1 Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, partners in a heavenly calling, take note of Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess, 2 who is faithful to the one who appointed him, as Moses was also in God’s house. 3 For he has come to deserve greater glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house deserves greater honor than the house itself! 4 For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. 5 Now Moses was faithful in all God’shouse as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken. 6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. We are of his house, if in fact we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope we take pride in.
7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! 8 “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. 9 “There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years. 10 “Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’ 11 “As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’” 12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception. 14 For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end. 15 As it says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For which ones heard and rebelled? Was it not all who came out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership? 17 And against whom was God provoked for forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose dead bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear they would never enter into his rest, except those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:1-19).1
A few years ago, I was talking with a friend on the phone. He was at his office in the Pacific Northwest; I was in my office in Richardson, Texas. He and I had been talking for some time, and then the conversation changed. As I continued the conversation, I sensed something wasn’t right. Eventually, it became evident that for whatever reason, I was talking to someone else. The man I was talking to did not know me, and I did not know him. Somewhere in the middle of a conversation, the phone connection was switched, and we were suddenly and unexpectedly talking to people we didn’t know. I cannot describe how strange that conversation felt. Part of it was the lack of any common connection and common background on the things we were discussing. Well, the truth is, we were talking about different things and wondering how the other person didn’t seem to connect with the conversation.
I’ve also had nearly the opposite experience, and I suspect that you have as well. Have you ever been in a different city, or state, or country, in a place where you did not know anyone? This happened to me on my first trip to India. I landed in Bombay (now Mumbai), and there was no one to meet me. It took almost a full day before I met up with the people I had expected to meet at the airport (my letter took another two weeks to reach India). But when I finally found myself among Christian brothers and sisters, I felt very much at home and at ease, even though some of us did not even speak the same language. Because of our faith in Christ, we had much in common, which made it easy to be with them.
When we come to Hebrews 3, a great deal of Old Testament history and biblical knowledge is assumed by the author of this text. Without this knowledge, little of what we read in chapters 3 and 4 will make much sense to us. For example, the term “rest” occurs 10 times in chapters 3 and 4 (and nowhere else in the book). What is most important for us to understand is that there are several different kinds of “rest” to which our author refers. We must understand each of these, and the differences between them, to grasp the message of this portion of Scripture.
The author of our text is going to use the second half of Psalm 95 as the basis for his exhortation in chapters 3 and 4, but there are several Old Testament texts which serve as the backdrop for the psalmist’s argument in Psalm 95. We will begin with these texts which describe several incidents having to do with Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their journey toward the Promised Land. Specifically, the psalmist bases his exhortation on Israel’s failures at Meribah and Massah (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 13-14; 20:1-13). We will review these dark times in the wilderness and then move on to the psalmist’s use of them in Psalm 95. Having done this, we will study the way in which the author to the Hebrews uses Psalm 95 as the basis for his lengthy exhortation in Hebrews 3 and 4. Finally, we will seek to see how this exhortation applies to the church – our church – today.
We have already noted that the author’s style is to alternate between exposition and exhortation. In the exposition of Hebrews 1, we learned that the Son – Jesus Christ – is God’s full and final revelation to man. He is vastly superior to every created thing because He is the Creator, and as such, He is vastly higher than the angels. Having set forth the supremacy of the Son, the author now exhorts his readers to pay very careful attention to what God has revealed to us through Him:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
In the remaining verses of chapter 2 (verses 5-18), we are shown, to our great wonder, that the Son set aside the glory of heaven to become “a little lower than the angels” (2:9). He did this in order to qualify Himself to “taste death for everyone,” thereby becoming a Savior and a faithful and merciful High Priest to all who believe. Having accomplished this, the Son ascended into heaven where the Father seated Him at His right hand. The wonder of it all is that in so doing, He accomplishes redemption for fallen man2 and restoration to His original glory and honor, as God had created them.3
In chapter 3, the author sets out to show us the supremacy of the Son in yet another way. In the first 6 verses of chapter 3, the author demonstrates that the Son – the Lord Jesus Christ – is greater than Moses, the most revered man in the Old Testament in the eyes of many Jews. Both Moses and the Lord Jesus were faithful, but Moses was faithful “in all God’s house” (3:2), while the Lord Jesus was faithful “over God’s house” (3:6). Moses was faithful as a part of the house (3:2-3), while Jesus was faithful as the builder of the house (3:3). Moses was faithful as a “servant” (3:5); Jesus was faithful as a “Son” (3:6).
