The Book of Hebrews is written as an extended exhortation to Jewish believers not to go back into the law, not to fall into the air of thinking that anything they could possibly do would ever add to the great work of accomplishing their salvation. Though we are not Jewish believers, though we did not grow up under the law of Moses, our nostalgia runs to other things. We find ourselves tempted to go back into the old way of thinking that says, “I can do something that contributes to what Christ has done, I can add to him, God will love me just a little bit more if I'm good, if I keep the law.” Instead of seeing holiness as a response to God's graciousness, that is done out of love for Christ and respect for what he's done for us and a passion to be like him, we begin to see good works and holiness as a means by which we receive God's blessing or a reason for God to love us a little bit more.
So we add to what Christ has done. The temptation for us is really the same. Hebrews is a reminder to us that the temptation is always to turn back.
The first part of chapter three, the writer reminded these Jewish believers that Jesus was far superior to Moses, that Moses was faithful in God's house, but Jesus was faithful over God's house. Moses was a steward in God's house, but Jesus is a Son. That Jesus accomplished the thing that Moses looked forward to and predicted by the giving of the Law. Jesus is the perfect Law keeper and he reminded us in verse six that we are God's household, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting is in our hope, if we continue to hold onto our confession, the conviction that we had at the beginning.
To further that argument, he looks back at Psalm 95. Psalm 95 is David's understanding of the Old Testament history of the Israelites coming up out of Egypt. It's a Psalm of praise and thanksgiving, a Psalm that lays out that we are his people, we're the sheep of his pasture. But it is with this warning, today if you hear his voice, don't harden your hearts like they did and he looks back at the generation that God delivered out of Egypt.
Now the writer to the Hebrews is following the same methodology that David did, but he's going to use the lens of David's Psalm itself because it encapsulates all that history of coming up out of Egypt.
The Inspired Word of God
(Read Hebrews 3:7)
Now, before I get into it, I've got to comment on that phrase itself, because I want you to see that our understanding of Scripture embraces all of Scripture as inspired and most foundationally it's all authoritative. That there are not two levels of inspiration of the Bible. Sometimes, people get to have red letter additions of the Bible and they go, “Well, look, those red letters, that's what Jesus said. That's the really important stuff.” There's even a website and a group of Christians today that called themselves red letter Christians. And the whole premise is that what Jesus said is more inspired and more significant than the rest of the Bible.
I want you to see that the Bible knows nothing of these two levels of inspiration. Inspiration, it's sort of like being pregnant. There aren't degrees of it. It's either true or it's not. Inspiration, it's either God-breathed or it's not. All of the Bible is inspired by God. All the words of the Bible are the words of Jesus. How do I know that?
Well, first of all, Jesus would quote sometimes Isaiah and Moses, and he quoted them by name. But other times he would say “as it is written,” or he would say, “have you not read in the scriptures?” In doing that, Jesus is showing that he has a holistic view of the Bible and the writer to the Hebrews, building on what Jesus thinks about the Bible.
Notice here, he could quote Psalm 95 and say, as David says, because Psalm 95 is one of the Psalms that has a tie, it's attributed to David. At the very beginning, it says, it says a Psalm of David. It had that attribution in Jesus' day. So, the writer to the Hebrews could say, as David said, but notice what he does in fact say, as the Holy Spirit says.
Now that is important that you see that his view of Scripture is that even though it comes through the medium of a human author, that standing behind it is the Holy Spirit. What David writes in the Scripture is in fact what God says, what the Holy Spirit himself says.
Our Temptation to Turn Back
(Read Hebrews 3:7-19)
Now, our temptation is not significantly different than their temptation. We have the temptation to put our faith and trust in Christ, to say that we believe in him, that we think salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But then by our actions and by our attitude to feel the temptation to go back under the Law. We think, Well, just in case, I have to add to what Christ has done. We see holiness as something that we achieve rather than something that God produces in us.
Well, his words to the Hebrews are a warning to us as well, because we have this temptation. The temptation is always to turn back. The temptation is to not keep moving forward and to do what God has told us to do. I think he gives us four clear instructions, four things that we need to do when we're tempted to go back into that old way of thinking.
Remember Don’t Harden Your Heart
The first thing he says, that when you're tempted to turn back, remember this example and here's where he takes Psalm 95. The last part, Psalm 95 has three sections and he takes that third section, the warning section of it, and He says, "Remember this example, don't harden your heart. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart."
