Big Idea: Israel only got a sample of what we get to enjoy, so don’t miss out on Jesus and all that he's given us.
I feel like I know you well enough to share a fairy advanced Bible reading technique for the Hebrew Scriptures. It goes by the acronym HCTBSS. Sound complicated? Here’s what it means: How could they be so stupid?
Here’s how it works. We read a story in the Old Testament. For instance, we read in Numbers 13 about the time that Israel approached the land that God had promised them from the south. They sent in spies, and 10 of the 12 spies came back and said they couldn’t take the land. They’d just watched God rescue them from slavery from the one of the most powerful empires in the world. They’d watched God perform miracle after miracle to set them free, and now they were terrified of some tall people.
The HCTBSS method of interpreting Scripture is to shake our heads and say, “How could they be so stupid?” We know we would do better. This is such a versatile technique for reading Scripture that we can use it in the New Testament too. For instance, whenever the disciples blow it with Jesus — and there are plenty of examples — we can shake our heads and think, “How could they have been so stupid!” and think that we would have done a lot better.
Today’s passage introduces us to a better technique for reading Scripture, particularly when we read about when people get it wrong. Here’s the technique that this passage teaches us: WITSD. It stands for “We’re in the same danger.” Whenever we’re tempted to read Scripture and think, “How could they be so stupid?” we should actually be thinking, “We’re in the same danger.” We’re not better than the people of Scripture. In fact, we’re just like them. We need to learn from their mistakes because we’re in danger of making the exact same ones ourselves.
I want to show you this from the passage we just read. Here’s what I want to show you: two examples of disobedience, and then how to avoid making the same mistake ourselves.
Two Examples of Disobedience
Here are the two examples of mistakes that people made in the past in Scripture.
The first has to do with Moses.
Moses is a great figure in the Hebrew Scriptures. He led Israel from Egypt to the brink of the Promised Land. He built the tabernacle. God gave the law through Moses. God spoke to Moses face to face (Exodus 33:11). It would be hard to think of many people in the history of redemption who loom larger than Moses.
But how did Israel do under Moses leadership? Not that well. In verses 7 to 11, the writer to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7-11:
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.’ ”
Look at the interpretive technique that the writer uses in the verses that follow:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 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. (Hebrews 3:12-13)
Do you see what he’s saying? We could make the same mistake! We’re in the same danger that they were.
In fact, the writer argues that we’re in even greater danger. The first part of Hebrews 3 argues that although Israel had a great leader — Moses — we have an even better leader. Verses 1 to 5 argues that Jesus is superior to Moses. Verse 3 says, “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses.” Moses presided over a house, the tabernacle; Jesus not only built that house but everything. Verse 5 says that Moses was a servant in the house, but Jesus is God’s son over that house. As great as Moses was, Jesus is much greater.
And so the stakes are so much higher for us. They rebelled against Moses, but if we make the same mistake, we’re rebelling against somebody even greater than Moses. We’re rebelling against Jesus! We could make the same mistake they did, except against an even greater person: Jesus himself.
Do you see the writer’s urgency here? He’s not holding a dispassionate theological study. He’s highlighting mistakes from the Hebrew Scriptures and trying to get our attention: we’re in the same danger! We could make the same mistake!
The results were catastrophic for Israel. At the end of chapter 3, he says that every one of the rebels died in the wilderness. The wilderness where Israel wandered for 40 years was littered with bodies not just because people die, but because they rebelled against God and missed out on entering the land that God gave them. The danger for us is that we might have “an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12).
If Jesus is greater than Moses, how much higher are the stakes if we rebel against him? The stakes couldn’t be higher for us. You’re in danger, and I am too.
Then we get to the second example.
The second example has to do with Joshua.
Moses died without entering the Promised Land due to his own disobedience. But God gave Israel another leader named Joshua. According to verse 2, Joshua preached the “good news” to them — the gospel, the gracious good news of undeserved grace. What was the message to them? That the land was there for the taking! All they had to do was enter in to what God had promised them. Joshua and Caleb told the people these words in Numbers 14:9: “Do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”
How did the people of Israel respond to this good news? Verse 2 says, “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” It is not enough to hear the good news. We must respond in faith to the good news. They didn’t trust God wholeheartedly even though the good news had been preached to them.
