There is an old story about a missionary who had served faithfully and even at the risk of his own life. He came to the point where he could no longer serve the Lord as needed. He prayed and God said he would be welcomed home warmly.
The missionary boarded a ship and made the long journey home. He was tired and weary. When he arrived at the port he was warmed by the number of people on the dock who were cheering. However, he then realized that a popular celebrity was also on the ship and the crowd was cheering for the celebrity. He was a little discouraged.
Later that night the missionary confessed to God that he was disappointed at the lack of a warm reception. He reminded the Lord that he was told he would be welcomed home warmly. The clear response he received was, “You aren’t home yet.”
This longer passage in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 summons us to this same realization: we aren’t home yet. We will know we are home when we enter into a state of rest.
We have been focusing on the superiority of Jesus over Moses. When you think of Moses you think of the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt. If you know the story of the Israelites (or Hebrews) when they were in Egypt, you know that there were times when things did not go so well. Our author, led by the Holy Spirit takes a little time here to emphasis the importance of keeping our heart soft and faithful before the Lord.
7 That is why the Holy Spirit says,
“Today when you hear his voice,
8 don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
when they tested me in the wilderness.
9 There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
10 So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
They refuse to do what I tell them.’
11 So in my anger I took an oath:
‘They will never enter my place of rest.’ ”
12 Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. 13 You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. 14 For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. 15 Remember what it says:
“Today when you hear his voice,
don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled.”
16 And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? 18 And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? 19 So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest.
The Warning: It is Possible to Miss What God Has Prepared for Us
God did some amazing things with Israel. They witnessed God’s powerful great plagues on the people of Egypt. God brought the country of Egypt to its knees. When the Egyptians (who didn’t seem to learn) changed their minds they pursued them and had them apparently trapped against the Red Sea. But, you remember the story. God parted the sea. Israel walked across on dry ground but when the Egyptian army tried to follow, they were drown.
However there is a backstory to this account. Before the miracle the people were ready to string Moses and Aaron up. They looked for someone to blame rather than putting their faith in the One we are called to trust.
God also provided food for the journey, a substance called manna (a bread like substance that had a honey taste to it) but the people complained and wanted meat. God produced water when there was no water to be found, but not before a whole lot of grumbling and complaining by the people.
Do you know why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years? It was because they wouldn’t trust God. As they stood ready to enter the land promised by the Lord, the Israelites sent spies into the land called Canaan. The twelve spies returned and they all reported that the land was rich and fruitful. Ten of the spies also reported that it was inhabited by big and strong giants. They said Israel would be crushed if they tried to attack. The other two spies (Joshua and Caleb) said (paraphrasing), “Are you kidding me? Have you seen the size of our God? Don’t you remember what He has done in the past? They don’t make people strong enough or big enough to defeat Him.”
The people didn’t listen. When God told them to “Charge” they chose to “Retreat”. Instead of walk forward in faith, they turned back to pout and grumble. As a result, God said, “They will never enter my rest.” (11). As a result, God led them through the dessert for 40 years until everyone who was an adult at this time (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) died. The assumption was that the Lord’s “Rest” was in being able to have a place to call home.
The Holy Spirit uses this story to remind us that we are prone to follow the pattern of the grumblers. We too can harden our hearts. He says we must warn each other even as we watch ourselves. We are told, “if we are faithful to the end, trusting god just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ.”(14)
Here is familiar story: a person turns to Christ on an emotional high. For a while they are excited and diligent. They read their Bible, are involved in the church, share their faith with friends, and look for places to serve the Lord. But then the newness starts to wear off. They lose some steam. They become distracted by other new things. They relegate the things of God to that which “will get to when we have time”. Eventually, some of those people drift away from the faith entirely.
This is why we there is the emphasis on the word “Today” in our text. Our walk with Christ is to be a daily walk. If we let our guard down we are inviting trouble. The human condition is such that sin and compromise are always just one step away. Satan is looking for any hesitation to exploit us and get us to violate our purpose.
Lest we think such a thing could never happen to us, we are reminded that these people who hardened their hearts were the same people who had the great experiences with God in the Exodus, at the Red Sea, and with provision in the desert. They had experienced great blessing but still drifted away. Consequently, just because you had a great conversion experience; just because you served in a way that seemed very effective once; just because you used to teach a class or lead a Bible Study; just because you did these things once does not mean you are walking with the Lord now.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe the Bible teaches we can lose our salvation. We didn’t do anything to earn it so we can’t lose it. HOWEVER, I believe the consistent teaching of Scripture is that the people who are truly made children of God are those who will (by God’s grace) persevere to the end. There will be some genuine believers who drift away but . . . God will (often painfully) bring them back to Him.
So, how do we keep from falling like the Israelites did?
- Confront excuses immediately and aggressively. We are too easy on ourselves! We are good at justifying all kinds of things. This carries over into our walk with God. We have a dozen reasons why we can’t worship regularly, can’t read the Bible just now, “aren’t able” to share our faith with others, or why God should understand if don’t give to Him sacrificially. We must see the reality of our excuse-making.
- Examine your heart before the Lord. What I mean here is to take time . . . make time to quietly sit before the Lord. Ask Him to show you where you are drifting or hardening and then LISTEN. Pay attention. It has been my experience that when I really want to know (and sometimes I don’t) the Lord is quick to show me the things I need to work on and change.
- Find someone who will be honest with you and tell you when they see you drifting in your spiritual life. This should be someone who is mature in their faith and loving in their approach.
- Read the Bible and use it as a grid to evaluate your life. Compare His teaching with your living.
The Reward: God’s Rest
The Holy Spirit first warns us and now points out what is at stake: rest . . . God’s rest. Listen to part of the argument,
6 So God’s rest is there for people to enter, but those who first heard this good news failed to enter because they disobeyed God. 7 So God set another time for entering his rest, and that time is today. God announced this through David much later in the words already quoted:
“Today when you hear his voice,
don’t harden your hearts.”
