Last night we continued our study through the letter to the Hebrews, looking at chapter 3 and most of chapter 4. Here it is:
One of the things you realize as you read Hebrews is that the author is dealing with certain categopries, which, if we don’t have them in our mind, make it difficult to understand his point. So, here are some categories you need to have in your mind to really begin to understand Hebrews, and Jesus:
- Revelation: Our need for Divine Speech
- Priest: Needing a Priest, you need someone to represent you to God
- Sacrifice: Needing a sacrifice to worship God
- Human Significance: The significance of your actions – what you do has meaning
- Human accountability: We will answer to God for everything we do
- Eternity: there’s a whole life to live after death. It’s actually more important than this current life—this life is preparation for it.
The letter to the Hebrews is an exercise in this kind of category creation.
The point of this paragraph is in verse 1–Consider Jesus: He’s greater than Moses, who was only a servant (3:5) but Christ is Son over the house of God (aka God’s family – 3:6), and we’re that house, if we hold fast.
Now notice 3:14, where you have almost an identical thought. These two ideas, with the two exhortations to “hold fast” frame the quotation of Psalm 95 in verses 7-11, and help us understand why the writer gives us this big quotation from the Psalm here. So what do these two verses say? They work with the idea that those who’ve believed in Jesus Christ have joined the household of God, or to say it another way, we’ve become partakers of Christ (the idea here is that those who trust and follow Christ share in everything Christ is, and everything he brings). But the writer says that both things are true if in fact we “hold fast” till the end. Another way to say this is to “stick to” to what we’ve come to know and believe about Christ—by holding it in our minds, by relying on God’s promises, and by living out the teachings of Christ faithfully. To help us get practical here, we get a negative example in the next few verses—and that example is the Israelites in the Old Testament (in other words, the very people Moses served).
So here, with the example of the early history of the nation of Israel, we get a bunch of details showing what it looks like to not “hold fast.” First, in verse 8—It looks like hardening your heart. This verse in the Psalm points back to Numbers chapter 14, where the people Israel come out of Egypt, God leads them up to the border of the land he’s promised them, and then they get scared, refuse go forward, decide to elect a leader to take them back to Egypt, and threaten to stone Moses. So “hardening your heart” means refusing to listen to God, believe his promises, or go where he leads you. This is all sort of summed up in the word “rebellion” in verse 8. Next, in verse 9 it looks like “testing” God. You could call this “trying to see how long God’s patience will last” while you sin.” In verse 10 we see that not holding fast looks like constantly “going astray in your heart”, and “not knowing God’s ways.” This accusation that they didn’t know God’s ways is pretty hard hitting—because, like it says in verse 9, they saw God work for 40 years, they were getting God’s law from straight from Moses. But I think the idea is that they didn’t let all that affect their minds so that they could really know God or understand how he wanted them to live.
In verse 16 to verse 19 we get three ideas that sum up the issue the Israelites had: they sinned (v.17) they did not obey (v.18) and they did not believe (v.19). Maybe we could say the process was that this heart hardening and refusal to move forward led to refusal to believe God, which led them to not actually carry out what he commanded.
In verse 12 the author stops quoting the Psalm and addresses his audience directly. He says, “watch out for this same kind of heart”—just because it’s ancient history doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. Now—when this was written, the story of the Israelites was already ancient history. So we’re in the same place as the first people who heard this. Any of us here tonight could have the same internal issues that the people of Israel had, and it could lead any of us into the same kind of refusal to listen to God and obey him. What’s awesome is that right in verse 13 he tells us how this can happen—it happens when we let sin deceive us, and that leads to a hardened heart. So we’re told what to watch out for. Watch out for sin, specifically sin in the heart. That’s where it all starts.
The antidote for all this pretty cool—it’s to be part of a Christian community where we encourage each other daily (3:13)—so we can help each other avoid being deceived and hardened by sin.
So if we take this whole section together, we get some marching orders from the Holy Spirit—Watch out! There’s always a danger that sin will trick us, and we could end up with jaded, hard hearts. We start out going astray on the inside, and wind up refusing to obey God with our lives. The end game of a hardened heart is in verse 12—departing from the living God. Avoid all that by cultivating real Christian relationships and being people who speak into the lives of other Christians, and have other Christians able to speak into our lives too. We should all be caring about each other—is everyone we know demonstrating the perseverance that shows that they are truly part of God’s family?
