August 11, 1996
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
"Do Not Harden Your Heart in the Day of Trial"
Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, "Today if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers tried me by testing me, and saw my works for forty years. 10 "Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, 'they always go astray in their heart; and they did not know my ways'; 11 as I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest.'" 12 Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end; 15 while it is said, "Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked me." 16 For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was He angry 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 should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
Jesus is Greater than Moses
Last week we saw that Jesus Christ is greater than Moses in at least two ways.
First, Hebrews 3:3 says that he is greater than Moses the same way a builder of a house is greater than the house he built. In other words Jesus is greater than Moses because he made Moses. And verse 4 makes the implication explicit: God is the maker of all things. Therefore Jesus Christ is God. Which is what the writer had said in Hebrews 1:8, "But of the Son He says, "Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever."
Second, Hebrews 3:5-6 say that Jesus is greater than Moses the way a son over a house is greater than a servant in the house. The Son is heir of the house. He owns it, rules it and provides for it.
In other words what we have in Hebrews 3:3-6 is a restatement of Hebrews 1:2, "In these last days God has spoken to us in His Son, (1) whom He appointed heir of all things, and (2) through whom also He made the world." The same two glories of Christ we saw in Hebrews 3. Christ is the Creator of all and the Heir of all. That is, he made all things including the people of which Moses is a part, and he is the heir of all things, including the house in which Moses is a servant.
We are the House of God, IF
Then at the end of last week's text (Hebrews 6b) the writer draws us into the picture. He says to his readers that they (we) are the very house of God -- the house his Son made and inherits -- "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" -- "Whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end."
Now this "if" is a tremendously serious thing. We are his household -- we are God's people, we are God's possession and inheritance, that is we are saved -- if . This "if" is so serious and so important that the rest of chapter three is a support and explanation of it. In fact much of the rest of this book is meant to make this "if" plain.
And here at the end of the twentieth century in America it is even more important that we hear it and understand it, because we are confronted by voices in books and radio and sermons and songs that use the term "unconditional" carelessly -- as in the terms, "unconditional love" and "unconditional acceptance," for instance. And very often when it is used there is no effort to make sound Biblical distinctions between what is unconditional -- like God's electing love -- and what is not unconditional -- like God's justifying and glorifying love. One of my main motives for writing Future Grace was to help clarify this important Biblical teaching. But now we have it right here before us in Hebrews 3:6. We are God's house, "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end."
So let's get into this big "if" and then let the rest of the chapter explain this and show us why it is important.
A Condition for Being, not Becoming
Notice first that this condition -- "'if' we hold fast to hope" -- is a condition for being something now. Verse 6 does not say: you will become God's house if you hold fast to your hope. It says, "We are God's house" if we hold fast to confidence and hope. It's like saying, "You are a Southerner if you pronounce Ronald Reagan's wife's name 'Naintsy' instead of 'Nancy." Talking like this does not make you a Southerner; it shows that you are one.
So I think Hebrews 3:6 teaches that "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm to the end, we show that we are God's house." This is what defines the household of God: God's people hope in God. God's people are confident in God. They hold fast to God as their boast. That's the human trait and evidence of belonging God's household. If you want to be assured that you are of God's household test to see if you hope in God and have confidence in God and look to God for the security and happiness of your future and the satisfaction of your heart.
Here is another support for this: in verse 1 the readers are called "partakers of a heavenly calling." It says, "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling . . ." So the writer is assuming that his readers are already partakers of God's heavenly call. They are heaven-bound. They are not just hearers of the call; they are partakers of -- sharers in -- the call. So when he puts a big "if" on this in verse 6 -- if you hold fast to your confidence in God -- he means: you are partakers of the call, you are the household of God, and the evidence of this is your persevering confidence and hope in God to the end.
Now jump ahead to verse 14 to confirm that this is the way the writer is thinking. In verse 14 we have an "if" statement very much like the one in verse 6: "We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end." Being "partakers of Christ" in verse 14 is virtually the same as being "partakers of the heavenly calling" in verse 1. And both are the same as "being God's house" in verse 6.
But notice the wording carefully here in verse 14, because it is a strong confirmation that we are on the right track. It says, "We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold our assurance to the end." The condition is future: "If we hold fast assurance to the end." But the effect of the condition relates to the past: "We have become partakers of Christ." So it's clear that the point here is not: hold fast to your assurance in order to become in the future a partaker of Christ. The point is: hold fast to your assurance in order to show (prove, evidence, demonstrate) that you are a partaker of Christ.
Salvation Can't be Lost
Now this is utterly crucial because it shows that this writer does not believe that you can truly partake of Christ, share in his heavenly calling and be a part of his house and then lose that salvation. This is tremendously important because, Lord willing, we are going to see other parts of this book that could easily be taken to mean that we can lose our salvation.
But ask yourself this question: If verse 14 says, "We have become partakers of Christ (in the past), if we (in the future) hold fast our assurance," then what conclusion should we draw if we do not hold fast our assurance (in the past)? I believe the answer is: Then we have not become partakers of Christ. It would be wrong to say, "If we do not hold fast our assurance, then even though we were once partakers of Christ, nevertheless now we lose our part in Christ." That is the opposite of what this verse says. It says, We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast our assurance to the end; and if we do not hold fast to our assurance to the end, then we have not become a partaker of Christ. Not holding fast to our assurance does not make us lose our salvation; it shows that we were not truly saved.