8 Now if Joshua had succeeded in giving them this rest, God would not have spoken about another day of rest still to come. 9 So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. 10 For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. 11 So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall.
The Israelites believed that they would enter God’s rest when they finally reached the Promised Land (but we all know the one word you would not use about the Middle East is rest). The Holy Spirit wants us to see that this is not what God was talking about.
David (in Psalm 95) talked about entering the rest as something still future. This was many years after the Israelites had settled in the Promised Land. In other words God’s Rest is something more than a place to live.
This rest is like God’s rest on the seventh day of creation. The work was done and He (the Lord) rest. Jesus also entered this rest. He did this after the work of redemption. When He finished, He rested. The message is this: there is a rest waiting for us but before we can get to it we must finish the life of faith. We can’t stop before we get there. We must push on with the knowledge of what is ahead.
Some of you run marathons and other races (and for the life of me, I don’t know why). You train for weeks or months building up your endurance. After you have trained for a while do you consider yourself to have reached the point where you can rest? No. You know that too much resting and you have to go back to the beginning in your training. When then do you rest? You rest when the race is over. And because the race is over the rest is (I imagine) that much sweeter. You completed the training, you ran the race. You feel good about all your hard work.
God’s rest is experienced when we truly understand we are loved and cherished by God. It comes when we find forgiveness and new life in Him. It is there when we learn to walk in fellowship with Him.
Have you ever asked yourself: what is it that you are seeking in life? What is the purpose and goal of your life? What is it that you are striving for?
Some people say they are striving for success. But what is success? How do you know when you have achieved it? And if you reach that level of success why is it that you are still so unhappy?
Some are looking for material satisfaction. But again, why is it that you can get what you want and still feel empty. Oh, you feel great for a little while, but not for long.
Others look for Pleasure and Enjoyment. The problem is that even though there is a “high” that comes occasionally, it is illusive and it seems to take more and more to achieve that high.
Some say they live for Family. Honestly, I don’t know what that means. Children are born, grow up, move out, and establish a life of their own. Then what? Once the children are grown what then is the purpose of your life?
Do you ever find yourself saying something like I find myself saying: “You know, it wouldn’t be so bad to be dead. I would finally be with the Lord. All the earthly tasks would finally be over. All the confusion would be lifted. All the pain will be taken away. I could rest.”
The ultimate rest will be when we stand before the Lord fully redeemed and given our new bodies. The full rest will come when we find our eternal home in Heaven. This rest does not come from a place (like I need to go on a vacation and rest), it comes from a relationship. So, we can know a measure of that rest right here and now.
I think the rest God offers involves
- A secure feeling of being loved . . . as you are, and not for what you can produce.
- A sense of forgiveness that allows the guilt to withdraw and the feeling of rejection to fade away. We rest from the scramble to try to “save ourselves”
- A new wholeness where the aches and pains, the loneliness, the alienation, the fear, the anxiety, and the second-guessing will give way to a new health that goes deep into our soul. This is not about removing obstacles or pain, it is about finding something deeper; a wholeness and a strength; that transcends the pain.
- A sense of purpose. No more working for a paycheck. Now the labor is done out of love and is presented to the Lord as a gift. Salary is no longer an issue. People are not measured by their bank account, they will be weighed on the genuineness of their love. We will no longer have to “play the game” Instead we will be whole. We will labor as an act of worship.
We can actually begin to know this rest right here and right now.
What is the Next Step?
The Holy Spirit in this text tells us several things. First we are to “Make sure our own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God.” (12)
Our tendency is to hear words of warning and immediately apply them to others. We are warned that we should not do this. Before we examine and draw conclusions about anyone else we must examine our own lives. The people who drifted away and were kept from God’s rest were those who called themselves the people of God. They thought they were OK but were mistaken.
We need to ask ourselves some hard questions:
- Do you believe the message of the gospel? In other words do you understand and believe that we are lost and violating the purpose God had for us?
- Do you see that Jesus is the only One who can save us? He is the only One who can help us find the purpose for which we were created. Do you believe that He gave His life as a payment for your sin and rose from the dead as a way of proving His sacrifice was acceptable? Do you believe this enough to cry out to Jesus for salvation?
- Is your commitment to Christ sincere or superficial? Do you know how you find out? You look at whether or not that commitment has altered your life. Has it changed your priorities? Has it changed how you define truth or the standard by which you live your life? Are you living differently from your non-Christian friends?
Perhaps it would be helpful to ask how do you know whether a person is a genuine friend or just claims to be your friend? You know it by what they do; how they respond in a crisis; how they relate to you when you are with them and when other people are around. In the same way, the genuineness of our faith is shown by the impact it has on our lives. No or little impact means your heart is not truly committed to Him and you need to go back to step one.
Second, we are told to warn each other (13). Notice the order: examine your own heart and then warn others. We need to encourage each other to be true followers rather than superficial believers. We warn others by recounting the truths we read in this passage. We need to remind each other of the message of the gospel: that we are dependent on His work on our behalf. We owe Him everything!
We also warn each other by reflecting back to each other the behaviors and attitudes that we see that call into question the sincerity of our walk with Christ. We do this gently but honestly. We do this because we know that “only we who believe can enter his rest” (Heb. 4:3).
What we are looking for in life (whether we realize it or not) is the rest that only God can provide. This is why everyone is rest-less. They are trying to manufacture that which can only be gained by a right relationship with Jesus. Most of the people we know are frustrated by life. They hunger to know rest. We help them immensely by telling them how to find God’s rest through Christ. However, before we do this, we need to make sure that we have found it ourselves.