A Rest for the People of God
7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if 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 heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’ ”
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. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 3:7–19). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Do Not Harden Your Hearts
Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; and they did not know My ways’; as I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ” Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end; while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. (3:7–19)
From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is full of warning signs from God, meant to deter men from sin and thereby keep them from His wrath. The Old Testament tells us that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11), and the New Testament tells us that He does not wish for anyone to perish but wants everyone to repent (2 Pet. 3:9). God did not create man to be doomed to hell, and throughout His Word He continually warns him of the dangers and penalty of sin.
Hebrews 3:7–19 is one of these warnings. The Holy Spirit seems to be giving a supernatural push to anyone on the edge of accepting Jesus Christ. Many people intellectually accept the gospel. They believe its message, but never commit themselves to the One whom that gospel proclaims. They do not repent of their sins and turn wholeheartedly to Him as Savior and Lord. It is no favor to God—and no benefit to us—to like, to admire, to praise His gospel, without accepting and obeying it. To know the truth and not accept it brings worse judgment than never to have known it at all.
The warning here is to those who know the gospel, who affirm its truth, but who, because of love of sin or fear of persecution or whatever it may be, have not committed themselves to the truth they know is real. It is as if there were a fire in a hotel and they are on the tenth floor. Because there is a net below, the firemen are yelling, “Jump.” But they do not jump. They hesitate. They are well aware of the danger and they know the net is their only way of escape; but they do not act on what they know is true and necessary. They are concerned about saving some of their possessions, or perhaps they think that somehow they can find another way out. They may be afraid of being hurt from the fall. Some might even be concerned about how they would look while jumping—afraid of embarrassment. But the point is this: simply knowing about the danger and knowing about the way out of it will not save them. If they do not jump they will die. When your very life is at stake, nothing else should matter.
The writer of Hebrews, under the Spirit’s leading, has a great concern for his fellow Jews who are in this predicament. They have heard the gospel, some of them from the mouth of an apostle, but for various reasons they hold back from commitment. Some, apparently, had made a profession of faith or had given some statement of confidence in Christ, but were beginning to fall back. When they started getting ridiculed by their friends, they began to waver and hesitate. They were not willing to throw their whole weight on Jesus, and as a result they became apostate. Knowing the truth, they willingly and intentionally turned away from it.
To enforce the warning, the Spirit uses an Old Testament story very familiar to Jews. Moses has just been mentioned, and it is from the time of this greatest of Old Testament leaders that the story comes. It falls into four parts: the illustration of Israel; the invitation to take heed; the instruction to exhort one another; and the issue of unbelief.
The Illustration of Israel
One of the best ways to begin a sermon is to give an illustration. Once you have the people’s attention, you go to the Scripture to affirm your point. That is what the Spirit of God does here. In this case the illustration itself is from Scripture. Hebrews 3:7–11 is a quotation of Psalm 95:7–11. The passage quoted was written probably in the time of David, but it speaks about the time of Moses. It is a moving example of the problem many Jews faced in the time of the early church. It describes Israel’s disobedience and rejection of God in the Exodus wanderings.
The psalmist used this story to warn his people against disbelief. A thousand years later the writer of Hebrews used it for the same purpose. Nearly two thousand more years later the warning is still valid.
The Holy Spirit here says to the Hebrews who are on the edge of decision but have never made a commitment, “Don’t harden your hearts, hear today and do today what God wants you to do. Don’t do what the children of Israel did even after they had seen proof of God’s power and care for forty years. They continued not to believe in Him. Don’t do that.”
Proof of the Bible’s Inspiration
Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice.” (3:7)
Here is one of the clearest testimonies in Scripture to its own divine inspiration. The writer of Hebrews is saying that the Holy Spirit was the author of Psalm 95, from which Hebrews 3:7b–11 is quoted. Inspiration is the Holy Spirit’s speaking through the minds of God’s human instruments. What the psalmist said was not his own opinion or his own choice of words. When he wrote these words the Holy Spirit was speaking. That is divine inspiration. Those are the words of the Spirit of God, who is the true Author of Scripture. “For no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21). The Holy Spirit was involved in the writing of every word of Scripture. That is why it is sin in the first degree, and opens the floodgates to every kind of heresy possible, to deny the absolute verbal inspiration of Scripture. God originated the autographs, the first copies, to the very word.
The basic warning from the psalm (“Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts”) is used three times in Hebrews 3 (vv. 7–8, 13, 15) and once in chapter 4 (v. 7). Today, of course, indicates urgency. It means “now,” not necessarily a 24-hour period. It refers to the period of grace, which sometimes may be less than 24 hours. In other words, it refers to the present moment. If you know the truth of Jesus Christ, if you know the gospel of Jesus Christ, do not do what Israel did when she knew God’s truth and saw His revelation. It is so foolish and dangerous to harden your heart. You never know how long you will have to decide. “For He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you’; behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’ ” (2 Cor. 6:2). God’s time for salvation is always now.
In his earlier ministry D.L. Moody often would end his message with, “Go home and think about what I’ve said.” One night in Chicago he told the people to do this and to come back the next night ready to make a decision. That night the Chicago fire broke out, and some who had been in his congregation died. That was the last time he told anyone to think over the claims of Christ and make a decision later. No one knows if he will have a tomorrow in which to decide. Today signifies the present time of grace. Men today, as in the time of Moody and in the time of Hebrews and in the time of David and in the time of Moses, never know how long that time of grace for them will be.
Listening to God and obeying Him are matters of will. So is hardening the heart to Him, as Israel did. Paul warns that our hearts, or consciences, can become seared and insensitive, as skin does when it is badly burned (1 Tim. 4:2). The scar tissue that replaces the skin has very little feeling.
When I was in college I was thrown out of a car that was going about 75 miles an hour. I slid some 100 yards on my back and suffered third-degree burns from the friction. The resulting scar tissue is now insensitive.
