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… 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.”

Textual considerations

"Fix your thoughts..."