In verse 7, our author continues his exhortation. It is almost as though Hebrews 3:7–4:13 is an expansion of the short exhortation of 2:1-4. And it may also be that in this exhortation the author, in a very subtle way, adds further proof to his declaration that the Son is superior to Moses. After all, Moses was not able to lead his generation of Israelites into God’s Canaan rest. Indeed, Moses himself did not enter into that rest (something we are about to see).
The “therefore” in verse 7 of chapter 3 indicates that our author connects verses 7-19 (and beyond) with what has already been said. The Son humbled Himself by taking on humanity (at His incarnation), and by virtue of His identification with man, He provided a way of salvation and a source of help. “Therefore” we should focus our attention on Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest, whom we confess. He is greater than Moses (3:1-6). If the Son is greater than Moses, then we really do need to “hear His voice” (3:7).
This brings us to the citation of the last half of Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3:7-11. This psalm is based upon some of Israel’s experiences in the wilderness. This use of the exodus in Psalm 95, and then later in Hebrews 3 and 4, is entirely consistent with the use of this theme elsewhere in the Bible. Let me suggest some of the ways the exodus experience is used in the Bible.
Exodus Language Assures Exiled Israel of Her Return and Restoration. Note how Isaiah uses the terminology of the exodus in the crossing of the Red Sea to assure the people of Judah that He will fulfill His promise of restoration in the future:
26 Who fulfills the oracles of his prophetic servants and brings to pass the announcements of his messengers, who says about Jerusalem, ‘She will be inhabited,’ and about the towns of Judah, ‘They will be rebuilt, her ruins I will raise up,’ 27 who says to the deep sea, ‘Be dry! I will dry up your sea currents,’ 28 who commissions Cyrus, the one I appointed as shepherd to carry out all my wishes and to decree concerning Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt,’ and concerning the temple, ‘It will be reconstructed’” (Isaiah 44:26-28, emphasis mine).
Exodus Language is Employed in Israel’s Prayers of Repentance.
10 But they rebelled and offended his Holy Spirit, so he turned into an enemy and fought against them. 11 His people remembered the ancient times. Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea, along with the shepherd of his flock? Where is the one who placed his holy Spirit among them, 12 the one who made his majestic power available to Moses, who divided the water before them, gaining for himself a lasting reputation, 13 who led them through the deep water? Like a horse running on flat land they did not stumble (Isaiah 63:10-13, emphasis mine).
The Exodus is a Prototype of the Saving Work of Jesus Christ at Calvary.
30 Then two men, Moses and Elijah, began talking with him. 31 They appeared in glorious splendor and spoke about his departure [literally exodus] that he was about to carry out at Jerusalem (Luke 9:30-31, emphasis mine).
The Exodus Events are a Lesson to New Testament Christians.
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness. 6 These things happened as examples for us, so that we will not crave evil things as they did (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, emphasis mine; see also vss. 7-11; 5:7; Romans 15:4; Hebrews 3-4).
The Exodus Events as Instruction to the Ancient Israelites. I am speaking here of the use of the Exodus in the Old Testament to instruct the ancient Israelites. Specifically, I am referring to the use of the Exodus events as employed and applied in Psalm 95, as we shall see next.
1 The whole community of the Israelites traveled on their journey from the Desert of Sin according to the Lord’s instruction, and they pitched camp in Rephidim. Now there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So the people contended with Moses, and they said, “Give us water to drink!” Moses said to them, “Why do you contend with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people were very thirsty there for water, and they murmured against Moses and said, “Why in the world did you bring us up out of Egypt – to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What will I do with this people? – a little more and they will stone me!” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go over before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile and go. 6 I will be standing before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in plain view of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the contending of the Israelites and because of their testing the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7)
The Israelites have just passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, while the Egyptian soldiers were drowned in the sea (Exodus 14). The Israelites sang songs of deliverance, praising God for their miraculous deliverance and anticipating their possession of the Promised Land by the defeat of their enemies (Exodus 15:1-18). But soon after this, things began to fall apart. Still, in chapter 15, the people come to Marah, where the water is too bitter to drink. The people grumbled at Moses, demanding to know what they are going to drink. God instructs Moses to throw a tree into the waters to sweeten them, and thus the Israelites are able to drink the water (15:22-26).
