A new study from Pew Research Center concluded, “If recent trends in switching [changing one’s religious affiliation] hold, we projected that Christians could make up between 35% and 46% of the U.S. population in 2070.”
Had Egypt conducted a survey of the trend of Israel’s growth while in slavery, they would have seen their own population eclipsed in fairly short order. Who could have predicted that almost the entire generation would die in the wilderness within forty years?
Even though Christianity was exponentially growing in the first century, the trend could have easily reversed. One of the reasons it continued to grow was because of a community that cared enough to regularly warn one another about falling away.
Jesus is superior to Moses. He has just given a negative command. Beware that you do not harden your hearts in unbelief like the wilderness generation. Now he will provide a positive command. In order not to be hardened, exhort one another every day.
Our hearts remain susceptible to the hardening effects of the deception of sin.
The remedy to a wandering heart is the regular warning of other believers.
Read Hebrews 3:13-19.
The Deceitfulness of Sin (13)
The imperative “exhort” is oftentimes translated as encourage or comfort. It literally means to “call to one’s side” (παρακαλέω). But in this context I think the English Standard Version gets it right. The kind of interaction the author is hoping to see among this community has to do with warning one another about sin. He sees the potential for them to become hardened by a deceitful sin that has crept into the church.
What is the deceitful sin that has the author worried? Well, based upon the repeated theme of Hebrews it is a concern that some of them will “drift away” from the gospel (Heb 2:1), or “fall away from the living God” (Heb 3:11). They need to support one another with warnings about the consequences of sin. They should challenge one another to confess whatever is drawing them away from Christ. Of course, they should repent before God, but they should also confess their sins to one anther (Jam 5:16).
Fondling Smooth Roaches
Sin deceives us by convincing us that our disobedience will be rewarded. We make concession to our flesh believing that sin will satisfy our desires. We might even have the notion that we are truly free to enjoy our sin, but in reality we are falling into a deeper bondage. If we could only see through the deceit, we would recoil in horror at our sin.
John Piper provides a memorable illustration of this in his book, Finally Alive. Reflecting upon the bondage of sin and the duty of ministers to liberate people from that bondage, Piper quotes…
2 Timothy 2:24–26 ESV
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
When Paul says that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” that is virtually that happens in the new birth. And here is the key to liberating people from the captivity of the devil. God grants repentance— that is, he awakens the life that sees the ugliness and danger of sin and the beauty and worth of Christ. That truth sets the prisoner free.
It’s what happens when a person in the dark fondles an ebony brooch hanging around his neck, and then the lights go on and he sees it’s not a brooch but a cockroach, and flings it away. That’s how people are set free from the devil. And until God does that miracle of new birth, we stay in bondage to the father of lies because we love to be able to tell ourselves whatever we please. We keep fondling smooth roaches and warm fuzzy tarantulas in the dark.
The Remedy: Daily Exhortation?
Exhorting one another every day doesn’t mean contacting every Christian you know and rebuking them on a daily basis. The idea, rather, is that we would be regularly engaging in this kind of spiritual dialogue with one another. We need to learn to move the conversation beyond the weather and sports. We ought to be familiar with one another enough to know the temptations and challenges that each of us are facing. And then, once we have learned about those details, we should be in the habit of praying for and following up with each other. How different would the outcome have been had the wilderness generation been marked by daily exhortation rather than routine rebellion?
So often, what prevents us from confronting a fellow believer about there sin is the perception that we will be judging them. We think our questions or rebukes will only bring tension into our relationship. And, we ought to be honest about this, they very well might. Some shallow relationships will suffer when this kind of interaction is introduced, but other relationships will flourish. Where trust has been established, correction will be the faithful wounds of a friend (Prov 27:6).
Think about Jesus and his disciples. He never shied away from telling them hard truths. But they also knew that he loved them. He was telling them what they needed to hear, even though it wasn’t pleasant. His honesty actually deepened their connection. And, they knew that when they saw Jesus praying, he was often praying for them.
The ironic thing is that immediately after Jesus prayed for his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46), he was arrested and his disciples fled (Mt 26:56). This temptation to depart was in their hearts when we would expect them to be the most committed. Their example ought to make us all the more diligent to guard one another against apostasy. This is not simply the responsibility of the elders.
Arthur W. Pink’s rebuke is a powerful one:
“Oftentimes the failure of a Christian is to be charged against his brethren as much as to his own unfaithfulness. How often when we perceive a saint giving way to hardness of heart we go about mentioning it to others, instead of faithfully and tenderly exhorting the offending one!”
› This leads us to the superior reward that is offered to persevering saints…
The Participation in Christ (14)
Here, the author makes his concern explicit. They are sharing and partnering with Christ—only if they maintain their trust in him “to the end.” Perseverance signifies true faith. Those who don’t persevere never had a genuine participation in Christ.
