by Chris Ritter
I am sporting a new scar on my left hand today. A week ago I might have boasted in my avocado-slicing skills. After all, I do this almost every morning. I know how to take a sharp knife and ring around the pit. I know how to twist the fruit open, pierce the woody globe in the middle and pop it out. I even know how to slice the flesh of the avocado while it is still in the rind.
But this past Wednesday, the avocado won. The pit slid to the side and my sharp knife found my hand instead. When something is sharp, it has the power to pierce and to divide. And we will come to a famous verse in Hebrews about that very thing. It is a line from Hebrews I know you have heard because I have quoted it often. Hebrews is full of such memorable lines.
There is some debate about what the Book of Hebrews actually is. An epistle? It ends like a letter, but it doesn’t start like one. I would call Hebrews a sermon… and a magnificent one. It contains some great one-liners:
- Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
- Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
- Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
- Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
- Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
This is the first time in thirty years as a preacher that I have attempted to preach through Hebrews, argument by argument. It is very tempting just to pull out the one-liners. But this book deserves better than that.
It is, as we said last week, perhaps the most difficult book in the New Testament. It is a 400-level class. It assumes we have passed Judaism 101, 201, and 301 before getting to 401: “Judaism in Light of Jesus.” If you haven’t take the prerequisites it is easy to get lost.
Serious Truth for Serious Times
But Hebrews is a book of serious truths. And we live in serious times… times of pandemics, riots, and economic upheaval. Serious times call for serious truth. Summer 2020 is not a time for spiritual cotton candy. It is time to put deep roots in deep truth.
Hebrews is worth the effort. It was written to a group of people who were tempted to try to fit Jesus into their old way of life instead of adopt a new way of life shaped around Jesus. They wanted to treat Jesus as an additive to the old instead of the bringer of something totally new. This reveals, of course, that their vision of Jesus needed to grow.
Our life situation is much different than the Christian who originally read this, but the prescription written for them will also cure what ails us. When need a bigger vision of Jesus. Imagine, for instance, that you are harboring unforgiveness for someone. You know you should forgive, but you just can’t seem to do it. If you could just see Jesus on the cross praying, “Father forgive them for the they don’t know what they are doing”… that would change everything.
Perhaps you are wallowing in guilt and shame. You feel totally unlovable and can’t believe that God accepts you. If you could just look, even for an instant, into the eyes of Jesus and see his love and grace, that struggle would be over.
Maybe you are into worldly living. Your life revolves around getting your own needs met and how you measure up in the opinion of others. You are focused on your image, your people, and your next selfie. If you could just see Jesus’ servant heart, his foot-washing spirit, and his eternal vision, your attitude would be forever changed.
Much of what ails us could be repaired with a five-second glimpse into Jesus and his eternal kingdom. Whatever the diagnosis of your soul, seeing Jesus more clearly is the cure. And Hebrews was written to show us a Jesus who is greater… greater than our past, bigger than our present, and the rightful inheritor of our future.
That is why we are doing more than just skimming Hebrews for some good one-liners. We are paying attention to the sustained theological arguments of this amazing book… because they reveal Jesus to us. Today we are building upon our introduction last week by delving into Chapters Three and most of Chapter Four, in its entirely.
This is the Word of God:
Hebrews 3 (NIV)
3 Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. 2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. 4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.
7 So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
10 That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. 15 As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”
16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
Hebrews 4 (NIV)
4 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
6 Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, 7 God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Jesus, Our Apostle
Hebrews is written to show us Jesus and the author opens Chapter Three by calling Jesus the Apostle and High Priest of our faith. We touched on Jesus as high priest last week and will spend more time on that in the weeks to come. But this is the only place in the Bible that Jesus is called “Apostle.” The word apostle means “sent one” and it was a word that was used throughout the ancient world for an emissary or ambassador. Peter, Paul, and John were apostles of Jesus because Jesus sent them. The author here is making the point that Jesus has been sent to us as the ultimate representative of God’s Eternal Kingdom.
