Encouragement for faith

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 3:7-19

'A Tale of Two Cities'

At the end of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," Sydney Carton, taking the place Charles Darnay of the Evermonde family, is about to be executed in the bloody wrath of the French Revolution. He is next to a girl, a seamstress who was also condemned to death. The girl asks if Sydney will hold her hand, and he consents. The guillotine awaits. Dickens writes:

The supposed Evermonde descends, and the seamstress is lifted out next after him. He has not relinquished her patient hand in getting out, but still holds it as he promised. He gently places her with her back to the crashing engine that constantly whirrs up and falls, and she looks into his face and thanks him.

"But for you, dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart; nor should I have been able to raise my thought to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today. I think you were sent to me by heaven."

Sydney Carton, by simply caring for the girl, encouraged her to turn her attention to Jesus. We too can be like Sydney Carton, encouraging one another so that we might hear and believe God, particularly as his voice concerns the value of the gospel. Heaven has sent us so that others might be able to hear God.

In Hebrews 3:1-6, the writer encouraged us to strongly consider the faithfulness of Jesus. That theme naturally leads into the section before us, which concerns our faith. In making the appeal of faith, the writer first quotes from Psalm 95 (verses 7 through 11) and then renders commentary, applying it to his readers (verses 12 through 19). The commentary is bracketed by verses 12 and 19, which both contain the words "see" (in verse 12, translated "take care") and "unbelief" (in verse 12, translated "unbelieving").

Absurdity of faith (3:7-11)

Hebrews 3:7-11:

(7) Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,
"Today if you hear His voice,
(8) Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
As in the day of trial in the wilderness,
(9) Where your fathers tried me by testing me,
And saw my works for 40 years.
(10)Therefore I was angry with this generation,
And said, 'They always go astray in their heart;
And they did not know my ways';
(11) As I swore in my wrath,
'They shall not enter my rest.'"

The writer ties this section with his previous section by use of the word "therefore." In Hebrews 3:1-6, he exhorted his readers to strongly consider the faithfulness of Jesus. He expects the faithfulness of Jesus to inspire our faith. In other words, if Jesus is faithful to God and for us so that he endures the cross, shouldn't we follow him? No one and nothing else can be trusted to this degree.

The writer quotes from Psalm 95 and attributes it to the Holy Spirit, which shows that the scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The verb "says" appears in the present tense, which means the Holy Spirit is still speaking through the scriptures.

Psalm 95:7-11, which the writer quotes from, recalls two scenes from Israel's history in the wilderness. The original Hebrew text in Psalm 95 concerns the episode at Rephidim, where Israel grumbled because there was no water to drink. But the text also contains echoes from the episode at Kadesh, where the people rebelled against the Lord (Numbers 14:9), did not listen to his voice (Numbers 14:22) and were not able to enter the promised land (Numbers 14:30). Thus, the psalm recounts scenes from both ends of the wilderness. The writer is using examples from Israel's history, and the psalm that comments on them, as a warning to his contemporaries. He recalls what the "fathers" did (verses 7b through 9) and the Lord's response (verses 10 through 11).
The implication, which becomes more clear in the commentary that follows, is that we shouldn't be like "the fathers." The fathers heard the Lord's voice but hardened their hearts, resisting his words. They rebelled against the Lord and tested him, demanding proof of his good intentions. Because they resisted him, because they have resisted what they were made for, the Lord became angry with them, noting that they always go astray in their hearts, wandering into self-destruction, not knowing the ways of the Lord, which they have rejected along with him. The Lord, expressing his wrath at the people's perpetual tendency to destroy themselves, gives them what they want. If they don't want to go into the promised land, the place of rest in the presence of the Lord, they don't have to. In fact, they never will enter it.

Let's consider the two scenes to which Psalm 95 refers to see how we can learn from Israel's history.

The Israelites, after leaving Egypt, soon made their way to Rephidim "according to the command of the Lord." Yet they could find no water to drink. So they quarreled with Moses, demanding that he give them water, no doubt remembering that Moses, following the Lord's instructions, turned bitter water into drinkable water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-26). At Rephidim, the people expected to die of thirst, but Moses said they were testing the Lord, which is defined as not believing that the Lord was present with them (Exodus 17:1-7).

