Learning to Lean (Hebrews 3:12—4:2)

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Previously, we began to look at our present text under the heading, “Follow Your Leader.” We noted, after establishing that Jesus Christ is superior to Moses (3:1-6), and hence the right leader to follow, that we must continue to follow Him. That is, we must persevere to the end if we will be saved. This, of course, is a major theme of Hebrews.

We saw that, if we will follow the Captain of our salvation to glory (2:10-11), we must beware, we must belong and we must believe. We focused our attention primarily on the first two matters.

The writer uses Psalm 95 to drive this home. It is referred to some nineteen times from 3:7—4:13 and is directly quoted on five occasions. Psalm 95 can be outlined as follows:

  1. A Call to Worship Rooted in a Covenant Relationship (vv. 1-7a);
  2. A Call to Worship Recognising Conditional Requirement (v. 7b); and
  3. A Call to Worship Remembering a Common Reality (vv. 8-11).

The psalm serves as a call to worship; a call to true worship. And hence it contains a warning (vv. 7-11)—a warning that is repeated here in 3:7-11.

There are several evident parallels between Psalm 95 and our present text. Like Israeli in the wilderness, these believers are being called to corporate belief. Like their forebears, they had experienced an exodus, and the question was whether they would go all the way or fall short of the promised rest.

We will once again look at the three issues that we raised previously, but this time with an overarching theme of learning to lean. And we will do so by emphasising our need to learn to lean on Christ by leaning on one another. If we will get to our feet (12:12-13) then we will need to lean on someone. And if others will get to their feet they will need to lean on us. Let “lean on me” be our theme song.

We Must Learn to Lean because of the Lies

We learn, in the first place, that we must learn to lean because of the lies (3:12-13). The author writes,

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.

(Hebrews 3:12-13)

I was recently reading Chickenhawk, a narrative of Robert Mason’s experiences as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. At one point, he relates a terrible account of members of his platoon walking to the showers where they had set camp: “I was watching as two soldiers walked toward the showers and they disappeared before my eyes in a cloud of smoke. They had stepped on a land-mine from a much earlier war with France.”

I want to suggest that we need to be careful in our walk. There are spiritual landmines all around us. Loss of physical life is nothing compared to loss of opportunity for eternal life.

We Must Learn the Value of Christ-centred Community

We will only learn to lean when we learn the value of Christ-centred community. It is one thing to tell someone to “pull up your socks.” It is quite another to then help them to their feet. The writer of Hebrews understood this and he understood it well. He therefore understood the value of community.

The writer exhorts a troubled and tried congregation of Jewish believers, who were being tempted to turn away from Christ and to revert to the old covenant shadows. They needed to persevere in the “last days” of the old covenant “wineskins.”

Like Acts, Hebrews is a transitional book. The end of the Jewish age was drawing near, and these Hebrew Christians needed encouragement to persevere to the end. The writer’s message is essentially this: “Pull up your socks, get on your feet and run the race. You have started well; now finish well.”

But having a pastor’s heart, the writer understood that they would need more than exhortation; they would need help from one another. In this passage, as in several others, he highlights the principle that, if we will get to our feet (12:12-13), then we will need to lean on Christ, which involves leaning on other Christians. Conversely, if others will get to their feet then they will need to lean on us.

In recent studies, we began to see quite clearly that Hebrews is a multifaceted exhortation to perseverance. It is one thing to begin the journey of the Christian life but quite another to finish it. As Hughes says, “The problem today is that so many people when asked about faith point to their ‘exodus’—when they began with Christ. . . . Their ‘exodus’ is a convenient memory. But to trust God now? That is a problem, for their faith is dead.”1 The author of Hebrews made this need for perseverance quite plain, using conditional statements throughout this section:

  • 3:6—“if we hold fast the confidence . . . firm to the end.”
  • 3:14—“if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.”
  • 3:15—“if you will hear His voice.”
  • 4:1—“let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.”

