After expounding on the “household of God” and demonstrating the superiority of the Son over Moses, the “servant of God,” the letter to the Hebrews continues with a lesson drawn from the story of Israel. During its sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites complained bitterly against Moses for leading them to a place lacking sufficient water.
Consequently, God decreed that the generation of Israelites He freed from Egyptian bondage would not enter the land of Canaan.
Likewise, members of the congregation addressed by the letter who fail to “hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end” will face a similar fate, but one with far greater and longer-lasting consequences.
A key theme in the next paragraph is the coming “rest” for the people of God, which corresponds to what the generation of Israel that escaped from Egyptian bondage failed to receive, namely, inheritance in the Promised Land.
Chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews form a single literary unit. In chapter 2, the letter introduces the priesthood of Jesus, though it was hinted at in its opening paragraph’s declaration that the Son “achieved the purification of sins.” The discussion will return to the subject of his priesthood at the end of chapter 4.
The future “rest” was hinted at in the second chapter. Jesus partook of the full human experience so that he could “deliver us who through fear of death were all our lifetime subject to bondage.” And because this effort included his participation in the same death as other men, he is a priest fully qualified to provide his people with “succor when they are tempted,” and therefore, we are “partners of a heavenly calling” - (Hebrews 2:14-3:1).
The present chapter began with the strong exhortation for believers to consider very carefully the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession” who God made the head over His “household,” the same priestly figure who tasted death on their behalf. And that “household” consists of the men and women who have received the “purification of their sins” through what the Son accomplished by his death (“whose house we are”).
And chapter 3 anticipates the combination of his priesthood and the “household” over which he presides which is found in chapter 10. It is in his capacity as our High Priest that Jesus rules over God’s “household”:
“Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God” - (Hebrews 10:19-21).
For this reason, because of all that Jesus has achieved for his people, it is vital for his disciples to pay heed to the example from Scripture that the letter now cites:
“Wherefore, according as says the Holy Spirit, Today, do not harden your hearts as in the embitterment, in the day of testing in the desert when your fathers tested by proving, and saw my works forty years. Wherefore, I was sore vexed with this generation, and said, Always err they in their heart. Howbeit, they learned not my ways, so I swore in my anger, They shall not enter into my rest! Be taking heed, brethren, lest at any time, there shall be in any one of you a wicked heart of unbelief in the departing from a Living God. But exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called ‘today’, lest any of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, for we are partners of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end.” – (Hebrews 3:7-14).
The believer who abandons the Son because of unbelief risks losing his or her place in the “household” of God, just as the Israelites who rebelled against Moses were denied access to their inheritance in the Promised Land - “Whose house we are if we hold fast the confession”. This proposition assumes apostasy to be a very real possibility.
The scriptural passage cited is found in Psalm 95:7-11, which, in turn, expounds on the original story found in Exodus 17:1-7 when the Israelites accused Moses of leading them into the desert to die of thirst.
“If you shall hear his voice…be not hardening your hearts.” This clause refers not to the physical ability to hear God’s voice, but to the correct disposition on the part of the hearer to “heed” what He is saying, and this understanding is confirmed by the admonishment not to harden one’s heart.
And the Greek verb rendered “hardening” is in the present tense, which points to an ongoing action, namely, the continual effort that is required to avoid any hardening of the heart. One must constantly heed God’s “voice” while He is “speaking.”
GOD IS SPEAKING
And the “voice of God” that is speaking here is the scriptural passage quoted by the letter. We are to “take heed” to what this voice is saying. The same Greek verb and thought are found in the twelfth chapter of Hebrews:
“Take heed that you do not refuse Him that is speaking. For if they escaped not when they refused him that warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape who turn away from him that warns from heaven” – (Hebrews 12:25).
The term rendered “rest” does not refer to resting after physical exertion. In the original story, it refers to the inheritance that Israel would receive in the land of Canaan, not to the Sabbath day or any other day of rest (“For you have not come in hitherto unto the rest and unto the inheritance that Yahweh is giving to you” – Deuteronomy 12:9).
“Unbelief” is attributed here to the “deceitfulness of sin,” and it amounts to abandoning the God who created His “household” to be provisioned and inhabited. The Greek infinitive means to “depart, stand apart from, revolt.” And the term translated as the “living God” is found in a parallel context in the tenth chapter:
“Of how much sorer punishment do you think he will be judged worthy who has trodden underfoot the Son of God and counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing and has done despite to the Spirit of grace?... It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the LIVING GOD” – (Hebrews 10:28-31).
How the “living God” is used in the letter is paradoxical. The God of Scripture is the source of all life, and there is no life of any sort apart from Him. Yet to desert Him means the loss of all life, and ultimately, death, for He is also a God of justice. And that is why it is such a “fearful thing” for an apostate to “fall into His hands.”
But if we “hold fast our confidence,” we remain “partners of the Messiah.” This last clause employs the same Greek noun for “partners” found in chapters 1 and at the beginning of chapter 3, and in each case, it refers to disciples of Christ who “hold fast” their confidence in him and the word of God that the Almighty has “spoken” in him - (Hebrews1:9, 3:1).
The Israelites who came out of Egypt did not live to enter the Promised Land because of their disobedience. And here, the author attributes their rebellion to “unbelief” - the failure to heed the “voice of God.”
The disciple who contemplates leaving the church even if only to escape persecution must understand what he or she is doing, and exactly what is at risk. He has failed to “hold fast” the “word of the Son,” and therefore, he is guilty of unbelief and apostasy.
If he carries through what he is contemplating, the consequences will mean his loss of place in the “household of God,” and eventual judgment in the hands of the “living God.” He will not “enter into God’s rest.”