The Pursuit of God

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Applying Hebrews 3: Yahweh’s Rest

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This is a continuation of Applying Hebrews 2: Confusion About Christ.

As we begin Chapter 3 of this letter to Old Covenant Jews, we find our unidentified author (who we’ve nicknamed Rabbi) once again changing tactics in an effort to get Old Covenant Jews to accept Christ as Yahweh’s foretold Messiah. He’s talking to Jews, and the time has come to whip out the big guns: comparing Christ to Moses.

Guys like Moses and Abraham were highly exalted figures in the minds of Old Covenant Jews. Rabbi could really make Christ look praiseworthy if he could somehow convince his fellow Jews that Christ is greater than these two famous icons of the faith.  So he’s going to try and do just that, and here in Chapter 3, Moses is up first.

And so, dear brothers and sisters who belong to Yahweh and are partners with those called to Heaven, think carefully about this Jesus whom we declare to be Yahweh’s Messenger and High Priest. For He was faithful to Yahweh, Who appointed Him, just as Moses served faithfully when he was entrusted with Yahweh’s entire house. (Heb. 3:1-2)

Rabbi eases into these sensitive waters carefully. First, Moses must be spoken of with honoring language: “Moses served faithfully when he was entrusted with Yahweh’s entire house.” The Jews in Bible times often used the term “house” to refer to people. Here “Yahweh’s entire house” is a reference to all of Israel. Moses was the guy Yahweh had in charge when He hauled a bunch of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and declared them to be His chosen nation. Moses was faithful in serving as Yahweh’s mouthpiece to Israel during those forty tiresome years in the wilderness. But notice how Rabbi now equates Jesus to Moses by saying that Jesus was faithful to Yahweh as well—in fact He was just as faithful as Moses. Whoa. Putting Christ on the same level as Moses? This is an idea that will take some getting used to for die hard Old Covenant Jews.

But Jesus deserves far more glory than Moses, just as a person who builds a house deserves more praise than the house itself. For every house has a builder, but the One who built everything is Yahweh. (Heb. 3:3-4)

Jesus deserves more glory than Moses?  Rabbi is going to have to work if he’s going to get his audience to swallow that radical claim.

Moses was certainly faithful in Yahweh’s house as a servant. His work was an illustration of the truths Yahweh would reveal later. But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of Yahweh’s entire house. (Heb. 3:5-6)

After starting off by exalting Moses, Rabbi now demotes him by saying that Moses was just a servant, whereas Christ is the Son. Picture a rich man who is living in a big house. That man has a son and he has a servant. Who does the man view as a higher authority? His son, of course. To Rabbi, Yahweh is the man in charge, Christ is His Son, and Moses is just a servant, therefore Christ outranks Moses.

And we are Yahweh’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ. (Heb. 3:6)

Is salvation temporary or permanent? Rabbi makes the answer to this question extremely unclear. Jesus teaches that it is permanent—that’s one of the shocking aspects of the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, you would only end up in Heaven if you were faithful to Yahweh at the very end. But if you started off dedicated, then lost interest and decided to live for yourself, you ended up in Hell. Under the Old Covenant, everyone was saved by grace, but Yahweh didn’t dole the grace out quite as generously as He does today. Today when we receive Christ’s atonement for our sins, we receive forgiveness for our past, present, and future sins. Sin no longer separates us from our Gods. Once They accept us, They never cast us out. That’s a huge difference.

As Rabbi threatens the Jews that they’ll be rejected by Yahweh if they don’t keep up their courage and remain confident in their hope in Christ, he’s misunderstanding the New Covenant. Once we accept Christ and Christ accepts us, we enter an eternal covenant of peace with our Gods. This is what Yahweh teaches. But here Rabbi says that the Jews must remain confident in Christ—that if they lose or discard that confidence, Yahweh will give them the boot. This is certainly how things worked under the Old Covenant, but Yahweh has changed the rules. Rabbi struggles to get his mind around all of the changes, so we’ll find him slipping a lot.

Notice how Rabbi says the Jews must keep their “courage” about putting their hope in Christ. It certainly takes courage to do something that Yahweh has always said will get you in a bad standing with Him. It’s extremely nerve-wracking for Old Covenant Jews to really buy into this multiple Gods business. There’s a lot we can learn about our Gods’ wildness by pondering the fact that Yahweh made His faithful followers go through such an upsetting change.