Everything in chapter three (and I would argue that everything in this book) is written to encourage and empower you to be earnest and vigilant and focused in the fight to maintain strong assurance in Christ. Let me show you this so that you get a feel for how important this is to the writer to the Hebrews. Over and over again the writer urges us to persevere in our hope and not to throw away our confidence, because this is the living evidence that we tryly have become partakers of Christ. For example:
Hebrews 2:1 -- For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
Hebrews 3:6 -- We are his house , if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.
Hebrews 3:14 -- For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end . . .
Hebrews 6:11-12 -- And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Hebrews 10:23 -- Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful . .
Hebrews 10:35 -- Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
Hebrews 12:1 -- Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
The Strength to Persevere is God's
And as we come to the end of the book he delights to bless us and remind us that the strength to persevere to the end is not our own, but God's. This is the point of Hebrews 13:21.
[Now the God of peace] . . . equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The surety of believers lies not in the absence of conditions in the promises of power.
But the way we experience the power of God through Christ to work this persevering grace in us is through the warnings and promises of the word of God. That's why the book was written. God doesn't work in us the endurance apart from the word. He works by the word. Our great salvation and our great Savior (which is what this book is about) are the inspiration the Spirit uses to hold us fast. So we must consider Jesus (3:1) and not neglect our great salvation (2:3). That's what this book is written to help us do.
So let's look just briefly at how the writer helps us in Hebrews 3:7-19, and then we will come back to this text again next Sunday.
Example and Warning to Persevere
His main approach in these verses is with a very serious warning of the way God worked in the past, namely, in the way he dealt with Israel after they came out of Egypt and then in spite of all that power and mercy on their behalf, they tested God with grumbling and unbelief. The result was that he gave them up to die in the wilderness and swore that they would not enter the God's rest in the promised land.
The point is that the people of Israel are a example or a picture or a lesson-book for these readers. They had been treated with great mercy as God brought them out of Egypt by signs and wonders. And these people had seen signs and wonders (Hebrews 2:4). They had tasted the powers of the age to come (6:5). The Holy Spirit had been at work in their midst and they had participated in his power (6:4). All this is like what the Israelites experienced as they came out of Egypt. And for a short while they were very happy and seemingly confident in God.
But it didn't last. And that is why this example is so important to the writer of Hebrews. He wants the professing Christians to last, to persevere. Because that's the only way they will prove they are truly God's house and truly share in Christ's salvation. So he says look at Israel and don't be like them. Pick it up at verse 8:
Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me [or perhaps better, "as in the embitterment"], as in the day of trial in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers tried me by testing me, and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, "They always go astray in their heart; and they did not know my ways;" 11 as I swore in my wrath, "They shall not enter my rest."
In other words they had seen God's gracious works; they had seen signs and wonders and miracles of mercy, they had tasted the heavenly gift, but instead of being softened to trust God in the day of trial when things were difficult, they became hard and unbelieving and did not trust God's goodness, but murmured. The result was that God was angry and cut them off from the promised land.
Now the point is that this is what will happen to us, if -- the big "if" of verse 6 and 14 --If we harden our hearts in the day of trial and murmur against him and throw away our confidence and hope in God. The story of Israel is an example for the professing church. Do not treat the grace of God with contempt -- presuming to receive it as an escape from the Egypt of misery, but not being satisfied with it as guidance and provision in the wilderness of this life. O how many professing Christians want the mercy of forgiveness so that they won't go to hell, but have hard hearts toward the Lord when it comes to daily fellowship with him!
Belief for Living, not Just for Escape
Note well, the issue of perseverance is not first an issue of behavior. Don't be asking first: What actions does God want me to do? The issue in this text is one of the heart. It is a matter of believing or trusting or hoping in God. Look at verse 10: "Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, "They always go astray in their heart.'" Why didn't the people get to enter the promised land? You could say, they sinned and they rebelled and they murmured. Yes. But look at how this writer ends the chapter. Verse 19: "And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief." Persistent sin in the face of God's mercy is a sign of unbelief.
Yes, the people were embittered because of God's testing them (v. 8); yes, they sinned (v. 17); but beneath all that was the root problem: they didn't believe God, that is, they didn't trust his goodness -- to lead and protect and provide and satisfy. Even though they saw the waters of the Red Sea divide and they walked over on dry ground, the moment they got thirsty, their hearts were hard against God and they did not trust him to take care of them. They cried out against him and said that life in Egypt was better.
That is what this book is written to prevent. O how many professing Christians make a start with God. They hear that their sins can be forgiven and that they can escape hell and go to heaven. And they say: what have I got to lose, I'll believe. But then in a week or a month or a year or ten years, the test comes -- a season of no water in the wilderness. A weariness with manna, and subtly a growing craving for the fleeting pleasures of Egypt, as Numbers 11:5-6 says, "We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna."
This is a terrifying condition to be in -- to find yourself no longer interested in Christ and his word and prayer and worship and missions and living for the glory of God. And to find all fleeting pleasures of this world more attractive than the things of the Spirit.
If that is your situation this morning, then I plead with you to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking in this text. Give heed to the word of God (2:1). Do not harden your heart (3:8). Wake up to the deceitfulness of sin (3:13). Consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our great confession (3:1). And hold fast to your confidence and the boast of your hope in God (3:6).
And if you have never even made a start with God, then put your hope in him. Turn from sin and from self-reliance and put your confidence in a great Savior. These things are written (and this sermon is preached) that you might believe and endure, and have life.
Copyright 1997 John Piper