When the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Sin4 (virtually a month after the exodus), the people begin to grumble because they are concerned about what they are going to eat. Already they have forgotten the horrors of Egypt, and they now speak of it longingly, especially in terms of the food it seemed to offer them. They accuse Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them. God provides them with manna and quail. I cannot help but notice this question in verse 28:
So the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to obey my commandments and my instructions?” (Exodus 16:28)
The answer to this question, as we are about to see, is forty years. This is just the firstfruits (if I can dare to put it in these terms) of Israel’s disobedience.
This brings us to Exodus 17 and to Rephidim, where there is no water. The people once again quarrel with Moses and accuse him of bringing them to this place to kill them. In obedience to God’s instruction, Moses strikes the rock with his staff, and water pours forth. And thus God again provides for His grumbling people. Appropriately, the place was named “Massah” (“test”) and “Meribah” (“quarrel”).
20 Then the Lord said, “I have forgiven them as you asked. 21 But truly, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. 22 For all the people have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tempted me now these ten times, and have not obeyed me, 23 they will by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it. 24 Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully – I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants will possess it. 25 (Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites were living in the valleys.) Tomorrow, turn and journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.” 26 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long must I bear with this evil congregation that murmurs against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites that they murmured against me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, says the Lord, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing. 29 Your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness – all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me. 30 You will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war, and they will enjoy the land that you have despised. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness, 33 and your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your dead bodies lie finished in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days you have investigated this land, forty days – one day for a year – you will suffer for your iniquities, forty years, and you will know what it means to thwart me. 35 I, the Lord, have said, “I will surely do so to all this evil congregation that has gathered together against me. In this wilderness they will be finished, and there they will die!”’” (Numbers 14:20-35)
The Israelites have been given the Law at Mount Sinai, and now at last they have now come to Kadesh, the gateway to the Promised Land. Twelve spies are sent to assess the suitability of the land and the military strength of the Canaanites. God wanted the Israelites to fully grasp the difficulty of the task ahead:
17 When Moses sent them to investigate the land of Canaan, he told them, “Go up through the Negev, and then go up into the hill country 18 and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, few or many, 19 and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or fortified cities, 20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether or not there are forests in it. And be brave, and bring back some of the fruit of the land.” Now it was the time of year for the first ripe grapes (Numbers 13:17-20).
When the spies returned, they all agreed as to the fruitfulness and desirability of the land. They also agreed on the magnitude of the task of taking possession of the land. There were giants in the land, and the place was well fortified. The spies differed in their faith in God’s promises and in His ability to remove the Canaanites. Caleb and Joshua were confident that God would give them the victory; the other ten did not deem it possible. The people initially wept, but this quickly turned to grumbling and rebellion. They were ready to be rid of Moses and to appoint another leader who would take them back to Egypt. God once again asks “How long . . .?” He must put up with their unbelief:
10 However, the whole community threatened to stone them. But the glory of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the tent of meeting. 11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me, and how long will they not believe in me, in spite of the signs that I have done among them?” (Numbers 14:10-11, emphasis mine)
As He had done at Mount Sinai when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, God threatened to wipe out this rebellious nation and to begin anew through Moses (14:11-12). Moses interceded with God on behalf of the nation, and God once again forgave, but not without dire consequences:
13 Moses said to the Lord, “When the Egyptians hear it – for you brought up this people by your power from among them – 14 then they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, Lord, are among this people, that you, Lord, are seen face to face, that your cloud stands over them, and that you go before them by day in a pillar of cloud and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 If you kill this entire people at once, then the nations that have heard of your fame will say, 16 ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to them, he killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 So now, let the power of my Lord be great, just as you have said, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in loyal love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third and fourth generations.’ 19 Please forgive the iniquity of this people according to your great loyal love, just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now.” 20 Then the Lord said, “I have forgiven them as you asked. 21 But truly, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. 22 For all the people have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tempted me now these ten times, and have not obeyed me, 23 they will by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it” (Numbers 14:13-23, emphasis mine).
There is a very important observation to be made here. This entire generation of Israelites (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) will not be allowed to possess the land of Canaan.5 But while they cannot enter the Promised Land, God has assured Moses that their sins are forgiven. There are consequences for their constant grumbling and rebellion, but their sins have been forgiven. Thus, we should be very cautious about jumping to the conclusion that “failure to enter the land” is the equivalent of “failing to enter heaven.” There are temporal consequences for the nation’s sin, but God assured Moses that their sin was forgiven. Our next passage in Numbers 20 will further support this.