A couple hundred years B.C., a king named Antiochus Epiphanies of Syria decided to raise a great army and invade Egypt. The Roman Empire was none too keen on this move as Egypt was their source of grain. It was like someone taking Illinois and Iowa from the United States. When they heard of the plan, the Romans sent an envoy named Popillius who met the army on the border of Egypt.
Popillius shared the news that Rome would like Antiochus Epiphanies to turn around a go home. Imagine that! One man trying to turn around a great army. Antiochus smiled grimly and said, “I’ll consider it.”
Popillius took his staff and drew a circle around the king. He replied, “Consider it, and make your decision before you leave this circle.” The army turned around and went back the way it came. Such is the power of a emissary when he/she represents something greater. Jesus is our apostle, our sent one, our emissary. And we are wise to listen to him.
Greater Than Moses
Then the author of Hebrews drops a truth bomb. (Hold on to your hats.) He says this: JESUS IS GREATER THAN MOSES.
Shocked? I see that you aren’t. You are probably thinking, “I know that. I learned that Jesus is greater than anyone way back in Sunday School.” But we should not miss what a radical statement this is to these early Christians who were raised with a Jewish heritage. They had been raised with the idea that Moses was the greatest ever.
Moses wasn’t just a prophet. He was THE prophet (much like Mohammed is to the Muslim people). Moses is the one that went up on the mountain and received the Ten Commandments. He is the one who parted the waters of the Red Sea. On more than one occasion God purposed to destroy the entire rebellious nation of Israel and Moses interceded for them, standing in the gap.
On one occasion, Moses’ own brother and sister, Aaron, and Merriam, stand up to say that Moses was taking too much authority for himself and offered themselves as people who should get more attention. In Numbers 12, God summons them to the Tent of Meeting where he often met with Moses. God explains:
- “When there is a prophet among you,
I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,
I speak to them in dreams.
7 But this is not true of my servant Moses;
he is faithful in all my house.
8 With him I speak face to face,
clearly and not in riddles;
he sees the form of the Lord.
Why then were you not afraid
to speak against my servant Moses?”
Merriam starts to break out in leprosy and Aaron cries out for mercy. Moses prays for them so that they might be healed. Moral of the story? “Don’t mess with Moses.”
The author of Hebrews, however, borrows a phrase from that story to illustrate the Jesus is higher. Moses is faithful “in God’s house” as the chief servant. But Jesus is the builder of the house. He owns the house!
And this forms the basis for his prolonged discourse with a profound warning. If it was bad to fall away from Moses, how much worse to fall away from Jesus. Our passage today is prolonged call for faithfulness and perseverance.
Warning for Backsliders
This is one of the great themes of Hebrews:
- Don’t fall back
- Don’t backslide.
- Don’t lose your focus on Jesus.
Because starting well is great, but finishing well is greater. Hebrews 3:6 says. “we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.”
This echoes Jesus’ words in the parable of the sower. Some seeds sprung up, but whithered under the heat. The seed that produced fruit put down deep roots, withstood the drought, and lasted till the end. Perseverance is the sign of true faith.
Hebrews says we have everything to gain by staying true to Jesus and everything to lose by slipping back. Rejecting Jesus is more serious than rejecting Moses.
The New in the Old
When early Christians (at first, all of whom were Jewish) began to understand their scriptures in light of Jesus, they began to see Jesus in all the books of the Old Testament. St. Augustine said, “The New is in the Old Concealed. The Old is in the New revealed.”
One passage that seems especially connected to the Christian story was the Exodus. Reading it through the lens of Jesus, the story of Israel coming out of Egypt and into the Promised land seems to read as an allegory of the Christian journey.
We have a spotless lamb whose blood brought deliverance. We had a baptism, of sorts, through the Red Sea. Just as the law was given at Sinai, the Holy Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts. Our manna is the body of Jesus given during Communion. We drink from water flowing from our Rock, Christ Jesus. The Israelites were headed to Canaan. We have our own Promised Land in Heaven. How many of our hymns and Gospel songs related death to crossing the Jordan and the Promised Land to our Heavenly Home?
Just as their story is our story, their warning are our warning. And Hebrews picks up one of these warning captures in Psalm 95. This is a poetic telling of the Exodus that was part of the hymnody of the synagogue and a passage with which they would have been very familiar.