But as the writer emphasises over and over, such perseverance is not done in a vacuum; rather, the congregation is to persevere together. Hence, he tells the congregation to look out for each other. But the implication is also that each member of the congregation will seek the aid of the congregation as they run the race.

I recently saw a video clip of mentally impaired children at the Special Olympics, who stopped running a race and went back to pick up a boy who fell, so that they could finished together. What a picture of mental health!

The author tells us to “beware.” The degree to which we appreciate the dangers is the degree to which we will value the fellowship.

The word translated “beware” means to pay attention, to look carefully, or to take care. Those who are to “beware” are the “brethren”—those who identify with the family of God; those who profess Jesus as their elder Brother.

We would do well to note that the author here has a corporate, comprehensive concern. He writes, “if any of you,” leaving no room for individualism. This is the case throughout this section, for the author writes in the plural of “your hearts” (v. 8) and “your fathers” (v. 9). God was angry with an entire generation (v. 10) and speaks time and again of “they” (vv. 10-11). The warning is corporate because the danger was corporate.

Lest any in this this church somehow think that the danger was only for others, the writer points them in v. 16 to the exodus generation. All those who came out of Egypt—barring two—died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. These believers needed to understand that they were not somehow exempt (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Romans 15:1-4).

We need to learn to beware of defection and we need to learn to lean on those who can help us.

These believers needed to beware of “an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (v. 12). They needed to watch out carefully—for one another—lest any showed signs that they needed a new heart. “Though you all may claim that you have asked Jesus into your heart, there may in fact be those who have not received a new heart.” The evidence of this, of course, was disobedience (vv. 8, 10, 16, 18-19), for disobedience always accompanies unbelief. The ultimate danger, of course, would be apostasy—departure from the living God.

It is worthwhile noting at this point that apostasy is not necessarily to be equated with atheism. Very religious people may well be guilty of apostasy. However, apostasy is usually a practical atheism; a religiously masked agnosticism. We must worship the God who is, not a god of our own imagination. We must approach God as He is in the way He has prescribed: through Jesus Christ the Lord (cf. Matthew 7:13-23).

If we will avoid this danger, we need the community to speak the truth in love. If we will persevere, if we will continue to follow our Leader, then we must do so as a group. As Raymond 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.”2 Remember, the doctrine is called the perseverance of the saints, not of the saint!

You will not beware (v. 12) if you do not belong (v. 13). In fact, over time you will become bewitched (Galatians 3:1). You will be deceived by others and eventually will become self-deceived. There is nothing more tragic then trying to deal with someone who has been deceived into a false confidence concerning the true state of their soul. And so often such self-deception is coupled with isolation from the local congregation.

Years ago there was a man in my home church who studied at Bible college and entered the ministry. Some time later, he fell into deep immoral sin, and though he professed to be a Christian, he refused to confess his sin. When another friend and I went to speak to him one day, he dismissed our calls to repentance with his own brand of “Christianity.” Our faith, he told us, was legalistic; his, on the other hand, was freeing. I remember thinking that it was like talking to a man who had been bewitched, who actually believed the lies in which he boasted. It was a terrifying experience. He had isolated himself from other believers and had started to believe all sorts of devious lies.

Proverbs 18:1 is apropos here: “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgement.” In other words, those who isolate themselves from others set themselves up as the final authority and are rarely teachable—because they are rarely, if ever, wrong (or so they think).

We Need to Hear Truth from Each Other

Note that this was all new territory for these new covenant believers. Like Israel of old, this was a culture shock. And the same is true for new Christians.

We need to speak truth into the lives of each other (see Malachi 3:13-16). I recently made a comment in a sermon about the danger of speaking most excitedly on the Lord’s Day about the previous day’s sporting events. I did not mean to be offensive in any way, but the truth is that the Sabbath is designed for us to revel in the things of God, not in the things of this world (Isaiah 58:13-14).

