Hebrews Week 4
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 3:1-4:13
A neighborhood in Chicago attracts clusters of tourists, map in hand, to walk its streets to see the genius of the many homes designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Most of these homes are named, and the timeless brilliance of Wright’s stunning designs is evident to all who walk this Oak Park tour. Rarely does one of the more than twenty-five homes Wright built in this district ever come up for sale, but when one does it attracts international attention. All one needs to read in the real estate section of the Chicago Tribune is that “this is a Frank Lloyd Wright home” to know it will cost a lot of money and attract a lot of public attention. Buyer beware!
This week’s Lectio begins with a tour of “God’s house” (3:2), designed and built by God for an eternity. The letter’s readers are guided by the Preacher, who addresses the tour’s participants for the first time: “Therefore, brothers and sisters” (3:1). While he identifies the house’s extended family, which includes its servant staff (Moses), as well as its present owner (Christ), his most decisive description of God’s house is the exhortation that concludes his tour: “We are [the current residents of Christ’s] house if we hold on to the confidence […] our hope gives us” (3:6).
The Preacher’s “if” unsettles me. It effectively sounds a warning to Christian readers that we remain Christ’s partners, members of God’s household, only by hanging tightly to the apostles’ witness of Jesus (see 2:3–4). The letter’s expansive, majestic introduction to this risen Jesus, whom the apostles proclaim as God’s priestly Son, now gives way to the practical implications for a household full of His struggling disciples. What do we need in hand in order to hang on with confidence to the promise of our salvation?
The Preacher’s initial implication is sharply stated: “Therefore […] think” (3:1). The Greek word translated “think” (katanoeō) is a great word for students. It means to carefully examine an argument made. This is a skill students acquire by study and practice. The letter’s readers are expected to negotiate their way through the opening two chapters of Hebrews to learn the bold, big beliefs about Jesus and what it means to be members of God’s chosen household.
Four Key Commitments of the Household Community
Here are four key commitments that carry over to the letter’s main body:
(1) Converted community. Unfortunately, the Common English Bible (CEB) fails to translate the opening address accurately. It should read “holy brothers and sisters” (3:1). These are the building blocks of God’s house (3:6). If we receive in faith the Lord’s message of salvation from His apostles (2:3), we receive the Holy Spirit with it (2:4). We are made holy because the Holy Spirit actively resides in God’s dwelling place as a gift of salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:22).
(2) Confessing community. Sanctified believers examine the truth about Jesus, whom they confess as “apostle and high priest” (3:1). The combination of these two key titles aptly summarizes the opening doxology of the exalted Lord’s majesty (see Hebrews 1–2). An apostle is someone sent out by divine appointment as a prophetic carrier of God’s Word. Jesus’s apostolic mission is to be a flesh-and-blood edition of God’s eternal Word so that its truth is communicated in a language we understand. A high priest is someone appointed by God to mediate God’s covenant or partnership with God’s people — “partners in the heavenly calling” (3:1) — by pastoring and purifying God’s people so they are able to maintain their covenant relationship with a holy God (see, e.g., the Day of Atonement; Leviticus 16).
(3) Catechized community. Throughout Hebrews, the Preacher worries about the spiritual immaturity of the letter’s readers. Some readers have been Jesus-followers for a long time (cf. 2:1–4; 6:1–3), but their forward movement is stuck in neutral. The Preacher’s concerns about his audience — participants on his tour of God’s house — typically morph into an exhortation for them to grow up in their understanding of Jesus. Spiritual immaturity results from a lack of theological understanding: we grow not because we know not!
I often tell my students that their “why” questions are more important than their “what” questions. Most SPU students can express well what they believe but are still a bit fuzzy on the reasons that they should believe what they believe. The haunting exhortation for the community to “hold on to the confidence […] our hope gives us” (3:6) expresses the importance of securing our core commitments about Jesus by careful study. The word translated as “hold on to” is also used in that wonderful story of Paul’s escape from the storm about to capsize the ship carrying him and others to Rome. In the story, sailors “hold on to” (Acts 27:40) the ship’s sails with all their might and skill to guide the ship to safety. Likewise, we study God in courses of ordered learning (a “catechism”) in order to hold fast to what we confess to be true.
(4) Covenant community. Most importantly, Jesus-followers are addressed as members of the house that God designed and built (3:3–6). This is a house of quality construction, which is why its residents can confidently hope about its future (3:6). God’s house is built to last.
