Hebrews 3:7–19

 

David H. Linden     revised November, 2010     imputed@gmail.com

 

 

 

The Second Warning   This warning draws its sober lesson from the history of Israel. Sometimes the Lord Jesus compared those He addressed to their rebellious fathers of previous generations (Luke 6:22-26; Matthew 23:29-32). This passage does the same. The unbelief of Israel is the problem Psalm 95 deals with according to 3:12 & 19, though the Psalm does not mention unbelief, only its dreadful result. The Psalm does identify the root cause of going astray as the kind of hearts they had. The people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt but never attained the goal of their redemption.  This kind of good beginning and terrible ending can happen again. Some receiving this letter might also turn away from the living God the way their fathers did. The danger of eternal loss and the prospect of eternal life remain (4:6). Unbelief and hardness of heart are not dangers limited to the past.  

 

Psalm 95 was written many years after Israel’s wandering in the desert. The lesson drawn by the Holy Spirit in David’s day was 400 years after the wilderness wandering. It was still being spoken by the Spirit when Hebrews was written 1000 years after David. The Spirit continues to speak the same warning now, 2000 years later, and He will as long as God still calls our moment in history “Today”. Psalm 95 is not just warning; there is also a promised rest, not the rest of entering the land of Canaan, but into God’s rest – a theme developed in chapter 4.  

 

No one should miss that this sermon is not just the preacher talking. He relies on what God has already spoken in Scripture, the ultimate source of authority. He speaks what was familiar to them; many knew Psalm 95 as a call to worship, “Come let us bow down and worship…” He simply continued on to more of what that psalm said.  Then he taught and warned, as all pastors must do – from a good understanding of the text.

 

3:7   It would be true to say that Psalm 95 is what the Holy Spirit said.  The Word of God was not written to one generation only; this psalm is what He is still saying.  The warnings apply, and the hope of rest is still available.  According to 4:7, it was David who wrote Psalm 95, yet what he wrote here is what the Spirit says.  Likewise in Acts 2:16,17, it was the prophet Joel who wrote, yet it is still “God says”.  Whatever any prophet said was because they “spoke from God as they were carried by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21)

 

3:7   The Trinitarian Voice:  The Father is the speaker in chapter 1, the Son in chapter 2, and now the Holy Spirit. Sometimes a previous word is referred to by using a past tense, but in all three chapters it uses some form of the present tense:  1:6 the Father speaks; 2:12 the Son speaks; 3:7 the Holy Spirit speaks.

 

Numbers 13 & 14 as the background of Psalm 95    The spies went into Canaan and twelve returned with a good report of the land, but ten of them added a discouraging report from their hearts. The two men who believed God said, “the Lord is with us”.  For rebellion and refusal to enter, the Lord declared and swore that the rebels would not enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:20-23; 26-35). It is essential to understanding Hebrews to note that this disobedience was the result of unbelief. “How long will they refuse to believe in me,” said the Lord (Numbers 14:11).  They had turned from the living God. To turn from Christ in the time Hebrews was written would be to repeat the same kind of rebellion and receive the same kind of reaction from God. 

 

Hebrews speaks very much like Jude 5: “Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.” 

 

3:7   What is “Today”?  “While it is still called ‘Today’…” means the Today will end!

a.) The time we are in prior to the Second Coming of Christ; note 10:35-39.  

b.) The time a sinner has prior to death; because after death comes judgment (9:27).

c.) The time a professing believer has, hearing a sermon such as Hebrews, prior to apostatizing.

 

3:8   When it says, “Do not harden your hearts," it addresses the responsibility of all who might do so.  But in 3:13 it is sin doing the hardening.  Both are true: sinners sin by choice, and sinners come under sin’s control (Romans 6:15-23; 8:5-8; James 1:14,15).  

 

3:8   Psalm 95 refers to the locations Meribah and Massah. The reference is to a time recorded in Exodus 17:1-7 & Numbers 20:2-13. Those place names mean quarreling and testing.[1]  Hebrews uses Psalm 95, but has in mind what occurred in Numbers 14.

 

3:9   They saw! Hebrews 2:4 reminds us of signs and wonders. The Israelites also saw wonders: the plagues on Egypt, the dividing of the Red Sea, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army (Numbers 14:22). What more would they need to believe? Miracles by themselves do not bring faith (Matthew 11:20-24). In the desert, the bulk of God’s covenant people hardened their hearts in unbelief, a fact of history stated in Psalms 78, 95 & 106. The spiritual condition of the Israelites shows the great need of a better covenant in which God will give a new heart (8:6-13). “When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea(Psalm 106:7).

 

3:10   Their always going astray reveals that there was a pattern of testing the Lord. (See Numbers 14:22 for ten times!)  The severe judgment of our merciful God did not come after one occasion, but many.  Their sin was typical of them; it was not the exception.  

