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Take Care... Unless

Oct 14, 2018

Passage: Hebrews 3:12-15

Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Category: Sunday, Pentecost


The Text Hebrews 3:12-15: 12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’”

In the Name of Jesus. Amen. We live in tensions as if in-between two polar-opposites. On the one hand, God assures you of His love and mercy to the extent that He wants you to know that you have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1); and to the extent that there is no doubt that He desires your salvation (1 Ti 2:4); and that – most importantly – when Christ shed His saving blood, His saving blood was shed for you (1 Jn 2:2). And on top of all of these, God goes a step further so that you may be certain of your belonging to Christ because God has called you by the Gospel, joined you to Christ in Holy Baptism, and has brought you here today to receive His Son’s body and blood. All of these are to say, “Have no doubts! You belong to God and you are safe in His hands.” This is all GOSPEL. These are undeniable realities.

On the other hand, our epistle text for today from Hebrews 3 is one of those texts that quite simply warns us. It is LAW and we also need to hear it. Lenski calls it a “plain warning” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews…, 117). Hebrews 3:1: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” That’s a warning.

Another Lutheran teacher writes, “Here…is Law, a threat to the apostate man” (Harold Buls, Notes on the Epistle to the Hebrews. 17). This seems like a strange thing to say, “the apostate man” (a man who rebels against God and rejects the faith once held to), since the writer to the Hebrews is writing to Christians. He calls them “brothers (vs 12),” because they are Christians, but according to the sinful nature that we all have, we also have “the apostate man” in our flesh who wants us to rebel against God. William Lane writes, “[This warning] recognizes that the Christian community is not immune from the recalcitrant spirit expressed by the generation in the desert” (Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 1-8. 87)  

That generation the writer to the Hebrews recounts were those mentioned at Numbers 14, the spies who went out to scope out the land that God had promised to give His people came back and in utter faithlessness as Numbers 14 says, “made all the congregation grumble against [Moses] by bringing up a bad report about the land” (v 36). Of course, Joshua and Caleb did not join these men in their giving up on God. God had made His promise to Israel, but these other men rejected God’s promise and refused God’s will to take the land. They were rebels. They were apostates, and God judged them, and they died.

So, the writer to the Hebrews is saying, “Don’t be like they were! Do not turn your hearts away from God!”

In summary, the Scriptures are saying, “You are in Christ” (that’s Gospel), and the Scriptures are saying, “Don’t give in to an evil, unbelieving heart that leads you to fall away from the living God” (that’s Law). Both are true, both are needed, both are necessary.

From our Lutheran Confessions, the Solid Declaration:

“This again is of high and great importance, for ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (Matthew 24:13). Also, ‘For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end’ (Hebrews 3:14). We must also explain well and precisely how righteousness and salvation are preserved in us, lest salvation be lost again” (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Solid Declaration, Article 4, paragraph 30. 550). [emphasis mine]

In addition:

“Holy Scripture also testifies that God, who has called us, is faithful. So, when He has begun the good work in us, He will also preserve it to the end and perfect it, if we ourselves do not turn from Him, but firmly hold on to the work begun to the end. He has promised His grace for this very purpose. (See 1 Corinthians 1:9; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 5:10; 2 Peter 3:9; Hebrews 3:2)” (ibid., 607). [emphasis mine]

So again – there are two themes – Law and Gospel. God will preserve you (Gospel), but that does not do away with the warning: Don’t rebel against Him and give up your faith (Law)!

Listen to these Scriptures on God’s faithfulness to you:

1 Co 1:9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our LORD.”

Philippians 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

1 Pe 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

And with these assurances of the LORD preserving you in the faith, we also have the warning. The assurance says your salvation is secure, and the warning says never take it granted. This clarification helps: “unbelief is not a lack of faith or trust. It is the refusal to believe God. It leads inevitably to a turning away from God in a deliberate act of rejection” (Lane, 86).

So, look at it this way: when you are called by God through the Gospel and Sacraments, He gives you faith in Christ, and in this, God also assures that you are elected in Christ. He wants you to be secure and as you live in faith, you are! At the same time, if anyone rebels against God and rejects the faith, then they are in effect rejecting their security. This is the reason God decided to put this warning in His Word. We need this warning from Hebrews!

God is not playing games. As an analogy: Christ was truly tempted. He really was sweating drops of blood. That is how horrifying the temptation of Christ was. And – at the same time – Christ as God in the flesh was impeccable. He could not sin. So, does this mean that His temptation was a sham? No, it wasn’t. It was as real as real could be.

