Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his 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.’”
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 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. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
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? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:7-19)
These twelve verses deal with two main subjects, the hardening of the heart and entering God’s rest. These are consistent themes that run throughout Scripture but that I think cause some misunderstanding.
The first theme is the idea of hardened hearts, the prideful heart of man in rebellion against God and seeking even to supplant God. The clear teaching of Scripture is that man’s heart is naturally far from God even when his actions are religious in nature and designed to make one right with some deity based on personal performance and good works. The only solution is supernatural, the removal of the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
The other major teaching here is the notion of rest. This life is one that rarely has much rest. Our culture has us engaged in a constant cycle of frenetic activity broken up by “vacations” that are usually more stressful than our normal lives. The Old Covenant pattern was of the Sabbath rest, setting aside one day from our labors after working six in the pattern of God who created everything we know in six days and rested on the seventh. Is that the pattern we see after the cross? I don’t think it is and I don’t believe that is what the writer of Hebrews is speaking of.
What is the rest promised to us as beneficiaries of the New Covenant? Not a piece of land in the Middle East. While the Egyptian exodus and the promised land prefigure the coming New Covenant, they are not the same. What about Sunday? That is culturally acceptable but the problem is apparent: the Bible doesn’t make the link between Sunday as the first day of the week and the Jewish Sabbath observance. So what is this rest? The answer is simple: Jesus is our Sabbath rest. In Him we have rest from the rat race of labor to try to please God and in eternity we will be at rest with Him in glory. As we will see in the next chapter, everyone who has come to faith in Christ is resting from their works (Heb 4:9-10).
Some things simply don’t change. Under the Old Covenant many were prevented from entering the land of promise because of disbelief. Under the New Covenant many will not enter in the rest of God and instead be consigned to damnation for the same reason: unbelief. Those who fell in the wilderness are the prefiguration of those who will be cast into the lake of fire. The imagery should be a sober reminder that God is by nature unable to break His own word. When we read the warnings about the consequences of unbelief in Scripture, we had better take them very seriously indeed.