Much like a good attorney who methodically builds his or her case in a court of law, the author of Hebrews has been building a case for Christ throughout the opening chapters of this epistle. For instance, our author has already established that Jesus is greater than the prophetic messengers of the Old Testament…
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
The following chapter affirmed Jesus’ superiority over angelic beings as well…
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So He became higher in rank than the angels, just as the name He inherited is superior to theirs” (Hebrews 1:3-4 HCSB).
Here now in Hebrews chapter three, our author will continue to press his argument with respect to the single greatest figure in Jewish history: Moses…
“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house” (Hebrews 3:1-2).
We can turn to a brief excerpt from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah to explain why Moses is such a revered figure among the Jewish people. In speaking of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel, that portion of Scripture tells us…
“You came down on Mount Sinai, and spoke to them from heaven. You gave them impartial ordinances, reliable instructions, and good statutes and commands. You revealed your holy Sabbath to them, and gave them commands, statutes, and instruction through your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 9:13-14 CSB).
Yet even though Moses is recognized as Israel’s great lawgiver, he did more than simply proclaim these Old Testament laws. You see, Moses was also someone who held a deeply personal relationship with God as reflected in the words of Exodus 33:11: “…the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend…”
In light of this, our author encourages us to consider, or carefully study Jesus in comparison. We’ll follow along with our author as he builds his case for Jesus’ supremacy over this great Old Testament figure throughout the remainder of this chapter. But first, we’ll review some other aspects of Hebrews 3:1-2 that merit our attention over the next few studies.
“Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus; Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house” (Hebrews 3:1-2 KJV).
So, the opening verse of Hebrews chapter three begins with an address to the “…holy brothers and sisters, partakers of a heavenly calling…” (NASB). Unfortunately, this word “holy” is a word that people often seem to use with little concern for its meaning.
For instance, some may equate “holiness” with a stoic, self-denying lifestyle. Others feel comfortable using the word “holy” as part of an exclamation or expression of surprise. However, those who use this word in a flippant or irreverent manner might be less inclined to do so if they knew what it actually meant.
You see, the word “holy” expresses the qualities of moral purity and ethical perfection, especially when used in relation to God. It also encompasses a person or thing that has been set apart from others. When used correctly, the word “holiness” conveys God’s moral perfection and complete separation from anything that might be wrong, corrupt, immoral, or impure. In light of this, a person who uses the word “holy” in a way that doesn’t honor God’s sacred character is someone who fails to represent Him in an appropriate manner.
We should also note that the Biblical book of Revelation associates holiness with Christ Himself. As Jesus stated in His own words…
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Philadelphia. This is the message from the one who is holy and true. He is the one who has the key of David. He opens doors, and no one can shut them; he shuts doors, and no one can open them” (Revelation 3:7 NLT).
Truth and holiness are not simply characteristics that Jesus possesses- they are intrinsic elements of His being. While there were many so-called “gods” in the New Testament era (just as there are many such “gods” today), none of those so-called gods held a valid claim to holiness. Only Jesus could legitimately make that claim, and the same is true today.
In the context of Hebrews 3:1, holiness serves to characterize those who had been set apart by God. Thus, “The word ‘holy’ here does not have particular reference to a quality of life but to a position in salvation… Thus, the basic idea of the word is that of a set-apart, a separated position with reference to God.” (1)
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 3:1) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“Therefore, holy brothers and companions in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession; He was faithful to the One who appointed Him, just as Moses was in all God’s household” (Hebrews 3:1-2 HCSB).
It is probably safe to say that most people associate the word “apostle” with the Biblical group of individuals who were chosen by Jesus to represent Him. Because of this, it may seem unusual to see this word associated with Jesus Himself here in Hebrews 3:1. While other descriptive terms for Jesus (such as “Savior” and “Lord”) may seem more familiar, the word “apostle” is wholly appropriate when we consider the definition of this word.
You see, an apostle is a “commissioned representative” much like an emissary or a spokesperson. One source explains the meaning of this important term…
“The word apostle is the translation of apostolos, a Greek word made up of apo ‘from’ and stello ‘to send,’ thus referring to the act of sending someone on a commission to represent the sender. It was used of a messenger or an envoy who was provided with credentials. Our word ambassador would be a good translation.” (1)
However, we should also note that Hebrews 3:1 does not refer to Jesus as “an” apostle. Instead, this verse identifies Him as “the” apostle. In other words, Jesus is God’s foremost representative, and the message He communicates is one of salvation and forgiveness for those who place their faith in Him. The Gospel of Luke records that message for us…
“So (Jesus) came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.
And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:16-21).
Since Hebrews 3:1 represents the only Biblical instance where Jesus is addressed in this manner, we would do well to note this apostolic aspect of His ministry.
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (note on Galatians 1:1) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“And so, dear brothers and sisters who belong to God and are partners with those called to heaven, think carefully about this Jesus whom we declare to be God’s messenger and High Priest. For He was faithful to God, who appointed him, just as Moses served faithfully when he was entrusted with God’s entire house” (Hebrews 3:1-2 NLT).
In addition to His role as an apostle, Hebrews 3:1 also refers to Jesus as “High Priest.” In Jesus’ day, one of the primary duties of a priest involved the act of representing others before God. A priest was also responsible to present the sacrificial offerings that were necessary to atone for (or make up for) the sins of the people, including himself.
The “High Priest” was the central human figure in this sacrificial system. The High Priest was the only person who was permitted to enter the innermost part of the Temple known as the Most Holy Place. This occurred once a year on the Day Of Atonement (also known as Yom Kippur) when a sacrifice was offered for the sins of the nation, as described in Leviticus chapter sixteen.
It was there within that room that the High Priest came into God’s direct presence. He also came face to face with the Ark of the Covenant, the golden chest that held the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded (see Hebrews 9:4).