Something very much like this happens to a conscience that is repeatedly disregarded. “Today” lasts only as long as there is opportunity to decide—and as long as the conscience is sensitive to God. When a person’s “today” is over, it is then too late. His heart gets harder every time he says no to Jesus Christ or to any part of His truth or will. When the heart is soft, when the conscience is sensitive, when the intellect is convinced about Christ—that is the time to decide, when one is still pliable and responsive. Otherwise he will eventually become spiritually hard, stubborn, and insensitive. The gospel will no longer have any appeal.
Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness. (3:8)
Israel had been in Egypt for more than 400 years, the last 200 years or so as slaves. Afraid that the Hebrews would become a threat, the Egyptians tried to weaken them and deplete their numbers by hard, oppressive labor in building cities and perhaps even pyramids. They were overworked, underfed, and regularly beaten. As both punishment and as an inducement to let His people leave this land, God afflicted the Egyptians with a series of ten plagues, the last and worst of which caused the death of all their firstborn. At this, Pharaoh pleaded with the Israelites to leave, which they hurriedly did under Moses’ leadership. By the time they reached the Red Sea, Pharaoh had changed his mind and had led his troops to bring them back. God performed another miracle, allowing His people to travel through the parted waters, which afterward engulfed and drowned the pursuing army of Egypt.
After they arrived for the trial in the wilderness, God continued to bless them with miracles—travel direction by pillars of cloud and of fire (for night travel) and provision of food and good water. After each blessing they were satisfied only for a brief time. They soon started again to complain and to doubt God. They became the classic illustration of unbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence. God had clearly and miraculously revealed Himself; they knew He had revealed Himself; they knew what He expected them to do; and they saw evidence after evidence of His power and His blessing. But they never really believed. Just as the Egyptians quickly got over their fear of God, the Israelites quickly got over their trust of Him. They would not commit themselves to Him in faith. As a result, they had to wander and wander and wander—until all of the ungrateful, untrusting, unbelieving generation had died. For some forty years they wandered around in circles in a barren, desolate, and oppressive land—because of their unbelief.
Where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. (3:9)
Unbelief never has enough proof. Asking for more proof is simply a pretext, an excuse, a delaying tactic. The people of Israel kept testing God, and the day of trial lasted forty years. “Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water that we may drink.’ And Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ ” (Ex. 17:1–2). They were not trusting God for water in faith; they were demanding water from God as their due and as a test to see if He really could and would provide it. Their real purpose is spelled out a few verses later: “They tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ ” (17:7). God had been providing for them all along; they had abundant evidence of His power and care. But they would not put their full trust in God, so they kept saying, in effect, “God, just do this one more thing for us so we’ll know you’re real.” But when He protected them again or provided for them again, they still did not believe. “Don’t be like these people,” pleads the writer of Hebrews. “Don’t make excuses for not believing; don’t harden your hearts to God like they did—or you will lose your opportunity like they did.”
God had released the Israelites from Egypt by awesome, miraculous plagues. Just as miraculously He brought them through the Red Sea and destroyed their pursuers. Without fail He had provided manna to feed them and the pillars of cloud and fire to guide them. But they still asked, “Is God among us?” Nothing is more illogical or unreasonable than unbelief. It refuses to accept the most overwhelming evidence—simply because unbelief does not want to believe. As Jesus made clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, no evidence is sufficient for the person who does not want to believe. “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). The person, on the other hand, who wants to believe trusts God despite any evidence that may seem to be lacking. He says, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Most people do not need more proof that God is real or that Jesus is His Son and the Savior. They need to hate and repent of their sin and to commit themselves to Him. A God who is continually tested will never be accepted. The one who tests God today does so for the same reason as did the Israelites in Moses day—to put Him off, because they love their sin, their own way, their own plans too much to give them up for God’s.
Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, “They always go astray in their heart; and they did not know My ways”; as I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ” (3:10–11)
The word angry does not mean simply unhappy or disappointed. It means vexed, wrought up, incensed. God was extremely angry with Israel’s sin. The people kept it up, kept it up, and kept it up. The Septuagint of this passage could be rendered, “God loathed them.” He rejected and repudiated them. Why? Because they always went astray in their heart; and they did not know My ways.
As the Israelites finally neared the Promised Land, God commanded them to send out twelve men to spy it out before they entered. The majority report was extremely negative and pessimistic. They saw the enemy as giants and themselves as “grasshoppers.” The minority report, by Caleb and Joshua, was optimistic—not because they underestimated the power of the enemy but because they knew the power of the Lord to be greater. The people believed the majority report and immediately began to grumble and complain to Moses and Aaron. As punishment, God said, “Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it” (Num. 14:22–23). They had more than enough evidence to believe that He could lead them safely into the land of milk and honey, but they would not believe Him and they were not allowed to enter. The rest was Canaan, where the toil of wandering would end. As we shall see in the next chapter, it is a symbol of salvation.
That is when today is over. You can stand on the verge of receiving Jesus Christ for a long time, toying with the idea and thinking, “God, prove Yourself some more. I’m not sure. I’m not quite ready yet.” And one day He will say, “You’ve had enough evidence; it’s over now. It is no longer today; it is tomorrow. You will never see My promised land.”
If Israel had more than enough evidence to trust God in Moses’ day, how much more do we have today? We have the evidence that Jesus Christ the Son of God died on a cross, rose again the third day, and lives and saves men. The evidence is in, the evidence is secure. Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, has manifested God. He has declared Him, He has displayed His love, He has displayed His grace, He has sent the Holy Spirit. We do not need a Moses. In addition to all the historical evidence, we have the third Person of the Trinity to reveal Christ. Unbelief in the face of such overwhelming evidence is tragic indeed—and without excuse.