Surely, we can identify with the people. On the face of it, things looked pretty bleak. They blamed Moses for their plight, but they blamed the Lord, too. The text in Exodus plainly says that their plight was the Lord's responsibility. He led them to this place. He led them to a dry, barren place that exacerbated their thirst but did not satisfy it, at least not immediately.

Surely, we have been to Rephidim. At times it seems to us that the Lord has likewise led us to a sort of spiritual Rephidim - a place where all our internal hopes and dreams and desires, which earlier we were able to keep under control, make their way to the surface and break loose. Worse still, they break loose in a place where satisfaction is nowhere in sight. And like the Israelites in the wilderness, we feel the anguish of our unquenched thirst, and we feel betrayed by the Lord for brining us to this place.

Kadesh was a different place. Rephidim was near Egypt, the place the Israelites came from. Kadesh was near Canaan, the place the Israelites were going to. Moses sent spies into the land, most of whom reported that its inhabitants were too strong. The Lord wanted the people to depend on him, enter the land and conquer its inhabitants, but the people, terrified by the report, refused to move forward (Numbers 13:17-14:25).

Surely, we have been to Kadesh as well, the place where the Lord asks us to move forward in dependence on him into circumstances that terrify us - expressing our true feelings, exposing ourselves to rejection, leaving the known for the unknown. Like the Israelites, we feel the terror of moving forward into a new place, and we feel the Lord is nuts for asking the impossible of us.
We have been to both Rephidim and Kadesh, believing that the Lord has led us to the place of death or that he will lead us to the place of death. We conclude that he leads us not to green pastures or quiet waters but to places of deprivation and destruction. At Rephidim and Kadesh, we harden our hearts against the Lord, we rebel against him, we test him, we go astray in our hearts and we dismiss his ways. At these places, faith in God seems absurd, and thoughts of his goodness and power seem preposterous. Perhaps we are at one or both of those places right now.

In 1956, C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, married Joy Davidman, but after four intensely happy years, Joy died, and Lewis was alone again. Inconsolable, he faced a crisis of faith. He wrote: "Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, 'So there's no God after all,' but, 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"

Deceive yourself no longer! The circumstances at Rephidim and Kadesh make such a thought seem irresistible. Yet, the Lord still seems to expect faith. Otherwise, he would not say, "Do not harden your hearts." Otherwise, he wouldn't get angry. Otherwise, he wouldn't swear in his wrath. Faith, though seemingly absurd, is somehow expected.

How can this be? The answer is in verse 7, in the words, "Today if you hear his voice ... " This is God's voice. What is God saying? He "has spoken to us in his Son" (Hebrews 1:2), who embodies the "good news preached to us," which offers us eternal rest in the presence of God (Hebrews 4:2-3). We hear God's voice in the "good news" of the gospel. The gospel tells us that God will take us to the heavenly place where he will lavish his blessings on us. But at Rephidim and Kadesh, good news is hard to believe. That's why we need each other.

Encouragement for faith (3:12-19)

Hebrews 3:12-19:

(12) Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. (13) But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (14) For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end; (15) while it is said,

"Today if you hear his voice,
Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion."

(16) For who rebelled when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? (17) And with whom was he angry for 40 years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? (18) And to whom did he swear that they should not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? (19) And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.

Having quoted Psalm 95, the writer begins his exhortation based on it. Care should be exercised among the community so that none of them has an "evil, unbelieving heart," or, literally, "an evil heart of unbelief." This condition describes the root of sin. Many different terms are used to describe sin in this passage: hardening the heart (verses 8, 13, 15), rebellion against God (verses 8, 15, 16), testing God (verses 8, 9), going astray in the heart (verse 10), not knowing God's ways (verse 10), an evil heart of unbelief (verse 12), falling away from God (verse 12), sinning (verse 17), disobedience (verse 18) and unbelief (verse 19). Most are descriptions of actions, but the root of those actions is "an evil heart of unbelief." We don't usually connect evil with unbelief. Evil is more commonly associated with murder, rape, genocide and the like. But murder, rape and genocide stem from unbelief. The root of all evil, then, is the evil disposition of the human heart not to believe in God or believe him. Insofar as the writer of Hebrews is concerned at this point, it is the evil disposition of the human heart to not believe in the value of the gospel. Such unbelief gives rise to hardening of the heart, rebellion against God, testing God and the like.

