The Epistle To The Hebrews, Part 3
By Jack Kelley
In our last installment we learned that because the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land by faith, God declared that they would never enter His rest. He turned them back into the wilderness and they spent their lives there. He still provided for them and protected them, and they were still His people. But they didn’t receive the promises that should have been theirs, because of their unbelief. We saw that the Israelite who accepted deliverance from the bondage of slavery in Egypt but refused to walk by faith into the Promised Land is a model of the believer who has accepted deliverance from the bondage of sin yet refuses to walk by faith in victory. Both are redeemed from bondage and both receive God’s provision, but both are deprived of His power and doomed to spend their lives in the wilderness.
Hebrews Chapter 4
A Sabbath Rest For The People Of God
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ [Psalm 95:11] And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.”[Genesis 2:2] (Hebr. 4:1-4)
We begin this installment by learning the spiritual meaning behind the weekly Sabbath. This is a good time to review the idea that external and physical actions in the Old Testament often become internal and spiritual principles in the New.
As an example, in the Old Testament, the sign of the covenant was circumcision. It was of the flesh, external and physical. (Genesis 17:9-14) In the New, it’s of the heart, internal and spiritual. (Romans 2:28-29) In the Old Testament, the Bread from Heaven was external, for physical sustenance. (Exodus 16:4-5) It the New it’s internal, our spiritual food. (John 6:28-36) As we’ll see there are more.
And again in the passage above, he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” [Psalm 95:7-8] (Hebr. 4:5-7)
Again we’re told that the Israelites heard the Gospel story in their flight from Egypt but it was of no value to them because they didn’t combine it with faith. How many people today fall into that same category? Faith comes from hearing the Word of God. (Romans 10:17) Anyone who reads the Bible with an attitude of discovery can develop the faith to believe. The Lord promised us that all who ask will receive, all who seek will find, and to all who knock the door will be opened. (Matt. 7:7-8)
The Greek word translated disobedience here also means unbelief. God had made Himself so obvious to them through their miraculous deliverance that He used the two words interchangeably. And this is still true today. To Him, those who claim unbelief are really just being disobedient. It’s not that they can’t believe, it’s that they won’t. (Romans 1:18-20)
Since David wrote Psalm 95 long after the events recorded in the Book of Joshua, the writer is saying that entering the Promised Land could not have been the complete fulfillment of God’s promise of rest for His people.
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” – (Hebr. 4:8-11)
In the Old Testament, the weekly Sabbath was a reminder that on the 7th Day God rested from all His work. No work was permitted on the Sabbath, symbolizing that the job of creation was finished. This point was so important to God that anyone found working on the Sabbath was put to death. (Numbers 15:32-36) Now, the concept of the Sabbath is being applied to our salvation. What was external and physical has become internal and Spiritual.
When we accept the Lord’s death as payment in full for all of our sins our work is finished, and we enter into a Sabbath rest that lasts the rest of our lives. All we have to do now to remain in fellowship with Him and enjoy His blessing is to confess when we sin. (1 John 1:9) Once again the writer is warning his readers (and that includes us) that continuing to work after our work is done is evidence of unbelief. Anything we do in an effort to add to or maintain our salvation (like keeping the Law) other than resting in faith of His forgiveness is being disobedient.
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” – (Hebr. 4:12-13)
They couldn’t pull the wool over God’s eyes in this matter. Going back into the Levitical system meant that they didn’t believe the Lord’s death was sufficient to keep them saved, so they had to keep working. They could never enter His rest because they would be ignoring the only provision He had made for their ongoing sin, trying to cover themselves with religious work instead. They’d spend their whole lives out of fellowship, deprived of His power and blessing. Their attitude would lead to spiritual defeat, just like the Israelites’ attitude had led to physical defeat.
The reason that a combination of faith and works will ultimately fail is that it’s self-contradictory. By definition, work indicates a lack of faith in God, substituting faith in self for faith in Him. We can’t tell except by faith that God has done His part. But we can tell if we’re doing what we think is ours. So we adopt our own set of laws and measure the extent to which we’re keeping them. Sooner or later the certainty of what we’re doing will override our faith in what He’s done and we’ll have assumed responsibility for our own lives. It won’t cost us our salvation but it will deny us our victory by depriving us of His power. To me, one of the most obvious examples of this is the insistence by some believers that we turn the very symbol of our rest into an act of religious work that has to be rigidly observed as proof of our salvation. I’m talking about the Sabbath.
Of course for some, the insistence on living a life of religious work is evidence that they were never saved in the first place, but have assumed responsibility for their salvation as well as their lives. The Lord, before whom everything is uncovered and laid bare, knows this. For them, continuing to work during what should be their Sabbath rest will bring spiritual death, just as the Sabbath breaker in Numbers 15 experienced physical death. But the writer has addressed his readers as holy brothers who share in the heavenly calling (Hebr. 3:1). He assumed they were saved and were in danger of living a defeated powerless life like their ancestors in the wilderness had.
Let’s also remember here that living a life pleasing to God purely out of gratitude for the salvation He freely gave to us is not only permitted, it’s encouraged. It’s the motive of our heart that counts. Are we working to earn something, or saying thanks because we’ve already been given something? When God looks into our heart, our motives are revealed to Him and He knows which it is.
Jesus the Great High Priest
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – (Hebr. 4:14-16)
Having lived our lives, the Lord knows our weaknesses. He has experienced our temptations and understands how powerful they are to us. He could resist because He doesn’t have a sin nature, but He knows that we can’t because we do. (Romans 7:20) We can ask His forgiveness for our ongoing sin in confidence because He knows we’re unequal to the task of sinlessness. When we’ve tried and failed, we can count on His mercy because He knows what we’re going through and He’s already paid our penalty. (Romans 8:1) Though our mind urges us to try and redeem ourselves with religious work, our spirit knows we’ll just make things worse because we’ll be saying we don’t really trust Him to forgive us.
Hebrews Chapter 5:1-10
Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebr. 5:1-4)
Though there were strict guidelines for the appointment of the High Priest, he was still just a man. The first sin offering the High Priest performed on Yom Kippur was on his own behalf.
So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” [Psalm 2:7]
And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” [Psalm 110:4]
“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebr 5:5-10)
Some say that the prayers Jesus offered in the Garden of Gethsemane to the point of sweating blood were unanswered because God didn’t save Him from the cross. Some even make the preposterous claim that since the Father ignored his Son in the Garden, we should ignore our children when they cry out to us for comfort. They claim it’s Biblical justification for leaving our babies alone in the dark to cry themselves to sleep saying that we’re teaching them the skill of “self-soothing” as the Father did to His Son.
But here the writer says that the Father did hear His Son, and did not ignore Him. Jesus said, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39) There are only two alternatives. Either there was another way for us to receive salvation and the Father made Him die anyway, or else there was no other way but for Him to die for us. And as for ignoring Him, Luke 22:43 says that the Father sent an angel to strengthen Him in His time of need. Realizing again that there was no other way, the Son obeyed His Father and went to the cross, becoming the source of eternal salvation for those who obey (believe in) Him.
We’ll talk about His connection to Melchizedek in chapter 7. But first we have to finish chapter 5 and then we’ll clear up once and for all the controversy over chapter 6. We’ll do both of these next time. Selah.