A great veil separated this area from the rest of the Temple. Regarding that veil, one commentator tells us, “The Veils before the Most Holy Place were 40 cubits (60 feet) [or about 18 meters] long, and 20 [cubits] (30 feet) [or about 6 meters] wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand… these Veils were so heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to manipulate each” (1)
The New Testament Gospel of Mark tells us that this enormous curtain-like structure was torn from top to bottom upon Jesus’ death (see Mark 15:37-38). The fact that this veil was torn in that direction is significant, for it indicates that God was responsible for orchestrating this event. It further served to demonstrate that access to God’s dwelling place was now freely available to all through Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross.
Finally, Jesus’ atoning death brought closure to the Old Testament sacrificial system, for as we’ll later read in Hebrews chapter nine, “…He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
(1) Alfred Edersheim The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book 5, chapter 15
“Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, partners in a heavenly calling, take note of Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess, who is faithful to the one who appointed him, as Moses was also in God’s house” (Hebrews 3:1-2 NET).
This portion of Scripture tells us that Moses and Jesus were each faithful to God. However, faithfulness was not the only similarity that existed between their respective ministries. For instance…
- Moses chose to leave his place in Pharaoh’s family in order to identify with the people of Israel. Jesus’ willingly left His place in heaven to identify with and deliver humanity from sin.
- Moses performed many miracles in validating God’s call upon his life. Jesus also performed many miracles in ministering to others and validating God’s call upon His life.
- God communicated His directives through Moses and Jesus. For example, Moses received the Ten Commandments and the other aspects of the Mosaic Law from God and taught them to the people of Israel. Jesus did so through the Beatitudes.
- Both were involved in providing nourishment for others in the form of bread. Moses is associated with the bread from heaven that God provided for the nation of Israel during their decades-long journey in the wilderness. Jesus also served as God’s provision in identifying Himself as the Bread of Life.
- Moses (Exodus 32:32) and Jesus (John 10:17) each expressed their willingness to sacrifice their lives.
- Moses was rejected by others on multiple occasions. Jesus was also rejected by the spiritual leadership of His day and those who crucified Him.
- Finally, Moses and Jesus referenced one another in their respective ministries. For instance, Moses told the people of Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus subsequently made the following comment to the religious establishment of His day: “Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:45-47).
In addition, we should also note that Moses held the honor of meeting with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). Yet despite these similarities, the following verses of Hebrews chapter three will go on to demonstrate Jesus’ clear superiority over Moses through the use of an architectural metaphor.
“For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God” (Hebrews 3:3-4).
While we typically associate the word “house” with a residential dwelling place, the Biblical Scriptures often use this word to describe an individual family unit. Perhaps the most famous use of the word “house” in this context appears in the Old Testament book of Joshua: “…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Israel’s king David used this word in the same way as he discussed his ascension to the monarchy in 2 Samuel 6:21.
The New Testament also employs the word “house” as a means of identifying the church as a family unit. We can find one such example in the book of 1 Timothy: “…I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
God’s relationship with the nation of Israel is described in a similar manner here in verses three through six. As we progress through this portion of Hebrews, we’ll find that faithfulness served as a common denominator in the lives of Moses and Jesus. However, Hebrews 3:3-4 establishes an important difference that sets them apart from one another: Moses was a faithful member of God’s house, but Jesus constructed that house.
As great as Moses was, he would never be greater than the builder of the house in which he served. One author summarizes this idea and its implication…
“But now, having prepared the ground, the writer comes out boldly with the assertion that Messiah was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, on the basis of and measured by the principle that the one who builds a house has more honor than the house. Messiah built the house of Israel. Moses is a member of that house.
Since Messiah has more honor than the house of Israel, it follows that He is worthy of more honor than Moses, for Moses is a member of the house of Israel. Since Messiah is better than Moses, the Testament which He inaugurated must be better than the one Moses was instrumental in bringing in, and for the reason that a superior workman turns out a superior product.” (1)
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament [note on Hebrews 3:3] Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses–as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God)” (Hebrews 3:3-4 ESV).
Many of us enjoy the satisfaction that comes from the act of restoring, rebuilding, or refurbishing something that has fallen into disrepair. Such opportunities might include a vehicle that has been restored or customized, a home improvement or restoration project, or anything that has been re-purposed into something of greater value.
It’s hard to improve upon the feeling of achievement that accompanies the successful completion of a project that restores an object to its former glory (or something greater). In such instances, the person who serves as the builder, customizer, or restorer justifiably receives greater recognition than the project itself. This idea is true in a spiritual sense as well, for as Hebrews 3:3-4 tells us, “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses…” as the builder or architect of God’s house.
This returns us to a theme that the author of Hebrews introduced in the first sentence of the first chapter of this book: Jesus is the agent through whom God established the cosmos. He is the one who created the universe and all that exists within it, known or unknown. The New Testament letter of Colossians builds upon this idea in telling us that all things were created by Him, through Him, and for Him…
“For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17).
These passages focus our attention upon something that is greater than the attitude of respect we should hold for the architect of all things (although it certainly encompasses that). As one commentator explains…
“The thought expressed is a teleological thunderbolt; it is the ancient and indestructible argument from design, bluntly and unequivocally stated, first in the truism that every house has a builder, and secondly in the deduction that the far greater house of the whole universe likewise has its builder who can be none other than God.” (1)
We’ll examine this reference to that “teleological thunderbolt” and discuss its implication next.
Image Credit: Dietmar Becker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Hebrews 3”. “Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“For he has come to deserve greater glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house deserves greater honor than the house itself! For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3:3-4 NET).
We can turn to the Biblical book of Romans for additional insight into this concept of a divine architect…
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 NIV).
