Sermon preached on Hebrews 3:7-19 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/6/2018 in Novato, CA.
“While It Is Called Today”
Pilgrims. That’s what we are right now. Ever since becoming a part of Christ’s church, we have been on a journey to our final home; to a place of rest and blessing. The destination has many names in Scripture; recently Hebrews described it as the “world to come.” That’s where we are headed. Our journey is one where Christ leads us by his grace as we trust him in faith. But we are not there yet. What will life be like on the way? I could point you to a classic book like Pilgrim’s Progress which colorfully pulls together different truths from Scripture in an allegorical story about the Christian pilgrim life. Or, even better, I could do what Hebrews does here. It points us to the sacred history to see how also under the old covenant, God’s people were called to a pilgrim life. That’s what we’ll explore today. The pilgrim life under the old covenant has lessons for our similar pilgrim life under the new covenant.
Let’s begin then by considering what Hebrews quotes in verses 7-11 and then again in verse 15. This is an excerpt from Psalm 95. Our first point today will be to consider the background of this quote from Psalm 95. What’s being referenced when Hebrews quotes Psalm 95? Well, Psalm 95 has a clear two-part structure. The first part is a very classic call for God’s people to worship him in his holy presence. It was something regularly used in the Tabernacle and Temple under the old covenant worship. But then the second part of Psalm 95 takes a dramatic turn in tone. Whereas the first part was a call to worship, the second part is a stern warning for God’s people to not fall away like their forefathers did during the wilderness wandering generation. It is this second part of the psalm, which Hebrews quotes here in its entirety. And so, Psalm 95 and our text from Hebrews gets us to remember that time in Israel’s history after God brought them out of their slavery of Egypt, but before he brought them into the Promised Land of Canaan. God had Israel wander through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan for forty years.
And so, this warning from Psalm 95 recalls two specific events as it considers that wilderness generation. The first one is what is recorded in Exodus 17 about the people grumbling about not having water. Here in verse 8, it quotes the psalm referring to how that generation hardened their hearts in the rebellion, in the day of trial. Well, it’s clear in the original Hebrew that this was a reference back to Exodus 17, as the words for rebellion and trial are Meribah and Massah. Moses named the place Meribah and Massah where Israel grumbled against God because they didn’t have water. The people implied in their complaining that they would have been better off staying in Egypt than coming out into the wilderness to thirst to death. Moses rebuked them there and said they were testing the LORD. Well, God used Moses to provide water for them there by having Moses strike a rock and water flowed out. But then Moses officially named that spot, Meribah and Massah, i.e. rebellion and testing. The point of course is that Israel was rebelling against God and testing him by complaining like that in the wilderness. They should have trusted God to provide for them during their time in the wilderness. If they had needs they should have simply asked for help via prayer.
The other wilderness generation event referenced in Psalm 95 is recorded in Numbers 13-14, and referenced in veses 10-11 here. That’s when Israel sent twelve spies to spy out the Promised Land and they come back and report that while the land is truly a good land of milk and honey, it’s inhabitants are too strong, too big, and too well fortified for Israel to conquer. This resulted in the people again grumbling against God, lamenting why God ever brought them out of Egypt. They accuse God of evil against them and propose going back to Egypt. They say it would be better to die in the wilderness than die by the sword trying to conquer the Canaanites. Numbers 14 then records God’s anger at them for this. That’s when Numbers 14 says that God swears they won’t enter the Promised Land but instead their bodies will fall dead in the wilderness, also alluded to in verse 17 here. God said only after that unbelieving generation died off in the wilderness, would he then bring the people into the Promised Land.
So then, here’s an important point and application when considering how Hebrews is quoting Psalm 95. Hebrews quotes Psalm 95 which refers to the history in Exodus and Numbers. Why does he quote the psalm instead of just referencing himself the events from Exodus and Numbers? Well, the answer is seen in the repeated reference to “today.” Psalm 95 quoted the sacred history to appeal to God’s people in its day. In other words, later, after God’s people finally settled into the Promised Land, Psalm 95 told them that they still needed to remember the lesson of the wilderness wandering generation. They, in their own day, must not harden their hearts like that. Why did they need that message under the old covenant once they were in land of milk and honey? Well, as we’ll see next week, it’s because even they were still pilgrims. The Promised Land under the old covenant was just typological of a better rest to yet come. They were still waiting wanderers, even while they lived in the Promised Land. The psalm warned them not to fall into the same problem as the wilderness wandering generation while they waited for the final rest that God would bring them. We too have the similar application as we wait for that final rest.
