Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)


The Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)

All Christians struggle with two crucial areas that will make or break us in the Christian life: perseverance in times of trial; and, prayer. As you know, they are connected. A vital prayer life is essential to endure trials.

Failure to endure trials is the mark of the seed sown on rocky soil. Jesus explained that this seed represents those who, “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). Endurance is one mark of genuine saving faith (Heb. 3:6).

Prayer is our supply line to God in the battle. His abundant, sustaining grace flows to us through prayer. Because prayer is so vital, the enemy tries to sever that supply line. When we suffer, the enemy often whispers, “God doesn’t care about you and He isn’t answering. Why waste your time with these worthless prayers?” It’s easy to get discouraged and quit praying, which cuts us off from the very help that we need!

Our text is one of the most encouraging passages in the Bible when it comes to perseverance and prayer. The first readers of this epistle were tempted to abandon their Christian faith and return to Judaism because of persecution. The author has just given an extended exhortation, using the bad example of Israel in the wilderness. They failed to enter God’s rest (a picture of salvation) because of unbelief and disobedience. Therefore, we must be diligent to enter that rest. If we will respond in faith and obedience to God’s Word, it will expose our sin and show us His ways. It is foolish to think that we can hide our sin from God, because everything is naked and laid bare in His sight (4:12-13).

Martin Luther commented on our text, “After terrifying us, the Apostle now comforts us; after pouring wine into our wound, he now pours in oil” (in Philip Hughes, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 169). Rather than trying to hide because of our sin, the author shows how we should draw near to Jesus, our sympathetic high priest, who gives us access to God’s throne. For those who are in Christ, that throne is not a place of fear but, rather, a throne of grace!

Since Jesus is our great yet sympathetic high priest, we must persevere and we must pray.

There are two commands here: Hold fast our confession (persevere; 4:14); and, Draw near with confidence (pray; 4:16). They are both based on the truth about who Jesus is: Since Jesus is our great high priest, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens, we must hold fast our confession. And, since Jesus is a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses, we should draw near to the throne of grace for help in our times of need. Thus His transcendence to the right hand of God’s throne and His humanity are both essential elements of His unique effectiveness as our high priest. If we want to persevere through trials and receive His help through prayer, we must understand who He is.

1. Since Jesus is our great high priest who has passed through the heavens, we must persevere (4:14).

The author tells us who Jesus is and how we should respond.


We see Jesus’ greatness in two ways here:


We have difficulty relating to the concept of a high priest, but to the Jews, it was an important office. Moses’ brother Aaron was the first high priest. He was the mediator between the people and God. He and his fellow priests offered the sacrifices on behalf of the people. They had to follow a detailed procedure spelled out by God. Any variance or innovation meant instant death, as Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu discovered when they offered “strange fire” on the altar (Lev. 10:1-3).

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest alone would go into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for all the sins of the nation. If he entered there improperly or at any other time, he would die (Leviticus 16). He would sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat in the very presence of God. When he came out alive, the people heaved a sigh of relief, because it meant that God had accepted the sacrifice for their sins for another year.

Jesus is not just another high priest in the line of Aaron. Rather, He is our great high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:6). Rather than entering the Holy of Holies in the temple, He has passed through the heavens (in His ascension) into the very presence of God. The Jews thought of the sky as the first heaven. The stars are the second heaven. The presence of God is the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). Whether the author has this in mind, or is just using “heavens” in the plural because the Hebrew word is always plural, we cannot say for certain.

But his point is that Jesus, our great high priest, is unlike any merely human high priest. He has entered the very presence of God. The Father has said to Him, “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Ps. 110:1). No earthly priest would dare to sit in the Holy of Holies! They always stood. But Jesus sits at the right hand of God’s throne because once for all He made atonement for our sins (Heb. 10:12). So Jesus is a great high priest, in a class by Himself, because of His office as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (which the author will explain more in the following chapters).


“Jesus” is His human name, calling attention to the full humanity of the Savior (see 2:17). If He had not been fully human, He could not have atoned for our sins. But He is also “the Son of God,” which refers to His deity (John 5:18). As Bishop Moule said, “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.” Our author has shown in chapter 1 that Jesus is fully God. Thus Jesus is uniquely great in His office as high priest and He is uniquely great in His person as God in human flesh. Therefore…


The words, “hold fast our confession,” imply danger and effort on our part (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 106). Picture someone hanging on for dear life as their raft goes down the raging rapids in the Grand Canyon. “Hold fast!” “Confession” implies not only our private belief in the essential doctrines of the faith (especially with regard to Jesus’ deity and humanity), but also our public declaration of this truth in the face of persecution. We make such a public profession of faith in baptism, but that profession is put to the test when persecution arises. Are we only fair-weather believers who deny the Lord when it becomes costly to believe, or will we stand firm even to death because we know whom we have believed?

J. C. Ryle reports, “When John Rogers, the first martyr in Queen Mary’s time, was being led to Smithfield to be burned, the French Ambassador reported that he looked as bright and cheerful as if he were going to his wedding” (Home Truths [Triangle Press], 1:64). While God must give special grace at such a time, we would not do well in persecution if we grumble and walk away from God when we face lesser trials. Paul says that we’re not only to persevere in trials, but to do so with great joy (Rom. 5:3)! So hold fast your confession of faith in Christ when He takes you through difficult trials. He is none other than your great high priest, God in human flesh, who now sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).

2. Since Jesus is our sympathetic and sinless high priest, we must pray in times of need (4:15-16).


The author uses a double negative, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses….” Probably he was anticipating an objection: “You’ve just said that Jesus is a great high priest who has passed through the heavens. How can someone beyond the heavens relate to me and my problems?” The author responds, “No, Jesus is not unsympathetic. He understands your deepest feelings.”

We all need someone to sympathize with our problems and weaknesses without condemning us. Sometimes that is enough to get us through, just to know that someone else understands what we’re going through. I read about a boy who noticed a sign, “Puppies for sale.” He asked, “How much do you want for the pups, mister?”

“Twenty-five dollars, son.” The boy’s face dropped. “Well, sir, could I see them anyway?”

The man whistled and the mother dog came around the corner, followed by four cute puppies, wagging their tails and yipping happily. Then lagging behind, another puppy came around the corner, dragging one hind leg.

“What’s the matter with that one, sir?” the boy asked.

“Well, son, that puppy is crippled. The vet took an X-ray and found that it doesn’t have a hip socket. It will never be right.”

The man was surprised when the boy said, “That’s the one I want. Could I pay you a little each week?”

The owner replied, “But, son, you don’t seem to understand. That pup will never be able to run or even walk right. He’s going to be a cripple forever. Why would you want a pup like that?”

The boy reached down and pulled up his pant leg, revealing a brace. “I don’t walk too good, either.” Looking down at the puppy, the boy continued, “That puppy is going to need a lot of love and understanding. It’s not easy being crippled!” The man said, “You can have the puppy for free. I know you’ll take good care of him.”

That is a limited illustration of our Savior’s sympathy for our condition. Since He became a man and suffered all that we experience, He sympathizes with our weaknesses. He demonstrated His compassion many times during His earthly ministry. But His humanity was not diminished in any way when He ascended into heaven. We have a completely sympathetic high priest at the right hand of God!


He was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” At first, we may wrongly think that being sinless would make Jesus unsympathetic and distant from us, since we all have sinned many times. Perhaps a fellow sinner could relate more to my failures. But that is not so. Charles Spurgeon pointed out (“The Tenderness of Jesus” [Ages Software], sermon 2148, p. 407, italics his),

[D]o not imagine that if the Lord Jesus had sinned he would have been any more tender toward you; for sin is always of a hardening nature. If the Christ of God could have sinned, he would have lost the perfection of his sympathetic nature. It needs perfectness of heart to lay self all aside, and to be touched with a feeling of the infirmities of others.

Others object that if Jesus never sinned, He must not have been tempted to the degree that we are tempted. But as many have pointed out, that is not so. The one who resists to the very end knows the power of temptation in a greater way than the one who yields to sin sooner.

When it says that Jesus was tempted in all things as we are, it doesn’t mean every conceivable temptation, which would be impossible. Nor was Jesus ever tempted by indwelling sin, as we are. In this, He was like Adam and Eve before the fall. Temptation had to come to Jesus from without, not from within.

But Jesus knew every type of temptation. He knew what it is like to be hungry, thirsty, and tired. He knew the horrible agony of physical torture, which He endured in His trial and crucifixion. He knew what it is like to be mocked, distrusted, maligned, and betrayed by friends. From the start of Jesus’ ministry to the very end, Satan leveled all of his evil power and strategies to try to get Jesus to sin. But he never succeeded. Jesus always obeyed the Father.

Verse 15 raises the question, “Was it possible for Jesus to have sinned?” We need to answer this carefully (I am following Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 537-539). Scripture clearly affirms that Jesus never committed sin (Heb. 7:26; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2:22). It also affirms that His temptations were real, not just playacting. The Bible also affirms, “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). Since Jesus was fully God, how then could He really be tempted, much less commit a sin? Here we plunge into the mystery of how one man can be both fully God and fully human, as Scripture plainly affirms of Jesus.

Since Jesus is one person with two natures, and since sin involves the whole person, in this sense, Jesus could not have sinned or He would have ceased to be God. But the question remains, “How then could Jesus’ temptations be real?” The answer seems to be that Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by His divine power, but by His human nature relying on the power of the Father and Holy Spirit. As Wayne Grudem explains, “The moral strength of his divine nature was there as a sort of ‘backstop’ that would have prevented him from sinning…, but he did not rely on the strength of his divine nature to make it easier for him to face temptations…” (p. 539).

As you know, Scripture sometimes affirms something of Jesus that could only be true of one of His natures, but not both (Matt. 24:36). Jesus’ divine nature could not be tempted or sin, but His human nature could. Don’t stumble over the fact that you cannot fully comprehend this. Rather, accept the testimony of Scripture: Jesus truly was tempted and He never sinned. These facts mean that He understands what we are going through and He is able to come to our aid when we are tempted (2:18).

Because Jesus is a sympathetic and sinless high priest…


“Draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” “Throne of grace” is an oxymoron. To the ancient world, a throne was a forbidding place of sovereign authority and judgment. If you approached a throne and the king did not hold out his scepter, you were history! You definitely would not draw near to the throne for sympathy, especially with a trivial problem. But the author calls it the throne of grace. He makes it clear that we are welcome at this throne. He answers four questions: (1) Why draw near? (2) When should we draw near? (3) How should we draw near? And, (4) What can we expect when we draw near?


We don’t come because we’ve got it pretty much together and we just need a little advice. We come because we are weak (4:15). Jesus didn’t say, “Without Me, you can get along pretty well most of the time. Call Me if you need Me.” He said, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And when we come to the throne of grace, He doesn’t ridicule us or belittle us for our weaknesses. He welcomes us as a father welcomes his children to his side to protect them from some danger.


We should come in a “time of need,” which is at all times! A main reason we do not pray is that we don’t realize how needy we are. We think we can handle things on our own. Just call in the Lord when things get really intense. But the fact is, we depend on Him for every breath we take and for every meal we eat, even if we’ve got a month’s supply of food in the freezer. Praying without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) is necessary because we are constantly in over our heads. Prayer is the acknowledgement that our need is not partial; it is total!


The author does not say, “Draw near through your local priest.” He says, “Let us draw near.” Us means every believer. Dr. Dwight Pentecost, one of my professors in seminary, told how he was in Mexico City during a feast for the Immaculate Conception of Mary. There was a long line of thousands waiting for confession, but only one confession booth. As the noon bells rang, an old, stooped over priest came out of the booth, walking with two canes. A woman with several small children fell on her knees before him and grabbed him by the knees. She cried out to him, begging him to relieve her burdens. But he struck her on the side of the head with one of his canes and went off through the crowd. He was an unsympathetic, weak human priest.