We can associate this “design evidence” with a philosophical assertion known as the teleological argument for God’s existence. That line of reasoning goes as follows…
- The existence of a design implies the existence of a designer.
- Creation shows evidence of design.
- Therefore, there is evidence of a designer of creation.
With this in mind, we can say that creation represents a kind of window through which we see the reality of God’s existence. In other words, the existence of creation assumes the existence of a Creator. Just as an artist, musician, or craftsman may be known by the existence of his or her work, the reality of the Creator’s existence is verified by the existence of His work in creation…
“The more complex the design, the greater the intelligence required to produce it. There is a difference between simple patterns and complex design. Snowflakes or quartz crystals have simple patterns repeated over and over, but have completely natural causes. On the other hand, we don’t find sentences written in stone unless some intelligent being wrote them…
The design we see in the universe is complex. The universe is a very intricate system of forces that work together for the mutual benefit of the whole. Life is a very complex development. A single DNA molecule, the building block of all life, carries the same amount of information as one volume of an encyclopedia. No one seeing an encyclopedia lying in the forest would hesitate to think that it had an intelligent cause; so when we find a living creature composed of millions of DNA-based cells, we ought to assume that it likewise has an intelligent cause.” (1)
Romans 1:20 tells us that this evidence is so clear that human beings are literally “without excuse” if they seek to reject it. So while many are undoubtedly uncomfortable with the idea of a Creator, no one can rationally assert that such design evidence does not exist.
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Brooks, R. M. (1990). When skeptics ask (p. 21). Victor Books.
“And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward, but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:5-6).
As is his custom, the author of Hebrews does not engage in an unfounded assertion in the passage quoted above. This declaration regarding Moses and his faithful service serves as a case in point, for it finds its origin in the words of the Old Testament book of Numbers…
“…When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord…” (Numbers 12:6-8 NIV).
One author provides a further explanation that illustrates the superior nature of Moses’ service…
“The writer says that Moses was faithful as a servant. The particular word he uses for ‘servant’ deserves special study… There is an ethical character attached to the word. It speaks of service of an affectionate nature, and of a hearty character, performed with care and fidelity. [It] speaks of service that is of a nobler and a freer character than that of Doulos (bondslave)… The use of the word in our present passage is indicative of the close relationship which existed between Jehovah and Moses, and of the fact that his services were of an exceptionally high and important character, and valued by Him.” (1)
So, it is worth noting that our author goes to great lengths to emphasize the quality of Moses’ service. Yet despite the dignity, honor, and respect in which he is held, Moses was only a servant in God’s house. As such, he could never take the Son’s place as owner and architect of that house. Instead, “…he was faithful as a servant and his work was only a foreshadowing of the truth that would be known later” (Phillips).
Finally, we should not overlook an important statement from this passage: “But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house…” (NIV, emphasis added). This recalls Jesus’ promise to His followers from the Gospel of John…
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23).
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament [note on Hebrews 3:5] Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Hebrews 3:6 KJV).
Hebrews 3:6 is a passage that requires careful consideration lest we draw a mistaken conclusion. For instance, this verse might seem to imply that salvation depends upon our need to “hold fast” in some respect. But if that is the case, then salvation would be tied to our ability to endure the circumstances and events of life rather than faith in the atoning work of Christ.
Perhaps the best way to interpret and apply this passage is to start with a look at what it does not say…
“This is not speaking of how to be saved or remain saved (cf. 1Co 15:2). It means rather that perseverance in faithfulness is proof of real faith. The person who returns to the rituals of the Levitical system to contribute to his own salvation proves he was never truly part of God’s household (see note on 1Jn 2:19), whereas the one who abides in Christ gives evidence of his genuine membership in that household (cf. Mt 10:22; Lk 8:15; Jn 8:31; 15:4–6).” (1)
We can also eliminate one potential audience for this verse…
“The writer is not speaking of one who deliberately tries to pass himself off as a Christian, knowing in himself he is not. There are those who join a church because they think it is good for business, or it helps their status or prestige in the community, but they know they are not Christians. They do not believe what they hear, they do not have any interest in what is said. Such people stick out like sore thumbs among the saints. They deceive no one but themselves.” (2)
That leaves us with the target audience for this passage…
“This warning is directed to those who have confessed themselves Christians. It is intended to show that true Christianity is proved by endurance, by continued confidence in and loyalty to Christ who is our hope (cf. Col. 1: 27). He does not belong to God’s house who merely professes to do so. He belongs who continues believing ‘to the end’” (3)
Finally, one author concludes by observing…
“The proof that you are a child of God is that you hold to the faith. That doesn’t make you a child of God, but it does prove that you are a child of God. If you are a believer, you will hold on, not because you are able but because He is able to make you stand.” (4)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Heb 3:6). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Excerpted with permission from Living out of Rest © 1965 by Ray Stedman Ministries. All rights reserved. Visit www.RayStedman.org for the complete library of Ray Stedman material. Please direct any questions to webmaster@RayStedman.org | https://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/hebrews/living-out-of-rest
(3) New International Bible Commentary general editor G. C. D. Howley, consulting editors F. F. Bruce, H. L. Ellison. Copyright© 1979 by Pickering & Inglis Ltd [pg. 1511]
(4) J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee, “Hebrews 3:2-6” Copyright 1981 by J. Vernon McGee
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years” (Hebrews 3:7-9).
The latter portion of Hebrews chapter three serves to remind us that the choices we make today often lead to the consequences we’ll face tomorrow. The verses quoted above reinforce that point with a reference to an unfortunate event in Israel’s history. That illustration begins with a quote from Psalm 95: “Today, if you will hear His voice... ”
The word “today” appears three times in Hebrews 3:7-15 and helps communicate a sense of urgency. The idea is that those who fail to prioritize this message now are people who make corresponding value choices that will surely lead to negative consequences. In some cases, those consequences might be immediate. In other instances, those consequences may take years or decades.
