Warning: Beware of an Evil, Unbelieving Heart
Charles Spurgeon was a British pastor for 38 years. In a sermon from Hebrews, he once said this about the warning passages:
God preserves his children from falling away; but he keeps them by the use of means…[Suppose] There’s a deep precipice: what’s the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces…[Or suppose] Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic; he doesn’t want us to drink it, but he says, “If you drink it, it will kill you.” Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it? No; he tells us the consequences, and he’s sure we will not do it. So God says, “My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.” What does the child do? He says, “Father, keep me; hold…me up, and I shall be safe.” It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution…
Spurgeon’s words help. Warnings serve our perseverance. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for Christians to recoil from warnings. Warnings sound harsh. Perhaps we worry it undermines assurance. Sometimes it may be the result of our own questions—like how God’s purpose to preserve his elect squares with the real threat of judgment spoken to the elect. Or maybe we’ve reduced the gospel to include only those motivations we like—grace, justification, promise, hope—while neglecting other motivations equally important—lordship, warning, judgment.
For whatever reason, to recoil from Scripture’s warnings is detrimental. It’s to abandon one of God’s means to keep us faithful. According to Colossians 1:28, alongside teaching warnings keep us maturing in Christ. So we shouldn’t neglect the warnings. Far better, we must listen to them. We must receive them. We must pray, “Father, use them to produce greater dependence on you, a holy fear and caution.”
We’ve come to another warning passage in Hebrews. It’s part of a much larger argument stretching from 3:1 to 4:13. Already we’ve seen how Jesus is greater than Moses—that’s verses 1-6. That connection remains crucial. There’s a parallel. Moses delivered the people from bondage and led them through the wilderness toward rest in the Promised Land. Also Jesus delivered us from bondage; he’s leading us toward rest—but it’s a better rest than the Promised Land. It’s the better country, a heavenly city.
That analogy sits in the background of Hebrews 3. It comes from Psalm 95. The point is to help us persevere while living between redemption and inheritance, while living between the cross of Christ and the final rest in God’s presence. Chapter 4 will focus more on that promised rest. But verses 7-19 focus on a warning also imbedded in Psalm 95. Before reading how Hebrews applies that warning to us, let’s actually read Psalm 95 itself. So keep your place in Hebrews 3 and turn to Psalm 95.
Psalm 95: A Summons to Worship, to Listen
Psalm 95 summons us to worship the Lord. Twice he says, “Oh come, let us sing…” or “…worship.” Verse 1, and then again in verse 6. The reason to worship, though, is slightly different in both cases but related. The Lord is worthy of worship, first of all, because he is the Creator-King. He made all things and upholds them.
Verse 1, “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.”
Then we get a second reason why the Lord is worthy of worship: he is the Covenant-Lord. He didn’t just make the earth. He also “made” his covenant people. He brought them into existence by election and redemption. Verse 6, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
It’s not uncommon for the Old Testament to describe the exodus in ways that recall God’s creative work.[i] In other words, the exodus itself was likened to a new creative work, a type of second creation. Only in this case, God works to redeem a people and bring them into a new garden-like paradise in Canaan. The exodus was but step one along the way. So when it says, “let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.” He has in mind more than God as Creator, but God as Covenant-Lord. God who brought them as a people into relationship with him. The Shepherd imagery also nods back to the exodus. God relates to his people as a Shepherd rescues and cares for his sheep.
So he’s Creator-King in a general sense. He’s also Covenant-Lord in a very special, personal sense. The people must come and sing and shout. They must bow down and kneel. He created them, sure. But he also redeemed them. And by the end of the psalm we realize he redeemed them to bring them into his rest. His rest in particular, not theirs. Hebrews 4 will say it’s a rest far greater than what Israel ever experienced in Canaan. Canaan only foreshadowed a greater rest to come. It’s a rest all creation groans for. A rest from all sadness and sorrow. A rest in the very presence of God.
Yet the Lord forbid many in Israel from participating in that rest. End of verse 7, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 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.’”
The name Meribah means quarreling. The name Massah means testing. They were place names. They describe how Israel treated the Lord. For years the people were enslaved. Egypt treated them cruelly. But God saw their state. He had mercy on them. He even adopted them. He set his love on them. He appointed Moses to lead them. He then delivered them from slavery with mighty signs and wonders.
But not too long afterwards the people grumbled and complained. God had saved them. He took care of them. Again and again, he proved his love for them. But then they grumbled against Moses, the Lord’s appointed leader. They also despised their deliverance. The Lord was leading them to better rest. But they preferred Egypt instead. They tested the Lord. They quarreled with him. So Moses names the place Massah and Meribah. You can read of it in Exodus 17. Also Numbers 20.
