Having made the comparison between Jesus and Moses, clearly proving that the God-man is far superior to that great leader, the writer now logically draws a comparison between those who were being led by Moses (under the old covenant) and those who are being led by Jesus (under the new covenant). The comparison is an important one, especially in the light of the writer’s pastoral concern that his readers persevere to the end. Having publicly confessed Christ (in baptism) he is desirous that they not only begin well but also finish well. And the only way that they will do so is if they continue to follow their leader, Jesus.
The children of Israel under the old covenant did not finish well. Though they experienced a wonderful and supernatural redemption from Egypt nevertheless they, like the Pharaoh from whom they were delivered, hardened their hearts against God. The result was that they ended up forfeiting the promised rest in the Promised Land. They refused to believe God (and Moses) and their rejection of God was confirmed by His rejection of them. The writer here is deeply concerned that his readers not repeat the same tragic sin; the sin of unbelief. As Guthrie summarises, “The gist of the whole passage is to serve as a warning against a repetition of similar rebellion against God”1—rebellion, that is, from their leader and from their God, Jesus Christ whom they have confessed as Lord.
The writer recognises that Jesus Christ brought into human history a new exodus by His death and subsequent resurrection (Luke 9:31). This matter of Jesus leading a new exodus is a common motif in the New Testament. Raymond Brown observes:
It is not at all unusual for New Testament writers to regard the Christian life as a new exodus. Luke describes Christ’s death in those terms (exodus). Paul declares that the Lord Jesus is the Passover Lamb who has been sacrificed for us. Peter says that Jesus is “a lamb without blemish or spot.” 1 Corinthians 10:1-10 has many such “exodus” allusions and Paul asserts that such events “were written down for our instruction.” The author of Hebrews has a similar approach to these Old Testament narratives. We too are pilgrims, he says. Those Israelites made a splendid beginning, but they did not continue in faith and so failed to reach their promised rest. It is not enough for us to make a decisive start. That undoubtedly memorable beginning must be followed by continuing faith and loyal obedience.2
This is the writer’s concern. He desires that those who have confessed they have experienced a divine exodus from sin and its penalty will fare better than their failed Jewish brethren so many centuries ago.
The writer has made it abundantly clear that Jesus is the captain of salvation who was leading His people to become sons of glory (2:10). They have confessed to be sharers in this heavenly calling (3:1) and that therefore they are on their way to the Promised Land of eternal spiritual rest in Christ. But the writer is concerned with the issue as to whether their confession is real. In other words, will they make it to that land that is fairer than day? Are they truly sons destined for glory? The answer, in a very real and very sobering sense, depends on whether or not they will follow their leader, the captain of their salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It might be helpful to note that these two “exoduses,” though separated by 1,400 years, nevertheless share another important parallel.
Immediately after the exodus from Egypt the children of Israel were put to the test. They were without fresh water and food and they murmured against God. He wonderfully met their need (Exodus 15—16). Then, in Exodus 17, they again were without water and again murmured—and again God supplied their need!
After several other ugly episodes we read in Numbers 14 of their refusal to believe God concerning the Promised Land. Of course, they believed that it was a land of plenty, but they were faithless concerning their ability to overcome the enemies; enemies that God had promised to defeat. The result of this was that they wandered for forty years until all of those who were over twenty at that juncture of unbelief died off. The wilderness, from their immediate exodus until they entered Canaan some forty years later, proved to be a time of proving; a time of testing their trust in God, as evidenced by their trust (or lack thereof) of their leader, Moses (see for example Numbers 14, 20). As William Lane has commented concerning the events of Numbers 14, “Kadesh became the symbol of Israel’s disobedience, the place where God’s past redemption was forgotten and where the divine promise no longer impelled the people to obedience.”3 This is the very concern of the writer of this epistle, hence his quotation of Psalm 95.
What should not be missed is the parallel between that historical occasion and the early Jewish church of the new covenant. They are also in a period of testing. The catastrophic events anticipated in Hebrews are taking place, and will take place, over a forty-year period (the period between the death of Jesus and the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem—see Matthew 23:37 through chapter 24). These Hebrews who have confessed Christ as their Saviour are being put to the test. The writer’s concern is, will they do better than those who started well under Moses and yet died under the wrath of God?