In the case of this illustration from Psalm 95, both were true- there were immediate and long-term consequences that our author warns us to avoid. You see, Psalm 95 references a time when God was leading the people of ancient Israel to a place that He described as a land that was “…flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). We can grasp the impact of this illustration with an abbreviated tour through the Old Testament record of this account…
“The LORD now said to Moses, ‘Send men to explore the land of Canaan, the land I am giving to Israel. Send one leader from each of the twelve ancestral tribes’
…Moses gave the men these instructions as he sent them out to explore the land: ‘Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see’
After exploring the land for forty days, the men returned… This was their report to Moses: ‘We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified…” (1)
We’ll continue our look at this historical record next.
(1) Numbers 13:1-2, 17-20, 25, 27-28 (NLT)
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘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 for forty years’” (Hebrews 3:7-9 ESV).
The Old Testament book of Numbers provides us with the historical background related to the warning given to us in the passage quoted above…
“But Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. ‘Let’s go at once to take the land,’ he said. ‘We can certainly conquer it!’ But the other men who had explored the land with him disagreed. ‘We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!’
So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: ‘The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too’
Then the whole community began weeping aloud, and they cried all night. Their voices rose in a great chorus of protest against Moses and Aaron. ‘If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!’ they complained. ‘Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?’ Then they plotted among themselves, ‘Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!’
…Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing. They said to all the people of Israel, ‘The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey.
Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!’ But the whole community began to talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb. Then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the Tabernacle.” (1)
We’ll look at God’s response to the people’s reaction to this report next.
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! “‘Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years’” (Hebrews 3:7-9 NET).
God’s response to the historical account referenced here in Hebrews chapter three was swift and devastating…
…Then the Lord said ‘…not one of these people will ever enter that land. They have all seen my glorious presence and the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt and in the wilderness, but again and again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it… The only exceptions will be Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.’” (1)
Unfortunately, this was not the only time when the people of ancient Israel exhibited this type of attitude. For example, the Scriptures tell us that God miraculously provided water for the Israelites on two separate occasions following their departure from Egypt. The first instance occurred while the nation was camped in an area known as Rephidim. It was during that time that the people of Israel quarreled and complained against Moses regarding the lack of water for their families and livestock.
In response, God directed Moses to go to an area known as Horeb and strike the rock that was located there. Moses did as he was instructed and God provided water for the people to drink as a result (see Exodus 17:1-7).
The second occurrence took place later in a place called Kadesh when the people of Israel voiced a similar complaint regarding the lack of water. In that instance, God instructed Moses to respond in the following manner: “Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals” (Numbers 20:8).
Unfortunately, Moses chose to strike the rock twice instead of speaking to it as he had been told. While God graciously provided water for the people anyway, Moses was subsequently disqualified from entering the Promised Land as a result of his disregard for God’s direction (see Numbers 20:1-13).
We’ll consider some modern-day applications based on these ancient examples next.
(1) Numbers 20, 22-23, 30 (NLT)
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: 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 tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works” (Hebrews 3:7-9 HCSB).
Even after God delivered the people of Old Testament Israel from their Egyptian taskmasters, provided for their physical and material needs throughout their wilderness journey, and promised to establish them within a land that was “…flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), here is how the people of that era chose to respond…
“…But our ancestors acted arrogantly. They were stubborn and wouldn’t obey your commandments. They refused to obey, and didn’t remember the wonders that you accomplished in their midst. They acted arrogantly and decided to return to their slavery in Egypt….” (Nehemiah 9:16-17 CEB).
So, according to Hebrews 3:7-9, it is important to avoid hardening oneself in a similar manner each day. This brings us to the idea of “hardening our hearts” as found in the passage quoted above.
This word “heart” is represented by the word kardia in the original language of this passage. It also forms the basis for our modern-day word “cardiac.” Kardia refers to our innermost being in a physical, spiritual, or emotional sense. Much like the compacted soil of a pathway or an impenetrable piece of sunbaked clay, a spiritually indifferent person may reach a point where he or she becomes hardened to the things of God.
One source illustrates this danger with the following observation: “People’s hearts are hardened by continuing in sin, procrastination, and by the gradual atrophy of spiritual perception brought on by the practice of disobedience. People may go a little at a time, further and further into sin, until finally they become hardened and confirmed in their rebellion against God.” (1)
That mindset will inevitably lead to the same kind of fate experienced by the ancient Israelites. As the Old Testament book of Proverbs reminds us, “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity” (Proverbs 28:14 ESV). If we fail to give heed to that counsel, “God furnishes no guarantee that He will disabuse sinners of error if they really prefer error to the truth.” (2)
Fortunately, the following chapter of Hebrews will remind us that nothing can insulate the human heart from the penetrating effect of God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, we should be diligent to anchor our relationship with Christ through prayer, reading the Scriptures daily, and worshiping regularly with the people of God (see Acts 2:42).
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Hebrews 3”. “Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
(2) Archer, G. L. (1982). New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (p. 410). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
“So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did’” (Hebrews 3:7-9 NIV).
One important application from this passage involves the need to avoid the kind of “faith” displayed by the majority of Israelites during their exodus from the nation of Egypt. While those men and women were undoubtedly happy to escape their Egyptian servitude and enjoy the benefits of a relationship with God, they were unwilling to trust Him when circumstances failed to meet their preferences. Even in those instances when God clearly provided for their needs, the people of ancient Israel refused to place their trust in Him.