In fact, those two points—Exodus 17 and Numbers 20—form bookends of sorts. Meaning, the people didn’t just act this way there and there, but also everywhere in between. So God swears in Numbers 14, “As I live…none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs and yet…not obeyed my voice[—none of those faithless people] shall see the land that I swore to their fathers…”
Why bring up that story hundreds of years later in Psalm 95? Why recall it for a new generation? What’s God saying? In Psalm 95, he’s talking to a people already in the land of Canaan. They’re already in the “land of rest.” Yet they haven’t quite made it into God’s final rest, have they? In fact, they won’t participate in God’s rest, if they choose to harden their hearts like the wilderness generation did. Remember what God did to them, to those who rebelled? Besides Joshua and Caleb who were faithful, he killed them off. He judged them. He kept them out. He made them perish.
And now he speaks to a new generation, a generation already in the so-called “land of rest” and says, “Today, if you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts. If you harden your hearts, he will forbid you from entering his true rest.” How about that for a call to worship?! The point seems clear, though: to go through the motions of worship without a heart of worship, without a willingness to obey God, is utter folly. A heart hardened against the Lord’s word will exclude you from his true, final rest. A heart that despises his appointed covenant-leader; a heart that’s unmoved by the Lord’s deliverance—that kind of heart will exclude you from God’s rest.
Now, the writer of Hebrews notices that Psalm 95 reflects on the wilderness rebellion and then uses it to warn a later generation. In particular, he notes the use of the word, “Today,” and then also “my rest” at the end. You can see the wheels turning in Hebrews 3 and 4. In terms of “my rest,” there must be a “rest” beyond Canaan since he’s speaking to people already in Canaan. In terms of “Today,” it must mean that God still speaks to his people in the present through the exodus narrative. So he puts two and two together and uses the same reasoning for the church—also God’s people, also a later generation, also redeemed from bondage, also waiting for God’s final rest.
The big difference for us, of course, is God’s final revelation in Christ. In Christ we now see the true significance of the exodus, the covenant, the Promised Land, the ultimate rest. Christ says, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” Christ then becomes our Passover Lamb. Through his cross, Christ provides the ultimate deliverance. We’re all in bondage to sin. Even worse, we like these chains. We lack the ability to get out. We’re helpless and deserve to die in our sins.
But like he did with Israel, God shows mercy. He sets his love on us. He makes us his own. He sends his Son to rescue from bondage. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God breaks the power of sin over his people. He is God’s ultimate leader. From bondage to sin, he leads us into a better rest. Christ opens the way into God’s final inheritance, the ultimate rest before his presence in glory. We know that. As we journey to the true rest in God’s kingdom, we look back on that ultimate deliverance.
But to whom more is given, much more will be required. If God’s greater revelation has come in Christ, how much more seriously should we treat his word? If the consequences for grumbling against Moses were that great, how much worse will they be for grumbling against Christ? He’s greater than Moses! How much worse will it be for us to back at his great deliverance and say “No thanks, give me sin instead”? “I’d like to escape hell, I’d like your forgiveness, I’d like your blessings, but I really don’t want you, God.” He’s the whole point of rest. He is our rest. How much worse will it be for us to look at his cross like that? To be unmoved by his great love.
Beware of an Evil, Unbelieving Heart
That’s where he goes in Hebrews 3. Let’s go there now. Verse 7 begins with “therefore.” That looks back to verse 6 where he says, “we are [God’s] house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence.” He reiterates the same point in verse 14: “for we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
We talked about this some last week. But it seems best to read verse 6 and verse 14 as evidence-to-inference conditions. Not cause-to-effect conditions but evidence-to-inference conditions. If she has a ring on her left hand, then she’s married.[ii] Having the ring doesn’t cause her to be married. It’s the evidence that she’s married. So also here: holding fast is the evidence that we belong to God’s house. Holding fast is the evidence that we’ve come to share in Christ.
Point being, true Christians will persevere. True Christians stick. A faith that doesn’t endure isn’t a true faith. Therefore, he says, don’t harden your hearts. Verse 7, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, “They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.” As I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”’”
A few things to consider before moving to verse 12. We’re dealing here with a pattern of stubborn rebellion. Verse 10, “They’re always going astray in their heart.” The stress falls on the pattern of their repeated stubbornness. They observed God’s works for years and still rebelled. They saw the Red Sea split. They saw the fire atop Mount Sinai. They drank the water from the rock. They ate the manna from heaven. They gathered the quail. They watched the glory cloud descend. They watched the earth swallow Korah’s house. It happened right before their eyes. Yet still they complained.