Thankfully, we do not have to go through any human priest to draw near to the very throne of God. We could not dare come in our own merit or righteousness. But we can come with confidence because the blood of Jesus, our high priest, has gained us access (Eph. 3:12). Our confidence is not in how good we’ve been or in how well we can pray. Spurgeon pointed out that God will overlook our shortcomings and poor prayers just as a loving parent will overlook the mistakes in the sentences of his toddler. Even when we have sinned badly, if we draw near to confess our sins, He will cleanse our wounds and begin the healing process, just as a parent would carefully clean and bandage the wounds of his child. Finally,


What a wonderful promise! We won’t be scolded for having a need. We won’t be told that our need is too trivial for such an important high priest to be troubled with. We will receive mercy and find grace to help. “Help” is a technical nautical term that is used elsewhere only in Acts 27:17 to describe the cables that the sailors wrapped around the hull of Paul’s ship during the storm so that it would not break apart. We encountered the verb in Hebrews 2:18, where it has the nuance of running to the aid of someone crying for help. When your life seems to be coming apart at the seams because of the storm, cry out to our sympathetic high priest at the throne of grace. You will receive mercy and find grace to help.

What is the difference between mercy and grace? They somewhat overlap, but mercy has special reference to God’s tenderness toward us because of the misery caused by our sins, whereas grace refers to His undeserved favor in freely forgiving our sins, which actually deserve His judgment (see R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], pp. 169-170). Together, both words reflect the good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:18). All that trust in Christ and His shed blood as the payment for their sins have free access at the throne of grace to God’s boundless mercy and undeserved favor!


I like John Piper’s analogy that prayer is our walkie-talkie to get the supplies we need in the spiritual war that we are engaged in. It’s not an intercom to call the maid to bring extra beverages to the den. In other words, prayer isn’t to make us comfortable and cozy, oblivious to the advancement of God’s kingdom purposes. Prayer is our walkie-talkie to bring in the needed supplies as we seek first His kingdom and righteousness. If you’re under fire in the battle, persevere—hold fast your confession, because Jesus is our great high priest. If you have needs, pray—draw near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in the battle.

Discussion Questions

How does our understanding of the person and work of Christ relate to persevering in trials?
Does Jesus’ sympathy for our weaknesses mean that He tolerates our sins? Explain.
Some Christians argue that if Jesus could not have sinned, His temptations were not real. Is this so? Why/why not?
The term “throne of grace” reflects a fine balance between the reverent fear of God and being accepted by Him. Discuss the implications of this balance.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.


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God’s Powerful Word (Hebrews 4:12-13)


God’s Powerful Word (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Expository preaching has fallen on hard times. Many are saying that people who are used to television and other modern media cannot handle a 40-minute sermon. Sadly, many pastors are heeding that advice. “Seeker” churches advocate 15-minute talks built around some felt need, accompanied by short dramas to hold people’s attention. They say that we should never mention sin or anything else that will make anyone feel uncomfortable! The aim is to make everyone feel good in church.

That approach to ministry is an inherent denial of the power of God’s Word to convert sinners and build up God’s people by exposing our sin and pointing to God’s grace at the cross. History contains numerous testimonies to the power of God’s Word. A guilt-ridden monk named Martin Luther got saved by studying Romans 1:16-17. When people praised Luther for his role in the Reformation, he deflected the praise to the Word. He said (in Eric Gritsch, Martin—God’s Court Jester [Fortress Press], pp. 200-201), “And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nicholas] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

In a similar manner, God brought the Reformation to Geneva through the biblical preaching of John Calvin. In Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press], T. H. L. Parker shows the amazing expository ministry that Calvin carried out in Geneva. He would normally preach two different sermons on Sundays, and then different sermons each weekday on alternate weeks. His sermons normally lasted one hour. The weeks that he didn’t preach at the church, he was teaching ministerial students at the seminary. In addition to his heavy preaching load, he met weekly with the church leaders, visited the sick, counseled those in need, maintained an extensive correspondence, and wrote his many commentaries and books (pp. 62-63)! Think what he could have done with a computer!

I have read several books of Calvin’s sermons. His style is to explain the text in simple terms that ordinary people could understand, even though he preached directly out of his Hebrew and Greek Testaments, without notes. After Easter Sunday, 1538, the town fathers banished Calvin from Geneva. They later realized their mistake, and brought him back in September, 1541. Calvin picked up with the next verse after the one he had taught in 1538, as if it had been the previous Sunday (p. 60)! His theme invariably was to show God’s majesty and holiness, our wretchedness and spiritual poverty, and the riches of grace that God in His fatherly kindness has made available to us through Christ (pp. 93-107).

Hebrews 4:12-13 is one of the great biblical texts on the power of God’s Word. The author has been warning the Hebrew church of the danger of cultural Christianity. His text has been Psalm 95, which refers to the tragic example of Israel in the wilderness. Although they had come out of Egypt by applying the Passover blood, had come through the Red Sea, and had been sustained in the wilderness by God’s provision of water and manna, they did not trust God nor obey His Word. As a result, they failed to enter God’s rest, which was a picture of salvation.

In verse 11 the author warns, “let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” Verse 12 begins with “For.” The connection is that Israel in the wilderness had God’s Word, but disregarded it. We should not follow their example of disobedience to the Word. It will do a powerful work in our hearts if we hear it, allow it to expose our sin, and obey it. Since God sees and knows everything, including our very thoughts, we would be fools to disobey His life-giving Word. To do so would only bring certain judgment. Thus,

Because God’s Word is powerful to expose our sin and God Himself sees everything, we must be diligent to have our hearts right before Him.

Many early commentators interpreted “the word” here to refer to Jesus Christ, whom John (1:1) calls “the Word.” Granted, the author begins Hebrews by stating, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1-2). But in the immediate context, he has been showing how Israel in the wilderness did not hear (in the sense of obey) God’s voice (3:7, 15; 4:7). They had the good news preached to them, but they did not unite it with faith and obedience (4:2, 6).

In this context, “the word of God” refers to all of God’s spoken revelation, including that which came through His Son. We have it recorded in written form in the Scriptures. If we heed God’s Word, it will keep us from the cultural religion that brings sure judgment. The author is extolling the power of God’s Word to bring us into a personal experience of His rest, or salvation.

1. God’s Word is powerful to expose our sin (4:12).

The text asserts four things about the power of the Word:


Since God is the living God (3:12), and His Word cannot be separated from Him, that Word is a living Word. It can never be exterminated. As Isaiah 40:8 proclaims, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Since God is the author of life, His living Word imparts life in two ways.


Because of sin, we all enter this world dead in trespasses and sins, alienated from God (Eph. 2:1, 12). A dead sinner can no more will himself into spiritual life than a dead corpse can will himself into physical life. But God is pleased to use His Word to impart new life to dead sinners. James 1:18 states, “In the exercise of His will [not our will] He brought us forth by the word of truth …” 1 Peter 1:23 says, “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.”

If you want to see sinners converted, get them to read and listen to God’s Word. John (20:31) stated very plainly his purpose in writing his gospel: “these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Many years ago, Marla’s sister, Sandie, was living a godless life. In her words, she was “living with her boyfriend, drinking, smoking, and cussing.” One of the first times we were together, I asked her when she was going to become a Christian. She sputtered, “Probably never!” I asked, “Why not?” She said, “Because I don’t believe the Bible.” I asked, “Have you ever read it carefully?” I pointed out that Marla and I were both reasonably intelligent people, and we believed the Bible. Finally, after a lot of pestering, she agreed to read the Bible. She ended up reading it cover to cover in two months and became a Christian. I had the joy of baptizing her.

When I emailed to ask if I could use her story she said, “Yes you may definitely use my story. I still thank you and Marla for not giving up on me. If it had not been for your persistence and getting the word of God into my hands, I would probably be dead and in hell today because of my sinful life style in those days. And you can quote me.”


All of us that have known God’s salvation for a while have gone through dry times when God seemed distant. God uses His Word to renew and revive us. David wrote, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps. 19:7). The entire 176 verses of Psalm 119 extol the benefits of God’s Word. Repeatedly the psalmist cries out, “My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (119:25). “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me” (119:50; see also, 93, 107, 149, 154, 156, 159).

It only makes sense that if the living God, has spoken to us in His written Word, then we should seek it like a treasure and devour it as a hungry man devours a meal. Being the word of God, it is both a word from God and a word about God. It is our only source of knowing specific truth about God. Creation reveals His attributes in a general way, but the written Word is God’s disclosure of Himself in a way that we could never know through creation alone. And invariably, when we see God as He is, we also see ourselves as we are, as Isaiah experienced (Isa. 6:1-5). While this shatters us at first, it is always for our ultimate healing and growth in holiness.

As the living Word, God’s revelation also speaks to our current needs and situation. As we have seen, the author often quotes Scripture by saying, “He says” (1:5; 2:11-12), or “The Holy Spirit says” (3:7). Even though the Bible was written many centuries ago, the Spirit of God still speaks directly to us through it. It is never out of date or irrelevant. It speaks to the very issues that we face in our modern world. I would encourage you to read the Bible not in a random manner, but consecutively, from both the Old and New Testaments. You will find, as I have, that God will often use what you have read either that day or within a few days of reading it.


We get our word “energy” from the Greek word translated “active.” It means that the Word is effectual. It accomplishes what God intends for it to do. As Isaiah 55:10-11 states, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth out of My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” I claim that verse every time I preach! If I am careful to preach God’s Word, and not my own, He promises that it will accomplish His purpose.

You may wonder, “What about people who hear and reject God’s Word?” Jesus explained that these people are only fulfilling another word from God to Isaiah, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:14-15, citing Isa. 6:9-10). As John Owen explains, “Sometimes Christ designs by His word the hardening and blinding of wicked sinners, that they may be the more prepared for deserved destruction” (Hebrews: The Epistle of Warning [Kregel abridgement], p. 74).

In my first year here, I was preaching through 1 Peter and came to chapter 3, where he instructs wives to be submissive to their husbands, even if the husbands are disobedient to the word. That week, a single woman in her 30’s came to see me. She said, “You should never preach on that on a Sunday morning.” I asked her if I had misrepresented what the text says. She replied, “No, you taught what it says.” I asked, “Did I say it in an arrogant or condescending manner?” She replied, “No, you had the proper tone of voice and manner of speaking.”

So I asked, “Then what was the problem?” She said, “The problem was, I brought a friend with me who is an ardent feminist. She was offended and will never come to church again!” I said, “Ah! Well, I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and I know that one of two things will happen. Either your friend will be convicted of her rebellion against God and come to repentance. Or, she will harden her heart and be all the more guilty on the day of judgment. But either way, God’s Word will not return to Him void, without accomplishing His purpose.” The woman didn’t like my answer and left the church.


It is “sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow…” Some use this verse to draw distinctions between soul and spirit, but that is not the author’s intent. (What then does the distinction between joints and marrow mean?) Rather, he is using figurative language to show that God’s Word is sharp and it cuts deeply, to the very core of our being. Unless your conscience is hardened beyond remedy, you cannot read God’s Word or hear it preached faithfully without getting cut in the conscience.

God’s purpose in cutting us is to bring healing, not to leave us wounded. Sin is like a cancer growing inside of us. Untreated, it will be fatal. The sharp sword of God’s Word, as J. B. Lightfoot put it, “heals most completely, where it wounds most deeply; and gives life there only, where first it has killed” (Cambridge Sermons [Macmillan and Co.], p. 162). David Livingstone, the pioneer missionary to Africa, offered to teach one of the chiefs to shoot a rifle and also to read. But the chief replied that “he did not wish to learn to read the Book, for he was afraid it might change his heart and make him content with only one wife, like Sechele” (another chief who had been converted) (George Seaver, David Livingstone: His Life and Letters [Harper & Brothers], p. 177). He wanted to get five wives before he dared to read the Bible!

The Bible is a dangerous book! It will cut you! When it makes your conscience go, “Ow!” don’t harden your heart. Let God do surgery by cutting out the cancer of sin that the Word has revealed.


The word “thoughts” refers to negative thoughts related to emotions, such as anger, which a man may wish to keep hidden from others, but which God knows (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 103; H. Schonweiss, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown, 1:106). “Intentions” refers here to “morally questionable thoughts” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel, 4:971). The heart refers to the totality of the inner person. We get our word “critic” from the word translated “judge.” So the idea is that God’s Word is able authoritatively to act as critic of our innermost feelings and thoughts, showing us where we are wrong.

I’ve had the experience after I’ve preached of a husband coming to me, looking around to make sure that no one is listening, and asking nervously, “Did my wife talk to you about what went on in our household this week?” I chuckle and assure him, “No, I had no idea what was going on, but God did!” His Word penetrated into the secrecy of that home and heart, revealing things that were not in line with His righteousness.

