One of the great challenges of the pastoral profession is discerning who to help among those who are in evident financial need, and when to help them, and then how much to help them. Despite our best and most sincere efforts, pastors young and old, sometimes fail.
I remember well the story of a fellow Reno Bible-teaching pastor who, of course, pastored a much larger church than I have. He told of how he spent hours upon hours, days upon days, attempting to find an adequate apartment from someone in his church who was threatened with homelessness. The person had a very limited income, so the pastor had spent hours personally calling around the city trying to find a place that his beneficiary could afford; he spent hours contacting government agencies whom he hoped might subsidize the rent, and finally, the day came, amid much exhaustion for him, but much encouragement that the goal had been acheived. It was time to revveal the now affordable apartment complete with all the most basic amenities and now an affordable rent provided for to the person for whom he had done all that work. And the person walked into the apartment nonchalantly, look around, and being wholly unimpressed, shrugged their shoulders and said, “Nah.” Then they walked out without a single word of sorrow or gratitude for all the sacrifices the pastor had made on their behalf. The pastor said he had learned a lesson—don’t care more about the person’s welfare than the person cares for his own welfare.
It’s easier talking about the mistakes of others, but I have been in the same situation. I made myself and the church available to the beckon call of a couple guys just a couple years ago, who because of very poor planning on their part, found themselves in desperate need. I was there to provide for a prescription for a dangerous, potentially life-threatening infection; I was there to rescue them from homelessness on a cold and snowy night; we were there to tow their vehicle away from the side of a busy thoroughfare. I was there to buy plenty of groceries so they could eat. But the moment I told them we had done all that we could do, they not only disappeared from all church events, but of all things, directed their cell phone company to block all calls coming from my number.
What I realized through these kinds of experiences is the incredible depravity of man--how man will use and abuse, manipulate and deceive others for their own selfish ends. It also occurred to me that this is the way that mankind, by and large, treats God, their Creator, Sustainer and Provider, all the time. So I’m not at all surprised when the Book of Hebrews tells us that there is great consequence when someone falls away from faith in the Christ who died on the cross to pay the penalty for their sins.
And that is the pointed message of our section of chapter 3 today: Don’t dare fall away from Christ, or you’ll fully deserve the wrath of the living God.
Remember, the book is written about 65-70 A.D. to Jewish Christians most likely living in Judea who had grown weary of decades of persecution and were contemplating abandoning Christ to go back to Judaism.
Having just explained the superiority of Christ’s revelation to that of angels and even Moses, and exhorting his readers not to harden their hearts when they hear God’s voice, in verses 12-19, the writer now brings us to four very powerful applications. First, don’t dare fall away. Second, the antidote to falling away is constant encouragement and fellowship. Third, the cost of falling away is revealing you were never saved in the first place. And the fourth is the importance of recognizing that the danger is pervasive—absolutely anyone among us can stop believing and obeying, with great consequence.
Verse 12 provides us with the central exhortation of the book. Don’t fall away from the living God by abandoning Christ. Don’t fall away from the living God by abandoning Christ.
“Take care (see to it), brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.”
The writer clearly believes that he’s writing true believers, but he’s admitting that some among those whom he writes may prove not to be by their apostasy from the faith. And he tells them that it is clearly their responsibility, their choice, to not allow apostasy to take place in their lives, and in anyone’s life whom they know.
And he does not shrink from telling them exactly what kind of heart results in apostasy. It is an evil, unbelieving heart. Nope, there’s nothing morally neutral or accidental about falling away from Christ. It is the result of both an evil, and an unbelieving heart—evil in that like those ungrateful recipients of tremendous love and sacrifice that I spoke about earlier, these people are willing to abandon a Christ who sacrificed his very life to save them from these very kinds of sins. How dare they trample under foot the blood of Christ to save them from whatever level of inconvenience and persecution they might experience as a result of following Christ in this short life?!
And just to emphasize the gravity of displaying such an evil and unbelieving heart he reveals that falling away from Christ is the equivalent of falling away from the living God. The point is that these people who were contemplating abandoning Jesus for Judaism were not merely abandoning a dead god, a mere idol such as that which the pagans were worshiping. In this case, there would be very real consequences, because they were abandoning the living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, and Judge of all men. This implied warning is certainly something more than simply a concern that someone might lose a level of reward; this kind of warning is consonant with a concern that they would experience the very wrath of God for eternity for such a defection.
Again, I’m not teaching that a person loses his salvation because he loses his faith. I believe in eternal security. I believe once saved always saved. But what such a person who loses his faith demonstrates according to verses 6 and especially verse 14 in this very context, what he demonstrates, is that he was never saved in the first place. So, yes, in my view, and by the language here employed, the threat is eternal destruction in hell.
So, first and foremost, it is our responsibility to see that we don’t begin to harden our heart against God whenever He speaks to us, such as this morning. It is a solemn and sobering responsibility, especially when times are tough, because of our faith. The consequences of a complete loss of faith are a total eternal and spiritual disaster for anyone who does so.