1 Then the entire community of Israel entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there. 2 And there was no water for the community, and so they gathered themselves together against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people contended with Moses, saying, “If only we had died when our brothers died before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought up the Lord’s community into this wilderness? So that we and our cattle should die here? 5 Why have you brought us up from Egypt only to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!” 6 So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting. They then threw themselves down with their faces to the ground, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 Then the Lord spoke to Moses: 8 “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and then speak to the rock before their eyes. It will pour forth its water, and you will bring water out of the rock for them, and so you will give the community and their beasts water to drink.” 9 So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, just as he commanded him. 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the community together in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?” 11 Then Moses raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. And water came out abundantly. So the community drank, and their beasts drank too. 12 Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, because the Israelites contended with the Lord, and his holiness was maintained among them (Numbers 20:1-13, emphasis mine).
A Sabbath-breaker was put to death in chapter 15, followed by a word of warning to the entire nation.6 Then comes the report of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, which ended in their being swallowed up by the ground, followed by fire from the Lord which consumed those offering the incense (Numbers 16:1-35). Believe it or not, rather than becoming fearful of the Lord, the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the deaths of those who were disobedient and died at the hand of God. This led to a further outbreak of God’s wrath, so that an additional 14,700 died (16:41-50).
Now, once again, the Israelites have come to Kadesh. It has been forty years since the Israelites first left Egypt.7 Miriam died and was buried, and soon Aaron will die8 as well. As on other occasions, the people run out of water, and the whole congregation begins to complain against Moses and Aaron. Somehow, Moses and Aaron were blamed for making the Israelites leave Egypt (as though it were against the will of the people). The people said that they wished they had died in the wilderness earlier, along with their (rebellious) brethren (20:2-5).
The glory of God appeared to the people, and the Lord commanded Moses to speakto (not to strike) the rock in the sight of the people so that it would bring forth water for them to drink. Forty years of griping finally got to Moses, who completely lost his cool. He struck the rock, in disobedience to God’s instructions. Nevertheless, the rock brought forth water, and the people drank.
Here’s what I want you to observe about this text. This text is not so much about the unbelief and disobedience of the Israelites, but about the unbelief and disobedience of Moses. We are hardly surprised by the actions of the people here, for they have been behaving this way for forty years. What is surprising and disappointing is the way Moses responded to this situation. According to God’s words, Moses “did not believe God” (verse 12), and thus he disobeyed. The result was that neither Moses nor Aaron would be allowed to enter the Promised Land, just like the unbelieving and disobedient generation of Israelites they led. These waters were called “Meribah,”9 just as we read in Exodus 17:7, because the Israelites once again contended with God.
Does this text not serve to validate the author’s claim in Hebrews 3:1-6 that the Lord Jesus is superior to Moses? Moses, like his fellow Israelites, did not believe God and disobeyed His Word. Like their fellow Israelites, Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter into the rest of possessing the land of Canaan. Surely we cannot conclude from Moses’ failure to enter into this particular kind of rest that Moses was an apostate and that he would never get to heaven!10 I take it, then, that true believers are also capable of unbelief and disobedience. We will have more to say about this later.
The exhortation of the third and fourth chapters of Hebrews is based upon the exhortation of Psalm 95. In fact, one might go so far as to say that the exhortation of the third and fourth chapters of Hebrews is a reiteration of the exhortation of Psalm 95. Let us take a brief look at this psalm and its message to the people of Israel centuries ago.
1 Come! Let’s sing for joy to the Lord!
Let’s shout out praises to our protector who delivers us!
2 Let’s enter his presence with thanksgiving!
Let’s shout out to him in celebration!
3 For the Lord is a great God,
a great king who is superior to all gods.
4 The depths of the earth are in his hand,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it.
His hands formed the dry land.
6 Come! Let’s bow down and worship!
Let’s kneel before the Lord, our creator!
7 For he is our God;
we are the people of his pasture, the sheep he owns.
Today, if only you would obey him!
8 He says, “Do not be stubborn like they were at Meribah,
like they were that day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors challenged my authority,
and tried my patience, even though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I was continually disgusted with that generation,
and I said, ‘These people desire to go astray;
they do not obey my commands.’
