Hebrews 3 – 4

Christ is Superior to Israel’s Leaders: Moses and Joshua
Hebrews 3 – 4
Hebrews 3 – 4. In these chapters the writer of Hebrews asks the reader to consider Jesus in a further connection: in contrast with Israel’s leaders. First, he shows that Christ is faithful as Son over the house of God in contrast with Moses who was but a servant. Then he digresses through the end of ch.3 into a warning against unbelief: Israel’s old besetting sin. Unbelief kept Israel from entering the rest of God. Jesus is superior to Joshua in that He will bring the children of God into His rest! But in ch.4 we find that God’s rest is still future, and meanwhile we are travelling toward it through a difficult wilderness, wherein some who make a profession will apostatize. But we are not left alone to face the dangers. Three great provisions are laid out at the end of ch.4 that we might be preserved until that day: the Word of God, the priesthood of Christ, and the throne of grace.1

Moses and the House of God (3:1-6)

Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Jesus, v.1 Apostle and High Priest. The writer calls on the believers among the Hebrews to consider Jesus a little further as “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession”. These two titles correlate to the two previous chapters. As the Apostle, we have Christ as the Son of God (ch.1), coming from God to man on the earth. As the High Priest, we have Christ as Son of man (ch.2), going from man on earth to God in heaven. In the following part of the epistle, the writer compares Christ’s apostleship with Moses, and His priesthood with Aaron. The two give us those indispensable resources for the wilderness pathway: the Word of God (brought by Moses), and intercession (Aaron). Notice that the writer of Hebrews (no doubt it was Paul) does not write as an apostle, but as a teacher, expertly opening up the typical meaning of the Old Testament scriptures. This is fitting because in the epistle to the Hebrews there is only room for One Apostle! The term “our confession” is used in such a way as to allow that there might be some, not holy brethren, who partake of the confession, but are not real. Notice how the writer addresses the believers among the Hebrews; “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling”. If he had been writing before Christianity, he could have said “natural brethren, partakers of an earthly calling”. But in Christ, these believing Jews (and all Christians) are “holy brethren” and we partake of a “heavenly calling”
Principle of Calling. The dispensational principle of “calling” was first given in Genesis 12, when God called out one man from every circle of life that had become corrupted by idolatry (Josh. 24:2). It was a transcendent call. God did not reform the world, instead He took a man out of it. This principle of calling was later extended to the great nation that descended from Abraham (Hos. 11:1). Then, because of idolatry, God had to set aside His earthly people; “Then said God, Call his name Loammi: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God” (Hos. 1:9). After Israel rejected the Messiah, God unfolded a different calling; “the heavenly calling…”. The hopes of those that are part of this heavenly calling are far higher than those of the earthly calling, although the promises God to His earthly people will certainly be fulfilled. One of the great mistakes is confusing the heavenly character and hopes of the Church with the earthly character and hopes of Israel. When the Church is taken up at the rapture, God will resume His dealings with His ancient earthly people; “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom 11:29). 
2 who is faithful to him that has constituted him, as Moses also in all his house [Num. 12:7]. v.2 Faithful. In this first part of Hebrews 3 we find Christ compared to Moses as one who was sent to Israel with authority from God. The first thing is a parallel: both Christ and Moses were faithful in the sphere of responsibility given to them. Jehovah said “My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house” (Num. 12:7). Moses was faithful in a general sense, and Christ is perfectly faithful. But there is something more than faithfulness to consider; there is the glory of His Person (vv.3-4). Notice that “his” at the end of v.2 is God, not Moses, as the allusion to Num. 12:7 shows.
