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Awed By Moses? (Hebrews 3:1-19)

In Awe of Moses?

Hebrews 3:1-19

Minister’s Summary: We dream of time machines and being in the presence of the great saints and martyrs of the past. No life is more intriguing and no ministry had more impact than Moses’. But he merely set the stage for the one whose life and ministry are for us.

Teaching Material

This text draws an analogy between the present experience of the preacher’s audience and the past experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. The preacher brings the events of Numbers 14 (as reflected in Psalm 95) into analogy with the present experience of discouraged believers in his day.

Israel followed Moses into the wilderness. While Moses was faithful, Israel was not. The church follows Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus was faithful, but the question remains whether the church will be faithful. Will the church follow Jesus or will they follow the example of Israel in the wilderness?

The wilderness experience of Israel resulted in faithlessness and unbelief. They did not enter the land of promise because they were unfaithful and disobedient. Their hearts were hardened, though Moses was their faithful leader. The wilderness experience of the church in Rome is an open question. Will persecution, discouragement and apathy yield unbelief or will they remain faithful just as their high priest and apostle Jesus was faithful despite his own wilderness experience.

This section, then, is primarily exhortation. It calls the church to faithfulness based on the past experience of the people of God. We should learn from the negative example of Israel and follow the positive example of Jesus. We can succeed where Israel failed because Jesus is our champion and he will provide strength for the journey if we do not harden our hearts in the wilderness.

Exegetical Notes

1. Hebrews 3:1-6.

This section is fundamentally exhortation. It begins with the most basic exhortation and most foundational exhortation of the sermon: “fix your thoughts on Jesus.” It is an exhortation based upon the previous section (“therefore”). Because Jesus is the exalted Son who is greater than the angels but made himself lower than the angels, focus your attention on him. He is God’s faithful Son. He is further identified as an “apostle” as well as a “high priest.” The idea of “one who was sent” (apostle) is closely connected to the “champion” or “leader” (2:10) where those who are sent are leaders in Numbers 13:2. The Son was sent as a leader, a champion among God’s people, among his brothers.

Despite their discouraged, drifting and fruitless condition (cf. Hebrews 6), the preacher addresses them as “brothers” (connecting with the previous section as well—Jesus is our brother and we are “brothers” together) who share a “heavenly calling.” I think “heavenly” identifies the destination of the call—we are called to the heavenly city (11:16; 12:22) and the heavenly sanctuary (8:5; 9:3).

The idea of “confession” is important in Hebrews. We are exhorted to hold on to our confession (4:14; 10:23), and it seems to be a definitive expression of faith in the role of the Son as our high priest and redeemer.

In 3:2-6, the faithfulness of Jesus and Moses is compared. They were both “faithful” through their time of testing. Moses was tested, and by faith, chose to cast his lot with the Hebrews and lead the people of God (cf. Numbers 12:7). Jesus was tested (2:18: 5:8) in the wilderness as well and chose the way of suffering as the high priest of God’s people. This is a contrast, however, with the people of Israel in the wilderness who, when they were tested, hardened their hearts. The idea of a faithful leader is important in the OT (see the statements about a royal heir in 1 Chron. 17:14 and a priest in 1 Sam. 2:35). The below chart is taken from William Lane, Call to Commitment, 60.

Comparison of Moses and Jesus
Faithful to God (v. 2b)Faithful to God (v. 2a)
Faithful as Servant (v. 5)Faithful as Son (v. 6a)
A servant in God’s house (v. 5a)A Son over God’s house (v. 6b)
Conclusion: We are his house if we prove faithful (v. 6b)

The “house” of God, of course, is a reference to the people of God. Moses, for example, was a leader “among my whole people” (Num. 12:7). “House” often refers to the people of God in the OT (Ex. 16:31; Lev. 10:6; Hos. 8:1; Jeremiah 12:7; cf. Hebrews 8:8).

We must be careful to remember that the point is not to “put down” Moses, or denigrate Moses. Rather, Moses is highly regarded as a faithful servant. But the point is to exalt the Son. The contrast is between Son and servant (just as the angels were servants while Jesus was Son). Moses bore witness to the Son; he is not the ground of salvation but a witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. Just as the disciples bore witness to Jesus after the fact, Moses bore witness before the fact.

