Hebrews 3:16-4:3a - The Promise Of Entering His Rest Still Stands
Our text this morning is Hebrews 3:16-4:3a,
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who believed enter that rest...
This text can be divided into four parts. In this text we see that there has been...
1. A shocking rebellion by those whom God had delivered
2. A shocking provocation and sin against God which led to their deaths
3. A shocking disobedience and unbelief that prevented them from entering into God’s rest
4. A healthy fear that responds in faith
A Shocking Rebellion Against The LORD
“For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?” (16)
Scripture is full of stories about shocking rebellions! The first rebellion happened when the archangel Lucifer (Satan) and a third of the other angels of heaven, rebelled against the LORD. Isaiah 14:11-14 gives us this description, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” Lucifer’s rebellion, however, was quickly put down by the LORD. Isaiah 14:15 says, “But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.”
After his fall Satan shows up again in the Garden of Eden and tempts Adam to question God’s Word and to rebel against the LORD. Adam believed the lie and disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit.
This was the first of man’s countless rebellions, insurrections and uprisings against the LORD. For example, the prophet Isaiah opens his letter to His people in Judah and Jerusalem with these words, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’”
Not only do God’s people Israel rebel against the LORD, but all the nations conspire against Him. We read in Psalm 2 these words, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’” (2:1-3)
There is another rebellion that we find in scripture. Peter refers to this rebellion in the book of Acts after Jesus had ascended to the Father. He says, “Brothers the Scriptures had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” Peter continues by saying, “For he (Judas) was numbered among us and was allotted His share in this ministry.” (Acts 1:15-18)
What a rebellion! Judas, one of the Twelve, rebelled against the Christ! Jesus, however, was not surprised by what Judas had done. He spoke of these things in John 6:70 when He said, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet, one of you is a devil.” Then John says, “He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”
What made this betrayal possible? What made the multitudes walk away from Jesus that day and no longer follow after Him? They all had an an unbelieving heart that would not listen to the Word of the LORD.
John 6:60 – When many of His disciples heard Jesus’ teaching they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’
Listen to how these people are described in John 6:61, “But Jesus knowing in Himself that His disciples were grumbling…”. They sound a lot like their forefathers in the wilderness.
Jesus says in John 6:64, “But there are some of you who do not believe. (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray Him.)” After this many disciples no longer followed Jesus. Judas would continue to follow Jesus but would soon betray Him!
These are just four of the many ‘rebellions’ that we see recorded in the scriptures by individuals and by entire nations against the LORD. In our text this morning we will read of another infamous rebellion. The author speaks of this rebellion so that we will not have a heart that will rebel, sin, provoke, and not believe the Good News that we have heard.
The author of Hebrews speaks of this ‘rebellion’ three times between Hebrews 3:8 and 3:16.
Hebrews 3:8 - ‘...do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’
Hebrews 3:15 - ‘...do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’
Hebrews 3:16 – ‘For who were those who heard and yet rebelled?’
This rebellion that the author of Hebrews brings up in Hebrews 3 is shocking because of the story that is related to it. There are so many passages that we could turn to to consider this but lets start from the very beginning in Exodus 2:23-25. We read, “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.”
God determined that He would act to save His covenant people from their bondage and suffering. In Exodus 3:16 God tells Moses, “Go and gather the elders together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt...’” Then the LORD says, “...and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt...to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This is the promise that the people were to believe by faith but they did not believe. They saw the miraculous signs and they heard the promise of God but their hearts were faithless and disobedient. God’s covenant people often grumbled, complained, questioned Moses and God. They often looked back longingly and desired to return to Egypt.
This is a shocking rebellion by God’s people by those that God had delivered. We are not to be like that generation. We read these words in Hebrews 4:2, “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”
A Shocking Continual Provocation And Sin That Lead To Their Deaths In The Wilderness
“And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (17)
When I was a young I considered almost everything in scripture to be a mystery but now that I am older there is one mystery that overshadows all others. It is the mystery of God’s patience and steadfast love. I have often tried God’s patience and presumed upon His steadfast love and so have you.
Yet, we can testify that God, like the father of the prodigal son, has waited and watched for our return much longer than we would have expected. We have squandered so much time and so many of the blessings that the LORD has provided and yet He has received us back and treated us like a son and not as a hired servant.
Consider the patience that God displayed with the rebellious people that He had brought out of Egypt. For forty years they tried His patience and not one time did they humble their hearts before Him. God’s patience and steadfast love is mysterious; but it can eventually run out. Therefore, we are given a warning in this passage. The author of Hebrews reminds all of us that an entire generation of people failed to enter into His rest because of their sinful unbelief.
Edmund Calamy a pastor in England gives a similar warning to the people of His generation who had made a profession of faith but did not have any righteous fruit in their lives. He says to them, “God took away the ark and forsook Shiloh, and He not only took away the ark, but the temple also. He unchurched the Jews, He unchurched the seven churches in Asia, and we may not know how soon He may unchurch us.”1
The author of Hebrews exhorts all of us to respond in faith today. He pleads with us not to be like all those rebels who won’t listen to God’s Word and who will not respond in faith. He says in Hebrews 4:1-2, “Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who believed enter that rest…”
A Shocking Disobedience And Unbelief Prevented Them From Entering Into God’s Rest
“And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” (18)
This generation provoked God and fell in the wilderness. Their hearts were hard and they did not believe the promise. Is theresuch a thing as a healthy unbelief and an unbelief that is deadly?
We all have to wrestle with unbelief. One person has said something that is helpful by saying, “A head of unbelief may lead to something good; a heart of unbelief must always be bad.”2
In Scriptures there are some who struggle with unbelief but they are not necessarily provoking God to anger. There are others, however, whose unbelief does provoke the LORD to anger as this generation did.