3 For “he” has been counted worthy of greater glory than Moses, by how much he that has built it has more honour than the house. 4 For every house is built by some one; but he who has built all things is God. vv.3-4 Builder and Building. Moses was faithful in God’s house, but he didn’t build the house (i.e. the tabernacle). As a faithful servant, Moses followed the pattern that was given to him by Jehovah on the mountain. The builder of that house was not Moses, but Jehovah, who has been manifest in flesh! The builder has more honor than the building, because the building is a work accomplished by a person. The power, love, and wisdom required to build emanate from a person, logically inferring that the person is superior to his creation. But Christ has built more than the house that Moses served in; the universe is His house, created for Him to inhabit! In Hebrews we find that the tabernacle is a type of the heavens through which Christ passed through, just as the high priest passed through the tabernacle into the sanctuary. The writer is clearly alluding to the truth laid down in ch.1, where the Son is said to be the creator and sustainer of all things. In v.4 we have the argument from design; “For every house is built by some one; but he who has built all things is God”.2 The observation of the universe, its scope, its magnificent variety, is balanced systems, its fine-tuning for life, etc. unclouded by sin and moral blindness gives overwhelming evidence for the existence of an all-powerful, all-wise, Personal Creator! To the atheist who claims the universe “popped” into existence out of nothing, we may reply in the irresistible wisdom of scripture, “every house is built by some one”. But it requires faith to see that “he who has built all things is God”.
5 And Moses indeed was faithful in all his house, as a ministering servant, for a testimony of the things to be spoken after; 6 but Christ, as Son over his house, whose house are “we”, if indeed we hold fast the boldness and the boast of hope firm to the end. vv.5-6 Son vs. Servant. The comparison goes on to consider the relative position of Christ and Moses. Moses was indeed faithful in God’s house, but “as a ministering servant” where Christ is “Son over his house”. We are thankful for Moses’ faithfulness, because in his work we have a “testimony of the things to be spoken after”, or as types of Christ. This is so much different from Christ whose place over the house of God is not because of what He has done but because of who He is! His is Son over the house because He is the Son. There is a sense in which the universe is the house of God, but there is another house which belongs to Him in a higher sense; “whose house are we”. The saints collectively are the house of God (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:7; Eph. 2:22). Read more… There is a condition put upon this statement. The Son is faithful over the house (v.2), but will the house be faithful to Him? We are the house of God “if indeed we hold fast the boldness and the boast of hope firm to the end”. This is one of many “ifs” in Hebrews; i.e. conditional statements that show a danger that some might apostatize, while those with real genuine faith hold fast to the end. The “ifs” and “whens” of scripture belong in the wilderness pathway, where there will be either the manifestation of reality, or of apostasy. You don’t get these kind of statements in Ephesians.

The Wilderness: Warning Against Unbelief (3:7-19)

7 Wherefore, even as says the Holy Spirit, “To-day if ye will hear his voice, 8 harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness; 9 where your fathers tempted me, by proving me, and saw my works forty years. 10 Wherefore I was wroth with this generation, and said, They always err in heart; and “they” have not known my ways; 11 so I swore in my wrath, If they shall enter into my rest.” [Psalm 95:7-11] vv.7-11 Warning Against Unbelief. The writer quotes from the ninety-fifth Psalm to warn against unbelief. We find in that Psalm that unbelief is Israel’s old besetting sin; “the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness; where your fathers tempted me”. We remember the ten temptations, where Israel murmured because they did not believe the goodness of God, erring in their hearts, although they had proved Him. They saw His deliverance at the Red Sea, and continued to see His works forty years! There are three phases of things in this quotation. It is hard to be certain, but it would seem that the “day of provocation” was actually at the beginning of the journey Meribah (Ex. 17:7). Then there was the journey for forty years. Finally, the last temptation (the tenth) was at Kadesh when they despised the pleasant land. Read more… As a result Jehovah was angry, and swore in His wrath they they would not enter His rest (Canaan). The Psalm is really prophetic of a future day when Jehovah will invite Israel to enter into His rest. There is a new day (“today”), and way has been opened now for Israel to enter the Sabbath rest of the Millennium. Jehovah’s old anger is now gone. The cross has opened a way. Old sins will not bar them from entering the kingdom; but a fresh repetition of the same sin will. Unbelief, that old besetting sin, must be avoided. These words are quoted here in Hebrews 3 in application to the Jews who had made a profession of Christianity, to warn them not to return to dead Judaism in unbelief. 