Now, when I was a boy, anytime someone got dementia, nobody talked about, you didn't hear of Alzheimer’s back then and they didn't call it dementia. You know what they called it? Hardening of the arteries and the medical term for it was arteriosclerosis. That word, sclerosis, is the Greek word that's used here. Harden not your heart. This is just the verb form. It speaks of a callous. If a person works with their hands a lot and they’re working with the same motions and they’re handling rough stuff, what happens to their skin? It thickens, it hardens, it becomes impervious to puncture and it gets harder and harder and harder. The picture here is that that's what can happen to your heart.
Hardening your heart is a conscious decision. It doesn't happen by accident. It's saying, “I will not do what God wants.” The Bible tells us that if we know to do good and do it not, to us it's sin. The more you do that, the easier it gets to do it. The more you say no to God, the easier it is to say no to God. The more you sin, the easier it is to sin.
When you harden your heart, it's a conscious decision and it has a cumulative destruction. It callouses our heart. We have one more day to repent of, one less day to repent in because we've said no to God once again. It culminates in a constant declaration. We over and over say no to God.
As a pastor, and now a grandparent, you can't help but notice the way people parent their kids. It's always impressive. You see some kids, they respond to their parents' instruction. Parents tell them to do something and they do it. You know that parents have worked with them. That's not natural. That has to be taught and developed.
Other parents do what I call parenting by decibels. Have you ever seen parents do that? It's like, "Hey Johnny, stop that," and Johnny just keeps doing it. So, they raise it up a little bit. "Johnny, stop that!" and he keeps doing it. "Johnny, stop that!" and he keeps going. Then finally, mama hits the level where he knows she means business because he's accustomed every time she goes about four levels up before she means business. Then when she finally screams at him, then he stops. What had she done? She's conditioned him to not pay attention.
We get that way with God. God begins with a still small voice leading us to do his will. We say no. “No, I'm not going to confess that sin. No, I'm not going to make myself accountable. No, I'm not going to spend time in the Word and in prayer.” It destroys our souls. We tune God out and he warns here, you better remember this example.
That's exactly what the Israelites did in spite of all God's blessings on them. He delivered them from Egypt. He gave them the 10 plagues, he instituted the Passover, he took them out to Sinai, gave them his Law, all that. But they constantly said, no, no, no. When the time came for them to go into the Promised Land there at Meribah, they said, “No, we won't go.” They complained. “Hey, Moses, were there not enough graves down in Egypt that you wouldn't let us die there, you had to bring us out here?” And they mocked where God was leading them. Over and over saying no to God. They demonstrated that they were not believers.
You've got to make sure that you remember this example because they had every advantage, just like you. I'm frequently asked a lot of times in interviews “Do you believe Jews go to hell? Do you believe Muslims go to hell?” Basically what they're saying, “Do you think that only Christians go to heaven?” I have a standard answer to that question and that is, I believe that there are very likely people who sit in the pews of the Buck Run Baptist Church week in and week out who will go to hell. See, it's not about the outward religion. It's about whether or not you've genuinely trusted Christ. Today, if you hear his voice, don't harden your heart like they did.
Now with that as the warning, that you can have everything right on the outside, like the Israelites did. They'd been delivered by the plagues and the Passover, and God had brought them through the Red Sea. He gave them manna from Heaven and water from the rock. And yet still, according to 1 Corinthians 10, he said that, "With all that right, their bodies were still scattered in the wilderness and they perished."
Exhortation: Be Aware of Unbelief
With this warning, he says, "All right, now you've got to follow this exhortation." "Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart."
When we think about an evil heart, we tend to think about Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer. We think about the person that goes into a crowded Colorado movie theater and opens fire on people. And usually whenever we point at someone and say, "That's an evil heart," what we're really saying is, "That's something I wouldn't do."
Well, pat yourself on the back that you're not Hitler. Congratulate yourself that you've never opened fire on and killed a bunch of people. That's not a very high standard. God doesn't say here that an evil heart is characterized by murder. Notice he said, "Beware lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart."
You've got to be aware of unbelief. Unbelief is the root of all sin. It's when we don't believe God's promises. It's when we don't believe his grace. It's that grace that we find scandalous. It cannot be that God will really forgive anybody who repents and asks him for forgiveness. That just can't be. Surely there's something I have to do. Something I have to contribute. God says that is an evil, unbelieving heart.
