7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked 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 unable to enter because of unbelief. – Hebrews 3:7-19 ESV
Reaching back into the pages of the Old Testament narrative, the author quotes from Psalm 95, using the history of the people of Israel as a life lesson for his Hebrew audience. The psalmist recounts the story of Israel’s rebellion against God during their journey from Egypt to the promised land. Under the direction of God, they reached a place called Rephidim, and after setting up camp they discovered, “there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink’” (Exodus 17:1-2 ESV).
Moses’ response was to ask them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Exodus 17:2 ESV). But driven by their physical thirst, they demanded, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3 ESV). The people were so angry with Moses that he feared for his life, suspecting they would resort to stoning him. But God knew the people were using Moses as an easy target because their anger was really directed at Him. So, God gave Moses some interesting instructions.
“Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.’ And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” – Exodus 17:5-7 ESV
That last line is key to understanding the story and grasping the point that the author of Hebrews is trying to make. Influenced by the negative nature of their circumstances and their own physical desires, they doubted the presence, power, and provision of God. This was in spite of all He had done to deliver them from Egypt and secure their freedom from slavery. The miracles of the ten plagues and the wonder of the crossing of the Red Sea faded into oblivion at the first sign of trouble. Suddenly, their God was no match for their personal problems, and they grumbled. They complained. They revealed their ingratitude for all that God had done. And yet, in the face of their rebellion, God graciously provided them with water – from a rock. The apostle Paul provides insight into what was going on behind the scenes.
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 NLT
The rock was Christ. It was a representation of the mercy and grace of God that would one day be expressed through the gift of His Son. Moses was instructed to strike the rock and from it came living water. God provided for them the very thing for which they had grumbled and complained. But while they “drank the same spiritual water,” God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Many of them never made it to the land of promise, the place of rest. The psalmist clearly portrays that the anger of God was directed at those who doubted His saving power.
“For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known “my ways.” Therefore, I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” – Psalm 95:10-11 ESV
The letter to the Hebrews provides us with the application.
Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still ‘today,’ so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:12-14 NLT
The author is not suggesting that we can lose our salvation. But he warns against having “evil and unbelieving” hearts. The danger the Jewish believers in his audience faced was turning away from the saving grace provided by God through Jesus Christ and returning to their old, familiar faith in Judaism. Warren Wiersbe writes, “every believer is tempted to give up his confession of Christ and go back into the world system’s life of compromise and bondage.”
Again, this is not about losing our salvation but about missing out on all that God has promised us as believers in this life, simply by turning away from God and doubting the sufficiency of His Son’s saving work. F. F. Bruce provides with the context:
“…a relapse from Christianity into Judaism would be comparable to the action of the Israelites when they ‘turned back in their hearts unto Egypt’ (Acts 7:30); it would not be a mere return to a position previously occupied, but a gesture of outright apostasty, a complete break with God.” – F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews
When Christians face difficulties, there will always be the temptation to doubt God and return to their former way of life. Relapse into our old ways is a natural response to the unexpected and unwanted trials that sometimes accompany the Christian life. We may even be tempted to try something completely new and different, other than the walk of faith. That is why the writer of Hebrews warns us, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 ESV).
The issue is one of unbelief. That is why we are to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’’’ (Hebrews 3:13 ESV). We need to encourage one another to keep the faith and remain committed to Christ’s cause. We must not allow circumstances or our own personal passions to draw us away from God and back to the false promises of this world. We must continue to believe in and rest on the promises of God, despite all we see happening around us. A little later in his letter, the author of Hebrews provides us with the key to standing firm in the face of trials.
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 ESV
The Israelites to whom the author refers in this passage were those who had been miraculously delivered from captivity in Egypt and promised the hope of a new land in which they would live and enjoy God’s rest. But because of their rebellion, that generation would never make it to Canaan. That initial group of freed Israelites took their eyes off the prize and focused their attention on the circumstances taking place around them. Rather than trust God to keep His word and fulfill His promises, they displayed doubt and disbelief, attacking God’s messenger and questioning God’s will for them.
And the believing Jews to whom the author was writing were facing a similar test. They were allowing their current circumstances to cloud their thinking and cause them “to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 ESV). Like their long-forgotten ancestors, these Jews were running the risk of rebelling against God’s will and missing out on all the blessings He had in store for them. They wouldn’t lose their salvation but they would jeopardize any hope of experiencing the life-transforming and sanctifying power of God’s Spirit in their lives. Their eternal future would remain secure in Christ, but they would find it difficult to find rest in the midst of the unrest of this world.
Just before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus comforted His disciples with these words:
“But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:32-33 NLT
Take heart. Stand firm. Remain committed to the cause. And if you do, the reward will be rest, both now and in the age to come.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.