About to set out to Cambridge to preach there this morning. In the few minutes before I am starting to wrestle with Hebrews 4. What a packed and challenging chapter!
Here are a two initial questions that it provokes for me:
- It says that "good news came to us just as to them" - ie to the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. What does it mean that good news came to them? It means that they had promises from God - backed up with mighty acts like the Red Sea and signs like the tabernacle and pillar of cloud and fire - that he would lead them to the place of his rest
- It says that the people back then didn't enter because they were disobedient and urges contemporary readers to make sure they aren't disobedient and therefore miss God's rest also. The question is whether the writer makes Christians entering God's rest dependent on our obedience rather than on God's grace. Can we fall away by disobedience? He seems to suggest that we can: v1 let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it
Clearly if that were the whole story then everyone would be condemned because everyone disobeys God.
The further question is why did the people not reach the promised rest because of disobedience. The answer is that every act of disobedience is rooted in unbelief in God. ch3:8-9 describes Exodus rebellion as testing God, seeing his works but still not trusting him, and therefore going their own way. Hence having an evil and disobedience heart towards God equals having an unbelieving heart:
Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God (3:12)
To whom did God 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 (3:18-19)
...the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest... (4:2-3)
Every time I disobey God, what it reveals is that I don't believe as I should. There is something faulty in my believing. In the case of the people in the desert that continued to grow and grow until it resulted in full-blown rejection of God and utter disbelief and lack of trust in him. The challenge in Hebrews 4 is to fear that slippery slope. Every time I sin it should be leading me to throw myself on God, fearing that I might fall into obdurate unbelief.
Of course the very act of flinging myself on him for mercy, forgiveness and future hope is one of the main things that prevents me from slipping any further into unbelief, which is why the warning is here.
For real believers the warning is to throw yourself on God, not down the slippery slope. For unbelievers who have some connection with the people of God the warning is to not assume you are OK because you sit in church. If you don't believe then you are no better off than the people in the wilderness who claimed a connection to God but who nevertheless hardened their hearts against him.
Praying that God makes me fear unbelief today, thereby driving me to him.