people griped and complained and didn’t trust God, despite repeated miracles throughout the wilderness wanderings.

The result of this was stated in no uncertain terms in Hebrews 3:11 – “As I swore in my wrath,” said God, “’They shall not enter my rest.’”

We need to understand what this “rest” is, this “rest” from which the unbelieving Israelites were excluded.  We need to know because immediately following this horrible declaration of judgment in Hebrews 3:11 and 3:18 we encounter the word “therefore” in Hebrews 4:1.  Evidently, our author is about to draw a very important conclusion about this issue of the availability of “rest” and the failure of the Israelites to enter in and experience it.

And that conclusion couldn’t be any clearer or more explicit than what we read in 4:1 – “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.”

I believe in the eternal security of the believer.  I believe that God eternally preserves all those who are truly His.  I have never believed otherwise.

The reason I possess this immovable conviction is not simply because it feels right, or because I was taught it since a young boy…none of these are legitimate reasons for believing anything.  I believe it because dozens of passages teach this truth explicitly and many others teach it indirectly.

I believe all “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30).  This is an unbroken chain.  If you have been justified, you will be glorified.  In fact, the glorification of the elect and justified is so sure it is put in the past tense, as if it has already happened.  In fact, we are already “seated in the heavenlies” (Ephesians 2:7).

I believe no true child of God will ever be lost, for “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  Earlier in this chapter Paul had said, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

We are “kept by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:5), not our own strength.  It is God that holds on to us (John 10:28-30) in the two-fold grip of the all-powerful Son and the all-powerful Father.  We are sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30).  Therefore, we are totally, eternally secure.

Nothing in the book of Hebrews contradicts the doctrine of eternal security.  However, the purpose of the book is not to directly teach that doctrine; rather it is focused on warning those who think that they are saved about the dangers of falling away from Jesus.

It is not directed at genuine believers who are really struggling about whether God will keep them through to heaven.  It is rather a strong warning to professing Christians in danger of turning their backs on Jesus.

In that setting, the companion doctrine of eternal security needs to be stressed: the perseverance of the saints.

The writer of Hebrews is nowhere suggesting that true, genuine believers can or will fall away from the father, but he is saying that true Christians will always endure to the end.  Perseverance is a proof of true saving grace.

He said it as clearly as could be said in Hebrews 3:14, “we come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”  This is how we can know we have become partakers of Christ, or to use Pauline terminology, to know how we are “in Christ,” IF we “hold firmly” to the end.  Not that it keeps us saved, but it proves that we have been saved.  Perseverance does not determine our salvation, but it demonstrates our salvation.  We do not become partakers if we persevere, but we persevere because we “have become” partakers.

Remember that twice in chapter 3 our author referred to his readers as “brothers” (3:1, 12).  It appears that as far as can be humanly assessed, these are people who have professed Christ as their Savior.  So why does he talk so strongly about the possibility of falling away?  Because he understands that no one but God knows those who are truly His. 

So there can be among the gathered people of God those who have made some kind of profession of faith, those who may have walked an aisle, raised their hands, signed a card, those who have been baptized, those who have become members of a church, and those who are involved in serving Christ or involved in leadership, but in the final analysis are still without the life of God in their souls.  They were never born again.

That is why Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 are so chilling.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

These people are doing some amazing things.  They are serving God, doing it in the name of Christ (i.e., for his glory)—prophesying, casting out demons, doing miracles—and yet in the final analysis will be excluded from heaven because Christ “never” knew them.  His words are clear, He “never knew” them.  It’s not that He knew them before and then they did something wrong and he forgot them and excluded them.  No, they had always been excluded because Christ never knew them.

Listen to me:  Anyone who has been associated with the church, its experiences and lifestyle, still must beware of the cultural religion that falls woefully short of personally experiencing salvation.  You can adopt the lifestyle, copy the language, imitate the convictions and yet never possessed a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Demas was a companion of Paul whom Paul must have considered with esteem, because he mentions him along with Luke in Colossians 4:14.

Now, Paul was a great guy, but where the work of the ministry was concerned he had little patience with those who weren’t “sold-out faithful,” who weren’t “all in.”

On his first missionary journey a man named John Mark went with Paul and Barnabas, but when things got rough, he ran home to momma with his tail between his legs.

Sometime later, when Paul and Barnabas were getting ready to go out on another missionary journey, Barnabas, being an encourager, wanted to take John Mark along, give him a second chance.  Paul’s response was “no way!”  And they argued about it and split up.

My point is not to debate the rightness or wrongness of this situation, but just to show that Paul wasn’t about to coddle someone who was not up to the task.  Demas must have been that kind of man.

Yet, in Paul’s last letter, with Paul awaiting imminent death, he wrote to Timothy and said, “Do your best to come to me quickly.”  Why was this such a matter of urgency?  “for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:10).

John Mark was restored, but in the end Demas deserted Paul (2 Timothy 4:10-11).  The doctrine of eternal security guarantees that authentic Christians will never be lost.  It does not affirm that counterfeit Christians will be saved.

The most notorious example of all is the one who lived among Jesus’ disciples for more than two years.  I’m talking about Judas Iscariot.  His skills at hypocrisy were so refined that none but God himself could see through him.