We must speak truth to others because we are all up against all manner of lies. We are told, for example, that it doesn’t matter what you believe about the deity or humanity of Christ. We are told that it doesn’t matter how we view the death of Christ. We are told that it doesn’t matter whether the Bible is inspired or not. We are told that all truth claims are equally valid. We are told that it doesn’t matter whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. We are told that we don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. We are told that we must believe in Jesus plus do such-and-such to be saved. We are told that we simply need an exodus and need not be concerned about the journey afterwards.

But note when we are susceptible to such lies: during trials. Hardships tempt us to unbelief (see Luke 8:11-15). And so we are tempted to lies during the death of a loved one. We are tempted when we feel marginalised as irrelevant or ostracised because of our faith. We are tempted when we are overlooked for a promotion because of loyalty to Christ. We are tempted when we, or others we know, are persecuted.

I know a missionary, on furlough at the time of writing, who received news of a fellow worker being martyred in the field. When he received news, he sent me a text message, requesting prayer for him and his wife, and asking specifically that I pray for Christ’s zeal for them to return to the field with the gospel. Because he believes Christ and leans on those who likewise believe, persecution has not drive him to unbelief.

One wonders if it was during a particularly trying time that Demas loved this present world and abandoned Paul (2 Timothy 4:10). Was Judas envious when he betrayed Jesus? Did he feel that Jesus hadn’t fulfilled his (unbiblical) expectations? It is certainly at such times that we are tempted.

What do we expect from the world? Biblically, we should expect nothing but persecution (John 16:33; 17:14). If we have unbiblical expectations we may well find ourselves tempted to unbelief.

The children of Israel, spoken of in Psalm 95, seem to have suffered from this malady. From the biblical record, it appears that they expected a smooth ride, but The Lord did not deliver what they (unbiblically) expected.

In all of the above examples, it was a matter of a high view of themselves and an unworthy view of their Lord and Saviour. He is worthy of all we have and all we are. He is trustworthy. Listen and lean; lean and listen. Learn to do both!

We Must Learn to Listen to Those Who Have Listened

The dangers of defection lurk for all of us and so we need to listen to the warnings of those who have gone before.

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.

(Hebrews 4:1-2)

Hebrews 4:1-13 is a continuation of the theme begun in 3:17. But whereas 3:7-19 used Psalm 95 in a “moralistic” or “illustrative” way, in chapter 4 it is used more “typologically.” That is, the author develops the “rest” offered “today” in a more Christological way. The “rest” refers more clearly to the spiritual rest in Christ that is offered in the new covenant dispensation “today.”

But before developing that, the writer in vv. 1-2 concludes the “illustrative” use of Psalm 95.

Simply put, his point is that those who are faltering in their faith need to lean on those who are firm in the faith. They need to listen to those who have listened to God. As Lane highlights, here in this section, “the accent falls upon the Christian community as heir to the promise of entrance into God’s rest. . . . He defines . . . the character of the rest envisioned and the . . . responsibility of a community constituted by the voice of God in Scripture.”3 That is, the responsibility to listen and to lean together.

Be Afraid and Lean

In v. 1 the exhortation is for us to be afraid and lean.

The author offers some good news here: “a promise remains.” This tells us that God is faithful; that the unfaithfulness of Israel did not render God unfaithful to His promise. He always keeps His Word.

The word “promise” is used in Hebrews more than in any other New Testament book.

We should understand that the promise was not primarily Canaan. We can be sure of this because the promise was still being offered in David’s generation; those who were already in the Promised Land (Psalm 95). The promised rest is obviously something more: It is the spiritual rest that Christ gives. The promised rest is peace with the Lord (Matthew 11:28-30).

The term “come short” means to fail to attain, to fall short, to be in need of, or to lack. It is translated in 12:15 by the word “fail” and in Romans 3:23 as “fall short.” All have sinned and therefore have not crossed over into peace with God.

