This epistle was written to certain Christian Jews who, because of persecution, were considering a return to their former religion. The author encourages them to be faithful by arguing that Christianity is superior to Judaism and is, in fact, the fulfillment of the Jewish religion. In successive chapters, the author demonstrates how Christ is superior to the Jewish prophets as well as the angels who the Jews held in high esteem as spiritual beings. Once he has done this, the author will go on to compare Jesus to one of the most prestigious Jewish leaders in their history: Moses.
Moses was born during the Jewish bondage in Egypt in approximately 1500 BC. He was raised by an Egyptian princess who found him hidden in a basket by his mother in an attempt to save his life during a persecution of male children by the Egyptians against the Jewish people. He was educated at the Egyptian court, but at age 40 tried to lead the Jewish people in a revolt, killing an Egyptian in the process. He escaped and lived as a shepherd in the desert for an additional 40 years.
God called him at 80 years of age to return to Egypt and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt to a land originally promised to their ancestor, Abraham. The Lord performed great miracles through Moses and his brother, Aaron, in order to free the people from Egyptian slavery, but their lack of faith and disobedience changed a journey that would have only required several months into a 40 year wandering in the wilderness. During these four decades, however, God through His servant Moses, gave the Jewish people their laws (Ten Commandments), place of worship (Tabernacle), manner of worship (sacrificial system), as well as their religious leaders (priests and Levites) and social customs (food restrictions, festivals, marriage and legal systems). In the desert they became a new and structured society through Moses' leadership. Moses did disobey God, and like the generation that left Egypt with him, did not enter the Promised Land but only saw it from afar before he died. He was, however, considered the greatest of Jewish leaders and a source of authority.
Moses and Christ
In chapter three and part of chapter four, the author compares Christ to Moses. This would be very meaningful to Jewish Christians. The authors of the gospels mention Moses over 80 times, more than any other figure in the Old Testament. Moses was seen as a "type" or "preview" of Christ in the Old Testament, and New Testament writers often pointed this out. For example:
- Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:4-9), Jesus being lifted up on the cross (John 3:14)
- Moses giving manna in the desert (Exodus 16), Jesus being the bread of heaven (John 6:3)
- Both threatened to be killed as babies (Exodus 1-2, Matthew 2:16)
- Both deliverers of their people. Both initially rejected (Acts 7:20-44, Romans 9:32)
The author of Hebrews will continue to draw parallels between Jesus and Moses to show Jesus' superiority, and he will draw parallels between their followers as well in order to emphasize the importance of faithfulness.
Outline - 3:1-4:13
The section we are studying has two main parts:
- A comparison of Moses and Jesus in five areas
- Chosen People - Holy Brethren
- Promised Land - Celestial Call
- Apostle of Liberation - Apostle of Salvation
- Related to High Priest - High Priest of Salvation
- Servant of House of God - Builder of the House of God
- A warning to Jesus' followers
Moses' generation did not enter the Promised Land because of disbelief and disobedience. Be careful not to follow their example.
Moses and Jesus: Comparison - 3:1-6a
In the previous chapter the author billboarded the idea that Jesus is like a high priest (faithful and merciful). He'll develop this idea in chapters 4-5, but first he compares Jesus to Moses because Moses appeared historically before the high priest and, as a historical figure, had a greater impact on the Jews than any priest. He also addresses his readers as pilgrims on their way to a heavenly land thus establishing a basis of comparison between themselves, Jesus' followers and Moses' followers who were pilgrims on their way to the Promised Land here on earth.
1 Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;
Holy - because they have been sanctified (set apart) by Christ. Brethren - because they have a "brother" in Christ by virtue of His incarnation. Heavenly calling - because they have been called (by the gospel) to come to a "celestial" country - heaven. Our promised land is celestial not geographical. As Christians, we are not nation building or looking for a cultural homeland to call our own here on earth. We are passing through this world on our way to the next world we have been called to by Jesus. Consider Jesus - you who have been called should consider or compare Jesus in light of Moses. See how Jesus compares to him. The author compares three things:
- The Apostle of our confession. Moses was an apostle (one sent with authority). He gave God's Word to the people and led them to the Promised Land. Jesus is God's messenger who brings freedom from death and eternal salvation. It is Jesus that we confess to be saved, not Moses.
