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.

Published by

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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