In contrast, a genuine, God-honoring faith is identified by a “belief in or confident attitude toward God, involving commitment to His will for one’s life.” (1) Unfortunately, the people referenced here in Hebrews 3:7-9 failed to demonstrate the confident expectation that God would fulfill His promises despite the repeated evidences He offered. These verses also tell us that their response involved something far more egregious than just a simple lack of trust…
“The Greek words translated ‘tempted’ and ‘proved,’ are peirazomai and dokimazo respectively. They are an interesting contrast. Peirazomai means ‘to put to the test to see what good or evil may be in a person.’ Dokimazo means ‘to put to the test for the purpose of approving the person if he meets the test.”‘
The Greek here is ‘put Me to the test to see what evil or good there is in Me when they put Me to the test for the purpose of approving Me should I meet the test.’ What crass unbelief is shown in such a procedure. What an insult it flings into the face of an all-loving, all-powerful God. The first-century readers of this letter are warned not to take that attitude toward God.” (2)
Sadly, it seems that the people of ancient Israel continued to challenge (CEB), test (ESV), tempt (KJV), and try God’s patience (AMPC), throughout their forty- year journey through the wilderness. So despite God’s gracious provision in protecting them from plagues, enabling them to cross the Red Sea, and supplying them with food each day, the people of that era were disinclined to trust Him. The author of Hebrews urges us not to replicate that same mistake.
(1) “Faith” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
(2) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 3:9) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’” (Hebrews 3:10-11).
While some may view God as a dispassionate or impersonal Being, this portion of Hebrews chapter three reveals that He is emotionally invested in the lives of His people. That investment led to the response we see in the verses quoted above. This emotional component is one key that can help us unlock a proper understanding of this passage.
For example, a Biblical critic might find fault with the statement, “They always go astray in their heart…” Since we know there were two people from that generation (Joshua and Caleb) who did not go astray, a critic might contend that this statement is factually incorrect. However, that objection fails to acknowledge the emotional context of this passage.
When taken in context, these verses do not mean that every single person strayed from God during this period. Instead, this phrase is used in much the same way we might use it today whenever we emotionally engage with someone who consistently engages in certain behaviors.
For instance, let’s take the example of two people who are discussing one another’s strengths or weaknesses. If one says to the other, “You always do such-and-such,” he or she does not mean to imply that the other person is an automaton. Rather, it means that the person in question exhibits a predictable or consistent pattern of behavior in certain areas.
In a similar manner, “They always go astray in their heart” conveys an important truth: it means that the people of that era did not make an isolated mistake or suffer a momentary lapse in judgment. Instead, the Israelites of the Exodus period consistently neglected their relationship with God and thus failed to grow in the kind of God-honoring character that would have helped them avoid going astray.
This led to serious repercussions, for the original language behind this passage indicates more than just an attitude of discontent on God’s part. You see, God’s response to this situation can be translated to include the following definitions: to loathe, to spew out, and to be disgusted with. (1) Therefore, Israel’s historical example presents us with a valuable lesson and a precedent to avoid.
This is an admonition that we would do well to observe for, “The grand and terrible lesson of Israel’s history is that it is possible to begin well and end poorly. In fact, this tragic human tendency dominates much human spiritual experience.” (2)
(1) G4360 prosochthizo https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g4360/kjv/tr/0-1/
(2) Hughes, R. Kent. Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul. 2 vols. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993. [1:98] quoted in Constable, Thomas. DD., Notes on Hebrews 2021 Edition, [3:7-11] https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/hebrews/hebrews.htm
“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’” (Hebrews 3:10-11 ESV).
The passage quoted above reminds us that it is possible to reach a point where God will no longer protect us from the consequences of our decisions. Such was the case with the overwhelming majority of Israelites who departed from the nation of Egypt. We can grasp the full impact of the statement “They shall not enter my rest,” by taking a moment to look at the Old Testament account of that period in Israel’s history.
You see, the Biblical book of Numbers tells us that God instructed Moses to count every male who was eligible for military service during that time. The result of that census is given to us in Numbers 1:45-46…
“So all who were numbered of the children of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war in Israel— all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.”
So when God swore in His wrath, “They shall not enter my rest,” He was not speaking of a narrow group of individuals. If we count spouses and those who were unfit for military service, it’s likely that over one million human beings were subject to this edict. Of that number, only two individuals (Joshua and Caleb) survived to enter the land of God’s promise.
Finally, we should note how God “…was provoked with that generation.” This offers a personal application as it relates to our relationships with others. For instance, if others seek to provoke us in various ways, it helps to remember that God lived through a similar experience with His people during their Exodus from Egypt. Our author will return to this subject in the following chapter with a message of encouragement for those who endure such provocations (and/or other forms of temptation) …
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 NET).
Having looked at the Old Testament example that our author references in Hebrews 3:7-11, we can now apply the message of verse twelve: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (NIV).
This portion of Scripture tells us that we should note the example of those who turned away from God in this manner and avoid copying their kind of “faith.” For example, those who departed from ancient Egypt saw God’s miraculous works but were unwilling to continue to put their trust in Him. That kind of “faith” is far different from the faith that God seeks.
You see, a genuine, God-honoring faith is demonstrated by our willingness to trust God, even when the circumstances appear to be unfavorable. This is important to remember, especially when we face obstacles that seem too big to handle. When that time comes, how will we choose to respond?
The author of Hebrews has labored to remind us that the Israelites of the Old Testament period were unwilling to trust God even though they saw His extraordinary works on their behalf. Thus, they provide us with an object lesson that demonstrates the wrong way to respond to the challenges we face in life. The citizens of ancient Israel who failed to place their trust in God never received the good things He planned for them because they preferred to live in fear rather than trust Him to help them to overcome the obstacles they faced.
On the other hand, a person with a God-honoring faith handles such problems differently. For instance, a faithful person is honest about the areas where he or she is fearful or may be falling short. Next, a faithful person seeks God’s help in continuing to trust Him to accomplish the things He wants to do in their lives. Finally, a faithful person asks God to supply the strength necessary to continue living the kind of life that is pleasing to Him.
