A constant temptation - Hebrews 3:1 - 4:16

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 31st May 2009.

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If you were here a fortnight ago, you’ll remember that we discovered that the book of Hebrews was all about the danger of drifting;  the danger of falling;  the danger of outright apostasy.  But at the same time, we learnt that Hebrews was a basic pastoral letter from a loving pastor who wanted to help his flock;  Jewish Christians who were under pressure because of their faith.  Under pressure to return to Judaism.  And you’ll remember that the author’s central message was:  don’t go back.  There’s turning back because there’s nothing to go back to.  Don’t drift, don’t fall;  don’t reject Jesus. 

How are you going to do that?  Well the answer comes up again in 3:1, so if you’ve closed you Bibles, then pl reopen them to Heb 3 on p [1118/ 1864] and look with me at v1.    Fix your thoughts on J;  focus on J.  And for a vast chunk of the letter, the author paints a picture of Jesus that will blow our minds.    And he does this because it’s only when we’ve got a sufficiently big picture of J, that we’ll have the inner strength to resist the constant temptation;  the constant temptation to slip back into our old pre-Christian way of life.  Don’t go back, says the author.  There’s nothing to go back to.  Fix your thoughts on Jesus. 

And after the overture in 1:1-3 which laid out the themes of the whole letter, in the rest of chapter 1, we saw the first thing about J he wanted us to focus on. J is greater than the angels.  Angels are simply created beings, but J is the Creator and Sustainor of the Universe.  J is in a different league to the angels.  So it’s gobsmacking, when we saw last week in chapter 2, that our creator, allowed himself to be made lower than the angels for a little while in the incarnation.  The creator of the universe, became a baby.  Look with me at 2:17:

17For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

Jesus became a man, like one of us.  And he needed to do that, in order to become our merciful and faithful high priest, which is what the next section is all about.  There’ll be lots of embedded application as we go through, but the main teaching point of today’s passage is that J is our faithful high priest.    J is our faithful high priest.

Focus on J, our faithful High Priest who is Greater than Moses (3:1-6)

So moving onto the 2nd heading on the handout and to 3:1, we’re told to focus on J, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.  And in v2, we’re told that J was faithful to the father who’d appointed him:  J finished the high priestly work he’d been appointed to do.  And then he sat down at the father’s right hand;  Job well done.  A faithful high priest who did want he’d been appointed for: offered himself on the cross; or in the words of 2:17: he made atonement for the sins of His people; and atonement, or more literally propitiation, simply means to turn aside God’s wrath; because, on that cross, J was taking God’s wrath against his people’s sins into himself. 

And the next few verses back in chapter 3 are simply saying that, just as J was in a different league to the angels, so J is in a different league of faithfulness to Moses.  What’s Moses got to do with it you might be thinking?  Well Judaism honoured Moses as the greatest prophet in the OT.  Why?  Because only to Moses had God spoken to face to face;  so Moses was very special in Jewish thinking. 

But, even Moses, in v5, we learn was simply a servant.  Just like the angels, who were created beings given jobs of service, so was Moses:  a created being with a greatly honoured role of service.  And so we see that Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses.  Why?  Because he’s been faithful to the Father as the Creator, not simply as a created servant.  Or as v5 puts is:  Christ was faithful over God's house as a son;  the Son of the Father.

So Jesus is greater than Moses.  Therefore, in v1, we’re commanded to focus on J.  Focus on J.    Why?  Because, in the language of 4:14, some of you are in danger of loosing your grip on your Christian confession.  You’re in danger of drifting away.  That’s the Christian’s constant temptation.  So hold fast to your confession of J your High Priest.  Resist that constant temptation to drift away from J.   

And the meat in the middle of this sandwich is 2 main warnings, which you can see as headings 3 & 4 on the handout.  And we’re going to spend the rest of our time looking at these.   

Watch Out and Don’t Harden your Hearts    (3:7-19)

So the first warnings under heading 3 on the handout is ‘”Watch out and don’t harden your hearts’.  Watch out and don’t harden your hearts.

