A constant temptation - Hebrews 3:1 - 4:16
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She was a bright young woman, a keen Christian too. She arrived at University full of zest and zeal. Later she was to lead several of her friends to a personal faith in Christ. She became leader of a hall Bible study group and was slated as the next Vice-president of the Christian Union. So her Christian future could not have looked more promising. But then very gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, she began to change. Her attendance at church became erratic; as did her, until eventually she stopped going altogether. In fact she started to spend as much time in the student union bar as she had previously spent in the student Christian Union. She also struck up a relationship with a non-Christian. And so I was asked to go and see her. When I met her, the face that had previously been bright and beaming was now sour and stressed. I gently asked her: Why? Why the change? Why had she apparently abandoned the faith which at one time seemed so precious? This is how she replied: ‘Melvin, I have become disillusioned. I thought that being a Christian would mean an easy life. But to be honest I have found things rather difficult. I have had real struggles and I have decided it’s simply not worth it.’
Of course that is a story which has been repeated over and over again and no matter how long you are in the ministry, I can assure you, the pain of seeing someone slipping away from the faith never lessens. Of course there are many reasons which can be put forward as to why this sort of things happens. But one of the main reasons is put to us in the passage we are looking at together this morning in the letter to the Hebrews, and it is this: the failure to remember that Christians are in fact on a journey, and an arduous journey at that which begins in this world and will not be completed until we reach the next world. And when that fact is ignored or played down then it is not surprising that disillusionment sets in and there is the temptation to return to our old way of life.
Now clearly that was the temptation facing these young believers, to whom the author is writing, the danger of ‘spiritual drift’ as he puts in chapter 2:2. And the root cause of this drifting is a failure to take God at his word- that he is the one who warns us that the going will be tough and who yet encourages us that he will remain with us. Or to put it another way, the problem is, as we read in 3:12, the danger of developing an ‘unbelieving heart.’ And so our writer, with all the tenderness and compassion of a caring pastor issues a spiritual health warning as he diagnoses the cause of an unbelief, the consequences of an unbelief and the cure for unbelief.
First of all, the cause of unbelief. I am sure that you will have noticed that throughout this passage the author draws a parallel between God’s people in the Old Testament and his people in the New.
For a start, both are called by God to embark upon a journey; so, chapter 3:1 speaks of us as having a ‘heavenly calling.’ For the Jews it was a calling out of slavery in Egypt which involved a journey through the wilderness, v17, to the promised land of rest, Canaan, which Joshua was meant to give them-4:8. For Christians, the slavery from which they have been freed is the fear of death-2:15, and the promised land of rest towards which they are travelling is the world to come, when everything will be subject to Christians as God’s managers just as God originally intended as we saw a few weeks ago in chapter 2 and that quote from Psalm 8. The wilderness through which we travel is this present world, just as full of temptations, full of hardship, full of distractions as the one the Israelites had to traverse all those many years ago in the Sinai Peninsula.
But not only do both have a journey to travel, both have a leader to follow. For the Jews it was Moses, 3:17. He was God’s great prophet bringing them the Word of God and the provision of God so that they lacked for nothing. For Christians it is Jesus (3:1), ‘the apostle and high priest whom we confess’ And if we think that the Israelites were blessed with having someone like Moses leading them, the one with whom God had spoken face to face, we are infinitely blessed for we have Jesus who is the human face of God. In 3:5 we are told Moses that was simply God’s servant, whereas Jesus is God’s son, v6. Moses, was, if you like, the head butler in God’s house, Jesus is the heir and owner, fulfilling God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7. that he would build a house for him and one of his decedents would reign over that house for ever, Well, says our writer in v6, we as Christian believers are that house.
Now the main burden of this passage is a penetrating one, namely, make sure that we who call ourselves Christians and follow Jesus do not make the same mistake as those who were called Israelites and followed Moses. And what was that? The writer tells us by quoting Psalm 95, no less than three times, so it must be important: ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion during the time of testing in the desert where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ (v8-11).
Now do you see the cause of unbelief? It is a hardened heart, which is a rebellious heart, one which does ‘not know God’s ways’
There is, I gather, a medical condition called ‘scleroderma’ in which the skin and other soft tissues gradually thicken and harden. The result is that the sufferer is unable to move joints, the heart tissue may thicken and the heartbeats become infrequent. Those who suffer from this disease do so through no fault of their own. But that is not the case with the spiritual condition being described here- ‘sclerocardia’, the hardening of the heart. It is something people bring upon themselves.