Now, in verse 1 the writer picks up on a phrase from Psalm 95 he mentioned in 3:11, and also in 3:18 and 19, this idea of “entering God’s rest.” What you gotta realize is, the event the Psalm references (which was recorded in Numbers 14) happened a long time before the Psalm was written (hundreds and hundreds of years) …and Psalm 95 was written hundreds of years before Christ and this letter.
But the writer here is going to show that the correct understanding of Psalm 95 is to see that it’s speaking about a time period which stretches from when the Psalm was written, includes this letter, and goes all the way up through our day, and on till this time when “God’s rest” actually happens.
In verse 2 he points out that the situation of the people of Israel coming out of Egypt was really comparable to our situation today—because like us they had a promise from God of a full deliverance and rest. So that’s the same as us—We stand in this position of hearing the promise of God for a full deliverance and rest from everything that plagues our world.
And in verse 3 he gives a simple reminder—who gets to enter that rest? Those who believe. But of course, this is like so many other places in scripture, where God knows we need this idea of trust or faith or belief defined for us; because we have this tendency of gutting it of any real meaning and making the word “faith” into something much smaller and weaker than what the bible means when it talks about trusting God.
So if you look at verse 3 to verse 9—Here we get an explanation for why we’re being told that these ancient scriptures still apply to us today. In verse 4 he goes all the way back to Genesis 2, to the beginning of creation, and shows that God’s rest was a much older thing than Israel going into the land of Canaan. It stretches back to God himself resting from his creative labors. What God’s inviting us into is his own peace—his own peaceful existence. Like everything in Hebrews—this is big.
And this is the point of verse 7 through 10. When David was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write “today” even though he was writing about things that happened so long ago in the past, he showed that the promise of God’s rest stands for all time, until God wraps up history and actually ushers in the rest. The fact that the people of Israel didn’t actually experience God’s rest, even when they made it into the land, proves this beyond all doubt. ‘Cause when David wrote Psalm 95, he wrote it while he was king over the land, and he wrote it for the people who were living in the land, but they still needed to hear that they could harden their hearts and miss out on God’s rest.
Or…to say it more positively (like he does in verse 9), David’s people needed to hear that even the best things in life they had experienced were not fulfilling the promise of God’s rest, they still had that to look forward to. In fact in verse 9 he changes the word he’s using for “rest” and uses the word for “Sabbath celebration” instead. It was like he was saying “don’t let the one day a week you get to stop working fool you—you only think you know what Sabbath is—you haven’t seen anything yet.”
And so in verse 11 we get the Holy Spirit’s application and direction. What should all of this mean to us? …or what should all of this inspire us to do? He says “be diligent.” ESV says is “make every effort” and NIV translates it “strive.” The idea of “diligence” points to focused, sustained effort. This almost seems a little contradictory—it’s like he’s saying “work to rest.” But we have to see that the idea isn’t “work to please God,” or “work your way to heaven” or even, like, “Ha ha—God said ‘rest’ but he really meant ‘work’!” No, I think we get a sense for this whole thing if we go back and look at all six points of direction we get in this passage.
In 3:1 we’re told to “consider Jesus.” Then, almost in response, in 3:7 we’re told not to harden our hearts, and then in 3:12 to watch out for an evil heart of unbelief like the people of Israel had. That’s followed right up in 3:13 with a command to be helping each other out in these things, and in 4:1 with the command to be dead serious about everyone we know in our Christian community making it all the way to God’s promised rest. What does it require to really be able to live all five of these commands out? It requires careful thoughtful, attention and effort that doesn’t give up—in other words, like it says in verse 11, it requires diligence. And when you take all these things together you see why verse 11 doesn’t just say “watch out that you don’t fall” but “we don’t want anyone—within the whole circle of our Christian community—to end up not entering God’s rest.”
So it’s like, let’s do life together, and let’s keep encouraging each other and watching out for each other, so that everyone of us holds on till the end, and none of us falls short and fails to enter God’s rest.
Another way to say it might be…look around the room—there’s always a possibility that not everyone sitting here will actually enter God’s rest in the end. Whether, like in 3:6 and 3:14, their lack of holding fast shows they’re not part of God’s family, or whether they end up refusing to obey God because of sin and refusal to believe and obey God’s promises—We should all care about that. We should watch ourselves really closely, and always be lining ourselves up next to scripture to check ourselves, and we should watch our church closely, especially those closest to us, and we should always be wanting everyone we know who’s part of our community to make it to God’s eternal rest with us. The Christian motto should be “no one left behind.”