The same issue confronts each of us as today. Not only must you confess the right leader—Jesus Christ (not the angels and not Moses who merely lead us to the leader)—but you must then follow that leader. You must continually consider Jesus as you continually confide in Him. Times change, but human nature does not, and therefore we need to keep before us the ancient principle that to benefit from Christ requires continual belief in Christ, which is evidenced by ongoing obedience to Christ (see vv. 16-18).
Those who follow the champion of our faith will celebrate with Him as we cross the finish line one day with Him, for Him and by Him.
We will study this passage under the following headings:
- Followers of Jesus Must Beware (vv. 7-12);
- Followers of Jesus Must Belong (vv. 13-15); and
- Followers of Jesus Must Believe (vv. 16-19).
Followers of Jesus Must Beware
First, let us consider the truth, from vv. 7-12, that followers of Jesus must beware. The principle here is that Jesus leads His followers to be cautious.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’”
Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.
In a very real sense everything from 3:7 through 4:13 could be included in this heading, for this entire passage serves as a warning against the soul damning sin of apostasy. And to drive this point home, the writer appeals to a well-known passage from the Old Testament (his pattern in Hebrews): Psalm 95. It can be accurately said that no other psalm is given fuller attention in the New Testament than this one. In fact, of the 26 verses in this section, the content of this psalm is referred to 19 times and directly quoted five times. Though Psalm 110 is referenced more often in the New Testament, Psalm 95 receives a fuller treatment.
The passage begins with “therefore” (or “so”) highlighting that it is a continuation of the previous passage. There, the readers were exhorted to persevere, to hold firm to Jesus whom they have confessed. But the writer is not satisfied to leave it at that. Rather, he understands human nature and so he understands that what his contemporary Jewish brothers are facing is precisely what previous generations of Jews faced. He wants them to fare much better. This leads him to quote from Psalm 95, especially vv. 7-11.
And so, to understand this passage, we must understand Psalm 95 and its historical context. We then must make the necessary contextual and practical connections. God quoted this psalm for a specific purpose and our duty is to discover why. Such a discovery has enormous practical relevance for us.
Ancient but Contemporary
Perhaps you have heard the quip, “The more that things are different, the more they stay the same.” Well, that is kind of the point behind the writer’s reference to Psalm 95.
Before examining this Word within a Word, it is essential that we note the tense of the word “says.” In the Greek, it is in the present active tense, which means that we should read, “The Holy Spirit is saying.” What had been inspired several centuries earlier is still speaking today. Psalm 95 was relevant to an earlier generation of God’s house (3:2-6), and it is equally relevant to the house to which this epistle is addressed (see 1:1-2). But since the Holy Spirit “is saying” then it is also relevant to you and me in our “today.” It is for this reason that the church needs to be committed to expository preaching, for through it God is speaking to us (see 4:12).
Many Christians in our day are deeply concerned with the matter of relevance, and rightly so. But, sadly, all too often they adopt approaches to ministry that in the end prove irrelevant. There is nothing more relevant than God’s Word by which He speaks. So if we truly want to be relevant, than we must keep God’s Word central in all that we do. God has spoken, and is speaking; and so let’s make sure we do nothing that hinders people from hearing it—including minimising and marginalising it from our ministries.
In summary, the Holy Spirit is saying to these Hebrew believers, and is saying to us today, that one of the continuities that we share with the old covenant church is that of the temptation to apostasy. In this regard, Psalm 95 serves the writers purpose very well.
A Call to Worship
If we will hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us today then we need to be familiar with the psalm He is quoting. Psalm 95 can be divided into three broad sections:
- A Call to Worship Rooted in a Covenant Relationship (vv. 1-7a);
- A Call to Worship Recognising Conditional Requirement (v. 7b); and
- A Call to Worship Remembering a Common Reality (vv. 8-11).