How? Well, by failing heed God’s voice: ‘Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.’ Notice I said to ‘heed’ God’s voice and not ‘hear’ it. Heeding means believing it and acting upon it. I would know quite quickly whether you believed me if I said, ‘Get out of the building now, there is a fire’, by whether or not you remained in your pews or started making for the doors. I am sure you would be hearing me, but that is not the same as heeding me. So it is with God. God promises to hear us when we pray, and so the measure to which we believe that promise is shown by how much we pray. God says, ‘the wages of sin is death’ and the extent to which we believe that is indicated by how much we trifle with sin or avoid it.
Now of course this begs the question: where do we hear God’s voice? Is it some inner whisper as the Quakers believe? Is it through nature as some mystics teach? Maybe it is through the pronouncements of the established Church as some Catholics believe? Well, we are told where we hear God’s voice quite clearly in this passage. Just look at 3:7, ‘As the Holy Spirit says (present tense) and then comes a quote from Scripture-Psalm 95. Do you want to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking? Then read Psalm 95 that is what he is saying to you today. Then look at 4:3, ‘Just as God has said (past tense), then the quote from Psalm 95 again. What God has said, is what the Holy Spirit still says, which is Scripture. Take a look at 4:7, ‘A long time later he (that is God) spoke through David,’ and again we have Psalm 95. God has used human instruments to bring to us his message, people like David. So the equation is a simple and straightforward one- What God says today he has said in the past and what that is, is to be found in a book, the Bible. This is where we hear his voice, as Jim Packer once said, ‘The Bible is God preaching.’
Sometimes we think, ‘Well, if we had seen miracles then we would find it so much easier to believe.’ But that is not so. Here were the people of Israel who had seen some of the most amazing miracles; the parting of the Red Sea, manner from heaven, God’s visible presence as a pillar of fire by night, and glowing cloud by day, water flowing from a rock, the receiving of the ten commandments in stone written by the very finger of God. And what happened? 3:19, ‘they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.’ You see, as they stood on the verge of Canaan and the spies came back reporting what they saw, they would not believe what God had said would happen, that they would take the land. No, said the spies, it is impossible, the forts are too strong, the inhabitants too powerful, lets go back to Egypt. And the people believed them. Only two didn’t, Joshua and Caleb who said, God was able- and they did enter the land. And so the majority of the adults never got to enter the land of promise; their bodies were destined to perish in the wilderness wanderings of 40 years. What a tragedy!
Yes, they heard God but they did not obey God. And if belief is not backed up by behaviour it is only a matter of time before the belief itself evaporates like the morning mist in the noon day sun. The French novelist, Georges Bernanos, describes this in the words of a young country priest writing in his private journal: ‘No, I have not lost my faith. The expression ‘to lose one’s faith’, as one might a purse or ring of keys has always seemed to me rather foolish. It must be one of those sayings of bourgeois piety, a legacy of those wretched priests of the 18th century who talked so much. Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses’, we merely cease to shape our lives by it. That is why old fashioned confessors are not far wrong in showing a certain amount of sceptism when dealing with ‘intellectual crises’, doubtless far more rare than people imagine. An educated man may come by degrees to tuck away his faith in some back corner of his brain, where he can find it again on reflection, by an effort of memory; yet even he feels a tender regret for what no longer exists and might have been, the term ‘faith’ would nevertheless be inapplicable to such an abstraction.’ That is right. Faith isn’t an item we possess, it is a trust we exercise. It is believing that God knows best and we will take him at his word even if things might be uncomfortable for us. But unbelief creeps in when little by little, choice by choice, we decide otherwise. Just listen to these words of Charles Darwin in his autobiography: ‘I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion is correct.’ The same happened with the Israelites and was in danger of happening to these Christians. Faith is never just torn up, it is merely frayed. It is not eaten away suddenly but nibbled at the corners. It is not hit by a bolt of lightening; it is the victim of the slow erosion of many seasons of neglect. Hence, the warning in 3:12, ‘See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’
Do you see what he is saying? We become deceived by sin. It is the voice which says, ‘It is Ok to lie in bed that extra hour, you can always read your Bible later in the day’, of course we never do because we are far too busy. ‘Just give church a miss this Sunday, it is such a nice day to get those jobs done around the house or go out with the kids or potter in the garden’ and what began as a one off over time becomes the norm. ‘Just one glance at that internet website won’t do me any harm’ we say and then the addiction soon sets in. And this, says our writer can only be offset by, ‘encouraging one another’, that is meeting together and sharing God’s word together to keep pressing on. And note the urgency in what is being said, ‘Today’ if you hear his voice.’ Not, think about it tomorrow or put it on the back burner for when you have more time, you will never have more time, it has to be acted upon now. I tell you most solemnly; even in my short time here I have seen spiritual corpses strewn around just as real as those which littered the Sinai desert and in nine times out of ten it all began by simple neglect, falling for the mistaken belief that we can relate to God’s people and God’s word on a pick and choose, piece meal basis and it is simply heartbreaking. Don’t do that, says our writer.
