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 three are in chapter three:
- Follow Jesus as Preeminent Apostle and High Priest
- Resist the Pull of the Past
- Help Each Other Remain Faithful
This third directive is so important, the remainder of the chapter rests on it. At the very end of the passage, though, the writer made some startling conclusions which we may find unsettling.
Guard Against Rebellion
One of the challenges of reading ancient documents lies in the culture gap between you and me today and the writers and audiences of antiquity. Just as people of various ethnic groups and geographical locations have developed their own cultures and ethos, so also the people in ancient times had their own cultures and ethos.
For example, in the United States there is actually a premium put on a sense of individualism—“rugged individual” is a meme in American culture, one who is independent, self-sufficient, one who started with little and through sheer force of will, a “can-do” spirit, “pulled themselves up by the boot straps” and made themselves a success.
An American might read the word “rebel” and smile.
But, rather than reading “rebellion” and thinking “individualism” or “standing proud for what one believes in” or some other noble theme, think “treason,” or “betrayal of relationship,” or “breach of trust.”
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.
For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
As it is said,
“Today, if you hear [God’s] voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses?
But with whom was [God] angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?
And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter [God’s] rest, if not to those who were disobedient?
So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.Hebrews 3:12-19 (NRSV)
This is one of several passages in the Book of Hebrews that has stirred the proverbial hornets’ nest among theologians for centuries.
Lessons From Exodus
To answer these questions well, you and I need an excursus into the story of Exodus. It is first God Who heard the people’s voice, crying out for rescue.
God’s Vow of Two Promises
The Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down
—to deliver them from the Egyptians,
—to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites.God to Moses, Exodus 3:3-8 (NRSV)
We learn God promised two intended actions. God would deliver the people from their bondage and suffering, and God would bring the people to the rich and good land.
God’s deliverance from is God’s salvation. Once the people passed through the Red Sea, and the sea crashed down upon the mighty armies of Egypt, their deliverance was complete. There would be no turning back and there would be no danger of Egypt reaching past the sea and dragging them back. They were now, suddenly and dramatically, a free people.
Once saved, always saved! God never returned the rebellious people to the place of their bondage and suffering.
God’s Visible Presence and Power
Over the course of probably the better part of a year, and maybe even longer, God authenticated God’s message and intentions to Pharaoh and all Egypt through Moses and Aaron. For thousands of years, the story of the Ten Plagues has been commemorated in every Passover Seder.
God’s redemption of God’s people from the angel of death, God’s protection of all the faithful from the worst of the plagues, and God’s Shekinah glory in fire and cloud, guiding and protecting all who followed the Lord through the Red Sea and into the wilderness are warmly familiar accounts.
God’s Voice to the People
Early in their sojourn, God gathered the people around Mount Sinai upon which rested the cloud of God’s glory. From this place, God spoke in the hearing of all the people.
Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.
The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
. . . On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.
They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.
As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.
. . . When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.Exodus 19:7-8, 16-19, 20:18-21 (NRSV)
The people heard God, knew this was God’s voice, feared God, and with unreserved passion, promised to do all that God commanded.
Here the covenant was initiated by God and entered into by the people.
God never breaks covenant. They were now and would remain forever redeemed from their bondage in Egypt as God’s treasured people.