Importantly, the author writes of those who “seem” to have failed. The word means to appear. The writer, then, is not offering a final assessment, but stating that the evidence is alarming. We are not the final judge of hearts, but we know that the fruit usually betrays the root.

In light of the fact that some evidently fail to reach the promised rest, “let us fear.” The word “fear” literally means to be terrified. We should be dreadfully afraid of unbelief—both in our own lives and in the lives of others. Lane notes,

“Let us begin to fear” at the beginning of the paragraph implies that the attitude toward the word of God in Scripture within the community has not been acceptable. The appeal for a more sensitive attitude was motivated by earnest pastoral concern for every individual within the . . . church.4

Calvin adds, “This fear is commended to us, not as something that drives away the assurance of faith, but as something that inspires us with concern that we do not grow slack with carelessness.”5 When a father pleaded with Jesus to heal his son, Jesus told him that all things are possible for those who believe. The man replied, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  The Lord helped and increased his faith. The prayer of this man ought to be the constant prayer on our lips.

We need to “be afraid” not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we are connected. We need to constructively fear for those who have signified an exodus but who appear to be stubbornly refusing to go forward. A healthy discipleship ministry is an integral part of this.

The children of Israel had a wrong kind of fear. Their fear produced disobedience. It was fear due to unbelief. We need rather to fear unbelief!

The consequences are huge. In their case the issue was a matter of eternal life, not merely a piece of real estate. As Morris says, “The author, then, is reminding his readers that there was a generation to whom the rest was promised and who missed it. They should beware lest they make the same mistake.”6 Eternity is at stake. “Both the promise of this rest and the rest itself are fruits of the new covenant, which will never pass away. It is available only to those who truly trust in Christ. Professing Christians must be careful not to forfeit this rest through unbelief.”7

This is to be a corporate concern, a corporate fear. “Be afraid that some of your fellow church members are unbelievers.” Are you concerned? Are you constructively concerned? Do you merely like to exhort others or are you willing to help them? Is your attitude, “Pull up your socks and let me help you to your feet”?

Listen and Stop being Afraid

In v. 2 the author exhorts us to listen and, consequently, to stop being afraid. “The gospel” speaks of good news. With reference to this audience (and to you and me), it is the good news of what God has done for us in Christ.

The good news “to them” was the promise of blessedness and rest in the land (Exodus 19:3-6; 23:20-33). This promise, however, was conditional. It was “good news” if they crossed over. “But the word which they heard did not profit them.” They did not experience the gain offered to them by the good news. And the reason for this was that the word they heard was “not . . . mixed with faith in those who heard it.”

The word “mixed” means to combine or unite. The construction of this verse can be confusing. The writer has already spoken of those who “heard” the “good news” and he speaks of those who “heard” it again at the end of the same verse. It would seem redundant for him to speak twice of the same group having “heard.” The context seems to suggest that those who “heard” did not join those who “heard and believed the promise.” In other words, for the majority, they were not united by faith with those who listened (i.e. Caleb and Joshua). Caleb and Joshua heard the promise of blessing in the Promised Land and believed (Numbers 13:30; 14:6-9). The rest did not share their faith (Numbers 14:10). Consequently, Caleb and Joshua experienced the blessings; the rest did not (Numbers 14:11-25). They experienced great loss. Lane offers a helpful paraphrase:

“Therefore, while a promise of entering his rest remains open, let us begin to fear that even one among you would seem to be excluded from it. . . . But the word which they heard did not benefit them, because they did not share the faith of those who listened.8

That which the Israelites heard from Joshua and Caleb was of no benefit to them because, unlike Joshua and Caleb, they heard but they did not really hear. They heard but they did not “listen” (ESV). We too need ears to hear.

