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Hebrews 3:7-4:11

Roger Hahn

The second major argument of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is superior to Moses. The author stated that case in Hebrews 3:1-6, specifically in verse 3. Verses 5-6 made the case that since Moses was a servant in the house of God and Jesus was a son, Jesus was worthy of more honor. The author of Hebrews had previously stated that Jesus was superior to the angels in Hebrews 1:4. Then followed a series of Scriptural quotations in Hebrews 1:5-14 to prove the point. The author then issued the first warning exhortation in Hebrews 2:1-4.

In a similar fashion Hebrews 3:7-11 contains an extended quotation from the Old Testament to support the argument that Christ is better than Moses. Those verses (7-11) also become the basis for the second warning exhortation in Hebrews 3:12-19. The concept of Jesus as a high priest that was introduced in the statement of Hebrews 3:1-6 is not developed in verses 7-19. Rather, the idea of entrance into the promised land and the concept of "rest" appear. The concept of "rest" and "Sabbath rest" will be developed in the next major section, Hebrews 4:1-14.

The Second Exhortation - Hebrews 3:7-19

The point that Christ is superior to Moses made in Hebrews 3:6 is followed by an extended Scripture quotation from Psalm 95 in verses 7-11, a warning and admonition in verses 12-15, and a series of questions in verses 16-19 that complete the interpretation of Psalm 95 and make the author's concluding application..

Hebrews 3:7-11 - The Lesson of Psalm 95

Almost all of Hebrews 3:7-11 is a quotation from Psalm 95:7b-11. In the following verses the author of Hebrews will select key words and phrases to use in his exhortation and warning to his readers. But the words of introduction in Hebrews 3:7a show how the author intended the Old Testament passage to function in his own message.

The first word is "therefore." It is designed to connect the conditional statement in verse 6 with the command in verse 8. Verse 6 had proclaimed that we are the household of Christ if we hold fast to the confidence and pride of our hope. The word "if" raises the question of whether the readers of Hebrews (and we) will be faithful to Christ in the midst of pressure being faced. Because there is some question about that faithfulness - therefore - the scripture from Psalm 95 is quoted to warn and exhort the readers (and us) of the importance of trusting obedience of God.

The quotation formula used by the author reflects his high view of Scripture. "Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says" is similar to expressions found in other Jewish writings as introductions to Old Testament quotations. It reveals the Jewish understanding that not only is Scripture the Word of God, it is especially the work of the Holy Spirit to inspire Scripture. Judaism understood the Scriptures to be the product of prophets and prophetic kinds of people. Prophesy was the product of the Holy Spirit in Jewish thinking. Thus there was a direct connection between the Holy Spirit and the inspiration of Scripture in Jewish thought.

Even more important is the present tense of the verb says. Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire Scripture through the prophets who wrote it, the Holy Spirit also speaks now and continues to speak through the Scripture. Unless the Holy Spirit is making the word of God alive and effective in our lives, our view of inspiration of Scripture has little impact on our lives. The author of Hebrews was convinced that what the psalmist sang about the Israelites in the wilderness (centuries earlier) had relevance and meaning for the community of faith in its time of pressure in the first century. One of the chief evidences of inspiration is the Holy Spirit's ability to take words written to and about people centuries ago and make those words speak with the power of God to a new generation (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture).

Psalm 95 has two major sections. Verses 1-7a of the psalm were a call to worship God. Verses 7b-11, quoted by our author, were a warning against disobeying God by referring back to a painful time in Israel's history. Psalm 95 has been used in synagogue worship from ancient times to the present as a prelude to the Friday evening and Sabbath morning synagogue worship. No doubt the original readers of the book of Hebrews would have been familiar with the psalm from their own experiences of synagogue worship. There is evidence the psalm was sung as part of the temple service in Jerusalem on Sabbath mornings.

