Summary: A warning from the Israelites
Hebrews has shown us that Christ Jesus is greater than all things and the substance of our hope, and it’s given us a warning against unbelief in the example of the Israelites who failed to enter into the Promised Land. Chapter 3 introduced a quote from Psalm 95, and before we begin in Hebrews I want to revisit that Psalm:
“O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. 2Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. 3For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also. 5The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land. 6O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker. 7For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
Before we go on to the second half of this I’d like to show you how the entire Psalm is relevant to the argument in Hebrews. These early Hebrew Christians were being called heretics who’d abandoned Moses and the faith of their fathers to follow some blasphemer named Jesus Christ who made Himself equal with God. But Hebrews says, “You’re not heretics at all. The God of our salvation from Psalm 95 is the same God who was distrusted in the desert and Who now speaks to us today.”
Jesus is described as being the express image of God (1:3). He’s called the Creator of all things (1:2). We’re told that His throne is forever (1:8). He’s called the great Shepherd of the sheep (13:20).
“God […] hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son” (1:1-2). “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him” (2:3)? “See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven” (12:25).
And so we read in chapter 3 “7To day if ye will hear his voice, 8Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: 9When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. 10Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: 11Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.”
15While it is said,
Or “in that it is said,”
To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. 16For some, when they had heard, did provoke:
There were some (most actually) who provoked God because they refused to enter into Canaan,
howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses.
Nevertheless, not everyone provoked (specifically Joshua and Caleb),
17But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? 18And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? 19So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
This whole next chapter gives a warning and shows the contrast between those who enter the promised rest by faith and those who do not because of disbelief:
4:1Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
Let’s try to break this down by parts:
First there’s the command: let us fear. Keep in mind that the Israelites are an example not to follow. Look at them and fear;
Second, what should we fear? “Lest […] any of you should seem to come short of it” (“it” being the promise of rest). This doesn’t mean that our outward appearance doesn’t show that we have faith—that would be a contradiction to the fact that a tree is judged by fruit. This has to do with their own minds —“be afraid to distrust the promise; be afraid to be of an opinion contrary to God’s word; be afraid to suppose something other than what God has told us.”
Third, why should we fear? Because the promise is still “left us.” That is, the promise remains; it is unchanged. What God promised back then about entering into His rest is still true today, so we press on in hope. “Since the promise of rest stands before us the same is it did before them, let us see their example and fear to follow it.”