Hebrews 3:7-4:2 – Do Not Harden Your Hearts

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Last time, we looked at the Hebrews writer’s exhortation in Hebrews 3:1-6 to be faithful to our heavenly calling, using Moses and Jesus Himself as examples of this faithfulness. We also examined Israel’s special place as God’s “house” and His inheritance to which He is ever faithful, and considered the principle that Christian believers in whom God’s Spirit dwells are also God’s “house.”

Do Not Harden Your Hearts

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews now gives an exhortation not to harden our hearts to the Truth of the Gospel, so that by faith we may enter into God’s rest. He uses a cautionary example taken from Psalm 95 with which his Jewish readers would have been all too familiar – the spectacular failure of the nation of Israel after the exodus from Egypt to believe and accept God’s promise of His rest in the land of Canaan, which He had promised as an inheritance forever to their forefather Abraham. Their unbelief aroused God’s wrath against them, so that they perished in the wilderness of Sinai after forty years of wandering.

7Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you will hear His voice,
8Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
In the day of trial in the wilderness,
9Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me,
And saw My works forty years.
10Therefore I was angry with that generation,
And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart,
And they have not known My ways.’
11So I swore in My wrath,
They shall not enter My rest.'” [Hebrews 3:7-11 – NKJV]

Recall from our previous study of Hebrews 3:1-6 that Moses’ heavenly calling from God at the burning bush had also included a promise to the children of Israel…

7And the LORD said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. 8So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. [Exodus 3:7-8 – NKJV]

In fact, this was a reiteration of the promise of God to Abraham hundreds of years before…

6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. 8Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” [Genesis 17:6-8 – NKJV]

Even to this day, the nation of Israel has yet to fully enter into their covenant with God and take complete possession of the land of promise. The promised territory is much larger than the nation has ever possessed even in Solomon’s time at the height of Israel’s power. It will stretch from Egypt in the southwest to the Euphrates River in central and northwestern Iraq (see Genesis 15:18-21) including most of the territory of the current nations of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, and part of northern Saudi Arabia (see Exodus 23:31). In fact, the very existence of the so-called Palestinian territories in Judea and Samaria (the so-called “West Bank”), and in Gaza is a manifestation of Israel’s failure to enter into God’s promise. The Hebrews writer now takes up a discussion of this failure, urging those who have believed on the LORD Jesus not to repeat Israel’s failure to believe and receive the promise of God. The Hebrews writer quotes Psalm 95 in making this point…

1Oh come, let us sing to the LORD!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
2Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
3For the LORD is the great God,
And the great King above all gods.
4In His hand are the deep places of the earth;
The heights of the hills are His also.
5The sea is His, for He made it;
And His hands formed the dry land.
6Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.
Today, if you will hear His voice:
8“Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, [מְרִיבָה mĕriybah]
As in the day of trial [מַסָּה maccah] in the wilderness,
9When your fathers tested Me;
They tried Me, though they saw My work.
10For forty years I was grieved with that generation,
And said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts,
And they do not know My ways.’
11So I swore in My wrath,
They shall not enter My rest.'” [Psalm 95 – NKJV]
In order for us to fully understand the Hebrews writer’s admonition, we must delve into the history of the rebellion spoken of in Psalm 95 (and quoted in Hebrews 3 and 4). It took place about a month and a half after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, not long after God had parted the waters of the Red Sea allowing the Israelites to escape from the pursuing Egyptian army, and after God had begun to provide the manna which the Israelites would eat throughout the years of their wilderness wandering…
1Then all the congregation of the children of Israel set out on their journey from the Wilderness of Sin, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped in Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people contended with Moses, and said, “Give us water, that we may drink.”
So Moses said to them, “Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the LORD?”
3And the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses, and said, “Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
4So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!”
5And the LORD said to Moses, “Go on before the people, and take with you some of the elders of Israel. Also take in your hand your rod with which you struck the river, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.”
And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7So he called the name of the place Massah [trial] and Meribah, [contention] because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” [Exodus 17:1-7 – NKJV] (See also Numbers 20:1-13)
Joshua and Caleb by Nicolas Poussin (1664)
 