The house metaphor is frequently used in the Old Testament for Israel — in particular, as a covenant community with whom God has a special working relationship that lasts forever (see the use of “house” in 2 Samuel 7 NIV). God promises to bless and sustain this chosen community by grace, to rule over its members through appointed mediators, and to safeguard its future destiny. This way of thinking about the Church, in continuity with Old Testament Israel, stands at the center of biblical faith.
A Warning to the Household
This kind of household, constructed by God’s unconditional grace, is conditionally maintained by a people’s steady obedience to God. This is the haunting point made by this passage: “if we hold on to” (3:6) the beliefs we confess, our life with God will endure (see 3:14). Hebrews doesn’t preach a once saved, always saved, no-matter-what religion. Hebrews preaches a covenant-keeping faith that depends on a close working partnership between an ever-faithful God and a faithful people.
The hard truth is this: we are prone to bail out on God’s grace when our Christian faith is too immature and ill-formed to handle the spiritual tests that come our way. Those who fail God are removed from God’s house, and so also from the hope of promised blessings mediated by the Holy Spirit at that address. We’ll explore this unsettling warning further in coming lessons.
The intent of this second warning to hold tightly to the faith received from the Lord’s apostles (see 2:1–4), especially when tempted not to do so, calls on the reader’s knowledge of a familiar Old Testament story of spiritual testing: when God’s people failed God in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The quoted passage (3:7–11), Psalm 95:7–11, and the Preacher’s following commentary (3:7 – 4:13) recall the incident in Exodus 17:1–7 (cf. Numbers 14:26–35) [see Author’s Note 1].
The Example of Israel in the Wilderness
The children of Israel had earlier left Egypt by God’s grace and under God’s protective care. They had experienced God’s grace but knew very little about the God of their ancestors. They were led into the wilderness for their long journey to the Promised Land by Moses, whom God had appointed but whom they did not yet trust. The wilderness was a crash course for Israel to learn about God and for Moses to learn how to lead them. God taught by testing them. God liberated them and led them across the Red Sea to freedom (Exodus 14), and God provided them with water to drink and manna to eat (Exodus 16), but Israel’s persistent grumbling in response to its new freedom led finally to its rebellion against God and Moses (Exodus 17).
This story prompts the Psalmist’s hymn which Hebrews quotes in 3:7–11 (Psalm 95). The hymn follows the Exodus story closely: the first stanza (Psalm 95:1–7a) praises the God of Israel’s salvation, concluding with an exhortation to worship God as Israel’s creator and caretaker. The second stanza (95:7b–11), quoted in Hebrews 3:7–11, warns the worshiping community to respond faithfully today to such a God, unlike the earlier generation of the wilderness whose behavior at Meribah and Massah angered God and threatened God’s covenant with Israel.
As a practical matter, covenants require a profound awareness of belonging to a community of “partners in the heavenly calling” with hearts fastened on God (Hebrews 3:1). The biblical today is still our today. We read Scripture in the present tense!
Moses and Jesus
The Psalmist leaves out the critical role that Moses performed in the wilderness: guiding Israel toward the land promised to them and mediating the covenant between an often rebellious Israel and an angry God to keep that promise in play. Moses was the messiah for the wilderness generation of God’s household; through him Israel experienced God’s saving grace in the exodus and heard the declaration of God’s covenant at Sinai (see Acts 7:35–39).
The comparison between Moses and Jesus in 3:1–6 regards their roles in the wilderness experiences of God’s people. The comparison’s purpose is not to denigrate Moses or disqualify the importance of his biblical story. After all, Moses is recognized as God’s faithful “servant” (3:5); this was his title when leading Israel out of a plagued Egypt (Exodus 14:31; cf. Hebrews 3:16). Rather, the comparison magnifies the exalted role God’s Son performs in leading today’s disciples toward heaven’s door when their allegiance to God is tested in ways similar to that earlier generation of God’s household.
This lesson is for readers who have received God’s Word from the apostles and have already been liberated by God’s grace, but who repeatedly fail God. The lesson we learn from the Psalmist is bracing: God gets angry with faithless congregations, even to the point of denying them the promised blessings of faithfulness (3:11; cf. Exodus 32–33). This is the lesson of the exodus generation, who did not receive the land that was promised to them because — among many other issues — they placed a rival god (the golden calf) before their true God. We who have also received God’s promises because of Christ must learn their lesson and respond obediently to God daily.
