Written by 3:29 pm Bible Studies, Hebrews • One Comment

Unbelief to Unrest – Hebrews 3:7-18

I’ve entitled this article, Unbelief to Unrest, because the author begins – what I believe is – the most compelling section of Scripture in the New Testament over the matter of whether salvation is eternally secure. The opening half of the discussion in chapter three deals with unbelief and unrest. I will lay my cards on the table up front. I believe that when someone is truly born again, it is eternally so. Jesus said, “I give them eternal life,” (John 10:28), and I am inclined to take Him at His word. What He gives us is eternal. However, that doesn’t satisfy every question, particularly whether one can believe and receive eternal life, then abandon it in unbelief. This entire discussion will last through 4:13, so we’re only covering the first half of the author’s thoughts in this article.

Wilderness Rebellion

My ESV Bible inserts a heading over this section of chapter three: A Rest for the People of God. The New King James entitles it, Be Faithful. The Lexham English Bible heads it with A Serious Warning Against Unbelief. Since the headings aren’t inspired, I choose the Lexham heading as the more appropriate one. The remainder of chapter three contains a fairly dire warning against unbelief. The discussion spills over into chapter four, where the author turns to the rest that awaits God’s people.  What we’re dealing with today is the warning.

7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
– Hebrews 3:7-11 (ESV)

This is a quotation from Psalm 95:7-11. First off, the author gives credit to the Holy Spirit as the author of Scripture. Just in case you wonder about Scripture’s authorship, it ultimately is the Holy Spirit through various human authors: inspired men of faith, prophets, and apostles. Also, just to hit all the bases, the author later attributes the human authorship of Psalm 95 to King David.

7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
– Hebrews 4:7 (ESV)

Since the author quotes this Psalm, it would be helpful to familiarize ourselves with the specific day of testing that he references. As I noted in this post, the author quotes from the Septuagint (LXX) when he references the Old Testament, so if you go look up Psalm 95 in your Bible, it will likely not read exactly the same. In this case, that’s actually helpful.

7 Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
– Psalms 95:7-8 (ESV)

The Masoretic text (MSS) gives more specificity about the day of testing in the wilderness. That particular day was Meribah/Massah (two names for the same place) in Exodus 17.

 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
– Exodus 17:7 (ESV)

This gives us a clue about the nature of Israel’s rebellion.  This was maybe three or four months after leaving Egypt and had arrived at their third encampment at Rephidim (Exodus 17:1). This was before the golden calf, so it’s not a matter of worshiping idols and the immorality they engaged in while Moses was up on Sinai receiving the Law. It’s much simpler.

They were thirsty.

Their thirst for water, which is legitimate, led them into hardened hearts. The LORD wasn’t providing water in ways that satisfied their expectations. Rebellion can be stirred by something as simple as a legitimate need that doesn’t arrive on your time schedule!

Broadly, the LXX offers a blanket reading of every rebellion in the wilderness. But Exodus 17:7 sums up why God was angry. They questioned whether the LORD was with them at all, despite what they had witnessed a few months prior in Egypt. So, because of their lack of faith, “They shall not enter my rest.” And this is the pattern for that generation who came out of Egypt at almost every turn. Despite what they saw with their own eyes in Egypt, they lacked faith again and again that the LORD was with them.

They shall not enter my rest.

The Warning for Us

Let’s continue.

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 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. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
-Hebrews 3:12-19 (ESV)

First, please note: the author’s plea is to brothers. Don’t get it in your head that he’s addressing people outside the covenant community. He’s addressing fellow believers, warning us to be vigilant against unbelief. Is it possible he meant brothers in a much broader ethnic sense, like fellow Hebrews, fellow Greeks, fellow whatever? It’s possible since the Greek word for brothers (in this case) can be used in either context.  But the literary context of the whole letter is a message to Hebrew believers, so I doubt that the author is addressing a broader ethnic group of Hebrews who may or may not believe. He’s addressing believing Jews who are brothers in Christ.

Second, the author warned that an unbelieving heart can lead one to “fall away from the living God.” If falling away from the LORD wasn’t possible, why the warning? What does the author mean by falling away? The Greek word in play here – apostēnai – is related to the word apostasia, where we get the word apostasy.  Contrast, apostēnai, a verb that means to depart from, with the word apostle. Apostle, apostolos in Greek, is rooted in the word, apostellō. Apostellō means to send. To send versus to fall away: it seems that the author means to communicate that “fall away” would be the opposite of being sent. I don’t want to complicate things too much with Greek, but I think this is an important contrast. Unbelief that leads to falling away – which the author has firmly rooted in the rebellion of Israel in the wilderness – means it is possible to be a witness and recipient of God’s deliverance and still miss the train heading for the Promised Land.

