Hebrews 3: 7-19

Jimmy JoHebrews, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read Hebrews 3: 7-19 here.

Read Psalm 95 here.

Today, we resume our study of the book of Hebrews.  And so far in the letter, we’ve seen that the author of Hebrews is doing a couple of things.  Now remember that the main concern of the author seems to be to demonstrate the superiority and sufficiency of Jesus.  Therefore, the first thing that we see is a motif of comparing Jesus with something else, ultimately declaring that Jesus is greater, that Jesus is superior.  As the letter begins, then, we get the assertion that Jesus is superior to the angels. 

And Jesus’ superiority to angels is demonstrated (or worked out) in two parts.  In chapter one, the author demonstrates that Jesus’ superiority is that of a Son’s superiority to a servant’s.  That is, while angels are servants, Jesus is a son – indeed, Jesus is the Son.  So here, the author demonstrates that Jesus is superior because He is the Son, and he therefore shares in the glory of the Father. 

In chapter two (or beginning at 1:14), the author picks up on the idea that angels are appointed to serve human beings.  Therefore, Jesus is superior to angels because angels serve humans and Jesus is fully human.  And from here, the author argues that Jesus is not only human, but He is the pre-eminent human.  Jesus is the pre-eminent human being because the redemption of all other human beings is accomplished through Him.  (We might say, though we won’t elaborate on it here, that because of sin, all human beings fall short of human-ness – and Christ, through His sacrifice, restores it). 

And where we left off last time was the beginning verses of chapter 3, where the author argues that Jesus is greater than Moses (who is perhaps the greatest human being in the imagination of the Israelites – Jesus is greater even than Moses).  And the main point that we picked up on was that Jesus’ faithfulness is greater than the faithfulness of Moses (because His calling is greater).  And the final part of the passage we looked at last time says this:  “6b And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.”  So this is where we pick up today. 

Now I mentioned earlier that we’ve so far seen that the author is doing a couple of things.  Again, the first thing is demonstrating the superiority and sufficiency of Jesus through comparison (first with angels, now with Moses).  The second thing that we’ve seen is a motif of exposition and exhortation.  That is, the author makes a theological assertion and then expands on that using scriptural proofs.  While I’m not discussing how the term “exhortation” fits in the previous two segments, here the exhortation is obvious.  In the first part of chapter 3(:1-6), the author argued that Jesus is greater than Moses by virtue of His greater faithfulness, and then concludes with the statement:  “6b And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.”  That is, he says Christ has been faithful, and now we must also respond in faithfulness.  And that is precisely what we’re seeing in our verses today – an exhortation to faithfulness.  And that exhortation to faithfulness is placed in historical context.  Specifically, the author says, “be faithful – not like the ancient Israelites who were precisely not faithful.” 

This is what we’re seeing in the scriptural reference (or proof) that the author uses (which he quotes twice – in vv. 7-11 and in v. 15 of our passage today).  These quotations are from Psalm 95.  We won’t get into a detailed discussion of Psalm 95 save to say that some scholars see it as a liturgical or perhaps festival Psalm.  That is, it may be Psalm that is recited, prayed, or declared in a worship or celebratory context.  We can see this quite clearly in the first part of the Psalm.  The second part of the Psalm (from 7b) is what is quoted by the writer of the Hebrews.  The Psalm reads:

Psalm 95

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;

let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving

and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,

the great King above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth,

and the mountain peaks belong to him.

The sea is his, for he made it,

and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,

let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;

for he is our God

and we are the people of his pasture,

the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, 

as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,

where your ancestors tested me;

they tried me, though they had seen what I did.

10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;

I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,

and they have not known my ways.’

11 So I declared on oath in my anger,

‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

Taken as a whole, we might understand the flow of the Psalm as something like, “Let us give thanks to our God who is surpassingly great and has been faithful to us (“the people of his pasture…”; and let us be faithful in response.”  And given what our passage (and the 3:1-6 before it) is about, it makes perfect sense why the author would use this Psalm as his scriptural text. 

A couple of notes:  Firstly, we see in the Psalm that v. 8 says, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah/as you did that day at Massah…”  But in the text of the letter to the Hebrews, the author writes, “8…do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness.”  The difference here indicates that the author likely used the LXX.  For our purposes, this distinction (between the LXX and the MT or Hebrew Text) is not important.  The second thing to note is that Massah and Meribah (in Ps. 95) are almost certainly a reference to the incidents described in Exodus 17 and/or Numbers 20.  Both of these accounts describe Moses getting water from a rock.  And they are similar enough that some scholars think they are different tellings of the same account.  However, there are some important differences. 

Exodus 17 describes the account of Moses striking the rock with his staff, according to God’s command, and getting water.  Numbers 20 describes, again, an almost identical account except here, God had told Moses only to speak to the rock.  However, Moses struck the rock (without God’s direction) and therefore God was angry with him, presumably because Moses, by his own inclination, went beyond what God had expressly commanded.  Therefore, God’s judgement is that Moses did not trust God.  And God tells him, because of this, Moses will not lead the Israelites into Canaan. 