All the evidence necessary to trust him—God gave it to them in plenty. Yet they hardened their hearts. Evidence helps. But their problem was far deeper. It was a moral one. They suppressed the truth. They preferred Egypt over God’s kingdom. They ignored God’s word. They served idols instead of the true, living God. So God forbid them from entering his rest. There was nothing more they could do. He swore in his wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”
Get this: neither Psalm 95 nor Hebrews lets us believe for one second that we’re immune to the same rebellion. You’re not immune from looking at the cross of Jesus, seeing it for what it is, and then hardening your heart against the Lord’s word. You make it such that truth and beauty can no longer penetrate your inner being. You’re unmoved by God’s love. You become indifferent to his greatness. As long as there’s a “today” preceding God’s final rest, we’re vulnerable. You’ll be just as vulnerable on January 5, 2021 and 2031 and 2051—should the Lord not return…
At the same time, as long as there’s a “today,” the door remains open for you to act. So he says in verse 12, “Take care, brothers [and sisters], lest there be in any of you…” “Any of you.” We’re all vulnerable. I’m vulnerable. Your elders are vulnerable. We’re not super Christians. We feel our weakness, every day—and if you don’t, watch out! “Take care,” he says, “lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” “Take care!”
Or, I like this translation: “See to it!” What are we supposed to see? He tells us in verses 16-19. He reflects further on Psalm 95: “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?” Verse 19, “So we see…”
Get the connection? “Take care [or See to it], brothers…”—verse 12. Now verse 19, “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” Moses got them out of Egypt. Unbelief kept them from entering God’s rest. That’s why he says in verse 12, “Take care…lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart.” Unbelief will lead you to fall away from the living God.
That translation, “fall away,” conveys a somewhat passive idea sometimes. In reality, it’s more active. Better is “forsake” like the NET has. It’s a deliberate act of despising the Lord’s revelation. It’s a heart that looks at the Lord’s mighty acts of mercy and judgment and says, “Not impressed. I’ll do things my way. Give me Egypt over God. Give me the fleeting pleasures of sin over God. Give me freedom from kingdom hardships over God.” That kind of heart is evil. It wants idols over the living God.
And it all stems from unbelief. From not believing that God is the superior treasure, that Jesus holds out the superior promise. It doesn’t matter what prayer you said when you were six, if you don’t give a rip about his kingdom now. Nor does it matter what decision you made to follow Jesus at 20 or 30, if you find yourself unmoved by his kingdom values. If you harden your heart against the living God, he will forbid you from entering his rest. So “take care, brothers [and sisters], lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to forsake the living God.”
Maybe you’re asking, how can I tell if that’s my heart? John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was a great help for me here. In it the characters Christian and Hopeful discuss what characterizes those who harden their hearts. Being it’s in older English, I’ll paraphrase them. But Christian responds this way…
First, in their thought-life, they stop remembering God, death, and the judgment to come. Second, gradually they cast off private duties, such as prayer, curbing their lusts, watchfulness, sorrow for sin, and the like. Third, they shun the company of lively and warm Christians. That is, they find others drifting away just like them. Fourth, they grow cold to public duty, such as hearing the preached word, reading Scripture together, godly fellowship, and the like. Five, they begin picking holes in others who are godly, and this to justify their own actions and pattern of living. Next, they begin associating with those who are worldly. It works out especially well if those same people have some degree of honesty in the eyes of others. It seems to justify the trajectory. Eighth, they begin to play with little sins openly. Nine, being hardened, they show themselves as they are. Thus, being launched again into a guild of misery, unless a miracle of grace prevent it, they everlastingly perish in their own deceivings.[iii]
Jesus spoke about people like this: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matt 13:20).
Exhort One Another Every Day
How do we keep that from happening? Do we sit back and say, “Hey, once saved always saved. I’m good. I don’t have to worry about that.” That’s not the humble disposition of the elect. We receive this warning with the utter seriousness that God means it. We shouldn’t think too highly of ourselves. As Paul says elsewhere, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” That’s how we receive it. We receive it with a holy fear and caution, leaning further into our Father’s care.
Then together we participate in what verse 13 says: “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.” Sin deceives. It’s tricky. It tells lies and half-truths. It lures you with false promises and empty pleasures. It asks questions like, “Did God really say?” It may even quote Scripture as a way to disguise the truth of a matter.
Once sin deceives, the heart hardens. It becomes stubborn to receiving the truth. That hardened heart then leads to unbelief. And unbelief leads us to forsake the living God. What keeps that from happening? Exhorting one another every day. That’s sobering, isn’t it? There’s not a day that goes by in which you’re not vulnerable to sin deceiving you. Every day we need to involve ourselves in exhorting others and receiving exhortation from others. The “today” isn’t up yet; and it won’t be up until Jesus returns to bring us into the Father’s rest. Until then, beloved, exhort one another.