It is important that the two parts of Psalm 95 be kept together. The worship of God called for in the first part of the psalm is important and necessary. But that worship must come from sincere and obedient hearts. We separate the psalm into two parts - the call to worship and the warning against hardness of heart. But in reality, the psalm was one call to worship. The second part demanded searching self-examination of one's heart as part of the process of coming into the presence of God.

"Today, if you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." The quotation is taken from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. The Hebrew original of Psalm 95:7b could be translated, "O, that today you would hear his voice." The Greek translation, using the word "if," makes it clear that for the Israelites, for the first readers of Hebrews, and for us there is a choice of whether or not to hear the voice of God. We are responsible to respond to what God is saying. On the other hand, the Hebrew text presents the verse as the yearning appeal of God asking for our allegiance. Both versions yield an important element of truth.

The call to hear his voice can be easily misunderstood by modern readers. We tend to think simply in terms of a sound being heard. The Hebrew word for hear and obey is the same word. Thus the psalmist was not just appealing for Israel to hear (listen to) the word of God, but also for them to obey that word.

Hebrew poetry was written with what is called parallelism (see Parallelism in Hebrew Writing). In this case hear his voice is a parallel thought to not harden your hearts. That is, hearing the voice of God means having hearts that are open and responsive to him rather than hard and closed. The words of the psalm are directly applicable to the readers of the book of Hebrews. Those readers were under pressure for their faith in Christ; they were being tempted to give up their faith. But to give up the faith means turning their backs to and closing both their ears and hearts to the entreaties of God. The words of the psalm say exactly what the writer of Hebrews want to say, "don't harden your heart" against God's effort to strengthen and encourage you. Don't resist God's efforts to help you in the midst of your pressure and trouble.

To give up the faith in the face of persecution was the moral equivalent of the rebellion against God that took place in Israel's history during the wilderness wanderings. The author of Hebrews continued to quote from the Greek translation of the Old Testament in verse 8. Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness. The literal translations of the Hebrew text of Psalm 95:8 read, "Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the wilderness."

The references to Meribah and Massah connect the psalm to Exodus 17:1-7 and several passages in Numbers (14:20-23, 28-35 and 20:1-13). At that time Israel had bitterly complained against God (and falsely accused him of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them) at a time when the people had run out of water. Exodus 17:7 states that Moses named the place Massah and Meribah - Hebrew words meaning "testing" and "quarreling."

Massah and Meribah became code words for a testing, testy, cantankerous spirit that was never satisfied with what God provided. It was a quarreling, complaining, bitter attitude. That Israel could have fallen into such an attitude so soon after God had brought them out of Egypt should be a reason for humility rather than criticism. If Israel could so quickly and easily fall into griping and complaining against the God who had delivered them, so can we.

The spiritual issue at stake here is trusting God. Surely, after God had brought them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, he could supply water for them in the desert. How could they fail to trust him? After God had sent Christ and revealed him to be the Messiah to the first readers of Hebrews, surely they could trust him to preserve them through persecution, couldn't they? After all that God has done for us, how could we not trust him in any and every circumstance of our lives?

 But we don't! Sometimes after God has performed the greatest miracle of helping us out, we stew and fret and worry that we just can survive the next problem coming down the line. The issue for Israel, for the first readers of Hebrews, and for us, is trust. Will we trust the God who has brought us safe thus far? Will we believe that he can and will safely carry us home? Or will we begin to scheme and connive to solve our problems and relieve the pressures upon us in our own strength with our own wisdom?

Verse 9 describes Meribah and Massah as the place where the Israelite fathers tested God by trying to make him prove himself. The demand that God prove himself is the opposite of trust. It is the opposite of obedience. And the response of God according to verse 10 is anger. They always are deceived in their hearts and they did not know my ways.

