I’ll have to confess, I don’t like change. I like things the way they are – or better yet, the way they were. We have an infinite capacity to idealize the past and make it the perfect model to which we should attempt to return.
You’ll see yourself if you’ve ever said something like: “They don’t make them like they used to…” “Back in my day…” “In the good old days…”
When automobiles were first being manufactured, there was resistance to these newfangled carriages. People thought they were a passing fad that would soon die out and they would return to the tried and true. Oh, they bought cars, but they would hook them up to their horses just in case.
What do you do when the future looks uncertain, and the present doesn’t look all that great. We begin to look for something to give some stability to it all – get back to what was comfortable – even if those old paths were worn deep with ruts leading to a dead end. At least we know what to expect. We all have a little bit of Linus in us – we want our security blanket.
A powerful example of this is the family of an alcoholic. In an alcoholic family every one plays a role. Of course there is the alcoholic, but then one family member will be the enabler, another the victim, another the rescuer, another the family hero. But everyone knows their role – not that they do it intentionally or even consciously – this is all going on beneath the surface. But one day the alcoholic decides he’s going to get better, starts rehab, goes to AA meetings, and he starts to change. But that changes the family dynamics and suddenly, everybody’s role is in jeopardy and somebody (or everybody) will unconsciously sabotage the recovery. “I don’t know any other way to live – it may be a miserable life, but at least I know my role.” That sounds crazy, I know, but it is so common as to be predictable.
This has always been a problem with God’s people. When the Israelites were in Egyptian slavery, they cried out to God in their misery. When God sent Moses to deliver his people from Egypt, they hadn’t been in the desert three days when the people came complaining to Moses:
The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death."
All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?"
Forget that they were slaves and mistreated and abused – and utterly miserable – at least they knew their roles. We have an incredible ability to idealize the past as the “good old days” (even if they weren’t). It has always been human nature to desire a return to “the way we used to do it.” If this is true of human nature in things of this world, how much more in the spiritual.
The Hebrews writer has a way of putting it in perspective. Three times in our passage this morning he strips away the idealization of the good old days and quotes Psalm 95: “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
Don’t forget, he is writing to people who are facing difficult times because they have chosen to become Christians. They are being persecuted and ostracized by their families, friends and communities, and their temptation is to give it all up and go back to their past. But their past was filled with hard hearts and rebellion. To leave Jesus in order to return to the past would be no different than their ancestors rebellion against God at Mt. Sinai or their disobedience in the land of Canaan.
The writer characterizes their desire to return to the past by comparing their heroes of the faith with Jesus. And he begins with their greatest hero, Moses:
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. (Heb 3:1-6)
What a temptation it must have been – when life started to close in and squeeze them because of their faith – to return to the Law, symbolized by that great pillar of their faith, Moses.
Our writer never belittles Moses, or minimizes his importance. He could have pointed out Moses’ failings, his shortcomings. Instead, he lifts him up and says, “Moses was faithful in all God’s house.”
But having elevated Moses, he turns our attention to Jesus and makes some important contrasts. If Moses was great, Jesus is greater – and not just in degree. This is not a contrast between carpenter and foreman, or architect and engineer. Jesus is greater just as the builder has greater glory than the house – just as the Creator has greater glory than the creation.
And almost as if in an offhand way he adds, “Every house is built by someone. But God is the builder of everything.” It is a powerful understatement.
Our human tendency is to be more impressed with the building than the architect – to marvel at creation, but never consider the Creator.
As great as Moses was, his was the Law – that Law led to death, not salvation. He pleads, “don’t return to the dead end path of Law.”
Then he reminds them of their hero Joshua, who had taken the helm of leadership from Moses and led the people into the promised land and led them in conquest over the Canaanites to possess the land. He writes: For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Heb 4:8-11)
You see, even though Joshua led them into the promised land, it wasn’t the promised land which God has ultimately promised his people. They settled into a comfortable life, and abandoned the work God had given them to do in possessing the land. They became satisfied with what they had, and forgot the promise that God had in store. And, if we are satisfied with any goal that falls short of the rest which God has prepared for us in heaven, we have missed the goal of God for our lives.
And that’s where we are so much like the Israelites. We settle into this life and fill it with all the comforts and security we desire, and we think “This is it! God has blessed me, what could be better than this?” And so we turn our focus inward, not forward and not upward.
And so he encourages his readers not to put their trust in Joshua, but in Jesus who leads us to the real rest, the real promised land, God’s true Sabbath rest. And he encourages us not to put our trust in the comforts and securities of this world – this is not all there is – and God’s real blessings aren’t going to be found here.
Let’s spend a few minutes talking about this Sabbath rest. The writer sees this as a crucial danger for these persecuted, weary Christians. And he draws on several layers of meaning as he describes this Sabbath.
The first is God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy. It was a literal command not to work on the Sabbath (and just so we’re clear, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sun down and goes through Saturday evening at sun down). Now, God’s intention was that humans needed rest from their work. Here were people who worked long, hard hours, and they lived on the edge of exhaustion. God told them to take one day during the week and rest. In fact, it was in imitation of God himself who spent six days in creating the universe and then rested on the seventh day.