So in verse 12, the author is showing how God’s Word is powerful to expose our sin, never for the purpose of embarrassing us, but always to bring healing. We cannot rid our lives of sin if we aren’t even aware of it. The Word cuts down to our inner thoughts and feelings, revealing to us the things that are not pleasing to God, so that we can repent of these things and receive God’s restoration.

2. God Himself sees everything, including our deepest thoughts and motives (4:13).

The author moves from God’s penetrating Word to God Himself, who sees everything. It is impossible to hide from God! Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they sinned, but they could not do it, and neither can we. The word “open” means “naked.” Have you ever dreamed that you were naked in public? What a relief after a dream like that, to wake up and realize that it was only a dream! But we stand naked on the inside before God!

“Laid bare” is used only here in the New Testament, and rarely anywhere else. It means to expose the neck, perhaps as a sacrificial victim’s neck is exposed just before the knife slices the jugular vein. The idea of the two words together is that we are naked and helpless before God. There is no escape from His omniscient gaze. Sin is always stupid, because even if we fool everyone on earth, and think that we got away with it, we didn’t fool God!

3. Since we all will give account to God, we must be diligent to have our hearts right before Him.

The final phrase of 4:13 means either “Him with whom we have to do,” or, “Him to whom we must give an account.” We know that one day we all will stand before God to give an account of the deeds we have done in this body. Therefore, we should have as our ambition to be pleasing to Him (2 Cor. 5:9-10), not just outwardly, but on the heart level.

If that thought terrifies you, keep reading! The author will go on to show how Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest who invites us to draw near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help in our time of need (4:14-16). But you must make sure that He truly is your High Priest, in the most personal sense. There is no group plan of salvation. It’s not enough to be a part of the company of God’s people. We must be diligent personally to enter God’s rest through faith in Christ and obedience to His Word. Every true believer will develop the habit of judging sin on the thought or heart level, out of a desire to please the Savior who gave Himself for us on the cross.


I close with five practical action steps:

(1) Treasure God’s Word above all worldly counsel! I am amazed at how Christians will pay psychologists hundreds of dollars for advice that is devoid of God’s Word, but they won’t consult the Bible for wisdom on how to live! You say, “But I needed advice on some practical relational problems.” Why do you think the Bible was written? The whole thing is summed up by, “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.” That’s pretty relational! It’s not only sin to neglect God’s Word and turn to the empty “wisdom” of the world (Jer. 2:13). It’s also just plain dumb!

(2) Read, study, memorize, and meditate on God’s Word. It will not do you any good if you don’t know what it says. You need to memorize key verses because you will not obey it if it’s not in your heart (Ps. 119:11). You won’t stop at work or at home to say, “Just a minute, I know there’s a verse that applies here, but I need to get out my concordance and find it!”

(3) Apply, trust, and obey God’s Word. The point of Bible study is not to fill your head with knowledge about the end times or theological arguments to support your favorite views. It is to change your heart and life! Always study it with a view to obedience.

(4) Live with your heart exposed to God’s Word. Don’t cover up any sinful thoughts. If the Word convicts you, stop and confess the matter to God. If need be, resolve to go to anyone you have wronged and ask forgiveness. Remember, God knows every sinful thought you’ll ever have, and He still sent His Son to bear the penalty of your sin!

(5) Drink in all of the biblical preaching you can absorb. Don’t get sucked in to the “preaching lite” movement! Calvin commented on verse 12, “If anyone thinks that the air is beaten by an empty sound when the Word of God is preached, he is greatly mistaken; for it is a living thing and full of hidden power, which leaves nothing in man untouched” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 22:102). Be diligent to saturate yourself with God’s Word with the aim of obedience, so that you do not fall as the stubborn Israelites did in the wilderness!

Discussion Questions

Since we know that sin destroys us, why do we persist in covering it up, rather than exposing it so that God can heal us?
Why is the “seeker” church movement inherently flawed?
What principles underlie sound biblical application?
In one sense, the Pharisees “knew” the Word. Why didn’t it profit them? How can we avoid their mistakes?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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Cultural Religion Versus Saving Faith (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Cultural Religion Versus Saving Faith (Hebrews 4:1-11)

For me, some of the most frightening words in the Bible are Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Clearly, Jesus is warning us that it is possible not only to claim to follow Him, but also to serve Him in some remarkable ways—prophesying, casting out demons, and performing miracles—and yet be excluded from heaven! Jesus was not talking about pagans, who spent their lives partying and disregarding God. These were men that had spent their lives serving Him, or so they thought. Their cry, “Lord, Lord,” shows that they professed Jesus as their Lord. Clearly, they were shocked at being shut out of heaven. They expected to get in, but when they got there, the door was barred! If Jesus’ words do not strike fear into your heart, they should!

Both Jesus’ words and the words of our text warn us against the danger of cultural Christianity. Cultural Christians go to church. They claim to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Many of them serve in the church. But on that great and terrible day, they will hear Jesus utter the chilling words, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” I want to explain how to avoid being a cultural Christian and how to be genuinely saved.

Hebrews 4:1-11 is a difficult text to understand. While I think that I am on the right track here, I confess that for many years I could not understand these verses. Many pastors and Bible scholars apply these verses along the lines of how believers can experience God’s peace or rest in the face of trials in our daily walk. I grant that there may be a valid secondary application in that sense.

But as I have wrestled with these verses in their context, I think that to apply them primarily as an encouragement to believers to rest in Christ in the midst of trials is to misapply them. Rather, I think that the main message is:

All who are associated with the church must beware of the cultural religion that falls short of personally experiencing God’s salvation.

In other words, I view them as a warning to professing Christians to make sure that their faith is genuine. I am going to follow the old Puritan approach to sermon structure, first explaining the doctrine and then giving “the use” (applying the text).

Doctrine: the text explained in its context:

Two statements will help us understand the text:


“Therefore” (4:1) takes us back to chapter 3, especially to verses 12 & 19. He is warning against having an evil, unbelieving heart. His readers were Jewish believers in Christ who were tempted in the face of persecution to go back to Judaism. Twice he exhorts them to “hold fast” their confession or assurance of faith (3:6, 14). He cited Psalm 95:7-11, which recounts how the Israelites in the wilderness provoked God and were thereby excluded from entering His place of rest, the Promised Land. They all had applied the blood of the Passover lamb to their doorposts. They all had passed through the Red Sea and escaped from Pharaoh’s army. But even so, with most of them, God was not well pleased, and He laid them low in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:5).

To understand that story correctly, it is important that we not push the typology too far. We would be mistaken to conclude that all of those who came out of Egypt were true believers who were “living in carnality.” I have often heard the story applied in this way. Those in Israel who grumbled in the wilderness are likened to “carnal” Christians. They are saved, but they just haven’t yet moved into Canaan’s land, which is the experience of victory over sin. Sometimes this is phrased that they are still in Romans 7, but they haven’t yet moved into Romans 8. I contend that that is to misapply this story.

Rather, I think that those who rebelled in the wilderness and incurred God’s wrath represent what I am calling “cultural believers.” They were a part of the people of God (Israel), but their hearts were far from trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are repeatedly described as hardened (3:8, 13, 15; 4:7). They were under God’s wrath (3:10, 11, 17, 18; 4:3). Their basic problem is called unbelief (3:12; 4:2), disobedience, and sin (3:17, 18; 4:6, 11).

The author plainly is talking about a person’s response to the gospel, not to an experience of a deeper Christian life. Twice he states that these people, like us, had the good news preached to them (4:2, 6). Even under the Law of Moses, people were not saved by keeping the Law, but by the righteousness of faith (Gen. 15:6; Exod. 34:6-7; Ps. 32:1-2; cf. Rom. 4). But the good news did not profit these people, because it was not united with faith (4:2).

Thus when the author exhorts us to fear, lest we may come short of entering God’s rest (4:1), the thing we are to fear is unbelief and its terrible consequences, namely, eternal judgment. We should fear that like these grumbling unbelievers, we may fall through the same example of disobedience (4:11; cf. 3:17). Either we have entered God’s rest (His salvation) through faith or we are the objects of His wrath through unbelief and disobedience (3:10-11, 16-18; 4:3, 5). If we do not believe God’s promises, those very promises turn into frightening threats of judgment!

So I contend that the context shows us that the author’s pastoral concern was not that some “carnal” Christians in the Hebrew church would miss out on the experience of God’s peace in the midst of their trials. His main concern was that some of them may be like those in Israel in the wilderness. They may be a part of the religious crowd, but not true believers. His concern was for their salvation from God’s wrath through genuine saving faith.

A second statement will help us understand our text:


The train of thought in 4:3-10 is difficult, but I think that the author is explaining from the Old Testament how the imagery of God’s rest has been a picture of salvation in four different time periods.


The author begins by stating, “For we who believe enter that rest.” Then he cites again Psalm 95:11, “As I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest” (see Heb. 3:11). Then he adds, “although His works were finished from the foundation of the world.” He goes on to cite from Genesis 2:2, how “God rested on the seventh day from all His works.” F. F. Bruce (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 74) explains the thought connection: “It was not because the ‘rest’ of God was not yet available that the wilderness generation of Israelites failed to enter into it; it had been available ever since creation’s work was ended.”

In other words, the Jewish Sabbath, which was rooted in the creation narrative, was a picture of the rest that God’s people enjoy through His salvation. It was a day to cease from normal labors and to be refreshed through time with God. It was a weekly opportunity for God’s people to stop and reflect on His goodness and care for them. From the beginning, there was a spiritual element to the Sabbath. The soul in harmony with his creator found a sense of satisfaction and rest on that day.


The author repeats (see 4:3) the last phrase of Psalm 95:11, “They shall not enter My rest,” to refer to the generation that perished in the wilderness. In 4:8 he shows that even those who entered the Promised Land under Joshua did not experience the fullness of God’s rest, in that David, over 300 years after Joshua, spoke of the need to enter God’s rest. In the Greek text, Joshua is Iesous, “Jesus,” which means, “Yahweh saves.” So the original readers would have seen the play on the names: the original Jesus (Joshua) was only a type of the Jesus to come. Joshua led the people into the Promised Land, but that was only a picture of the rest of God’s salvation that Jesus Christ provides.


Since those in the wilderness failed to enter God’s rest, and since David wrote, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts,” there is still a day of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of rest. The emphasis here is on the word “today.” The gist of the argument here is that God’s promises always have a present application to them. Even though Israel in the wilderness failed to appropriate God’s rest, God offered it again through David. Every generation has the opportunity to respond in faith to God’s promises. This leads to the bottom line:


The author here uses a unique word for rest, translated “Sabbath rest.” Some think that he coined the word. It calls attention to the spiritual aspect of God’s rest. It goes beyond observing the seventh day as holy. It goes beyond entering the physical Promised Land. This Sabbath rest is a soul-rest. It is what Jesus promised when He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

The author says that this rest remains for “the people of God” (4:9). Then he explains that “the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (4:10). “The people of God” refers to Israel in the Old Testament, and here to all who are associated with God’s church. Bruce (p. 78) thinks that verses 9-10 refer to “an experience which they do not enjoy in their present mortal life, although it belongs to them as a heritage, and by faith they may live in the good of it here and now.” He refers to the believers in chapter 11, who did not experience the fullness of the promises in their lifetimes, but who were looking for the heavenly city that God prepared for them (11:16).

Leon Morris (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:43) cites Bruce and then comments,

I should reverse his order and say that they live in it here and now by faith, but what they know here is not the full story. That will be revealed in the hereafter. There is a sense in which to enter Christian salvation means to cease from one’s works and rest securely on what Christ has done.

The author’s point here is that from the beginning God has offered His salvation to people, and still offers it, under this imagery of entering His rest. At the heart of it is that we stop trusting in our works to save us and begin trusting instead in the finished work of Christ to save us. As Paul puts it, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

To sum up, when the author talks of entering God’s rest, he is not talking about believers learning to trust God in trials so that they experience His inner peace. Rather, he is talking about God’s salvation under this imagery of rest, in line with the Old Testament. He is warning his readers about the danger of being associated with God’s people but missing His salvation because they do not respond in faith to the message.

Use: the text applied to us:

I offer seven applications. Some of them are repeated from earlier messages, but since the writer hammers these things home through repetition, so will I.