Today we sit at the Lord's Table and part of Communion is self-examination. Let us each examine ourselves. We see, first of all, whether we're in the faith. Is my faith in Christ real? Is it genuine? Do I genuinely trust Christ? We examine ourselves. Is there known sin in my life? Is there something that I need to repent of? Something I need to ask forgiveness of and get right with someone? Is there something between me and a brother or a sister I need to get right? It's a time of self-examination. So he says, "Examine yourself. Make sure that there's not in you this evil, unbelieving heart."
Exhort One Another
But then he goes another step, and now he says, "Exhort one another." I can examine myself privately, but I can't exhort anybody privately. Exhortation has to be done in community. This is why God gave us the church. We're to exhort one another. Later in chapter 10, he's going to pick up the same theme and he's going to say, "Exhort one another. Provoke one another to love and good works."
You ever watch a fire burning and maybe the wood burns down and you've got a lot of coals and it's glowing a beautiful, bright red? If you can take some kind of a tong and pull out this one burning brand and put it over to the side, the rest of it will continue to glow and burn, but that one's going to die. It's going to burn out. It'll quit glowing.
Christians are a lot like that. When we're together, exhorting one another, when we're sitting under the preaching of the Word together, we're singing songs together, praising the Lord together, when we're in Bible study together, that is iron sharpening iron. We continue to glow. We stay closer to the Lord. It's easier to stay in fellowship with Christ, in fellowship with one another.
When we get isolated, we drop out. In 30 years of ministry, I've seen it so many times, someone drops out of church. They don't begin with this huge sin in their lives. They begin with a coldness and a deadness. The next thing you know, sin is lying at the door, and you see a collapse, a failure, a real problem. We need to exhort one another. Why? Because unbelief leads to sin.
He said, "Exhort one another every day, as long as it's called Today." Notice this constant emphasis on this word, "Today." "Today, if you hear his voice." "As long as it's called Today." He's going to repeat it again here in verse 15, "Today, if you hear his voice." What he's saying here is that it is essential that you do this on a regular basis daily, because unbelief leads to sin.
"As long as it's called Today that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Unbelief leads to sin. Sin is deceptive. You'll deceive yourself. You'll begin to think that, My faith is genuine. Even though you're really trusting in your own works.
Jesus said about the Day of Judgment, "They're going to be many," not just a few but, "Many who will say 'Lord, Lord.'" “I worked at Cedarmore. Lord, I was on staff at a Baptist church. Lord, I was a deacon. Lord, I did many mighty works in your name.” Jesus is going to say, "Depart from me worker of iniquity. I never knew you."
You better examine yourself. See if there is in you an evil heart of unbelief, because unbelief leads to sin. Sin is deceptive. Follow this exhortation.
Partakers in Christ
Then he says, "But there is an expectation you've got to meet." "For we have come to share in Christ." We're partakers in Christ. When we take the Lord's Supper in a few moments, what are we picturing? We're picturing that there was a time when I was spiritually starving and I partook of Christ. I fed on Christ. I appropriated Christ to myself. This is what he's saying here in verse 14, "We have come to share in Christ." We've come to be partakers in Christ. We have a share in Christ.
Look at this next word, “If indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Now, is he saying that you're saved but you'll lose that salvation if you don't persevere? No. What he's saying is that perseverance is both the result and the evidence of true saving faith. In other words, I have become a sharer in Christ, I have partaken of Christ if indeed I persevere. The only proof I have that I'm genuinely saved is that I keep believing.
I've quoted my dad many times. "A faith that fizzles before the finish was faulty from the first." Jesus himself said this in the Parable of the Sower, that only that which produces fruit is genuine salvation. Only that faith that perseveres is genuine faith. It's not that you were regenerated and then became unregenerated, that you were born again and became unborn again. It's that you were never born again. If you're genuinely born again, it produces genuine faith, and genuine faith lasts. It perseveres. We are sharers in Christ if indeed we hold firm to the end. He says we hold our original conviction, our original confidence, firm to the end.
I was saved in 1967. I had just turned seven-years-old. I'd been under conviction for over a year. I can remember the night I came under conviction. I remember sitting in a church service in the Armstead Baptist Church down in Logan County. That's when we lived, at Lickskillet, there on Watermelon Road by Whippoorwill Creek. I can remember sitting in that church that night and a guy named Ronnie Wolf preaching. I'll never forget it. It just dawned on me, five-year-old kid, you are lost. You are a sinner and you can't save yourself. I lived with that, I mean, white-knuckling it every time at church. I can remember that as plain as day.
