In Hebrews 3, the author begins to warm the readers not to faint due to persecution. This is a recurring theme in the letter. Here, the author says they are to consider Christ, who was faithful to his calling. This means, they should be encouraged by Christ’s faithfulness in his sufferings. The faithfulness of the readers is to be stirred on by the realisation that Christ is the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes, therefore those who suffer for Christ, should not be ashamed. They should not be intimidated by those who bear the Old Testament rule and use it to persecute them. Christ has greater hopes than the Old Testament gave by itself.
Today, the situation would often be different. We should not buckle in persecution, knowing that Christ offers a greater hope than the promises of our current materialism, or the respect of others in our careers, or the promises of the world’s powers.
The superiority of Christ over the Old Testament figures wasn’t meant to encourage an attitude that would isolate the believers from the Jews, or from anyone else, in a sense of being better. It was to encourage their humility as they lived amongst the Jews and accepted them, as a living witness, wanting them to learn and be renewed also, just as it took the same grace to reach us. Christ was better in the sense of his humility, his suffering, his faithfulness to repay good for evil, not to draw away from others. The author means to encourage us to emulate this.
So, when the world comes against us in vitriol, because we don’t reflect them in idolizing our self-interest, because we don’t put our hopes in the same agendas, we should not weaken and join them in a like spirit to defend ourselves, by destroying the reputations or lives of others. We should rather endure in a spirit of a patient and peaceful response and respect, just as Peter urges in 1 Peter 2. We are God’s children, not just because we believe, but because we live out that belief of peace in Christ when in trial. What we believe isn’t just a creedal doctrine of the cross, but the reality that the cross, when lived out, is the way God’s rule of peace comes into this world.
“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…” The author goes back to the Wilderness wanderings for an analogy. The people then resisted the “living God,” meaning the place God was wishing to lead them to. Then, God was bringing them out of Egypt, the place of oppression, into the place of sharing the manna, trusting God’s daily provision rather than storing up for themselves, restoring the neighbour through sabbath and jubilee. This meant giving up the gods of self.
Israel, in the days of the author of Hebrews, were in the same place. God was calling them out of the life of scapegoating their sick or sinful neighbour, into a life of receiving and restoring one another, just as God had done in Christ for us all. God was moving them on in Christ, free from the slavery of oppressing each other “in Egypt,” into a new life of foot-washing fellowship, even with their gentile enemies. But the people then resisted God’s purpose, mocking Christ and his followers, just as they mocked Moses. This issue wasn’t just a matter of receiving “Christ as Lord,” but the life Christ called us to, the way he received strangers and foreigners and shared with them. They preferred the self-centredness of Egypt.
“As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” We need to understand the wrath of God as expressed in contexts like this. The “rest” means God’s purposes for his creation. God has determined that those who live in oppression of others will not inherit his land. The meek will inherit the earth. God’s wrath here is for the good of the creation, and it means that when people live by the sword, they will die by it. Oppression will consume itself and expel itself from God’s land, allowing the land to be renewed. This is what happened in Jerusalem in AD 70. God did not do it. The way of life of the people, expelling each other from their table, eventually brought Rome down upon them. They did it to themselves. This is God’s wrath, giving us up to our conscience which we have blinded ourselves.
Again, the author warns his readers not to be hardened by sin, not to give in due to the persecution, and start to believe that standing up for one’s self, maybe like Judas did, is the better option. It’s hard when buffeted by trials for so long, to not sometimes think that putting yourself first may be easier. This kind of sin is very enticing, especially when hard pressed over longer periods. This hard pressing isn’t God’s will for us, but it reflects the fallen world we live in. God’s will is that we overcome it, by faith, by believing that he will give us the grace to stand.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” Do not be enticed back into the ways of Egypt. Fleeing the “safety” of Egypt, or the privilege of connections in Jerusalem and Rome, might land us in the wilderness for a time, but God will care for us and even nourish us there. We will find an abundance in the wilderness, just as Israel did. His purpose isn’t to leave us in the wilderness, but to make us his witness in transforming the world, even transforming Egypt.
“So, we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” The author was encouraging the people to let faith direct them, to believe that God would sustain them in leaving the assurances of their party connections, to embrace their brother and foreigner at a table of jubilee. It isn’t just faith to embrace Christ in a confession, but to embrace Christ who lives in our brother and neighbour, beyond any border of relegation. Back in Egypt, the Egyptians would have embraced the Israelites in care, if the Egyptian people had “believed.” If we believe, we embrace those suffering today, outside our camp, and identify with them, even with the displeasure of Pharaoh.