The idea of being deceived in their hearts is a powerful word image. The word deceived speaks of wandering off track so that person, animal, or thing is not where the observer expects it to be. Tempting God to prove himself is thus described as being off track and deceived. The Hebrew parallelism suggests that being off track also means not recognizing God's ways. God uses the difficult times of life - whether it be the desert, persecution, or the pressures we face in life - to test our trust and obedience. To try to turn the tables on God and test him in those times is to usurp the role and way of God. That is sin.

As a result God swore that the Israelites would not enter my rest. In the context of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings not entering God's rest meant not entering the promised land. But the use of the word rest immediately draws Genesis 2:2-3 to mind where God rests at the end of the process of Creation. To refuse to trust God, to usurp God's own role in testing, and to harden one's heart is to get stuck in the creation process. It is to not reach the goal of God's work in one's life. It is to be incomplete, immature, and unfulfilled. It is to say, "Not only is God not finished with me yet, he's not going to finish with me."

Hebrews 3:12-15 - The Warning

Verse 12 begins the application of Psalm 95 with an abrupt and stern warning. "Watch out!" would be an accurate translation of the first word in verse 12. It is very interesting since the first readers of Hebrews were facing persecution that the warning deals with their hearts. "Watch out lest you have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God." The problem of giving up on God and turning back is ultimately not a persecution problem; it is a heart problem.

To describe the heart as unbelieving taps in on all the concepts alluded to in Psalm 95. An unbelieving heart is a heart that does not trust God. It is a heart that tries to manipulate God into accomplishing the human will instead of the divine will. It is a heart that gripes and is bitter because it does not see the ways of God in the painful circumstances of life. A heart that turns from the living God has no place to turn to except to one's own self. The apostasy of turning away is doubly tragic because there is nothing to turn to when one turns away from God.

Verse 13 continues the exhortation. But encourage one another day by day. The word encourage could be translated "exhort." The Greek original is a word that speaks of motivation recognizing that sometimes motivation must take a comforting and encouraging approach while other times it must take a tough and urging manner.

The key word in verse 13 is day. Two things are at work. The author of Hebrews recognizes that his readers need encouragement every day if they are to survive the pressure of the persecution that is coming their way. Nobody outside their community of faith will be encouraging them; so they must encourage each other. Second, the author is ready to connect the need for daily encouragement with the use of the word today in Psalm 95. This leads him to make a direct application of the psalm to the circumstances of his readers. Failure to encourage each other on a daily basis could lead to their being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. The words and concepts are coming from the psalm. The meaning is that failure to stay true to Christ would mean that those first readers of Hebrews had hardened their hearts and been deceived by sin.

Verse 14 strengthens the appeal and connects all the material from verses 7-13 to verse 6. The author states, we have become partakers of the Christ. Several concepts are at work in this sentence. For his Jewish readers the sentence would be understood, "we have become partakers of the Messiah." This would mean that the long desired goal of history had arrived. The purpose and meaning of life was not something still sought and hoped for, but Jesus the Messiah a blessed reality now realized. As Israel endured the desert until they arrived at the promised land, so the readers had endured the present evil age until they reached the promised time, the age of the Messiah.

Not only was Jesus the Messiah, but Christian readers are partakers. The roots of the Greek word literally means that they (and we) have and hold the promised time with Christ. We are sharers in the promise of the coming world (see Hebrews 2:5). But that participation in the age of Messiah has a condition put upon it. We have become partakers of Christ if we hold fast our first confidence firm to the end.

The verb hold fast in verse 14 is identical to the verb in Hebrews 3:6. There the author was arguing that Christ is better than Moses because Christ was a faithful son while Moses was only a faithful servant in the house of God. This sheds light on the exhortation of verses 12-15 and the use of Psalm 95. Perhaps the Israelites could be excused for their failure to trust God at Meribah and Massah. After all, they were only led by Moses. But since Christ is superior to Moses, those of us who bear the name of Christ, those of us who have become partakers of Christ, we have no excuse for failure to trust God and obey. To clinch his argument the author repeats the first two lines from his earlier quotation from Psalm 95:7b-8a in verse 15.