Hebrews recalls the rebellion made by Israel after spies were sent by Moses to survey the Promised Land. The spies returned with glowing reports about the land and its fruitfulness. But ten of the twelve brought back a bad report on Israel’s chances of success. The cities were walled. They people there seemed like giants. Their bad report sent a wave of panic through Israel and the people sought to select leaders to take them back to Egypt.
God, who had shown his signs and wonders so bountifully to this people, spared them for their faithlessness only at the insistence of Moses. As a consequence of their rebellion, God pronounced that none of them would enter the new land. This generation would need to die out so that he could take their children into the inheritance.
Hebrews declared that we, today, find ourselves in a similar place of decision. Are we going to press on toward God’s Promises or slink back to Egypt? We should be full of faith and encourage one another daily, while it is still called today. (Hebrews 3:13). An old story is brought into the present to teach us to press forward in faith.
Following Jesus is hard sometimes. It requires much of us. It was much easier, in the First Century, to be a Jewish person than a Christian. Hebrews provides both warnings and encouragement to stay faithful.
See to it, brothers, that there is not in any of you and evil heart of unbelief, deserting the living God, but encourage one another day by day, so long as it is called “Today” lest any of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Those who are sliding back fall into the same category as the unfaithful spies who said that God could not take them into the Promised Land.
So We enter Chapter Four with this Clarion Call to a Persisting Faith. Those who did not believe God’s promises under the Old Covenant failed to enter into God’s rest, that is, the Promised Land where they would cease from wandering and enjoy rest from their enemies.
The author has quoted Psalm 95, a song about the Exodus. It refers to the Promised Land as “God’s Rest” (The rest God wants to give to His people). Now he is going to take the concept “my Rest” and relate it back to Genesis 2:2-3. God created over six days, and on the 7th Day he rested.
First Century Jewish believers would see this, often as God continuing to rest. When they celebrated the Sabbath, they were not just resting from their labors, but entering into the rest that God Himself enjoys. This, of course, does not mean that God is “off the clock”, in a passive mode, or not on watch. It means a peace that is deeper than the mere cessation of activity.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ Day criticized Our Lord for violating the Sabbath. In John 5:17, Jesus reminded them, “My Father is working, and I am working, too.” God’s “sabbath” does not mean he does not help his children. Jesus could both living in God’s Sabbath and also minister to others.
This Rest is different that the Israelites experienced by coming into the land. Joshua gave them rest from their enemies in Canaan, but God wants something deeper for his people. Hebrews want to draw distinction between temporal rest and the blissful rest of unbroken fellowship with God.
This is the goal we must press toward. This is why Heaven is so attractive to True Believers. It is Unbroken Fellowship with God.
Many Christians have adopted what is much closer to the Muslim view of Heaven… a place of sensual delights. You want to go to heaven because God has loaded it up with all sorts of rewards. But the best thing Heaven has to offer is God himself. Our soul cries out for unbroken fellowship with God. This is our true Promised Land, our true Sabbath, our true Home.
Hebrews 4:11-13 “Make every effort to enter that Rest.”
I doubt the author of Hebrews would disgree with Paul when he says we are saved by grace through faith and not through efforts of our own. But true faith perseveres to the end. Just like the Israelites, we will face trials and temptations on our way to the Promised Land.
Isaac Watts penned, “No one can be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease.”
Cuts Like a Knife
Zeal and perseverance are called for. And that brings us a famous passage:
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.Hebrews 4:12-13
Like a knife cutting into an avocado, God’s word cuts deeply. It divides… drawing a line and laying out our choices. It cuts to our very depths, down to the division of the soul and spirit, the bone and the marrow.
The Word diagnoses us, and then it challenges us. It provides blessing for those guided by it and ruin for those who disregard it. It is an active Word, because it is meant to accomplish something in our lives:
Jeremiah 23:29 says, “My word… that goes forth from my mouth… it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper the thing for which I sent it.”
The preacher is calling us to a moment of decision. Are we going to press forward toward Canaan or are we going to slink back to Egypt? Today, are we pressing on in faith or are we drifting?
I am going to press on with Jesus. How about you?