11 So I made a vow in my anger,
‘They will never enter into the resting place I had set aside for them’” (Psalm 95:1-11).
This psalm is worthy of a thorough exposition, but that cannot happen here and now. Let it suffice for the time being to make a few observations about this psalm, especially as these relate to the psalmist’s interpretation and application of Israel’s failures at Massah and Meribah.
First, we observe that the psalm divides into two distinct portions (verses 1-7a, and 7b-11).You will note that the author of Hebrews cites only the second half of the psalm, in its entirety. The first half of the psalm is a call to assemble and to worship God. One of the prominent themes of this worship is the greatness of God as evident in His creation. He is the Creator, and all creation is the work of His hands. This corresponds to what we have read in Hebrews 1:2, 10-12. Verses 7b-11 are the second half of the psalm, which the author of Hebrews cites in its entirety. These verses are a word of warning, based upon Israel’s failures in the wilderness over a period of forty years. In effect, the psalmist is saying: “Come, let us gather to worship and praise our Creator (7:1-7a), and if we do not, we are in danger of becoming hard of heart and disobedient, just like the Israelites of old.”
Second, the last half of the psalm is a call to pay attention to God’s voice (7b), which is also the exhortation of the author of Hebrews (see 2:1-4; 3:7; 4:12-13, etc.).
Third, the failure referred to by the psalmist was the failure of an entire generation, punctuated by sins that persisted for forty years. This was not the failure of a few, nor was it a momentary lapse of piety. It was the persistent, life-long, rebellion of an entire nation.
Fourth, God’s disciplinary action of preventing this generation from entering the land was not a “knee jerk” reaction. God put up with Israel’s failures for forty years (verse 10). Finally, it was time for this generation to face the consequences of their actions.
Fifth, Israel’s failure originated from the unbelief of hardened hearts, which was then manifested in rebellion and disobedience (verse 8-10).
Sixth, Israel’s unbelief and disobedience resulted in their failure to enter into God’s rest (verse 11).
Seventh, the psalmist views “rest” as something that Israel did not achieve in the past, but which is still available in his day, and yet something which his readers are still in danger of failing to attain.
Eighth, failure to enter into rest is here likened to the failure of the first generation of Israelites to enter the Promised Land.
Ninth, the “rest” offered in Psalm 95 may be “like” that of Numbers and Joshua, but it is not the “rest” of possessing the land because the psalm was written by one who, like his fellow Israelites, was dwelling in the Promised Land. The rest is therefore “like” the rest which the first generation of Israelites failed to attain, but not identical to it.
Tenth, the preventative to a hardened heart is to listen to God’s Word and to gather together corporately to encourage one another by worshipping God.
We should begin by noting that the author of Hebrews believes in the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. He begins his citation of Psalm 95 with these words,
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says” (Hebrews 3:7a, emphasis mine).
Having said this, we should step back and take a look at the bigger picture in Hebrews. In chapter 1, verses 1-3, we see that God has spoken to us in His Son. Then, in Hebrews 2:1-4, we are to listen much more carefully to what the Son has revealed, because He is “higher than the angels” (Hebrews 1:4-14; 2:1-4). Thus, God speaks to us from Scripture (1:1-3), as does the Son (2:1-4), and the Holy Spirit (3:7). The entire Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is involved in the revelation of Holy Scripture.
It is very interesting to see how the author of Hebrews employs the second half of Psalm 95 in a way that makes it the basis for his exhortation. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that just as the psalmist was able to perceive lessons for his audience from the failures of the Israelites in the wilderness, so the author to the Hebrews understands them as still applicable to his recipients, hundreds of years later. To put it differently, the author of Hebrews seeks to make the same applications to his readers that the psalmist did in his day, and by using the very same incidents in Israel’s history. For any who might be tempted to think that the author of Hebrews is “forcing” a meaning on these Old Testament texts, I would contend that he understands these passages better than we do, and he applies them in a way that is completely consistent with their use in Psalm 95. Our author is not forcing these Old Testament texts to say what he wants; he is simply repeating their warning and exhortation to us, just as the psalmist did.
So what is the lesson of Psalm 95 for those who received this Epistle to the Hebrews? It is a warning against disregarding God’s Word, and of forsaking the gathering of the saints for worship and mutual encouragement. This results in ignorance of God’s ways, in a hardened heart, and in a life of rebellion against God. In short, disregarding the Word and worship keeps one from entering into God’s rest. Now just what that “rest” consists of is yet to be seen.12
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception (Hebrews 3:12-13).