But, as humans are prone to do, they took this gift from God and turned it into a restrictive, legalistic straight-jacket, forbidding every kind of activity you can imagine. The Pharisees created 39 different categories of work, hundreds of subcategories and thousands of specific activities that were forbidden. And they even accused Jesus himself of violating the Sabbath – to which Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath replied, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
And you may think, that’s the OT, we don’t need to obey Sabbath laws – we’re NT Christians. And if you’re thinking legalistically, you might be right – but if you’re thinking spiritually – you still need that wisdom of God that calls you to step aside from work for a day of rest. An extra day of work might enrich you financially, but it will impoverish your soul when you let it push God to the fringes of your life.
So, the Sabbath has it’s roots in God’s mercy and grace – his loving concern for us – and his desire to have a relationship with you not invaded by the hectic rush of a work day.
A second layer was the reference to the promised land as God’s rest for his people. After rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, God brought them to the threshold of Canaan and said, this land is my gift to you – it shall be your rest. But their rebellion sent them off into the desert to wander for forty years.
The final layer of Sabbath the writer focuses on is this eternal Sabbath rest or heaven. You heard it in that passage we read in Hebrew 4:9, There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God. God’s ultimate promise is fulfilled in our heavenly rest, and he tells us not to lose sight of the goal, not to stubbornly resist God in our lives.
That is ultimately where our faith fails – we take our eyes off of the real goal – we fall in love with the path, we turn and look back, enamored with our heroes, longing for the life we left behind.
The people Moses led died in the wilderness because of rebellion and disobedience. And so, not in a scolding voice, but with a pleading, heart-broken cry, our author says: 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 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.’” (Heb 3:7-11)
And then a second time:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed ? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief. (Heb 3:15-19)
The real problem with rebellion is that we quit listening to God. We get comfortable in our lives, set in our ways and we tune God out. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Heb 4:7,11)
The people who followed Joshua died without possessing God’s real promise because of disobedience. What didn’t click? Why did they miss it? The writer sums it up this way: “They did not listen with faith.” They yearned for the days of bondage back in Egypt because they had abandoned their faith in God. They fondly remembered the forty years in the wilderness because once they crossed into Canaan that’s when the real work began.
Moses and Joshua are the backdrop for what he really wants to say. The writer says, “The promise of entering his rest still remains.” Don’t sell short, don’t miss out, don’t settle for less than the promise of heaven which God has waiting for his faithful followers.
As I said, his reason for writing is not to scold and condemn, but with a pleading heart, call them back to their faith. Their faith is in danger, what should they do?
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” He repeats this refrain three times reminding them to learn from their past. Their past is our past, his admonition to them, is his admonition to us: do not harden your heart.
This hardened heart is much more serious than cholesterol buildup and arteriosclerosis. As serious as those might be, a spiritually hardened heart is eternally fatal.
The writer gives us a prescription for a faith that is in danger, a heart that is calcifying to the truth of the gospel.
He offers three admonitions to keep our faith focused:
“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb 3:1)
Paul was constantly calling people back to the center, the core of their faith. He told the Corinthian church: For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified… so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
(1 Cor 2:2,5)
The writer carefully designates Jesus in terms of his relationship with God and man.
He is our apostle – the one sent by God. Not like the prophets of old, nor even as an angelic messenger, but sent with power and authority. He is God’s representative among men. As he said in the first chapter – Jesus is the exact representation of his being.
And he is our High Priest - man’s representative before God. Having perfectly qualified himself by his experience of humanity, suffering and death. And so he represents us mercifully and faithfully.
His second admonition is: “Encourage one another daily.”
The greatest folly and the gravest danger is in thinking you can or should handle it all yourself. Our capacity for self-deception is almost limitless.
Vs. 12 – don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart…
Vs. 13 – don’t be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Here are the antidotes: vs. 13 – “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today.” (There is a need for consistency and urgency.)
vs. 14 – “We have come to share in Christ
if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (We are in this together).
We need each other – we need the encouragement of people who love us, we need the exhortation of people who want the very best for us, we need the accountability of people who will tell us the truth about ourselves. That doesn’t come in arm’s length relationships. It comes when we allow others inside the walls we’ve built, and spend time with people who know us intimately.
Finally, open your life to the word of God:
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. Nothing 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.
He says the word is living and active. The Bible is not ink on paper, but the very word of God. The problem with rebellion is that we quit listening to God. Did you hear what the writer said: “Today, if you hear his voice.”
Open the book and read – but more than that – open your life and be read. God’s word really cuts through all the layers of self-deception and excuses and cuts to the heart of the matter (The Bible is not a rubber stamp approval – “you’re alright, don’t worry.”) God loves me “just as I am,” but he also loves me too much to leave me there.
The word of God is like the scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon. It cuts away the malignant tumor. It is frightening and painful, but ultimately it creates spiritual health and wholeness.
Here’s the hope and the promise – the promise of God’s rest remains. God wants you home with him where you belong.