That original confidence is linked to our conversion experience. We must maintain that simple, childlike faith that we possessed when we first placed our trust in Christ. William Tyndale warns against corrupting or adding some strange doctrine to the pure gospel. What we hold “firm to the end” is confidence in the finished work of Christ—a righteousness that is credited to those who believe.
Baptized into Moses
But what does this have to do with Moses? Remember we’re in a larger section, spanning chapters three and four, showing Christ’s superiority to Moses. Is he taking a detour here to talk about the new covenant? No, there is continuity here. The next verse will prove that, but there is another connection worth noting.
In his Biblical Theology, Geerhardus Vos points to the prominence of Moses for the Israelites. Their faith in the Lord was reflected in their obedience and trust in Moses (Ex 14:31; 19:9). The Apostle Paul spoke of their being baptized into Moses as they “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea” (1 Cor 10:1-3). Paul’s original audience, just like Hebrew’s first readers, were baptized into Christ. And, just as “God was not pleased” with most of the Israelites in the wilderness, so his contemporary readers might fall under condemnation if they rebel in unbelief. Baptism reflects the establishment of an intimate relationship that is either sealed by faith or lost by unbelief.
Perseverance of the Saints
In his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos emphasizes that believers are completely sanctified by Christ at their death (5.265). There is no second opportunity after death to hear and respond to the gospel. Nor is there any further sanctifying work necessary in purgatory. Christ sustains us—in this life—so that we persevere to the end.
The author is exhorting them to persevere, just as he has told them to do to one another daily. Those who are theologically inclined probably need to hear this more than anyone. We can easily make religion all about head knowledge. We tend to focus very little on the heart. The result is a puffed up head, and a heartless faith—or as James might call it, a dead faith (Jam 2:17).
We must maintain a ministry of exhortation to one another because it is one of the means by which Christ maintains our faith. Our brothers and sisters in Christ need the encouragement just as much as you do. How can you do this? Notice the answer in the next verse (Heb 3:15).
› Having stated his “exhortation”, he illustrates it with implications from Exodus…
The Consequence of Unbelief (15-19)
The author restates a portion of his earlier quote. He highlights the opening sentence (Ps 95:7-8). John Owen remarks that this statement means the opportunity to repent is—“limited, because a day; present, because to-day.” This time is running out. Some reach that point even before their death (Heb 6:6; 10:26). No one reaches it after their death. Wherever that invisible line stands, we want to ensure that we are far from it, by being quick to repent—today!
The author draws some implications from the quote.
1. The same people who were set free from their bondage in Egypt, were never freed from their bondage to sin in the wilderness. Despite all of God’s provision, they rebelled.
2. Their sin provoked God for forty years. God brought judgment upon them. They died in the wilderness, just outside the land of Canaan.
3. Sin is ultimately the result of unbelief. The wilderness generation, as we considered last week, had been given every privilege to see God’s compassion and power—but they still chose to rebel against him.
Apparently, these Hebrew Christians in Rome have a lot in common with that wandering community. They have heard the gospel and professed to believe in Christ. They have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They have witnessed God’s provision and protection of them, even in the face of persecution.
The Wrath of God
God’s wrath is perfectly consistent with his character. He is holy and just. His righteousness demands the punishment for sin. Simon Kistemaker notes that there were 603,550 male Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt (Num 1:46). When adding the likely number of adult women to that total, he calculates that an average of 90 Israelite adults died every day for forty years. That generation was all too familiar with the wages of sin.
But, just as forty years of sin resulted in forty years of death—so a community of saints deciding to rebel against Christ “today” will result in judgment.
Today, If You Hear His Voice
The author is gearing up to call his audience to enter into the rest that still remains. But here he warns and he calls us to warn one another. We are to heed the example of the Israelites rebellion and do the opposite.
You benefit from belonging to a community of saints who have been rescued out of the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light. It would be easy to assume that everyone here is walking by faith. But, it’s possible that some of you are filled with thoughts of rebellion; departure from the faith. What was true of Israel under Moses, was true of Israel under David, and it was true of Israel under Jesus. Even one of his closest companions was the apostate Judas. He heard the same promises as the other disciples. Jesus said:
John 10:27–28 ESV
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
But Judas was not one of his sheep because he did not believe. His betrayal of Jesus revealed the truth of his bitter heart.
• Instead of rising up in rebellion against the Lord we respond to his saving grace with gratitude.
• Instead of provoking God’s wrath we humbly confess our sin and seek the grace of repentance.
• Instead of prolonging our disobedience and receiving perpetual toil we hear the Savior’s voice, follow him, and enter into his eternal rest!