Hebrews 3:16-19 - Critical Questions

The conclusion of chapter 3 is built around a series of rhetorical questions in verses 16, 17, and 18. The answer given in verses 16 and 17 actually comes in the form of another question, while the answer for verse 18 is incorporated into the question itself. The three questions are built on phrases taken from Psalm 95 and the three answers are built on phrases taken from Numbers 14. The relationship can be seen in table form:

v. 16a Ps. 95:7-8v. 16b Num. 14:13, 19, 22
v. 17a Ps. 95:10v. 17b Num. 14:10, 29, 32
v. 18a Ps. 95:11v. 18b Num. 14:30, 33, 43

The question ask "who?" The answers are crescendo of accusation against Israel. They rebelled against God (v. 16b); they sinned against God (v. 17b); and they refused to obey God (v. 18b). The culmination of sin and unbelief was open defiance toward God. One can not argue against the conclusion that God had to prohibit their entry into the promised land.

The author of Hebrews draws his conclusion in verse 19. They were not able to enter because of unbelief.  Unbelief is not to be understood as doubting the truthfulness or factual character of some data or proposition. Rather, it is defined by the rejection recounted in verses 16-18. Defiance of God made entrance into the promised land impossible. Likewise, refusing to trust God (unbelief) in the midst of persecution and pressure will make possession of the promised time impossible also.

The connection of Numbers 14 is important for understanding Hebrews 3:19. Numbers 13-14 tells the story of the twelve spies. Upon their return ten spies opposed invasion of Canaan and two supported an invasion. The people of Israel sided with the ten and decided to not obey God and invade the land. But after they realized their mistake they presumptuously attempted to invade Canaan in their own strength in spite of the fact God had sworn that all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness. Their self-based invasion failed miserably. Failure to trust God (unbelief) makes it impossible to possess the promise whether that promise is land, time, or some other blessing.

The Possibility of Entering the Rest - Hebrews 4:1-11

The author of Hebrews now picks up the term "rest" from the final line of Psalm 95 and begins an application. Though the "rest" originally referred to entry into the promised land, the possibility of entering the "rest" of God remains open. Entry into Canaan did not exhaust the meaning of "rest" and the readers of the book of Hebrews are urged to press on toward the goal of entering that spiritual rest promised by God. The note of exhortation continues in verse 1 when the readers are urged to take care lest any of you should seem to fail to enter.

The author continues the warning in verse 2 by noting that the Israelites had received the same good news as had his readers. However, that good news did not benefit old Israel because of lack of faith. The precise wording of verse 2 is uncertain because different ancient manuscripts of Hebrews have different readings. Some manuscripts suggest that the good news did not benefit Israel because the message was not joined to faith by the hearers. Other manuscripts state that the good news did not benefit Israel because those who heard were not joined by faith to the ones who heard (and by implication obeyed). There are impressive arguments for both sides of the issue, but the general point is the same regardless of which reading one follows. The fact that the author speaks of the good news reveals that he is thinking more about his readers than he is about the Israelites in the wilderness. The tragedy of Israel was that the promise did not benefit or profit them because of unbelief and disobedience. The author's goal is that the tragedy of Israel not be repeated in the life of his own congregation.

Verse 3 offers the positive possibilities that are available in Christ. Those of us who believed have entered into the rest. Trusting God opens up the possibility of obtaining the rest that eluded so many Israelites in the wilderness.

The author then begins to use the techniques of Jewish rabbinic argument in verses 3-5. The rabbis stated that if the same word or words were present in two (or more) different passages of Scripture, then those passages could be used to interpret each other. Psalm 95:11 had spoken of rest. The author then goes to Genesis 2:2-3 where God rests from creation. The two passages mutually interpret each other. Therefore, the author of Hebrews can draw the following conclusions. God has not stopped resting from Creation, therefore that rest is an on-going reality. Since the wilderness Israelites did not enter that rest because of disobedience and unbelief, the opposite possibility must have existed for them (and for us). We can enter that rest that is still on-going by means of obedience and trust.