The writer of Psalm 95 makes an appeal for faithfulness based on the greatness and the glory of God. In the opening six verses he extols God’s sovereignty. He does so by highlighting that He is the Rock of Israel, the one who delivered the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 32) from Egypt. He is acknowledged as the Creator and therefore as the great King over all. Further, the great God is recognised as not only transcendent but also as imminent in that He is present (v. 2) and He is their Shepherd (v. 7). And so, based on this revelation, the psalmist appeals to his generation to worship Him “today.” This psalm was written some four hundred years after the events it records, but the writer uses that to exhort them to not make the same sinful mistake of an earlier generation.
Rather than being embittered against God by hardness of heart and the sin of unbelief, the psalmist appeals to them to respond in faith to this Great God—today (v. 3)—and to sing to the Lord; to shout joyfully to Him; to come before His presence with thanksgiving; to worship and to bow down to Him. Yes, today they are to kneel before Him; today they are to follow Him as their Shepherd; today they are to follow Him as His people; today they are to acknowledge Him as their God.
A Sabbath Appeal
It is well known that, after the synagogue was established, the Sabbath evening and Sabbath morning began with the recitation of this psalm. If there is ever a day on which we need to recommit by reconnecting with our Lord it is, literally, today.
Prone to Wander
The psalmist knew his temptation, as well as that of his brothers, to drift. He knew, in the words of another songwriter, the reality of being “prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” This is why he exhorts them that today is the day to worship and to kneel and to bow and to submit to the Shepherd of their souls. The psalmist was appealing to them not to delay their declaration of loyalty to their divine Leader. In David’s day, the threat of apostasy was as relevant as it was in Moses’ day. Therefore they needed to be on guard and the solution to wandering was found in authentic worship. Hence, there is no time like the present hear and to heed the call to worship.
But worship, as our writer brings out, is more than merely lip service. Without faith, it is impossible to please God (11:6) and so for true worship to take place, as called for by Psalm 95, faith must be present in the heart of those who “sing to the Lord” (95:1). The psalmist was concerned that some might sing while not believing. No doubt, on the Sabbath many would profess the Lord as their God and that they were the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand, yet many of these were not, in fact, following their Leader; they were not following Yahweh.
Therefore the psalmist reminds them of the wrath of God experienced by another generation who also claimed to be God’s people, God’s sheep, but who in fact proved they were not by their hardness of heart, by their unbelief which was manifested in disobedience. And so he calls upon them—and, as the congregation sang this psalm, they would be calling on each other—to believe and to obey their God—today!
Of course, this is precisely the point the writer of Hebrews is making, and so he quotes this psalm. He realises that, essentially, his contemporary Hebrew brothers are no different than the Hebrews of Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. Their “today” is in a real sense no different than the “today” of fifteen centuries earlier. And neither is it different than the “today” of those who first sang Psalm 95. And it is equally relevant in our day. Yes, the Holy Spirit is still singing Psalm 95.
Wilderness and Wrath
As noted above, like the generation referenced in Psalm 95, the generation to which Hebrews was written is also in a forty-year “wilderness” period in which their faith was increasingly being put to the test. Will they fare any better? This is not merely an academic question; rather it is a deep pastoral concern for the writer desired to guard his brethren from a failure to persevere; a failure which will lead them straight into the wrath of God.
Now, I am well aware that the doctrine of the wrath of God is scoffed by the world. The secularism that seems to be rampant in our culture does not take seriously the wrath of God, even though it is daily displayed (Romans 1:18-20). But keep in mind that our day is not unique. As a vitamin supplement advertises, “we all share uniqueness in common.” The generation under Moses did not believe in the wrath of God any more than did the generation which Jesus forewarned. At least, not until they experienced it.
The Jews who followed Moses (rather, who did not follow him!) did not believe in the wrath of God until it was too late. And as our writer tells us, they all perished under the wrath of God. Today is the day of salvation, but many are choosing to make it a day of damnation. That is your choice. But please don’t argue that you are too “sophisticated” to believe in a God who judges sin and sinners. You are simply a common sinner with a common rebellion who will, unless you bow the knee, experience a common wrath with other common rebels.