 

3:10   The Lord’s anger and their sin in Numbers 14   The Israelites, as a wicked community (v.27) banded together against the Lord (v.35) in contempt of Him (vv.11 & 23), with unfaithfulness to their covenant pledge (v.33), with grumbling (v.27), and refusal to believe (v.11). All this was said of a people who had seen God’s glory and miraculous signs (v.22). For this, the Lord swore that no adult unbelievers would enjoy rest in the land He had promised Abraham on oath. The promise of God would be kept, but only for those who believed Him. He said, “… you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you” (v.34). That is precisely the way it is today. What God was like in Numbers 14 is what He was like in Hebrews 10:28-31 & 12:29, and He is the same today (13:8). What He is and was is what He ever will be (Revelation 1:8).

 

3:10   They have not known my ways. In our time, many think that spiritual life rests only on warm devotion and commitment. They slight the cognitive aspect of our relationship with the Lord. A major factor in not trusting God was that they did not truly know Him (Hosea 4:6). Knowing, in the wide meaning of the word, also means to embrace or choose (Amos 3:2 and Romans 8:29). The word in the Hebrew language (affecting the NT as well) is that knowledge is relational as well as cognitive, as in Genesis 4:1. We should not choose one feature of knowing and omit others. (See Daniel 11:32.) Ignorance encourages sin. The Lord makes Himself and His ways known to us (2 Peter 3:18; Psalm 103:7). He has not revealed Himself in order to be ignored! In Jeremiah 31:34 the appeal to know the Lord is His desire for His people.

 

When Scripture says unbelievers have not known God’s ways, this matches that the Lord never knew them (Matthew 7:23). They never were partakers of Christ.

 

3:11   The three oaths in Hebrews. 

 

When the Lord uses an oath, He adopts the strongest way of making a promise. It is not that He has different levels of truthfulness (2 Corinthians 1:18-22).   The Lord rarely used oaths, and then only for great emphasis.   

 

·        God swore in His wrath that the disobedient would not enter the land (3:11).

·        He swore by Himself to bless Abraham (6:13-18).

·        The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind that Christ is a priest forever (7:20-22).

 

Preaching the Word:  An Exposition of Psalm 95     The text should not be just a point to begin a sermon.  In this model of good preaching, he refers to things in the psalm repeatedly and quotes his text four times.   After the initial quotation of Psalm 95, he draws reference to:  1) Today, 2) Hearing his voice, 3) Hardening hearts, 4) Rebellion, 5) Forty years, 6) God being angry, 7) Going astray, 8) An oath, 9) Entering & 10) Rest.    [See the chart An Exposition of Psalm 95]

 

3:12 [2]   The preacher turns from speaking of the unbelief of Israelites mentioned in Psalm 95, to “any of you”. The danger is not just one faced by them long ago, but also by us now!  The chief danger is a heart that does not believe, and thus will turn away. The turning from the Word of the Lord becomes a conscious, hard, and settled decision.  They turned away in the desert because they did not believe, and that is the danger in every age. (The Greek word for ‘turning away’ is from the verb to apostatize.)  Sin hidden in the heart emerged in time as open repudiation of the Lord. But you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You did not trust him or obey him” (Deuteronomy 9:23).  

 

If the human heart can so easily turn from the living God and so easily turn to dead gods, this ought to serve as sober warning that our hearts are very dangerous things not to be followed (Matthew 15:18,19).  We need hearts brought to obedience by the Lord in the new covenant (8:10). In order to be lost forever, all any sinner needs is for God to leave him alone, letting him to go the way of his unchanged heart.   

 

3:13   In the desert Caleb and Joshua pleaded with their people, “Do not rebel against the Lord … the Lord is with us” (Numbers 14:9).  Hebrews calls for this same kind of mutual exhortation and encouragement.  Sin’s deceitfulness lulls the heart to carelessness.  The entire book of Hebrews is a call to sobriety and a warning against drifting.  But this verse urges members of the church to care for one another enough to warn and provide frequent encouragement.   When it says daily, we wonder if they were people who lived close together and met in a house church.  At least as often as we are together, we are to look out for each other.  Exaggerated Western culture glories in having very private lives, with each one minding his own business. This denial of mutual exhortation and encouragement makes it easier to stray from the Lord. Apostasy functions in straying from other believers as well as from the Lord. (Note 10:24,25.)  

 

For Today, see above. Today implies that we constantly face peril and promise. Since it is still Today, we are in a time when both danger and promise are current. However, when Christ comes, all danger is over for the church; only true believers will remain as professing believers. There will no longer be any remnant, for all shall know the Lord from the least to the greatest (8:11). There will be no unfulfilled promise, for the Lord will bring the promised perfection into the experience of all at the same time (11:40). We will have entered God’s rest (3:18 and Hebrews 4). Meanwhile, the sin in us may fool us, and we need each other to point out our danger and to encourage our faith in Christ firm to the end.

