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)

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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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