The Jews in the wilderness believed in God in a general sense. They knew and believed in the story of creation and the history recorded in Genesis. They believed that the covenant with Abraham applied to them as his descendants. They even believed God enough to apply the blood to their doorposts and to follow Moses through the Red Sea. They had heard God’s good news, but it did not profit them because they did not believe it personally (4:2). When they heard about the giants in the land, they complained that it would have been better to die in Egypt or to die in the wilderness than to be killed by the Canaanites (Num. 14:2-3). So God granted them their wish; they all died in the wilderness!

It is not enough to grow up in the church and have a general belief in God and in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard the gospel all your life, and intellectually, you believe in Jesus and that He died for your sins. But intellectual belief is not enough! Saving faith trusts personally in the shed blood of Jesus as the only payment for my sins. Saving faith believes that God will be gracious to me in the judgment because my sins are covered by Jesus’ blood and that His righteousness has been imputed to me according to God’s promise. Make sure that your hope of heaven is not based on your parents’ faith or on the fact that you hang out with Christians in a church building! You must see your need as a sinner before God and come personally to the cross in faith to receive God’s mercy.


I fear that there are many in our churches today, like those Jesus referred to, who will say, “Lord, Lord,” but who will be shut out of heaven. Jeremiah 8:11 warned about false prophets, who healed the brokenness of the daughter of God’s people superficially, saying, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace. People today are encouraged to “invite Jesus into their hearts” and then are told that they have eternal life and will never lose it. They are not told that they need to repent of their sins. They are not told that God must change their hearts. Polls show that there is virtually no difference today between the way that “evangelicals” think and live and the way the rest of the population thinks and lives!

Just because a person feels inner peace does not mean that he is truly saved. I encourage you to read Jonathan Edwards’ A Treatise on Religious Affections (a modern English, condensed version is called, The Experience that Counts). He analyzes in great detail, with an abundance of Scriptural support, how a person can know which feelings are valid indicators of genuine conversion.


Verse 7 is the third time the author has repeated the warning about not hardening our hearts (3:8, 15). God looks on the heart, not on the outward performance of religious duties. Salvation is a matter of God doing “heart surgery,” replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26) that are tender towards Him. If you are truly saved, you know that your heart is different than it was before. It is not that you never sin now, but rather that your attitude towards sin is radically different. Before, you loved it; now, you hate it. Before, you were apathetic towards the things of God. Now, you love God and His Word. The bent of your life is a desire to know Him and love Him more and more.


As we saw last week, the author uses faith and obedience (or, unbelief and disobedience) interchangeably (3:18-19; 4:2, 6, 11). It is not that we are saved by works, but rather that true saving faith always results in a life of obedience to God. Again, I’m not talking about sinless perfection. No one lives perfectly this side of heaven. But a true believer strives against sin (Heb. 12:4). Instead of being a slave of sin, a believer is a slave of righteousness out of obedience from the heart (Rom. 6:17-18). A person who is not growing in obedience to God’s Word should question whether his faith is genuine saving faith, or just cultural religion.


If we are depending on anything in ourselves to get into heaven, we have not entered God’s rest (4:10). It is possible even to depend wrongly on your faith, thinking that your faith gets you into heaven. To do this is to turn faith into a work! It becomes the thing you are trusting for eternal life. Don’t trust in your faith; trust in Christ. If salvation were based on my faith, then it would be due to something in me, and not according to grace (Rom. 11:6). God saves us by His grace, based on the merit of Jesus Christ. Faith simply looks to Christ and relies on Him alone.


There is a sense of irony in the exhortation (4:11), “Let us be diligent to enter that rest.” While salvation is a gift that we passively receive, there is also an active responsibility on our part to lay hold of it. We must rest from our works (4:10), but be diligent to enter God’s true rest (4:11). As I said last week, you can cruise into hell without any effort. Just go with the flow of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and you’ll get there. But getting into heaven requires diligence and watchfulness. Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Be diligent in seeking God’s rest through His Word, so that you do not come short of it.


The rest spoken of here is both a present reality and a future hope. The present reality is, as Paul said, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). It also includes, as he goes on to say, that “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). The future hope is the promise of being with the Lord forever in glory, when “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).


I hope that this message has disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. If you came in feeling comfortable in your standing before God because you are associated with this church, or because you serve in some way in the church, or because of anything you do, I hope you are now disturbed because you see that your standing with God is on shaky ground. To base your hope for heaven on any outward religion is to have false hope.

On the other hand, if you came in feeling disturbed because you were despairing of your propensity toward sin, and you knew that if salvation depends on your performance, you will never qualify, I hope that you are comforted with the good news that you can enter God’s eternal rest through faith in Christ alone. Fear the unbelief of cultural Christianity! Trust in the Savior who gives true rest to His people!

Discussion Questions

Do you agree with the interpretation offered? Why/why not?
Do doubts mean that our faith is not genuine? How can we know if our faith is genuine?
What are some marks of cultural religion versus true faith?
How can fear (4:1) abide with true faith? See Luke 12:5; Rom. 11:20; Phil. 2:13.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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Persevering in Faith (Hebrews 3:12-19)


Persevering in Faith (Hebrews 3:12-19)

One of the most controversial issues among Christians is, “Can a believer lose his salvation?” Our emotions can get involved, since most of us have loved ones who at one time made a profession of faith in Christ, and perhaps were even involved in some ministry. But today they are far from the Lord. We wonder, “Is this person truly saved?” Our hearts want to say “yes,” but there are scary verses, such as several in our text, that make us hesitate.

Among evangelicals, there are three main camps. Consistent Arminians would say that this person was saved, but he lost his salvation. These folks view salvation primarily as a human decision. If your decision to believe gets you in, your decision to deny the faith puts you out. I dismiss this view as indefensible in light of many Scriptures that promise security to God’s children (such as Rom. 8:1 & 29-36).

Among those who hold that believers cannot lose their salvation, there are two main camps. Some argue that perseverance is not necessary for salvation to be secure. Their motto is, “Once saved, always saved.” They argue that to make salvation require perseverance makes it depend on works. And they argue that if final salvation depends on perseverance, then assurance of salvation is impossible. What if I fall away in the future? And so they say that all that matters is that a person once believed in Christ.

This view shares with the Arminian view the idea that faith is a human decision. It is not a gift that God imparts to those He regenerates. Rather, faith is like a lever that we pull. Once we pull it, all the benefits of salvation come pouring out, and we can’t stop the process. We can walk away and say that we don’t want those benefits, but they still belong to us. How we live after we believe has nothing to do with our eternal destiny or security.

The other main view is that of Reformed theology, that saving faith is God’s gift, imparted to us when He saves us. Salvation originates with God and depends totally on His purpose and power. Since He promises to complete what He began to the praise of His glorious grace, all of God’s elect will persevere in faith unto eternal life. This view, which I believe is the truth, holds that there is such a thing as false faith. It is possible for some who profess faith in Christ later to fall away from the faith, thus demonstrating that their faith was not genuine. But saving faith, by its very nature, perseveres. Continuance in the faith is the evidence that our faith is from God, and not from man.

This is not to say that persevering faith is effortless or automatic. God ordains the means as well as the ends. God’s sovereignty in salvation never negates human responsibility. God elects all whom He saves, but the elect are responsible to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ. Although God promises that His elect will all finally be saved, we are exhorted to persevere in faith. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not at odds!

Our text is a strong exhortation to persevere in the faith. Genuine believers will heed the warning and hold fast their faith in times of trial. False believers will grumble against God and fall into sin and unbelief when trials hit, just as many in Israel did in the wilderness. So the author exhorts the church (“brethren,” 3:12) to “hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (3:14). He shows us four aspects of persevering faith:

To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid, a great service to practice, a great salvation to hold to, and a great story to personalize.

1. To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid (3:12).

If I were to ask you to name what you consider to be the very worst sins, we would probably hear mass murder, genocide, child molestation, cannibalism, and degraded sexual practices. Unbelief probably would not occur to us. But it’s on God’s list of terrible sins: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, …” (3:12).


If we shrug it off as no big deal, we won’t be on guard against it. If I told you that there is a stray cat on the loose outside, you’d say, “No big deal.” You wouldn’t be cautious about encountering this wild animal. But if I mentioned that the stray cat was a hungry lion, you’d be a bit more careful! Consider five aspects of unbelief that should cause us to be on guard against it:


Unbelief is behind every other sin that people commit. When Satan tempted Eve in the garden, he got her to disbelieve the word of God: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1). He was saying, “You really can’t believe that, can you?” If people really believed God, they would not practice any of the terrible sins mentioned earlier, because they would know that they will face His severe judgment. But not believing God, they do as they please. Unbelief is the root of all sins.


In 3:13 the author warns that they may be hardened by this sin. He repeats the warning again in 3:15, where he cites again the verse from Psalm 95 (see 3:8). Sin is like the calluses that form on our skin. If we don’t have calluses, our hands are sensitive to any pain. But once calluses form, we can do things that previously would have caused pain, and we barely feel it. Our consciences are that way. The first time we commit a sin, our conscience goes “Ouch!” The second time, it hurts, but not as bad. After a while, we can do it without even being aware that we are sinning. I’ve read of hardened hit men with the Mafia that can shoot a man in the face at close range and then go out for lunch to celebrate. Unbelief hardens our hearts against God’s standards of holiness.


In 3:13, the author tells us to “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today.’” He is referring back to the word “today” in Psalm 95. It warns us that this sin of unbelief is a persistent, daily threat. We may have been strong in faith yesterday, but then we run out of water in the wilderness today. How will we respond? Will we trust God and look to Him in faith to provide, or will we grumble and turn back to the world?

True believers can fall into the sin of unbelief. God had promised David that he would sit on the throne of Israel, but David was running for his life from the mad King Saul. After years of this, David said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 27:1). That was not a statement of faith in God’s promise! It got David into all sorts of trouble before he finally came to his senses (1 Sam. 30:6). But the point is, believers are not immune from unbelief! Be on guard!


The author refers to “the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). Sin fools us into thinking that it will get us out of our current problems and will deliver what we want, and that obedience to God will deprive us of what we want. When David went over to the Philistines, Saul stopped pursuing him. The Philistine king gave David his own city. Instead of living from cave to cave, David and his wives could settle down in a normal way of life. Sin always works that way. It fools us into thinking that we’re getting what we want. But then the bills of sin come due!

You’re single and lonely. There haven’t been any godly men calling you for a date. Satan comes along and says, “You’ll never get what you want if you wait on God! Here’s a nice unbeliever. Go out with him!” Or, you’re having problems in your marriage. Your wife constantly nags you. She doesn’t meet your needs sexually. Along comes a beautiful, sensitive, understanding woman who offers herself to you. Satan whispers, “She will meet your needs!” Sin, including unbelief, always deceives us.


In verse 12, the warning is against unbelief, but in verse 13, without any shift in subject, he warns against the deceitfulness of sin. In verses 17 & 18, he mentions those who sinned and were disobedient. In verse 19 he explains that they were barred from entering the land because of unbelief. The Bible repeatedly uses “faith” and “obedience” interchangeably (John 3:36; Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 10:16; 15:18; 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:8; 3:1; 4:17). We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith always results in a life of obedience to God (James 2:18-26). If you truly believe God, you will obey Him. If you disbelieve God, you will disobey Him.

Thus to avoid this terrible sin of unbelief, we must see how evil it really is.


“Take care, brethren” (3:12)! “Look out! Be on guard!” It does not require carefulness to go to hell, but it does require great carefulness to go to heaven. If you’re nonchalant or unconcerned about your soul, the powerful stream of the world, the flesh, and the devil will sweep you into hell. You must strive to enter at the narrow gate of heaven (Luke 13:24). Vigilance and watchfulness are marks of true believers. True believers do not flippantly say, “Hey, don’t worry about a little sin! Once saved, always saved!” True believers examine their hearts often to make sure that they are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). They take care that their hearts do not become evil and unbelieving, so that they do not fall away from the living God.


As we saw last week, Christianity is a matter of the heart before God. It’s easy to put on a good show in front of others, so that they think, “What a godly man Steve is!” I can sing with a loud voice, I can lift my hands in worship, I can pray with intensity, I can partake of communion, and I can even preach sermons with fervency—but it could all be outward! God is the living God (9:14; 10:31; 12:22) who looks on the heart. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (4:13). The living God knows my every doubt and sinful thought. I can’t fool Him, even for a second! If I want to avoid falling into this terrible sin of unbelief, I must bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. I must confess my doubts as sin and walk in reality before the living God every day. To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid, namely, unbelief.