 

3:14   For this section see Appendix C below, “The Two If’s of Hebrews 3”

 

3:15   We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold to our confession of Him, and so we must not harden our hearts.  We must be consistent with our confession. We are to take Psalm 95 seriously. It is Christ in v.6 and Christ in v.14 who is the One from Whom we dare not stray. Whatever may attract us in any other direction, whether false doctrine or immoral living, is a danger that poses eternal loss. Do not harden your hearts!  The saints will persevere, but if we do not persevere, we are not saints and never have been (1 John 2:19).

 

3:16–18   Who were they?      In Numbers 14 a generation was prevented by God’s oath from entering the land He promised them.  Who are they?  They were the people of God!  After they left Egypt God said:

 

 

"This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."                                                                                                                                      Exodus 19:3-6

 

They were God’s people, the ones God delivered from Egypt.  They were ones who heard the Word of God and yet rebelled (v.16), ones with whom God had reason to be angry.  Their unbelief resulted in terrible disobedience.  (Note the words used:  heard, rebelled, sinned, disobeyed & unbelief.) 

 

Hebrews gave Jewish Christians an example from their Scriptures and history. It is not an illustration a preacher imagined. Their mutiny in the desert really happened; God was angry and swore that He would never let them see what He had promised.  It has happened before; it is happening all around us.  

 

3:19   “So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.”   Hebrews is following Numbers 14 closely.   In the desert rebellion: 1) The spies entered the land of Canaan, and 2) returned with their report. 3) The people believed a lie and refused to enter.  4) The Lord swore that they could not enter, but 5) then they tried to and were driven back.  God’s oath that they could not enter (Numbers 14:21-23) was followed by their rebellious attempt to do so (Numbers 14:39-45).  Those who tried fell by the sword.  There is a horror story here.  The rejection of the Lord in unbelief had a false “repentance” when they heard God’s Word that they could never enter.  Their failed attempt to go in on their own was another example of unbelief.  Hebrews 6:4 speaks of the impossibility of a later repentance when there is apostasy.  Hebrews 12:15-17 reports that Esau, after making his decision, sought with tears to inherit the blessing he had rejected earlier. He found no chance to repent; his rejection of his inheritance was final; he could not get it back.   

 

In light of this teaching in Hebrews, I think we should understand 3:19 in the same way. There is such a thing as God closing the door, such a thing as no more Today. They were not able to enter. There will be a lot of regret in hell when the as-long-as-it-is-Today appeal ends (3:13). Christ-rejecters will find that God’s oath applied to them is resolute, and nothing can persuade Him to change His mind. God cannot be appeased by our sorrow.  Only one sacrifice carries any weight with God. If we defy the gospel, we reject the only sacrifice that has turned God’s wrath from His people (10:26), and there is nothing to shield us from His wrath. When the Mediator has been repudiated by the sinner, he must face God in his sin (John 8:21-23) without a priest, without a sacrifice. 

 

 

Not all Israelites are true Israel: This passage and others like it, should make clear that one can be a member of the covenant people by birth, heritage, and privilege, and yet still be an unbeliever. This will always be the case if one has never been born from above by the Spirit of God (John 3:7) and given a new heart. The Israelites were God’s people, yet those Israelites who did not believe and obey were not God’s people (Hosea 1:8-11; 2:23).  Persons can be in the covenant in one sense, (God calls them to be His people and He promises to be their God).  When there is no response of the heart (which says in faith and repentance “You are my God and I am one of your people”), then we have a covenant relationship rejected and the Lord rejected. This is what apostasy is. Outside the covenant of marriage, one can commit fornication but not adultery – there is no marriage bond to break! The most wicked man on earth cannot be an apostate unless he was at one time in the circle of those committed to the Lord in some way.  One cannot break a covenant he is not in.  The apostate person of 10:26-31 repudiated the covenant that had sanctified him!   The language of 10:30 that the Lord will judge His people includes God judging apostates who were once identified as His people. They were His by His right and claim and covenant, but not His by the regenerating power of God. With no change of heart, they did not believe. They rejected their God and the priest He sent. “Not all descended from Israel belong to Israel ( Romans 9:6).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix C:  The Two If’s of Hebrews 3

 

·         3:6:                … we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.

·         3:14:  We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly until the end the confidence we had at first.

 

These two statements force us to ask who is really a Christian: 

·         Can a person be a member of the house of God if he does not hold to the hope he once boasted? 

The answer: No, he is not a true member of Christ’s house if he does not hold to his confession.

·         Does a person truly belong to Christ if he does not hold firmly to the end the confidence he at one time professed in Christ? The answer: No, such a person does not belong to Christ and never did.