Even the generation that entered the land never knew God’s rest in the true sense. The first thing God commanded them to do was to exterminate the godless and unbelievably wicked Canaanites. God was going to use His people as a tool of judgment. The Canaanites were so pagan and evil that they buried live babies in jars in the walls of every building they built. They were such a grossly immoral and godless people that God wanted them wiped off the face of the earth. But instead of exterminating the Canaanites, the Israelites moved in with them. Consequently, except for a few hundred years under their own judges and kings, the Israelites were exploited, exiled, and ruled by a succession of Gentile conquerors. In a.d. 70 their Temple was destroyed and they have since been scattered across the world. Only in our own day has God begun to gather them back to a homeland. Israel’s final rest will come only in the Kingdom that His Son will build when He returns again.
The Invitation: Take Heed
Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. (3:12)
Based on the illustration of Israel’s unbelief in the wilderness, an appeal is made to the readers of Hebrews not to follow this example. It is a warning against rejecting truth that is known. The judgment of the wilderness days fell on those who rejected God’s Word through Moses, and the warning here is to those who reject God’s Word in Christ. Brethren is not a reference to Christians, as is “holy brethren” in 3:1. It refers to racial brothers, unbelieving Jews, as the term does throughout the book of Acts.
The greatest sin in the world is unbelief. It is the greatest offense against God and brings the greatest harm to ourselves. These readers were informed about the gospel. Many, perhaps, professed to be Christians. None considered himself to be actively, aggressively against Christ; but they all were against Him. No matter how close a person may be to accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, if he never comes to Him, he still has an evil, unbelieving heart. His punishment will be all the more severe because of his knowledge of the living God. If such “have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:6). When you have heard the truth of Jesus Christ, when you have acknowledged that it is the truth, and then turn your back and walk away from Him, there is nothing God can do. Once you have heard the gospel and understood its claims, and then say no to Jesus Christ, you have fallen away. You have become apostate.
The Holy Spirit is saying to everyone who hears the gospel: “Respond to Jesus while your heart is still warmed and softened by His truth, while it is still sensitive. Respond to His sweet love and His call of grace. Wait too long and you will find your heart getting hard and insensitive. The decision will become harder and harder as your heart becomes harder and harder. If you continue to follow your evil, unbelieving heart rather than the gospel, you will forever depart from the living God, and forfeit salvation rest.
Turning away from Jesus Christ is not rejecting a religion. Turning away from Jesus Christ is much more than rejecting historical, traditional Christianity. Turning away from Jesus Christ is turning away from the living God. It is turning away from life itself.
The Instruction: Exhort One Another Daily
But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (3:13)
Encourage is from the Greek parakaleō, a form of the word used by Jesus of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16. The root meaning has to do with coming alongside to give help. The writer is saying to the believers among those to whom he is writing, “Get along side each other and help each other.” They are especially urged to help their unbelieving Jewish brethren by encouraging them not to harden their hearts but to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Deceitfulness means “trickery” or “strategem.” Sin is tricky; it seldom appears as it really is. It always masks itself. It lies and deceives (cf. Rom. 7:11). When a person becomes spiritually hardened, he rarely is aware of it. He can hear the gospel of Jesus Christ time and time again and not respond. My father often used the well-known expression, “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.” If your heart is not melted in faith, it will be hardened in unbelief.
The old nature constantly suggests that sin is not as bad and that trust in Christ is not as important as the Bible says. Becoming a Christian seems too costly, too demanding, too restrictive, too drab and unexciting—and, above all, unnecessary. From one’s own perspective, he does not seem so wicked. “I take care of my family, I am a helpful neighbor and a good citizen. I’m not perfect, of course, but I’m not evil, either. My life has room for improvement, but it doesn’t need ‘saving.’ ” So the thinking goes. This is what the sin nature deceitfully tells men about their need for salvation.
God’s assessment is quite different. “But My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (Heb. 10:38–39). There we have it. You stand on the edge of decision, a decision which you cannot escape. Either you believe to the saving of your soul or you fall back to damnation.
continuance is proof of salvation
For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end. (3:14)
If we really believe the gospel, if we have committed our life to Jesus Christ, then at the end of the day, the end of the year, the end of life, our commitment will still stand. The greatest proof of salvation is continuance in the Christian life. The true believer stays with Christ. “If you abide in My word,” Jesus said, “then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). When someone departs from the gospel, backs away from the faith, we can only conclude that this person never believed. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). Staying with the Lord marks the difference between possession and profession.
The Issue: Unbelief
While it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. (3:15–19)
The appeal to turn to the Lord without delay is repeated again. God had become angry with all those who came out of Egypt who would not believe, and in anger He refused them His rest in the Promised Land. The writer pleads with his readers not to follow that example and suffer that fate. The disobedience of unbelief forfeits blessing and brings judgment.
The illustration and invitation and instruction are worthless apart from belief in that to which they all point. God has great blessings prepared. He wants to pour out these riches on us, not only in this life but throughout all eternity. There is one thing required—faith. They were not able to enter because of unbelief (cf. Prov. 29:1; Jude 5).
Many say, “I can’t believe. I have a pragmatic, empirical mind that has to see the facts, weigh all the evidence.” But everyone lives by faith. We live by faith when we go into a restaurant and eat the food without questioning its safety. When driving down the highway, we are not in constant fear that around the next bend the road will lead us into a river where there is no bridge. We trust the people who made the highways and the people who have traveled over them before us. We live by faith almost constantly. If we can put our faith in the highway department and the people who prepare our food, we surely can put our faith in the God of the universe. Not to trust in Him is fatal.
A Warning Against Unbelief
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. (Heb. 3:12)
One of the hallmarks of Hebrews is its very high view of Scripture. As the writer exhorts his Jewish Christian audience to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of suffering, this high view of Scripture plays an important role. Over and over he appeals to Old Testament citations, expecting his readers to take the Bible as authoritative and binding. So sure is he of his readers’ estimate of Scripture that he expects them to endure persecution because of its teaching.