What am I saying?  That the only thing that can distinguish a true Christian from a counterfeit one is an encounter with opposition.  By the grace of God true Christians will endure; counterfeits, on the other hand, will wash out.

The writer of Hebrews understands this.  He knows this theological truth.

But even he had not been given the privilege of knowing who the elect are.

He loves each and every one of these people and wants to believe the best about them.  Many may have made a profession of faith in his very presence and even been baptized by him, so he makes his appeal to them as “brothers” and warns them “don’t fall away…don’t fall away.”

Eternal security does not mean that God will save apostates.  Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:12-13 “ if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself.”

If any of these Hebrews fall away fully and finally, it is because they were never saved to begin with.

Listen to Spurgeon: “We detest the doctrine that a man who has once believed in Jesus will be saved even if he altogether forsook the path of obedience.  We deny that such a turning aside is possible to the true believer.  No beloved, a man if he be indeed a believer in Christ, will not live after the will of the flesh.  When he does fall into sin, it will be his grief and misery, and he will never rest until he is cleansed from his guilt.  But I will say this of the believer: that if he could live as he would like to live, he would live a perfect life.”

Isn’t that true?  Is it true of you?

You may have heard someone say, “Once saved, always saved” and then they go out and live any way they want to.

But Spurgeon is saying that the true believer will want to live a life that is pleasing to God, not pleasing to themselves.

1 John 3 says that God has put his seed in my heart and changed my very nature.  In this way the children of God and the children of the devil are “obvious.”  They stand out from each other.  A true child of God will not live like the world.  A true child of God will not live in such a way that people cannot tell the difference between a pagan and a Christian.  The Bible says the difference should be “obvious.”

So here in Hebrews is a pastor, writing to those whom he dearly loves…some of whom are giving serious consideration to turning away from Christ.  So he warns them that to do so would be to forfeit their rest, to forfeit their salvation in Christ—their peace with God, their freedom from the guilt and shame of sin.

He does this by citing the historical experience of their own forbears.  The exodus generation had started out so wonderfully.  They started out mightily from Egypt, experiencing miracle after miracle, many displays of God’s supernatural power.  They all started out so wonderfully, yet ironically only two adults out of many hundreds of thousands made it alive to the Promised Land.

So many evidences, yet they persisted in unbelief, and as a result they were debarred from entering the Promised Land.

Were they saved?  The Bible doesn’t say…in those words.  But just keep these things in mind.

Being born a Jew had no saving benefit.  Experiencing many miracles did not guarantee salvation.  Like us, they had to have faith, and many of them disbelieved.  Don’t let that happen to you.

Don’t Harden Your Heart, part 3 (Hebrews 3:15-19)

Most of the signs you’ll encounter when you’re out for a drive or stroll are pretty predictable.  They’ll tell you when to stop or go, and warn you when there are dangers to avoid.  But every once in awhile, you’ll encounter a sign that seems determined to make you laugh.  Either by design or accident, some road signs are just ridiculous.  And thank goodness for that, because it keeps our attention up where it belongs, on the road.  Funny road signs may very well be the best defense against the deadly distraction of texting and driving.

Here are some funny road signs:

Men are working—Prepare to be annoyed.  Nothing like brutal honesty.

Old dog, young dog, several stupid dogs.  Please drive slowly.

That seems kind of mean.  How would you like it if they put out a sign that read, “Look out for our owner, he’s an ignoramus?”

Or the sign that says, “stop here when flashing.”  Now, you know what it’s really talking about, but it takes you a minute to get there.

Or that sign that says, “caution, depression ahead.”  Really?  And I was feeling so optimistic about today.

But signs are often very serious, and the writer of Hebrews is very serious in giving his readers the signs that lead to apostasy.  In chapter 2, he had said, “don’t drift.”  Here in chapter 3, showing that things had already grown more serious, he said, “don’t harden your heart.” 

It is quite possible to harden our hearts and not experience the rest that God has promised us.

The final verses of Hebrews 3 read:

15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled?  Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years?  Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

Here our author goes back to the historical tragedy of the Exodus generation failing to believe God’s promises and enter into the promised land.  They died in the wilderness.

He repeats the statement from verses 7-8, “do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”  He is warning the current generation of professing Jewish Christians not to turn away from Jesus Christ and return to the Mosaic law.  That would be as serious a rebellion of unbelief as the rebellion of unbelief by the Exodus generation.

Thus, he calls out to them again to “hear his voice,” to hear the voice of God calling them to believe His promises.  Again, the urgency of the call and the need to believe in His promises is “today.”  So he was telling them, “Don’t put it off.  Act now!”

Now the writer of Hebrews asks six questions, given in three pairs.  The first question asks the question, then the second question answers the first question.  In the words of R. Kent Hughes, “The questions are definitely phrased to raise soul-searching tensions among his hearers in the struggling church”

The reason he says this is that the Exodus generation—“those who left Egypt led by Moses” heard and experienced God’s promises but they rebelled against him.  This group sang the celebrative song of worship to the LORD after crossing the Reed Sea (Exodus 15) only shortly to begin their grumbling against God, as if He wasn’t good to them.

These were people who had experienced one of the greatest miracles in all of Scripture.  Their salvation from Egypt through the parting of the Reed Sea had been miraculous, unbelievable.  It is celebrated throughout Scripture as an example of God’s great love and power displayed for the sons of Jacob.