I grew up in a denomination that stressed the importance of belief and faith. In fact, it was a sin to confess anything that would be considered doubt, unbelief and faithlessness. So I will admit that in my mind I often struggle to see that there is a healthy type of doubting that does not provoke the LORD.
Throughout the Scriptures, however, we can see evidence that the statement, “A head of unbelief may lead to something good; but a heart of unbelief must always be bad”, can be true. Let me give you a few examples of people in scripture who may have struggled with doubt int their minds but they had hearts that were ready to believe.
In Mark 9 there is a father who brings his son to be healed by Jesus. He says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus responds by addressing this fathers struggle to understand that can He can and will be able to help them. Jesus says, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” When the man hears this he immediately cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
This is an example of a man who had a heart that was ready to believe but struggled to understand these things in his thinking and reasoning. This man’s heart was not hardened so that he would not believe. He wanted too so he asks Jesus for His help to believe.
Another example of this would be Jesus’ mother Mary. When the angel came to her and told her about becoming the mother of our Lord she struggled to understand these things with her mind but she was willing to believe with her heart. Mary’s response to the angel was, “How can these things be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)
The angel did not scold Mary for asking this question. She did not ask it because she had a hard heart but because she struggled to know how this could happen. Therefore, the angel responded with these words, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Because Mary’s heart was full of faith she responds with these words, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
John the Baptist had to deal with doubts at times but his heart was not hardened in unbelief. When he was in prison he sent two of His disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus finishes by saying, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” If John was just having a moment of weakness of mind he would respond well to the message that his disciples returned to tell him. However, if his heart was hard he would take offense at Jesus and His words. John the Baptist was struggling with his mind and understanding and not with hardness of heart, so Jesus’ words encouraged him.
Contrast John the Baptist with those that Jesus would address just a few verses later in Matthew 11:20-24. Jesus address entire cities who have hard hearts. He says, “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” These people did not struggle with their minds and understanding to believe; rather they had hard and unbelieving hearts that could not respond in faith.
Here we see entire cities condemned because of their hard hearts and unbelief.
May I remind you that our city as a whole has a hard heart and does not believe.
Entire churches in this city have hard hearts and do not believe.
Companies and business where we work have hard hearts and do not believe.
The majority of our schools where we are educated have hard hearts and do not believe.
The majority of our entertainment that we enjoy has hard hearts and they do not believe.
We must not be like them and have hard hearts and not believe!
All of these examples show us that “a head of unbelief may lead to something good; but a heart of unbelief must always be bad.”
The Israelite's provoked the LORD for forty years and “did not fail by reason of intellectual unbelief, but by failure of their heart-trust: their sin was an evil heart of unbelief.”3
Our text this morning has addressed...
a shocking rebellion by those whom God had delivered,
a shocking provocation and sin against God which led to their deaths,
and a shocking disobedience and unbelief that prevented them from entering into God’s rest.
In Hebrews 4:1-3a we receive an exhortation to have a healthy fear that responds to the Good News by faith. “Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who believed enter that rest…” (4:1-3a) [In the Greek, ‘fear’ is the first word]
John Bunyan in his book, ‘The Fear of God’, says that godly fear is a grace of the Spirit of God in the hearts of His people (His elect, His children that He has effectually called in the gospel).4
In other words, Bunyan makes the point that the Holy Spirit uses the grace of God to overcome doubting minds and hardened hearts. Has your heart been transformed? Has your stony heart been replaced by a new tender heart towards God? If so, you will respond to this exhortation to fear with faith and you will experience God’s rest.
This generation that did not enter into God’s rest was a faithless people who feared many things.
They feared that they had been forgotten in Egypt as Joseph was forgotten by Pharaoh.
The people feared the new Pharaoh, they feared the Egyptian task masters, they feared the Egyptian soldiers, they feared having no food, they feared having no water, they feared that they would die in the wilderness, they feared approaching God at Sinai, they feared the nations who possessed the Promised Land.
Ironically, however, they did not fear the LORD or believe the good news that He had promised.
Godly fear flows from a new heart and they did not have new hearts. Their hearts were hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Bunyan says, “This fear (a godly fear) is not in men by nature, the fear of devils they may have, as also an ungodly fear of God; but this fear is not in any but where there dwells a new heart, another fruit and effect of the everlasting covenant, and of the distinguishing love of God.”5
Dr. Michael Reeves speaks about the fear of God in his book ‘Rejoice and Tremble’. He speaks about our society and says, “With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown – indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sand of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns – from personal health to the health of the planet – have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helpless and fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.”6
Perhaps this text has helped us see that our many fears and anxieties are symptoms of a greater problem. They are present to show us that we have in some way failed to fear God and His Word in a proper and godly way. As a result, our hearts have come under attack by every other fear known to man. Therefore, let us fear the LORD above all and live by faith in the promises of His Word. Let us ‘destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2Corinthians 10:5)
There may be some people here who have never experienced this godly type of fear. You may never contemplate God and eternal life. You may never contemplate holiness and righteousness and the justice of God. You need to respond in faith and repentance to the Gospel for the very first time. Do not listen to this message and once again let sin harden further your heart. That can stop today if you will respond in repentance and faith. That can end today if you will come to Christ and find rest for your weary soul.
Communion: Hebrews 9:24-28
24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Communion Text: Luke 22:14-20
14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
1The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations, IDE Thomas, p. 298
2The Preachers Homiletic Commentary, p.188-189.
3The Preachers Homiletic Commentary, p. 188-189.
4John Bunyan, The Fear of God, p.23
6Dr. Michael Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble, p.20