That conclusion that entrance into the rest is still available is stated again in verse 6. Verse 7 returns to the word today from Psalm 95:7b, but it is the availability of that rest that will concern the author for the remaining verses of this section. Verse 8 declares that if Joshua had given Israel the authentic "rest" then God would not have spoken of the "rest" with the word today written long after Joshua's time.

Verse 8 is extremely confusing in the King James Version when it reads, "If Jesus had given them rest." The author was speaking of Joshua rather than Jesus of Nazareth. However, the Hebrew name "Joshua" was translated into Greek as "Jesus." The context must be used to determine whether to translate into English as Jesus or Joshua. Joshua is clearly meant in the flow of thought. The fact that the psalm will mention rest later than Joshua's time is taken as evidence that a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God.

The words sabbath rest translate a single Greek word meaning a Sabbath celebration or observance. Since the meaning of "sabbath" in Hebrew is rest, the author is able to build a pun on his mention of "sabbath" in the same context as the word "rest." The conclusion of verse 11 should be obvious. Every effort to enter that rest must be made so that no one fails through disobedience as old Israel did.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.

First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 3:7-4:11. Look up the Scripture references given.

1.Note and jot down one or two new thoughts that seemed important to you. Why were they important?

2.Select one or two spiritual insights that came to you while studying this lesson. What impact could those insights have in your life?

3.Ask the Lord to reveal any areas of disobedience or lack of trust in your life. Jot down a prayer asking to be able to enter into "God's rest."

Second Day: Read Hebrews 4:1-16. Now focus in on Hebrews 4:12-13.

1.What do these two focus verses declare about the effect of the Word of God on a person's life?

2.How would the application of these verses to your own life be different if the phrase "Word of God" meant Jesus rather than the Bible?

3.Briefly describe how God uses his Word to work in your life. If you have trouble getting started you could check II Timothy 3:16-17.

Third Day: Read Hebrews 4:1-16. Focus in on Hebrews 4:14-16.

1.What phrases in verses 14-16 specifically describe Jesus in his role a high priest? What significance do you see for your own life from those phrases?

2.What specific exhortations are directed to the readers in verses 14-16? How would those exhortations be applicable in your spiritual life?

3.In your own words and based on verses 14-16 explain to an unbeliever or a child why we can come to God with confidence.

Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 5:1-14. Focus on Hebrews 5:1-10.

1.What characteristics of a high priest are described in verses 1-4? Which of those characteristics would apply to Christ and how would they apply? Which do not? Why?

2.What common theme emerges from Exodus 28:1; 40:12-15; and Leviticus 8:1-36. Why is that theme important for the argument of Hebrews 5:1-5?

3.Verse 5 quotes from Psalm 2:7. Based on Luke 3:21-22 and Romans 8:14-17, what parts of Psalm 2 have application and meaning for your life?

Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 5:1-14. Focus again on Hebrews 5:1-10.

1.Verse 6 quotes from Psalm 110. Read Psalm 110 and jot down the phrases that seem have application in the life and ministry of Christ.

2.What roles did suffering and submission play in the life of Jesus according to the focus verses? What role could they play in your life? What would be necessary for that to happen?

3.Compare Mark 14:32-42 and John 12:20-36 with Hebrews 5:8. What insights into the meaning of Christ's life come to you in light of these three passages?

Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 5:1-14. Now focus in on Hebrews 5:11-14.

1.What does the author mean by the contrast between milk and solid food? What are some examples of teaching you would consider to be like milk? like solid food?

2.Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-8 and compare it with Hebrews 5:11-14. How were the two situations different?

3.What conditions does the writer of Hebrews give in order to be able to receive "solid food?" Write a brief prayer asking God to enable you to receive "solid food."

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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