Beyond the Lectionary Text: Hebrews 3
by Sam Perry
The journey of God’s people in the Old Testament from Egypt to Canaan is a pattern and a picture of the Christian life. In the Old Testament they were moving toward promised rest, and in the same way we are moving toward promised rest when we will see Christ and be made like him.
A significant number of the people of Israel never enter into the Promised Land and Hebrews 3 warns us not to do the same. Psalm 95 is quoted and tells us not to give up, but to press on. It calls us not to quit or harden our hearts.
The time of the rebellion is referring to when Israel sent in spies and ten of the twelve spies returned with a negative report. God had promised victory. The people were so frightened, that instead of trusting God, they trusted the spies and so fell under God’s judgment. Really it was unbelief. They didn’t believe what God had said. The author of Hebrews is providing an exposition of what this means today. If we understand this correctly, we are driven to some deep conclusions to which we must pay attention.
The exhortation: see to it that none of you have an unbelieving heart. There is a warning/encouragement here. Pay attention. See to it that none of you have an unbelieving heart that turns away from God. This may feel moralistic, yet vs. 14 almost gives us a definition of what valid faith looks like. Valid faith by definition perseveres. This is a fairly common thought in the New Testament. Jesus says in John 8:31 if you continue in my word you are my disciples. What is required here is that genuine faith perseveres by definition. Colossians 1 “Once you were alienated from God…..now he will present you holy and without blemish….if you continue in the faith.
The example: The point by these rhetorical questions is that the very same people who escaped slavery by the hand of God, never enter his rest. This sets us up for a view of conversion that is more complex than many of us are used to. A view where you might have the grace to escape something and not yet have the grace to enter something. That is what happened in the Old Testament. By the miraculous power of God these people escaped the slavery. And they vowed themselves to come under the covenant, and then they approach the Promised Land and don’t go in. This is here for a moral exhortation in order to remind us of what has happened.
This is pointing forward to an eternal rest to be entered into that goes beyond the Promised Land. We are called not to make the same mistake previous generations have made. We must not allow the good news we know as the gospel to fall flat because of unbelief.
Faith can mean somewhat different things in different passages throughout the New Testament, as the emphases are slightly different from passage to passage. Aside from possibly one exception, none of the rest mean what most of us mean today, in the Western secular world when we speak of faith. The one area of overlap is that faith is sometimes used to speak of religion. So we call Christianity, the faith. Often, in today’s world, faith is something that you churn up in yourself so that you can get stuff from God. For others in the secular world, faith is simply used in broad terms to speak of religious preference, so you have your faith and I have mine. From the secular perspective, this faith certainly isn’t tied to objective reality or truth. In Paul’s writings however, faith is distinguished first of all by the validity of its object. In Hebrews, faith by definition, perseveres. Fast forward to the great faith chapter of Hebrews, chapter 11 and you will see person after person, in good circumstances and bad, demonstrate that because they believe God, because they trust God in his word, therefore they persevere.
How easy it is to be brought up in a Christian family, or raised in a Christian school, where all these things are familiar, that it means something to us only to discover later when the tests come that it was never ours at all. I suspect that what was true of those who had fallen away in Israel is true of any people to whom the writer of Hebrews is addressing the epistle. They were people touched by the news of the gospel. They may even have been caught up emotionally in what was going on, but it never became real. This passage then is about Christian reality. That’s why it speaks of the heart. There is a warning here to look beyond outward appearances in even in our own lives and examine our hearts to look for true faith in Christ Jesus.
This of course requires a work of the Holy Spirit as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.”
The entire set up for the exhortation of this passage is rooted in the supremacy of Christ. So given the importance of Jesus from Hebrews 1 and 2, therefore fix your thoughts on Jesus.
The term High Priest: whenever high priest appears in Hebrews, the Day of Atonement is never far off. The high priest is God’s representative. Now that the attention is focused specifically on Jesus there is given a comparison between Jesus and Moses.
Vs. 2 a comparison. Hebrews focuses on their respective faithfulness. Jesus was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. In Numbers 12 it speaks of Moses being faithful in all his house to the degree that God speaks with him face to face.
A contrast. Vs. 3-6. Two points are made. First there is a distinction between creator and creature. Jesus is the builder of the house, which presupposes pre-existence. Jesus is greater than Moses in the way that God is greater than all things. This is perhaps a warning to Jewish Christians unduly elevating Moses almost to the place of Jesus again. Jesus is superior. Secondly there is a distinction between son and servant. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house testifying to what would be said in the future. Christ on the other hand is faithful as a son over God’s house.
This is strong language that is used. It is far more significant than a casual look at Christ. It is more significant than a careless or infrequent consideration of Jesus Christ. Certainly it is stronger than simply spending an hour a week taking in the things of God. Fixing our thoughts on Christ gives a great confidence. He is the antidote for our discouragement. Fixing our thoughts on any earthly leader will lead ultimately to disappointment, as people are people at best. But Christ is worthy of greater honor. He is the faithful son over God’s house. So fix your thoughts on Jesus all the time. This of course will impact every interaction we have and everything we do.
If we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first. What is the test of the reality of Christian profession? Interestingly, the test is not giftedness. It isn’t based on whether or not the person is exuberant enough, or talented enough. So, what is the test of the reality of profession of faith? Hebrews says it is perseverance. That is why the warnings of this book are so important.
D.A. Carson says, “The question is not one of the retention of salvation based on persistence of faith, but of the possession of salvation evidenced by a continuation of faith.” The ground of our salvation is the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the evidence of our salvation is that we continue in the faith. Our faith is proved genuine by our patient perseverance and endurance to the end.
F.F. Bruce says, “The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints, has as its corollary, the salutary teaching, that the saints are people who persevere to the end.
I know a missionary to the Middle East who has recently returned to the States. He sent a prayer letter out to friends announcing his move back to the states. In it he wrote of running into old friends from his undergraduate Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship days at Western Michigan University who now 10 years out from his graduation are still following hard after God in Christ Jesus. Contrasted with this was his wife’s experience of noting that several friends involved in the same undergraduate fellowship from evangelical backgrounds have fallen away from the faith. Spiritual inoculation, without spiritual reality appears to be the case here.