The writer grounds his view of Scripture on direct claims to the divine authorship of the Bible. In the opening verse of the book he tells us that “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). He acknowledges human instrumentation, but emphasizes divine authorship. Now, in Hebrews 3:7, he writes, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says.” This is consistent with the broader biblical testimony that the Bible is the product of the Holy Spirit who has taken the things of God and given them to us through human writers. The classic statement to this effect occurs in 2 Peter 1:21: “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit has given God’s Word through the Scriptures and now speaks to us by applying that Word to our hearts.
Furthermore, Hebrews 3:7–8 illustrates the abiding relevance and authority of the Scriptures: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’ ” To show that God’s Word is “living and active,” as he will say in Hebrews 4:12, the writer emphasizes its relevance “today.” In the Scriptures, he says, the Holy Spirit of God “speaks”—and we should note the present tense of this verb. The events described in this passage took place during the exodus. Many years later the psalmist showed their applicability to his own time, probably during the reign of David. “Today, if you hear God’s voice,” he says in Psalm 95:7. The writer of Hebrews picks up the same message, showing that God still speaks “today” in his own time a thousand years later. It was equally valid in his own era, equally authoritative and equally relevant, because it was from God, who never changes. So, too, do these same words apply to us two thousand years after the Book of Hebrews was written: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Such are the timelessness and authority of this book, which bears to us the very voice of God.
Israel’s Testing in the Wilderness
Although this passage is timeless in its relevance, it points us back to a specific series of events that happened in history, namely, the revolts against Moses during Israel’s sojourn in the desert. The writer of Hebrews directs his readers’ attention to this situation as a terrible example of what it means to turn away from faith in God.
The previous passage concluded with an exhortation: “We are [God’s] house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (v. 6). Picking that up in verses 7–9, the author now confronts us with an example of what the opposite looks like, a warning from the time of the exodus: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works.”
The scenario recalled here is described in the Book of Exodus. The people of Israel had been delivered from their bondage in Egypt with a great display of God’s power. Pharaoh had pursued them, but the Lord made a passage for them through the Red Sea, which then swallowed up the Egyptian army. All this is related in Exodus 13 and 14. In chapter 16 the people arrived in the desert across from the sea and immediately began complaining: “The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’ ” (Ex. 16:2–3).
This is an expression of ingratitude and unbelief that we may find hard to fathom, until we realize that we demonstrate a similar attitude on far less pretense than starvation and thirst in a desert wilderness. Instead of trusting the Lord to supply their needs, something he had shown himself both willing and able to do, the Israelites complained against him. Even when the Lord graciously sent manna from heaven, the miraculous bread that rained down to earth, the people continued to complain and engage in petty disobedience, until they again confronted Moses in rebellion.
Exodus 17 begins, “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord.” The writer of Hebrews tells us in verse 8 that this was a time of testing. God had delivered his people and now was testing their allegiance to him with these difficult travels in the desert. We see how miserably the Israelites failed:
Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (Ex. 17:2–4)
Again, God was gracious and he sent Moses to strike the rock with his staff, and water came out from the rock to provide for the people. Moses then named the place Massah and Meribah, which mean “testing” and “rebellion,” the two words we see used in verse 8 of Hebrews 3 to signify God’s displeasure at his unbelieving people.
The other Old Testament passage reflected here is Numbers 14, which records Israel’s greatest revolt against the Lord. In chapter 13 God sent out one scout from each of the tribes, twelve in all, to spy out the Promised Land in preparation for the nation’s entry. The scouts came back and delivered a sobering report: “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey.… However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large.… We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (Num. 13:27–31). Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, urged otherwise. Joshua pleaded with the people, “Do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land … the Lord is with us; do not fear them” (Num. 14:8–9). Nonetheless, Numbers 14 records a general revolt against the Lord’s rule. The people cried out that the very God who had delivered them from Egypt now sought to kill them in Canaan. They refused to obey, refused to go forth into the Promised Land, and even set out to stone Joshua and Caleb, who had stood up against their unbelief.
It was at this moment that the glory cloud of the Lord appeared at the tabernacle, and thus ensued one of the most sobering moments in all of Scripture. “How long will this people despise me?” the Lord bellowed at Moses. “How long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11). Moses pleaded with the Lord for the lives of his people, arguing that if God struck down the Israelites now his name would be scandalized among the nations. Moses begged God to glorify himself by forgiving the people: “Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now” (v. 19).
God did spare them, but he also punished them, as recorded in Hebrews 3:11. Quoting Psalm 95:11, the author recalls God’s terrible words, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ ” The nation of Israel would enter the Promised Land, but none of this generation would be left when that happened. Instead, they would wander forty years in the desert. Only when the last of the rebellious adults had died, leaving only Joshua and Caleb, who trusted the Lord, were their children permitted to enter into the land.
Our Testing in the Wilderness
What is the relationship between those distant events and the trials being endured by those early Jewish Christians, or by us today? The writer of Hebrews demonstrates an understanding of the Christian life that is common to the New Testament, comparing the exodus to the present life of faith. Like the Israelites, every man or woman who has come to salvation in Christ has been delivered by God from the house of bondage—in our case, the slavery that was our bondage to sin. Also, like Israel of old, we are headed toward a land of promise. We journey to cross the Jordan River, which is rightly compared to our passage through death, after which we enter into our heavenly inheritance. Additionally—and here is the point that is so relevant to our passage—just as the Israelites endured a passage of testing in the desert, so too is this present life a time of testing.
This is the time in the wilderness, the time of difficulty and often of sorrow and pain. We are not now living in the Promised Land but in the wilderness, and the sooner we realize this, the better. This helps answer questions like “Why does God allow things to go wrong in my life?” or “Why are things so hard?” The answer is that today is the day of testing, and the day of our rest is yet to come.
