LOOKING TO JESUS
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. Hebrews 3:1
The term “holy” or “saint” is one of the most frequent descriptions of God’s people in the New Testament. The word is always used in the plural, and we should note that we never hear of “Saint So-and-So.”1 All God’s true people are called saints and they are called saints together. All God’s sons are “holy brothers” (adelphoi hagioi) and as we have seen, Jesus is not ashamed to call them as such (cf. 2:11). To further clarify the often misunderstood term of “saint,” it simply means those who are “set apart for God.”2 It is certainly not speaking of one who is pictured on some stained glass window with a halo around his head or one who is beatified by the church long after his death.
It is very important for us to realize that there are two aspects of “sainthood” or “sanctification,” as the Bible calls it. There is what is called “positional sanctification” and what is called “progressive sanctification.” The moment we come to Christ and are saved we are granted positional sanctification (1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:10). If we died that very moment we would be considered totally pure and holy due to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the effects of his cleansing blood.
However, God’s purpose is not merely to declare us holy but to actually make us holy in every thought, word and deed. This process is known as progressive sanctification. The process goes on every day and every hour of our lives until we meet Jesus and are totally conformed to him (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Jn. 3:1-3). This is a very serious subject and we see that no one can see God without holiness or sanctification (Heb. 12:14). The Bible makes clear that God uses the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to bring about our progressive sanctification (2 Thess. 2:13; Jn. 17:17).
As holy brothers and sisters we all share in the heavenly calling. In Hebrews we see many instances of the word “heavenly” being used. There is the heavenly gift (6:4), the heavenly sanctuary (8:5), the heavenly things (9:23), the heavenly country (11:16) and the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22). 3 It is evident that the book is moving us in a heavenly direction.
In light of all this we must fix our thoughts on Jesus. The word “fix” or “consider” in the Greek language is katanoeo and it has the meaning “to consider attentively” or “to fix one’s eyes or mind upon.”4
Jesus is given two titles here. He is called “Apostle” and “high priest.” Many have pointed out that this is the only time in the Bible that Jesus is called “Apostle.” Indeed, he was the “sent one” or the “ambassador” of God who came to dwell among us. It is also primarily in Hebrews that we see Jesus presented as the high priest. This was prophesied in 1 Samuel 2:35 and, as we have already seen, this title is applied to Jesus in Hebrews 2:17. The subject of Jesus’ high-priesthood will be fully expounded beginning in the next chapter and will be dealt with especially in chapters 7-10.
Barclay points how in Latin the word for priest is “pontifex.” In that ancient language the word means “bridge-builder.” How true it is that Jesus, the priest of God, has come to build a bridge between God and man. 5
We note that “He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house” (3:2). “Fidelity to God was remarkable in Moses. In all the provocations and rebellions of the Israelites, he was firm and unwavering. This is affirmed of him in Numbers 12:7.”6 In the scripture we see that “God’s house” is often a reference to the Tabernacle and later to the Temple. There is a much deeper meaning that is brought out in Ephesians 2:19-22, where God’s house is made up of his holy people or of his
JESUS, GREATER THAN MOSES
Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Hebrews 3:3-4
In first-century Judaism there was hardly a name that stood out and was more deeply venerated than that of Moses. 7 Yet our author immediately makes plain that Jesus has greater honor than Moses. Here the author goes back to the picture of God’s house. Obviously the builder of the house is more important than the house itself. We see from scripture that God is the builder of everything and that he made the world and everything else through the agency of his Son (Jn. 1:3). So Jesus was the Master-builder of the world and of the universe.
How true it is that a famous architect is greater than even his most famous works. We think of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and his outstanding renovation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Also we think of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the most famous of American architects, and his best known works of the Fallingwater House and the Guggenheim Museum. The names of Wren and Wright will be remembered long after these works have disappeared.
It is important for us to keep in mind the progression that is going on in the development of Hebrews. Jesus was first shown to be greater than the prophets and then greater than the angels. Now he is presented as greater than Moses. Undoubtedly, the writer has now gotten to the heart of his instructions and warnings to those Jewish believers who were about to turn back to Moses and to Judaism.
“Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future” (3:5). It is made clear in this passage that Jesus built the house in which Moses only served. This is indicative of how much greater Jesus is than Moses. Here our author still points out that Moses was considered faithful. He walked and talked with God and on one occasion his face even shone with God’s glory (Ex. 34:29-35). Unlike the other holy ones of history Moses talked to God in a “face to face” manner (Exo. 33:11). Although he failed to lead Israel into the Promised Land his faithfulness still remained as a type for the future (Jn. 3:14).
“But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” (3:6). There is a great difference in being a Son over God’s house and being a servant in God’s house. The Son will inherit all that the Father has while the servant will inherit nothing and only continue to serve.