That is why the Holy Spirit says: “Today when you hear His Voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled, when they tested Me in the wilderness. There your ancestors tested and tried My patience, even though they saw My miracles for forty years. So I was angry with them, and I said, ‘Their hearts always turn away from Me. They refuse to do what I tell them.’ So in My anger I took an oath: ‘They will never enter My place of rest.’” [Ps. 95:7-11] (Heb. 3:7-11)

Once again, Rabbi dives into Psalms for back up. Let’s check out Psalm 95 for ourselves and see if we agree with his application. Rabbi is citing the last part of this psalm. If we back up a verse, you might recognize the lyrics of a well-known hymn:

Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before Yahweh our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, the sheep under His care. (Ps. 95:6-7)

This is a praise psalm. It starts with a call for people to come and sing joyful praises to Yahweh. Then it talks about how fabulous Yahweh is before warning people not to put Him off for too long. As usual, Rabbi cuts some words out of his citation. Here’s the full passage:

Today, if you hear His Voice: Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the wilderness where your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was disgusted with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray; they do not know My ways.” So I swore in My anger, “They will not enter My rest.” (Ps. 95:7-11)

In his quotation of this psalm, Rabbi cuts out the reference to Meribah and Massah. Meribah means quarreling. Massah means “testing.” Guess what happened at these two places? Quarreling and testing. To refer to “Meribah and Massah” is to refer to a famous incident in Israel’s early history when the Jews really ticked Yahweh off. First there was the famous Red Sea crossing. Shortly after the Israelites reached the other side of that sea, they got all hot and bothered. They looked around and found themselves in a barren wilderness with no water in sight. That was stressful. At last an oasis appeared on the horizon and everyone’s hopes soared until someone tasted the water and discovered it was poisonous. Big whine fest. Yahweh gets mad. Yahweh cures the water. After two months of walking, the Israelites decided they were over this freedom from slavery thing. Big whine fest. Everyone wanted to go back to the good life in Egypt where they were whipped and beaten every day. Yahweh gets mad. Yahweh comes up with manna—sweet, edible flakes that rained down from the sky every day to feed the little grumblers. Yahweh also sends a flock of quail in to feed them—rather like having your hamburger fly to you instead of you having to go out and get it. Yahweh lays down one important rule about manna collection. The Israelites ignore His rule. Yahweh gets mad. The journey continues. Another water crisis arises. Another major whine fest. The Israelites accuse Yahweh of abandoning them. Yahweh gets mad. Yahweh makes water flow from a rock to hydrate the little whiners. In Exodus 17, Moses names the site of this second water crisis “Massah and Meribah”.  As you can see, the Massah and Meribah incident is just one more in a succession of whine fests that the Israelites were having from day one. This was not a crowd of grateful ex-slaves. The Israelites constantly griped against Yahweh despite all of the miracles He did for them. This is why the psalmist puts these words in Yahweh’s mouth:

“Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the wilderness where your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they had seen what I did.” (Ps. 95:7-8)

Now the last straw for Yahweh came when He escorted His bratty people all the way to the border of the Promised Land only to have them refuse to enter because they had no faith in His ability to help them overcome the native people (see The Last Straw). It was for this reason that Yahweh declared none of the faithless little jerks would get to live in the Promised Land. Instead, He damned them to forty years of wandering in the wilderness while He slowly killed off everyone in that original population who was 20 or older. At that time, Yahweh said:

“No one who has treated Me with contempt will ever see the Promised Land.” (Num. 14:23)

Now during those forty years of wandering, the children and grandchildren of these cursed people were able to grow into adults who could take care of themselves. It was a whole new crop of Jews that a very old yet spry Joshua and Caleb led into the Promised Land in the book of Joshua. It is Yahweh’s cursing of the original slave population that the psalmist is referring to when he describes Yahweh as saying:

For forty years I was disgusted with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray; they do not know My ways.” So I swore in My anger, “They will not enter My rest.” (Ps. 95:9-11)

Life in the Promised Land was supposed to be joyful and abundant—that’s why Yahweh is described as calling it “His rest.” But of course joy and abundance were only promised if the Israelites faithfully obeyed Yahweh, which they didn’t.

So now that we understand that the guy who wrote Psalm 95 is reflecting on some of his ancestors’ major mistakes and urging his peers not to follow their bad example, let’s see how Rabbi is using this passage.

In Hebrews 3, Rabbi has just threatened his Jewish audience that they’re going to lose their salvation if they shrink back from following Christ:

And we are Yahweh’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ. (Heb. 3:6)

He then whips out Psalm 95 as a reminder of how Yahweh has a long history of damning Jews who were unfaithful to Him. But here again, this is all Old Covenant theology. Yes, there are certainly eternal consequences for rebelling against God under the New Covenant. Jesus makes it quite clear that there will be ranks in Heaven. But the very concept of ranks reminds us that slackers have the option of getting saved under the New Covenant. This is a shocking expansion of grace and Old Covenant Rabbi is having a hard time grasping this. He keeps reverting back to the old system in which your spiritual state at death determined where you ended up in eternity. It’s like he doesn’t know how to process this radical idea of future atonement through Christ.

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. Remember what it says: “Today when you hear His Voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled” [Ps. 95:7-8] (Heb. 3:12-15)

Here Rabbi hammers the point again: if you fall away at any point in the journey, you could be eternally cast out. Eternal security is a lost concept at this point—Rabbi has flipped back into Old Covenant mode. He paints a grim picture of people living in paranoid fear—constantly assessing the state of their own hearts and warning each other every day to stay faithful. Hm. What happened to all that peace and rest that Yahweh and Christ talked about? What happened to relying on our Gods to perfect us instead of straining and striving to purify our own hearts (as if that’s even possible)? Rabbi is stoking the flames of fear here—insisting that these Jewish Christians must keep trusting in God as firmly as they did from day one, otherwise it’s going to be all bad.