And why? Well because of the consequences of unbelief which is what this business about failing to enter into ‘the rest’ is all about: 3:18 ‘And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.; 4:1 ‘Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.’ 4:4-6: ‘For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: "And on the seventh day God rested from all his work." 5And again in the passage above he says, "They shall never enter my rest." 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. 4:9-11. ‘There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience’.
According to the Book of Genesis, which our writer quotes in 4:4, the seventh day was unlike any other day. All the other days were concluded with the words, ‘there was evening and there was morning’- not so the seventh day, the implication being that from this point on with creation being complete the whole condition of the world was one of ‘rest’, not inactivity, but harmony, wholeness, pure delight- shalom. That was the state of the park God had made called Eden to be ruled by his managers, the man and the woman. Of course that paradisal state was upset with the rebellion, and instead of rest, restlessness was introduced and we have been in a state of unrest ever since- disruption of family life, strained international relations, environmental disasters and on and on the list goes. And you know, the remaining story of the Bible is about God’s plan to restore that ‘rest’, the longed for harmonious state of good relations between Man and God, Man and Man and Man and Nature. So where is that rest to be found? Certainly not in the land of Canaan according to verse 8. Only for a very brief time under King David’s son Solomon, was there ever peace in that region and that didn’t last long (1 Kings 8:56). The rest for God’s people is still future- v9. This is the world to come of 2:5; the world to be subject to King Jesus and so fulfilling Psalm 8 and it is going to be a wonderful world, wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. And so we have to make every effort to enter that rest-v11, you can never sit on your laurels until you finally arrive. There is no freewheeling into heaven and the new creation.
And although we may fool others and even fool ourselves into thinking that we are believers when we are not, we do not fool God, vv 12-13. ‘For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.’ You see, we shall be judged by God’s Word. The question that matters is not: ‘Did you believe?’ Did you make a decision for Christ when you were a teenager? Where you confirmed? But, ‘Do you believe?’ Are you obediently trusting him now? And the standard against which we shall be measured is God’s Word, did we do it? That is what God will refer to when we meet him on judgement day. You heard the sermons at St John’s and the call to follow the Lord Jesus but you did nothing about it? That is when all of these words will cut us to the quick like a double edged sword as we remember them then. We won’t be able to say ‘We knew nothing’- we have no excuse. So we are to press on.
And we have a fantastic encouragement to do so, which is the cure for unbelief, vv 14-16. You may be thinking: ‘Well, Melvin it is easier said than done. You have no idea of the pressures I am under from home, work, friends. There are times I do have my doubts, life is a struggle sometimes and- well, I am just plain tired.’ Would you believe me if I said, ‘I know how you feel’? Maybe or maybe not. But whatever your hesitations about what God has said or not said, there is at least on one point you would do well to take him at his word and that is v15 and 16. This is how JB Phillips translates it ‘For we have no superhuman High Priest to whom our weaknesses are unintelligible-he himself has shared fully our experience of temptation, except that he never sinned.’ Note , he himself. Not an angel. Not an ambassador. But God. Shared fully. Not partially. Not nearly. Not to some degree. Entirely. In all our experience. Every hurt. Every ache. All the stresses and strains. No exceptions, no substitutes. So he can sympathise with our weaknesses. He can fully relate to how you feel. And when on earth how did he overcome his testing? Well, by believing and obeying God’s Word. He did trust that what his heavenly Father said was true. He found his promises did hold up when all others failed. And if that word was good enough for him, then surely it is good enough for us. So instead of looking back, we are encouraged to look up-v 16, ‘Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with fullest confidence, that we may receive mercy for our failures and grace to help in our hour of need.’ God knows how you feel and cares. From the funeral to the factory. From the home to the office. So do not make the mistake of abandoning him, he so wants to hold on to you and speak to you. The question is: Will you hear his voice today and follow him?
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