So we ought to ask ourselves how we can avoid losing our faith. I think it’s vital that we don’t lose our devotion to our typical spiritual disciplines of prayer, and Scripture reading and meditation. Our commitment to obey God’s word, and especially, as we shall see in the next verse, the author’s recommended antidote of continued and constant fellowship and encouragement of other believers.
I remember O so well the last personal discussion I had with the man who led me to faith in Christ before his apostasy. It would be a few years before his total apostasy became evident, but he confessed to me he had stopped reading his Bible, because He, by now, knew his Bible. H also no longer gave anything to the church, because he had nothing to give. It would not be long before he no longer was attending church at all, before he was no longer being faithful to His wife, before He no longer was concerned about serial adultery and even seducing the wives of his best Christian friends and younger nieces in his own family, and it finally resulted in his out and out disavowal of any relationship with Christ whatsoever. Hardening your heart begins with a few small excuses and compromises, becomes a habit, and ultimately becomes a settles state of mind and action that constitutes a total rebellion to God’s revealed will.
The antidote the writer recommends is continued fellowship with believers. Encourage each other so that no one hardens their heart against Christ. Constantly, day-by-day, encourage one another in the faith.
Verse 13: “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Here we are given a responsibility for the spiritual welfare not only of ourselves, but also other believers who may seem to be fading away. What’s really happening is that some of these folks are being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Sin kills. But before sin kills, it deceives. Our sinful nature is constantly pulling at our faith making us believe that somehow it will be better for us if we just give in. This is what comes naturally rather than believing in and obeying Christ. Don’t be tricked; don’t be fooled by the deception of sin. Sin says, this is cool! This is great! This is where fulfillment really is! But when it gets you where it wants you to be, it clamps down and it kills, it deprives, of all the blessings we might otherwise experience. Never forget that. Sin deceives before it kills. That’s why you choose in the day of temptation to pray and seek God’s help in choosing God’s best which comes when you believe and obey God’s Word.
What I’ve seen through my 50 years as a believer is abandonment of fellowship with other believers, abandonment of going to church, if you will, goes hand-in-hand with apostasy from following Christ. One to some degree often results in the other. Oh, folks may maintain some intellectual acknowledgement of Christ when they stop being in fellowship, but often there’s no reality to it, no sense of gratitude or practice of following Christ. Make no mistake about it, on-going, constant Christian fellowship is vital to continuing to follow Christ.
And in this time of the pandemic, while so many are staying away for sometimes valid health concerns, it is vital that we maintain contact with those who are isolating out of fear of infection. We are also responsible for their continued walk with Christ, and we have a special responsible to them in a time such as this. I have no doubt that some who have elected to avoid fellowship will fall away if we don’t initiate with them on a regular basis.
Why do we need to be careful not to fall away, not to harden our hearts? Now we come to the anchor verse for a proper interpretation of the whole letter to the Hebrews. What is really at stake if a person falls away from Christ. It is not loss of salvation. It is a demonstration that we were never really saved in the first place. Don’t fall away or you’ll prove you were never saved to begin with. This is the clear statement of this very impressive reason why you don’t want to ever harden your heart and fall away from Christ.
Hebrews 3:14. Pay careful attention: “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”
Now the word if in the Greek is intensive. It’s only one of two uses of this particular intensive Greek word for “if” in the New Testament. It means if at least, as in the least case. In other words, the author is emphasizing the conditional nature of our salvation. It depends on our having the same assurance, the same confidence, the same underlying basis for our relationship to God and salvation that we had when we first came to Christ, holding on to it firmly until the end, either of this age, or our lives. In other words, the faith that saves is the faith that perseveres to the end. If your faith does not persevere, if the faith that you had at the beginning of your walk with Christ disappears somewhere along the way and does not return, you have absolutely no assurance of salvation, but as Hebrews 10:32-34 later says, only a terrifying expectation of judgment at the hands of the living God, who will display His wrath against you.
The faith that saves is the faith that endures to the end. So said Jesus, as well, in Mark 13:13: “It is He who endures to the end who will be saved.” And as we showed last week, this concept is not isolated to the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. It is found also in Galatians 5:1-6; Colossians 1:22-23; I Corinthians 5;2; I John 2:19 and II Peter 1:10-11 to name some of the places. It is the constant testimony of the New Testament, as well as Jesus Himself even in the Parable of the Sower that we must hold fast our faith until the end, for if we are moved away from it, salvation will not be ours, and in fact, never was.
So this warning that persevering faith is necessary for salvation comes with another quotation of Psalm 95—clearly a warning intended for those who would even begin to blow off Christ as they hear this exhortation: Remember what God has said, the writer intones: “While it is said, “Today, if you hear His (God’s) voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me.”
And this leads to a sober consideration of how pervasive the danger can be for any and all believers, based on how pervasive the rebellion was of the Jews against God in the wilderness.