Bible teacher Ray Stedman illustrates how the roles of son and servant are worlds apart. He tells how he as a high-school student once helped on a Montana cattle ranch. He was obliged to sleep in the bunkhouse with the rest of the ranch hands and had no access to the main quarters. He rode around on some scruffy horses and did the menial chores. Later in life he visited the same ranch as a friend of the owner’s son. On that occasion he ate in the main dining room, rode the best horses and could go anywhere he wished. It made him forever aware of the big difference between being a servant and a son. 8
In this passage we realize that we not only get to live in God’s house but that we actually become God’s house. This is an incredible truth of scripture. For all these ages we have been looking for a house and God has been looking for a house too. In one of the grandest mysteries of the Bible God becomes our dwelling place by faith in Jesus and we also as a people become God’s dwelling place. We see in scripture that this dwelling of God actually grows to become a most holy temple (Eph. 2:19-20). Still we must remember that it is something we are a part of together with other believers (1 Cor. 3:16).
No individual can ever become the temple of God. Together we are like living stones and we form a holy house and holy temple (1 Pet. 2:4-5). This great mystery can never be realized if we forsake our coming together (Heb. 10:25). This majestic building can never be constructed if we continue to speak of “I,” “me” and “mine.” We must learn to speak of “we,” “us” and “ours.”
We cannot help but note the glaring contingency here. The writer says, “And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” As we mentioned earlier, the Book of Hebrews contains five great warning passages. We saw the first, which was surely the mildest, in 2:1-4. Now we come to the second and longest which will extend from 3:7 though 4:13. It might be said that the Book of Hebrews is largely built around these five warning passages. We simply must pay careful attention to them.
THE SECOND WARNING
So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did.” Hebrews 3:7-9
The first warning came after the author’s teaching that Jesus is greater than the angels who administered the law. Now the second warning comes after the teaching that Jesus is greater than Moses the leader and law-giver. Although Moses was God’s appointed deliverer the people still rebelled against him. They did not just rebel on one occasion but continued in their rebellious attitude for the whole forty years in the wilderness.
Based on this unfortunate experience of Israel the Holy Spirit gives us an important warning. The warning is that we should not be like them and allow our hearts to become hardened. We have a blessed “today” of grace and acceptance through Jesus and his sacrifice for us. Thus, we need to make the most of this blessed opportunity. The word “today” for each of us has the meaning of “while life lasts” or “while we have a chance.” We must give our submission to God before this day of opportunity closes. 9
It is evident throughout scripture that Israel is a type and pattern for us today (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-11). In 1 Corinthians 10:11 we read: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” For this warning the writer is going back to Psalm 95:6-11 and is repeating here much of the warning once given to Israel.
It should be obvious from this passage that rebellion of any kind can bring a wilderness time of testing upon us, regardless of the age in which we are living. The Hebrews tested God on several occasions. The most infamous occasion was at the waters of Meribah (which means “murmuring”). Often Meribah and Massah are mentioned together, the latter meaning “temptation.”10 There the Israelites murmured and tested God saying: “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exo. 17:7).
The Holy Spirit is greatly concerned that we do not allow our hearts to become hardened. This process is often pictured as a very thin glaze of ice forming over a body of water. It seems hardly noticeable at first but in time it can become thick enough and hard enough that a loaded truck can be driven over it. It should be noted that God does not harden hearts. He only allows them to become hardened if that is our wish. It appears in scripture that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Craig Keener points out the several instances where it seems that God has hardened the monarch’s heart (Exodus 9:12, 35; 10:27 and 11:10). However, this was only after Pharaoh had hardened his own heart in Exodus 7:22; 8:15, 32. 11 Thus man is responsible for his sin and perdition and
It is clear that their complaining and their testing God continued for the duration of the forty years. One event happened as the people were at Kadesh Barnea near the Promised Land. Here it appears that the events of Massah and Meribah were repeated (cf. Exo. 17:7; Num. 20:1-13). The spies, with exception of Joshua and Caleb, brought back an evil report and the people refused to enter into the land.
God says: “That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways’” (3:10). All through the scripture we are admonished to know God’s ways and to walk in them. Often folks use Psalm 103:7 to illustrate the importance of this. The psalm says: “He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel.” There is surely a sense here, that if we do not learn his ways we will experience some of his deeds of correction and judgment in our lives.