- The High Priest of our confession. Moses was related to the High Priest (he was Aaron's brother) and gave him the instructions for the priesthood and the sacrificial system. Jesus is the High Priest and by His own sacrifice saves us. Jesus is both High Priest and sacrifice - an idea that the author is presenting here (billboarding), but will explain later on.
- Faithful - versus 2-6
2 He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house.
Moses was faithful (the author doesn't detract from him). He was faithful to Israel and to his mission. Jesus was also faithful, but He had a different role and mission.
3 For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. 4 For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. 5 Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; 6 but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house - whose house we are
Moses was faithful as a servant in God's household. He faithfully delivered the Law without changing it. He was faithful in his post as leader. He was part of the spiritual temple that God was building. Jesus, on the other hand, is not a servant in the house, He is the Son of God over the house. The Law was His word. He created the people and the nation. He established the foundation for it with His own blood.
The author says that in His role of Son and builder, Jesus was, like Moses, faithful. However, by virtue of His position in relationship to the house of God, He is greater than Moses ("worthy of more glory" verse 3). We appreciate the house but give the award to the architect. In this sense, as the architect, Jesus is over the household of God, not Moses. The readers of this epistle are tempted to return to Judaism, and Moses was the human embodiment of that religion. The writer demonstrates how Jesus is greater than Moses and now warns them about what a return to Moses would actually mean.
Moses and Jesus: Warning - 3:6b-19
6b if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.
The entire warning is summarized here. We are the household, temple and family that God is building and over which He has put Christ.
We continue in this position if (key word) we hold fast (steady, unmoved like a ship in a storm).
Confidence - if we hold fast without fear, panic or complaint, but with confidence.
Boast of our hope - the reason why we hold fast is because we are free from condemnation and the fear of death (Romans 8:1). Biblical hope is confident expectation, not simply "wishing" for something to happen.
Firm until the end - we maintain this firm confidence until death.
The true Christians then and now are those who believe God when He promises eternal life, and they live in such a way that demonstrates belief in that promise until the end. The author moves from this opening comment to give some practical examples of when God's people didn't have this confidence and were unable to maintain their hope, and thus were punished. In this way the author appeals to them through a warning and a promise.
1. A Warning Against Disbelief
The warning is based on Psalm 95:7-11 where the author of the psalm refers to the rebelliousness of the people under Moses:
7 Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,
"Today if you hear His voice,
8 Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me,
As in the day of trial in the wilderness,
9 Where your fathers tried Me by testing Me,
And saw My works for forty years.
The Hebrew writer compares the Jewish rebellion under Moses to the Jewish Christians contemplating leaving Christ.
10 "Therefore I was angry with this generation,
And said, 'They always go astray in their heart,
And they did not know My ways';
11 As I swore in My wrath,
'They shall not enter My rest.'"
God's punishment was to prohibit them from entering the Promised Land (referred to as the "rest").
12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.
The warning is to guard against disbelief because it leads to falling away. Here the author equates "falling away" from Christ with falling away from the true and living God.
13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
He says that the root of the problem is sin, and sin leads the way to eventual punishment.
SIN → DISBELIEF → APOSTACY → PUNISHMENT
He exhorts them to encourage each other every day in the battle against sin because then, as now, Christians are tempted every day, and often underestimate the power of sin.
14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end,
He also reminds them that the rewards of hope only go to those who are faithful to the end. We must remain as strong at the end of our lives in Christ as we are at the beginning. In the journey to the heavenly land it is not how fast you travel that is important, it is if you finish the journey faithfully that counts, and daily encouragement is needed to accomplish this. This is why many congregations meet several times per week for worship, fellowship, teaching and encouragement to continue the journey.
15 while it is said,
"Today if you hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me."
16 For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
Here the author gives an instance where the Israelites perished in the desert as a result of their unfaithfulness. The point is that their sins didn't disqualify them, it was the unfaithfulness that their sins caused that led them to failure. This example is given for his readers who, because of their disbelief in Christ, are being tempted to abandon the journey of faith that they are on. He tells them to encourage one another in this journey so they will finish faithfully. He then transitions from giving them a warning to describing the promise that awaits those who are faithful.
2. A Promise of Rest
The promise of heaven was couched in various terms such as "glory," "eternal life" and "rest." For the Jews of the Old Testament period, two "types" signified or pointed to a heavenly reward. One was the Sabbath day, a one day (Saturday) earthly rest from work in order to concentrate on one's relationship with God that ultimately pointed to a time in the future where there would be a never ending time of unbroken fellowship with Him.
