Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 3:7-14

A Rest for the People of God

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
    on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
    and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
    they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
    ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

———————————————————————————————-

Last week’s reading explained why Jesus is greater than Moses.

The one before that explained why Jesus is greater than all the angels.

Christians understand that intrinsically. However, the author’s Jewish audiences were reluctant to give up their reliance on the Old Covenant. There were also Jews, also addressed in Hebrews, who did not believe that Jesus is Messiah.

Hebrews addresses three different audiences at various times in various ways.

In order to understand Hebrews, we need to understand the Jewish mindset as it was and, in some cases, continues be to this day.

We do not know who wrote Hebrews. One thing we can say with confidence is that the Holy Spirit inspired the book, just as He inspired all the other books of the Bible.

Today’s reading is an urgent exhortation to have faith that Jesus is the Son of God.

The author begins by mentioning the Holy Spirit and His words (verse 7), which inspired David to write Psalm 95, paraphrased here (verses 7-11).

These are the relevant verses from Psalm 95:

7 For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest.”

Serendipitously, they tie in with today’s readings for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

The Psalm refers to the time when God’s people were in the wilderness after He enabled them to escape captivity in Egypt. He had given them so much through those miracles, yet they not only became discouraged, they actively rejected Moses — and Him.

Exodus 17:7 tells us what Meribah and Massah mean — ‘testing’ and ‘quarrelling’, respectively:

And he called the name of the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

They were on their way to the Promised Land — Canaan — but, instead of keeping their eye on the final destination, they rejected God.

The author of Hebrews tells his audience that they could fall into the same trap again by rejecting Christ. They were so absorbed with the persecutions that befell them for embracing Christianity that they wondered if their conversion had been the right thing to do.

Just as their ancestors had done, they were taking their eye off the prize: eternal life with Jesus Christ in the world to come.

Matthew Henry has an excellent exposition of these verses from Psalm 95 and their significance to the Hebrews of the author’s time. Both were falling into wilful sin. One thing that is always sure is God’s punishment of the thing He hates — sin. That is the one great lesson we should glean from the Old Testament as we read it (emphases mine):

3. The sins of others, especially our relations, should be a warning to us. Our fathers’ sins and punishments should be remembered by us, to deter us from following their evil examples. Now as to the sin of the fathers of the Jews, here reflected upon, observe,

(1.) The state in which these fathers were, when they thus sinned: they were in the wilderness, brought out of Egypt, but not got into Canaan, the thoughts whereof should have restrained them from sin.

(2.) The sin they were guilty of: they tempted and provoked God; they distrusted God, murmured against Moses, and would not attend to the voice of God.

(3.) The aggravations of their sin: they sinned in the wilderness, where they had a more immediate dependence upon God: they sinned when God was trying them; they sinned when they saw his works–works of wonder wrought for their deliverance out of Egypt, and their support and supply in the wilderness from day to day. They continued thus to sin against God for forty years. These were heinous aggravations.

(4.) The source and spring of such aggravated sins, which were, [1.] They erred in their hearts; and these heart-errors produced many other errors in their lips and lives. [2.] They did not know God’s ways, though he had walked before them. They did not know his ways; neither those ways of his providence in which he had walked towards them, nor those ways of his precept in which they ought to have walked towards God; they did not observe either his providences or his ordinances in a right manner.

(5.) The just and great resentment God had at their sins, and yet the great patience he exercised towards them (Hebrews 3:10): Wherefore I was grieved with that generation. Note, [1.] All sin, especially sin committed by God’s professing privileged people, does not only anger and affront God, but it grieves him. [2.] God is loth to destroy his people in or for their sin, he waits long to be gracious to them. [3.] God keeps an exact account of the time that people go on in sinning against him, and in grieving him by their sins; but at length, if they by their sins continue to grieve the Spirit of God, their sins shall be made grievous to their own spirits, either in a way of judgment or mercy.