Not only that, but they had seen the 10 plagues with which God had cursed Egypt.  And they would experience miracle after miracle, yet grumble all the way.

But we do the same when we have evidence of God’s wonderful love and magnificent power in our behalf through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The resurrection is one of the most well-attested facts in all of history, yet people can turn their hearts away in unbelief because “it’s just not enough proof for me.  You’ve got to show me more.”

Miracles don’t necessarily engender faith.  It is the Word of God that produces faith.  More particularly, it is the Spirit of God opening our hearts to hear and believe the Word of God that saves us.

A common way of provoking God and hardening the heart is that indicated by the context.  “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness.”  That is to say, by unbelief, by saying, “God cannot save me.  He is not able to forgive me; the blood of Christ cannot cleanse me; I am too much of a sinner for God’s mercy to deal with.”  That is a copy of what the Israelites said:  “God cannot take us into Canaan; He cannot conquer the sons of Anak.”  Although you may look upon unbelief, as a slight sin, it is the sin of sins.  (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, 63-4)

They began in great hope, but that hope slipped away as their unbelieving hearts whittled away at the revelation of God’s promises that they had.

What is the author of Hebrews saying?  He is saying that it is not enough to have a good beginning.  The kind of faith that saves perseveres and trusts God fully to the end.

Jesus taught in a parable that it is the kind of faith that perseveres that saves.  He spoke of the seed being sown on different types of soil.  In one case, the seed was sown on the rocks, where the soil lay in a very thin layer about the rocks.  That seed grew up but then withered away because it didn’t get enough moisture to withstand the heat of the sun.

Jesus interprets that in Luke 8:13, “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.  But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.”

Likewise, Jesus taught of the seed sown among thorns, which choked the seedling plant.  That is like, Jesus said, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).

It is likely that many people have a great start, but do not have the kind of faith that perseveres.

C.S. Lewis speaks to the difficulty of persistence (from a tempting demon’s fictional perspective): “The Enemy has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations.  But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for you ally.  The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather.  You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere.  The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it — all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.  If, on the other hand, the middle years from prosperous, our position is even stronger.  Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’ while really it is finding its place in him… That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unraveling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth.” (The Screwtape Letters)

Have you experienced that in your life?  Be on your guard, our enemy will put all effort into making sure we have an unbelieving heart that turns away from God.

The next set of questions are: “And with whom was he provoked for forty years?  Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?”

Again, he is speaking of the same group of people, those who grumbled over and over again in the desert, doubting God’s goodness, and who finally came to the edge of the Promised Land and instead of believing God’s promise that He would help them defeat all their enemies, believed that these enemies were too gigantic and too numerous and too well-fortified for them to defeat.  Unlike David against Goliath, they believe that their giants were bigger than God, or doubted that God really loved them enough to assure their victories.

This provoked God’s anger and wrath.  Israel was debarred from the promised land, the place of God’s rest. God said:

For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”  Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.” (Psalm 95:10, 11)

Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word [Moses].  But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.  And none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:20–23).

And thus, their “bodies fell in the wilderness.”  Not a single member of that generation, except for Joshua and Caleb, lived to enter into the Promised Land—none who was over twenty at the time of the Exodus (Numbers 14:29-30).

The people were so convinced that God couldn’t deliver them that they simply lost their faith in him.  People with hardened hearts are so stubbornly set in their ways that they cannot turn to God.  This does not happen suddenly or all at once; it is the result of a series of choices to disregard God’s will.  Let people know that those who resist God long enough, God will toss aside like hardened bread, useless and worthless.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Hebrews,38)

The men who angered God for forty years were those who did not believe he could provide for them, though they had left Egypt with great hope.  This is a warning that high hopes will not suffice—there must be belief.

The third and final set of questions is found in verse 18. “And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?”

They wouldn’t believe in God’s promise to deliver them from their enemies, so he made another promise, he swore “that they would not enter his rest.”  By saying So we see that [v. 19], the writer assumes that his reasoning will be self-evident.

The swearing of God, whether positively or negatively, is an unchangeable oath.  They could beg, plead, offer gifts, and attempt in every other way imaginable, but they would not enter His rest.  They bypassed their “today” and forfeited their rest.  Now the writer of Hebrews is saying that his readers also have a “today” in which to make that decision to trust, or continue to trust, in Jesus Christ.

But the Exodus generation did not believe and did not enter into God’s rest.

Why, because they were “disobedient.”  Unbelief gave way to disobedience, showing that they deliberately turned away from God.

The last verse says it all.  It is the true bottom line.  “They were unable to enter because of unbelief.”  Unbelief is the root sin.

John Piper explains:

The most penetrating and devastating definition of sin that I am aware of in Scripture is the last part of Romans 14:23: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.”  The reason it is penetrating is that it goes to the root of all sinful actions and attitudes, namely, the failure to trust God.  And the reason it is devastating is that it sweeps away all our lists of dos and don’ts and makes anything, from preaching to house-painting, a candidate for sin.  In the original language, this is stressed even more than in our versions: it says, “Everything which is not from faith is sin.”  Anything, absolutely any act or attitude which is owing to a lack of trust in God is sin, no matter how moral it may appear to men.  God looks on the heart.

As Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”  Unbelief is a terrible, terrible insult to God.  Just imagine a friend offering to do you a favor and promises by his honor that he will see it through, but you decline the offer, effectively if not verbally saying, “No friend, I’ve decided I just can’t trust you any more,”—and if that is your response, it is likely that the friendship is over.  You have insulted his integrity.

And because God is infinitely more trustworthy, it is an infinitely more despicable sin against God than against a friend.  Just as your friend is highly insulted by your unbelief in him, God is even more so when you fail to believe Him.

Yes, these people were embittered against God because of God’s testing them (v. 8), and yes, they sinned (v. 17), but beneath all that was the root problem—they didn’t trust God, that is, they didn’t trust His goodness—to lead and protect and provide and satisfy.  Even though they saw the waters of the Reed Sea divide and they walked over on dry ground, the moment they got thirsty and didn’t see immediate relief in sight, their hearts hardened against God and they did not trust Him to take care of them.  They cried out against Him and said that life in Egypt was so much better.

That is why this book is written, to a current generation of Jews who had started off well, they had made strides towards Jesus Christ, they had responded to some of the preparatory work of the Holy Spirit—they had started off well.  They have heard that Jesus Christ died for their sins and by His own act of sacrifice they can be completely, once-and-for-all forgiven for their sins.  That sounds good.  But then a week or a month or a year or so later, along comes a time of testing.  Life doesn’t seem so good.  My needs are not being met.  A weariness sets in with manna, we seem to be walking in circles.  And hearts begin to harden towards God.  It becomes harder to believe.

This is a terrifying condition to be in—to find yourself no longer interested in Christ and His Word and prayer and worship and missions and living for the glory of God.  And to find all fleeting pleasures of this world more attractive than the things of the Spirit.

If that is your situation today, then I plead with you to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking His Word to your heart.

  • Give heed to the Word of God (2:1).
  • Do not harden your heart to God (3:8).
  • Wake up to the deceitfulness of sin (3:13).
  • Consider Jesus again, the apostle and high priest of our confession (3:1)
  • And hold fast to your confidence and the boast of your hope in God (3:6).

And if you’ve never even made a start with God, then today is the day to put your hope in Him alone.  Turn from your sin and your self-reliance and put your confidence in a great Savior.  These things are written, and this message is preached, that you might believe and endure, and have life.

What do you do today if you have a hardened heart, a heart of unbelief?  Well, if you recognize this and accept the reality of it, that is the first step, that is a hopeful step.

Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century abbot and a major leader in the revitalization of Benedictine monasticism, reminds us that “My brother, only the heart is hard that does not know it is hard.  Only he is hardened who does not know he is hardened.  When we are concerned for our coldness, it is because of the yearning God has put there.  God has not rejected us.”

But don’t put it off.  “Today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  Today is the only time we have.  Happily for us, the Holy Ghost says, “Today, if you hear his voice.”  Never do I find Him saying “tomorrow.”  His servants have often been repulsed by men like Felix who have said, “Go your way for this time.  When I have a more convenient season I will send for you.”  And never did any apostle say, “Repent tomorrow, or wait for some convenient season to believe.”  The constant testimony of the Holy Ghost, with regard to the one single part of time, which I have shown indeed to be all time, is, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, 62)

Every command of Christ bears the date today.  If a thing is right, it should be done at once; if it is wrong, stop it immediately.  Whatever you are bound to do, you are bound to do now.  There may be some duties of a later date, but for the present that which is the duty, is the duty now.  There is an immediateness about the calls of Christ.  What He bids you do, you must not delay to do.  The Holy Ghost says “Today.”  (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, 66)

Don’t Harden Your Hearts, part 2 (Hebrews 3:12-13)

Did you know that perseverance in the faith is a community project?  Do you realize just how much you need others—brothers and sisters in Christ—to help you keep the faith?  We Americans are “rugged individualists” and have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” which we mistakenly think means a “private” relationship with Jesus not to be shared with anyone else.

But the Christian life is not a solo event.  Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.  We need each other to successfully traverse this Christian journey.

The author of Hebrews has been warning the Jewish Christians not to abandon Jesus Christ, not to harden their hearts in unbelief like the Exodus generation did.  Despite seeing miracle after miracle they would not trust God for their best.  Therefore, they didn’t enter their rest.

We might think, “How could they have been so dense?  Why couldn’t they see God’s goodness right before their very eyes?”

The truth is, we are in danger of becoming just like Israel.  That is the point of this warning passage.

One of the keys to persevering is by doing it with others.  That is what our author is saying in Hebrews 3:12-13

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

So how can we avoid falling away like Israel?  Well, we can remain hyper-vigilant and pay attention to the first signs.  And, we can engage in community encouragement.

The verb, along with the plural “brothers,” indicates that our author is not addressing them as individuals, but as a group.  This danger of falling away from God is a group concern and can be remedied by a group effort.

“Take care” is to watch out, to be alert and vigilant.  We cannot afford to let this sin of unbelief sneak up on us.  We must be aware of the first step into unbelief.

“Unbelief is not inability to understand,” William Newell reminds us, “but unwillingness to trust… it is the will, not the intelligence, that is involved.”

And doubt is not the same as unbelief.  Unbelief, like belief, is a settled state, an entrenched perspective.  Doubt is caught in between.  It is the unsteady experience of being unsure, or as the Chinese picture it, having each leg in a different boat.