This same pattern of God’s saving grace brokered by Moses according to the Exodus narrative is recycled extensively in the New Testament. This letter in particular employs it as one of three biblical patterns of Christian discipleship [see Author’s Note 2]. Each pattern centers readers on the exalted Son introduced in the opening two chapters. The opening celebration of the Son’s exalted status assures readers that the hope of glory is only realized by following His lead. The letter’s keen emphasis on the Lord’s suffering (thematic of the Catholic Epistles that follow Hebrews in the New Testament canon) doesn’t compromise Paul’s forceful emphasis on Jesus’s sacrificial death that initiates the believer’s new exodus from sin and death (e.g., Romans 6:6–7). As a complement to Paul’s theology of the Cross, Hebrews adapts this same biblical typology of God’s saving grace to focus on the believer’s wilderness experiences: those daily inward struggles that tempt the current generation of God’s children to fail God.
The Nature of Spiritual Testing
The Preacher quotes the Psalmist to comment on the nature of our spiritual testing. Note first that the source of our struggles with God is internal and spiritual: the habits of the heart. Israel’s hearts were “stubborn” (3:8) and God’s anger is provoked because “their hearts always go off course” (3:10), even though they routinely experienced God’s saving presence during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. In terms of Scripture’s psychology, the “heart” is that inward place where our decisions are made. The believer’s spiritual habits, our motives and inclinations, are shaped there. It’s the place where we experience conflict with God’s way of salvation and determine the choices we make for or against God’s Word. For this reason, Hebrews exhorts readers to “watch out” for “sin’s deception” (3:12–13) by forming those inward affections in worship that draw believers toward “the living God” (3:12; cf. Psalm 95:6–7).
Biblical religion does not subscribe to a do-it-yourself spirituality. Believers are called by God into partnership with Christ (Hebrews 3:14). Hebrews repeats the idea of a community’s partnership with Christ and with one another to underscore its importance to Christian life. The Greek word translated “partners” (metochos) literally means “to be a part of something,” and it is the go-to word when envisioning companionship on a journey. In this case, the journey takes the community of believers through their wilderness, where the solidarity of community is critical for enduring suffering and spiritual testing.
Psalm 95 and the Wilderness
The Preacher’s quotation from Psalm 95 provides a biblical case study of spiritual failure (cf. Hebrews 4:11). The following commentary on the quoted text (3:12–4:13) selects five key elements that help interpret the spiritual crisis facing the letter’s intended audience, and us.
1. “Today” (3:7a).
2. “If you hear his voice” (3:7b).
3. “Stubborn hearts” (3:8).
4. “They don’t know my ways” (3:10b).
5. “They will never enter my rest” (3:11).
The drumbeat of the Preacher’s commentary is the repetition of the Psalmist’s opening word, “today” (3:13, 15; 4:7). “Today” is the day of decision-making, when God’s people are prompted by their wilderness experience to choose God — or not. “Today” is every day (3:13). Consider the challenges that mark a Christian student’s college experience. Yep, SPU is a stop on our wilderness journey! We encounter tough topics in the classroom or on social media that upset our confidence in Scripture’s revelation of God’s truth and promise of saving grace. We are sometimes tempted to abandon the truth of God’s Word for the rival claims of secular scientism or secular humanism, which Hebrews calls “sin’s deception” because they can desensitize us to God’s truth (3:13). What about those difficult, disagreeable people with whom we work or who live on our dorm floor? They also tempt us to rebel against the Lord’s demand to love even our enemies without pause.
The wilderness is not an easy walk in the park. The Psalmist reminds us that the wilderness is a place where our devotion to the Lord is challenged and tested for an extended period of time (3:9). Let’s learn to think together about our SPU experience as a kind of wilderness when our faith is tested and brought to maturity for God’s sake.
“If you hear his voice…”
Now the Preacher recalls the serious result of Israel’s bad decisions due to lack of faith (3:15–19). Israel failed God because they did not listen to God’s voice translated for them by Moses. The word “hear” means more than listening carefully to God’s Word as delivered; it means obeying as well (cf. James 1:21–27). The first generation of Hebrew people, with whom the readers of Hebrews are compared, listened to God’s voice mediated through Moses — they just didn’t obey it. Likewise, disciples of Jesus have received God’s Word through the apostles; the crisis we face every day is whether or not to obey God’s Word.