Every Christian is sure to be tested in this life; trials will manifest the reality of our faith, or the lack thereof. As A.W. Pink writes:
Testings reveal the state of our hearts—a crisis neither makes nor mars a man, but it does manifest him. While all is smooth sailing we appear to be getting along nicely. But are we? Are our minds stayed upon the Lord, or are we, instead, complacently resting in His temporal mercies? When the storm breaks, it is not so much that we fail under it, as that our habitual lack of leaning upon God, of daily walking in dependency upon Him, is made evident.
Knowing God’s Ways
We saw the difference between Joshua and Caleb’s testimony and that of the ten unbelieving spies. Similarly, our profession of faith will be either proved or disproved by our response to trials. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Trials … have a tendency to distinguish between true religion and false, and to cause the difference between them evidently to appear.” Knowing this is crucial to the exhortation that epitomizes these verses: “Do not harden your hearts.” Isn’t that a temptation? Things go badly, you experience trouble, you become afraid, and how easy it is to blame God, to complain, to doubt his power and love and care. But do not follow the Israelites’ example: remember God’s saving works which demonstrate that he does care, that he will deliver you. Make it your goal to glorify God through faith before a watching world, even and especially in the context of difficulties and trials.
A complaining spirit is always an indicator of unbelief, as we plainly see from this Old Testament example. If we grumble about God’s handling of our affairs, it must surely be because we doubt his wisdom or his goodness, or even his power to lead and protect us—in short, his worthiness to be trusted as our God. Douglas Wilson explains, “Complaint is the flag of ingratitude, and it waves above the center of unbelieving hearts—‘when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful’ (Rom. 1:21, kjv).”3 The apostle Paul warned the Philippians about this attitude, writing, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning” (Phil. 2:14), and “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
Complaining is a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem. If we grumble and complain, if we rebel and revolt, it indicates a very poor knowledge of God. Indeed, this was exactly the Lord’s diagnosis of Israel, as we see in verse 10: “They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.” This was the same complaint God made through the prophet Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:3).
How remarkable that these Israelites did not know God after all they had seen and heard and received from his hand! How could they not have known his ways? The point is that while they had enjoyed God’s works, they had not reflected on him. They were interested in what God did for them, but not in God himself. We are reminded of Jesus’ great prayer to the Father in John 17, where our Lord said, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Salvation is not a matter of knowing God’s blessings—after all, many people who do not know God know his blessings—but it is a matter of knowing him, understanding his character and his ways, and more and more trusting him in all things.
If you are not growing in your knowledge of God, your understanding and appreciation of his ways, let this be a warning to you. We are to be students of God’s character, learning what God is like through the circumstances of our lives and especially through the Bible, and growing in our love for him. How is God manifesting his power and grace? Can we look back and discern his once-hidden wisdom, his goodness, his patience, his holiness and love? This is the way to worship him, and indeed, the way to keep our sinful hearts from hardening.
Let me put it another way. What should you be looking for when you read your Bible? There is nothing more important than for you to study God himself. “What does this Scripture tell me about God, about his character, and about his ways?” “How can I know him better and trust him more?” The study of the attributes of God is one of the most vital of all subjects, for to know God is to trust him and to worship him with both awe and gratitude. Charles Spurgeon was right when he said of the study of God: “It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity.… But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continuing investigation of the great subject of the Deity.”
When God is filling our thoughts, we learn to rejoice even in our trials. Indeed, we discern that trials are given to draw us nearer to him. Donald Grey Barnhouse observed this, saying: “How wonderful that when we are blinded by tears, we can nevertheless see our God. In fact, our tears become crystal lenses through which He is magnified; and in the midst of suffering we realize the greatness of His power and the tenderness of His love.”
If you want the gifts while having no real interest in the Giver, then you will not persevere through the trials of this life, when circumstances turn against you and God’s blessings are seen only with eyes of faith. If you resent the challenges God sends, then when the hot sun beats upon your back, when your throat becomes dry and weary, what was said of those ancient Israelites will be said of you as well: “They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.… They shall not enter my rest” (Heb. 3:10–11).
Israel complained all through their forty years in the desert, never learning God’s ways despite mercy after mercy. Over and again they complained and rebelled about the same old things. All the while God’s pillar of fire guided them, the manna fell from heaven, water came forth from the rock, and even their clothes and shoes did not wear out as the Lord cared for them. Still, as the writer of Hebrews summarizes in verses 9–11: “Your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ ”
We are well advised, therefore, to heed the exhortation with which our passage concludes: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (v. 12).
Jesus’ Path through the Desert
Verse 1 of chapter 3 told us to fix our thoughts on Jesus, our apostle and high priest. The Israelites should have fixed their thoughts on Moses, who served as their mediator before God. They should have focused on him in their trials, or rather God’s saving work revealed through his ministry. After all the great and mighty works they had seen, Moses was worthy of their trust; he was a fitting object of contemplation in their trials.
But if the Israelites were condemned for forgetting Moses, how much greater will be the charge against those who forsake Jesus Christ, a far greater mediator and God’s own Son. As the writer of Hebrews put it: “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation” (Heb. 2:3) as that revealed in Jesus Christ?
When we read the account of Jesus’ life, we find him, too, sent into the wilderness for a period of trial. Matthew 4:1 tells us, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” How significant that he went there for forty days—the very number of years Israel was tested and yet failed (Num. 13:25). When we study the devil’s temptations against Jesus, we find that they correspond to the failures of Israel. Jesus did not complain about lack of food, but satisfied himself with faith in God. Whereas Israel tried the Lord God, Jesus (the true Israel of faith) replied to Satan, “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matt. 4:7). Whereas Israel rebelled, Christ refused to turn his heart away from God. He reproved the devil, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). In the wilderness of his temptation, Jesus walked in Israel’s steps, succeeding where they had failed.