When you are doubting, you are still searching for the truth.  Unbelief has decided to stop searching and settle for no longer believing, or never believing.  It is a refusal to believe.

Doubting is more an intellectual issue—you are struggling with some truth you cannot seem to reconcile.  Unbelief is an issue of the will—determining not to believe no matter how much evidence is available.

The very real danger is that some, actually “any one of you” might develop “an evil, unbelieving heart.”  You might not take unbelief seriously, but God does, and calls it “evil.”  The danger is that an “evil, unbelieving heart” will cause you to “fall away from the living God.”  That is what the Scriptures call apostasy, standing away from the God you once followed, the truths you once embraced.

Turning away incurs a huge penalty.  For the Israelites it meant forfeiting the land and their physical lives.  For us in means forfeiting eternal rest with God in heaven.

“It is sobering to think that those who were so highly privileged to be the recipients of God’s grace and power of deliverance could fall so easily into unbelief and disobedience.  This is precisely the point the author of Hebrews wants his readers to see.  What happened then can happen again; indeed, the original readers apparently were in very real danger of falling away from their Christian commitment.  But this danger is one that every generation of Christians needs to ponder.  Though our salvation derives from grace and is therefore free and unmerited, we dare not take it lightly.  We are called to perseverance and faithfulness” (Donald Hagner, Encountering the Book of Hebrews).

The seriousness of this sin is magnified by the fact that it is against “the living God.”  Throughout the Scriptures God is owed ultimate honor and loyalty because He is the only true, living God.  All other so-called “gods” are fake and really nothing.

To disbelieve in the living God is to treat Him like he was fake and worth nothing.  Leon Morris notes: “The rebellion he warns against consists of departing from a living, dynamic person, not from some dead doctrine.  Jews might retort that they served the same God as the Christians so that they would not be departing from God if they went back to Judaism.  But to reject God’s highest revelation is to depart from God, no matter how many preliminary revelations are retained.”

Sin and Satan wage a constant battle to deceive and harden hearts of Christians—both professing Christians and genuine Christians.  But the evidence and confirmation that we share in Christ is whether we “hold fast our confidence.”  Professing Christians will either hold fast their confidence, or they will become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and fall away from God with a heart of unbelief.  It shows that they had never really becoming a sharer in Christ.

Remember the “Therefore” at the beginning of verse 7, and how it connects to verse 12?  This is where the warning for the Hebrew Christians (and us) begins.  The author says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).  The author is saying, “Watch out, Hebrews, do NOT become like Israel!”

Remember, the book of Hebrews was written to Jews who at least professed to be believers in Jesus Christ, but under intense pressure from family and friends and religious leaders, they were thinking about abandoning Jesus Christ for Moses, refusing grace and going back under the law—something that was comfortable and familiar to them.  Of course, this may well be an indication that they had never really trusted in Christ as their Savior.  They had had some kind of experience, yes, but not a saving relationship with Jesus.

This issue has always been the same.  It is an issue of faith, or rather where we put our faith?  Will we put our faith in Jesus Christ alone?  Will we continue to believe in Jesus Christ alone?

The same question confronts us today that Israel and these 1st century believers had to answer:  “Will we believe what God has said, or reject Him?”  God’s revelation now was through His Son, Jesus Christ, and Jesus is superior to the angels and superior to Moses.  To believe God now is to believe in the provision He has made for salvation, and that is through Jesus Christ.

If they reject God’s provision for salvation, refuse to believe in Jesus Christ alone, they will experience judgment just as the Exodus generation did.  They will not be allowed to experience God’s blessings and the “rest” that God offers His children.

The heart our author is describing here is “an evil unbelieving heart.”  It shows, first of all, that the heart is the issue.  Not our outward behavior, but our heart.  Second, by combining these words “evil unbelieving” it reveals just how awful this is.

No one is evil all the time.  it is possible to get to the place where one has an “evil, unbelieving heart.”  Not everything we do is evil, but this shows that the heart has gotten to a place that is really bad.  Notice also that it is described as rejecting God, as turning away from “the living God.”

And observe that the author issues this warning to any of them (“none of you”).  This is a call for all of us to examine ourselves to make sure we are of the faith, regularly.  It is a personal issue for each one of us.  All too often we are far to quick to point out the sins of others while ignoring our own sins.  The warning of verse 12 is clear: each one of needs to “watch out!”

Verse 13 then speaks to the issue that this is not really an individualistic approach to keeping the faith—it is a community project.

13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Our hearts are naturally deceived by sin.  From the very beginning, Satan has been able to tempt us with illusory images of what might bring us happiness.  But it never happens.  Sure, sin is “fleeting pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25, ESV) or “temporary pleasures” (NASB), but Satan always overpromises and underdelivers.

We must be the church for each other.  And what is the main thing that the church does for each other?  We speak to each other in ways that help us not to be deceived by the seduction of sin.  We do not stay silent—we fight to help one another maintain a believing heart committed to Jesus Christ.  Helping each other believe means that we keep on showing people reasons why Jesus is more to be desired and trusted and loved than anything else.

