Digging in Deeper: Hebrews 3:16-19

“For who heard and rebelled? Wasn’t it all who came out of Egypt under Moses? With whom was God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

The idea of Hell bothers us. It bothers us a lot. And…it should. The notion that anyone is going to suffer for eternity is an uncomfortable one. Sure, there have been some particularly egregious moral monsters throughout history who we expect to be there, but for most folks (especially including ourselves) we try to justify why they shouldn’t. We look to excuse all manner of sin and bad behavior so that it does not exclude us from whatever version of Heaven we imagine. The author of Hebrews here is talking about a whole generation of Israelites who were separated from God. That’s an uncomfortable enough thought by itself. The reason he gives for their exclusion is even more so. Let’s talk a bit today about the sin of unbelief.

These verses are part of the author’s unpacking of his quote from Psalm 95. He quotes the entire second half of the psalm. The whole thing is a call to worship and praise of the Lord, but this call is concluded by this warning from God to not follow the path of the Israelites of the Exodus who failed to receive what God wanted to give them. The author of Hebrews grabs this warning and applies the same spirit to his audience, but here it is offered as a call to remain steadfast in their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. In the next chapter he will explore the idea of the Israelites missing out on God’s rest in more detail as a segue to talking more about Jesus as our great high priest, but here his focus is on the matter of unbelief.

Psalm 95 itself is an interesting one. The author here quotes from the Greek Septuagint version of Psalm 95 (as he does with most of his Old Testament quotes) which just makes mention of “the rebellion.” The actual Psalm in its original Hebrew context is more specific. It says, “Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the wilderness where your fathers tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.”

This is interesting because the particular episode being referenced there is from Exodus 17 when the people were still on the way to Mount Sinai with Moses to receive the Law. After God had sent all ten plagues on the Egyptian people including the decisive tenth plague and after parting the Red Sea for them to cross on dry ground and after providing a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night and after miraculously providing both water and food for them, the people had the audacity to grumble against Moses and against God for a lack of water and openly wished they could go back to Egypt. Their unwillingness to believe and trust in God’s character at this point in their journey was pretty hard to fathom.

The Psalmist, though, goes on to indicate that God’s refusal to allow them to enter His rest by entering the Promised Land was connected to their hardness of heart put glaringly on display at Meribah. The trouble here is that God’s ultimately refusing them entrance to the Promised Land is not ever connected to that episode in the Exodus narrative. Rather, that final refusal comes in Numbers 14 when the people willingly accepted the bad report of the ten faithless spies over and against the much more faithful report of Joshua and Caleb and demanded Moses take them back to Egypt because this God he’s had them following clearly isn’t what’s He’s claimed to be. It’s a pretty ugly moment. Why the psalmist doesn’t reference the story in Numbers 14 instead of Exodus 17 isn’t clear except to say that he was seeing the root of the rot that was exposed in Numbers 14 in the Exodus 17 debacle.

Either way, the point the psalmist is trying to make and the point the author of Hebrews is trying to make is that unbelief is a pretty serious issue. Unbelief is what kept a whole generation of Israelites out of the Promised Land. That’s something to not miss here. It was their unbelief that triggered God’s nuclear response. And His nuclear response was, again, to refuse them entrance into the Promised Land. The words the psalmist puts on His lips are this: “They will not enter my rest.”

That particular phrasing is what captures the author of Hebrews’ attention. He sees two different meanings here, one for the psalmist’s original audience and one for his audience. The obvious and intended meaning of the psalmist was the people’s being denied entrance into the Promised Land. That was the rest God did not let them enter. It was a rest from their journeying, a rest from their fighting, a rest from their exhaustion and burdens. They were to be given a land they could call their own. They could settle down, plant roots, and build themselves a wonderful life if only they would trust in Him. But they wouldn’t. They would not trust in His clearly revealed character and intentions for them. They refused to believe. They kept putting their twisted spin on their situation ahead of His promises for how things were intended to be. Because of this, it was their unbelief that kept them from God’s rest.

The author of Hebrews takes God’s promise of rest, though, and, through the lens of Christ, makes it bigger. There is a bigger rest God has promised for His people than simply the Promised Land. We’ll dig into how he makes this connection more in the next chapter, but for now we’ll simply say that God’s promised rest is the eternal life we have waiting for us when the time comes for the fulfillment of all things. His concern for his audience – which is justifiably a concern for modern readers – is that we don’t miss out on this rest like the ancient Israelites missed out on the rest of the Promised Land. And how is it that we could miss out on this rest? By committing the sin of unbelief.

