Long Ago, God Spoke
Somewhere back in the 13th century, God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. He then led them to Mount Sinai where he began fashioning them into a priestly nation by giving them vital instructions. Equipped with these instructions, the Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan. God gave them this land so they could learn and grow into their priestly calling.
This journey did little to endear the Israelites to God. They complained about food and water, forged a golden calf, and challenged God’s appointed leaders. Perhaps worst of all, on the brink of entering the promised land, they feared for their safety and refused to enter.
God honored their refusal. If they didn’t want to enter the land, rest from their wandering, and thrive in God’s abundant bounty, they didn’t have to. They hardened their hearts, ignored God’s voice, and failed to enter his rest.
Sometime Later, God Spoke
After these events, God inspired a prophet to record them. Through this written account, God spoke to later generations. It is known to us as the book of Numbers. Chapters 10-14 narrate the story of Israel’s journey to the promised land and their ultimate decision not to enter it. Chapters 20-25 recount how they continued to test God and failed to heed his voice.
The book of Numbers was part of Israel’s Torah—the first five books of the Jewish and Christian Bible. These five constitute the foundational and most authoritative section of Israel’s Scriptures. In them, Israel’s past failures and successes serve to remind future generations to heed God’s voice.
Centuries Later, God Spoke
But God wasn’t done speaking through these past events. During or shortly after Israel’s failed monarchy, he inspired the composer of Psalm 95 to recast them in lyrical form:
“O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.’ Therefore in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (vv. 7-11).
From this point forward, God’s word to ancient Israel challenged new generations of Israelites who recited Psalm 95 in worship.
In the 1st century, God Spoke
Yet, God still wasn’t done speaking through those past events; nor were his ancient words addressed only to Old Testament Israel. In the book of Hebrews, the same message resurfaces again with new life and power.
Some disciples in the early church had doubts about Jesus. They acknowledged him as Messiah and Savior, but they weren’t convinced that his death on the cross atoned for all of their sins. In baptism he may have washed away their past sins, but what about their current sins? How should they atone for post-baptismal sins?
In a sincere effort to cover all bases, they combined the new covenant atonement for sins accomplished through Jesus with atonement practices associated with the old covenant. Without the temple, these practices did not likely derive from the Old Testament Scriptures. More likely, they embraced later Jewish adaptations of old covenant practices that they could observe without a temple. Regardless of where they got them, they ended up concocting a hybrid salvation scheme: one part Jesus and one part old covenant rituals.
So the author of Hebrews set the record straight. He made a definitive case that Jesus died for sins once and for all. Jesus fulfilled the entire old covenant sacrificial system by offering himself as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. That being the case, any effort to add atoning rituals to the work of Christ proclaims falsely that Jesus isn’t enough. And if he’s not enough, then he’s not the culminating act in the drama of salvation history.
For this reason, the author of Hebrews uses strong language to warn those Christians that they’re playing with fire. Denying Jesus’s victory on the cross denies the center of the faith. It’s tantamount to apostasy–an affront to God’s word on par with Israel’s worst failures.
And so multiple times in chapters 3-4 the author of Hebrews directly quotes Psalm 95, which recounts the book of Numbers, which itself recounts God words to the wandering Israelites who failed to enter his rest. Hence, the author’s point is crystal clear: God was giving those erring Christians another chance to enter his rest. He made a way through Jesus. But Jesus is the only and all-sufficient way.
The author of Hebrews wraps up this impassioned plea saying, “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest [i.e., the one made possible through Jesus], so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs [i.e., the disobedient Israelites referred to in Ps 95 and Numbers]” (Heb 4:11).
God’s Living & Active Word
It is in this context—the context of recognizing that God’s word to the 13th century Israelites applied to later Israelites when the book of Numbers was written, and still to later Israelites when Psalm 95 was written, and finally to the 1st century Christians when Hebrews was written—that the author of Hebrews famously said,
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
God’s word is alive because its significance cannot be confined to its original context. God’s word lives on because it continues to convict generation after generation of God’s truth. Because God’s word still lives, we dare not relegate any of his words to the dustbin of bygone years. Since God’s word remains alive, we allow no celebrity preacher or popular theologian to silence or dismiss any Old Testament passage as irrelevant.
By the end of the 4th century, God spoke again
The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews heard God’s word speak so powerfully through it, that they made and distributed multiple copies. This copying and distributing process continued for centuries. By the end of the 4th century, the church recognized it as an authoritative witness to Jesus. So they added it to the sacred Old Testament writings that constitute the Christian Scriptures.
Most of the other New Testament books were recognized earlier, so Hebrews was something of a late bloomer. Nonetheless, this early church witness to God’s word to ancient Israel continued to speak powerfully to the first few generations of Christians. This resilient witness gave second century believers the backbone to stand up to Marcion. He is remembered as the one of the first heretics because he sought to purge the Christian Bible of the Old Testament and every New Testament passage that leaned heavily upon it.
In the 21st century, God still speaks
The question is, are we still listening to all of what God has to say? Or have we fooled ourselves into thinking that God’s New Testament words alone are living and active?