Notice how the author of Hebrews does not seem to feel obligated to engage in an exposition here, but rather he moves immediately to exhortation. I believe that the author of Hebrews accepts the argument of the psalmist and his conclusions. All he needs to do is to press for the same application on the part of his readers, hundreds of years later.
Take note of the corporate dimensions of this text. Compare these two translations of Hebrews 3:12:
Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God (NLT).
Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God (NASB).
The New Living Translation renders this verse in a way that makes inward introspection primary, and outward observation and action secondary. Of course, we should all look first to the “beam in our own eye,” and then to the speck in the eye of our brother. But I think that the NASB renders it in a way that more accurately represents the emphasis of the author (as I understand him). To paraphrase the author, I believe that he is saying something like this:
“Be very careful, my brothers, that no one in your congregation has such an evil, unbelieving, heart that they would turn from their faith in the living God.”
This is completely consistent with what will follow next:
13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception (Hebrews 3:13).
The spiritual health and well being of every member of the church is the responsibility of every member of the church, and not just one of its staff who is paid to do so. We are a body, and we are to care for one another. That is not only the emphasis here, but elsewhere in the book as well.13 We are to see to it that no one in the body becomes “hardened by sin’s deception.”
What does it mean to be “hardened by sin’s deception”? I’ve observed this in fairly dramatic terms a number of times in my years of ministry. A Christian husband becomes romantically attracted to another woman, and this leads to an affair. When confronted, he acknowledges that what he has done is sin. He admits that he should break off the relationship immediately and seek the restoration of his marriage. And yet the fleshly attraction of the illicit relationship is something he does not wish to forsake. As sin continues, the wayward heart becomes harder and harder, more and more deceived by sin. “Well,” the sinner reasons, “there are other interpretations of those texts in the Bible. After all, God wants me to be happy.” As the sin and deception continues, the sinner eventually comes to reason this way: “Well, that’s just your interpretation of what the Bible says. I believe that God wants me to be happy, and so I’ll just keep doing what I am doing.” I have personally seen this lead to another statement: “I don’t believe any of that (gospel) stuff anyway.” That is the deceitfulness of sin that hardens hearts to the place where disobedience seems so logical, even compelling.
This deceit and hardening of the heart takes place over a period of time. It is our duty as members of the body of Christ to be alert to this hardening in our own lives and in the lives of others. Because sin is so deceitful, and because hardened hearts don’t see things clearly, we need to take responsibility for others. What the sinner cannot see, we should see and seek to correct.
The author speaks of “forsaking the living God,” an expression referring to apostasy. How do we explain the fact that apostasy can occur within the church? First, let me share some words of wisdom from Dr. S. Lewis Johnson:
“When we say a Christian perseveres, we don’t say he perseveres in a certain style of life. . . . What the doctrine of perseverance says is that the man who has come to Christ and has believed in Him will never apostatize from the faith.”14
In other words, you cannot diagnose apostasy merely on the basis of one’s conduct at the moment. If this were the case, there are a few times when we might very well have accused David of apostasy (such as when he took Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, for himself and killed Uriah). Apostasy is the renunciation of one’s faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ for salvation. Apostasy may be accompanied by moral failure, even preceded by it, but apostasy isn’t merely committing sin; apostasy is one’s departure from faith in Jesus.
Let me attempt to explain the difference between a “backsliding Christian” and an apostate. The Christian is never “free to sin” in the sense that his sins are already covered by the blood of Christ, and thus on-going sin has no consequences.
Let me see if I can illustrate the difference between apostasy and “backsliding” with the following charts:
The first chart represents the unbeliever. Paul describes the unbeliever in Ephesians 2:
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… (Ephesians 2:1-3).
The second chart represents the true believer. As Christians gather regularly, they should exhort and encourage one another in the faith, just as the first half of Psalm 95 urges Old Testament saints, and Hebrews 3:12-13 and 10:23-25 does for New Testament saints.15 Ideally, exhortation and admonition take place before sin occurs. These are preventative measures. When sin does occur, then rebuke is the appropriate response.16 If confession and repentance occur, then sin has been dealt with, and the goal of repentance and restoration has been realized. If the sinner becomes hard-hearted and refuses to repent, persisting in his (or her) sin, then more dramatic action is required. The willful sinner must be removed from the fellowship, which is tantamount to handing him over to Satan:
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20, emphasis mine).
