A Bible Lesson on Hebrews 3:12-4:13

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This lesson concerns parts of Hebrews 3 and 4. The writer has been stating the surpassing superiority of Christ, superiority to all angels and humans, including the great Moses, the one the Jews looked to as the giver of God’s law. He has warned against ignoring the great salvation provided by Christ. In the verses immediately before the ones treated here, he has then quoted from the Greek Old Testament version of Psalm 95:7-11 and begins to fashion an extended argument for his readers not turning back to Judaism around a theme of “rest” brought up in that Psalm.

Psalm 95:7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice,

8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”

11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”

The writer argues with converts from Judaism on the basis of the Old Testament quote.

Hebrews 3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

This is exhortation of the strongest kind. These believers are hard pressed, almost surely persecuted for their acceptance of Jesus as their Messiah and King, Son of God and Son of Man. But there is no option of backing off to their former lives in Judaism. To turn from Christ is to fall away from the living God. What would lead to that turning? It would be an evil, unbelieving heart. At the core of things, a person either puts final confidence in God in Christ or does not. The sin that is unforgivable, that is the very essence of evil, is steadfast refusal to put one’s trust in Christ. Return to Judaism is not some half-measure that is sub-optimal but OK. Rather, implies the writer, it would flow from an evil misplaced final confidence and trust.

13 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.

The writer urges these readers to continually exhort one another to keep on in the faith. The urgency/immediacy of the matter is emphasized in the reference to the word “today” in the Psalm. Christianity/real faith in God can only be lived in the today … everyday … constantly. So the present is the time to encourage one another. This life in Christ is not only individual, it is seriously communal, and the charge is to constantly encourage others to persevere in the Faith. Again, to drop out is to show that one’s basic confidence is not in Christ, and that’s as bad as it gets. Help each other to not get suckered and fall away.

14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

To start well in Christ is wonderful and necessary, but not sufficient. Only holding full confidence in Christ to the end of life is sufficient. And that just makes sense. How could it be that a bit of flirting with God in Christ would be all that God really wants or requires? Life confidence in Christ alone to the end is what saves. Look, says the writer, to the situation treated in the Psalm for an Old Testament type of the current situation faced by these converts from Judaism.

15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?

17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?

18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?

The Exodus from slavery in Egypt is the prime Old Testament type of the final deliverance from sin, hell, and the grave, provided in Christ. The experience of the Israelites in that Exodus serves as instruction for Christian people. After a glorious start, the going got tough out in the desert, and there was rebellion and a desire to turn back. “Better slavery and food in our bellies than death in the wilderness!” was the heart of the Israelites. But that was repudiation of the provision and promise of God.   That was declaration of “no confidence” in God. And that is rebellion and most serious sin.

What was the end of it? It was dead carcasses in the wilderness, failure to gain/enjoy the “rest” promised by God. There was no entrance into the promised land for those who changed their minds about the provision and leading of God. That is plainly called disobedience. The application to the situation of Jewish converts to Christianity is clear. To go fail to keep on trusting Christ is to wish to go back, is to die in the wilderness.

19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

The impossibility of life with God is, of course, a consequence of having no confidence in Him. There is no possibility of relationship between humans where there is no mutual trust. How could there be relationship between God and man with no trust evident in obedience on the part of man?

Hebrews 4:1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.

The writer emphasizes that the promise of God still stands (at the present time). Now is the time for reverent, serious attention to the Gospel. Speaking to the persecuted believers, the writer says that despite the difficulties they face, nothing about God’s gracious provision has changed. That is a good word for all time, as is the admonition to reverence and urgency in response to the statement that the promise stands.

2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.

The Israelites had the promise of freedom and a land of their own, but didn’t mix that promise with reliance upon God. Hearing the Gospel is essential. Hearing the Gospel without transferring all one’s confidence to Christ accomplishes nothing.

3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.

4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”

The writer begins to consider another Biblical usage of the notion of “rest” and its relationship to God’s promise of good for His people. That is the completeness of what He did in the beginning. God “rested” at the end of creation in the sense that His purposes were set, His “works” were “finished” in the sense of being ordained. So He ordained good for His people, and the fact that some lost confidence in Him and thereby chose death in the wilderness didn’t cancel His promise of a land for Israel. Neither did it cancel His long term promise of final and eternal good to those who trust Christ.

5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.”

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience,

The kids of the rebels did enter the promised land and His grand promise that all will be finally set right in the Kingdom of His Son carries on … and it remains when the writer writes, and now as we read. But the warning that was given in the Psalm is also presently relevant.

7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.

9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,

The “Sabbath rest” surely refers to this ultimate final eternal destiny in the presence of God, promised to those who love and obey His Son. Possession of the promised land and rest from desert wandering is a type of what Christ’s people are to experience at the end of the hard stuff that is mortal life. That remains unshaken.

10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

I’m not altogether sure I know exactly what is intended here. But there is at least the understanding that finally even pious and appropriate human service to God will be swallowed up in God’s good eternity. The end of proper effort is not some plan of man, but the good provision of God from before time began. F.F. Bruce said, “In other words, he has completed his appointed work in accordance with God’s will.”

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

All that can short-circuit participation in God’s rest for an individual is failure to persevere to the end, failure to maintain confidence in the gracious provision of God to the end of life.

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

This is a verse that is often quoted individually. In context, “the word of God” is surely the exhortations to preserve. F.F. Bruce said, “For God’s word—that which fell on disobedient ears in the wilderness and which has been sounded out again in these days of fulfillment—is not like the word of man; it is living, effective, and self-fulfilling; it diagnoses the condition of the human heart, saying “Thou ailest here, and here”; it brings blessing to those who receive it in faith and pronounces judgment on those who disregard it. … It is ‘discriminative of the heart’s thoughts and intents.'” Again, the response to the exhortation to carry on is the difference between life and death. By the exhortation we learn our condition, whether or not our confidence is in Him alone.

13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

God knows our hearts. He knows those who trust Him and He knows those who have ultimate confidence in something else. In light of that, let us carry on.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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