Chapters 3 and 4 form a large digression containing two exhortations and one warning, before the argument returns to the subject of Jesus being the superior high priest. It begins with the first exhortation (3:1-6) to consider Jesus as being greater than Moses. Then follows the lengthy second warning (3:7 - 4:13) from the failure of the Israelites in the wilderness. It concludes with the
second exhortation (4:14-16) to approach the throne of grace with boldness.
Exhortation 1: Consider Jesus - more glory than Moses (3:1-6)
Building on what has already been stated, because Jesus is a greater revelation, and is greater
than the angels, and because he conquered death and the devil, we must fix our eyes on him.
The author addresses the believers with a wonderful description: “holy brothers in a heavenly calling” (v1). This shows the dignity God has given us as his people, which we should not take lightly. The exhortation is to consider Jesus. This is much more than to give him a fleeting thought, but to fix our gaze on him, to ponder deeply on him with long thoughtful meditation. The challenge is to keep completely focussed on Jesus in the midst of troubles. For the readers, to go back to Judaism is to focus back on Moses and the law, but Jesus is better than Moses. Jesus is greater than the greatest figure in Jewish history. The readers are called to consider Jesus as the apostle, the one sent by the Father, and as the high priest, the intercessor and mediator between sinful man and a holy God.
Jesus is faithful as an apostle and high-priest. Moses was faithful as the lawgiver (an apostle and messenger sent by God) and as the intercessor, when he prayed for the people. Both Moses and Jesus were faithful to God’s calling.
Jesus has more glory than Moses in the same way as the builder of a house has more glory than the house (v3). Moses was a servant in God’s house (Num 12:7), meaning the household of Israel, but Jesus built God’s house. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house (v5), while Jesus is the faithful Son over God’s house. We should note that Jesus is better than Moses, who was the most revered leader in Israel, but Moses is still honoured as faithful (v2, 5). The author is not criticising Moses in the slightest. He always treats and honours the old system with dignity and respect, never criticising or maligning it. But merely points out its weaknesses and shows how much better Jesus is. The purpose of the old system was to foreshadow and to point towards the greater reality that would come through Jesus.
We remain in his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope (Jesus) to the end (v6). This verse is key to understanding the following passage up to the end of chapter 4 (cf v14). The 'if' leads on to the warning from the history of the Israelites in the wilderness. If they go back to Judaism, they are no longer in God’s house. The concept of God’s house has been expanded and redefined. In the OT, God’s house was the Israelites, at least the faithful remnant, but in the NT, God’s house is the believers, the disciples of Jesus. By the author’s definition, the saints are those who persevere to the end, without falling away. There is a challenge here to be good finishers. It is easy to start the Christian walk with great enthusiasm, but not to continue. The reality and genuineness of our faith is shown by our perseverence in the face of difficulties.
The wilderness motif
The readers of this book are compared with the children of Israel in their wanderings in the wilderness. In the NT Christianity is often described as a new Exodus. In Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus, his death is described as a departure or exodus (Lk 9:31). The Israelites were
delivered from bondage in Egypt, and then tested in the wilderness. The readers of Hebrews have
been delivered from bondage and are now undergoing similar testing, but are now in serious danger
of meeting the same fearful end that the children of Israel met when they entered into unbelief. The
Exodus and wilderness wanderings were a common analogy in the New Testament and early church.
The Exodus is understood as a type of salvation in Christ.
Paul used similar imagery in 1 Corinthians: “... our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” (1 Cor 10:1-5).
The original physical Exodus is compared and contrasted with the second spiritual Exodus. The first Exodus was from Egypt, the second Exodus is from the bondage of sin. The Passover Lamb of the original Exodus foreshadowed Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Crossing the water of the Red Sea foreshadowed Christian baptism, and the Promised Land looked forward to the true heavenly Sabbath rest. Believers in Jesus have been freed from the bondage of sin and death (Egypt) and are moving through the wilderness towards the promised land (heaven). There is a now but not yet.
While they were in the wilderness the Israelites looked back to Egypt, and looked forward to the Promised Land, their rest. They experienced testing, suffering lack of food and water and facing giants in the land, and were tempted to return to Egypt. They came out of Egypt, but failed to enter the
land. The whole generation that came out of Egypt died in the wilderness (except for Joshua and Caleb).
The author of Hebrews applies that story to his readers, who looked back to their past life in Judaism, and looked forward to their Sabbath rest. They were experiencing testing in the form of persecution, so were tempted to return to the physical safety of Judaism. They had come out of Judaism, but were now in great danger of failing to enter their heavenly rest.
This can also be applied to all believers, who look back to their life without Christ, living in sin and death, and look forward to their hope in heaven. We can experience testing in various forms,
including persecution, discouragement, temptation, and can be tempted to give up and return to our
former lives. We came out of our past lives, but will we enter into the promise?
Warning 2: Do not harden your hearts like the Israelites in the wilderness (3:7-19)
The faithfulness of Moses (3:1-6) is now contrasted with the unfaithfulness of the Israelites.
Two historical episodes are alluded to. The first is the water from the rock at Rephidim (Ex 17:1-7).