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard His Voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made Yahweh angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was Yahweh speaking when He took an oath that they would never enter His rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed Him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter His rest. (Heb. 3:16-19)

Rabbi is trying to get maximum mileage out of the famous failures of the Exodus Jews, and if you aren’t familiar with the wilderness journey (which is described in Exodus through Deuteronomy), you won’t realize what an irrelevant metaphor Rabbi is using here.

There are some things that you need to understand about Israel’s origin. The Hebrew slaves didn’t choose Yahweh—He chose them. The Hebrew slaves didn’t want Yahweh to be their God—they already had a plethora of Egyptian gods that they found quite satisfying to worship. When Yahweh came along promising them deliverance from bondage, of course they went along with His program. But the minute they were free and living in less than luxurious conditions, they were done with Yahweh.

Remember the story of the golden calf? Moses hiked up a mountain to talk to Yahweh, and while he was gone, the Jews literally invented a whole new god for themselves. They melted down their jewelry, hammered it into the shape of a cow, and then credited that lifeless lump of metal for saving them from Egypt. These people had zero interest in following Yahweh. We find out later on in the Bible that during the entire wilderness journey, the Jews were secretly worshiping idols in their tents—idols which they had brought with them out of Egypt. These gods were passed down from one idolatrous generation to the next, and when Joshua officially resigns as Israel’s leader, we find him urging the current crop of Jews—the descendants of the cursed generation that Yahweh killed off in the desert—to get rid of their idol gods. This means that even after the Israelites entered the Promised Land and even after they saw Yahweh give them amazing victories in battle like the famous fall of Jericho, they were still worshiping their stupid idols. These people were hardcore devoted to any god but Yahweh. They were not sincere believers who later fell away. They were stiff-necked rebels who never felt any sincere desire to obey Yahweh.

For Rabbi to compare a crowd of waffling Christians to the demon worshiping rebels in the wilderness is more than a little unfair. There’s a big difference between a carnal Christian who at one point sincerely submitted to Jesus as his Lord and a hardcore Satan worshiper who has never done anything but spurn Jesus in his heart.

But now we have to ask ourselves: is Rabbi perhaps a bit misguided about the spiritual state of his audience? Knowing about Christ and actually submitting to Him are two different things. Rabbi’s audience seems to have the head knowledge, but he’s probably assuming too much about their heart attitudes. The kind of resistance he’s combating in this letter smacks of Old Covenant Jews who heard about Christ, then immediately rejected Him. It doesn’t sound like these are legitimate Christians at all. And given their lack of interest in Yahweh’s new program, it’s highly doubtful they were ever sincerely committed to Yahweh. New Testament Israel is as spiritually dark as Old Testament Israel, which is why when Jesus met a Roman military officer who respected His Authority, He said:

“I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mat. 8:10-12)

Jesus is really bashing on Israelites here (which He does a lot—see Insulting Israel). First He says that He has yet to find any Jew who has as much faith as this one Roman centurion. The Jews hated the Romans. Romans were icky foreigners (or Gentiles). Romans were icky oppressors. Yet here Jesus says a Roman officer is acting more pleasing to God than any of Yahweh’s chosen people. Jesus then goes on to say that many non-Jewish foreigners “from the east and west” will end up in Heaven with Israel’s famous heroes—men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet the bulk of God’s chosen people (the sons of the kingdom) will end up in Hell (the outer darkness) for refusing to align with Yahweh’s New Covenant. The Jews have been squandering their spiritual illumination from day one, yet Rabbi thinks he’s talking to a whole crop of Jews who have sincerely bought into the Jesus program. Is he correct in his assumption? Or is he mistaking false pretenses for sincere soul commitment and now trying to win back a people who never really converted to Christ in the first place?

As we come to the end of Chapter 3, we have some serious doubts about the spiritual commitment of Rabbi’s audience. If they’re really turning their backs on Christ, how serious can they be about pleasing Yahweh? If Jesus’ twelve bumbling disciples could make the transition to the New Covenant, certainly any Jew who is sincerely seeking truth could find the way because the Holy Spirit would show them. So if all of these Jews are boycotting Christianity, we have to wonder what’s really going on with them. Yet Rabbi is clinging to optimism and he’s going to keep trying to woo back these Jews who he thinks are just balking at the idea of worshiping Christ. When we get into Chapter 4, Rabbi is going to continue with this theme of entering or being banned from Yahweh’s “rest”. He’s going to take a term that used to refer to an easy life in a special patch of land, and turn it into a reference to the spiritual joys of Heaven.

UP NEXT: Applying Hebrews 4: Stretching a Metaphor

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