Harden not your Hearts
After expounding on the “household of God” and demonstrating the superiority of the Son over Moses, Hebrews continues with a lesson drawn from the history of Israel. During its sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites complained bitterly against the “servant of God,” for leading them to a place with insufficient water supplies. Consequently, God decreed that the generation of Israelites freed from Egyptian bondage would not enter the Promised Land.
Likewise, members of the congregation addressed by the Letter who fail to “hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end” will face a similar fate, but one with far greater and longer-lasting consequences.
A key theme in this next paragraph is the coming “REST” for the people of God, and this corresponds to what the generation of Israel that escaped from Egypt failed to receive, namely, inheritance in Canaan.
Chapters 3 and 4 of the Letter form a single literary unit. In Chapter 2, the priesthood of Jesus was introduced, though it was hinted at in the Letter’s opening paragraph (“achieved the purification of sins”). The discussion will return to his priesthood in more detail at the end of Chapter 4.
The future “rest” of God’s people was suggested in the second chapter. Jesus partook of the full human experience so that he could “deliver us who through fear of death were all our lifetime SUBJECT TO BONDAGE.” And because this rescue effort included his participation in the same death as other men, he became a priest fully qualified to provide his people with “SUCCOR when they are tempted,” and therefore, we are “partners of a heavenly calling” - (Hebrews 2:14-3:1).
The description of the coming “rest” is also connected to the previous references to the “coming inhabited earth” that will be subjected to humanity - (Hebrews 1:6, 2:5-9).
Chapter 3 began with a strong exhortation for believers to contemplate the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession,” the very one God made the head over His “household,” and the same priestly figure who tasted death on their behalf. And that “household” consists of the men and women who receive the “purification of their sins” through what Jesus accomplished by his death (“whose house we are”).
And Chapter 3 anticipates the combination of his priesthood and the “household” over which he now presides that are discussed in Chapter 10. It is in his capacity as our High Priest that Jesus rules over God’s “household”:
- “Having therefore, brethren, boldness-of-speech to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by which he inaugurated for us a new and living way through the veil, that is to say, his flesh, and having a GREAT PRIEST over the HOUSE OF GOD” - (Hebrews 10:19-21).
For this reason, it is vital for his disciples to heed the example from Scripture the Letter now cites. The believer who abandons Jesus because risks losing his place in the “household” of God, just as the Israelites who rebelled against Moses were denied access to Canaan - “Whose house we are IF WE HOLD FAST THE CONFESSION”. This proposition assumes apostasy is a real possibility - (Hebrews 3:7-14).
The scriptural passage cited is from Psalm 95:7-11, which, in turn, expounds on the original story found in Exodus 17:1-7 when the Israelites accused Moses of leading them into the desert to die of thirst. “If you shall hear his voice…be not hardening your hearts.”
And here, the Letter summons believers to “heed” what God continues to say in the scriptural passage to this very day.
Moreover, the Greek verb rendered “hardening” here is in the present tense, pointing to an ongoing action, namely, the continual effort required to avoid hardening one’s heart. Every believer must constantly hear and heed God’s “voice” while He is still “speaking.” The same Greek verb and thought are found in Chapter 12:
- “TAKE HEED that you do not refuse Him WHO IS SPEAKING. For if they escaped not when they refused him that warned them on earth, much more will we not escape who turn away from him WHO IS WARNING FROM HEAVEN” – (Hebrews 12:25).
The Greek term rendered “rest” does not refer to resting after physical exertion. In the original story, it referred to the inheritance that Israel would receive after the nation entered and subdued the land of Canaan. It did not refer to the Sabbath day or any other day of rest (“For you have not come in hitherto unto the rest and unto the inheritance that Yahweh is giving to you” – Deuteronomy 12:9).
“Unbelief” is attributed to the “deceitfulness of sin.” It amounts to abandoning the “living God” who created His “household” to be inhabited. And the Greek term rendered “living God” is found in a parallel context in the tenth chapter:
- “Of how much sorer punishment do you think he will be judged worthy who has trodden underfoot the Son of God and counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing and has done despite to the Spirit of grace?... It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the LIVING GOD” – (Hebrews 10:28-31).
The Letter uses the term “living God” paradoxically. God is the source of all life. Yet to desert Him means the loss of all life and death since He is also a God of justice. And this is why it is so “dreadful” when an apostate comes under His judgment.
But if we “hold fast our confidence” to the end, we will remain “partners of the Messiah.” This last clause employs the same Greek noun for “partners” found in the first and third chapters of the Letter. In each case, it refers to believers who “hold fast” their confidence in the “word of the Son” - (Hebrews 1:9, 3:1).
The Israelites who came out of Egypt did not live to enter the Promised Land, let alone subdue it, because of their disobedience. And here, the Letter attributes their rebellion to “unbelief” - the failure to heed the “voice of God.” Rebellion is preceded by the inability or refusal to hear and believe what is being said.
The disciple who contemplates leaving the church must understand what is at risk. If he carries through what he is contemplating, the consequences will mean his loss of place in the “household of God” and judgment by the “living God.”