So then, in our second point, I want us to see what was at the heart of the problem for the wilderness wandering generation. Hebrews draws our attention to that here. It shows how Psalm 95 draws later generations of God’s people to see the hardness of heart and the disbelief of that wilderness generation. To consider this, I especially draw our attention here to verses 16-19 which has a string of questions and answers to get us to think about the heart of the problem with the wilderness wandering generation.
So, in verse 16, Hebrews asks us who it was that rebelled in the wilderness. Notice the answer he gives. It’s the same people whom Moses brought out of Egypt. Think about that. This is the same people who had seen God work all those plagues against Egypt, while Israel was repeatedly spared. Think especially how they had seen the Passover with the firstborn of Egypt killed by the angel of death while their sons were spared with that blood of the Passover lambs. These are the same people who saw God part the Red Sea for them and then have it wash away Pharaoh and his chariots to protect them. These were the ones who dared rebel against their Lord who redeemed them in such might and power.
So, in verse 17, Hebrews remembers God’s anger at that wilderness wandering generation. Whom specifically was he angry at? Those who sinned. They were the ones who God had fall dead in the wilderness. This should remind you of Joshua and Caleb, who were the only people of the 12 spies who brought back a good report, believing God could give them the land. God was not angry with them and they did not fall dead in the wilderness but did get to enter the Promised Land. The point of verse 17 is that God wasn’t angry at all the people; just those who sinned like this. Similarly, in verse 18, Hebrew asks of whom did God swear that they won’t enter the Promised Land. It was of those whom did not obey; those who disobeyed God in their rebellion and testing of the Lord, with all their complaining and grumbling.
But then look at verse 19. It connects the sin and disobedience of that wicked wilderness generation with unbelief. The core issue wasn’t their sin; it was their unbelief. This kind of sin came from them because they didn’t have faith in God. Here again, Hebrews is referencing Scripture. That’s what the passage in Numbers 14 said too. When God swears there that he won’t let these people enter the Promised Land, God first says their problem is unbelief. Numbers 14:11, “Then the LORD said to Moses: ‘How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?’” You see, God brought the people into the wilderness to test them. Would they truly believe in God and trust him? When the challenges of the wilderness came to them, would they show forth their faith in God? Sadly, most of that generation did not. So, fit all this in with the repeated point about their hearts being hardened, verses 8 and 15. That wilderness generation had hard hearts of unbelief. That’s why when God tested them in the wilderness they failed the test. They instead put God to the test. At the end of the day, that generation showed that they didn’t have faith in God. Their complaints, their rebellion, their disobedience, was proof of their lack of faith. And for them to not have faith like this, after the Exodus, after everything God had done for them, shows how hard indeed their hearts were.
We’ve had a chance to dig into Psalm 95 and see how Hebrews expounds on its significance in terms of persevering in faith instead of hardening your heart in unbelief. Hebrews is saying that this is important because we still today are a pilgrim generation. We’ve not yet arrived at our final place of rest. We’ve not yet come into that world to come. This is the application given to us in verses 12-14. We need to beware lest any of us have such evil, hard hearts of unbelief. Notice verse 13 quotes the “today” language of Psalm 95 and says that same warning is for our day as well. That was true when Hebrews was first written. It still is true “today”, right now, in our day. This same warning will continue to come to God’s people until we enter that final place of eternal rest and glory.
Don’t miss, how Hebrews uses the Exodus imagery for us. It takes the exodus and the wilderness wandering and uses it as typological for our experience under the new covenant. Next chapter will do the same thing with the conquest of Canaan. Here and elsewhere in the New Testament, the new covenant situation is painted as a new exodus. But as we’ll continue to see, it’s not that our situation is just like the Exodus and wilderness wandering. It’s not that it’s just a similar experience that we can relate to. No, that sacred history was typological of what God would yet do. The exodus from Egyptian slavery, led by Moses, pointed to how God would one day bring an exodus from slavery to sin, led be Jesus Christ. The wilderness wandering pointed to how God would one day bring his people redeemed by Jesus into a period of waiting and testing before bringing them to glory. When the people of Israel finally left the wilderness and entered Canaan into that earthly place of rest, it points to how one day Jesus will return as the better Joshua to bring us into that eternal place of blessing in our glorious, heavenly inheritance. The sacred history is not only a coincidentally similar example. It was itself a picture of what God would, in the fulness of times, do for his people in a greater way through his Son, Jesus Christ. Hebrews shows us that Psalm 95 even knew that, that’s why it had to warn the generation that was in the Promised Land to hold onto their faith, because there was still a better resting place to come.