People today are listening to the world, why not listen to us?  People are “squeezed into the mold of the world” (Romans 12:2, Phillips).  The thought life is a battlefield and we need to be equipped to fight a battle to think rightly.  For that, we need our Christian brothers and sisters, speaking encouragement from God’s Word into our hearts every day.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian and pastor, executed a few days before the end of World War II for opposing the Nazi regime, said this:

But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain; his brother’s is sure. (Life Together, 11–12)

Think how different it might have been for Israel if they had daily encouraged one another instead of falling to negativism and grumbling and quarreling.  Isolation, and particularly isolation from the mutual encouragement of the body, is a dangerous thing.  In isolation we are “prone to be impressed by the specious arguments which underline worldly wisdom” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 67).  When you are alone and unaccountable, it is tempting to take the easy course instead of the right one.

Our text says that we should “exhort one another.”  This is the Greek word parakaleo, which means to “call alongside.”  It is not forceful and commanding or abrasive, but is calm, collegial and supportive.  It focuses on what can be done, not what went wrong.  It is to urge into action.  It can mean to beg or implore.

The noun form is paraclete, a word describing the Holy Spirit’s comforting ministry in John 14.

Some believe that Jesus in Matthew 7 negates any ministry like this.  In fact, the one verse most Americans know today is no longer John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1, which they quote: “Judge not lest you be judged.”

But Jesus is not saying in that passage that we are not to speak the truth to people.  In the context he is saying first get the log out of your own eye, then help your brother with his speck.  Deal with yourself first, but don’t neglect helping your brother.

Notice that this encouragement is:

  • Intentional—it is commanded of us.
  • Mutual—we do this for each other.  It is not just one way.
  • Continual—did you notice that, every day!
  • Urgent—as long as it is called today.  Do it now.  Don’t put it off.
  • And purposeful—so that unbelief will not develop.

So this is commanded.  It is not optional.  Each of us must obey God and give regular encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  If we want to win this battle, we have to stay at our battle stations and fight for truth and hope.

It is mutual, not one way.  This is not something only pastors can do.  It is ministry for each of us.  That way it can be done anywhere and anytime, whenever it is needed.  Like Bonhoeffer said, one moment I may need that lifeline of encouragement and the next day you might need it.  Will we be there for each other?

It is to happen daily.  In other words, it doesn’t happen weekly.  That’s not often enough.  We need to meet together more often than just once a week for this to work.

This is what the early church in Jerusalem did, recorded in Acts 2:42-47:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Notice v. 46, “day by day.”  They devoted themselves to all these ministries towards God and each other.  No wonder the church grew!

This is urgent.  Do it today.  Don’t be a mañana man.  Each day, every time you think of or are around another Christian, think of a way to encourage them to keep the faith.  Remind them to trust God’s promises and remind them how good Jesus is.

The purpose of this is to help people not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  The deceit of sin started in the garden.  Charles Spurgeon pictures it:

The serpent played his part right cunningly with the woman, and soon withdrew her from her loyal obedience to the Lord God.  She began to question, to parley, to argue with rebellious suggestions, and after a while she put forth her hand, and she took of the fruit which had been forbidden, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he did eat. (https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-deceitfulness-of-sin/#flipbook/)

Matthew Henry wrote that sin is deceitful because “It appears fair, but is filthy; it appears pleasant, but is pernicious; it promises much, but performs nothing.”

God has appointed a means by which he will enable us to hold our confidence firm to the end. It is this: Develop the kind of Christian relationships in which you help each other hold fast to the promises of God and escape the deceitfulness of sin.  Exhort one another day in and day out to stand fast and put on the whole armor of God. (John Piper)

The wondrous declaration of verse 14 indicates that the writer gladly identifies with the church.  “For we have become partakers of Christ.”  “Become partakers” is in the perfect tense in Greek meaning that it is speaking of a past action (the initial act of becoming a partaker) with continuing results (you are still a partaker).  As “partakers” we share in the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection, but only “if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”

Once again, this verse isn’t preaching that we work for our salvation.  The condition “if we hold fast to hope” is a condition for being something now, not for becoming something.  Holding fast, keeping our confidence, continuing to believe, these are what defines the household of God (Heb. 3:6).  We don’t become God’s house by doing these things, but we show that we are God’s house by doing these things.  Verse 1 describes these people as “partakers of the heavenly calling.” 

Our author is not saying that you can partake of Christ, share in His heavenly calling, be His house, and then lose or forfeit that salvation.  It is a way for us to test ourselves to see if we really are saved.

This book teaches eternal security, but not in the way other passages do.  It teaches that we must examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith.  It teaches that once you become a partaker of Christ, you will always be one.  But if you don’t persevere, it shows you never were one.

Don’t Harden Your Hearts! part 1 (Hebrews 3:7-11)

No nation was so favored as Israel.  Though not mighty or large, God had chosen them, in keeping with His covenant with Abraham and had delivered them from the hand of mighty Egypt.  God led them, provided food and water, covenanted with them to be their God.

But in the wilderness they griped and groaned, and when they came to the edge of the Promised Land, two spies said, “Let’s go!” and ten said, “No!”  They didn’t trust God’s promises that He could defeat all the Canaanites, no matter how numerous, how gigantic or how well fortified they might be.  They refused to go into the land out of fear.  Then, when God said they would die in the wilderness for their unbelief, they tried to go in without God’s presence with them and failed miserably.

They didn’t enter into their rest.