What the writer is going to assure us of is the possibility that anyone and everyone can disobey and disbelieve. Anyone can fall away. Beware, anyone fall away. No one is immune from this possibility. Watch out!
Remember, Psalm 95 was written a thousand years earlier by David and is a reflection and warning from God Himself about repeating the error of those who perished in the wilderness. Again, remember, the wilderness generation had experienced the deliverance and redemption of God through the 10 Plagues of Egypt. They had been delivered from the powerful army of Pharaoh through the incredible parting of the Red Sea. They had been fed by manna which fell from heaven night after night. They were accompanied by the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. God’s presence, power, provision, and deliverance were their constant experience. And God was trying to set them up for life. He was providing them with the Promised Land, if only they would believe and obey. But they, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, because of their hardened habitual unbelief and disobedience rebelled in the wilderness and refused to enter and conquer the Promised Land.
Just how pervasive is the peril of losing your faith? It is totally possible as the example cited proves—nearly the whole generation of more than a million adults over the age of 20 experienced the consequence of falling away from faith in the living God. The only exceptions were Joshua and Caleb and their families. The writer will now emphasize this fact by asking five rhetorical which are easily answered by anyone familiar with the story of the wilderness wanderings of Israel under Moses.
Verse 16: “For who provoked Him when they had heard (God’s Word)? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses.” Now we know Joshua and Caleb were the notable exceptions, and the author knows this as well. But just how pervasive were the hardened hearts that led to the rebellion. Nearly everyone else, excepting I’m sure Moses, and their families, rebelled against God’s Word—that probably 600,000 men, a million or more adults had become so accustomed to blowing off God’s Word that they rebelled in the end. It was virtually all of them who abandoned God’s will and suffered the consequence. That’s just how pervasive the danger is for any and every one of us. Potentially any among us could blow Christ off today.
Verse 17: And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? Now think about the consequence for all these hundreds of thousands of people. God was constantly angry with them, not for a moment, but for 40 years. Do you really want Almighty God’s settled attitude toward you to be one of anger and wrath, just as they experienced this in the wilderness?
And so what was the ultimate consequences for those with whom they were angry. Well after wandering aimlessly in a barren land and living in tents for forty years, all of them physically died without ever entering the Promised Land, God’s rest for Israel. They forfeited God’s ultimate blessing.
Now at this point I should mention that many scholars believe that all that is at risk for apostasy in our day is physical death and loss of reward. This conclusion is partially based on the fact that physical death is all we know for sure was the consequence for Israel’s rebellion. But I want to be quick to note here that the writer’s argument throughout is from the lesser to the greater. In other words, if physical death were all that happened to those who disobeyed in the wilderness, that does not mean that is the only consequence for those who fall away from Christ. A greater revelation means a greater level of responsibility and a greater consequence under Christ and the New Covenant revelation. And so although there is a parallel here between the wilderness story and New Covenant apostasy, the consequences of falling away from Christ are bound to be greater than the mere physical death and loss of the Promised Land for the Israelites in the wilderness. The language we find here in chapter 3, and in the warning passages in chapter 6 and chapter 10 clearly indicate spiritual death is in view.
Verse 18: And to whom did he swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? The author here makes a big deal of God’s oath, that God swore by Himself in an unbreakable covenant, a covenant you don’t want to be part of, that because of their inexcusable and persistent unbelief and disobedience, He would never allow them to enter the physical rest that the Promised Land had offered. And He’s saying the same kind of action of unbelief and disobedience under the New Covenant will result in the same kind of oath from God—that former New Covenant believers in Christ will not by any means enter the heavenly rest that had been their ultimate goal if they fall away.
The conclusion then is this: So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. The emphasis is on the unbelief referred to in verse 14 that is evidence that someone who has fallen away was never saved in the first place. And notice as well between verse 18 and 19 the parallel attitude and action respectively of unbelief and disobedience. They go hand in hand—what you believe determines what you do. And what you don’t believe determines what you will not do. You harden your heart in unbelief, and it will be manifested through disobedience and rebellion. And you will not enter into the ultimate rest promised believers under the New Covenant, which is eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven.
The writer’s point is that this can happen to anyone and everyone, even as it happened to so many, nearly the entire adult Jewish population in the wilderness. No one, the writer warns, is entirely immune to the potentially falling way from Christ. So beware!
I confess, I have never entirely recovered from the shock of seeing so many precious friends and fellow dedicated believers, even in spiritual leadership, who have entirely fallen away from Christ. From my spiritual father, to co-pastors, to co-elders, to people I led to Christ and sincerely followed Jesus for awhile but ultimately and seemingly finally have fallen away.
It’s a sobering reality and a sobering passage about a sobering subject. Apparent devoted believers can and do fall away permanently from Christ.
The message is don’t dare let it happen to you because for whomever it happens to, they will fully deserve and incur God’s wrath.