The reason why we, as Christians, do not keep the Sabbath as the Jewish people did before Christ, is that we have already begun that unbroken fellowship with God (John 17:21). We do not need to set a 24-hour period aside to symbolize what will eventually arrive with the coming of the Messiah; the Messiah has come (Acts 2:1-42)! We are spiritually united to God through Christ, and have knowledge of God through His Word contained in the Bible. We have spiritual regeneration through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11-12). Faithful Jews before Christ, the Jewish Christians that the author was addressing as well as ourselves today, are enjoying the everlasting Sabbath rest and will do so if we are faithful to the end.
Another type for the heavenly reward was the Promised Land, which was to be the homeland for God's people, but also pointed to the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. That kingdom was not meant to be political or geographical, but spiritual. Christ established it with His death and resurrection, and all who believe and obey the gospel enter into it (John 3:5). In this passage, therefore, the author mixes these images saying that the "rest" was to be had in the "promised land." The Jews looked forward to a rest/renewal when they reached the promised land (Canaan), but most did not make it because of disbelief and died in the desert as a result. The writer uses the spiritual meaning of these words to tell his readers that they will not reach their reward of heaven either, and for the same reason.
1 Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.
The promise is still before them, but they should be frightened if they're falling back from it through disbelief.
2 For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.
He suggests that the problem in the desert was the people's doubt that God could actually bring them to the promised land; that such a place even existed. Christians, like the Israelites, had received a "promise of rest" contained in the gospel. However, they should take care not to act like the Israelites who didn't enter because they heard but didn't continue believing and thus did not complete the journey.
3 For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said,
"As I swore in My wrath,
They shall not enter My rest,"
although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works"; 5 and again in this passage, "They shall not enter My rest." 6 Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 He again fixes a certain day, "Today," saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before,
"Today if you hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts."
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.
Those who believe need to understand that the "rest" is still available to those who persevere. It has not been withdrawn despite the failure of some to enter in because of disbelief. In other words, the Promised Land is still there spiritually. He quotes a passage from the Psalms written long after events in the desert took place showing that the "rest" God offered the Jews was still present in David's day, 500 years after Moses.
The idea was that the "rest" was not only for Moses' generation, but for every generation who would believe. So long as it is today, the "rest" is there. He then quotes Joshua and says that if Joshua's conquest of the land would have fulfilled the promise of "rest," then David would not be talking about it as a possibility centuries later. The promise remained alive. Unlike the Jews who thought that in entering and possessing the land of Canaan, they had received everything; the author is saying that the best is yet to come!
9 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.
He confirms that the promise of rest remains. He explains that the promise is not something you own, it is something you enter into. What you enter into is not described, only that it will be different than here. So, to Christian Jews who are discouraged doubting that the suffering is not worth the goal or that the goal is even out there, the writer assures them that as God rested from His work, so will His people.
Warning Summarized - 4:11-13
11 Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
'Please don't repeat the mistake of the Israelites,' he says. You Christians are in the process of entering into the rest, don't fall back because of disobedience which will lead to disbelief, apostasy and failure. Be diligent (zealous) to enter into that rest. It is interesting to note that later on he will warn that falling away from church attendance is the first sign of eventually falling away from Christ.
12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
Listen to the warning because it comes from God's word, which is power and not to be ignored. He makes several comparisons to show that the Word has power. He describes it as being living, active or like a sharp sword.
For example, he couples words together like soul and spirit, joint and marrow, thoughts and intentions. Only something very sharp could divide these things or lay the heart bare, since nothing can be hidden from God's word. Although the chapter doesn't end here, the thought ends here. The example, warnings and punishments concerning disobedience and disbelief should be heeded because His promises and punishments are absolutely sure and as real for us today as it was for them.
The author begins by comparing Moses and Jesus along different lines to demonstrate that Moses, even as a faithful servant and leader of the Jews, is not comparable to Jesus who saves souls and actually builds the household of God which Moses only served. He goes on to warn them that they will fail to reach their goal (heaven) for the same reasons that Moses and the Israelites failed to reach their goal (land of Canaan): disobedience and disbelief, so be careful. He reassures them that the "rest" or "promise" is still before them and worthy of the sacrifice and perseverance in every generation. Jesus never said it would be easy to continue believing until the end. He promised, however, that it would be worth the effort.