So God was angry or grieved with that generation. The word “grieved” used here (prosochthizo) means “to be wroth or displeased with.” In the Septuagint the Hebrew verbs that are translated mean “to loathe, be disgusted, to spew out, to exclude, reject, abhor, repudiate.”12
“So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest’” (3:11). The “rest” is a very important subject in scripture. There are at least four meanings to this rest of God in the Bible. In the creation account it is used of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:2). It is used concerning the Promised Land into which Joshua brought the people (Josh. 1:13). In Psalm 95, which we have mentioned previously, it is used concerning David’s day in which God’s rest was still available and awaited. Later in Hebrews 4:1 ff. it will be used of the heavenly rest that is available now and also in
the future. 13
It is important for us to note that when we break with the types, shadows and patterns of scripture we endanger ourselves. The wilderness generation failed to enter the natural land of rest and promise, therefore, they died in the wilderness. We cannot say by this that their whole generation was lost eternally with the exception of Joshua and Caleb (cf. 1 Cor. 10:5). We remember that Moses and Aaron were also part of that same generation.
Here in the Book of Hebrews we are assured by God that Moses was faithful (Heb. 3:2). All those who chose the side of truth during the forty years were certainly not lost eternally. We have to conclude that much of the loss spoken of here was not eternal and spiritual but was rather temporal and natural. That whole generation, due to their lack of faith, simply failed to enter the Promised Land which was a type of that which was to come and therefore they failed to attain the physical rest that God had prepared for them. 14
As we have said earlier, in much of the Book of Hebrews, the author is using the kal-va-homer argument, which moves from the lesser to the greater. If the people of Israel who were led by Moses failed to enter the land and died in the wilderness, how much greater will be our punishment if we are led by Jesus the Son of God and fail to enter into his rest? Harold Attridge mentions how our whole lives are sort of a pilgrimage or a journey toward the heavenly city (cf. 11:13-16). To most all travelers rest is a very appealing thing. Attridge points out that “rest” as used here seems to be a “complex symbol for the whole of salvation.”15
WE MUST HOLD FAST
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Hebrews 3:12
In this verse, the warning which has been in the background of Hebrews suddenly looms closer and becomes much more evident and serious. It is no longer a warning against merely “drifting” from the things of the Lord. It is much more alarming than that. Wuest cautions us that the word “turning away” or “departing” used here needs our special attention. The Greek word is aphistemi and it is a combination of apo, which means “off”, and histemi, which means “to stand.” Thus the compound word aphistemi means “to stand off from.” 16 It is from this source that we get our English word “apostasy.”17
As Christians we are to “see to it” that our brothers and sisters do not “stand apart” in unfaithfulness from the Body of Christ. As we have said already, God comes to us and works in us through relationship. When the Bible speaks of “his body,” “his temple,” and “his church” it always uses the plural and not the singular as we have seen. This concept is of such importance that we are told to watch out for one another. Here the author uses the word “blepete,” (present imperative with durative action) meaning to constantly keep a watchful eye on our brothers and sisters lest they slip away. 18
The Bible often speaks of the apostasy which will happen to the churches in the last day. Jesus even warns us that in the last days the love of most Christians will grow cold but those who stand firm will be saved (Mt. 24:12-13). Sometimes it seems that we are very close to that last day. Recently a survey was conducted in the US and it was found that seventy percent of churchgoing people felt that they could be good Christians without going to church. 19 This is cause for grave concern. It tells us that these folks do not really understand what the church is all about.
Long ago in the third century this Latin statement, “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” was taken from the writings of the church father Cyprian, who was bishop of Carthage in North Africa. The statement means “outside the church there is no salvation.” No doubt Cyprian used this statement in reference to the emerging Catholic Church and the statement is still being used in a rather exclusive sense within Catholicism. However, there is a great deal of truth in what this father said. When we separate ourselves from the Body of Christ we place ourselves in grave danger. It is really a first step toward apostasy.
Here we must begin to deal with a question that has long troubled God’s saints. The question is whether or not a Christian can commit apostasy and actually fall away from the faith. From the times of the Reformation, Christians have divided themselves into two camps concerning this question. The Calvanist camp (John Calvin – 1509-1564) has maintained that election is unconditional and not based upon what an individual does or does not do. All believers are thus predestined; chosen by God and will persevere to the end. Quite simply a believer cannot lose his or her salvation. Several scriptures are used to back up this point of view such as John 6:47; John 10:28; Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Philippians 1:6.
The Arminian camp (Jacobus Arminius – 1560-1609) has held that a person has free will and can fall from grace. Election is also seen as conditional and is based upon faith. Again, scriptures like Galatians 5:4; John 15:5-6 and Revelation 3:16-17 are used to support this view. There are several modifications of the views of Calvin and Arminius and sometimes there will be members of both camps found in a single church or denomination.
As we can see, this is a most urgent question since it deals with our eternal security in Christ. Each one of us needs to think this problem through and come up with a conclusion. We should be warned that the “whole counsel of scripture” (Acts 20:27 NKJ) must be consulted as we come to our conclusions. We dare not base them on what appears to be true in a single book like Hebrews or on some scriptures found here and there.