But if we were to hear the voice of God as it concerns the value of the gospel, the stranglehold that unbelief has on our hearts would be significantly weakened. So the writer exhorts us to "take care" against an evil heart of unbelief, which would result in "falling away from the living God." The writer has in mind here someone who has received persistent exposure to the gospel but is in danger of ultimately rejecting it. But it is also applicable for those of us who have received the gospel but are doubting its value, particularly in light of the circumstances we encounter at places like Rephidim and Kadesh.

So how are we to "take care" to prevent people falling away from God in our community because of an evil heart of unbelief? The writer says to "encourage one another." This encouragement is to take place "day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today'" - in other words, any time. What does it mean to encourage one another? We can get an idea of what this means generally by considering what it is designed to prevent. It is designed to prevent being "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." The disposition toward sin is deceitful: Rejection of God and his ways appears right and feels right. But it's wrong. How do we know it's wrong? We know it's wrong insofar as someone tells us it's wrong. God tells us. In his word, he speaks to us, and we hear his voice. He gives us the gift of others to help us hear. That's where encouragement comes in. Encouragement counteracts the deceitfulness of sin. If sin is deceitful, encouragement is true. Encouragement, then, in a general sense, is the expression of truth, which counteracts the lie that rejection of God is good.
The word here for encourage (parakaleo) is related to the word that Jesus uses in John 16:8 for the Holy Spirit (parakletos), whom he later calls "the Spirit of truth" (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit, the Encourager, encourages by means of the truth, particularly truth about Jesus (John 16:13-14). We thus see encouragement connected with truth.

What specifically does encouragement look like? It can take a multitude of forms. Simply living out the truth and following Jesus in the presence of others is encouragement to believe God. Sharing our stories about God's faithfulness in our lives gives others a chance to hear God's voice in a way that they hadn't before. Spending time with people, seeking them out, praying for them, remembering what they said and seeing the good in them all convey the truth that Jesus loves them. Sometimes, hard words of love are called for, if one friend observes another friend straying from the truth.

All this encouragement presupposes community. We can't encourage each other if we don't know anyone. We see here, once again, the value of community. In isolation, we are prone to develop strange ideas of what the truth is. In a community centered on the word of God, there's feedback for both biblical and anti-biblical ideas, and the truth is thereby strengthened. There's synergy as we study the word together and learn from each other. All this means that it behooves us as individuals to seek out a community centered on the truth and make a commitment both to it and the people in it. People who flit from place to place and never settle are usually running from something in themselves that they don't want to face. It's only when they stop running and face up to it that they begin to grow. And then once in the community, we need to initiate within it, not waiting for it to come to us.

Verse 14 begins with the word "for" and offers motivation for encouraging one another on several levels. First, we should encourage one another because we have become "partakers of Christ." Because we have been given the gift of Christ and entry into his kingdom, we share his concern for others and therefore encourage them. Second, as partakers of Christ, we understand that we have Christ in common with others, and this common bond motivates us to encourage each other. Third, there is the possibility that some have not become true partakers of Christ, which would be evidenced by their ultimate rejection of Christ, and our encouragement helps them hear the voice of God and move toward Christ.

The fact that encouragement helps others hear the voice of God is confirmed by the writer's repetition, in verse 15, of the part of the quote from Psalm 95 that concerns hearing God's voice. Verse 15 is connected with verse 14, which offers motivation for the encouragement spoken of in verse 13.