 

Two challenges

 

View A.   It is very easy to change the question, which is often done. Some think the question is more like this: Can a person who at one time belonged to Christ, belong to Him any longer if he fails to hold his confidence in Christ? The assumption is that a person at one time had salvation and then lost it. Then the conclusion becomes the same as the assumption!  Many think we can genuinely have salvation and then lose it, because keeping it is what secures it. This viewpoint has been held for many years, an old problem. It teaches that our security in Christ is insecure.    

 

Many, myself included, reject this view. Since it is reasonable to wonder if the text might teach that, we should not avoid it. The two “if” statements are not a tangent unrelated to the central message of Hebrews.  The question of who is really a Christian is a primary motive the book was written! The theme of apostasy is often repeated in this sermon/epistle in some form. 

 

View B.   In a different challenge, one relatively recent, some teach that once a person believes in Christ, he belongs to Christ no matter what he does or how he lives. The assumption is that a true believer may live in sin without repentance, and such a person is truly saved, and heaven is secure, because at one time he believed.  Some claim to be “carnal Christians”. 

 

I suspect that in the long history of the church, that error has not had much of a following. In our day, in a generation dedicated to its own way, it has found a following. This error is immediately corrected by these two texts; there is no possibility of reconciling View B with the words of 3:6 and 3:14, or later statements in Hebrews such as 6:9 & 12:14. It is not possible to be in Christ, indwelt by His Spirit, and then to live in sin.  “… No one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6). The Holy Spirit actively and effectively opposes our sin (Galatians 5:16) and produces His fruit in us in a life of repentance.

 

The position I am advocating is this: 3:6 means holding one’s hope in Christ is evidence that a person is part of that house. Failing to hold to Christ is evidence that a person never was part of His house. Our hope for a wonderful future and the resurrection of our bodies looks only to Christ who shall return to bring us all He has promised (9:28). Like Abraham, we too look for a city whose builder and maker is God (11:10). Trust for all we want rests in our Great High Priest. He is the One in Whom the first readers of Hebrews all said they had their hope. Holding confidence firmly in Christ to the very end shows we have come to share in Christ, for this is what every Christian will do. (See Romans 8:9-11.) If one does not persevere, he not only does not share in Christ, he never did (Matthew 7:23). If anyone has shared in Christ, he will hold firmly to the end confidence in Christ. Our security is objective, based on the obedience of Christ. Our assurance is subjective; its enjoyment is partly affected by our obedience. It true basis is the promise and integrity of God.

 

What Hebrews is saying is sometimes distorted. It never suggests that the way a person comes to share in Christ is by allegiance to Christ. No person is capable of allegiance to Christ until he shares in Christ, but if a person does share in Christ, he will surely trust Him and hold firmly to Him. The response reveals whether salvation has occurred. Authentic salvation will result in allegiance. We do not become Christians by persevering, but Christians will persevere. We do not have the power to persevere on our own; if we have been saved by the power and grace of God, we will be kept by the power and grace of God. The Holy Spirit applies to us the benefits of the intercession of our Great High Priest and Mediator (Luke 22:32). Jesus prayed in John 17 for all those the Father had given Him to be kept. This is an effectual prayer. God answers the prayer of our Great High Priest that we be kept and not lost (1 Peter 1:3-5).

 

A baby lives by breathing; if a baby does not breathe, it is not a living baby. But a baby does not become a baby by breathing. Breathing is part of the essence of its life, but never the cause of a child’s existence. No one can become a Christian by being one! We are never joined to Christ by our obedience, confession, holding firm to the end, or any other virtue. But once the Holy Spirit joins us to Christ, these virtues occur. In order to receive justification, faith offers to God no virtue as the reason for God to justify, or to be united to Christ, or to receive the Holy Spirit, or to be adopted as God’s child. Faith has its good works always, but faith does not work or produce good works or offer anything in order to be justified; instead, faith receives and rests on Christ. 

 

 

It would be wrong to say, "If we do not hold fast our assurance, then even though we were once partakers of Christ, nevertheless now we lose our part in Christ." That is the opposite of what this verse says. It says, we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast our assurance to the end; and if we do not hold fast to our assurance to the end, then we have not become a partaker of Christ. Not holding fast to our assurance does not make us lose our salvation; it shows that we were not truly saved.

 

[© John Piper in a sermon on Hebrews 3, August 11, 1996, located at www.desiringgod.org.]

 



[1] Hebrews 3 follows the LXX and refers to the rebellious situation rather than naming the locations.  It is like saying, “He met his Waterloo.”  When we do so, we refer to a situation rather than a location. 

[2] 3:12-19 These verses are a unit, signaled by two inclusios.  The words “see/unbelief” appear in v.12 and reappear in v.19.