1 It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? 3 For even though I am absent physically, I am present in spirit. And I have already judged the one who did this, just as though I were present. 4 When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:1-4, emphasis mine).
It is important to note that this is a professing believer who is willfully persisting in his sin, and that the discipline Paul exercises from a distance is severe. This man is being “turned over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 5:4). But even here the goal is that his spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord. My point here is that God always removes the sinning believer before they get to the end of sin’s path – eternal judgment.
The third chart represents the apostate. The apostate is one who seems to have joined the cause of Christ. He or she will appear to be among the elect, but has never really come to faith in Jesus. And then there is some crisis point at which the apostate realizes what true faith involves, and he or she denies Christ and His atoning work at Calvary.
14 For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end. 15 As it says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Here, the author says it in a plain and straightforward manner: True Christians are those who hold fast to their faith in the Lord Jesus. They never forsake their faith in Him for salvation. They may stumble and fall, but they do not cease to trust in the shed blood of Jesus as the only means of their salvation. And thus, those who appear to be drifting away from their faith and devotion to Jesus are urged not to become hard of heart, which leads to rebellion.
When the author cites the portion of Psalm 95 that urges his readers to listen as God speaks “Today,” he underscores the fact that the Christian life is a day-by-day experience. We live out our faith a day at a time. And so the critical question for us is this: Am I listening to what God has to say to me through Christ today, and I am obedient to what He tells me? If not, I am on the path of sin which leads to death. God will not allow me to taste eternal judgment, but He will intercept me at various points and with various forms of discipline. It is simply not worth the price to drift away and to become hard hearted.
16 For which ones heard and rebelled? Was it not all who came out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership? 17 And against whom was God provoked for forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose dead bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear they would never enter into his rest, except those who were disobedient? (Hebrews 3:16-18)
The author is not looking for information when he asks these three questions, because he gives us the answers. By asking and answering these questions, the author is seeking to call attention to the facts of the matter. First, those who heard and rebelled were those who came out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Moses was the one whom the Jews (including Jewish believers) revered, and yet those he led failed. This adds weight to the author’s earlier emphasis on the superiority of Christ to Moses.17 And those who had Moses as their leader not only heard what God spoke through Moses, they also saw the attesting miracles that God worked through Moses. This generation that failed had more revelation than any generation up to that point in history (and for many generations to come).
The second question and answer calls attention to the fact that those with whom God was angry for forty years were also those whose bodies were strewn throughout the desert. In other words, just as God kept His promises made through Moses (of deliverance for Israel, and of judgment upon the Egyptians), He also kept His word with regard to the consequences Israel must face for their persistent rebellion. God means what He says, and He keeps His word, for blessing and for discipline.
Third, those who failed to enter God’s promised rest were those who disobeyed. The Israelites continually rebelled against God’s commands. Disobedience to God’s commands is rebellion, and rebellion brings discipline.
“So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19).
Now we’ve come to the root of it all – unbelief. That generation of Israelites did not believe God, even though they saw example after example of how God kept His word through Moses. Again and again, God announced a coming plague, and each came as and when God said. Again and again, God announced that He would remove a plague. And each time it came about just as (and when) God said. The Israelites complained and rebelled when they were hungry or thirsty, even though God had promised to meet all their needs. And, in the end, the Israelites failed to believe that God would give them victory over the giants in the land. The root evil behind Israel’s failure to enter into God’s “rest” was unbelief.
It is interesting (perhaps even providential) that on this Labor Day weekend we would be studying a passage in Hebrews that deals with rest. Labor Day was declared a federal holiday in 1894. Originally, it was intended as a street parade to honor trade and labor organizations. Then later it became more general in scope, honoring the labor movement. Today, it may still do that, but for most folks it is a day off, a day that we don’t have to show up for work and perform our normal workday duties. It is a day to rest from our labors. The “rest” which Israel failed to enter was quite different. The exact nature of that rest will be the topic of our next lesson. But failure to enter into God’s “rest” is the result of unbelief. It was true for that first generation of Israelites, as well as for those in the days of the psalmist (Psalm 95). And so it is true today.
Even in the Old Testament, the issue is not man’s works, but man’s faith in God to work. That is what rest is about, resting in faith. It is not the absence of activity or work, but it is the absence of trust in one’s own abilities and strength. Our faith must be in God.