2. To persevere in faith, there is a great service to practice (3:13).

“But encourage one another day after day, …” The verb can also mean to exhort. The root word has the idea of coming alongside someone to give aid. It is used as a name for the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26, “Helper”). Briefly, note three things about this service of encouragement:


This is not just something that pastors should do. It is a necessary ministry for every member of the body to practice mutually. Sometimes I need to exercise this ministry to someone, but at other times, I will need him to exercise it towards me. This command assumes that you are having personal contact with other believers during the week and that they know what is going on in your life well enough to offer this ministry when you need it. Also, to exercise this service, you must realize that you are your brother’s keeper! If you see your brother being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and you shrug it off, you are not obeying this command. You are responsible to help your brother who is struggling with unbelief or sin. You can’t keep your distance.


We are to do this “day after day.” Don’t assume, “Well, I’ll let the pastor deal with him someday, but that’s not my responsibility.” It is your responsibility if you see your brother turning away from the Lord! Since Satan does not let up in his attacks, we must not let up on encouraging one another in the faith.


A deceived person can’t evaluate himself properly. He thinks that everything is fine when it’s not fine. If you’ve ever been deceived by a con artist, he was long gone with your money before you realized that there was a problem. An outside party could have warned you, “Look out for that guy!” Maybe you would have avoided getting ripped off. Because sin fools us, we need one another to come alongside and give this ministry of encouragement.

To persevere, there is a great sin to avoid—unbelief. There is a great service to practice—encouragement.

3. To persevere in faith, there is a great salvation to hold fast to (3:14).

“For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” Two things:


“We have become partakers of Christ” (see also, 1:9; 3:1; 6:4; 12:8). Scholars are divided over whether this refers to our sharing with Christ in His kingdom work; or to our union with Christ, what Paul frequently calls, being “in Christ.” While both are true, the context seems to refer to our share in Christ Himself. When God saves us, He places us in Christ so that all that is true of Him is true of us. As Paul boldly states, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).


While “partakers of Christ” focuses on what God has done for us by grace, the “if” clause focuses on our responsibility. “The beginning of our assurance” refers to our initial faith in Christ for salvation. Saving faith isn’t just a one-time action. If it is genuine, we go on believing until the time that we see Jesus (“the end”). It is our responsibility to hold fast to such faith and assurance.

In Philippians, Paul presents the same balance. He says that God will complete the good work that He began in us, but at the same time he exhorts us to work out our salvation, recognizing all the while that it is God who is at work in us (Phil. 1:6; 2:12-13). In other words, the promises about the certainty of our salvation should never cause us to kick back and assume that we have no responsibility in the process. Those who truly believe in Christ will continue to hold fast to faith in Him until the end. If they let go of their faith in Him, turn back to the world, and are content to stay there, it indicates that they never really trusted in Him as Savior at all. True believers may go through times of doubt and sin, but they can’t remain there. God’s discipline will bring them back (12:8).

To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid, a great service to practice, and a great salvation to hold fast to. Finally,

4. To persevere in faith, there is a great story to personalize (3:15-19).

The author comes back to the story of Israel in the wilderness, quoting again from Psalm 95: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” Then he brings this story home to his readers by asking three sets of two rhetorical questions each (the KJV mistranslates 3:16). The first question in each set is answered by the second question. He wants his readers to see that their situation parallels exactly that of Israel in the wilderness. In 3:19 he sums up his point, tying it back to the idea of unbelief in 3:12.

The first question and answer show that this story applies to all professing believers. Who provoked God when they heard His voice? The same group that Moses had led out of Egypt. While there was a truly saved remnant in that company, most of them grumbled, disbelieved God, and died in the wilderness. The author is saying to all professing Christians, “This applies to you!” Even if we are true believers, John Owen’s comment is apropos: “The best of saints have need to be cautioned against the worst of evils” (Hebrews: The Epistle of Warning [Kregel], p. 53).

The second question and answer show that professing believers who persist in sin should expect God’s anger, not His rest. If we are not true believers, our sin in the face of knowledge will incur God’s final judgment. If we are true believers, our sin will bring on His strong discipline. Either way, you don’t want to go there!

The third question and answer show that those who incurred God’s judgment in the wilderness were not only unbelieving; they were disobedient. As we’ve seen, you cannot separate the two. Unbelief that is unchecked quickly moves into disobedience. Often unbelief is a smokescreen used to hide disobedience. Unbelief is more socially acceptable than sin, so we posture ourselves as struggling with intellectual issues. But beneath the surface, we know that if God’s Word is true, then we need to turn from our sins, and we don’t want to do that. The disobedient who failed to enter God’s rest were one and the same with the unbelieving.

His final summary (3:19) also shows that unbelief renders us not only unwilling, but also unable to appropriate God’s blessings. Either faith opens the blessings of God’s eternal rest to you, or unbelief bars you from them. To persevere in faith, we need to personalize the story of Israel in the wilderness. We need to avoid their awful sin of unbelief that rendered them unable to enter God’s promised rest.


I had a neighbor in California who could be described as an all-out macho man. His face and tattooed arms were tanned from working on a road crew and from riding his motorcycle in the California sun. He had a quick temper. I once heard him from over 100 yards away cussing out the snowplow driver for plowing a berm in front of his driveway. He had copies of Penthouse magazine lying around his house. He never went to church.

One day I got an opportunity to share Christ with him. But he quickly held up his hand to silence me and then said, “Steve, I’ve got that all fixed up with the Man Upstairs.” I’m always worried when someone refers to Almighty God as “the Man Upstairs.” I said, “What do you mean?” He proceeded to tell me that when he was a teenager, he attended a large Baptist church in the Los Angeles area. The youth pastor had told him that if he would accept Christ, he would be assured of going to heaven. He said, “I did that, and so you don’t need to worry about me.” Even though there was not a shred of evidence that he was persevering in the faith, and in spite of much evidence that he was not, he thought that because he had once believed, he had eternal life!

The author of Hebrews had a different view of things. He says that to enter God’s rest, we must persevere in obedient faith. To persevere, we must avoid the great sin of unbelief; we must practice the great service of mutual encouragement; we must hold fast our great salvation in Christ; and, we must personalize the great story of Israel in the wilderness. Take care, brethren!

Discussion Questions

Why is unbelief such a terrible sin? Does this mean that true Christians never doubt? Why/why not?
Since sin is so deceptive, how can we recognize and deal with our unbelief? Is unbelief primarily intellectual or moral?
Should we share assurance of salvation with a person who says that he believes in Christ, but who is persisting in sin? What guidelines should we follow here?
Is the criticism valid, that if salvation entails perseverance, then we can never have assurance? Why/why not?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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A Warning Against Hardness of Heart (Hebrews 3:7-11)


A Warning Against Hardness of Heart (Hebrews 3:7-11)

If you have been a Christian for very long, you have watched someone make a profession of faith in Christ, followed by dramatic changes in his life. It’s exciting to see his new joy. But then a difficult trial hits. His faith is shaken. He stops coming to church and begins to avoid other Christians. Soon he is back into his old ways. And you wonder, “What happened? Was his conversion genuine? Can Christians lose their salvation?”

Jesus explained what I just described in the parable of the sower. He said that the seed of the gospel falls on four kinds of soils: the hard road; the thin soil over a hard rocky layer; the soil infested with thorns; and, the good soil. I just described the seed that fell on the rocky soil. In Jesus’ words, “When they hear the word, immediately [they] receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Neither they nor the thorny ground persevere to bear fruit unto eternal life.

The author of Hebrews is concerned that his readers may be the rocky soil that withers under affliction or persecution. They were in danger of going back to a more comfortable life in their old Jewish religion because of the imminent threat of persecution in their newfound Christian faith. So as he concludes his comparison showing Jesus’ superiority over Moses, he says that we are God’s house, but then adds, “if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope” (3:6).

He continues by illustrating his point with a story from Jewish history that all of his readers knew well, the story of Israel in the wilderness. He quotes the latter half of Psalm 95, which in its entirety was the call to worship in the Jewish synagogues. It tells about a people who had been redeemed from Egypt by applying the blood of the Passover lamb to their homes. They had been “baptized” into Moses through the cloud that enveloped them and through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). They had eaten the heavenly manna and drank water from the rock. Seemingly, they were a “redeemed” people. Yet, as Paul states, “with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). As he goes on to say, “these things happened as examples,” so that we would not fall into their same sins.

The author of Hebrews uses this story to make the same point. He is warning us against the soul-destroying sin of hardness of heart. He is saying,

To avoid hardness of heart, we must submit our hearts to God’s Word and God’s ways, especially in times of trial.

We can divide our text into four lessons:

1. To avoid hardness of heart, we must submit to God’s authority through His inspired Word.

He begins, “Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,” and then quotes from Psalm 95. In 4:7, he mentions that David was the human author of the psalm, but here he emphasizes that it was really the Holy Spirit who spoke and who continues to speak to us (“says” is present tense). This means:


Although the author isn’t directly speaking to the issue of the inspiration of Scripture, his attributing Psalm 95 to the Holy Spirit shows his implicit belief that God inspired Scripture. The Holy Spirit used human authors, but He is the divine voice behind all Scripture. As Peter explains, “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21). Or, as Paul puts it, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (literally, 2 Tim. 3:16). Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], 1:154) wrote,

On this subject the common doctrine of the Church is, and ever has been, that inspiration was an influence of the Holy Spirit on the minds of certain select men, which rendered them the organs of God for the infallible communication of his mind and will. They were in such a sense the organs of God, that what they said God said.

The starting point for avoiding a hardened heart is to recognize and submit to God’s authority through His inspired Word. If we sit in judgment on the Word, criticizing the things we don’t agree with as outdated or in error, our hearts are challenging God. To learn from God, we must submit to His inspired Word.


As Paul says, these things “were written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). We disobey or ignore them to our own peril. The starting point is that we hear His voice (Heb. 3:7). “To hear” in Hebrew often has the nuance of not just hearing sounds, but also of obeying what we hear. In this regard, it is amazing how many Christians never read the Old Testament. They are unfamiliar with the many stories of triumph and tragedy that are recorded there for our instruction in the faith.

The story behind Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:7-11) is recorded in Exodus 17. Israel had just come out of Egypt through God’s mighty deliverance. They went three days into the wilderness and found no water, except bitter water. Did the people say, “Well, God didn’t go to all the trouble of delivering us from Egypt so that we would thirst to death in this desert”? No, they grumbled at Moses. He cried out to God, who showed him a tree. When he threw it into the water, it became sweet (Exod. 15:22-25). Exodus 16 tells how God provided manna to feed Israel each day.

You would think that after these gracious miracles, the people would have implicitly trusted God. But then you come to Exodus 17, when again they came to a place where there was no water. Rather than asking God to provide, the people quarreled with Moses and put God to the test. God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water gushed forth. Moses named that place Massah (= a test) and Meribah (= a quarrel). The Greek translates the Hebrew, “as at Meribah,” into, “as when they provoked Me” (3:8a). It translates, “As in the day of Massah,” into, “as in the day of trial” (3:8b).

The last part of the Psalm, referring to God’s swearing in wrath that they would not enter His rest, probably refers to Numbers 14, when the people grumbled after the report of the spies. In spite of all that God had done, they were ready to stone Moses and return to Egypt, when God intervened. On that occasion, He swore that all that had grumbled against Him would die in the wilderness, and thus not enter the land of rest. Only Joshua and Caleb, who believed God, were spared. The point is, we should learn from their sins and do differently!


Says is in the present tense. “Today, if you hear His voice…” This very day, God speaks to us through His Word! Today lends a sense of urgency to this message. It says, “Don’t put off obedience to a more convenient time. Now is the day of salvation! Now is the time God is speaking to you. Don’t ignore Him! You may not get another opportunity!”

We have to apply Scripture to our lives in line with proper rules of interpretation, or we may misapply it. Before we apply it to ourselves, we need to figure out what it was saying to the original hearers in their historical context. We need to compare Scripture with Scripture, and interpret the text in its context. For example, we are not under the Jewish laws of sacrifice or cleansing. But there are lessons in these things that do apply to us who have seen the fulfillment of them in Christ. To sum up this point: to avoid hardness of heart, we must come to God’s Word with submissive hearts, ready to obey His will.