Likewise – and this is not a perfect analogy – you are secure in Christ. You really are, but the warning is as real as real can be. There is of course a significant difference in the comparison. According to Scripture, you and I can still rebel against God.

But here I need to try to bring this into the now for us to have a sense of what this potential rebelling can look like. The warning continues at verse 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.” That is, the “unbelieving heart” in verse 12 is identified with being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” What is this exactly? It has been described as “…unwillingness to suffer for Christ’s sake, the desire to enjoy the pleasures of this life; the sin’s ‘deceit’ is that forsaking Christ and … the gain of escape from persecution and the dangers that are connected with faith in Christ” (Lenski, 120).

But for us here in 21st century America we aren’t persecuted like the first-century Christians were, but seeking the pleasures of life to the exclusion of Christ is a serious threat.

Francis Schaeffer spoke prophetically about this problem in terms of American culture. He wrote, “As the more Christian-dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence” (How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1976. 205). He elaborated:

Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city – to live one’s life with minimal possibilities of being personally disturbed. Personal peace means wanting to have my personal life pattern undisturbed in my lifetime, regardless of what the result will be in the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Affluence means an overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity – a life made up of things, things, and more things – a success judged by an ever-higher level of material abundance (ibid., 205).

This is our contemporary attack on the faith. Why would you ever want to live out your faith or live for Christ or hold to the faith and not reject the LORD (which always means living for others and living without) if you can just hold onto your beloved personal space or your pursuit for more and more stuff? This is what contemporary apostasy looks like.

Tim Keller in his book Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith also speaks of our modern day and helps us how to identify what rejecting the LORD looks like. Keller presents ingenious insight on the parable of the lost son by showing us that the parable is in fact about two brothers, the younger brother and the older brother. It is a parable on two brothers, and both presented in some way within the parable as being lost (the younger brother of course was restored and “found” by his father). But let’s Keller join in here as he describes two modern-day versions of what rebellion can look like:

Here we have a concise portrayal of the two ways. The person in the way of moral conformity [like the older brother in the parable] says: “I’m not going to do what I want, but what tradition and the community wants me to do.” The person choosing the way of self-discovery [like the younger brother in the parable] says: “I’m the only one who can decide what is right or wrong for me. I’m going to live as I want to live and find my true self and happiness that way.” (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, New York: Dutton, 2008. 31)

And here Keller translates and makes application:

Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that hardly anyone can conceive of any other way to live. If you criticize or distance yourself from one, everyone assumes you have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformists say: “The immoral people – the people who ‘do their own thing’ – are the problem with the world, and the moral people are the solution.” The advocates of self-discovery say: ‘The bigoted people – the people who say, ‘We have the Truth’ – are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.” Each side says: “Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us” (ibid., 31-32).

But in this the rebellion against God comes in two ways: if we are like the older brother then we take pride in our moral conformity, then the way of Christ who came to serve all people, even those we might be in complete disagreement with, is rejected. And if are like the younger brother then we take pride in our immorality that says that we will do whatever we want while rejecting the walk of faith. Both ways find a way to rebel against and to reject the Lord.

The answer of course is in a different brother, the One who as we proclaimed last Sunday is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb 2:11). This Savior and this brother, Jesus Christ, has given us His Church. This entire epistle that we’re focusing on this morning identifies us as not being alone, never alone as Christians. Note the wording, the LORD says at verse 12 “brothers” in the plural. He sees us as His body, as His family. That means He sees us as together and not as separate. Verse 13 then uses these words, “exhort one another every day” … this word “exhort” is a combination of encourage AND warn or rebuke. This is to say, we are to take care of each other, keeping each other in the faith. Note then also verse 14, “For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”

Ours is the confidence or a steadfastness!

“The Greek term in question is often employed to denote the stable or unchanging reality that underlies appearances and thus can be used to describe steadfastness understood as unchanging and therefore dependable resolve and conduct (Josephus, Ant. 18:24)” (Gareth Lee Cockerill, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to The Hebrews, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012. 189).  

And this is what you are Christian. You are steadfast, because in Christ who has covered your sins, He has made you steadfast and as strong as His resurrection was over death, you are that strong – as you abide in His Word and in His Sacrament holding to your forgiveness, rejoicing in your election – and strong enough to crucify the evil, unbelieving heart every, single day with brothers and sisters in Christ encouraging and warning and loving you. And this is what Christ did for you on the day you were baptized into Him: He drowned the evil, unbelieving heart and gave you a new heart that holds to Him!