One more interesting use of apostēnai.

13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
– Luke 8:13 (ESV, emphasis added)

This verse is from Christ’s explanation of the parable of the sower. Some people receive the Gospel – the seed – but they are like rocky soil. The seed sprouts, but the rocks prevent it from taking a firm root. When hard times come, they fall away – apostēnai. So, the agricultural image here is this. Rocky soil is untilled ground and isn’t good for planting anything because nothing will take firm root. This adds depth to why the prophet Hosea wrote for us to break up our fallow (untilled) ground.

12 Sow for yourselves righteousness;
reap steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground,
for it is the time to seek the LORD,
that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.
– Hosea 10:12 (ESV)

Third, the author tells us to exhort one another. The one-anothers of Scripture play out within the fellowship of the Body of Christ. What is exhortation? Exhortation is strong urging. It’s encouragement through a megaphone. The author told his reader to strongly urge one another, every day so that no one would be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. That’s an interesting turn of phrase. To be hardened means that, at first, you were soft. At first, you were malleable and easy to mold, but you gradually became hard. Why? Because sin is deceitful. It makes you think, “This is no big deal. It won’t hurt me or anyone else.” Except that it grieves the Holy Spirit, every time. Note: the self-centeredness of it ain’t hurting me or anyone else forgets that it hurts the Holy Spirit. Carrying your cross, denying sin, and crucifying the flesh aren’t about behavior change as much as it is about having an ungrieved relationship with the Holy Spirit. Having that ungrieved relationship with Him is the top priority. But the deceitfulness of sin rocks us to sleep and hardens our hearts as we get comfortable with a compromised relationship with the LORD.

That is why we EXHORT!! We encourage one another through a megaphone!! We hold each other accountable with ferocity! Why so intense? Because the hardened of heart are also usually the deafened of hearing and the dimmed of sight.

Fourthfor we have come to share in Christ, IF… That “if” can be a thorny two-letter word. Some will arrive at this verse and see a condition. If you hold on, you’ll make it. If you keep believing, you’ll enter His rest. Others see this verse and say that if demonstrates the nature of your faith from the beginning. If you cease believing, you demonstrate that you never truly believed to begin with. Either one has the same outcome: apostasy. But the latter leans more into the sovereignty of God to keep those He has saved, despite themselves.

I have to admit, that up to this point, it seems the author of Hebrews has made a strong case that believers can apostatize and return to a state of unbelief. However, there’s more that will be covered in chapter four that will shed light on this matter. Also, the book of Hebrews doesn’t contain all there is to say about the security of salvation. The reason I believe that salvation cannot be lost or forfeited is rooted in a broader understanding of the entire New Testament. So how do we reconcile this stern warning in Hebrews three, with other passages in the New Testament that seem clear on eternal security?

First, and most importantly, you have to keep reading – which we will. An important part of the answer lies ahead. Never read portions of a letter. The entire letter will provide the fullest context to the author’s thoughts. If you stopped here at the end of chapter three, you might well conclude that believers can return to an unbelieving state by their own choice. But keep reading, there’s more ahead.

Lastly, while there are reports all throughout church history of persecuted believers living out their lives with portions of a Bible, maybe even a single book of the New Testament, if you are of the fortunate ones who have a complete copy of the Scriptures, READ THE WHOLE THING. No one book of the Bible contains everything that the LORD has revealed. While I’m convinced that if all you had was a copy of Romans, you could come to faith in Christ and live a fulfilling Christian life, even the near-comprehensive content of Romans doesn’t have everything we need. Therefore, what we have read together in Hebrews 3:7-18 needs the context of the whole Bible to be understood rightly.

However, to my friends who believe salvation can be lost or forfeited, though I do disagree with you, I do believe this passage compels you to amend one aspect of your theology. If you believe salvation is lost or forfeited by moral performance (i.e., sinning too much), wrestle with this text. I’m not asking you to believe completely as I do. I’m asking you to align you thoughts to the author’s. Why could they not enter His rest? Unbelief, no less, no more. It wasn’t because they sinned their way out of God’s grace. It was because they persisted in unbelief. If I were persuaded to come to your camp, I would have only one way to return to my vomit: the rejection of the Gospel. Unbelief. I would have to utterly stop believing in the Gospel that I once believed to fall away from the living God.

But, again, I differ with you on how we understand eternal security. However, regardless of which side of this debate we stand on, I think we can agree that unbelief leads to unrest, both eternally and in the here and now. I’ll unpack more of the here-and-now unrest in the next article.

To Be Continued…

I started this article saying that I believe this is the most compelling section of Scripture in the New Testament over the matter of whether salvation is eternally secure. I’m stopping here on a cliff-hanger of sorts. The rest of the story is next.

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Last modified: April 25, 2023