Hebrews then exhorts us to continue in our faith. That’s the temptation during our pilgrim living. Surely, we are in a wilderness yet today. Life is full of troubles, heartaches, letdowns, sickness, disease, even death. For the Christian, add to that all the persecutions from the world and Satan, because we are a Christian. When such heartache comes, we can either blame and curse God, or we can trust God. We can either find it hardening our heart against God, or we can see that it tests and refines and grows our faith. When the troubles come, the way of sin can seem so attractive. Verse 13 warns us of this; that sin is deceitful. That wilderness wandering generation thought going back to Egypt would be better than trusting God. What a foolish thought! But to them, in their lack of faith, it seemed like the better option. Sin deceives us. Maybe some of you have struggled with the challenges that come to you as a Christian. Maybe you’ve flirted in your mind with just giving it all up. Maybe you’ve thought it would be easier. Or similarly, maybe some area of sin keeps calling to you. You’ve resisted it because you know God says not to go there. But it keeps calling out to you, and you at times think maybe that would be better; to just enjoy that sin, to just give yourself fully to it, instead of holding in faith to what God says is best for you. Beware, Hebrews says. Sin deceives us. God’s way is and always will be the best. Right now, we are wandering pilgrims in this wilderness of a fallen world. See the temptations and testing that are here.
Hebrews gives us some practical advice on how to deal with these temptations. Actually, it’s not just advice, it’s a command. Verse 13. “But exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened.” We are commanded to each exhort and encourage one another in our faith. We should each be trying to help one another stand firm in faith. Again, contrast this with the wilderness generation. They did the opposite. They all got together to complain about God. Hebrews says we need to get together to encourage one another in the faith, not to grumble together against God in unbelief. There is great wisdom here. Let us see that our fellowship is meant to be a God-given safeguard against apostasy.
Notice that verse 13 has the word “daily.” This pairs nicely with the repeated word of “today.” Since each day is a day we will be tempted to turn away from God during this wilderness-like time, we will need daily encouragement to press on. We are to be encouraging each other daily! As much as us reformed folks emphasize our weekly time together each Lord’s Day, we should also seek some sort of daily component to the Christian fellowship in your life. This psalm would have exhorted its singers when they weekly assembled together for worship, but Hebrews says there is also need to be encouraged daily. This isn’t just for pastors and elders to do this kind of daily exhorting. Col 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Romans 15:14 speaks to how all Christians should be qualified to admonish one another in the faith. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 calls all Christians to encourage and build up one another in the faith. Let us be about this, and strive to be about this daily. We need this!
In bringing this exhortation, please don’t misunderstand me or Hebrews to be saying that our perseverance is up to us, as if it’s a work in order to save us. Yes, at times, our faith is a lot of work. But our works never save us. Nor is our perseverance ultimately about our work. Remember, we aren’t ultimately talking about works here, we are talking about our faith. Just like disobedience will flow from unbelief, obedience will flow from belief. So then, our continued faith will ultimately show what verse 14 says: that we are true partakers in Christ. And that’s what it is ultimately all about. It’s Christ who saves us. It’s his grace that justifies us, and it’s even his grace that perseveres us. It was even he, who went ahead of us into a literal wilderness to undergo trial and temptation and yet he overcame the devil and showed himself righteous. That’s where our strength to overcome the wilderness must come from. If we are united to Christ in faith, we know we will persevere, because the power and strength of Christ will be at work within us. Apart from that, we can do nothing. And how will we even have this faith in the first place? Is even that up to us? Can you soften your heart that has been hardened by man’s fall into sin? No, only God can do that. So, when we see this call to persevere, put it in the right perspective. Instead of trying to conjure up from within the strength to endure, look to Christ. Instead of trying to soften your own heart, remember that those who are partakers of Christ will have soft hearts.
In that perspective, may we look to live out this passage. Trusting God to richly supply you grace in Christ, may you heed the warning of verse 12. The pilgrim life comes with it a testing to our faith. May we look to Christ for his help to stand during this time of testing. And may we see that one of the ways he helps us is with the gift of one another. Let us make the time needed to do this mutual encouragement. Let us find ways to invest in others and speak God’s Word to them. And may we be eager and open to receive Christian encouragement from others as well, even if a brother has to speak a timely rebuke in love. As a church, we provide a number of official opportunities for fellowship; use them as makes sense for your schedule and life. But also look for “unofficial” opportunities as well. In other words, invest yourself into the life of the church to help others and be helped during this pilgrim life. We will need it. Praise God that this is one of many ways that he has given to help us during this time of our pilgrimage while we wait in faith for the world to come. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.