What this means is that Jesus has walked ahead of us to clear the way. He has blazed the trail of victory through perfect obedience for our salvation. Though we often fail, he did not. Through faith in Christ our failures are hidden in his victory; our faithlessness is garbed in his obedience. His righteousness is presented on our behalf, and now his power is made available to us in the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul insisted, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Will we make it through this desert life safe across Jordan to the Promised Land ahead? We will if we trust ourselves to Jesus, relying on the strength he gives to all his pilgrim people. He is the shepherd of his flock, and if we follow him, looking to him in faith and relying on his provision, we will find “goodness and mercy … all the days of [our lives],” and “shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Heb. 3:16–19)
The writer of the Book of Hebrews was a pastor. His concern in writing this grand exposition was a pastoral one, and we see this most clearly in passages like the one we consider in this chapter. Here he expresses concern that, as he says in verse 13, “none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” His purpose is not merely to set forth doctrine, valuable though that is, but to apply his teaching and to bring it to bear with force upon his precious readers so they will persevere in faith through hard times. The thought of losing even one of this flock through unbelief is enough to motivate his strong exhortations.
This emphasis accounts for the repetition of the writer’s chief theme in Hebrews 3: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Heb. 3:15; cf. 3:7–8). The rebellion he speaks of is that recorded in Exodus 17 and Numbers 14, when the Israelites refused to trust the Lord during their desert trials, after Moses had led them out from slavery in Egypt.
After their deliverance from Egypt and passage through the Red Sea, God directed the Israelites on difficult journeys in the desert that were intended to test their faith in him. Those trials are analogous to this present life, when Christians will undergo hardships and temptations that similarly reveal the quality of our faith. The Israelites, wearied by hunger and danger and fatigue, failed to trust in God’s Word as given through Moses. Drawing from that example, the writer of Hebrews warns his readers not to fail, especially when we have the risen and exalted Jesus Christ as our leader through this world.
Rebellion against God
The writer of Hebrews continues this argument, teaching us three lessons from that generation of Israelites. The first is that a good beginning does not ensure a good ending. We see this in verse 16: “Who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?” These people had seen the great miracles in Egypt, and especially the parting of the Red Sea. Yet when they experienced hardship, they turned away!
Even the most impressive of beginnings does not ensure perseverance in faith. Here we see how little we can rely upon emotional experiences that we had at the inception of our Christian life. Many people rely on a particularly emotional event in the past—a time when they prayed a certain prayer, or a revival when they walked down to the altar. But none of us will ever have an experience as vivid as that which this generation of Israelites had, yet their good beginning still could not take the place of daily trusting in the Lord in a long walk of faith.
Some will object that this conflicts with the Bible’s teaching of eternal security. The Bible tells us that all who genuinely trust in Christ can be confident in his complete sufficiency as our Savior. Jesus said of his own, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). But we need to remember that Judas was in his company at that time, and because he lacked faith, the promise was not for him. If we want assurance of our salvation, then our faith must persevere under trial. If we want to “make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10), then we must bear the fruit that salvation requires.
The Israelites in the exodus were safe so long as they walked with God in faith. The same will be true for us; as we trust in Jesus, we can be sure of our salvation. But this warns us against any complacency in our faith. James Boice sums up the Bible’s teaching on perseverance:
Some people talk as though it is not necessary for a Christian to persevere in this hope, on the grounds that since God perseveres with us, our perseverance is unnecessary. We are saved, and will be saved, regardless of what we do. This is not taught in the Bible. It is true that God perseveres. It is true that once he has begun a good work in us he will keep on performing it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). But simply because he perseveres, we too will persevere.
How terrible it is to read that all of those Moses led out of Egypt rebelled against the Lord. We do know of at least two exceptions, Joshua and Caleb, yet this sweeping statement could be made. Even after so great a beginning as the exodus, the entire body who experienced it went on to rebel against the Lord. How greatly this stark fact argues against any complacency on our part.
Second, we learn here how dreadful it is to become hard-hearted toward God. Warning us soberly of unbelief, the writer of Hebrews says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Heb. 3:15).
The meaning of the terminology is obvious. A hardened heart is the opposite of a tender heart, one that is easily penetrated by the Word of God, is easily impressed by its teaching, is moved by God’s love, and is touched and won over by God’s great redemptive works. It is a dreadful thing to be hardened in heart toward God, for then his Word sits upon the heart without penetrating, until before long it is plucked away, never to be grasped, never to be loved and believed. This is how Jesus described it in his parable of the four soils (Matt. 13:4, 19). Perhaps the most frightening example in the Bible is that of Pharaoh. Despite the most forceful demonstrations of God’s power and the clearest expressions of God’s will, Pharaoh would not yield but stubbornly resisted to the point of his own destruction. How terrible that these Israelites, the very people who saw Pharaoh’s example and escaped from his oppressive rule, followed his example! They, too, were hard in heart after all that God had done; they complained against him in every difficulty and accused God of meaning them harm despite his many great demonstrations of love.
We see, then, why such a heart is called evil or sinful in verse 12, for it turns away from the living God. In verse 17 those who would not believe are described as “those who sinned,” and in verse 18 we are told that they disobeyed. This shows that sin is disobedience; it is failure to listen to and obey God’s Word. In the accounts of this generation in Exodus and Numbers, we read of one sin after another. And yet the great sin the writer of Hebrews focuses on is the sin of unbelief.
There is an important insight here, namely, that unbelief is at the root of all sin. Specific sins are like rotten fruit hanging on a bad tree. But this is not the real problem; it is not the disease, but just the symptom. If we are greedy or hateful or selfish or dishonest, that is just evidence of dead and rotten things deeper inside. Bad fruit grows on a bad tree, just as sin grows from our sinful, corrupt nature. But deeper still, there is a root system to every tree; that is most important of all. Unbelief is the root system that feeds the whole rotten tree of sin.