2. To avoid hardness of heart, we must make sure that our hearts are in proper relationship to God.

Note 3:8, “Do not harden your hearts,” and, 3:10, “They always go astray in their hearts.” In the Bible, the heart refers to our total inner being—the mind, the emotions, and the will. As Proverbs 4:23 warns us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”


Jesus taught, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). We tend to look at the outward man, but God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

For example, we see a man in ministry, who preaches God’s Word. He serves the church selflessly. He seems so kind and caring. Suddenly, he falls into adultery and we are shocked. How could this happen? We didn’t see that in his heart, he was lusting after women and was not judging his sin. He was not walking in holiness before God in his thought life. What came out in his behavior stemmed from his heart. This is one of the most helpful lessons I have learned about the Christian walk: all sin begins in the heart. If you deal with your thought life before God, you stop sin at the root.


God says that He was angry with the generation in the wilderness (3:8). This word has the nuance of being disgusted with, or loathing someone. He swore in His wrath (3:11). Wrath refers to God’s settled, passionate opposition to sin. God is not passive when it comes to sin. If we profess to be His children, but have not truly repented of our sins (as was the case with many who perished in the wilderness), God’s eternal wrath is upon us (John 3:36). If we are truly His children through faith in Christ, then Jesus bore God’s wrath for us on the cross, so that we do not need to fear His eternal punishment. But we should fear His discipline, which is never pleasant (Heb. 12:6, 11). He disciplines His children in love, that we may share His holiness. But He can get pretty rough if He has to! If we judge our own hearts, we will avoid God’s discipline (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Thus, to avoid hardness of heart, we must submit to the authority of God’s Word and we must do business with God on the heart level.

3. To avoid hardness of heart, we must recognize and submit to God’s ways.

God says of Israel in the wilderness, “They did not know My ways” (3:10). He says (Isa. 55:8-9), “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” The only way that we can know God’s ways are as He has revealed them to us in the Scriptures.


We can’t plead ignorance. We can’t protest, “But, God, I didn’t know that You were working in that way!” These people in the wilderness should have known God’s ways. But since they didn’t know His ways, they didn’t submit to them. The time to learn God’s ways is before we get into a difficult situation (Prov. 1:20-33). If we neglect wisdom when we have opportunity to learn it, we will be overwhelmed when we get into a crisis without it.


Those who went astray had seen some of the greatest miracles that God has ever done. They saw the ten plagues in Egypt. They witnessed the Red Sea part for them and close up again on Pharaoh’s army. They had seen God provide water and manna already in the barren Sinai desert. God emphasizes that for forty years they saw His works (3:9). If miracles alone could soften hard hearts, these people should have been mighty in faith! But they weren’t.

You hear people say, “If I just saw a miracle, I’d believe.” Sometimes God does use miracles to bring people to saving faith. But often, those words are just a smokescreen. The skeptic is just making an excuse so that he can continue in his sin. The rich man in Hades pled with Abraham to send someone to his brothers and warn them, so that they would not come to that place of torment. Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man replied, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” Just let them see a miracle! But Abraham answered, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:27-31).


Remember, His ways are not our ways. He often works in an upside down sort of way that seems strange to us. Again, His Word reveals His different ways to us so that we will recognize them when they actually happen to us.

Consider God’s ways in delivering Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. To pull this off, He needs a strong Jewish leader. Pick a man who has been raised in Pharaoh’s household, trained in all of the wisdom of the Egyptians, a man powerful in word and deed (Acts 7:22). So far, so good! Then, have this man fail in a colossal manner and spend the next forty years of his life tending sheep out in the wilderness. Whoa! Then, when God calls him to his task, He will harden Pharaoh’s heart repeatedly, so that he will make the Israelites’ task harder and will refuse to let them go.

Once he lets them go, march Israel to the Red Sea, where they’re helplessly trapped for Pharaoh’s strong army. Once they get through this crisis, lead them out into the barren desert, where there is no water. When they find water, make it bitter water. Rather than lead them directly into the Promised Land, an eleven-day journey (Deut. 1:2), take them on the “scenic route,” a forty-year journey through the barren desert. That was God’s way with His chosen people! He wanted to teach them to trust Him and learn warfare (Exod. 13:17).

Regarding Canaan, God could have sent a plague to wipe out the wicked Canaanites. Israel then could have moved in and lived happily ever after. Instead, God required Israel to fight many difficult battles to get rid of the Canaanites. Later, when Israel needed a prophet, God’s way was to make a woman barren. There were many women with children in Israel, but God’s way was to bring a woman to desperation, where she knew that she could not produce a son. When she cried out to God, He gave her Samuel, who became His prophet (1 Samuel 1 & 2). Later, when God wanted a man after His heart to be on Israel’s throne, He didn’t pick the man whom Samuel would have picked. He chose the youngest of Jesse’s sons, a teenage shepherd, named David. Then, rather than putting him on the throne immediately, God had his chosen one run for years, in fear of his life, from the mad King Saul.

I could multiply examples, because they are all through the Bible. God’s ways usually involve bringing His people to the end of themselves, so that they know that their trust must be in Him alone. If we do not know His ways, when we are put in the wilderness with no water, or when we are barren with no strength to produce anything for God, we will be prone to grumble, as Israel did. So we must learn to know His ways through His Word.


Psalm 95:1-3 reads, “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” The warning of our text comes after seven verses of praise. The choice is clear: rejoice in the Lord by faith, or grumble and turn back to the world (Egypt).

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians demonstrates the proper response to God’s ways. He was in prison in Rome on false charges. Fellow Christian leaders in Rome were criticizing him and preaching out of envy. As God’s great apostle to the Gentiles, Paul easily could have complained about his unfair, difficult circumstances. And yet he wrote, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil. 2:15). The words “rejoice” or “joy” occur over 15 times in this short letter. It’s not a coincidence that the Greek word for “attitude” also occurs ten times. Our attitude of submission and trust in God will lead us into joy, even in the midst of great trials. An attitude of pride and self-centeredness leads to grumbling, where we resist God’s ways and turn back to the world.


God says, “your fathers tried Me by testing Me” (3:9). At the root of testing God is the sin of unbelief (which we will examine in more detail next week). When God promises something and we face trials that seem to negate His promise, we again are faced with a choice: Is God faithful to His word or not? Granted, we’re in a barren desert with no water. Granted, there are huge giants that live in the land. In ourselves, we are completely unable to deal with these problems. Will we trust in God and His promises, or will we allow the problems to cause us to grumble and not take God at His word? If we do not submit to God’s ways and trust in His word, we put Him to the test, which is normally not a good thing to do! (There are rare exceptions; see Mal. 3:10.)

Thus, to avoid hardness of heart, we must submit to God’s authority through His Word. We must make sure that our hearts are properly submitted to Him. We must recognize and submit to His ways of dealing with us. Finally,

4. When we submit to God’s Word and His ways, we enter into His rest.

We will deal with this more in chapter 4. But for now, note 3:11. God’s oath refers to His settled determination that those who rebelled in the wilderness would not enter the land of Canaan (Num. 14:21-36). When God swears in His wrath, we had better believe that He means business! There is no rest for the soul that is under God’s wrath!

God’s rest had an initial reference to Israel’s settling into the land of promise, but it also has a spiritual fulfillment, as we’ll see in chapter 4. Leon Morris (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:35) says that God’s rest refers to “a place of blessing where there is no more striving but only relaxation in the presence of God and in the certainty that there is no cause for fear.” God’s spiritual rest comes to the person who “does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).


One of God’s ways that is most unlike our ways is the cross. Jesus, the sinless Son of God died as the sacrifice for ungodly sinners. God justifies the ungodly through faith alone. That runs counter to human pride. Have you trusted in Jesus’ blood alone as your hope for heaven? Is your heart in submission to God’s Word and His ways, especially when those ways involve a trip through the barren wilderness? Your heart is either hardening against God because you are resisting His sovereign ways with you, or it is growing softer toward God because you are submitting to His Word and His ways. Your response to trials reveals your heart. Send down spiritual roots, deep into the fertile, moist soil of God’s Word, so that you can endure when the hot sun of affliction beats down on you!

Discussion Questions

Since God’s Word does not all apply directly to us, how can we be sure that we are applying it properly?
Since the sinful heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9), how can we know when our hearts are properly submissive to God?
Why do God’s ways often involve trials for His people? Is it wrong to pray for these trials to be lifted? Why/why not?
Why is grumbling about our circumstances a serious sin? What does it really reflect?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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To Endure, Consider Jesus (Hebrews 3:1-6)


To Endure, Consider Jesus (Hebrews 3:1-6)

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but there are probably many of you who made New Year’s resolutions that have already fallen by the wayside. It’s easy to begin a diet, but it’s tough to stick to it when tempting foods are set before you! It’s easy to begin an exercise program, but it’s not so easy to work out when your body is screaming, “You deserve a break today!”

Or, more seriously, it’s easy to begin a marriage. You’re in love, you’re young, you’re healthy, and you think, “How could I ever have problems with this wonderful person?” But as we who have been married for many years know, it’s not so easy to sustain a loving marriage when the problems of life press in.

The same is true of the Christian life. It’s easy to trust in Christ and receive eternal life as a free gift. Such a deal! In our culture, it’s usually easy to confess your faith in Christ through baptism. In Muslim or Hindu cultures, it can mean giving up your family and friends, and perhaps your life. But in America at present, it’s fairly easy to be baptized. At first it’s easy to join a local church. It’s wonderful to be a part of a loving body of believers.

But, as those of us who have been Christians for a while know, it’s not easy to endure. The Christian life is warfare against the powers of darkness, and there are many casualties. Yielding to sin brings down many. Others drift gradually, neglecting to spend time daily with the Lord. The crud of the world gradually builds up, like the salt and dirt on our cars during the winter months when it’s difficult to wash them. Soon they are far from the Lord.

Others seem to do well for a while, but they lose their first love and settle into a humdrum Christian existence. Others fall away because they get wounded by fellow Christians who spread half-truths about them, or who treat them poorly. At first they claim to be following Jesus, but their bitterness towards His body, the church, takes a toll. They do not endure.

The Hebrew Christians had begun well. Early in their Christian experience they endured great suffering and persecution. Many had their property confiscated on account of their faith, and they endured it joyfully (10:32-34). But now they were in danger of drifting back into Judaism and neglecting their great salvation in Jesus Christ (2:1-4). So the author is exhorting them to endurance. In our text, his message is simple:

To endure, consider Jesus.

“Consider” means to think about something by taking the time to observe it carefully. Jesus used the word when He told us to consider the ravens and the lilies (Luke 12:24, 27). We see ravens almost every day, but we don’t usually stop to consider them. Jesus pointed out that they do not sow nor reap. They have no storerooms or barns, and yet God feeds them. He concludes, “How much more valuable you are than the birds!” Why didn’t I think of that? Because I didn’t stop to consider the ravens!

To consider something requires time and effort. It doesn’t happen automatically, especially when you’re busy. But if you take the time to do it, it usually yields rich rewards. We had some friends in California who visited Yosemite. They had heard us raving about its beauty. They told us later that they spent an hour there, saw it, and left. We were stunned! An hour in Yosemite?

I later read about an old park ranger there who was still working in his late eighties. He had literally spent his life exploring and enjoying the spectacular beauty of Yosemite. One day a citified woman hurriedly approached him and asked, “If you had only one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” He slowly repeated her words, “Only one hour to see Yosemite.” After a pause, he said, “Ma’am, if I only had one hour to see Yosemite, I’d go over to that log, sit down, and cry!”

How much time did you spend this past week considering the beauty of Jesus Christ? The Bible has page after page revealing His majestic glory. It is our only source of information, by the way. Some Christians make up a “Jesus” in their minds, but He isn’t the Jesus of the Bible. Their Jesus is nice and never judgmental. When they sin, which is often, their Jesus just hugs them and assures them that we all make mistakes. Their Jesus loves them just as they are, which is how they like it, because they don’t want to confront their sins and discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness. The problem is, their “Jesus” isn’t the Jesus of the Bible!

And so our antidote to drifting and our strength for endurance is to see and savor Jesus Christ from His Word. I implore myself first, because I’m prone to drift, and I implore you: Take time to consider Jesus often!

