7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when 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 hearts, they have not known my ways. 11 As I swore in my wrath, “They shall never enter my rest.” 12 Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort (or encourage) 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 share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, 15 while it is said, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 Who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. 4:1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.2 For indeed unto us was the gospel preached just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never 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 place he said, “They shall never 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 sets a certain day, “Today” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. 9 So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; 10 for whoever enters God’s rest also rests from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is addressing Christians who have been drifting from their faith in Jesus Christ. They have lost a clear understanding of the character, purpose, and activity of God towards us in Jesus, and have started trusting in other things besides the grace of God. While the main emphasis of the letter is the person and work of Jesus, the author interjects 5 sections of warning for his readers. My guess is that his readers don’t believe that adding to their faith a trust in angels or in Moses, etc. is a problem. They probably thought they were being super-spiritual, that they had a new, improved Christian life and that they had grown up from their simple trust in Jesus alone.
I think we can understand this tendency to drift from Jesus. Aren't we tempted to do the same? What are some of the things that we can add to our faith in Christ? New ways to pray? A certain approach to quiet time? Being involved on the most committees at church? Getting one or more degrees in theology or Biblical studies?
Well, you may be saying, “What is wrong with all those things? Aren’t we supposed to want to pray, have quiet time, serve at church, and learn more about our faith?” And this is probably just the question that these first readers asked: “Aren’t we supposed to be interested in the other heavenly beings, and in our heritage as God’s chosen people?”
The problem for them, and for us, comes when we begin to trust in these other things along with our trust in Jesus. We think that by praying in a particular way or getting a certain academic degree or increasing our level of devotion we will have a greater chance of impressing God, getting Him to do what we want Him to do or to make up for mistakes made or sins committed. The danger is that when we start to count on these other things to give us an edge with God, we are not simply dependent on receiving His grace moment by moment. Or perhaps we come to believe that we need to be doing certain things for God and in the process of pursuing them, we get caught up in the machinery and details and demands of the task to the degree that we neglect a vital growing relationship and communication with the very God we think we are serving. Our level of progress or success in accomplishing the task begins to control us and define for us the quality of our lives, our sense of well-being and value. We can begin to derive our security and identity from those other things added on to the foundation of our essential trust in Jesus to be the source of our life.
The author of the letter wants to make sure that, as they gain a clearer and more glorious picture of Jesus, they also understand that, in their attempt to put other things first, by trusting in angels or Moses in addition to trusting in Jesus, they could lose the first thing, the very relationship with the triune God that they started with. Karl Barth, a theologian of the 20th century, defined sin as resisting God’s grace. When we look for anything else to be a source of identity and life, then we diminish our capacity to receive all that God desires to give us.
This drifting from Jesus may seem fairly innocuous at first. As I said, they probably thought they were becoming more spiritual by adding certain beliefs about angels, or thinking that trusting in Moses as well as Jesus was a move towards Christian growth. But this author cares too much for his readers to leave them in this delusion. Along with giving them this amazingly clear and glorious picture of the person and work of Christ, he warns them by pointing out to them where this trend can lead.
The author warns his readers by using the example of the generation of Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt in order to free them from slavery and lead them to the Promised Land. He points to this particular example because he has just been discussing Moses and comparing him to Jesus. Moses was so revered by the Jewish people that many believed he would be the one to intercede for them in the final judgment. The Jewish Christians he is writing to are tempted to add to their trust in Jesus, a trust in Moses. Surely, trusting in Moses, the Deliverer, will increase their favor with God, will make them more spiritual!
First, in the previous passage, the author explains the complete superiority of Jesus over Moses. In fact, Moses was never meant to be compared with Jesus. His ministry was to be a sign pointing to the reality. How can you compare a sign with the object the sign points to? How can you compare a sign to Chicago with Chicago itself? The superiority of Chicago doesn’t negate the value of the sign; the sign’s value is fulfilled in pointing beyond itself to the reality. Moses served God well, but to trust in him as well as Christ is equivalent to being equally satisfied with remaining at the sign instead of moving on to what it points to.
Now let’s look at the actual warning. I think the best way to work through this passage is by pulling out the main themes rather than going verse by verse. The author uses a quote from the Septuagint version of Psalm 95:7b-11 throughout this long passage. It refers to the various incidents recorded in Exodus and Numbers, when the Israelites became angry with Moses and with God: grumbling because of lack of food or water, making a golden calf to worship when Moses is on top of the mountain with God, and finally, refusing to go in and take the land after the report by the 12 spies. God swears that none of the first generation that came out of Egypt with Him, except for Caleb and Joshua, will enter the Promised Land and the people turn back to the desert and wander for 38 more years.
So, first of all, what exactly is the author warning against? How does our author describe what it is that the Israelites did that led to God swearing in His wrath that they would never enter His rest? Actually, if you look through the passage, you’ll see that there are a variety of words and images the author uses to describe the problem. Here is a list:
-do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion—3:8
-your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for 40 years—3:9
-They always go astray in their hearts, they have not known my ways—3:10
-lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God—3:12
-none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin—3:13
-if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end—3:14
-so we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief—3:19
-the gospel did not meet with faith in the hearers—4:2
-those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience—4:6
How do we put all this together? The root problem with the Israelites is that they did not respond to God out of trust that He really is the God He reveals Himself to be. God had revealed Himself to be more powerful than all of the Egyptian gods, than Pharaoh himself. He had freed them from their slavery and led them out of Egypt laden with treasures given to them by the Egyptians. But as soon as they found themselves without food, they were grumbling against God, saying that He had brought them out to the wilderness merely to die and so they wanted to go back to Egypt. When any trouble came, they didn’t assume the best about God, but the worst. Their grumbling against God was not rooted in Who He had shown Himself to be, but in their own justifications of their fears and desires.