Our last study in Hebrews concluded at verse 6, a warning against falling away from Jesus Christ.  Our author has been making the case that Jesus is vastly superior to any other being—whether an angel or the most revered man in Jewish history (Moses).  We learned that Moses was “faithful,” and so was Jesus.  However, Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, whereas Jesus was faithful as a Son over God’s house.  This fact proves that Jesus is superior to Moses and worthy of their utmost love and loyalty.

Moses was faithful, but Moses’ generation was not.  In verses 7-19 of Hebrews 3 our author turns to the generation of Israelites that Moses led out of bondage in Egypt and warns his readers not to be like them.  Do NOT follow their example.

7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

Verse 7 begins the second warning passage in the book of Hebrews.  The first warning, in Hebrews 2:1-4 was “Don’t drift.”  Here is it more serious, “Don’t harden your hearts.”  This warning passage continues through 4:13.  The warning is divided into two sections.

Verses 7-11 record the Old Testament event of Israel’s conduct in the wilderness, quoted from Psalm 95:7-11.  The author is going to build upon this event and apply it to his current readers (and thus to us today).

By the way, Psalm 95 is a worship psalm, beginning with strong affirmations of worship.  It starts with an invitation to come into God’s presence to sing praises to Him.  But after this call to worship, it suddenly shifts gears to warn them against hardening their hearts as the wilderness generation did.  Thus, a heart problem that the wilderness generation had, endangers God’s people again in the psalms and now in Hebrews.  It would appear that this is a perennial problem that we need to be vigilant against.

So for us today, two thousand years after the use of it in Hebrews, it remains the Holy Spirit’s message.  There is a timeless urgency to the message.  We must listen to the Holy Spirit’s message today, for it is God’s message for the church in this troubled age.

Keep in mind that this lengthy quotation from Psalm 95 directly ties in to what was written in verse 6, “but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.”  He is explaining what he means by “holding fast our confidence and the boast of our hope.”

That first generation out of Egypt, with few exceptions, did not do it.  They, therefore, missed out on the blessings of God, both temporally and eternally.  Their unbelief cost them dearly.

Verses 12-19 then apply this to the readers of this epistle, with a restatement of the Old Testament quote.  The point of the author is that there is a very real and present danger that this generation might follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.

Our author is drawing a comparison between the experience of Israel in her Exodus out of physical bondage in Egypt and the Church’s Exodus out of spiritual bondage in sin.  The point that he makes here in Hebrews 3 is that we need to be very, very careful that no one in our midst makes the same mistake that many Israelites made.

The application begins with the word “Therefore” (v. 7) and is meant to be connected with the “Take care” of verse 12.  “Therefore,” because of the bad example of the wilderness generation as expressed in Psalm 95 (vv. 7-11), “take care” or “be on guard” that you and your brothers in Christ don’t fall into the same hardness of heart.

  1.  The Warning from Israel’s Bad Example (Hebrews 3:7-11)

The quote from Psalm 95 is introduced as an address from “…the Holy Spirit.”  This is true of all of Scripture, although it was written by 40 men over the course of 1,500 years, it was all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Peter confirms this when he says…

20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The psalmist makes it explicit here that the words he is writing are the words of the Holy Spirit.  So listen up!

You might notice that, throughout this entire warning passage, the word “Today” is very prevalent.  It is used five times (verses 7, 13, 15 and twice in 4:7).  The stress on the fact that “Today” is the day of opportunity to respond to and believe in Jesus Christ, whether that “today” happened in the days of Moses, the days of David, the first century or today in the 21st century.

We all, everyone of us, has an opportunity to hear His voice, and we will respond to it in one of only two ways: believe it or reject it.

The author says, “…if you hear his voice…”  As we’ve seen in this passage (v. 6, 14), the word “if” carries with it the potential that they won’t actually hear his voice—they might hear it but pay no attention to it.

The danger here is introduced to us in the warning, “…do not harden your hearts.”  To harden one’s heart means to close our hearts and minds to what God has to say, to resist it.

In verses 8-9, we see that the author refers to a specific incident in time, which clarifies what it means to have a hard heart.  He says, “as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.”

Two key words in these verses help us understand what it means to harden one’s heart.  They are the words “rebellion” and “testing” in verse 8.  The renderings here come from the Greek Septuagint, but the original Hebrew behind the word “rebellion” is meribah, and behind “testing” is massah.  Check Psalm 95:7, 8, as it is rendered in your Old Testament, and you will read: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.”

Moses illustrates this rebellion by the Israelites in the book of Exodus.  In chapter 17, the people of Israel begin to complain to Moses about God’s plan.  They were thirsty, with no water to be found, but they refused to trust God and quarreled with Moses.  Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’” (Exodus 17:2).  Moses struck the rock and water came out.

The account concludes with this postscript: “And he called the name of the place Massah [i.e., testing] and Meribah [i.e., quarreling], because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7).

Significantly the word Meribah is used in one other place, and that is forty years later at Kadesh when Israel is again out of water and threatening rebellion, and Moses tragically strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to it as the Lord had directed (Numbers 20:1–13, esp. v. 13).  The mention of these words at the beginning and end of the wilderness sojourn is meant to tell us that this conduct was repeated many times during that whole period of wandering.