So we can’t know for sure whether the author of the Psalm had in mind the Exodus or the Numbers account.  And therefore, we can’t know whether the author of Hebrews had the Exodus or Numbers account in mind – though because of his emphasis on the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, whereas Moses is considered faithful, in my mind, it is more likely the Exodus account.  However, he may not even be making a clear distinction.  Nevertheless, and once again, for our purposes, it’s probably not very important (which of the accounts is in mind by the Psalmist or the author of Hebrews). 

Now the original Psalmist might also have a third account in mind (possibly in addition to the previously mentioned story; not instead of).  Numbers 14 tells us of the Israelites’ reaction after Joshua, Caleb, and some others explored the land of Canaan and reported back to the rest of the people.  After hearing of the inhabitants of Canaan, in Numbers 14, we read how the Israelites are terrified, and how they groan and grumble against God, saying “why did God bring us here?  We should have stayed in Egypt.”  In response to this, God says that this generation of Israelites would enter the promised land.  We read: 

20 The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. 21 Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, 22 not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—23 not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.

Numbers 14: 20-23

In other words, “They shall never enter my rest” (Heb. 3:11 & Ps.95:11).   

Again we don’t know exactly what incident and what scripture references the Psalmist had in mind.  And we likewise don’t know exactly what the author of the Hebrews had in mind.  However, the effect of the argument in Hebrews, the reference to Psalm 95, is very clear. 

The Israelites were unfaithful.  Don’t be like the Israelites. 

And let’s try to put this all in the proper context.  It’s not just that the Israelites lacked faith.  Rather, the Israelites were overwhelmingly unfaithful in the light of the extravagant faithfulness of God. 

Remember, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for generations after Joseph.  They had ceased to become any sort of nation, any sort of people.  But God remembered the children of Abraham and called Moses to lead them out of Egypt; to lead them out of slavery.  And God demonstrated His own power, His own superiority over Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt through ten wondrous signs.  And God led the Israelites out of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, destroying their enemies in the process.  God demonstrated not only His power, but His faithfulness again and again and again. 

And it’s in this context, in spite of all of this evidence, that the Israelites grumbled, groaned, and simply failed to believe.  It’s in this context that the Israelites were unfaithful.  They turned their backs on their deliver and their deliverance. 

The warning to the readers/hearers of Hebrews, then, should be taken very seriously.  Because the comparison – the warning from Psalm 95 – should be seen similarly as in the light of the overwhelming demonstration of the extravagant faithfulness of God.  But this time, in the person of Jesus.  In other words, the author is saying not merely, “Be faithful because this would be a good thing.”  “Be Faithful because I really, really think it would be nice.”  Rather, the call to faithfulness is in response to what God has done in and through His Son, through Jesus Christ. 

Again, as we see in the beginning of chapter 3, Jesus is greater even than Moses because, though Moses was faithful, Jesus is even more faithful to the Father’s will.  In response, then, you/we also be faithful. 

Of course this makes sense, logically.  But as we also know, as we see in the story of Israel, this is not so easy to do.  There is no shortage of things that pull our eyes, our minds, and our hearts away from what God has done.  Whether it’s expectation, disappointment, or just short attention spans, we know that human beings are constantly being pulled away from God. 

Indeed, one of the things that we learn from the Exodus stories (that is, stories of the Exodus – not just stories in the book of Exodus) is how easily (and how repeatedly) the people – who again, were only made a people by virtue of what God had done for them – forgot precisely what God had done or thought that God should have been doing something else. 

The human memory is notoriously unreliable.  Contrary to what we might believe, research has shown that we are actually pretty bad at remembering things accurately. Human memory is constantly shifting, being shaped by a variety of influences. 

This may be why stories are so important (or can be?).  Because we may be terrible at remembering details, but we’re quite good remembering stories.  Or perhaps we tell stories (or remember things as stories) to help us make sense of things. 

And as we know from sociology, the ability to share stories, to pass along stories, is a key element in creating a sense of communal identity.  Who we are, is in large part a matter of the stories we share. 

Now, if you were to tell your story, how would it tell of the faithfulness of God in your life?  If we were to tell our stories in the light of the biblical story, how would we see the redemption of God being worked out in our own lives? 

We are not sure from the text how or why the recipients of the letter were falling away or going astray.  We are not sure if they have forgotten the goodness of God, the faithfulness of God, or if they are simply being tempted in another direction.  But as we proceed in the letter, this is obviously a primary concern for the writer.  And the exhortation that we see today will be continued in the passage that we look at next week – don’t lose out on, don’t let go of the promise.  But even before then, in our passage today, the author’s concern is clear – don’t fall away.  Stand firm until the end.  Be faithful because Christ has been faithful. 

Therefore, today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness.  See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily.  Hold on to your conviction in Christ to the very end. 

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