1. Consider Jesus as the Apostle and High Priest of our confession.

“Our confession” refers both to the body of Christian truth that we call “the faith,” and to our heartfelt consent to this truth. The great creeds and confessions of Christian doctrine define in a concise way what we believe. We verbally and from the heart confess that we believe these things. The author mentions two truths about Jesus to consider:


This is the only time in Scripture that this title is applied to Jesus. The name “Jesus” used alone focuses on the humanity of our Savior, which the author has just developed in chapter 2. As a man, born of the virgin Mary, Jesus came to earth in obedience to the Father to fulfill a specific purpose.

“Apostle” literally means, one who is sent under authority. The Gospel of John often refers to Jesus as being sent by the Father (John 3:17, 34; 5:36-38; and others). He came to reveal the Father to us and to accomplish the Father’s purpose, to redeem us by shedding His blood. Jesus said that He did nothing on His own initiative, but He only sought the will of the one who sent Him (John 5:30).

We cannot know God except through Jesus (Luke 10:22). We cannot know about heaven and eternal life, except that One who eternally dwelled there left His glory there and came to reveal these things. Jesus prayed (John 17:6), “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world.” We have the inspired record of what these men saw and heard in the New Testament. Jesus told the disciples after His resurrection, “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Those are the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Thus the Old and New Testaments point to Jesus, the one who was sent under God’s authority to reveal Him and to accomplish His will.


The author already mentioned this in 2:17 and will develop it at length later. Here he only mentions it in passing, and so will I. The Apostle of our faith brings God down to us; the High Priest brings us up to God. He presented His blood on the mercy seat as the propitiation for our sins, thus satisfying the just wrath of God, so that we are now welcome in His presence.

Although he was never called an apostle, in function Moses fulfilled that role in Israel. God sent Moses under authority to deliver His people from bondage in Egypt. But Moses was not a high priest. That role fell to his brother, Aaron. Jesus fulfills both roles in one. He is our Apostle and High Priest. We must submit to His commands as the authority of God Almighty. We must come before God only through the merits of Jesus’ blood. Think often and carefully of Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession!

2. Consider Jesus as greater than Moses.

From verse 2 through 6b, the author develops the theme that Jesus is greater than Moses. To understand this, you must realize that for the Jews, there was no greater leader than Moses. For them, he was the greatest man in history. God had miraculously preserved Moses’ life as a little baby. God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush and sent him to deliver His people from 400 years of bondage in Egypt. God used Moses to bring the plagues on Egypt and to part the Red Sea for the deliverance of the Jews. He struck the rock in the wilderness to provide water. He went up on the mountain to commune face to face with God and receive the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the elaborate instructions for the Tabernacle. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, showing Israel how to live before God.

On one occasion, even Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, challenged his leadership. God came down in a pillar of cloud and said (Num. 12:6-8),

Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, shall make myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so, with My servant Moses. He is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?

When the cloud had lifted, Miriam had become leprous! Moses graciously cried out to God to heal her, which He did. In all of the history of the Jews, there was none greater or held in higher esteem than Moses.

But Moses was not perfect, and the author could have focused on his mistakes. But he does not do that. Instead, he begins by showing that…


Twice (3:2, 5) the author cites Numbers 12:7, that Moses was faithful in all God’s house. As Paul said (1 Cor. 4:2), “it is required of stewards that one be found [faithful]” (same Greek word). A faithful man lives all of life, including his inner thought life, with a God-ward focus. As Paul told the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:3-6), he didn’t come to them with flattering speech or a pretext for greed. Then he interjected, “God is witness.” Paul said that he spoke, “not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.” He knew that God knows our every thought and motive. So he wasn’t playing to the crowds. He sought to please God in everything that he did, whether in public or in private. That is the key to being faithful.

The author’s point here is that both Jesus and Moses were faithful men. He compares rather than contrasts them because he knew that his audience thought highly of Moses and because God Himself commends Moses as a faithful man. In Exodus 35-40, there are 22 references to Moses’ faithfulness to God (John MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 82). Jesus, of course, was more faithful than anyone, including Moses, because He never failed even once. But the author begins with this comparison. Then he goes on to show how Jesus is greater than Moses.


The main point here is that although Moses was a great leader, he was just a member of God’s house, but Jesus was the builder. Verse 4 clarifies that God is the builder of all things. Since Jesus is the builder of God’s house (2:3), Jesus is God. As the author began this epistle, it was through Jesus that God made the world (1:3).

So without in any way demeaning Moses, who was a great leader, the author is saying, “Jesus is in a totally different class! Moses was a faithful leader in God’s house, but Jesus built the house. If you marvel at how Israel became a nation after 400 years in slavery, and you’re amazed at how God used Moses to lead them out of Egypt, marvel still more at the fact that it was Jesus who designed the whole program! He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and promised to bless all nations through his descendants. He revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. He was with Israel in the wilderness in the pillar and cloud. He fed them with manna and gave them water from the rock (see 1 Cor. 10:1-4). While Moses is worthy of honor, Jesus is worthy of far more glory. So don’t turn back from Jesus to following Moses or you’ll be turning from God Himself to mere man.”


The Greek word for “servant” is used only here in the New Testament. It comes from the Septuagint of Numbers 12:7, and has the nuance of one who serves voluntarily (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 108). The contrast is, although Moses was great, he was only a servant, whereas Jesus is the Son of God, the heir of all things.

As a servant, Moses’ role was to testify “of those things which were to be spoken later” (3:5). All that Moses wrote looked ahead to Jesus, who rebuked the Pharisees, saying, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46). Moses was just a servant, pointing ahead to the heir, who is Jesus. And so the argument is, “Don’t go back to Moses. Consider Jesus, because He is greater than Moses.”

Probably none of us are tempted to turn back to Moses, but we are easily tempted to turn to good things in such a way that we miss the best. Some believers emphasize obedience, and certainly obedience is a good thing. God forbid that we not obey His Word! But sometimes those who emphasize obedience start adding things that go beyond God’s Word and they fall into legalism. They camp on minor issues, but neglect the majors. They push man-made rules or standards as if they were binding on all Christians. They take pride in their conformity to these rules, and look down on those who don’t keep them. Jesus confronted the Pharisees, who were meticulous about tithing even their table spices, but who neglected “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).

I have seen others who emphasize Bible knowledge or correct theology, and again, those are very important things. But if our Bible knowledge and theology do not lead us to know and worship Jesus Christ more fully and to submit our hearts more completely to Him, we’ve traded the best for the good. If we take pride in our great knowledge and look down on those who are not as enlightened as we are, we’re off track. True knowledge of the supremacy of Jesus leads to humility, not pride.

So, consider Jesus! To endure the many trials and temptations of the Christian walk, consider Jesus as the Apostle and High Priest of our confession. Consider Jesus as greater than Moses.

3. Consider also what Jesus had made us.

It is significant how the author addresses his readers:


The name “brethren” probably points back to 2:11, where he said that Jesus is not ashamed to call His people brethren. It brings out the close relationship that we enjoy with our Savior. The adjective “holy” looks back to the same verse, where he says that Jesus is the one who sanctifies and we are the sanctified. Both terms come from the word that is translated “holy.” It refers to those who are set apart unto God from the world. The apostle Paul often addresses God’s people as “saints,” which means, “holy ones.” “Saints” are not a special class of extraordinary Christians, who deserve special recognition. All who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are saints or “holy brethren.”

There are three senses of sanctification, or holiness. In the sense we are considering, we have once for all been set apart unto God at the moment of salvation. In an ongoing sense, we are progressively being sanctified as we grow in godliness. In the future sense, when we see Jesus, we will be totally sanctified forever, so that we will never again sin. If we would keep in mind our present position as saints or holy brethren, it would help us to say no to temptation and to live as people who are set apart unto God.


The author of Hebrews uses the word “heavenly” more often than any other New Testament book (6 times: 3:1; 6:4 [gift]; 8:5 [sanctuary]; 9:23 [things]; 11:16 [country]; 12:22 [Jerusalem]). “In all cases, the ‘heavenly’ is contrasted with the earthly, and in all cases the heavenly is the superior, the real as compared with the shadow” (Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [IVP/ Eerdmans], p. 97). Our calling is heavenly in that it comes from heaven and it culminates in heaven. The initiative comes from God, who calls us to be His “called-out ones” (ekklesia, the Greek word for “church”). To be partakers of a heavenly calling means that our focus must be on heaven and the blessings God has promised us there, not on the things of this earth.


“House” is used seven times in this paragraph. It is a metaphor for God’s people, in whom He dwells (Eph. 2:19, 22; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:4-5). The Bible never calls a church building “God’s house.” God’s people are His house. They may gather in a barn or an open field or a house or a building constructed specifically for worship. But the building isn’t sacred; the people are sacred! We are to be built together into a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22).

All of this is very comforting, but then the author throws in one of those uncomfortable warnings: “if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope.” (The phrase, “firm until the end” was probably not original and was inserted from 3:14; Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], second ed., p. 595). F. F. Bruce explains the “if” clause (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 59):

Nowhere in the New Testament more than [Hebrews] do we find such repeated insistence on the fact that continuance in the Christian life is the test of reality. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints has as its corollary the salutary teaching that the saints are the people who persevere to the end.”

He goes on to cite the parable of the sower, where the seed thrown on the rocky ground made a good showing at first, but then faded away in the hot sun, because it had no deep roots. Jesus interpreted this to refer to those who welcome the word with joy at first, but are only temporary, because “when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). As Bruce explains, this is precisely what the author of Hebrews fears will happen with his readers. Thus he emphasizes repeatedly the need for bold confidence and joyful hope.


The Christian life is not a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon. That name comes from the decisive Battle of Marathon, where the Greeks fought the Persians. If the Persians had conquered, the glory that was Greece never would have been known. Against fearful odds, the Greeks won the battle. A Greek soldier ran all the way, day and night, to Athens with the news. He ran straight to the magistrates and gasped, “Rejoice, we have conquered!” Then he dropped dead. He had completed his mission and done his work (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Westminster Press], pp. 210-211).

It is significant that when Paul wrote his final letter to Timothy, he did not report on how many he had won to Christ, how many churches he had planted, or how many evangelistic campaigns he had conducted. He said simply, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). He fought and he finished—he endured! If you want to join his ranks, take time often to consider Jesus.

Discussion Questions

Why is important to derive our understanding of Jesus from the Bible alone, not from personal experience or popular ideas?
What are some practical ramifications of Jesus being the Apostle of our confession?
What are some practical ramifications of Jesus being greater than Moses?
Many Christians are bitter towards the church and prefer to worship “outside” the church. Why is this not God’s plan?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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Why Jesus Became a Man (Hebrews 2:16-18)


Why Jesus Became a Man (Hebrews 2:16-18)

If we were to go out on the streets and ask people at random, “What is your greatest need?” we would probably hear a number of responses. Some would say, “My greatest need right now is to get a decent job. I can’t pay my bills and get out of debt in my current situation.” Others may say, “My greatest need is that I’m lonely. I need a mate or some good friends.” Others might say, “My family is a war zone. My husband is abusive towards the kids and me; the kids are defiant and disrespectful. We need peace in our home.”

If we went to a poor country, like India or Bangladesh, the answers to our question would center more on raw survival: “I am starving. I need food!” “I’m dying of a disease that is treatable, but I can’t get the proper medicine.” “I live on the streets. I need a roof over my head.”

Without denying the legitimacy of any of those needs, according to the Bible, the people giving those answers are blind to their greatest need. Their greatest need is for God to forgive their sins and give them eternal life. They need to learn how to live in accordance with God’s Word, so that their lives bring glory to Him. Without this focus, we could meet all of the perceived needs, but their greatest need would go unmet. If they were to die, they would spend eternity in hell.

I just read K. P. Yohannan’s powerful book, Revolution in World Missions [gfa books]. He grew up in India and didn’t wear shoes before he was 17 (p. 55). He has preached the gospel all across India. He is not oblivious to India’s oppressive poverty. But he strongly contends against getting distracted with meeting physical needs, but ignoring the spiritual needs. He says that India has seen 150 years of schools and hospitals brought to them by British missionaries, but it has not had any noticeable effect on either their churches or society (p. 103, 110).

Yohannan says that it is one of Satan’s lies that people will not listen to the gospel unless we offer them something else first (p. 109). He has sat on the streets of Bombay with beggars who are about to die. He has told them that he does not have material goods to give them, but he has come to offer them eternal life, and he has seen many respond. He says (p. 111),

There is nothing wrong with charitable acts—but they are not to be confused with preaching the Gospel. Feeding programs can save a man dying from hunger. Medical aid can prolong life and fight disease. Housing projects can make this temporary life more comfortable—but only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can save a soul from a life of sin and an eternity in hell!