By contrast, it is believing God that causes us to obey him. Noah is a good example. He believed when God foretold the flood, and it was because of his belief that Noah went ahead and built the ark. On the other hand, because the Israelites had never come to know God and had not believed his promises, they rebelled against him and sinned in the desert. The issue of faith versus unbelief is at the core of every spiritual issue.
Notice that lack of evidence is not the cause of unbelief. These Israelites had all the evidence anyone could ever want, but because their hearts were hard the evidence did not produce faith. Likewise, people today do not reject Jesus Christ on philosophical grounds but on moral grounds. They reject God’s Word because they have a greater love for sin, and their love for sin requires hardness to God’s Word. The philosophy comes later; it is only the fruit of hardness to God’s Word and love for sin. This is what we find with this generation of Israelites: a hardening of heart that the writer earnestly desires us to avoid.
Third, the writer of Hebrews forces us to face the reality of God’s wrath against sin. In verse 17 we learn that God was “provoked” with those who sinned in disbelief. In verse 18 we read that because of their attitude God swore that they would never enter his rest. In both instances, we see God’s wrath against sin.
Many people today consider wrath to be an inappropriate response for God to make toward sin. God should be more like us, they think: he shouldn’t take sin so seriously. But, unlike us, God is perfectly holy and therefore his wrath burns against sin.
When we speak of God’s wrath, we do not mean God throws a temper tantrum in anger; rather, God’s wrath is his deliberate response in judgment toward sin and sinners. As J. I. Packer explains, “This is righteous anger—the right reaction of moral perfection in the Creator towards moral perversity in the creature. So far from the manifestation of God’s wrath in punishing sin being morally doubtful, the thing that would be morally doubtful would be for Him not to show His wrath in this way.”
Because of their unbelief and subsequent sin, this entire generation of Israelites, the very people God had redeemed out of Pharaoh’s grasp, died in the wilderness. “And with whom was he provoked for forty years?” the writer of Hebrews asks. “Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” It is God’s own nature that requires this kind of response to sin. Leon Morris observes, “The Bible is clear that God is not impassive or indifferent in the face of human sin. He is a ‘consuming fire’ (12:29), and his inevitable reaction to sin is wrath.… God does care, and he did not allow the sinning Israelites to enter the rest.”
We often hear that God punishes the sin but not the sinner, but look at the contrary evidence here. It was not unbelief that died and left its bones upon the desert sands; it was the unbelievers themselves. So also will God cast unbelieving sinners into the fires of hell—not merely their sin but the unrepentant sinners themselves.
God’s wrath was deliberate, not erratic; persistent, not fleeting. One commentator begins with the number of adult males we are told departed from Egypt, which was 603,550 (Num. 1:46), then adds in a likely number of adult women, and calculates that on average 90 Israelite adults died every day for forty years, until the entire generation was gone. Daily they were reminded of what we so often forget, that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
This raises an obvious question: “Does this mean that all these Israelites suffered God’s eternal wrath, that they not only died in the desert but also all went to hell?” On the one hand, the death of these unbelieving Israelites is certainly meant to point to God’s wrath in the greater judgment that will send men and women into hell forever. On the other hand, it is not stated in the Bible that these Israelites were condemned to eternal damnation. Their problem was unbelief, and unbelief is what causes salvation to be lost—the opportunity to enter into God’s rest is forfeited by lack of faith. Any individuals who did not repent and trust themselves to God during those forty years must certainly have died without salvation. However, we may hope that many of them repented, believed, and thus have been forgiven. After all, during the long sojourn years of their punishment, the Israelites had God in their midst, they had the ministry of Moses and Aaron, and they had the sacrifices of the tabernacle through which God’s grace was daily offered to them. Nevertheless, their lost opportunity to enter the Promised Land furnishes a dramatic warning against the perils of unbelief.
A Remedy for Unbelief
Surely, Israel’s example alone is enough to alarm us with regard to the matter of unbelief. It is with this in mind that, with perhaps a new earnestness and sense of urgency, we turn to the remedy for unbelief contained in this passage. This remedy comes in the form of two exhortations, one that relates to ourselves and one that relates to others. First, the writer warns, “Take care, brothers,” a command that is rightly taken as “Watch out” (Heb. 3:12). To this he adds, “Exhort one another every day” (Heb. 3:13).
This is an excellent instruction for us today. We are to exert a watchful guard over our own hearts and come alongside others in the church to exhort them to do likewise. John Calvin explains why this is so needful:
As by nature we are prone to fall into evil, we have need of various helps to help us in the fear of God. Unless our faith is repeatedly encouraged, it lies dormant; unless it is warmed, it grows cold; unless it is aroused, it gets numb. [The writer of Hebrews] therefore wishes them to stimulate one another by mutual encouragement, so that Satan will not steal into their hearts and by his falsehoods lead them away from God.
The Greek word for “exhort” is parakaleō. The prefix para means “to come alongside,” and the verb kaleō means “to call out.” The picture, then, is that we are to come alongside one another daily, exhorting one another in the practice of Christian faith.
Christianity is not an individual but a team endeavor. So if we do not know the nature of our fellow believers’ struggles, and if we do not share ours with them, then we will never be able to follow through with this command. The result, in that case, will be that people among us will fall prey to sin. Therefore we are commanded to be watchful for just these things in the body of Christ, thereby ensuring that none of us falls away because of sin’s deceitfulness. As long as it is “today”—that is, this present age of testing, with opportunities and dangers like the ones the Israelites faced—we must watch out and exhort one another daily in the things of the faith.
Specifically, we must watch for the “deceitfulness” of sin. The Bible attaches this label to a number of things. It speaks often of false teachers who would lead us astray by their deceit. Paul warns against them, saying, “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve” (Rom. 16:18). Colossians 2:8 says the same thing about worldly philosophies, and Proverbs 12:5 tells us that “the counsels of the wicked are deceitful.” Certainly, then, we must exert a watchful care against enticing but misleading teachings that deceive the mind.