Before moving on we need to examine this word, “depart” in v. 12. The Greek term behind this is the root of our English word “apostasy.” It speaks of departure from the faith; it speaks of desertion. It was used in a political sense to speak of abandoning loyalty to a government ruler, but of course here it speaks of spiritual desertion.
The word “depart,” as used here, speaks of “turning away,” of “withdrawing” from God. Paul used the term in this way in 1 Timothy 4:1: “In latter times some will depart from the faith.”
The writer is speaking of the awful sin of apostatising from the “living God.” This was a very Jewish way of speaking of Yahweh over against the common pagan idols they often encountered. It is found thirty times in Scripture. You will recall how Peter used this when he confessed the deity of Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Now, this is a very significant statement, for the majority of the Jews who did not believe in Christ would assume that they were still followers of the true and living God. No doubt, many Christ-rejecting Jews were intimating that these “Jews for Jesus” were apostatising from the living God. But as the writer here reveals, it is those who have not believed on Christ who have departed from the living God.
Recently, former US President George W. Bush spoke at a fundraiser hosted by the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, which is closely affiliated with Jews for Jesus. “Orthodox” Jews were offended, complaining that “Jews for Jesus” is like “Christians for Mohammed.” Of course, it is nothing of the kind. In our day being Jewish is merely a matter of ethnicity. And I would argue that even in the early days of the New Testament church that this was also the case.
We must realise that the writer is making the point that if you do not follow Christ then you are not following God. The writer was not interested in political correctness. He concluded that Hebrews who were not “Jews for Jesus” were not worshippers of God. If they did not believe and therefore follow Jesus then they could not meaningfully sing Psalm 95. They were actually rejecting God’s call to worship. And that is serious indeed. Beware!
These who have professed faith in Jesus as the Captain of their salvation must prove faithful. They must guard their hearts from becoming hardened. They must not become embittered by the trials under which they are going. They must continue to believe the truth of God’s promises. They must preach the gospel to themselves and bask in the love of God in Christ. However, if they become hardened against God because of their sufferings (approved by His sovereignty), they will fall away.
They will be like those of whom John writes: “They went out from us because they were not of us. For if they had been of us then they would have remained with us. But they went out that it might be made manifest that they were not of us” (1 John 2:19).
In 1956, five missionaries to Ecuador were killed while attempting to evangelise the Huaorani people. Steve Saint is the son of one of the men killed, and has since ministered to some of the Huaorani people, many of whom were converted after the martyrdom of the five missionaries. Reflecting on the testimony of the converted Huaorani regarding the killing, Steve Saint wrote,
As [the natives] described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the palm beach killing took place at all. It is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.
Rather than being embittered at losing his father, who was serving the Lord, Steve Saint’s faith in God was actually strengthened. His heart revealed that it is good soil.
Followers of Jesus Must Belong
In the second major division of this section, we learn that followers of Jesus must belong (vv. 13-15). Jesus leads His followers to connect.
But exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Having established the relevance of Psalm 95 for the “household” of the first century, the writer makes an additional exhortation based on this. Not only must they beware of the same sin of unbelief, the same sin of apostasy committed by earlier generations of Hebrews, but they also must take practical steps to avoid such sin. And one of these is to be meaningfully connected to other believers. He instructs them to be so connected that they will daily exhort one another to “hear God’s voice” (v. 7) and to persevere—together. We saw this same theme in 3:1-6 and we will see it over and over in this epistle.
If we will persevere, if we will continue to follow our Leader, then we must do so as a group. As Brown notes, “These believers had to be reminded not only of the superiority of Jesus and the importance of the word, but also the encouragement of the church. In frightened isolation they might fall, but in supportive companionship they would stand.”4 Remember, the doctrine is called the perseverance of the saints, not of the saint!
We need one another if we will continue to believe in and on Christ. What we don’t need is to simply spend our time blowing sunshine on each other but rather we need to speak the truth to one another. We need the Spirit of God to blow on us, and He usually does so through the church. We need such continuous community. In fact, the appeal made here is that of daily exhortation to persevere.