He’s basing his argument on Ps 95.  And you can see that the author of Hebrews quotes this Psalm in v7-11, but also in v15 and in chapter 4 v5 & 7.    Psalm 95 was probably written by King David, long after Joshua had led his people into the Promised Land.  And David was using the rebellion of an earlier generation of God’s people as a warning for God’s people in his day.  The rebellion of v8 refers back to Israel’s time in the wilderness. After God had brought His people out of the Land of Egypt and through the red sea.  After He’d given his saved people the Law on Mt Sinai.  It was after seeing these mighty works of God in v9, that the Israelites grumbled against Moses because they were thirsty.  They should have trusted God to provide them with water, which he did later on;  but instead, they grumbled against Moses and started a Back to Egypt campaign. 

But the reference in v10 to 40 years in desert is a hint that David was also talking about Israel’s refusal to enter the Promised Land later on.  The Israelites had been scared of the people living in the Land, just as they’d been scared of dieing of thirst in the desert.  They didn’t trust God and so didn’t want to take possession of God’s Promised Land.  So, as we’re reminded in v11, God swore an oath that, that generation would not enter the Promised Land;  instead they’d wander in the desert for 40 years until all that generation had died off under God’s judgement.  Then, and only then, would God allow the next generation to enter His Promised Land.  And that’s exactly what happened for 40 years, and the implication of v9 is that God’s people continued to provoke him with unbelief and disobedience for the rest of those 40 years. 

So David warned God’s people living in his day, many years later, not to harden their hearts, as their forefathers had done.  And the author of Hebrews follows suite and gives the same warning to his readers:  you people who are in danger of falling away from J:  don't harden your hearts as your forefathers did. 

In v12, he’s being in ya face about it:  see to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful and unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 

So now we’re being told that drifting or falling away from Jesus is the result of having an evil and unbelieving heart.  And what the Holy Spirit said in Moses day and in Joshua’s day and in NT times, He’s still saying today.   Just like earlier generation of professing believers, we need to examine ourselves to see if, underneath any outward masks we wear, any of us have evil and unbelieving heart.    But the problem is, that if that’s you, then v13 tells us that sin is so deceitful, you might already be too hardened to diagnose yourself properly.  Which is why, at the beginning of v13, we're given some practical advice.  Every day we’re to encourage each other in our Christian faith. Every day is a Today when we should heed the warning not to harden our hearts.  And we need each other, that’s one of the reasons we’re told to come together regularly as churches.  Or as v13 puts it:

13But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.

Our author isn’t a remote and aloof pastor.  He’s a realist.  He knows how weak we all really are, despite the pretences of spiritual strength we might put on.  He knows how strong the attraction to go back to our pre-Christian way of life is.  He knows all about the pressures Christians face living out in the real world.  For the original readers, the pull was to go back to an obsolete Judaism.  The pull for us is more likely to be to blend into the pluralist humanist mish mash all around us that ignores God;  or to join in with the pretence that all religions are basically different roads up the same mountain.  Idolatry.  And because of idolatry’s pull, each of us needs regular Christian encouragement, not just on Sundays, although that would be an excellent goal for everyone here at [SF/ Riverside].  But he’s not just talking about regular weekly Christian encouragement;  no the recommended antidote to drifting here is daily encouragement.

So OK, how is that practical I hear you saying?  These clergy haven’t got a clue what life’s like in the real world, you might be saying to yourself.  I don’t work 9-5, I have to commute to work and I’ve got kids or elderly parents to look after, I can hear some of you saying.  Well yes I do know what it’s like, and not just because I talk to many of you.  I used to work 8-6 in the City and 50-hour weeks are not uncommon now.  God has given all of us the same amount of time each week and so the issue is: how are we using it?  Because we make time for the things we think are important, don’t we?  Like watching Britain’s got Talent on the TV or going to the Gym.    This week I had a letter saying that if I didn’t pay the balance on my summer holiday within 7 days, they’d cancel my booking and I’d loose my deposit.  I’ve always got a pile of outstanding paperwork, but sorting that one out was one of the first things I did that morning.   