Thus our emphasis should always be first and foremost on evangelism and discipleship. Social concern is a result of the gospel. We must not put the cart before the horse (pp. 106, 99).

This relates directly to our text. Many would read these verses and think, “This isn’t relevant to my needs. I’ve got to find a job. I’ve got to solve my personal problems. I’ve got a number of issues pressing in on me right now. These verses don’t relate to me.”

But the greatest need for us all is for a high priest to reconcile us as sinners to the holy God. Verse 17 shows how Jesus is that merciful and faithful high priest. If Jesus is your high priest, then your greatest need is to learn to live in victory over the power of sin, which will destroy your life if left unchecked. Verse 18 shows how Jesus is able to come to your aid when you are tempted.

To review, in chapter 1 the author demonstrated to his readers, who were tempted to leave Christ and go back to Judaism, how Jesus is God’s final word to us. As the Son of God, He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature. He upholds all things by the word of His power (1:3). He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, supreme over all angelic beings (1:4-14). After a brief exhortation not to drift (2:1-4), he shows that Jesus is not only the eternal Son of God, He is also fully human. God’s original intent was for man to rule over the earth, but that was hindered by the fall (2:5-8). By His incarnation and death for our sins, Jesus recovered what we lost in the fall (2:9-10). As the Captain of our salvation, Jesus became man in order to bring us to God (2:11-15). Our text continues the theme of Jesus’ humanity, showing us why He became a man:

Jesus became a man so that as our high priest, He could offer Himself for our sins and come to our aid when we are tempted.

He makes three points:

1. Jesus became a man, not an angel, because He came to save men (2:16).

The author is wrapping up his argument that he began in 2:5, that God put man on the earth to rule, and that the role of angels is “to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (1:14). The word “for” (2:16) relates to the previous two verses, about Jesus freeing us from the power and fear of death. There is debate about the meaning of the word translated, “give help.” It literally means, “to take hold of” (NASB, margin). It is used of Jesus taking hold of Peter when he was sinking after walking on the water (Matt.14:31; see also Mark

The early church fathers uniformly interpreted it to refer to Jesus’ taking hold of human nature in the incarnation (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 115). In this sense, the verse means, “Jesus did not take to Himself the nature of angels, but rather He took on the seed of Abraham,” that is, He became a Jew in fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. About the 17th century, some commentators began to interpret the verse to mean that Jesus does not give help or assistance to angels, but rather to people. In this view, “the seed of Abraham” refers to those who are Abraham’s true children by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:7).

The difference does not seem that great to me. The first view emphasizes the fact of the incarnation, whereas the second emphasizes its purpose. The extended context discusses both the fact and the purpose of the incarnation. Thus I understand the sense of the verse in context to be: “While the Messiah is God, and thus superior to the angels, He also had to become man so that He could suffer and die for our salvation. He did this in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, that through his seed, He would bless all peoples. So don’t look to any angelic Messiah, and don’t despise the fact that Jesus suffered and died. He had to do this to atone for our sins.”

Before we move on, let me point out that this verse refutes an objection raised by those who deny the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. They argue that if God does not choose everyone, then He is unloving and unjust (C. H. Spurgeon refutes this error in his sermon, “Men Chosen—Fallen Angels Rejected,” New Park Street Pulpit [Baker], 2:293; Dave Hunt promotes this error in What Love is This? [Loyal], pp. 111-112, 114-115). If they are wrong, they are also guilty of blasphemy, because they are accusing the Sovereign God of being unloving and unjust!

They are wrong, for at least two reasons. First, it is plain from Scripture and history that God did not make His salvation equally available to all people in all places. He chose Abraham, but not Abraham’s extended family and not anyone else in any other place on earth. He later chose Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob, not because they were more deserving than others, but simply because He chose to do it (Deut. 7:6-8). This meant that God chose to reject Ishmael, Esau, and their descendants (Deut. 7:1-5). As far as Scripture reveals, all the other peoples in the world in the centuries before Christ only had the general witness of creation, which is not sufficient for salvation. God permitted them to go their own ways, but He didn’t reveal to them the truth about the Savior to come, as He did to the Jews (Acts 14:16-17).

Second, our text makes it clear that God did not provide for nor offer salvation to fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). He could have devised a way to offer salvation to the angels that joined Satan in his rebellion, but in His sovereign purpose, He chose not to do this. Would we dare say that this negates His love and justice? Can the fallen angels bring a charge against God because He didn’t give them a way out of their condemnation? Of course not! And neither should rebellious people claim that God is unloving or unjust if He chooses some as vessels of mercy, but demonstrates His wrath and power on others as vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. As the Potter, He is free to do with the clay whatever He chooses to do, and we are not free to challenge Him (Rom. 9:19-24). I contend that the main problem with those who reject God’s sovereign election is not just deficient theology. They are not in submission to God’s claim to be the sovereign over His creation.

Anyway, the author’s main point in 2:16 is that Jesus became a man, not an angel. As the next verse makes clear, He did it to provide salvation to men.

2. Jesus became fully human for a specific purpose, to become a high priest to offer Himself for our sins (2:17).

Verse 17 makes three points:


The verse reads, literally, “Therefore, He was obligated to be made like His brethren in all things, …” The obligation relates to the purpose that the rest of the verse delineates, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. And, as verse 18 states, as a result of His complete humanity, which included His being tempted, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.

But the significant words in this opening phrase are, “in all things.” This refutes the Docetic heresy, that Jesus only seemed or appeared to be human. No, He adopted a complete human nature, yet without sin (4:15). His body had normal human needs (for food, rest, etc.), human emotions (although not sinful emotions), and human limitations (His body was not omnipresent, although in His deity He is omnipresent). A. W. Pink (Commentary on Hebrews [Ephesians Four Group], vol. 1) states firmly that since Jesus was not subject to sin, He was not subject to illness. I’m not sure that this is a necessary inference, since He did live in this fallen world (harmful germs are a result of the fall) and He was subject to death. So I don’t know if Jesus ever had a cold. But clearly God protected Him from any illness that would have hindered His accomplishing His ministry.


This is the first mention of Jesus as our high priest in Hebrews, which is the only book in the New Testament to mention this truth. It is a vital concept for us to grasp, but we are at a disadvantage in that we did not grow up under the Jewish system. The Jews knew that they could not approach God directly. They had to come to Him through the priest, who would offer their sacrifices on their behalf. He represented them in everything pertaining to God. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would represent the entire nation by entering the Holy of Holies and presenting the blood on the mercy seat. If anyone else dared to enter that sacred place, or even if the high priest went in there on any other occasion, it meant instant death (Lev. 16:2). Thus the role of the high priest was essential so that the nation could be cleansed from its sins each year (Lev. 16:30).

Have you ever thought about what an expensive hassle it would have been to be required to bring a sacrifice to the priest every time you sinned? It would have been embarrassing, too! All the neighbors stop to look up from what they’re doing as you trudge toward the tabernacle with your sacrifice. “There goes Steve again! You’d think he would learn! I wonder what he did this time?” But, as our author will develop later, Jesus offered His own blood once and for all, so that there is no need for continuing sacrifices (7:27; 9:12; 10:11-14). This must have been a huge relief to believing Jews! Jesus is our permanent, final high priest, who offered Himself once and for all for our sins! Thank God!

But He wasn’t just any kind of high priest. He is a merciful high priest. That describes His motive in going to the cross (Hughes, p. 120). He had compassion on us as sinners. This means that we should never hesitate to draw near to our Lord for fear of rejection, or for fear that He will not understand. Although He will discipline us as a loving Father (12:5-11) for our good, He is never harsh or lacking in compassion. As David put it (Ps. 103:13, 14), “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Hebrews, p. 75) explains that a priest needed to be merciful so that he could help the miserable, raise up the fallen, and relieve the oppressed. Jesus, of course, did not need any experience to become merciful, but the trials that He endured assure us that He understands our trials. As Calvin puts it, “it is a rare thing for those who are always happy to sympathize with the sorrows of others.” He adds, “Therefore whenever any evils pass over us, let it ever occur to us, that nothing happens to us but what the Son of God has himself experienced in order that he might sympathize with us; nor let us doubt but that he is at present with us as though he suffered with us” (ibid.).

Jesus was also a faithful high priest. This refers to His faithful obedience to God in all things, culminating in His perfect obedience in going to the cross. He always trusted in and obeyed the Father, even to the point of death on the cross. You can trust in a faithful person completely. He will never let you down. So the character of Jesus as merciful and faithful invites us to draw near to Him in our every need. But that is especially true in the greatest need that every person faces:


He became fully human “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The NIV translates it “atonement”; the RSV has “expiation.” Atonement and expiation refer to the cancellation of sin, whereas propitiation refers to the turning away of God’s wrath. John Owen pointed out that there are four elements in propitiation: (1) an offence or crime to be taken away; (2) a person offended, to be pacified or reconciled; (3) a person offending, to be pardoned; and, (4) a sacrifice or other means of making atonement (An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], on Heb. 2:17, p. 476).

The notion of God’s wrath is not popular. User-friendly churches don’t mention it. Liberals argue that it was borrowed from the pagan idea of appeasing an angry god with a sacrifice. But it occurs no less than 585 times in the Old Testament (Leon Morris, “Propitiation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 888), and more than 30 times in the New Testament. Jesus often spoke in frightful terms about the future judgment (Mark 9:48; Luke 16:19-31). The Gospel of John (3:36) speaks of the wrath of God abiding on the one who does not obey the Son. Paul spoke often of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18, plus nine other times in Romans; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). The Book of Revelation is filled with horrifying images of the wrath of the Lamb (6:16).

God’s wrath is not an angry outburst, but rather His active, settled hatred and opposition to everything evil, arising out of His holy nature. The Bible states that God not only hates sin; He also hates sinners (Ps. 5:5; 11:5). While as fallen sinners, we are to love even our enemies (Luke 6:27), we also are warned with some to “have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 23). We who love the Lord are commanded to hate evil (Ps. 97:10).

The important point is that if we diminish the wrath of God against all sin, we also diminish the love of God for His people. What God’s holy justice required, His love and mercy provided, in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). As Philip Hughes exclaims (p. 120), “Our hell he made his, that his heaven might be ours. Never was there such mercy, never such faithfulness, as this!” So we must hold firmly to the biblical idea that Jesus became a man to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice that the wrath of God demands for our sins.

The chapter ends with a practical consequence of Jesus’ becoming a man:

3. Because Jesus became a man, He is able to come to our aid when we are tempted (2:18).

Because Jesus was fully human, He was fully tempted, although not in the same sense as those who have a sin nature. He was tempted in the same sense that Adam and Eve were tempted before the fall. We would be wrong to assume that because Jesus never fell into sin, He doesn’t understand the depths of our temptations. As Hughes explains (p. 124), Jesus “knows the full force of temptation in a manner that we who have not withstood it to the end cannot know it. What good would another who has failed be to us? It is precisely because we have been defeated that we need the assistance of him who is the victor.”

The Greek verb translated “come to the aid” means to run to the aid of those who cry out for help. Imagine a parent who hears his or her child cry out, “Help me!” We would drop what we were doing and run to help our child. That is the picture here of our merciful high priest. It also means that we are responsible to cry out to Him when we are tempted, and to flee when necessary. God’s Word promises, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).


What is your greatest need? I hope that you see that your greatest need is to be reconciled to the holy God. Have you come to Jesus in faith that He is your propitiation, the one who bore the penalty that you deserve? If not, the wrath of God abides on you! Do not rest until your faith is in Jesus as your high priest!

If you do know Him as your high priest, are you crying out to Him for help when you are tempted? Do you know experientially the consistent deliverance from sin that is yours in Christ? He is your merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God. He is able to come to your aid when you are tempted!

Discussion Questions

What is the biblical answer to the charge that God is not fair if He does not choose everyone for salvation?
Why is it essential to affirm Jesus’ full humanity? What are the practical ramifications?
Why is it essential to hold to the doctrine of God’s wrath against all sin? What do we lose if we compromise here?
Where is the balance between God’s responsibility and ours when it comes to overcoming temptation?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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