What purpose does exhortation serve? This one: “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Exhortation keeps us from sin’s deception. As others have put it before, perseverance is a community project. That’s your application. You need exhortation; I need your exhortation. How often? Every day. According me the introvert, I don’t need you talking that much. According to God, I do need it. I need somebody talking to me about Jesus every day—otherwise sin will deceive me.
That’s why Hebrews will later stress the importance of meeting together regularly? “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Perseverance is a community project. It involves every one of us, every day.
What does healthy exhortation look like? It looks like Hebrews. That’s what he calls it in 13:22—“…bear with my word of exhortation.” You do for each other what this book does. He magnifies the glories of Christ. Worldly pleasures look like junk before Jesus. You think angels are something? Christ is better! You think Moses was great? Christ is better! You think the Promised Land was something? He’s got a better rest coming! You think the world has pleasures? Christ’s are greater—the world’s joys are fleeting; Christ’s joys are forever and full. People are unfaithful; Christ’s covenant is firm. Some boast in riches; Christ’s riches are infinite. His kingdom is forever. His word truly satisfies the weary. That’s how he does it. He magnifies Christ.
He also takes us to places like Psalm 95. He says, “Listen up! The Holy Spirit speaks here!” You want a prophetic word for 2020? Here it is: “When you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts.” He sobers us with the reality of the situation. It’s as if says, “We’re on the front lines! The enemy is gaining ground! Brothers are weak! Some are about to surrender! You’re sister needs support! They’re coming for you next! Why’re you playing dominos?! Get up and fight! You can’t be indifferent when life is war!”
In chapter 4 he takes us to Psalm 95 again, but this time he develops the promise of God’s rest. He also reminds us of our identity in Christ—we are holy; we are his siblings and fellow heirs; we are God’s house; we are sharers in Christ. He undercuts the proud. He lifts up those weak in the fight, reminding them that “because Jesus suffered when tempted, he is able to help you who are being tempted.” For those slacking off, he urges them to stay in the race by looking to Jesus.
That’s how we need to do it for each other. Hebrews is a great book to imitate. I need brothers and sisters “to do Hebrews” on me. That’s what we all need. God’s word to us here reminds us to redouble our efforts in caring for one another, to keep looking out for each other’s well-being. It’s also a good reminder of the massively significant role we play in helping each other make it to the end. We need to be familiar enough with each other’s lives that we’d actually know how to exhort one another.
Paul says we need to warn and teach each other with all wisdom. It’s not just about lobbing Bible verses at each other. We have to do it with wisdom, in ways that fit the occasion and the state of the person. But that means time together.
It’s nothing for Ben to sit down with me and look at my family budget and say, “Hey, how’s your budget serving your wife? Remember, she’s your first ministry. Christ calls you to care for her and provide for her.” Regularly, Chad or Michael or Jordan or Aaron or Nate, somebody will send me texts about the Redeemer: “Don’t forget whom we serve, brother!” “Keep going, bro, the cross is hard; the crown is worth it.” Maybe it’s just a Scripture verse they read followed by, “I’m praying for you.”
What are they doing? They’re serving my perseverance. They’re caring for my soul. They’re making sure sin doesn’t deceive me. They’re keeping my eyes on Christ and his truth. Perseverance is a community project. Don’t let anybody in this church go without exhortation. Each one of you can’t do this for everybody else—I know that. But all of us can be doing it for a few.
Also, you may receive exhortation from this pulpit every Sunday. But you need more than that. You need it daily, it says. So if you don’t have that happening in your life, don’t leave today without pulling someone aside and saying, “Look, if I’m going to persevere in this race, I need you.” And if you’re not doing it for others, make today the last day of that laziness and start doing it. Eternity is at stake.
More importantly, it is right for us to come and sing and shout. It is right for us to bow and kneel before our Maker. It’s not just that his rest will be great for us. It’s that he’s truly worthy of our total adoration and obedience. Not only did he create us. He redeemed us. He brought us out from that bondage called sin. There is no greater display of love. Christ died, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. He’s leading us there now, into an eternal rest in glory. Give him yourself. He is worthy. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” says the Holy Spirit.
[i] E.g., Deut 32:6; Isa 43:14-17; Hos 8:13-14. See also the discussion in Peter E. Enns, “Creation and Re-creation: Psalm 95 and Its Interpretation in Hebrews 3:1-4:13,” Westminster Journal of Theology 55 (1993): 255-80.
[ii] Wilson, “Revisited,” 259.
[iii] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Works of John Bunyan, vol. 3 (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1991), 21.
other sermons in this series