The Preacher picks up the conditional force of the Psalmist’s warning: “if you hear [i.e., obey] his voice” (3:7; 15). If God’s Word is received but not obeyed, the blessings promised to the covenant community go unrealized. What Hebrews makes clear, however, is that God’s promises are inviolate from the foundation of the world (4:3b) and go unrealized only among the community’s disobedient members.
The promise of blessings God first made to Abraham and Sarah, which God subsequently updated in promises made through Moses, David and finally through Christ, shape the phenomena and experiences of God’s salvation throughout time until eternity. The Preacher of Hebrews, however, is concerned here with the narrower view of God’s salvation that drills down on the experiences of a particular people at a particular moment in time — when the day of spiritual testing is still “today.” We are that people; today is our day. A “once saved, always saved” theology collapses the eternal and the immediate as though salvation hovers above ground through time without ever considering the effects of our daily decisions.
Note again the Preacher’s commentary. The wilderness community — a snapshot of God’s people in a particular place at a particular time — refused to obey God’s Word and died in the desert as a result, never to enter into the land promised to them when they left Egypt. This outcome holds true for every community at any time and in any place, including Seattle. Covenants are conditional! God doesn’t hand out promised blessings to those whose hearts are “evil” or “unfaithful” (3:12). Lesson learned.
The exhortation “let’s be careful” (4:1) is a rather tame translation of the word phobēthomen, which comes from the family of Greek’s fear (“phobia”) words. The Preacher is actually telling his readers they need to be really afraid that their spiritual prospects are the same as that earlier generation of unfaithful Hebrews. For this reason, the remainder of his commentary focuses on the Psalmist’s warning that an angry God never allows an unfaithful people to “enter [His] rest” (3:11; 4:3). To what does the promise of “entering God’s rest” refer?
“They will never enter my rest”
Surely for Moses and the generation of God’s people he led, this rest was the Promised Land, where God’s people would no longer be enslaved to an oppressive ruler. “Rest” in this sense is a physical place of rest, not an inner feeling of peace. Later in Hebrews the “heavenly Jerusalem” is mentioned (12:22–24) as the final rest stop of a pilgrim people. Elsewhere in Scripture, the New Jerusalem is a trope for the future of salvation, where God’s faithful people live and worship with God (cf. Isaiah 65:17–25; Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21). We may call this Promised Land “heaven,” but whatever metaphor we use, it points believers to the future of salvation and to the moment when God’s promise of a renewed creation is fully realized. Then God’s people will live together in a new creation to worship God forever without fear of evil’s threat to interrupt their shalom.
But “rest” can also refer to the inward experience of God’s abiding presence. St. Augustine famously prayed in the opening paragraph of his Confessions, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Followed by other ancient interpreters of Hebrews, Augustine’s prayer seeks after a transformed spiritual life with God. Perhaps this is the meaning of quoting Genesis 2:2 (Hebrews 4:4) alongside the Psalmist’s warning about never entering God’s rest (4:5; 3:11). The Genesis story of God resting is somehow related to the Psalmist’s warning about not entering God’s rest. But how?
God’s resting from the work of creation cannot possibility mean that God’s work is over and done. After all, the Israelites “had seen [God’s] work for forty years” (3:9) long after creation. The two seemingly contradictory texts about God’s rest allow only one meaning: God has not ceased from the work of creation (in which the Son participated), but continues to work with Christ on a new creation. As L. Johnson puts it, “If God ceased ‘working’ on the seventh day […] then God is otiose, not truly a living God who continues to ‘speak’ and ‘act,’ but a passive retiree” [see Author’s Note 3].
The Preacher’s stunning interpretation of a Psalm written by David — long after Moses — is that his warning about an unrealized future would be nonsensical had Joshua’s succession of Moses taken hold. Our experience is that God’s promised kingdom has evidently not yet come because we still do battle with stubborn hearts, which confirms with David that there still remains a “sabbath rest […] left open for God’s people” (Hebrews 4:9). The Psalm’s reading of the wilderness is still in play as normative for every generation of God’s people so long as it is still “today.”
“They don’t know my ways”
Woven through this passage is the Preacher’s commentary on the Psalmist’s explanation for the disobedient life: “hearts always go off course [because] they don’t know [God’s] ways” (Hebrews 3:10; Psalm 95:10). The root problem facing the letter’s intended readers is that they don’t know God’s ways. It isn’t that they are ignorant of God. The Preacher has already reminded them that they have received a revelatory “word” from God (CEB “message;” Hebrews 2:2), not only from God’s many prophets in Scripture (cf. 1:1), but also from the apostles who witnessed God’s incarnate Word and first announced the salvation that came with Him (cf. 2:3–4).
