One of my biggest spiritual problems is forgetting about what God has done for me in the past when facing trials in the present. I am not alone. Perhaps you face the same struggle. The Israelites certainly did, and the author of Hebrews wants to make sure the Christian to whom he is writing will not make the same mistake Israel did in the wilderness. And so, the writer of Hebrews goes from comparing Jesus and angels in chapters 1 and 2 to comparing Jesus and Moses in chapter 3. He also compares his church community with Israel (chapters 3 and 4). The aim of Hebrews 3:1-4:13 could be encapsulated in the following terms: Enter God’s rest. Don’t put God to the test.
Israel had seen God mightily at work through Moses, whom the writer of Hebrews compares to Jesus. Moses is a servant who is faithful in all of God’s house while Jesus is God’s Son who is faithful over all God’s house (Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was certainly one of the greatest saints of old. God demonstrated his great faithfulness to Israel through the faithful leadership of Moses, who led them out of Egypt on the way to the Promised Land.
The writer references the incident of God’s chosen people’s unbelief recorded in Exodus 17, which is also referenced in Psalm 95. The people became thirsty in the wilderness and began grumbling against Moses, and ultimately against God: “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’” (Exodus 17:3; NRSV) Moses cried out to God out of fear that the people were about to stone him (Exodus 17:4). The people even tested God with the words, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7; NRSV). While God provided water for them, their hardness of heart led God to declare that they would not enter their envisioned rest in the Promised Land (See Psalm 95:11; see also Hebrews 3;11). How striking to the heart it is that though they had witnessed God’s faithfulness for forty years, still they did not believe him in the present day trial. Even though they had seen God at work, they did not know God’s ways, but hardened their hearts (Hebrews 3:9-10). It was almost as if they were challenging God: what have you done for us lately? How often have I done the same?!
The author of Hebrews turns from recounting the wilderness wanderings and unbelief of the people Israel to accounting for his church’s relationship with God. Having experienced deliverance from spiritual bondage under Jesus, who is greater than Moses, are they now going to test God, questioning God’s faithfulness, and as a result, die in the spiritual wilderness of unbelief? The risks and rewards are far greater for how we respond to Jesus, who is far greater than Moses. Here’s the author of Hebrews:
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12-19; NRSV).
We are not alone in our faith struggle, as evident from this passage. They say that misery loves company. If that is true for you, perhaps you can take comfort from knowing what your fellow believers have faced in the past and continue to face in the present. However, we don’t encourage one another best simply by suffering together, but in meeting together in the midst of our shared suffering in view of our future hope (See Hebrews 10:24-25).
The author of Hebrews seeks to instill hope in his believing community by instructing them in God’s providential care for their lives. Confidence in God’s sovereign loving purposes, which include disciplining them as spiritual children through their trials, is what will sustain them. So, too, the triumphant examples before them of Jesus and other believers who have been tested, tried, refined and victorious, are intended to encourage them on their way (Hebrew 12:1-13; see also Hebrews 11). The Christians to whom the author pens this epistle have already experienced persecution. Some have been imprisoned, while others have lost property (Hebrews 10:34). The shedding of their own blood might even await them (See Hebrews 12:3-4). But they are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses, Jesus, and his Father have not abandoned them (Hebrews 12:1-13).
We need to learn from various examples what to do, as well as what not to do. Just as we can and must learn what to do from the good examples of Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11-12), so we need to learn what not to do from the poor examples of the generation leaving Egypt for the Promised Land of Canaan. Otherwise, we will not enter God’s rest.
Now, in case you are wondering, we need to provide an answer concerning the nature of God’s rest to which we are called to enter. Surely, it is not limited to entrance to the land of Canaan. God has been resting since the creation of the world (Genesis 2:2-3). The generation that grew up under Moses and Joshua in the wilderness entered the temporal rest in Canaan, but not their parents’ generation—except for Joshua and Caleb (Deuteronomy 1:34-40). Psalm 95, from which the author of Hebrews quotes, is referring to a future, eternal rest. Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 point to Psalm 95 in referring to the final rest in God’s eternal Promised Land. Thus, as F. F. Bruce argues, entering God’s rest was not limited to entrance in “the earthly Canaan.”
While different forms of rest are in view, faith is essential to each kind of rest. The rebels rejected Moses. As a result, they did not enter God’s temporal rest in Canaan. Those who reject Christ and turn back from him will not enter God’s ultimate rest (See Hebrews 3:12, cf. vs. 19). Entering God’s ultimate rest of eternal life involves enduring faith, not simply hearing God’s word. Hebrews 4:2 states, “For indeed the 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” (4:2; NRSV). Bruce writes in this context: “The practical implication is clear: it is not the hearing of the gospel by itself that brings final salvation, but its appropriation by faith; and if that faith is a genuine faith, it will be a persistent faith.”
Enduring faith in God’s sovereign, providential care is essential to entering God’s rest, according to Hebrews. We need to remember what God has said and done for us, and do what he calls us to do in faith, knowing that he is faithful to his promise that we will enter God’s rest. We need to make sure we have a hard time forgetting God’s faithfulness and promised blessing. It will help us not to have a hard heart TODAY as we hear God’s voice. In contrast to the wilderness generation under Moses, we prepare to enter God’s rest rather than put God to the test when we examine our hearts, encourage one another in view of what we have seen God do and believe God will do, and embrace God’s word through faith and obedience.
In closing, I wish to draw attention to a conversation from a few days ago with one of the couples at the Overseas Ministries Study Center here in New Haven, CT. The encouraging though challenging conversation helped me to examine my heart. The couple are missionaries from Africa here on sabbatical (several months of needed Sabbath rest). In passing, this couple shared matter-of-factly with me about not always having food to eat but finding fulfillment in God’s kingdom advancing among the people committed to their care in the land of their missional sojourn. Someone else shared with me of how another missionary from Africa only eats once a day so that those he shepherds may also have daily bread to eat.
What a far cry from the Israelites wandering about in the desert grumbling over water! What a far cry from me wandering about today, often in the wilderness of my own making! The single-minded focus on Jesus by faith that I have found among these Christians here at OMSC from overseas, who like their Lord find deep satisfaction and nourishment in doing their Father’s will (See John 4:34), is deeply challenging and comforting. They trust God and have seen the Almighty at work in miraculous ways in the past and are confident that God will fulfill Jesus’ purposes for them in the future. I find their example in the face of numerous trials and dangers not mentioned here humbling, and a great cure for grumbling. Their courageous example is encouraging and helps me move toward embracing God’s word through faith and obedience. May their example, and the example of Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses, encourage us on our journey to enter God’s rest rather than put God to the test.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), page 72.
See also Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pages 65-66.
Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, page 73.