This was when the Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of water. God then told Moses to
strike the rock so the people may drink. The place was then named Massah (meaning testing or
tempting) and Meribah (meaning quarrel or rebellion). The second was the rebellion at Kadesh
Barnea in the wilderness (Num 13-14). One representative from each of the twelve tribes had been
sent out to spy out the Promised Land. All of the spies brought back a positive report, but ten of the
twelve spies feared the giants in the land, so the people refused to enter the land. As a result, God
condemned the whole generation of people who had come out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Only
Caleb and Joshua, who had trusted God to destroy the giants, would live to enter the land. The
Israelites had perished in the wilderness and did not enter the promised rest because of their unbelief.
The warning to the readers is that the same will happen to them if they fall back to Judaism. It is not
enough merely to start well. If they do not continue in faith, they will not enter their rest.
The author begins his warning by quoting from Psalm 95:7-11, which refers to the event of
the water from the rock at Massah and Meribah (Ex 17:1-7, Deut 6:16). Through the rest of chapters
3 and 4, this same passage is partially quoted another four times.
He begins by saying, “As the Holy Spirit says” in the present tense. The Holy Spirit is
speaking, not just to the Israelites in the wilderness, but also to the readers of the Psalm, and to the
readers of the Book of Hebrews, as well as to us today. This is why there is an repeated emphasis on
the word, 'Today', used five times in this passage. When they heard the Father’s voice, the Israelites
responded with hard hearts and rebellion, so received the penalty of not entering the rest in the
Promised Land. The message to the original readers of the Book of Hebrews is that the Israelites
were an example of what will happen to them if they forsake Jesus and harden their hearts. For the
readers, to go back to Judaism is the same as the Israelites wanting to go back to Egypt.
This is an interesting example of how to apply God’s Word, as in preaching. The author of
Hebrews took the message to the original readers, in this case the Israelites in the wilderness, and
applied to his readers, allowing God’s Word to speak today. There is an interchange between the
two: the Israelites (v7-11), the readers (v12-15) and back to the Israelites (v16-19), then to his readers again (4:1ff).
Several different words are used to describe the condition of the heart in this passage. They
are told not to harden their hearts (v8, 15). The Israelites went astray in their hearts (v9). His
readers are warned to beware of having an evil unbelieving heart (v12). They are told to exhort each
other so none may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (v13). The Israelites were rebellious
(v16), disobedient (v18), and in unbelief (v19). A selection of very strong words are used to say that
people were not trusting God, and being disobedient to him.
The readers are being strongly warned not to be presumptuous. They have become partners of
Christ, if only they hold their first confidence firm to the end (v14). This is the same warning that
concludes the last exhortation: we are his house if we hold firm (v6). Again the message is to
complete the walk of faith, not just to begin it. Entering his rest is not guaranteed, but requires
perseverence to the end.
The Sabbath rest (4:1-11)
The warning continues into chapter 4. The promise of entering his rest is still open, so he
warns his readers not to miss out. He urges them to take care that none fail to reach it. Some English
translations are a bit weak here, because he actually urges them to fear that they should fail to enter
the rest. The Bible often comforts us, by telling us not to fear, but here, in this warning, we are told to fear. In other words, his readers need to take the warning extremely seriously.
The Israelites in the wilderness missed out on the promise because they did not respond with
faith (v2). The Israelites coming out of Egypt looked forward to their physical rest in the Promised
Land. Later, Joshua led the second generation of Israelites into the Promised Land, but this was not
the ultimate rest (v8). So, Jesus, who has the same name as Joshua, provides a better rest than the rest
provided by Joshua, therefore Jesus is superior to Joshua. God’s rest lasts for ever. He created the
universe in six days, then rested on the seventh, his work of creation finished (v4), so his rest
continues for ever. God is still actively involved in his creation, but he has stopped creating.
However, God’s rest is still open for us, a Sabbath rest (v9). We can enter that rest when we cease
from our labours (v10), as God did.
So what does this rest mean? The word 'rest' seems to be used in several ways in this passage. Firstly, the rest is the physical Promised Land, the hope for the Israelites in the wilderness, which they eventually conquered, led by Joshua. However, this was not the ultimate rest, but was only a type of a greater rest available through Christ. Secondly, the rest is when we cease from our labours, when we stop trying to earn our own salvation, and rest in the finished work of Christ. This is the rest that we enjoy now in Christ, but which is only a foretaste of a greater rest. Thirdly, there is a Sabbath rest, which is our hope in the future.
The writer of Hebrews urges his readers to strive, or make every effort to enter that rest
(v11). This can appear to be a contradiction. How it is possible to strive to enter a rest? However this
brings us back to the message of the book, which is the call to persevere, and not to give up. His
readers need to ensure that they do not fall through disobedience, unbelief, or hard hearts, as the
Israelites did (v11).
The Word of God as a sword (4:12-13)
It is important to note the context of this well-known verse. The word of God, which in this
context is Psalm 95, is active and able to judge the intentions of the heart. In other words it can
expose whether the heart is hardened in unbelief, or is open in faith. The word can either be received
by faith, a response of trust and obedience, leading to salvation (4:3), or otherwise can be received
with unbelief in a hard heart, leading to judgement and condemnation (4:2,6). The same word can
either be a word of promise, or a word of warning and condemnation. The final verse is quite scary:
we cannot hide before God (v13). We cannot pretend. He knows our heart, whether it is in faith or in
unbelief. Even if we have deceived ourselves, and think we are in faith, and even if we pretend before
others, all is laid bare before God. Later the author warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).