But it gets worse, for the Bible goes on to say that our very hearts are deceitful. Jeremiah 17:9 is the most famous verse to this effect: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” In Ephesians 4:22, Paul tells us that our very human nature, apart from God’s saving work, is “corrupt through deceitful desires.” That gets quite a bit closer to home—I cannot even trust my heart, the Bible says. My desires are not trustworthy. And the wise man comes to realize that this is so—that the things we long for are often foolish and vain, if not outright idolatrous—and therefore he seeks the scrutiny and exhortation of brothers and sisters in the Lord.
More threatening still is the presence of a personal deceiver loose in the world. The Bible tells us that the devil is a great deceiver who beguiles men and women into folly and unbelief, as he beguiled Eve in the garden. He even masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). And then there is sin itself, which has as one of its main qualities that it is deceitful. We must not toy with sin, or we will be drawn in and ensnared.
Consider the case of a man who is tempted to leave his wife and children for another woman. The sin seems so alluring; she is so much more wonderful than the plain old wife he has grown tired of. And she admires him so; she plays to his ego where his wife only nags him. She would be better for him despite the broken taboos; he will be better off and happier with the adulteress. People will understand; they will get over it; his children will ultimately be glad for him.
It is all, however, a great deceit. It will not be more wonderful, for the problem with his marriage is his own heart, and he will soon get tired of his new lover as well. She admires him now but will think less of him when he loses his job, his reputation, his money, and his self-respect. His children will not get over it, but will bear scars and brokenness all the days of their lives. Sin says it will be better and he will be happy, but it is a deceit. He is stepping forward into misery and ruin, bringing disgrace upon himself and, if he is a Christian, scandal upon the church and even the name of Jesus Christ.
Sin advertises pleasure but delivers pain. The problem is that our hearts are so willing to be deceived. Combine this with the reality that sin is deceitful in its very nature, and you see why we have so great a need of godly fellowship, of exhortation, and of warning at the very first stages of temptation. We need help being watchful over the spiritually dangerous circumstances that we face—jobs or family ties or relationships or specific temptations that by their very nature are hostile to Christian faith. Therefore, we must exhort one another, lest some of us should fall prey to sin’s deception, even to the hardening of our hearts against God.
We must realize that sin is not merely something we do. Sin is a power, an enemy army, like a pack of wolves surrounding the flock and darting in to pick off likely targets. Therefore, as Simon Kistemaker writes, “Believers have a corporate and an individual responsibility to care for the spiritual well-being of their fellow men. They must consider this responsibility a holy obligation and exhibit utter faithfulness.”
From deception grows hardness of heart—such was the fate of the Israelites who came under God’s wrath. Christian fellowship, including prayer, Bible study, and meaningful friendship, is a great bulwark against sin’s deception; in such company the arguments of sin lose their force, and we are strengthened in faith and obedience. Our goal is to persevere to the end and enter into God’s rest, and our strategy is mutual watchfulness. What a worthy cause that is! It is worth inconvenience. It is worth giving up some leisure time. It is worth real sacrifice and will repay the dividends of eternal life.
In his great allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan shows his understanding of the importance of godly fellowship. At one point in the journey to the Celestial City, Bunyan’s hero—a man named Christian—finds companionship with a fellow believer named Hopeful. Bunyan writes, “They entered a brotherly covenant and agreed to be companions.” What a wonderful statement! It is reminiscent of the description of the godly men of King Asa’s generation, as told in 2 Chronicles 15:12, “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul.”
In such fashion Christian and Hopeful journeyed together, and their companionship was very profitable. Soon they came across another traveler, a man named By-ends from the town of Fair-speech. Pooling their discernment, Christian and Hopeful realized that this was a man to avoid. Next, they encountered a group led by Mr. Hold-the-world, who tried to tempt them into seeking dishonest gain, and together they reproved him. Next came Demas who called to them to depart from the way, promising a place filled with riches of the world. This time, Hopeful was deceived and wanted to go take a look. But Christian warned him, “I have heard of this place.… The treasure is a snare to those that seek it.” He exhorted Hopeful, “Let us not go a step closer. Let us keep on our way,” and the two companions went forward safely on the pilgrimage. Later, they came to Doubting Castle, where they were thrown into a terrible dungeon. Here it was Christian who faltered, falling prey to the Giant Despair’s temptation to kill himself as the only escape. This time it was Hopeful who kept his faith, recalling God’s commandments. With his help, Christian found the key, called Promise, that opened the door to let them escape Doubting Castle. This is the kind of help we are to give one another, each of us in our weakness and doubt being helped by the strength and faith of our brother, each helping the other in turn so that together we may endure.
Confidence to Endure
We saw earlier that a good beginning is not enough, that we must persevere through hardship to the end, holding fast and trusting Jesus Christ for our salvation. The author says this again in his summary in verse 14: “For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” It is perseverance that tests and proves and demonstrates the fact that we are truly joined to Jesus Christ.
Note, however, what it is we are to hold until the end: “our original confidence” (Heb. 3:14). Of what are we to be confident? Not our own works or strength, but the power for salvation that is in Jesus Christ. It is our “original” confidence, namely, the very message of the gospel that saved us in the first place. This is what we need to persevere to the end. The gospel is not merely a message we need to hear only once, at the beginning of the Christian life. The gospel that makes us Christians—the good news of our crucified and risen Lord—also keeps us in the faith. So let us diligently and obediently proclaim the gospel to one another, that none of us might be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
“Take care, brothers,” says our author, “lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” What does this involve? I think one of our great hymns, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” puts it well:
Before the Father’s throne
we pour our ardent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.
We share our mutual woes,
our mutual burdens bear,
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.
Those are not merely words for us to sing, but words to live together in the church. And so may we all be found faithful to the end, that this great salvation should not be lost by us, and that in due time we may all enter into God’s rest.