I had just turned seven. I'd grown up knowing the stories of Scripture. I understood the facts of the gospel at a very early age. I had been seven-years-old for about a week and it was on a Sunday night. The thing I remember doing is just giving up. I said, "I can't do this." I repented and believed. I remember going forward and telling my dad that had I trusted Christ. I was seven-years-old. Today I'm 54. I can honestly tell you that there has never been a serious doubt in my mind that what happened that night was real. I believed and I've kept on unbelieving.
Now, you know something, since that time, I've studied the Bible a lot. I've got a PhD in New Testament Greek. I've been a seminary professor now for 17 years. I have learned more than I knew that night. But I've never learned anything better than what I learned that night. I have grown deeper in Christ, but I've never moved beyond Christ.
You see, whatever you believed when you trusted Christ, that's what you've got to cling to. That's what you've got to hold firm. He says we're sharers in Christ if indeed we hold our original conviction, our original confidence, our original confession, our original belief. If we hold that firm to the end, that is the result of genuine faith. It's also the evidence of true faith.
But notice, perseverance is daily. Today, if you hear his voice. Perseverance involves that I do it daily. I keep believing. I believed in 1967, and you know what? I still believe. Today I believe. Perseverance is hearing. Today, if you hear his voice. I'm listening for him. I'm sensitive to this because in April of 1998, just one night, on a Sunday night, I went suddenly, immediately and profoundly deaf in my right ear. Nothing happened. My hearing just left. So I've only got one good ear. And man, I have to listen. If I'm at home and Tanya calls me, I have to be attentive because I've just got the one. So my life is sort of spent listening.
Because I have to think about hearing, it makes me appreciate this a little bit more, that perseverance is daily listening for God to speak to your heart. It's saying, "Lord, I want you to speak. I want to hear your voice. Lord, I want you to guide me, to direct me, to tell me how you want me to live, to tell me where you want me to go, to tell me who you want me to be in relationship with, to tell me how you want me to treat my wife, to tell me how I need to be quick to seek forgiveness, restoration. Lord, I'm hearing you daily."
Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your heart. What's the opposite of hardening your heart? It's softening your heart. It's hearing with a receptive heart.
Do you think there's any Christian who says, "Lord, I really want to know your will." And God says, "Well, I'm not going to tell you." That's unthinkable. If you want to know God's will, God will tell you. The question is whether or not you're willing.
Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your heart. There's a moment that's critical. I think the picture here is like if a person has fallen in a raging stream and there's someone else that's standing on the bank downstream, and as they are being swept away, but the other person extends their hand and says, "Now. Grab it now." There's a moment. You've got to take advantage of what God is offering you now.
My friend from Israel, Ellie Binmeyer, called me. He'd come to the US. Normally when he comes to the US, he comes to Cleveland, see his mother and he would drive down and see us. He called me to say, "Hey, I've come to the States. Going to hear my daughter's recital in New York in a few days. And I'm here in Cleveland to see my mom. But I'm not going to get to come and see you and Tanya this time." And I understood. That was great. A couple of days later, someone asked me some question about Judaism.
I said, "I don't know. I'll call Ellie." And I called Ellie, it was on a Saturday night, I called him and asked him this question, "Hey, I don't want to hold you up, but someone just asked me a question. Can you answer this?" And he gave me my answer, we said goodbye. I had no idea that would be the last time I'd ever speak to him. I had no idea that within just a few hours, he would have a massive stroke from which he would never recover. The grief and the sorrow that I bear that my dear friend, to whom I witnessed many times, has stepped into eternity. It is a heaviness I cannot describe.
I have preached so many times in this sanctuary, shaking hands with people as they left. Someone has shook my hand and said kind things to me and I had no idea it would be the last time I'd ever shake their hand. Within a few days I'd be preaching their funeral. But you know what? That's happened a lot in the time I've been here. You have no guarantee. Today, if you hear his voice, there's a moment that's critical.
Understand Genuine Faith
The writer says, "You've got to understand this explanation now." The last verses of this chapter, he says, "Understand this, who were those who heard and yet rebelled?"
See, they're wanting to go back to Moses. They're wanting to go back under the Law. He says, "Okay? Did Moses help these guys? Who was it that heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? Didn't God deliver them from Egypt? Didn't he send the plagues? Didn't he part the Red Sea? Didn't he give them the Law on Sinai?"
God's deliverance from some problem is not sufficient evidence of salvation. Just because God heard some prayer of yours, because God delivered you from some problem, doesn't equate to salvation. These Israelites, God delivered them. But clearly, what the psalmist says, what the writer to the Hebrews is saying, is that they weren't genuine believers.