So, the actions of these ancient Israelites demonstrated that their “faith in God” was not what it seemed. Therefore, we should take care to avoid their example and prayerfully ensure that we do not develop “…a wicked, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (GW).
“Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 KJV).
A brief look at Hebrews 3:12 should help dispel the objections of those who feel as if the Bible holds little or no relevance for modern-day audiences. Here in Hebrews 3:12 we learn that the experience of ancient Israel is applicable to anyone who reads this passage.
You see, no one is immune to the temptation to earn his or her way to heaven, compromise Biblical principles, or drift away with a world that is largely comprised of those who have little or no interest in the things of God. Much like the Israelites of the Exodus era, it is important to guard against the ever-present tendency to exchange genuine faith for an external religious duty or tradition.
The following Biblical scholar illustrates that danger in the following manner…
“The word ‘departing’ deserves special attention. It is aphistemi which is made up of apo ‘off,’ and histemi ‘to stand,’ the compound word meaning ‘to stand off from.’ This was exactly the position of these Hebrews. They were standing aloof from the living God.
The idea is not that of departing, but of standing off from. Our word ‘apostasy’ is derived from a form of this Greek word. Apostasy is defined as the act of someone who has previously subscribed to a certain belief, and who now renounces his former professed belief in favor of some other which is diametrically opposed to what he believed before. In other words, his new belief is not merely a new system of faith, but one which at every point negates his former belief.” (1)
Another writer adds, “A later generation of Israelites was warned by the psalmist not to follow the bad example of their ancestors’ refusal to listen to God, lest disaster should overtake them in turn; and now a still later generation has the same warning impressed upon it by the writer to the Hebrews.” (2) Modern-day readers of this passage are warned to avoid a similar fate as well.
The late philosopher George Santayana was famously quoted as saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (3) In light of this, Hebrews 3:12 encourages us to remember this past example for, “People do not set out to renounce the fundamentals of the faith. Rather, they compromise in small areas, and eventually drift into unbelief.” (4)
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament [Hebrews 3:12] Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 65]
(3) George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense: The Life of Reason. 1905 pg. 284
(4) Sproul, R. C. (1994). Before the face of God: Book 4: A daily guide for living from Ephesians, Hebrews, and James (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries. [Page 106]
“but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘TODAY,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
It may be tempting to view the great men and women of the Bible as spiritual celebrities who hurdled every obstacle they encountered with a minimum of pain, effort, or discomfort. But a closer look at some of those Biblical “all-stars” tells a far different story.
For instance, John the Baptist seemingly expressed his doubts concerning Jesus when he sent his disciples to ask, “Are you really the Messiah? Or shall we keep on looking for him?” (Luke 7:19 TLB). We also have Moses as an example. When God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, the Scriptures tell us that he responded by saying, “Lord, please send someone else to do it” (Exodus 4:13 CEV).
The New Testament book of James also informs us that the great prophet Elijah was “…a person just like us” (James 5:17 CEB). The wording of that passage indicates that Elijah had the same faults and weaknesses as anyone else. This is a significant admission given Elijah’s prominence as man of God and Biblical prophet.
Nevertheless, there is one important difference between these individuals and those who stubbornly tested God as mentioned earlier in Hebrews 3:8. Unlike the vast majority of ancient Israelites who departed from the land of Egypt, Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist were faithful men who did not reject God in unbelief. We’ll find other such examples of God-honoring faith when we reach Hebrews chapter eleven.
This helps explain why this portion of Scripture reminds us to “…encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (NIV). Today is the right time to do great things for God, for we cannot change anything that happened yesterday and there is no guarantee of tomorrow.
As Jesus reminds us in John 9:4-5…
“All of us must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent me, for there is little time left before the night falls and all work comes to an end” (TLB).
So today is the day to do the things that God calls us to do. That might include reading the Scriptures, praying, and using our God-given talents, skills, abilities, and opportunities to minister to others. In this way, we can “Help each other to stand firm in the faith every day, while it is still called ‘today’, and beware that none of you becomes deaf and blind to God through the delusive glamour of sin” (Phillips).
“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. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:13-14).
“To-morrow is the day when idle men work, and fools repent. To-morrow is Satan’s to-day; he cares not what good resolutions you form, if only you fix them for to-morrow.” (1)
In addition to the need to act upon the truth of God’s Word today, the New Testament epistle of 1 John brings an important perspective to this passage from Hebrews chapter three. Consider the following translation of 1 John 2:19 and its reference to some who self-identified as Christians…
“They went out from us [seeming at first to be Christians], but they were not really of us [because they were not truly born again and spiritually transformed]; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out [teaching false doctrine], so that it would be clearly shown that none of them are of us” (AMP).
So those who were unwilling to abide in Christ revealed the existence of a hidden lack of faith. To paraphrase 1 John 2:19, a person who fails to persevere in faith offers evidence that brings his or her original profession of faith into question. Thus, we can say that perseverance is a characteristic quality of genuine faith. Jesus’ message from the Gospel of Matthew offers another important reminder…
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21 NLT).
Therefore, we can say along with the words of the following commentary, “True faith always has the quality of permanence. We don’t hold fast in order to retain our salvation, but as proof that we have been genuinely saved. Faith is the root of salvation; endurance is the fruit.” (2)
Nevertheless, we should also consider a far more sobering aspect of these verses…
“We as believers need to beware of the deceitfulness of sin. We can actually come to the place where we feel our lives are satisfactory to God although we are leading a wilderness life… I know men in the ministry who have been totally dishonest; they have been found to be liars, yet they can get down on their knees and pray the most pious prayers I’ve ever heard. And their conscience does not condemn them. Of course it doesn’t condemn them, because it has become hardened; they are permitting sin in their lives.” (3)
(1) Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. “Commentary on Hebrews 3”. “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfb/hebrews-3.html. 1871-8.