In pursuing our study of Hebrews we will face this problem over and over again and it will grow in its intensity. One thing we should remember is that truth often appears paradoxical as we have previously mentioned and we are given God’s truth amidst tension. 20 Often if the tension is removed the truth is lost. We mentioned this in 1:5 in reference to the Trinity. Quite frankly, many of those who through the centuries have “resolved” the paradox of the Trinity or the incarnation have ended up in heresy. So we might be greatly surprised someday to hear the Lord say, “Friends, Calvin and Arminius were both right.”
“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13). The Greek word used here for “encourage” or “exhort” is parakaleo. This is a composite word made up from “para” which is used to intensify the meaning and from “kaleo” (to call). Thus the word has the meaning “to call aloud” or “to utter in a loud voice.” It also has the idea of calling urgently and even begging, entreating and exhorting. 21 So obviously we can see that the writer takes the matter of encouraging and exhorting one another very seriously.
Here we can see how far we have fallen from the early church model. The early Christians took great interest in each other and watched out for the spiritual welfare of the flock. They spoke urgently to those who were in the process of backsliding. All this assumes fellowship and it is impossible to exhort each other unless we are together. 22
We are to do this while it is still called “Today.” We are to do it while we are still in the age of grace where lives can be saved and molded into Christ’s image (cf. 1 Thess. 5:11). Tomorrow will be too late for the kingdom’s work. “Tomorrow is the day when idle men work, and fools repent. Tomorrow is Satan’s to-day; he cares not what good resolutions you form, if only you fix them for tomorrow.” 23 We see here that there is a lot of opportunity in the church for building up the Body of Christ on a regular basis. “There is a vast amount of spiritual capital of this kind in the church that is unemployed, and that might be made eminently useful in helping others to heaven.”24
“We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (3:14). Here we see that it is not the beginning of the race that counts but it is how we do at the end of the race. In the Olympics many contestants begin well only to end in disaster and shame. Only the one who finishes is rewarded. Only the one who finishes best gets the gold. The wilderness generation started out very well with abundant signs and wonders and with the defeat of Pharaoh and his army in the sea but they didn’t
It is good for us to note that we do not run this race or finish it by our own strength. In 1 Corinthians 1:8 we read: “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is no doubt in this sense that the theologian Louis Berkhof remarks: “It is, strictly speaking, not man but God who perseveres. Perseverance may be defined as that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion. It is because God never forsakes his work that believers continue to stand to the very end.”25 Jonathan Edwards once remarked that if we want a sure proof of election it is found in the one who endures to the end. 26 The Lord was ever-present to help Israel and to bring his people into the land victoriously but they doubted and spurned his help. Likewise he is ever-present to help us today and to bring us through to victory (Phil. 2:13).
IT IS STILL “TODAY”
As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Hebrews 3:15
Once again the writer echoes those almost haunting words of Psalm 95. This is the day of grace and this is also the day of the race. We will not be given a repeat opportunity to win the race and the crown. This is the day! We must guard constantly against the seeds of selfishness and rebellion that are so prevalent in this present evil age. We must always guard our hearts lest there be the smallest degree of hardness creeping in. As Paul says: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
The author adds: “Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?” (3:16). Never did a generation have a better start. They witnessed the water turn to blood, the miraculous crossing of the sea on dry land, the awesome giving of the law as the mountain burned with fire. They had a pillar of cloud and fire going before them day and night. They had God’s man Moses in the lead. They were fed daily by miraculous food. However, they never finished the course.
We stand in a similar place spiritually. We are very near the land of promise and the reward of our whole journey (cf. Rom. 13:11). Lane in speaking of the “today” mentioned here says: “The quality of the day is that it is a day of promise (cf. 4:1). But it forces upon the community the same alternatives of faith and obedience or unbelief and disobedience which confronted Israel at Kadesh…”27 From that whole generation of possibly two million people only two finished the race and they were Joshua and Caleb. They happened to be the ones who continued in their faith.
How many will finish from our generation? Jesus once said: “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). James also said: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (Jam. 1:12).
“And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed?” (3:17-18). God was angry with those who sinned and who turned back in their hearts. The great reformer and commentator John Calvin adds that the author: “Speaks of the whole community rather than of individuals. It is certain that there were many godly men who were either not entangled in the general impiety or soon repented.” 28 We note that the bodies of those who sinned fell in the desert. The picture here is that the bones were dismembered and strewn along the trail in the wilderness. 29 Apparently the bleached bones lay there as a witness to the evil of that generation.
“So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (3:19). Adam Clark (1762-1832), the British, Methodist theologian, Bible scholar and exhaustive commentator, considers unbelief as the most damaging of all sins. 30 In reality, unbelief is the root and core of all sin. He goes on to say that “this whole chapter, as the epistle in general, reads a most awful lesson against backsliders, triflers, and loiterers in the way of salvation.”31