And he goes on, "With whom was he provoked for 40 years? Wasn't it the same people he was sending manna from heaven for? Wasn't it the same ones who were drinking water from the rock? Wasn't it the same people that he was leading with a pillar of cloud and fire? With whom was God provoked for 40 years? Wasn't it those that he was providing for?"
God's provision is not sufficient evidence of salvation. He can provide for you and be provoked at the same time. He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God might be gracious and kind. He was to Esau, he gave Esau his own country while Jacob always lived in a tent. Yet he said, "Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated." Don't think that just because God provides for you, that that's evidence of salvation.
He says, "And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who are disobedient." 40 years they provoked him. He said, "They'll not enter my rest." But he was patient with them. He didn't instantly kill them, he let them wander in the wilderness and die of old age. There are a lot of people wandering through life, professing faith in Christ, but with no idea of genuine salvation. God's patience with those in sin isn't sufficient evidence of salvation. God's justice sometimes seems slow, but it's certain.
So, in verse 19, he says, "So we see that they were unable to enter because of one thing, unbelief." If unbelief was the one thing that kept them from entering God's rest, then what's the one thing that gives us God's rest? It's faith. Faith that Jesus, the One who is greater than Moses, has accomplished it for us.
All God requires from me is faith. Now, that's scandalous. I put that up this week on Twitter and Facebook just that statement, and I got people attacking me. "Well, are you saying you don't have to be holy?" Right there that reaction showed me people find the grace of God absolutely scandalous. The minute you say, "All God requires from me is faith," people start, "Yeah well, what about so-and-so?"
Genuine faith will produce holiness. Genuine faith will produce obedience, but that's result, that's not requirement. Requirement is faith. Genuine faith produces those things, but you'll never have those things until you have faith. All God requires of me is faith.
It's true that faith is a journey, it's not an event. I believed in 1967 as a seven-year-old boy, and I'm still believing today as a 54-year-old man.
I'll warn you about something. There is such a thing as counterfeit faith. Judas was deceived, everybody around him was deceived about Judas. You can have a type of faith that's not saving faith. You can have everything right on the outside, but everything wrong on the inside.
I love John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. You ought to read Pilgrim's Progress. The story of Christian is a beautiful allegory of the Christian walk. But I love the ending. The narrator watches Christian and Hopeful as they arrive at the river in front of the Celestial City. They're escorted across the river. They're able to lay aside their mortal garments. He says, "They find it. Even though the Celestial City sits up on a hill, that they find that final ascent easy because they've laid aside those mortal garments and they're escorted by the shining ones into the gates of pearl." The narrator says, "He can see through the gates of pearl, he sees the streets of gold, he sees how wonderful it is." He said, "So that I myself could wish that I could be with them."
But as the gates close and Christian and Hopeful are now finally home, they're in the Celestial City, the narrator turns his attention to another person who arrives at the river, and their name is Ignorance. There's a ferry to meet him, a ferry called Vain Hope. Mr. Vain Hope is only too happy to escort Ignorance across the river. He gets to the gates of the Celestial City.
When Ignorance was come up to the gate, he looked up to the writing that was above and he began to knock, supposing that entrance should have been quickly administered to him. But he was asked by the men that looked over the top of the gate, “Whence come you, and what would you have?” He answered, “I have ate and drank with the King, and he has taught in our streets.”
Then they ask him for his certificate that they might go in and show it to the King. So he fumbled in his bosom for one and found none. Then they said, "Have you none?" But the man answered never a word. So they told the King, but he would not come down to see him, but commanded the two Shining Ones that conducted Christian and Hopeful to the city to go out and take Ignorance and bind him hand and foot and have him away. Then they took him up and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. There was a way to hell even from the gate of heaven."
What a shame to go through life, "Lord, Lord, haven't we done many mighty works in your name?" But inside is an evil heart of unbelief. It is scandalous that God would look on a wicked sinner and say, "I will separate all of your evil sin from you as far as the East is from the West if you will only believe, believe in Christ, believe that he died for you, believe that he rose from the grave for you. If you will believe with all of your heart, all of your understanding, cast yourself on him. If you will but believe, I will save you." That's scandalous.
You mean, someone that I consider far more wicked than myself can simply believe and go to heaven? That's right. And you can too, if you'll believe. But listen, you won't go to hell because you're worse than anybody else. You've been here today, you've heard the gospel preached. The great sin will be your lack of faith. Because if God's only requirement is faith, then the worst thing I can do, the greatest sin I could ever commit is unbelief.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.