12 See, brethren, lest there be in any one of you a wicked heart of unbelief, in turning away from the living God. 13 But encourage yourselves each day, as long as it is called To-day, that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. vv.12-13 Carefulness and Encouragement. The Hebrews were to be careful that none among them possessed “a wicked heart of unbelief”. This does not refer to doubt, or weakness of faith, which every believer will experience at some point in life. Rather, it refers to a heart that ultimately refuses to take God at His word. It means rejecting God, and for someone who has professed Christ it is apostasy; “turning away from the living God”. But even if we are truly saved, there is a danger that we can be influenced by the spirit of apostasy. Thus, we need to “encourage” ourselves each day in our faith, and continually reminding one another and ourselves that God is to be trusted and obeyed. It is still called “today”, in the sense that the day of God’s grace and patience continues, although it will not continue forever. When we give into the sin of unbelief once, it has the effect of hardening us to the authority and Word of God. In the ultimate sense, a person can be completely “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”, although the extreme case in only possible for an unconverted soul.
14 For we are become companions of the Christ if indeed we hold the beginning of the assurance firm to the end; 15 in that it is said, “To-day if ye will hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as in the provocation;” 16 (for who was it, who, having heard, provoked? but was it not all who came out of Egypt by Moses? 17 And with whom was he wroth forty years? Was it not with those who had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to those who had not hearkened to the word? 19 And we see that they could not enter in on account of unbelief;) vv.14-19 Reality Proved By Steadfastness. In Hebrews we are viewed as in the wilderness, and our salvation is proved out by our steadfast devotion to Christ throughout life; “we are become companions of the Christ if indeed we hold the beginning of the assurance firm to the end”. The writer asks several important questions to highlight the difficulty of maintaining confidence from beginning to end, and to show what Israel had done to result in not entering Canaan. Who were those that provoked Jehovah to anger? It was not just part of Israel, but the whole congregation that “came out of Egypt by Moses”; i.e. they saw the power of God in deliverance, and still provoked through unbelief. Who was Jehovah angry with those forty years? It was with “those who had sinned”, who refused to believe that God was able to bring them into the good land, and their “carcases fell in the wilderness” (Deut. 2:14-15). The sin is emphasized: not a mere mistake, but positive willful sin. Caleb and Joshua as the exception were preserved and brought into the land. A third question is asked: who did Jehovah promise that they would not enter His rest? It was those who heard the Word of God and refused to believe it. The common theme across the three questions is sin by not believing the Word of God. There is a progression: they provoked Jehovah at the beginning, then He was angry for forty years, and then He finally swore in His anger. No one can argue that they deserved the judgment. The rest of God is only shared with those who believe Him and hearken to His word. Unbelief in the heart of man is the root of sin; “we see that they could not enter in on account of unbelief”. Death in the wilderness is a type of apostasy, which is only possible for unsaved persons, and we see it occasionally in professing Christianity. But there is a parallel condition that can characterize true believers, that of apathy. It is possible for a true believer to wander in the wilderness until death without ever entering into the enjoyment of our heavenly portion in Christ.

The Rest of God & the Need of Faith (4:1-11)

Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left of entering into his rest, any one of you might seem to have failed of it2 For indeed we have had glad tidings presented to us, even as they also; but the word of the report did not profit “them”, not being mixed with faith in those who heard. vv.1-2 Application to Christianity. The writer now begins to apply the lessons of Israel in the wilderness to professing Jews in Christianity. We also have a promise, like Israel did, or entering into the rest of God. This “rest” is viewed as something future. We already have “rest” in our conscience upon conversion, but there is a future rest that we await; when when God Himself will rest and we will rest with Him. We are not looking for rest here in this world; it has become a wilderness to us. But we will fail to enter that rest if we do not receive the glad tidings presented to us with faith, just as the good report that Israel received did not profit those who did not have faith.