Although the journey from Egypt to the land of promise should only have taken the Israelites a few weeks, they ended up wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years because they didn’t believe God’s promise to bring them into the land of Canaan in accordance with the covenant He had made with their forefather Abraham (see Genesis 15). They allowed their fear of the inhabitants of the land to shipwreck their faith and trust in God’s power to deliver them. God had directed Moses to send scouts ahead of the nation to spy out the land of promise. Twelve were sent, including Joshua and Caleb.
13:25And they returned from spying out the land after forty days.
26Now they departed and came back to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the Wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27Then they told him, and said: “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.”
30Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.”
31But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” 32And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. 33There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
14:1So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. 2And 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! 3Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” 4So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.”
5Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
6But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; 7and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ 9Only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us. Do not fear them.” [Numbers 13:25-14:9 – NKJV]
God’s anger was kindled against the children of Israel for their unbelief in His promised rest in the land of Canaan. God said He would therefore destroy them all, but Moses interceded for them, and God relented…
26And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 27“How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. 28Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: 29The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. 30Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. 31But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. 32But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. 33And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. 34According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. [Numbers 14:26-34 – NKJV]
Aside – In the discussion above, I stated that God relented from His plan to wipe out the children of Israel after Moses interceded on their behalf. This is an anthropomorphism such as we frequently find in the Word of God. It allows us to tell the stories within the framework of human understanding, but is not strictly accurate. In fact, God knows the end from the beginning. He knew before the spies went up into the land that (except for Caleb and Joshua) they would bring back a bad report, and that the people in their fear would rebel against God’s promise and direction to go up and take the land of His covenant with Abraham. In fact, God is utterly incapable of changing His mind because He always has all the facts at His disposal, and always has had them since before the beginning. God cannot be surprised, so He never changes His mind. Furthermore, God always does what is correct and righteous. If He had decided in eternity past to destroy the children of Israel for their rebellion, He would have done so despite Moses’ intercession for them. But since He had decided in eternity past to spare the Israelites despite their rebellion, He did so – not because of Moses’ intercession, but because it was His sovereign will and always had been!

The Hebrews writer now continues with his application of the story of the Israelites’ tragic rebellion to Christian believers…
12Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; 13but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, 15while it is said:
 
Today, if you will hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” [Hebrews 3:12-15]
This passage confronts us once more with the sticky question whether it is possible to lose our salvation. I don’t believe so, and I don’t think that is what the Hebrews writer is talking about in this passage. Rather, it is a continuation of the previous passage. The writer is warning us not to miss out on the promised blessing of God through sin and unbelief as the children of Israel did through their rebellion in the wilderness.
 
Recall that it was the Israelites’ fear of the worldly powers in the land and their unbelief in God’s power to overcome those powers that had kept them from entering into God’s promised rest. This immediately brings to mind the seed which fell among thorns in Jesus’ parable of the Sower…
Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. [Matthew 13:22 – NKJV]
Notice that Jesus does not say that the one who allows the cares of this world to choke the Word will lose his salvation, but that he will become unfruitful. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. There is a real danger that we may allow our earthly busyness and worries to keep us from devoting ourselves to ministering the Gospel to the lost world.
 
Hebrews 3:13 reminds us that God has called us to be partakers of Christ as the writer says, but not as individual believers who are working out our salvation on our own. God calls us into the fellowship of believers – the body of Christ which is the church. As part of that Body, we are called to support and encourage the other members of the Body just as they are called to support and encourage us. Part of that support and encouragement is loving, Biblically-sound correction of our brothers and sisters when needed in their struggle with sin. Of course that implies that we must also be willing to receive loving, Biblically-sound correction from our brothers and sisters when we need it in our own struggle with sin. The writer encourages us to exhort one another daily while we can.
 
The Greek word translated “exhort” here is παρακαλέω parakaleō. It means to call to one’s side or call for. This Greek word is also translated comfort, entreat, and beseech. When Jesus promised the coming of God’s Holy Spirit to His disciples in John 14, He called Him the Helper [NKJV]. Other translations call Him the Comforter, the Advocate, and the Counselor. The Greek name for God’s Spirit is παράκλητος paraklētos – the One who calls us to His side. Just as God’s Spirit calls us to His side, and ministers to us as Helper, Comforter, Advocate, and Counselor, so we too must call our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ to our own side to minister to them as their helper, comforter, advocate, and counselor. God’s Spirit gives each of us specific gifts to be used in this ministry within His Body…
4There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. [1 Corinthians 12:4-11 – NKJV]
 Aside – Notice in 1 Corinthians 12:9, Paul speaks not of the gift of healing, but rather of gifts of healings. One radio preacher I was listening to said one day that if he had “the gift of healing,” by the end of the day there wouldn’t be a single person in any hospital in his county. His point was that God manifests healings at specific times through and for specific persons for specific purposes. Usually, God’s real purpose in these manifestations of healings is not the healing itself but rather to create “teachable moments” for the persons who are healed and for the onlookers. This can be seen in the various healings that Jesus Himself performed during His earthly ministry. For example…
17Now it happened on a certain day, as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was present to heal them. 18Then behold, men brought on a bed a man who was paralyzed, whom they sought to bring in and lay before Him. 19And when they could not find how they might bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed through the tiling into the midst before Jesus.
20When He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”
21And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
22But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? 24But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
25Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. 26And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today!” [Luke 5:17-26 – NKJV]
The Hebrews writer will have more to say on the subject of exhorting our brothers and sisters in Christ later on in chapter 10…
23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. [Hebrews 10:23-25 – NKJV]

