The author of Hebrews is concerned about an unacceptable attitude toward the Word of God in the Christian community in Rome. Due to the threat of persecution and hardship in the church, these first century Christians were giving up on their commitments to Christ. There was an attractive appeal among them to go back to Moses and the old sacrificial system as something that seemed to provide more access to God, more power for the present.
There was little confidence that God was among them, and the reign of Christ seemed like a myth since, as the author acknowledged, “we cannot see everything put under his feet (Heb. 2:8).”
The way the author addressed the problem, after explaining the supremacy and the superiority of Christ to everything in the Old Testament, was to set up a parallel between Israel and the church. What these Christians did not realize was that they were in the same position as Israel was when they reached the border of the land.
Just as God delivered Israel from Egypt, plundering the Egyptians by great signs and wonders, and brought them through the wilderness with the goal of entering Canaan, so too the Christian community had tasted of the deliverance of the cross but did not appreciate that the present life is one of wilderness testing.
Just as Israel grumbled and complained against God during their pilgrimage desiring to return to Egypt, so too the believers in Rome wanted to go back to something greatly inferior, something from which they had already been delivered.
The author has open on his lap Numbers 14 as he is explaining the parallel. When Israel reached the land after a mere two years of travel, Joshua put up his arms and proclaimed good news: “The land is a good land, full of milk and honey, enter the rest that God has prepared for you.” But the sad words are recorded that Israel rebelled against the Lord and did not enter.
God expressed the heart of the problem to Moses in saying, “How long will this people despise me, how long will they not believe in me (Num 14:11).” The severe judgment given against Israel was intended for the new covenant church to take seriously the sin of unbelief. That entire generation did not enter God’s rest and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
To avoid the same sad fate, the author of Hebrews draws a most important conclusion: the church must listen carefully to the Word of God. The judgment against Israel came in the form of two swords that were drawn against them by the Canaanites and the Amalekites. What the people did not appreciate is that there is present among them a much greater two-edged sword, namely, the Word of God. He directly applies this parallel in verse 12, “For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.”
The distresses that are happening to us in this present evil age are not indicators of God’s absence but instead evidence his refinement of us in our wilderness trials. Suffering and hardship are not reasons to turn back. The author wants to make clear that God is indeed among his church through his living and powerful Word. The very voice of Jesus is present in the good news that is preached to us.
But if this Word is not believed, the author wants us to consider that the sword among us is much stronger than the double-edged swords that that took down Israel. The point he is making is that there are two consequences with regard to how we receive his Word. If we believe that good word spoken to us of Christ, “we already enter that rest today (Heb. 4:3).” But if his Word is not heard and believed, that very Word brings not rest but wrath.
This is why the author has frequently appealed to Psalm 95 and the appeal to enter the eschatological rest but pleading with the community, “Today, if you will hear his voice, do not harder your hearts…”
As Jesus cried out during his earthly ministry, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day (Jn. 12).”
What must be emphasized to the church today is that worship is not a show for our entertainment. We come to the house of the Lord to listen to the voice of the living God. Great news is preached to us of the glories of Christ, his active and passive obedience, and the forgiveness of sins that he is making known to the ends of the earth.
In general, people approach worship as consumers. We often respond to the Word in a state of judgment based on the pastor’s performance. Was the sermon engaging? Did the sermon speak to me? Did the pastor hold my attention? What’s not realized is that is the Word being spoken to us is God’s very eye into our souls. His Word is searching and trying us, and exposing the true place of our hearts. As Jesus said, many approach God attempting to justify themselves, but God is the one searching our hearts through his Word. The author pressed this point home. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Her. 4:13).”
This is not a verse supporting the idea that believers will be judged for their sins on the last day. The exact opposite is true; those who believe have already entered his rest, but the problem is that there still remains a rest for some to enter. Some are not hearing, some are not believing, and God is expressing to us that a fearful expectation of judgment will come upon those who do not believe his Word.
When a pastor faithfully preaches the gospel, a great and powerful truth is being communicated to us. God is pleading with us to be reconciled to him. The goal in proclaiming the gospel is to express the same thing that was said to Israel, “I have a land for you, I have a rest for you, I have comfort for your weary souls in this wilderness walk. I love and care for you, and I given my son for you. Jesus is your rest, your Canaan. Hear and believe my beloved Son who speaks.”
Only the hardest of hearts view hearing God’s word as burden.
But the author leaves us with the greatest news to implore all people to come to Jesus who spreads his arms and offer to give us rest. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession (Heb. 4:14). Christ is able to help us, as he became one of us in the incarnation, “he is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses…”
Christians today, if you will hear his voice, draw near on your day of worship with confidence and “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Our attitudes and hearts must be changed to appreciate how powerful this Word is that is being spoken to us.
May our hearts be open and wide to joyfully receive him as he is with certainly present among us in his living Word. He has the power to keep us and give us rest. And his promise remains, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”