3 For we enter into the rest who have believed; as he said, “As I have sworn in my wrath, If they shall enter into my rest;” [Psalm 95:11] although the works had been completed from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has said somewhere of the seventh day thus, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works:” [Genesis 2:2] 5 and in this again, “If they shall enter into my rest.” [Psalm 95:11] 6 Seeing therefore it remains that some enter into it, and those who first received the glad tidings did not enter in on account of not hearkening to the word, 7 again he determines a certain day, saying, in David, ‘To-day,’ after so long a time; (according as it has been said before), “To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” [Psalm 95:11] 8 For if Jesus had brought them into rest, he would not have spoken afterwards about another day. 9 There remains then a sabbatism to the people of God. 10 For he that has entered into his rest, he also has rested from his works, as God did from his own. vv.3-5 A Future Rest for the People of God. The writer next makes a second application from Israel’s history. The point in vv.1-2 is that faith is required to enter the rest of God, but the point in vv.3-10 is that the true rest is yet future. Two facts are brought together to draw a simple conclusion. First, God rested once at the beginning of creation on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2). Second, He speaks of His rest as future (Psa. 95:11). This shows that for Israel, God’s rest was still future at the time of David. The unbelief of Israel barred them from entering the rest of God, but in grace the “today” of David is still open after so long a time. This shows that Joshua (called Jesus, as the Greek version of the same name) was not able to bring Israel into the rest of God. In keeping with the theme of the epistle where were have had Christ’s superiority to prophets and angels (ch.1-2), His superiority to Moses (ch.3) and now His superiority to Joshua. The great point is that “There remains then a sabbatism to the people of God”. The sabbath or rest that is referred to must refer to the Millennium, when Israel will enter into rest, the heavenly saints will enter into rest, and Christ will be vindicated. However, the “rest” that begins in the Millennium will fade into the eternal state, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but then all things will be according to God, and He will rest from all His works. Read more… It is important to see that it is “his rest”. That is what makes it a perfect rest, because it is a state of things in which God will find His satisfaction. There will be no work to do – even good work – and no conflict to spoil the perfection of that rest. A state in which the very nature of God is satisfied is ultimate joy and blessing! This is the rest that we look forward to. The world today is not our rest. Our rest is yet to come!
11 Let us therefore use diligence to enter into that rest, that no one may fall after the same example of not hearkening to the word. v.11 Exhortation. The writer applies the “same example” of Israel in the wilderness to the Hebrews he was writing to, to give a powerful exhortation. The same refusal to listen to the word that caused thousands of the Hebrews’ ancestors to fall in the wilderness could cause some to fall away (apostatize) from the profession of Christian faith. The exhortation is to “use diligence to enter into that rest”. How? By believing the Word of God.

Three Provisions to Help Us Reach the Rest (4:12-16)

12 For the word of God is living and operative, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and penetrating to the division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 And there is not a creature unapparent before him; but all things are naked and laid bare to his eyes, with whom we have to do. vv.12-13 The Word of God: It’s Effectual Penetrating Power. The Spirit of God, having just presented the “rest” that is still future for the people of God and the great barrier to our entering that rest (unbelief), now goes on to present that which God has provided to help us in the wilderness as we journey toward that rest. The first thing is the provision of “the word of God” (v.12). He goes on to give a number of attributes of the Word of God that make it a vital instrument to bring our soul into the presence of God, that what is not according to God in our hearts might be judged. The inspired Word of God is an invaluable resource to us! Various attributes follow:
  • An Active Agent. Some would imagine that the Word of God is a mere passive agent, but this passage shows the opposite. The word of God is both “living and operative”. It is living in that it never becomes dead or outdated, it carries with it the means of giving spiritual life, and also it adapts itself to different needs and situations (John 6:63). The Word of God is “operative” in that it actually works (by the power of the Holy Spirit), and it does accomplish the purpose for which God intended it (Isa. 55:11).