(2) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers p.2166
(3) J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Hebrews 3:7-19 The Peril Of Doubting, Copyright 1981 by J. Vernon McGee
“As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15 ESV).
The passage quoted above contains a small word with big implications: “if.” In the original language of this passage, “if” references a future event that may (but is not certain) to occur. (1) One commentator expands on this concept by identifying a tendency that may prevent us from “hearing His voice”…
“Where the right path lies clear before the eyes, a disinclination to follow it can be reinforced in the mind by many beguiling lines of rationalization; but to surrender to them results in a hardening of the heart, a reduced sensitivity of conscience, which makes it more difficult to recognize the right path on a subsequent occasion.” (2)
This brings us to the role of the conscience in our decision-making process. You see, the word “conscience” can be defined as “…that moral inner sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate…” (3) Much like an umpire, judge, or referee, the conscience arbitrates between right and wrong. The real question involves the “rule book” that our consciences use to make decisions.
You see, it is possible for two people to act in good conscience while still pursuing different courses of action. From a Christian perspective, it is important to recognize that Jesus identified the Scriptures as the Word of God (John 10:34-35) and the command of God (Matthew 15:3-4). Jesus also taught that the Bible is truth (John 17:17). Thus, we can say that the Word of God should lead and inform our consciences based upon the authority of Christ.
The problem comes when we violate our consciences by knowingly doing wrong. Much like the calluses that develop on the hands of a hard-working laborer, our consciences may become similarly hardened whenever we repeatedly ignore them. Once our consciences have been disengaged in this fashion, there is little to stop us from hurtling into increasingly unhealthy and/or self-destructive behaviors.
One of the more common methods of bypassing our consciences involves the process of rationalization mentioned earlier. “Rationalization” can be defined as “a way of describing, interpreting, or explaining something (such as bad behavior) that makes it seem proper, more attractive, etc.” (4) This may occur whenever we seek to exempt ourselves from a Biblically inappropriate behavior or claim a personal exception for ourselves.
Despite the relief from a guilty conscience that such rationalizations may seem to offer, Hebrews 3:15 reminds us that the end result remains the same: a hardened mindset that rebels against the voice of God.
(1) Strong’s G1437 ean https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g1437/kjv/tr/0-1/
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 67]
(3) Dr. Bob Utley, 2 Corinthians 1 [1:12] http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06B_01.html Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International. All rights reserved.
(4) “Rationalization.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rationalization. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.
“As it is said: Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15 HCSB).
Those who read this passage and its reference to “hearing His voice” may wonder why God does not choose to communicate with us in a more obvious fashion. In response, we might say that God has already tried that approach with humanity with ineffective results.
For instance, Adam and Eve enjoyed God’s direct presence in a perfect environment. Yet they still rebelled against Him. We can also look to the period of Israel’s history that the author of Hebrews referenced earlier this chapter- the wilderness journey that took place after the Israelites departed from Egypt.
The Scriptures tell us that God led the people of Israel during that era in the following manner: “…the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light… He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).
Those pillars served as an unmistakable confirmation of God’s existence for the people of Old Testament Israel. Yet, how effective were these visible methods of communication? Well, Exodus chapter 32 provides us with the answer in the form of God’s command to Moses…
“Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’” (Exodus 32:7-8).
So even though the people of Israel possessed these definitive evidences for God’s existence, they deliberately rejected them in their pursuit of idolatry. It also explains why 1 Corinthians 10:5 tells us, “God was not pleased with most of them.” Unfortunately, this same type of rejection also occurs today (albeit in a more indirect manner)…
“…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 NIV).
Taken together, these unfortunate realities may help explain why God has chosen to communicate with us primarily through His Word today.
“Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey?” (Hebrews 3:17-18).
The closing verses of Hebrews chapter three feature several questions and answers that are admittedly difficult to confront. Nevertheless, we would do well to pay close attention to these verses if we wish to escape the fate described within them.
You see, this portion of Scripture presents us with several national characteristics that defined the people of Israel following their departure from ancient Egypt. For instance, verses sixteen and seventeen focus on the qualities of sin and rebellion. The final two verses identify disobedience (Hebrews 3:18) and unbelief (Hebrews 3:19) as distinguishing features that reflected the attitudes of the people of that era. With this in mind, the following commentator provides us with an important reminder…
“Here is a solemn warning against trusting in a majority or what is popular. The author pointedly reminds his readers that the wilderness failure of Israel was on a national scale, supported by the overwhelming majority, and popularly led and advocated by the great princes of Israel” (Num. 13:3-16).” (1)
Another source adds, “Is the majority always right? In this chapter of Israel’s history, only two were right and over half a million were wrong!” (2)
Finally, one Pastoral author directs us to some challenging (but inescapable) conclusions based on Israel’s example from this period in their history…
“The test came when for the first time they were asked to come to grips with the thing that could destroy their life in the land, the giants, and their failure to do so revealed the bitter truth that they never had any faith. They had never really believed God. They were only acting as they did to escape the damage, death, and danger of Egypt. But they had no intention of coming into conflict with the giants in the land…
Yet, when it comes to the test, when God asks us to lay hold of the giants in our life which are destroying us, those giants of anxiety, fear, bitterness, jealousy, envy, and impatience and all the other things that keep us in turmoil and fret and make us to be a constant trouble to our neighbors and friends — when we are asked to lay hold of these by the principle of faith, and we refuse to do so, the writer says we are in danger of remaining in the wilderness and never [entering] the promised rest.” (3)
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Hebrews 3”. “Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
(2) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers p.2166
(3) Excerpted with permission from Living out of Rest © 1965 by Ray Stedman Ministries. All rights reserved. Visit www.RayStedman.org for the complete library of Ray Stedman material. Please direct any questions to webmaster@RayStedman.org https://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/hebrews/living-out-of-rest
“And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when He took an oath that they would never enter His rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed Him?” (Hebrews 3:17-18 NLT).