(6.) The irreversible doom passed upon them at last for their sins. God swore in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest, the rest either of an earthly or of a heavenly Canaan. Observe, [1.] Sin, long continued in, will kindle the divine wrath, and make it flame out against sinners. [2.] God’s wrath will discover itself in its righteous resolution to destroy the impenitent; he will swear in his wrath, not rashly, but righteously, and his wrath will make their condition a restless condition; there is no resting under the wrath of God.

With this in mind, the author warns and encourages the Hebrews not to commit this same, serious sin leading them away from God (verse 12).

He stresses the urgency of the situation, exhorting them to bolster each other in the faith — ‘today’ — in order to avoid falling into serious sin (verse 13). As Henry’s commentary says, we do not own tomorrow:

Since to-morrow is none of ours, we must make the best improvement of to-day.

Serious sin comprises many things, one of which is unbelief. Repeated sin leads to sins of a greater nature. When the Bible says that consciences become ‘seared’, that means that they become hardened against goodness. It is as if they had scar tissue on them.

John MacArthur explains:

When I was in college I was thrown out of a car going about 75 miles an hour and I slid about 100 yards on my southern hemisphere, and I was thrown out and I slid. And of course, initially, I had third-degree burns because of the friction. And then from then on my back was just cleaned out about a half inch deep – 64 square inches of it. And all of the scar tissue that has replaced that is now insensitive, it’s been seared.

And, you know, it’s what happens so many times to somebody who hears the gospel repeatedly. The today my friends – watch it – the today only lasts as long as your conscience is sensitive to the Spirit of God. Then today is over, it’s tomorrow and it’s too late. That’s what He’s saying. Today if you’ll enact your will to hear God’s voice, don’t harden your heart. And your heart gets harder every time you say no to Jesus Christ when you know the truth.

When your heart is soft, and when your conscience is convicted, and when the intellect is sensed to Christ, and when the understanding admires Him – and that’s the time to move when you’re still pliable, when you’re still responsive, because some day you may experience that kind of hard heart that Proverbs 21:29 talks about, that kind of hard, stiff, stubborn, rebellious insensitiveness, and then all of a sudden it doesn’t mean anything.

And there are people who because of their wife brings them or because their wife wants them to, they may come to church; or there are kids because their parents bring them. They sit here, they’ve heard the gospel so many times, they can’t respond to it because their conscience has been seared, and there may be only little places of sensitivity the Spirit of God has left to appeal to. And so says the Spirit of God, “Don’t harden your heart. You know the truth. Respond to Christ.”

In addressing the Jewish converts, the author reminds them that he and they share a common bond through Christ — provided they continue to believe in Him and encourage each other so to do (verse 14).

This holds true for Christians today. MacArthur tells us:

If the evidence was in to Israel in that day, the evidence is in to us in this day that Jesus Christ is Lord, is it not? The evidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, died on the cross, rose again the third day, lives and saves men. The evidence is in. The evidence is secure. Christ has manifested God, the only begotten Son of the Father. He hath declared Him. He’s displayed His love. He’s displayed His grace. He sent the Holy Spirit. We don’t need any human Moses. We have the third person of the Trinity to reveal Christ on top of all historical evidence; and unbelief in the face of such overwhelming evidence is tragic indeed. And so He says to these Hebrews who know the gospel and have even made an intellectual assent to the gospel, “Don’t harden your hearts.” It’s so easy to grow cold and to grow callous to what God is trying to do in your life.

With that, however, comes the urgency to persevere every day, in spite of any persecution that might befall us as believers. And, these days, that is not something that occurs only in developing countries, either. It is also now alive and well in the West — even in the United States, where Christianity was once unshakeable.

Let us make every effort to keep our faith alive and deep. Let’s pray as often as we can. Let’s study the Bible regularly, including on our own.

May we always stay close to our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord — beginning today.

Next time — Hebrews 3:15-19