So the first sign of a hard heart is the refusal of God’s hand of parental authority (Moses and Aaron) in your life (“Massah”).  The second, is the critical, complaining spirit (“Meribah”).  The third stage we will see in 3:16-18 is just outright disobedience.

Deuteronomy 9:7 shows us what Israel was like after forty years in the wilderness.  Moses says, “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”

In spite of all the miracles that God had performed throughout those forty years, in spite of all the things God did for Israel, every time a new crisis came up, their first response was to rebel against the Lord.

Hardness is rooted in unbelief.  It is a decision not to believe God’s promises or God’s goodness.  You would think that God’s repeated provision and protection throughout these years would have prompted trust and reliance upon God—that their first response would be to ask God for help.

Our author continues his quotation of Psalm 95 in verses 10-11, saying:

10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'”

Leon Morris writes, “We should not miss the reference to the anger of God.  The Bible is clear that God is not impassive or indifferent in the face of human sin” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary—Hebrews, p. 34).  The implication is pointed.  If God was angry with people to whom he had graciously and mightily revealed Himself over and over again, how much more with those who have heard the gospel, felt its beauty, sensed its urgency, yet have turned away in stubborn defiance.  And that is what the audience of this letter was in danger of doing.

That generation of the Exodus died in the wilderness because they had hardened their hearts and would not trust God to deliver them.  The author of Hebrews is warning his own generation not to follow in their footsteps.

What was the consequence that the Israelites faced for not trusting and obeying God?  They could not enter His “rest.”  This was in response to the unbelief of the Israelites when they refused to go into the land God had promised to them.  They grumbled against Moses and Aaron, believing they would be better off in Egypt (Numbers 14:1-3).  So Numbers 14:11 says:

And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?

The penalty was that not one of them “shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:23).

Only Joshua and Caleb of that generation would experience rest in the promised land.  Psalm 81:10-16 expresses this problem well:

10 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. 11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. 13 Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! 14 I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes. 15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. 16 But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

An unbelieving heart never has enough proof.  It may claim that it would believe if God would show Himself through miracles, but it won’t.  Israel is proof of that.  They had seen God’s works “for forty years” (Heb. 3:8) but they still hardened their hearts against God.

The Lord Himself testified they had done this on no less than 10 occasions (Nm 14:22).  As far as God was concerned, the whole 40 years in the wilderness was a time of testing revealing what the hearts of the Israelites were really like (Dt 8:2).  But they flunked the test.  In spite of all the miracles God did before their eyes, they refused to believe He would do what He said.  This is why He became angry with them.  The more He did for them, the more they rebelled against Him.  Thus, He became angry with that generation, keeping them in the wilderness until all the men of war (except Joshua and Caleb) died.  Only then would He allow the next generation to enter the land–which He referred to as His “rest” (Dt 12:9).  (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 70)

“Rest” is something promised in Eden.  It is the nature of life lived without sin in the presence of God.  It is what is promised in the Sabbath and was meant to be lived in Eden.  Of course, Adam and Eve forfeited that rest.

Yet Israel could attain that rest when they entered into the land God promised them.  In Exodus 33:14 God promised, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  God has promised Israel that they would experience His blessing if they were obedience, but be under His curse if they disobeyed, especially if they worshipped other gods.  In this context, rest is to be protected from one’s enemies so that life could flourish.

“‘Rest’ (katapausis), as used here [in Hebrews 3-4], points to a place of blessing where there is no more striving but only relaxation in the presence of God and in the certainty that there is no cause for fear” (Leon Morris, Expositor’s Bible Commentary—Hebrews, p. 35).

We are promised rest in the gospel.  Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  In this context, rest is to no longer be under the law, especially the Pharisaic excesses, they weighed men down under heavy loads of guilt and despair.

The urgency of responding in trust now is carried by the word “today” (v. 7).  We are to respond to this prohibition against allowing our hearts to harden immediately.  Don’t put it off another moment.  The Holy Spirit is calling your heart right now.  It must not be neglected.

There is nothing so hardening as delay.  When God speaks to us, He asks for a tender heart, open to the whispers of His voice of love.  The believer who answers the To-day of the Holy Ghost with the To-morrow of some more convenient season, knows not how he is hardening his heart; the delay, instead of making the surrender and obedience and faith easy, makes it more difficult.  It closes the heart for to-day against the Comforter, and puts off all hope and power of growth.  (Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All, 125)

The Exodus generation saw miracle after miracle, but not everyone believed.  In fact, it is likely that most of them did not believe.  That is why they died in the wilderness.

Even in the church today, there may be people who have gone through a moral reformation, go to church, live and act like Christians, have seen God do miracles for them, yet are not saved.  Why?  Because they have not put their whole trust in Christ alone for salvation.  Maybe they haven’t consciously refused to believe in Jesus, but they just haven’t ever consciously placed their whole trust in Jesus alone to forgive their sins.

I challenge you to examine yourself.  I’m not asking if you go to church, if you have experienced some wonderful spiritual experiences, even miracles, if you’ve walked an aisle or prayed a prayer.  I’m asking, “Have you put your whole trust only in Jesus Christ and nothing else, for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Don’t trust in your history of church attendance, in your giving amount, in your good deeds for God.  Trust only in Jesus.

And keep trusting Him.  Don’t let anything distract you from trusting in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.