As a result they missed out on God’s promises. They didn’t enter the rest that God had given them because they didn’t respond in faith and believe the message that was proclaimed to them. He’s already quoted Psalm 95 twice in this passage, and he continues to quote Psalm 95 three more times in chapter 4, verses 3, 5, and 7:
How does the writer apply this to us? He argues that they were offered the rest of the Promised Land, but we’ve been offered an even better rest. Hebrews 4:2 says, “Good news came to us just as to them.” But the good news — the gospel — that we’ve received is so much better. Think about what the writer’s already said in this letter so far: that Jesus became human, defeated death and the devil, died for our sins, and serves as our merciful and faithful high priest. What a message. Since our good news is even better than the good news they received, it’s so important that we receive this message by faith — that we embrace it with put all our chips in on this message that we’ve received so that we can enter our rest.
We have to pause here and try to understand what he means when he’s talking about rest. There are all kinds of rest in the Bible. There’s the rest that God took at creation that he mentions in verse 4. There’s the command to observe the Sabbath. There’s the rest of entering the land that God had promised. But all of these are just pointers to the ultimate rest that God gives his people.
That’s why verses 8 to 10 say:
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
God has a rest for his people, a rest that’s far better than just entering the Promised Land or enjoying your Sabbath. Don’t throw it away! Just as the people in Joshua’s day had the good news preached to them and missed their chance, we’ve had even better news preached to us. We get to enjoy part of this rest now. We get the rest from guilt and sin, because our sins have been placed on Christ. There is nothing more to be done for us to be made right with God. “Christ, by suffering in his stead, has answered all the demands of justice, and the believer’s heart is perfectly at rest” (Spurgeon). We also get the moments of rest and joy that give us a glimpse of what eternity will be like. But the ultimate fulfilment will be in eternity when our work will be completed. Our time of work and suffering will be over. Don’t miss it!
Don’t blow your chance! The stakes are much higher for you. Don’t think, “How could they be so stupid!” Think, “We could make the same mistake.” Don’t let it happen to you.
How to Avoid Disobedience
How do we avoid making the same mistakes that they did in Moses’ day and Joshua’s day? Since we’re in danger, what do we do about it?
What I love about Hebrews is that the writer doesn’t just give one answer. There’s no single solution to this question. There are a few things that we must do, and this passage mentions some of them.
- “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1). “Consider Jesus.” You could translate this, “Rivet your attention on Jesus.” Consider him. Think about him. Notice him. Mediate on Jesus. Focus your attention on him. Robert Murray McCheyne said, “Believers should live in daily consideration of the greatness and glory of Christ.” Live in wonder at the glories of our Savior.
- Be on guard for signs of an unbelieving heart. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12). We’re all in danger of being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). This is a gradual process that takes place without us being aware of it. So stay on guard. How is your heart today? Are you losing wonder of your salvation? Are you becoming jaded against the truths of the gospel? Are you becoming more tolerant of sin? “Take care!” the writer says. You’re in danger of making the same mistakes as the children of Israel, but the stakes are even higher for you. Don’t let it happen to you.
- “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today” (3:13). We need each other! We came today to exhort each other because we’re all in danger of wandering. We’re all in need of exhortation and encouragement from each other. It’s one of the reasons we came today. I love how Raymond Brown puts it: “Believers are expected to exercise a daily, cheering ministry to other Christians … every member of the body of Christ should grasp opportunities in every day to speak the uplifting word and do the supportive thing for his Christian partners in Christ.”
- “Strive to enter that rest” (4:11). Why? So you don’t fall by the same sort of disobedience. You will be found out if you wander because disobedience is fatal. “God’s word is living and active, judging and destroying those who turn against him. No creature can hide from God, for he is the all-knowing One as our Creator, and our lives are laid bare before him” (Thomas Schreiner). So work hard at entering that rest.
Don’t think, “How could they be so stupid!” Think, “We’re in the same danger.” We can easily become like the Israelites who had so much and yet missed out on God’s blessings. We can be like the a thirty-one-year-old mother of two, who after attending two services where the gospel was presented said, “I’ve just realized I’ve been playing religion all my life. I’m active at church, I’m on committees, I’ve heard about the Crucifixion so much since I was a child that I’ve been numb to it. And I realized today that I don’t have a relationship with Christ.”
Don’t let it happen to you! Israel only got a sample of what we get to enjoy, so don’t miss out on Jesus and all that he's given us.