This brings us to an important question: How can unbelief be sin? Am I suggesting that someone living in some remote jungle in South America who has never heard the name of Jesus and thus doesn’t believe in Him as Savior and Lord is committing a sin by his entirely natural and understandable unbelief? Not necessarily, no. Before we go any further on that challenge, though, let’s talk about how unbelief could be sin.

God has revealed Himself to us. He’s done it in a number of ways too. The apostle Paul talks about His revealing Himself through the natural world. Romans 1:19: “Since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” The writer of Hebrews at the beginning of this letter talks about how God revealed Himself in the person of Jesus. We also have the Scriptures that reveal God’s character and nature and His plans for our salvation. He has also commissioned His followers to be out spreading the word ourselves. And if all of that weren’t enough, we know that God goes above and beyond still to reveal Himself to unbelievers today through visions and dreams not so unlike what we see scattered throughout the Scriptures, such that people are being initially drawn to belief in Him without a Bible or a believer anywhere nearby to help guide them. God wants to be known and He’s done just about everything He can do to make Himself knowable.

Now, let’s pause here to remind ourselves of God’s character because without that we’re not going to get anything else right. God is just. He always does the right thing. Always. He is also love. He always liberally tempers His doing of the right thing with mercy. What this means is that there will not be anyone who is condemned because of a genuine lack of knowledge of Him. That would be both unjust and unloving and that’s simply not who God is. Anytime you encounter a challenge like that, you simply need to respond by saying, “That’s not the God I believe in, so I agree with your not believing in that kind of a God.”

That’s a modern challenge to this idea, though, that wasn’t on the radar of the author of Hebrews. He was talking about people who had heard the Gospel, seen the church in action, perhaps experienced miracles for themselves, and still wouldn’t believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. This wasn’t an ignorant unbelief, but a fully informed unbelief. And, frankly, this is the same kind of unbelief that is mostly present in the world today. This kind of unbelief is a sin in its refusal to accept God as God. This kind of unbelief has been presented with the facts of God’s existence and character and rejects all of that in favor of its own spin on reality. To put it another way, this kind of unbelief is our worshiping ourselves instead of God. It is fundamentally a kind of idolatry. It is not accidental or ignorant, but willful.

And here’s the thing: God won’t force Himself on us. If we want to refuse to believe and give ourselves over to the sin of unbelief like this, He’ll let us. He made us to be in a loving, personal relationship with Him and loving, personal relationships cannot be forced. They cannot be faked. People who are not free cannot have that kind of relationship. So, God allows us to make meaningful and consequential choices. Included among those choices we can make is the choice to believe in Him or not. If we choose not, no amount of force will ever be able to meaningfully change our hearts. Ever. Even on the other side of the veil of death. And when a person has committed herself to the sin of unbelief, forcing her to spend all eternity with God would not be a gift or a blessing. It would be a curse. Such an act of force would be unloving for God to commit. It would go against His character. And so He won’t do it.

But because God won’t ultimately force anyone to be with Him for eternity, there has to be a place for those who are committed to their unbelief. Whatever or wherever this place will be, it will have to be separated from Him entirely. Yet because He is the source of life and all that is good, it will be a place completely absent from those. That is, it will be a place of eternal death and wholly devoid of goodness. It’s hard to think of a better word to describe such a place than “Hell.” It will be worse than we can possibly imagine. We know this because when Jesus spoke about it, He consistently used the most extreme, graphic, awful-sounding language He could. The point was not for us to draw literal details about Hell from His descriptions, but rather for us to understand that whatever is the worst possible place we can imagine, Hell will be worse than that.

There is a day coming when this life will be over, when this world will come to an end. On that day, all decisions will be final. Whether belief or unbelief has been our choice, there will be no more going back. Creation will be restored, and God will rule and reign personally over His now eternal kingdom. Those who have chosen unbelief will have no place there not because God is vindictively forcing them out, but because He is lovingly honoring the choice they have made to remain separated from Him. He will give them their heart’s desires to be apart from Him. It simply won’t be what they were thinking it would be.

So, what do we do with this? Well, we commit ourselves to belief instead of unbelief. We examine our lives to root out places where unbelief has taken root. We commit to living out our belief in every aspect of our lives. We call those around us to belief instead of unbelief. We live lives that reflect the benefits of belief not only for ourselves, but for the world around us so that people who don’t believe around us can see for themselves how sweet belief in God really is. To put that another way, following on the counsel of Jesus’ brother James, we put our belief into action such that our belief actually means something. Believing without doing isn’t really believing at all. Unbelief is serious stuff. Far more serious than we often imagine it to be. Let’s be sure we treat it as such and encourage others to do the same.

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