Just as that first generation heard God’s Word proclaimed and witnessed the attesting signs and wonders which accredited that Word, so the writer to the Hebrews claims that his audience has received God’s revelation – not through Moses, but through the Son. And that revelation was validated by the miracles, gifts, and signs that God performed through His apostles. So we must believe God’s Word and obey, rather than rebel against Him.
So what lessons are there for us to learn from our text? Allow me to suggest a few.
First, we have a lesson in hermeneutics – the interpretation of God’s Word. The author of Psalm 95 found in Israel’s wilderness wanderings lessons for those who lived centuries later, lessons in faith. The author of Hebrews then takes the lessons of Psalm 95 and applies them to his day and time. The key for us is to understand Hebrews so that we can grasp its application to this generation.
Second, we should observe from our text that the exhortations of Psalm 95 and Hebrews are the same and can be summed up in three messages:
Third, we cannot conclude that failure to enter God’s “rest” is synonymous with failure to get to heaven.An entire generation of Israelites (minus Joshua and Caleb) failed to enter Canaan, and thus failed to enter God’s “rest.” Among those who failed to enter the land were Moses and Aaron, but we can be confident that they did go to heaven. The next generation, under Joshua, did enter the land, but we would be hard pressed to say that they were all going to heaven. Surely there were unbelievers among them. And in the psalmist’s day, he was still warning about failing to enter God’s “rest,” and yet his generation was in the land. Let us wait until our next lesson to clarify what “entering God’s rest” means.
Fourth, it does seem that the words of Psalm 95 and also those of Hebrews 3 and 4 had a unique application to that “first generation” of Jews to witness the greater “exodus” of Jesus in His incarnation, earthly ministry, death, and resurrection. These words must have given any surviving first generation witnesses of the coming of Christ something to ponder. Would these words in Hebrews not have been similar to the words of Paul and others as they preached to the Jews in their synagogues?
Fifth, we are our brother’s keeper. Verses 12 and 13 indicate that every believer has some responsibility for the spiritual well-being of his fellow believers. We are to gather together faithfully to encourage one another and to watch for signs of spiritual ill-health. I fear that many churches are not living up to their responsibilities with respect to caring for one another’s spiritual health. I suspect that in all too many churches, church discipline does not exist. It does exist in our church, but this text indicates that just exercising church discipline on willfully sinning saints (by profession, at least) is not enough.
We need to be much more proactive (exhortation) in our care for one another, rather than merely being reactive (discipline). We need to be faithful to gather for worship, exalting God for His greatness, recalling His acts of mercy and salvation. That is the kind of fuel which promotes faith. We need to be more aggressive in admonishing our brothers and sisters as we see spiritual dangers ahead. This is why we believe the gathering of the church each Sunday is so important. It provides us with the opportunity to encourage one another. And this is why we have a meeting where all of the men can speak and lead, because we need to be ministering to one another so that we enter into rest, rather than drifting toward rebellion and discipline. May God give us the grace to do better as we gather as a church.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
5 It may also be worthy of noting that God does not say anything about Moses and Aaron entering the land. We know that they will not enter the land because of a sin that is yet future. But God knew it would take place. So is this why He is careful not to speak of Moses and Aaron entering the land? I’m inclined to think so.
7 “Within the first month of the 40th year after the Exodus the tribes arrived . . . at Kadesh (modern ‘Ain Qedeis) where Miriam died and was buried. Though there is no reference to events between the second year—the year when Israel was sentenced to wander for 40 years (14:34; cf. 10:11)—and the death of Miriam, it is certain that she died in the 40th year because the next dated event is the death of Aaron at Mount Hor (20:27-28), which occurred (33:38) ‘on the first day of the fifth month of the 40th year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.’ The ‘first month’ in 20:1 then must be understood in that context since the narrative of chapter 20 cannot accommodate anything much shorter or longer than three or four months. The reference to Kadesh does not mean that Israel arrived there for the first time, since they had already sent the spies out from there (12:16; 13:26). It means simply that they returned to Kadesh on this occasion.” Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (238). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
12 This will be the focus of our next lesson.
14 This may not be word-for-word, but it is a fairly accurate quote taken from Dr. Johnson’s 1993 audio series on the Book of Hebrews: http://www.believerschapeldallas.org/a/Johnson/slj-31_Hebrews/12_SLJ_31_32K.m3u.