The writer of Hebrews spent the second chapter saying “Because we see the superiority and preeminence of Christ, let us believe right doctrine,” and warned his readers to guard against their faith drifting.
In chapter 3, the writer had a second “therefore” followed by five directives for our response to right doctrine. The first two were
- Follow Jesus as Preeminent Apostle and High Priest
- Resist the Pull of the Past
Now comes the third directive.
Directive Three: Help Each Other Remain Faithful
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.Hebrews 3:12-13 (NRSV)
They seem like awfully harsh words to write to those who had already expressed belief in Jesus as Messiah, and were already people of God, who loved God’s words. So let us walk slowly through the writer’s exhortation.
The word translated evil is πονηρός | poneros, not the narrower word κακός | kakos which only means ugly, craven, evil, wicked, and bad. Rather, Poneros means
- full of labors, annoyances, hardships;
- pressed and harassed by labors;
- of a bad nature or condition in a physical sense: diseased or blind or
- of a bad nature or condition in an ethical sense: evil wicked, bad
It is a nuanced word readers would have understood in all those ways, and seen, perhaps, how a heart might become blunted pressed and harassed by their unbelieving family, friends, colleagues, and those who were in their synagogue.
The word translated sin is ἁμαρτία | hamartia, a word Jesus and His apostles all used often, and which means to
- be without a share in
- miss the mark
- err, be mistaken
- miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong
- wander from the law of God, violate God’s law
One who is yet a Christian can still be deceived into believing something that misses the mark of truth. It may be adjacent to the truth, it may be not that many degrees off, at its source. But it might still but enough untrue that over time, you and I could find ourselves having followed a path that has brought us far away from Jesus’ teaching and way.
Any one of us can—and certainly have been, one time or another—mistaken. So we need each other to continually remind each other of what is true, what is right.
Did the writer of Hebrews mean a Christian might be without a share in salvation?
Finally, all of us are capable of wandering from the law of God, or even violating God’s law. In such instances, we deeply need those who are spiritual to help us back to the right and true.
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.
Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.Galatians 6:1-2 (NRSV)
deceived and hardened
For one of the main deceptions of sin is often its pleasurable quality. Temptation would have no pull if we did not already like what is tempting. I, for instance, am not a bit tempted by liver, not even when I am hungry! But I am definitely tempted by anything with sugar in it even though I know it is not good for me!
Sin makes false promises, sin makes claims that are not true, sin promises it will fulfill us when it never can.
Our judgement becomes compromised, and we think we are getting by with it. It seems so harmless, our rationalizations convince us, every time we engage with our sin it seems a little less bad. Our consciences hurt less and less. We allow this sin to become normalized, and we stop thinking about it.
The first time was the hardest . . . but with each step, God’s still small voice becomes fainter, as though the Lord were farther away. For it is we who are wandering from the truth.
As a rule of thumb, we do not like warnings that say our sin will catch us up. You and I—people in general—tend to be overly confident in thinking we can control the sin. Just one bite! Just one sip, just one deep inhale, just one touch, or whispered word, just one visit . . . but we risk repeating our sins to the point of becoming enslaved to them.
And it was for freedom from that enslavement that Jesus set us free.
Encourage One Another
Years ago, reading a commentary, I came across this acrostic on “page 153-155,” but the name of the theologian is long since lost. If you recognize it, I would be very grateful for the citation!
Examine your heart – Be sure you have dealt with your own sins before you help someone to see the sin in their life.
Note your calling – All those who are spiritual are called to help people see and accept God’s view of them, beautiful, beloved, and worth being conformed to the character of Christ.
Check your attitude – Kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, forbearing, compassionate, all in love.
Own your own faults – Our humble recognition of who we really are begins with admitting our own need for the Lord’s forgiveness.
Use words wisely – Be prepared, ask God to help us use words that carry God’s message.
Reflect on Scripture – Which begins with knowing Scripture. This is not about proof texts, this is understanding the themes, principles, perspectives and commands of Scripture which shape the way you and I are to think about the issues.
Always be prepared to listen – God calls us to encourage each other.
Grant time for a response – This is the Holy Spirit’s work. You and I are to model the same patience that God has granted to us, sanctification being a process of change over time, with lots of loving encouragement.
Encourage with the gospel – It is the awesome grace of God, God’s boundless love, and God’s everpresent help that gives you and me a reason to turn away from our sin. The Apostle Paul asked,
Do you despise the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?Romans 2:4 (NRSV)
We Have Become Partners Of Christ
For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.Hebrews 3:14 (NRSV)
The best way to understand a more obscure passage in scripture is to look to scripture itself for a clarifying passage. In this, the writer of Hebrews echoed Jesus’ own words recorded in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, as well as John’s Revelation.
“You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”Jesus, Matthew 10:22 (also, Matthew 24:23 and Mark 13:13 | NRSV)
“To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations.”Jesus, Revelation 2:26 (NRSV)
But Jesus does not leave our endurance and perseverance to chance, or to the exigencies of our own strength. Not at all! Jesus Himself, by His divine power, will make us able.
“Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Jesus, Matthew 28:20 (NRSV)
He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:8 (NRSV)