The writer of Hebrews has asserted a life-changing, beautiful truth. We are God’s house. We belong in the house and receive all the rights, privileges, and blessings of this status as God’s children. The message is that we would not give up under the weight of our trials or suffering for the cause of Christ because we have a glorious hope and confidence that cannot be taken from us: we are God’s house. But now the author is going to take a moment to warn his audience as to why they must not fall away and to recognize how easy it is to fall away from the Lord. To do this, the author begins by quoting from Psalm 95.
The Quotation (3:7-11)
The author wants his audience to listen to what the Holy Spirit said in the psalm:
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. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” (Hebrews 3:7–11 ESV)
The writer of Hebrews reminds these Christians what happened to the people of Israel in the wilderness. Do not fall into the same error as those in the wilderness. What did they do? They hardened their hearts. What exactly did that look like? They did not trust God but in their themselves. Even though they saw God’s works, they forgot what God had done for them and did not trust him. Essentially, the Lord is saying that the people saw what he did but it did not change them. It did not matter to them. They were unaffected by what God did for them. Thus, they put the Lord to the test because they did not believe that God would provide for them in the wilderness. Even though God had rescued the people of Israel through many amazing miracles, they did not believe that God would provide or work a miracle for them when it came to food and water. Ultimately we see the people desiring Egypt and all that it offered more than God. Notice the rest of this decision in verse 10. The Lord was angered with that generation and took an oath in his wrath that they would not enter into his rest. They always go astray in their heart and do not know God’s ways. Therefore, condemnation is deserved. No rest is given to those who do not live by faith. No rest is given to those who harden their hearts. No rest is given to those who always go astray in their hearts and do not know God’s ways.
The Warning (3:12)
Now the author shows us that this is not about a history lesson for Israel but a warning to us. Take care that there is not in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart, leading us to fall away from the living God. Their failure can just as easily become our failure. The difficulties of our time in the wilderness now can just as easily cause us to harden our hearts as they did. Now think about what the writer warns us against. He warns us against having an evil, unbelieving heart. Do you have an evil, unbelieving heart? I do not think any of us would say yes. None of us think that we have such a heart. Look, we are at worship today. So how could we possibly have an evil, unbelieving heart? But I would suppose that the people of Israel thought the same. So we cannot be fooled into thinking that just because we are part of the congregation that this means we are immune from having an evil, unbelieving heart that would cause us to not enter into the Lord’s rest.
The Prevention (3:13-14)
Listen to the prevention that the preacher of Hebrews provides.
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. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:13–14 ESV)
The prevention to keep us from an evil, unbelieving heart is to exhort each other every day, all day. Did you expect that? Think about what you might have answered would be the prevention needed to keep from an unbelieving heart. What the writer of Hebrews tells us is that we need each other. Unfortunately, we have the tendency to not believe this. We think that we can be independent. We do not see the need for gathering for Bible studies. We do not see the need to gather for our worship times. We do not see the need to listen to sermons. We do not see the need to spend our time together as often as possible. I do not think the point is that we must be joined together every single hour of every single day or else we are doomed. Rather, the point seems to be emphasizing that there is such a great need to be together. But even this is not accurate. It is not that we just get together. I am concerned at the direction to socialize the church. What I mean by this is that our efforts together are merely socially based, like eating meals, playing games, and the like. But notice that there is a purpose to our gathering together. The purpose is that we encourage each other. The purpose is that we exhort each other. We are called to come along each other’s side and help each other. This is one reason why our worship times cannot be fun and games. It cannot be entertainment and coffee and show. We have a purpose and it is a salvation purpose. People need to hear encouragement so that they are not deceived by sin.
Here is what I want you to hear from the writer of Hebrews. You need to help others and they need to help you. You need to let people help you and you need to be involved enough to help others. If all that we do is show up, listen to a lesson, and then leave as fast as possible, then we are missing the point completely. We need to look at ourselves as God-ordained encouragers who have been brought here today to encourage everyone else. We need to do this while it is still called “Today.”
Now look at why this is so important. “So that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Did we catch what is happening? How are our hearts hardened like the people of Israel’s hearts were hardened in the wilderness? Our hearts are hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Sin lies to us. Sin deceives us. Sin lies to us and tells us what we are doing is not a big deal. Sin lies to us and tells us that we are still in control. Sin lies to us and tells us that we are not slipping away from the Lord. Sin lies to us and tells us that our souls are still safe while we engage in our sinful thoughts and sinful acts. One of the worst ways that sin lies to us is telling us that the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we see our lives and the lives of others is right.
The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 CSB)
We need each other by word and example because sin is trying to lie to us to go away from the Lord while thinking all the while we have not left the Lord at all. This was the great failure of the people of Israel in the wilderness. They did not think they had left the Lord. They did not think they were turning from God. They just were complaining about their life circumstances. They were just tired of having to be in the wilderness. They just wanted to be full and happy. They just wanted life to be easy. They just wanted to do what they wanted to do. Yet these kinds of thoughts turned out to be sin lying to them until their hearts were hardened and they fell in the wilderness.