  • A Discerning Agent. We find also that the Word of God is compared to a sword (not only here, but in Eph. 6:17), in the sense that it not only pierces, but also cuts or makes divisions. A physical sword can separate an object into pieces, but the Word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword”. It works not only on the external level (actions), but on the internal level as well (motives), “penetrating to the division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. The division of soul and spirit is something that takes supernatural discernment. The soul is the seat of consciousness, identity, responsibility, and desire (Rom. 7:15). The spirit is very closely connected with the soul, but still a different part of our being. The spirit is above the soul: it gives man the capacity to reflect on his soul, and it also gives him God-consciousness. Animals do not have this, because they have no spirit (Psa. 49:20; Isa. 31:3). True worship is with the spirit, rather than with the body or soul (John 4:24). However, true worship will affect the soul and produce emotion to varying degrees, which in turn (depending on the composure of the individual) may even affect the body; e.g. tears. This is normal; however, we should not forget that emotional or physical response is not worship. It is humanly impossible to discern what is truly of the spirit, but the Word of God is able to “penetrate to the division of soul and spirit”. Read more… He illustrates this with a physical image: “of joints and marrow”.3 These are intricate parts of the skeletal system that are deep within the body, and very difficult to locate from the periphery. The marrow is also physically close to the bone, and it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. So with the spirit and soul. Only the Word of God can penetrate the deep recesses of our being, and only the Word of God can separate those things. The Word of God can discern “the thoughts and intents of the heart”. Sometimes our motives and intentions are reflected in our actions, but other times they are disguised (the heart is deceitful, Jer. 17:9). It is humanly impossible to say for certain what a person is thinking or what their intentions are. One day, those hidden things of the heart will be made manifest (1 Cor. 4:5). But for ourselves, we benefit from having the Word of God because it penetrates our minds and hearts, sifts through the murk with the Divine skill, and through it the Holy Spirit identifies the activity of the flesh with the finger of conviction. Prophetic ministry of the Spirit of God in the assembly should have the same effect (1 Cor. 14:25). Also, the Word is compared to a “two-edged sword”, which we could apply as a figure to the double application of the Word: to ourselves and to others. Although the context here is the application to ourselves.
  • A Revealing Agent. In addition to discerning the activity of the flesh, the Word of God by the power of the Spirit brings us into the presence of God, such that our soul is laid bare before Him. He knows all things and searches our hearts (1 John 3:20; Jer. 17:9), weighs our actions and knows our motives (1 Sam. 2:3). Hence the passages goes on to describe how fully we are known of God; “there is not a creature unapparent before him; but all things are naked and laid bare to his eyes, with whom we have to do”. It is the Word of God that brings us into the presence of God and causes us to know how fully what we are is revealed to Him. Nothing of the flesh is allowed to pass unnoticed, and this is something the new nature rejoices in, because any sin that we tolerate will spoil our communion with God (Psalm 139:23-24). This puts us into a position of responsibility before Him “with whom we have to do”. 
The proper response to the action of the Word of God acting, discerning, and revealing our state is to pass judgment on the activity of the flesh. Self-judgment is vital to maintaining a walk of communion with the Lord.
