Be sure to have this highlighted text available alongside you as you read this.
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 – Hebrew’s Second Warning
We are continuing our exploration of the first division of the book of Hebrews, Hebrews 1:1-4:13 with a look at Hebrews 3:7-4:13. This is the second and longest of the 5 warning passages in the sermon which are places where the author focuses emotional appeals. The first warning used mild language, cautioning readers not to “drift away” from the message delivered by Jesus, the incarnate God, or to “neglect” the salvation He has provided (Heb 2:1-4). As the preacher develops his thoughts throughout his sermon, the warnings progressively become more serious, but only in parallel with an increasingly intense vision of faith’s magnificent rewards.
The basis of the warning passage we are considering in this lesson is a Scriptural quotation. As Paul did in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, the author of Hebrews used the experience of Israel during the Exodus to admonish Christians, linking them to that experience through a portion of Psalm 95, which as we saw in the last lesson is itself is based on events in Numbers 14. From this he will expand and develop a principle of Christian living he refers to as “the rest” while also using the Psalm’s words to warn us that “the rest” is not something the child of God can opt out of without consequences.1
The author signals that his discussion of the rest applies to every living Christian with the words “just as the Holy Spirit is saying” (Heb 3:7) . His deliberate use of a Greek present tense for the Holy Spirit’s speech announces that God is still speaking through these ancient words and therefore deserves every Christian’s best effort to take them to heart. Whether in the Old Testament (Tanak) or New Testament do you take the words on the pages of the Bible as if they were just spoken by the living God? The author expects you to.
Hebrews moves from external to internal realities
In Heb 3:1-6 the author subtly transformed the concept of God’s house from a material structure to now being something internal to God’s spiritually born children. They are now the places where God can be approached in this world. The external reality became an internal one.
In the same way, as we move through Heb 3:7-4:13, we will find that the term “the rest” starts out referring to concrete realities such as a geographical location, physical land ownership, a God-ordained government, a tabernacle where God’s presence is seen, material prosperity and respite from enemy attack. By the end of the passage we will find that Israel’s promised land is only an example of a more permanent internal reality, an even greater kind of rest, one that God intended from the beginning of creation, a rest of a soul that knows no anxiety or fear. But a warning comes with this knowledge. Let’s find out how this unfolds.
Hebrews 3:12-19 – God’s people can have unbelieving hearts
Our preacher framed these 8 verses with what I call “bookends”2 so we would think of them as one unit of his thought:
Heb 3:12, “Take care brethren, that there not be in any one of you and evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God”
Heb 3:19, “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.”
These statements connect to each other through three similarities: 1) both highlight unbelief, 2) the concept of falling away corresponds to not being able to enter, and 3) a peek at the Greek text reveals that “take care” and “so we see” are translations of the same Greek verb that means to look at something. Therefore we see that our preacher has a deep concern for his audience’s level of belief.
Since it will impact our interpretation of many passages we will be exploring, let’s be sure we know what kind of people he is addressing. Numerous clues have been left to establish that the intended audience is Christian: Heb 3:1,6,12,14, 4:9,14,16, 6:9,11-12, 8:1, 10:14, 19; 12:22-24,28; 13:20-22. Heb 3:1 is a strong one: “Therefore holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling.” Previously the author used terms like “His [Jesus’] brethren”, “the seed of Abraham” (Heb 2:16),3, those for whom Christ “shared in flesh and blood” (Heb 2:14), and for whom he acts as their High Priest before God. So he is addressing already saved individuals. Now that I hope that’s been established let’s get back to the text.
The author used a portion of his previous quote from Psalm 95 (Heb 3:7-11) to convey that through this ancient Psalm, God is still speaking to, still pleading with Christians to make a decision this very day, right now as they read or hear these words and every day after.
Why is this so important?
Notice that Heb 3:12-19 is similar to Paul’s plea in 1 Cor 10:1-22 for believers to learn from the lesson of the Exodus so they don’t fall (1 Cor 10:12) like Israel did. It’s unnerving but true that the attractiveness, pleasure and pride involved in sin deceives us into becoming insensitive toward God, forgetting to let His faithfulness and care motivate us such that our willingness to hold fast to God’s promises erode into a lack of trust. We see it when we prayer no longer seem useful or when we ignore His word and stop attending church meetings so we can be encouraged.
The potential for loosening our grip on God’s promises is so serious that in Heb 3:13 the author commands every Christian to encourage their brothers and sisters in Christ to avoid sin’s deceit “day after day, as long as it is still called Today….”
Since the repetition of “today” (Heb 3:7, 13,15; 4:7) certainly tells us that we have to make a daily choice to enter “the rest” I think you have to twist the context and the plain reading of the words to make the rest refer to becoming saved. Salvation is something we come to once and only once for at the moment of salvation the one who has chosen to trust in Christ is born from above and is forever a child of the living God4. Now some do think that these verses are telling people to urge the unsaved among the church congregation to turn to Christ for salvation, but as I presented in the last lesson, I have been convinced by the author’s appeal to the Exodus that this is not what he had in mind.
The author drove home his plea with three question/answers pairs that remind us that there are certain consequences for lack of faith in God’s faithful care even for God’s chosen people. Israel did not come to God first, they grumbled, they questioned whether God really exists, they cross-examined His ability to provide, and were not satisfied with God’s methods.
Now look at all the words used in this passage to describe those who are not trusting God: evil (Heb 3:12), hardened (Heb 3:13,15), provoking God (Heb 3:15,16), sin (Heb 3:17), disobedient (Heb 3:18). These are not referring to unbelievers. Yes the daily lives of born again children of God can exhibit evil behavior, insensitive hearts, sin, and disobedience that God sees as provocation against His faithful, loving care. This is not meant to frighten us, but to think soberly. God desires to for us us to come to Him in the time of need, which is every day.
From the beginning of creation God intended for humanity to trust Him and call upon Him for their needs, but we have rejected Him and attempt to run life our own way. Even when we have called upon Him and been granted His own life, eternal life, we can still live with heard, unbelieving hearts, which God describes with all the terms we’ve just pointed out.Footnotes
- While there is a sense in which all humans are children of God (Mal 2:10), that concept dies when we physically die. Jesus and His apostles taught that only those who are born from above, who are given life by God are true Children of God and are a separate species from all other humans (John 1:12, 3:16, 5:18-21; Rom 8:14-23, 29; Gal 3:26; Php 2:15; 1 John 3:1-2, 5:4 [↩]
- Bookends are repetitions of the same thought and/or words at the beginning and end of a group of text. Theologians often call this an inclusio. [↩]
- English versions of the Bible are divided on how they translate this phrase. The Greek text reads “seed of Abraham” which is ambiguous. Seed can either refer to one person, or to all descendants. This can be resolved by noticing that the numerous plural references to those for whom Christ acted: many sons (Heb 2:10), those (Heb 2:11,15), congregation (Heb 2:12), children (Heb 2:13,14), brethren (Heb 2:11,12,17), the people (Heb 2:17), which lead me to interpret seed is a plural reference leaving me to disagree with the NASB reading of “the descendant of Abraham” [↩]
- John 1:12-13; 3:3,16 [↩]