There is an old adage that warns us, “Be careful what you ask for – you might get it.” The Old Testament book of Numbers illustrates the truth behind that ancient maxim in describing the experience of the Israelites who departed from the land of Egypt.
In Numbers 14:2, we are told, “…all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness!’” God later accommodated their stated desire with the following response: “You will die and your corpses will be scattered across this wilderness. Because you have complained against me, none of you over twenty years of age will enter that land” (Numbers 14:29 CSB).
In the culture of that period, the manner of one’s death was almost as important as the manner of one’s life. Thus, an honorable burial was viewed as a fitting conclusion to a respectable life. Unfortunately, the opposite was true as well. The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes expressed these cultural sentiments by observing, “A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he” (Ecclesiastes 6:3 NIV).
One source adds, “In the ancient Near East the treatment of a corpse was very significant. If people, even enemies, honored a person, they treated his corpse with care and gave it an honorable burial, but if they did not respect him, they treated his dead body with contempt.” (1) Unfortunately, Hebrews 3:17-18 tells us that the overwhelming majority of those who left Egypt never received a decent and honorable funeral when they passed from this life. Thus, they suffered the final indignity that can be imposed upon a person: “…their dead bodies were scattered over the desert” (1 Corinthians 10:5 GNB).
While it is troubling to contemplate God’s attitude towards those He whom allowed to perish in this manner, this distasteful episode in Israel’s history should prompt us to avoid following their faithless example.
(1) Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 1 Samuel 2021 Edition “The aftermath of the battle 31:7-13” https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/ot/1samuel/1samuel.htm
“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” (Hebrews 3:18-19 ESV).
Israel’s refusal to enter the land of God’s promise following their departure from Egypt has been well-documented over the course of Hebrews chapter three. However, their reluctance to follow God’s direction should prompt us to ask an important question: “why?”
We can find one potential answer in the word “disobedient” as found in the passage quoted above. While this word is commonly used to describe those who are insubordinate, it also carries several other shades of meaning in the original language of this passage. Those definitions include…
- To refuse belief. (1)
- Not to allow one’s self to be persuaded. (2)
- To refuse to be persuaded. (3)
Taken together, these definitions tell us that Israel’s rejection was volitional. In other words, they refused to believe God or follow His guidance because they didn’t want to believe or follow Him. Unfortunately, this characteristic was not unique to Old Testament Israel, for there were others who responded to Jesus in much the same way.
For instance, Jesus once resurrected a dead man named Lazarus as recorded for us in John chapter twelve. Lazarus had been entombed for several days when Jesus arrived at his burial place and he was unmistakably dead. When Jesus restored him to life, many responded by placing their faith in Him as a result. However, there were others who responded differently: “…the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus” (John 12:10-11 NLT).
So much like the overwhelming majority of Israelites who left the nation of Egypt, this second group refused to be persuaded by the evidence of God’s work in their midst. Instead, they sought to hide the evidence of Lazarus’ resurrection by ending his life again.
In a similar manner, those who do not wish to acknowledge God can always find a means to justify their refusal to be persuaded. Thus, as one Biblical scholar concludes…
“…the New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural hostility to the being of God… Man’s desire is not that the omnipotent, personal Judeo-Christian God exist, but that He not exist. The New Testament sees not only atheism but human-fabricated religion as being grounded in such antipathy toward the true God.” (4)
(1) G544 apeitheo Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/apeitheo
(2) G544 apeitheo Thayer’s Greek Lexicon https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g544/kjv/tr/0-1/
(3) G544 apeitheo Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers https://studybible.info/vines/Disobedience,%20Disobedient
(4) R.C. (Robert Charles) Sproul, If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists?: Why Atheists Believe in Unbelief, Revised edition of the book The psychology of Atheism. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1978).
“So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19 NIV).
While this verse brings us to the end of our look at Hebrews chapter three, our author will follow with some important conclusions from this passage in the following chapter. Nevertheless, we should not leave this portion of Scripture without a few last observations.
For instance, we should recognize that the Israelites who departed from ancient Egypt faced some genuine challenges as they approached the Promised Land. That land was a place that was “…flowing with milk and honey” according to Exodus 3:8. It also encompassed a region that Moses described as “…a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing…” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9).
Unfortunately, that rich and productive land was already inhabited- and the people who lived there were neither welcoming nor hospitable. For example, one people group living within that area were the Canaanites, a nation devoted to worship of pagan gods like Baal and Ashtereth. Then there were the Amorites, a barbaric, warlike race that resided in the hill country of the land. Finally, there were the Amalekites, a group that would later engage in a number of military actions against the nation of Israel.
Some of the advance scouts who explored the land described those inhabitants in the following manner: “…the people who live there are powerful, and their cities are very large and well fortified. Even worse, we saw the descendants of the giants there …We felt as small as grasshoppers, and that is how we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:28, 33 GNT). That negative report was enough to motivate the majority of those who had left Egypt to seek to return to their former positions of servitude.
Yet even though the work of taking the land was certain to be laborious (and potentially dangerous), what was the alternative? Well, the alternative involved missing out on God’s best for their lives. It also involved decades of futility, as those who rejected God’s direction squandered their lives in a barren desert wilderness. When viewed from this perspective, we can thus conclude that the cost of following God’s direction is far less than the cost associated with our refusal to believe and act upon His Word.