14 Having therefore a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast the confession. 15 For we have not a high priest not able to sympathise with our infirmities, but tempted in all things in like manner, sin apart. vv.14-15 The Priesthood of Christ: Our Sympathetic High Priest. Returning now to pick up from the end of ch.2, the writer presents a second help that the believer has in the wilderness; the high-priesthood of Christ. These verses serve also as an introduction to the next section, which deals more fully with the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 5-7). The comparison here, as with Heb. 2:17-18, is with the high priest in the Old Testament. However, chapter 2 focused on the exceptional duty of the high priest on the day of atonement, while here it focuses the normal function of the high priest as an intercessor for the people. No priest in the Old Testament was called great. We find that the tabernacle is a type of “the heavens” through which “Jesus the Son of God” passed, just as Aaron passed through the tabernacle into the sanctuary. There are two things that are required for Christ to be our great high priest: (1) He has to be there, on the other side of the cloud, in heaven at the right hand of God, and (2) He had to first tread the pathway of this earth with all its trials and temptations. In terms of Exodus 17, He is both Moses on the mountain and Joshua in the valley! Jesus, though always the majestic Son of God, was not a mere transient visitor, a mere associate of ours. As we learn from Israel’s history even until the time of Jesus, it was always the tendency of the priests to elevate themselves into a privileged upper class, far above the common citizen. Not so with our Priest. He is “able to sympathise with our infirmities”. He knows what trials mean! As a man He was tested beyond what any of us will ever face. His deity did not shield Him from suffering; He was “tempted in all things in like manner”. An important qualification is added: “sin apart”. This is a clear testament to the sinless perfection of Christ. It doesn’t say “without sinning” but “sin apart”. The temptations that Christ faced were from without, never from within (Jam. 1:14). From the moment of His conception, the incarnate Christ was a “holy thing” (Luke 1:35), and Peter could say He “did no sin” (1 Pet. 2:22), Paul could say He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), and deepest of all John could say “in him” is no sin (1 John 3:5). His very nature was holy. W. Kelly put it this way, “He was not alone perfectly man but the perfect man”.4 Sin within blinds us and dulls our affections. Christ’s sinlessness makes Him a better sympathizer! But the experiences and sufferings of Christ coupled with His place now in glory having passed through the heavens qualify Him, and only Him, to be our sympathetic, great High Priest. As such He intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25), bringing down the grace and mercy of heaven into our lives, to give us endurance in the pathway, and to preserve us from falling. Note: Christ’s advocacy is a different aspect of His intercession (1 John 2). We could not take one successful step apart from Christ’s continued intercession (“Aaron’s rod that budded”, Num. 17:8). Thus the exhortation, “let us hold fast the confession”. Why should the Hebrews turn back to Judaism seeing we have such a resource at God’s right hand? We have every reason to press on. How awful too for Christians to take other men as priests on earth as the Catholic church has done. Their priests have none of the qualifications of Christ!
16 Let us approach therefore with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and find grace for seasonable help. v.16 Prayer: the Ever-Approachable Throne of Grace. Finally, there is a third resource: the privilege of prayer. Our approaching the “throne of grace” by prayer is not to be confused with Christ’s prayer or intercession for us. He prays continually (Heb. 7:25), we do not. Nonetheless, it is His presence there as our High Priest that makes the throne of God available to us, and it remains approachable on a continual basis. Without fear, and actually “with boldness”, we are exhorted to approach the very throne of the God of the universe. Yes, it is the throne of a holy God “with whom we have to do”, but the work of Christ has made it to us “the throne of grace”. How precious! There we go at any season, and find help that is “seasonable”, or suited to our needs. This help comes in two forms, broadly speaking: (1) we may receive “mercy” which is blessed deliverance from a trial, or (2) we may receive “grace”, which is the strength to pass through the trial in communion with our God! An example might be Paul, who prayed three times to the Lord that his trial would depart, but Christ said to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8-9). But whether is is mercy or grace, there is always help available!
  1. Anstey, B. The Epistle to the Hebrews.
  2. It is interesting to see that the axiom of the fourth verse is the morally irresistible argument from design, which has been more or less ably applied by those who have written on the evidence of creation to its Creator. – Kelly, W. The Epistle to the Hebrews.
  3. Thus God’s word acts “to dividing of soul and spirit,” two things so closely allied and so resembling as to yield to no other discriminating means. “Of both joints and marrow” seems to be a figure of close physical conjunction, which are beyond the reach of human instrument, as “soul and spirit” still more impalpably. It is possible that both phrases go beyond severing one from the other, and mean that each is pierced by the word of God as nothing else could. – Kelly, W. The Epistle to the Hebrews.
  4. Kelly, W. The Epistle to the Hebrews.