Let’s think about this in terms of our human relationships. With my children, I have attempted, like any parent who desires to do a good job, to reveal myself to be a mother who is always striving for their best, who loves them, and who can be trusted to be fair, honest, and seeking to help them to become mature. Sometimes over the years, one or another of my children have been grumbling against me for how I acted, or didn’t act, in a certain situation. What is the most frustrating is when their grumbling reveals they are assuming false ideas of me—as if I had acted in a way to deliberately hurt them or disregard them. It is one thing to be angry about my actions, but quite another to believe I am capable of having the unloving and inconsiderate character and motivations they are assuming I have. And what kind of trust and obedience can I hope for when they have such a false image of me?
I know this is an imperfect example, but I hope it helps us to see more deeply into this text. The Israelites were disobedient, yes. But why? The author connects their disobedience with unbelief. The Israelites knew God’s ways. They had watched His works. The gospel had been preached to them, says the author, as it has been to us! In other words, God had extended His grace to them. He had spoken His good and faithful word of redemption and belonging into their lives. But “the gospel did not meet with faith in the hearers.” (4:2) They didn’t respond to God’s revelation of Himself with trust that He is indeed who He revealed Himself to be. They didn’t want to live as if He is who He said He is.
Our author wants to encourage his readers to continue to consider Jesus, and in doing so, continue to trust Him as their great high priest, to hold onto their full confidence in Him. Remember, when he uses the word “confidence” here, he is not speaking of their subjective feelings of being confident. He is not telling them to try real hard to be confident. The word “confidence” refers to an objective reality, what is true, regardless of how they feel. They stop holding on to the confidence they already have, when they begin to seek other people or things to trust in besides Jesus. And this can lead to the evil, unbelieving heart; the heart that has been hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
This is what the author is warning them against: distrust, unbelief. When we add other things to our trust in Jesus, we are no longer trusting in Jesus. When we seek to appease God with our commitments, actions, etc., we are no longer trusting in Jesus. And when we work hard to “have enough faith”, we are trusting more in our faith than we are in Jesus.
Essentially, what we stop trusting is: that God loves us, is trustworthy, and is for us, on our side. And feeding a wrong view of God can lead to greater and greater hardening of our hearts. Distrust when harbored and acted on leads to greater unbelief.
The end result could be that we fail to enter God’s rest. This word “rest” refers to two things in the passage. First, the Promised Land that God gave the Israelites is referred to as His rest. But the land was not the whole of the rest God gives, or even the main rest He gives. Remember that our author quotes from Psalm 95. In this quote, the psalmist, David, is warning his own generation not to be like those in the wilderness. So, this means that there is another rest. And this rest the author refers to as a “sabbath rest”, connected to God resting on the seventh day of creation, but to be fulfilled for God’s people in the future.
Stop and think about this for a moment. Who is this God that they are drifting away from? Who is He whom the Israelites grumble against? He is the God who is offering His people rest. In the Old Testament understanding rest was what one has when everything is set right. It isn’t inactivity, but complete well-being, and freedom. Jesus came as our high priest to give us a share in His sonship, and so a share in His rest. What a good and glorious God He is!
They are to strive to enter that rest. Does this seem contradictory to you? This must be a parallel to his exhortation that they hold fast to their confidence to the end. And it is connected to his earlier command that they, “Consider Jesus.” To trust Jesus takes deliberate, continual effort. We do not naturally and automatically live restful lives in a restful world. Every day there are temptations to be anxious or fearful, to be manipulative and controlling. Every day, we are tempted, by some person, scheme, circumstance or plan, to turn our eyes away from Jesus.
So we find this command here—strive to enter His rest. Do we realize how much, then, God desires that we enter into and live in the rest He gives us? Or do we think that He is more concerned that we “do stuff for Him” and do it well? Do we think of living in His rest as a nice thought, but really not that important to our Christian lives? Or that it just isn’t practical to live out of the peace of Christ? Well, from what the author says here, our willingness to deliberately strive to live in God’s rest is connected with who we think God is. And we want to be very careful about carrying around with us an inaccurate view of God. Left unchecked, it can grow into a rejection of God-- and His rest.
Last point. Notice that the quote from Psalm 95 begins, “Today, when you hear his voice…” The author continues this image of God speaking “today” through the whole passage. He tells them to encourage one another “every day, as long as it is called ‘today.’” Notice also that in his warning in 3:12, the author states that he doesn’t want them to “fall away from the living God.” It is because God is a living God that He is still speaking “today.” The God that they are drifting from is not dead or inactive. He is living and continuing to speak to them, continuing to invite them into His rest. It is not too late to turn to Him again. And every day, as God speaks, we hear him calling to us, to strive to enter, to live in, His rest--the rest He is giving us and that He is! Because God is living and speaking, this warning is also full of hope—the hope of our resting and abiding in God’s living, continuing grace.
The early church father, Chrysostom, said of this passage: “He said ‘today,’ that they might never be without hope. ‘Exhort one another daily,’ he says. That is, even if persons have sinned, as long as it is ‘today,’ they have hope; let them not then despair so long as they live. Above all things ended [[??]], he says, ‘Let there not be an evil, unbelieving heart.’ But even if there should be, let no one despair, but let that recover; for as long as we are in this world, the ‘today’ is in season.”
God, in Christ, gives Himself wholly to us. Today, let us give ourselves wholly to Him and live in His rest.