The deceptive power of sin is not an excuse for our disobedience but a warning for us to wake up and actively resist the hardening of our hearts. We do this because we have come to share in Christ. This has been the point in chapters 2 and 3. We are sons of God, brothers with Christ, elevated to the status of belonging in God’s house. We share in the one family and we share one Father. We are partakers in Christ as long as we hold our original confidence to the end. Notice again the call for our endurance.
One More Word (3:15-19)
The author of Hebrews returns to Psalm 95 to apply it to the audience who is listening to him.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15 ESV)
The author once again emphasizes the word, “Today.” Today is when you need to hear his voice. Today you must not harden your hearts. Today you need to encourage each other. Now I want you to notice the critical message the author draws. Look at verses 16-19. Who were those who heard and rebelled? The people who were led by Moses out of Egypt. Think about what those people experienced. They heard Moses. They saw the miracles. They heard God speak from Mount Sinai. They saw the mountain shaking and burning. They saw the tabernacle. They saw the glory of the Lord fill the tabernacle. Yet they rebelled.
With whom was the Lord provoked to anger for 40 years? In our Sunday night studies we have seen the rebellion of Israel, with failure after failure regarding idolatry and their unwillingness to enter the land. God was angry with those who sinned and their bodies fell in the wilderness for it. Remember that the message of the book of Numbers is that God does not accept rebellion.
To whom did God swear that they would not enter his rest? It was the very same people who experienced all that God did. They were disobedient. I want you to see the thread that the preacher of Hebrews has proclaimed about these people. The people who saw the wonders and heard the voice of the Lord rebelled (3:16), sinned (3:17), and disobeyed (3:18). Think about it because it is easy for us to pass over this reality. None of them made it except Joshua and Caleb. Hundreds of thousands of people failed who were God’s chosen people, Israel. Why? Look at verse 19. “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” They failed to enter the rest, though they were Israel, though they had been taken out of Egyptian slavery, though they were led by Moses, though they experienced the wonders and blessings of God, because they did not believe. They did not have faith. This brings us full circle back to verse 12 with the warning against having an evil, unbelieving heart.
Unbelief is the source of disobedience. The author of Hebrews wants us to see the real problem because we fool ourselves and sin fools us. The real problem is faith. Sin is the symptom of the problem. The real problem is unbelief. They lost the promises of God and all the future blessings of rest because of their unbelieving hearts. This is the truth that the author wants to have hit between our eyes. Why did Israel fail in the wilderness and not enter the rest? They did not believe in the Lord. They thought they believed but they did not really believe. Every time there was a difficulty, obstacle, hardship, or challenge, the people failed to trust God which led to their disobedience, sinning, and rebellion. The visible sign of unbelief is disobedience.
When we sin, we need to see the meaning of our disobedience. We need to see that there is a problem in our hearts. Sin is the fruit and unbelief is the root. Therefore, addressing our sinning is not the most profitable method but addressing our unbelief. Think about how this truth reaches back to the very beginning. Why did Adam and Eve sin? Why did Eve listen to the serpent? Because she did not believe what God told her about the tree and what it would do. Unbelief is the root of sin. Now think about this in a positive light: the reason we obey is because we have faith in God. Why did Abraham obey the Lord regarding Isaac? Romans 4:20-21 says, “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
When we fail to obey and when we sin, we must stop and consider what about God we are not believing in. This is what the author of Hebrews is telling us to do. Go back to Hebrews 3:12. Take care and watch out that you do not have an evil, unbelieving heart. Look for it. Watch out for it. Realize that our hearts are deceitful. Our minds are corrupted and we have to fight against that. When we sin we need to not be deceived but look at what is going on in our hearts that was the catalyst for that sin. What is wrong with my heart that I said what I said? What is wrong with my heart that I have those impure thoughts? What is wrong with my heart that I am following those sinful desires? What is wrong with my heart that I desire sexual immorality, adultery, divorce, or any other sexual sin? What is wrong with my heart that I have malice, bitterness, outbursts of wrath, or any other display of evil against another person? Look at what is in your heart and mind that needs to be renewed. But let us press it further. What do you think God is holding back from you in your life that you desire or practice such things? Eve believed God was holding back from her. Israel in the wilderness believed that God was holding back from them. What do you believe God is holding back from you? God is giving you lasting joy and satisfaction through the means he has provided. But we have to believe it.
Then our eternal security becomes a community project as we together exhort and encourage each other address those unbelieving areas in our hearts. Now it is my job and your job to come up to each other and tell each other that we need to consider our hearts and our minds. We must go up to each other and help each other do better. We must go up to each other and not applaud our failures, but press into the root of our failures so that we do not have an evil, unbelieving heart that will lead us to not be able to enter the rest. Look in your heart and look for help so that you will not fail to enter as Israel failed.