The sin with which the writer is so concerned, throughout this epistle is unbelief. The sin of unbelief leads to apostasy. This unbelief is therefore evil (v. 12) and it comes about by sinful deception. Leon Morris comments, “What hardens is ‘sin’s deceitfulness.’ The readers were tempted to go back to Judaism in the belief that by doing so they would be better off. But sin deceived those who thought like this. Temporal and physical safety would be bought only at the price of spiritual disaster.”5
The sin of unbelief often comes about by attempts to deceive us that we can have Christ without the church. Lane helpfully writes,
The avoidance of apostasy demands not simply individual vigilance but the constant care of each member of the community for one another. . . . “Each other” emphasizes the mutual responsibility that each member of the community should feel for others.6
A House of Help
God has designed His house for the purpose of guarding His people from the “deceitfulness of sin.” In the context, the writer is saying that sin deceives us to depart from the living God. And it is so deceptive because one can think they are serving God while, in fact, they are departing from Him.
Jesus referred to such sinful self-deception when He told His disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them” (John 16:2-4a).
We need one another to help us to avoid the deception that leads to unbelief. We need one another to speak truth into our lives. If we don’t, then we will believe the lies rather than our leader.
For instance, sinful deception tells us that we can have Christ without a cross and then we find ourselves relegated by God to the realm of Satan (Matthew 16:23). Sinful deception tries to persuade us that because God is love there is no need to fear His wrath. Sinful deception seeks to convince us of the lie that being religious is sufficient to propitiate the wrath of God. Sinful deception seeks to persuade us that there is no urgency to repent and to call upon the name of the Lord and that tomorrow is as good a day to be saved as is today. Sinful deception seeks to deceive us that family harmony is to be treasured above the Lord Jesus. And the result of all such deception is the evil decision to refuse to follow Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the Son who is God. There is nothing more evil than that.
As I trust you can see, we must learn to listen to one another as we speak truth into each other’s lives.
Running the Race
We are told in v. 14, as we were in 3:6, that we must continue to believe on Christ. We must hold firm to our confession of Jesus. And the context makes it very clear that we do so in connection with others. He reminds us again from Psalm 95:8 of the danger of rebelling against God. The term means literally to be embittered against. The Hebrews under Moses became bitter against God because they faced trials as they followed Him; in fact, because they followed Him. The same danger now lies before this first generation church. They are undergoing trials for their faith. Will they continue to believe and obey or will they become bitter and depart from the living God? It is precisely for this reason—because of such temptation—that God has given to us the church; He has put us in a house so that we will exhort one another to run the race.
I so appreciate these words of Hywel Jones, “Self-examination is one thing but self-preoccupation is another. What is more, this activity has regard to others as well as oneself. We are not only to ‘pull up our own socks’ but to ‘help others to their feet.’”7
If you think that you can run this race alone then you are already experiencing the deceitfulness of sin. Join the team and run and run well.
The question arises with v. 15, how can we “hear His voice?” And I want to assert that Psalm 95 makes it very clear: We are in a position to hear God’s voice when we gather for corporate worship.
This psalm, as we have seen, was used as a call to worship. And quite clearly it was used as a call to corporate worship. Now, it is undeniable that believers are to worship God 24/7. But corporate, rather than individual, worship is the main point of Psalm 95.
I, like the writer, want to bring our time in this passage to a close by exhorting you to keep believing and therefore keep obeying the gospel. What Morris says of the original recipients of this letter is as true for you and me today: “Immediate action is imperative. The voice of God is sounding now. It must not be neglected.”8
Keep your eyes on Christ. Realise that you are more sinful than you would ever even imagine while also realising that you are more loved than you would ever hope to wish. Let those truths drive you to come and worship and bow down. Kneel before the Lord our Maker, remembering that He is our God and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.
Let us continually come, continually confess and continually confide in Jesus Christ who is our friend and brother, and who is our God. Keep following your Leader. Do so today.
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 108. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 83. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:85. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 88. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:36. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 1:87. ↩
- Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 38. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:34. ↩