This leads us to the final two things that are said in this chapter. The first thing (in verses 12 and 13) is designed to leave us totally sort of stripped bare and without excuse, and the second thing in verses 14-16 is designed to show us where our comfort and help is. I’m going to read the first one with you and sort of leave it there, because when Chris and Chris and Tony and Jake and I were studying through we really decided the verses at the end of chapter 4 actually were more about launching the next thing the letter’s going to say than about summing up what we read tonight. So Chris is gonna get into that with you, but let’s see how this section ends up in verses 12 and 13.
These verses are kind of famous in Christian circles. They’re pretty inspiring thoughts about God’s word. In verse 12 the idea is that the word of God totally penetrates us, psychologically, spiritually, even physically—and it exposes our deepest motivations, even things that are subconscious. God’s word shows us that God knows us better than we know ourselves. We can’t hide behind words or even our own skin. And that’s the point of verse 13—God sees everything, and he’s the one we must ultimately explain ourselves to. No one escapes this.
But I remember one time reading these verses and then being kind of confused at why they were written here. It almost seems out of joint with the rest of the passage.
The way to figure this out is to notice all the other times “God’s word” is mentioned in chapter 3 and 4. Notice in 3:7 when he starts to quote Psalm 95, he says “the Holy Spirit says.” So Psalm 95 is God talking. In fact right in the next verse, what God says in Psalm 95 is that we need to hear God’s voice.
I think it’s pretty clear we’re being told to hear God’s voice right in the Psalm. Then in 4:4, when he quotes from Genesis 2, he says “He has spoken” those words too, and when he returns to Psalm 95 in 4:7 he calls it God speaking again. In other words, when he quotes all these things, and tells us to be diligent to listen to what is written, and then says “For the word of God is sharper…” he’s saying—“listen, the Bible is God talking to us.” Maybe you didn’t know it before you walked in here tonight, but Psalm 95 addresses you directly. In fact, Hebrews addresses us directly.
And what’s it saying? —it’s telling us to remember that there have always been groups of people who hung around and who followed people and situations where God was working. God was doing things—delivering people, showing himself, speaking—and that attracts lots and lots of people. But there are always people in that mix who aren’t really letting it all get to them in any real way so that they trust God and begin to be serious about knowing him and obeying him. And one of the things the bible does is challenge us by exposing us before God—so that in the end, we have no excuses and we stand before him to be judged—not by people who only know part of the story—but on the basis of the whole reality of who we truly are down to the core of our being. Tonight, you are being addressed by the words of this scripture. The bible is talking to you. It’s telling you that you’re in the presence of the God who sees and knows all. And all of us are being addressed this way—our whole group here is being addressed, together.
God has promised a full deliverance through Jesus. He’s gathering a people to join him in an eternal festival of rest and celebration. The word of God lays us bare tonight—where are you on that promise? Maybe you’ve never counted yourself among those who claim to believe in Jesus. Talk to us about that tonight—God is offering you eternal rest on the basis of something Jesus himself did for you. And for everyone who’s familiar with God’s promise—Is it inspiring you to diligence in your response to what God is saying? Or can you think about what is written here about the nation of Israel and actually…you’re kind of like them? Do you have friends who are like them? Are you the kind of person who’s willing and able to do anything about that? God is using his scripture to expose us tonight. He’s here. He’s speaking. He’s inviting. He’s warning.
Now, if that freaks you out, then I invite you to seek God yourself. And I recommend that you go home tonight, or some time this week (really, don’t wait for this to wear off!) and I recommend you sit with this passage and pray about it, and especially, that you end up in verses 14 through 16. If you let God talk to you about these things, he’ll show you that what you really need when you feel weak and exposed and helpless before a perfect God who sees and knows everything, is you need a priest. You need someone to represent you and advocate for you to this perfect, all powerful, all seeing God. And the next six chapters of Hebrews are all dedicated to get you to see one thing—we have a priest, and His name’s Jesus. Remember how we started the night off in 3:1—think about Jesus, our high priest. And in verses 14 to 16 we see that Jesus loves to help weak people.