16For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? 17Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? 18And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? 19So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
 
4:1Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. 2For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. [Hebrews 3:16-4:2 – NKJV]
It has been said that the distance between Heaven and Hell is eighteen inches. But this only applies to the freakishly tall. For right-sized people such as myself, it is only 12 inches – the distance from my head to my heart. Merely hearing the Word of God is not sufficient. The Gospel must pierce our hearts by the conviction of God’s Holy Spirit before we can “close the deal” by confessing Jesus as our LORD. When I was in High School, one of the elective courses in English was The Bible As Literature. The very fact that such a course even existed in a public High School in the United States of America might give you a clue as to how long it’s been since I was in High School, but that’s another story. During that semester of my Junior year, I read the King James Translation of the Word of God from cover to cover. I can avow and attest that apart from some nuggets of historical knowledge, and perhaps the planting of a tiny seed somewhere in the depths of my adolescent, drug-befuddled brain, I garnered precious little benefit from that first reading of God’s Word. It was only many years later when the knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was mixed with an abiding belief in the Truth of Jesus’ resurrection and a realization down in the depths of my gut that it was my own sin that crucified Him, that God’s Spirit was able to enter my heart and bring me into His Kingdom forever.
 
So it was with the Israelite wanderers in the wilderness. Although Moses had not yet written the Pentateuch down, every Israelite boy and girl would have heard the stories of creation, the fall of man in the garden, the great flood and the faith of Noah, God’s calling of Abram, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s promise of Isaac and His subsequent command for Abraham to sacrifice his own son, the histories of the families of Isaac and Jacob, and the selling of Joseph into slavery in Egypt and God using that to rescue the people of Egypt and Canaan from starvation during the great famine. Furthermore, they had personally witnessed the miracles of God bringing ten plagues on the people of Egypt culminating in the deaths of the firstborn in Egypt. They had been partakers on that night of the first Passover when the firstborn of Israel were spared. Finally, just weeks before their rebellion in the wilderness, God had parted the waters of the Red Sea before them and destroyed the army of Pharaoh behind them. Yet even with all their knowledge of the power of God, and His benevolence toward them – His chosen people – they did not believe in His promise to them, and disobeyed His command to go up and take possession of the land of Canaan that He had promised to Abraham.
 
The Gospel of Jesus is simple. Our perfectly holy and righteous God cannot abide in the presence of sin, and commands that sin be punished with death. Yet God desires fellowship with sinful mankind, so He made a way of reconciliation with us through the incarnation, sinless life, death on the cross, and glorious resurrection of His own Son – Jesus, who is able to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness so that we might enter into eternal life in the presence of God. But this mighty work of God can only go just so far. It remains for us to enter in at His beckoning, and that takes more than knowledge of the Truth. It takes faith – faith that the Israelite rebels did not have. That’s the point the writer of Hebrews is making in this passage. Just as the apostle James said that faith without works is dead, so we might say that knowledge (even knowledge mixed with obedience and good works) is deadly unless it includes belief in the promises of God.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. [Revelation 3:20 – NKJV]

Coming Up

It is always difficult to decide where to end one study, and where to pick up the next. Often the constraints of time make the decision for us. Although the writer of Hebrews hasn’t quite finished his comparison of the Israelite rebels in the wilderness, and those who hear the Gospel but don’t believe, we’ll have to leave it for now, and finish up this discussion next time as we take up Hebrews 4:3-11 where the writer finishes up his exhortation to enter into the rest of God.

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