If you think it’s important to read your Bible and pray every day, then you’ll make time for it.  And if you think regular Christian fellowship is important to help prevent you drifting away from J, then you’ll make time for it. 

Now I know that if you do nothing else than come to church once a week, then it’s going to be a big jump to doing something every day.  But here’s a few things for you to think and pray about as you consider your personal response to God this morning:

1.      If you’re married, whether or not you’ve got kids, do you have any form of family devotions?  Do you read the Bible together or discuss what each of you have learnt in your own personal Bible readings and pray about it together.  Do you discuss you own personal struggles with sin with you spouse.  Do you encourage your kids to talk to you about these kinds of things – they certainly won’t if they don’t see you modelling it.

2.      What about same gender prayer partners or triplets, whether or not you’re married?  Such partnerships are a great way to keep each other sharp as well as to pray for evangelistic contacts and other needs.

3.      Is there a CU where you work or study.  If it’s no good or full of so-called sad limp Christians, then why not join it and move it in the right direction.

4.      SF:   But what about mid-week Bible studies.  Once a fortnight, we now have a HG at Kevin and Debbie’s house;  on Tue mornings, Kate leads a daytime ladies group at Riv.  And down at SJs there the Identity course that’s just started, Wed at 10 for retired people, Mother’s Union, and of course Time out and After 8 which I mention most months. 

5.      Riv:  But what about mid-week Bible studies.  Every fortnight, our 3 Riv HGs meet in homes on the estate.  On Tue mornings, Kate leads a daytime ladies group at Ellie’s house.  And down at SJs there the Identity course that’s just started, Wed at 10 for retired people, the TnT go for people in the 20s and 30s, and of course Time out and After 8 which I mention most months. 

I could go on, but the point is that we are privileged both here at [SF/ Riv] and as part of the wider parish to have lots of opportunities for some form of mid-week Christian encouragement.  And if there aren’t any that suite you, then come and talk to me about what else could be done. 

But why is this so important?  Well remember, the people David was talking about in v7-11.  They weren’t pagans;  no they were professing believers in God.  Look with me at v16:

 16Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed]?

In each of these 3 verses, we’ve got 3 similar questions:  who, whom and whom.  Who rebelled against God; who provoked him to anger;  and who died in the desert.  Not pagans, but God’s professing people.  And what was the result?  V19: 

19So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Unable to enter what?  Well we know from v11, that he’s talking about God’s rest.  These Old Covenant people were prevented from entering God rest because of their unbelief and disobedience.  Therefore, we should watch out and make sure we don’t harden our hearts and fall into the same trap;  the trap of not being able to enter God’s rest.

Let us Fear and make every effort to Enter God’s Heavenly Rest  (4:1-11)

And that brings us to the final heading on the handout.  Let us fear and make every effort to enter God’s heavenly rest.  And this heading comes from the commands in 4:1 & 11. More literally, v1 reads: 

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

Therefore, let us fear and make every effort to enter God’s rest.    So what’s God’s rest all about.  And the short answer is: Heaven.  The author links rest with the 7th day in v4 and God bringing His people into the Promised Land in v8&9.  But like lots of things in the OT, these rests were simply pictures or prototypes of the heavenly rest that was still to come.   As J put it himself, come to me all who are labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you true rest, eternal rest in the new creation, which we normally call heaven. 

So we need to fear in v1 in case we don’t get there.  And in v11, we’re told to make every effort to enter it.  Otherwise, we’ll fall away from our heavenly goal.  But you might be thinking that all sounds a bit like a Gospel of works.  But that’s until we think about the meaning of obedience and making every effort in v11.  Look back with me to v2:

2For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.