Their testimony is the gospel (CEB “good news;” 4:2) proclaimed by the apostles who claim that God’s rest is still available to those who respond faithfully to God’s “word” (CEB “message;” 4:3). Extraordinarily, today’s readers who already share in the suffering and spiritual testing of the wilderness community also share in their reception of God’s saving message. We have already received the apostolic testimony of Christ, and so we already know God’s ways. The question that remains is whether we will obey.
The Authoritative Word of God
There is hardly another New Testament text that more clearly supports the continuity of God’s self-presentation in Scripture than Hebrews 4:1–3. The various articulations of God’s Word, whether disclosed through Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness, in prophetic utterances, in the incarnation of God’s Son, or in the apostolic proclamation of God’s Son, are all of a single piece. All reveal God’s plan of salvation, without which there is no eternal life.
Moreover, these articulations of God’s Word instruct God’s people on how to navigate their wilderness testing into glory. The Preacher’s later exhortation to “press on to maturity, by moving on from the basics about Christ’s word” (6:1) sounds an appeal for the congregation to receive fuller instruction in “the word of righteousness” (5:13) — instruction that forms the heart’s capacity to discern God’s ways and provides the courage to obey them.
Any investigation into the meaning of God’s Word must tend to Hebrews 4:12–13, whose meaning remains contested among its interpreters, both ancient and modern. The Preacher understands God’s Word as a message from God that speaks to God’s people (1:1–2; 4:8; 12:25), sometimes directly (11:18), but more typically through messengers such as the prophets and angels (1:1; 2:2). These include various Old Testament figures such as Moses (3:5; 7:14; 9:19), David (4:7), and Abel (11:4), who all refer to the message incarnate in God’s Son (1:2) which is proclaimed by his apostles (2:3) [see Author’s Note 4]. There is no trusted word spoken by God or about God that does not have a redemptive intention or effect. In other words, in all its various articulations, whether scriptural or incarnational, God’s Word stands for God’s gospel message.
Clearly the Preacher understands Scripture as an articulation of divine speech. The biblical Word is something “the Holy Spirit says” (3:7), or it provides God’s commentary on the Son (1:5–12; 2:5–12; 5:5–6; and so on) and his disciples (4:3–4, 7). Even more critically, the Preacher reads Scripture as the Son’s commentary on Himself (especially 10:5–18). Sharply put, Scripture has authority not because its propositions are without error, but because it is appointed by God’s Spirit to instruct God’s people in the truth about God.
Even more remarkably, the Preacher understands his own “word of exhortation” (NIV 13:22; cf. 5:11), this letter of Hebrews, to be another articulation of the divine Word. At the very least, he wants his readers to recognize that his own writing enters into an inspired dialogue with other articulations of God’s Word, including Israel’s Scripture, apostolic preaching, and even the incarnation.
For this reason, the Preacher fully expects his word of exhortation to be persuasive in helping his readers form a closer communion with God. After all, God’s Word — including his own — is “living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (4:12). Since the “living God” evokes terror, because God alone judges the conduct of people and determines their destiny (cf. 3:12), God’s Word can penetrate human existence to lay bare our inner lives, our true selves. Nothing hidden behind our public disguises — what others see and hear — is kept secret from God.
Similarly, James uses the metaphor of a mirror to convey this same truth (cf. James 1:21–25). Hearing God’s Word is like looking at ourselves in a mirror: we get what we see, untouched as we really are. Reading Scripture or hearing the gospel message tells the truth as it really is, and so exposes our evident need for God’s saving grace. The heart’s inclination toward God is a choice we make because God’s Word does not deceive us; evil does. God is a truth-teller; sin isn’t. Hebrews exhorts readers to listen carefully to God’s Word precisely because its teaching helps us learn God’s ways and exposes the sinful ways that will only keep us from “the one to whom we have to give an answer” (4:13).
Questions for Further Discussion
- Dr. Wall says that Hebrews does not teach “once saved, always saved” theology, but a more “steady obedience in God’s direction.” What were you taught about salvation? According to Hebrews, what is required to maintain faith?
- How have you thought about or been taught the phrase “partners with Christ”? Does Dr. Wall’s interpretation of “companionship on a journey” change anything for you? Why or why not?
- How have you experienced wilderness in the past? Did you come out on the other side stronger? Are you in the wilderness now? How might you practice “confidence in hope” and “perseverance”?
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