Those of us who last week heard the stories of Ross, Terry and Mary were encouraged to hear the voice of God. We could see God working in their lives, and it was a signal for us to take notice. When Mary said that God has shown her, in the midst of her pain, that he meets not so much her needs (plural) but her need (singular), we were able to connect with that. We all have needs, but in that she found that the need God wanted to meet most was her need for him, we're encouraged to do the same.

Beginning with the word "for," verses 16 through 18 offer a reason to listen to the voice of God - that being, the tragic consequences for not listening. In verses 16, 17 and 18, the writer picks up on expressions used in Psalm 95 and explains them. Verse 16 relates to verses 7 and 8; verse 17 relates to verse 10; and verse 18 relates to verse 11. In each case, the writer records an action and then particularizes the initiators of the action (the Israelites) or the recipients of God's action (also the Israelites). These verses move toward the conclusion in verse 18 that the people were not able to enter into God's rest. The use of the words "who" and "those" help illumine the step-like structure:

For who rebelled when they had heard?
Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?
And with whom was he angry for 40 years?
Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?
And to whom did he swear that they should not enter his rest,
but to those who were disobedient?

The Israelites heard the voice of the Lord, as communicated to them to Moses, but they rebelled against him. Instead of receiving the words of the Lord, they hardened their hearts against them. They refused to allow his voice to enter their ears and penetrate their hearts. Their hearts were evil, hard, inpenetrable. Why didn't they listen? They didn't listen because they didn't like the information they were hearing, so they tuned it out. God's voice, which spoke of his love for them, made no sense to them in light of their current circumstances, so they refused to listen and instead rebelled. It's the same thing we do, of course - closing off our ears to information we don't want to hear.

The people's rebellion provoked the Lord's anger. He wanted to take them into the promised land and bless them there, so it's understandable that their refusal to be blessed engendered his anger. As a result they died in the wilderness, never realizing the Lord's hopes for them.

In the wilderness they heard the voice of the Lord again, this time swearing that they would not enter into his rest. In the promised land, the Lord wanted to give the people rest from their enemies but more importantly rest in his presence. But they demonstrated, by persistently hardening their hearts against the voice of the Lord, that they didn't want to be in the Lord's presence. This was the tragic consequence of their evil hearts.

The same is true today. The writer will expand on the contemporary application of the concept of rest in the next chapter, but for now, it's enough to point out its application to those who persist in their rejection of the gospel and are thus excluded from eternal rest in God's presence, and its application to those of us who are unsatisfied with the eternal promises of the gospel and therefore live lives of constant unrest.

In verses 16 through 19, however, the emphasis is not so much on the meaning of rest as it is on the reason why rest is not experienced. This is clear in verse 19, where the writer makes his concluding observation regarding the plight of the Israelites. The reason they failed to enter God's rest is unbelief. Here the writer does not repeat the full phrase "evil heart of unbelief" but simply refers to "unbelief" - probably because his emphasis throughout has been hearing leading to believing. His answer to an evil heart is belief based on hearing the voice of God, which is helped along by encouragement.

As the entire passage unfolds before us, we can see the problem of sin, its expression and the answer to it:

 Problem  Expression  Answer
Evil heart of unbelief
 Hardening heart  Hear voice of God
 Rebellion against God    Encouragement (to hear voice)
 Testing God    
 Going astray in heart    
 Dismissing God's ways    
 Falling away from God    

We can't change our hearts. We can't even change what we believe. But we can listen. We can listen to the voice of God, particularly the gospel of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We can listen to the lives of others, as they encourage us. And we can live lives of encouragement ourselves, so that others might hear and believe God.

Another place

So when we're faced with discouraging circumstances that seem to contradict God's goodness, he asks us to listen to his voice. And if we listen to his word, we'll hear him speak of the gospel. Yes, God leads us to Rephidim and leads us from Kadesh, to places where nothing seems to make sense. But he also led his Son to another place: Calvary. And there, we hear God speak in his Son. It is the true voice, the voice that speaks better than the internal voice of doom and destruction. It is the voice that speaks from the cross. And if you become very quiet and listen very carefully you can hear the Son, in a dying whisper speak: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

- SCG, 7-20-97