Literally, it says, we have been evangelised just as they were;  just as the disobedient generation in the desert had been.  But despite being paid up church members, they hadn’t got true faith in the Gospel they’d heard, so it was of no eternal benefit to them.  You see, entering God’s heavenly rest happens when we truly believe the Gospel.  When we truly believe that J is God’s Son, our faithful High Priest, who’s made atonement or propitiation for our sins.  We can enter God’s rest and have complete assurance of our heavenly future, if we really do believe that J died in our place on that cross, taking the punishment that we deserved for our sins. That’s what entering God’s heavenly rest is all about.   

But we need to learn from the unbelief and disobedience of our forefathers.  Look with me at v6: 

6It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. 7Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts."[

An earlier generation of God’s people had failed to enter the prototype rest of the Promised Land.  Why?  Well, although they’d been evangelised and thought of themselves as God’s people, their faith was a sham.  Their evil unbelief in the Gospel led to their disobedience.  So God was angry with them for 40 years and their bodies fell in the desert.  God shut them out of the Promised Land.  They failed to enter God’s rest.    It’s is a vivid picture of being shut out of Heaven.  And Heaven’s much better than the prototype rest of the Promised Land;  and 40 years in the desert is nothing compared with an eternity in Hell. 

Application

And so the issue for us this morning is this: do you profess faith in J, the Son of God, J the faithful High Priest who made atonement for the sins of His people on the Cross. And if you do profess faith, is it real or is it a sham?

To Non-Christians

If all this is new to you and you know you’re not a Christian here this morning, you can’t just go home, have your Sunday lunch and forget all about it.  This is urgent stuff. 

I wonder if any of you have been on a train recently.  What happens just before the doors close?  On most modern trains, there’s a buzzer isn’t there.  The doors are still open, but the buzzer’s telling you they’re about to close, so hurry up. 

Well in chapter 4, we’ve been told heaven’s door is still open.  But in v1 & 11 we’ve had a buzzer;  a warning us to hurry up and get through the doors.   As I mentioned in the notices, tomorrow is the funeral of a much-loved member of SF’s.  Bob was 80, but none of us knows how long we’ll live.  When Jesus returns, or when you die, the door to God’s heavenly rest will close forever.  And this should give us a sense of urgency as we contemplate God’s command to enter His rest.  The entrance, then, to God’s Heavenly rest remains open, but not for long.  So make sure you don’t miss the opportunity of entering the door of heaven while it remains open. 

  To non-Christians who’re professing Christians

But many of you profess faith in Christ and yet today’s passage has still told to us to watch out, to fear; to make every effort to enter that rest;  and to make every effort to keep going in the faith.  Why?  Because of the example of previous generations of God’s people.  People who didn’t really believe God’s Gospel and so disobeyed Him and missed out on His heavenly rest. 

The painful message of today’s passage is that it’s entirely possible to be a convincing member of God’s professing people and yet be inwardly resisting God.  You might be here every Sunday, on every rota going and be a member of every group in the church, and yet not actually be truly trusting in the Gospel.  The Gospel of free forgiveness for our sins, but only on the basis of J’s death on the cross.  Even worse, the passage warns us that there might be some among us this morning who are self-deceived about their true lack of faith in the Gospel because of their evil and unbelieving hearts.  People who still think, perhaps, that they can be good enough for God.  And if you know that’s you, then there is still comfort:  heaven’s door is still open for you too;  but not for long, so you know what to do.

Christians

But I hope many of us here this morning do really and truly believe the Gospel.  And if that’s you, then you need to know that the Book of Hebrews, like the rest of the Bible, does give 100% assurance of Heaven to all genuine believers;  and we’ll be coming back to that doctrine in a couple of weeks when we get to chapter 6.  But we mustn’t let those assurances mask the severe warnings we’ve been looking at today. So as we close, let’s all examine our own hearts in prayer. 

Closing Prayer

Dear Lord Jesus, our faithful High Priest, for those here this morning who’ve never entered your heavenly rest, we pray you would lead them in Today.  And if any of your professing people here this morning have been self-deceived and still haven’t truly entered your heavenly rest, we plead that you would grant them repentance Today, before it’s too late.  And for the rest of us, we pray that you would keep us securely in your heavenly rest both Today and for evermore, just as you’ve promised.  Amen.

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