“The past generation received the promise in vain because they refused to believe the word they heard (Num 14:11; cf. 3:12, 19). They did not share the faith of Joshua and Caleb who listened to the promise of God and regarded it as certain.”9

They heard the same facts as did Joshua and Caleb but they did not share the same faith. Not only were they disconnected from God but they were also disconnected from the faithful. They listened to the naysayers rather than to the faithful. And they missed out on the promise

The point is that those doubting and hence tempted to “disobey the gospel” need to get on the same page with those in the church who don’t doubt and thus who don’t disobey the gospel. And one key to doing so is to pay close attention to those around you who do believe.

We need to lean on those who evidence that they have listened. Listen and learn, and then lean and listen (see Proverbs 13:20; 1 Corinthians 15:33-34).

Back in the early 1980s I was going through something of a romantic wilderness. I was convinced that God’s will was for me to marry a particular young woman, who seemed quite disinterested in me. Around the same time, my pastor was preaching a series from Romans 3 on faith. I can clearly remember hearing him, a man who had a track record of hearing and believing God, preach on faith, and thinking to myself that there was still hope.

The young woman was my pastor’s daughter, and my pastor is today my father-in-law. Listening to a man who had a track record of listening to God gave me hope, faith—and a wife!

Seek out those in your local church who have lost loved ones and who have persevered. Seek out those at BBC who have listened and have seen God equip them with grace for the battles—for decades. Listen to the testimonies of those who have believed God and who have raised a godly seed. Listen to those who have believed the gospel and who have seen their lives transformed as their guilt has been lifted. We must be good stewards of our belief.

We Must So Live that Others Can Lean On Us

Let us be committed to being those who listen so that others will listen to us.

The writer no doubt desired for his readers to listen to him as he expounded Scripture. He then wanted them to be emboldened to keep on believing. But he also wanted those who were leaning to be equipped so that others could lean on them. He wanted them to look for those who needed to listen and to lean. He wanted them to help them to their feet.

Quite frankly, the writer is telling this audience to learn to lean on others, implying that the congregation needs to be willing to be leaned upon. That is how the Lord has designed the Body; this is His intention for the local church. We run the race together to the end and we become deeply and practically concerned for those who seem to be lame and falling out of the way (12:12-13).

At BBC, we have developed a custom of applauding people who are baptised. It started one Sunday rather spontaneously and has remained a custom ever since. Someone recently asked why we do that, and the answer really is that we rejoice with those who are willing to publicly display their belief. But it cannot end there. We cheer people on as they are baptized. But when the music fades, we continue to exhort them to finish. “In Christ, you can do it. And if you need help, then lean on me.”

One of the most moving video clips that I have come across is of Derek Redmond competing in the 400 metre Olympic semi-final. Some 250 metres from the finish line, Redmond snapped a hamstring. Hobbling to a halt, he fell to the ground in pain. As stretcher bearers made their way to him, he decided to finish the race himself. He began to hobble along the track, and the next minute someone burst through the security guards and ran onto the track. His father had come to his side to help him finish the race. The two completed the race together, the son leaning on his father for support. Though he was officially disqualified, he was cheered by 65,000 standing spectators as he crossed the finish line.

We sometimes need people to lean on if we will finish the race. Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:31-32), and we often need people who will pray the same for us. In it all we are “confident of this very thing that he who began a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

This is the call to each member of the church: Consider Jesus, who says, “Lean on Me. And lean on me as a means to lean on Him.” As we learn, we must help others to their feet, and they in turn will help us. It is a community effort.

Let us grow in our trust in Christ and by doing so then love one another and therefore be those on whom others can lean.

Love the Lord and love His people enough to listen and learn so others will lean and listen and learn.

Show 9 footnotes

  1. R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 1:102.
  2. The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 88.
  3. William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:97.
  4. Lane, Hebrews, 1:97.
  5. Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 122.
  6. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:39.
  7. Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 121.
  8. Lane, Hebrews, 1:92.
  9. Lane, Hebrews, 1:98.