The encouragement here is that as members of God’s house, we have boldness to speak openly and bear witness to our faith in Christ. Moses is a positive example of that kind of witness. Despite their pilgrim status (they are exiles, seeking a country, having nothing of their own) and despite the hostility from the surrounding culture, Christians have a ground for boldness in the confession that the Son is our champion.

2. Hebrew 3:7-19.

This section is an exhortation based upon Psalm 95:7b-11. The text is quoted in Hebrews 3:7b-11 and Hebrews 3:15. After each citation, the preacher exhorts his readers in Hebrews 3:12-14 and Hebrews 3:16-19. Thus, we have the pattern of Scripture followed by exhortation.

The preacher sees that the potential problem among his hearers is “unbelief.” The first exhortation begins with “See…that no one among you has an evil heart of unbelief” (3:12) and ends with “We see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (3:19). The issue is faith or the lack thereof. Will the discouraged believers of these Roman house churches continue to believe or have the seeds of unbelief already been sown in their hearts? The question of Numbers 14:11 rings in the background: “How long will they refuse to believe me?” The “unbelief” here is a refusal to believe God’s promises and trust that he will accomplish them. It is not a weakness of faith, but a rebellious rejection.

a. Psalm 95 as Basic Text.

Psalm 95 is the preacher’s text for this exhortation. It would be helpful to rehearse it a bit here.

Psalm 95:1-7a is an invitation to worship God, “Come, let us…” (95:1, 2, 6). It is an exhortation to worship, and so it fits the hortatory style of the preacher in Hebrews. Worship is manifested in singing, shouting, music, bowing and kneeling. The substance of the worship is the proclamation that the Lord is, as sovereign King, the creator of all (v. 3-5) and he is the God of Israel, who are the people of God (v. 7). God is worshipped because he is Creator of the Cosmos and because he is the Shepherd of Israel.

These two ideas of worship connect with Hebrews as well. Jesus is worshipped by the angels because he is the Son through whom God created the world and because he was the “champion” who led other sons to glory. However, the preacher of Hebrews does not make this explicit connection with Psalm 95.

Rather, the preacher focuses on the last half of Psalm 95. If we envision Hebrews as a sermon read to some Roman house churches, then the exhortation of Psalm 95:7b is contextualized by the invitation to worship in Psalm 95:1-7a. As the church gathered to sing, eat and pray in the presence of God—to come before God with worship—the preacher knew they needed to hear a word of encouragement and a word of warning, just as Psalm 95 contains that word of warning.

Psalm 95:7b-11 invites the assembled people of God to hear the voice of God. They should listen and obey rather than test God by rejecting his word and hardening their hearts against it. The two place names in the text (v. 8)—Meribah (which means quarrelling) and Massah (which means testing)—refer to places of rebellion during the wilderness experience of Israel after the Exodus (cf. Exodus 17:7; cf. Deut. 33:8). The quotation in verse 10 is from Numbers 14:11. So, the Psalm remembers two occasions of rebellion. One is the questioning of whether God is among them or not as they were on their way to Sinai in Exodus 17, and the other is the failure of the people to trust God’s promises and possess the land in Numbers 14. As a result, the rebellious did not enter God’s rest, that is, they did not possess the land of promise.

The action in Numbers 14 was no mere weakness of faith. Rather, it was an active rejection of God’s promises. In Numbers 14:9, Joshua and Caleb plead with Israel, “Do not turn away from the Lord” (cf. Deuteronomy 1:28).

b. First Citation of Psalm 95 and Exhortation (Hebrews 3:7-14).

The preacher applies Psalm 95 to his hearers with a pointed exhortation in Hebrews 3:12-14. The message of Psalm 95 (“Today”) is still alive for this preacher’s hearers, just as it is still alive for us today. The experience of Israel is the experience of this Roman church, and it is our experience today. “Today” is an epochal day. It is “today” as long as the promise lasts; as long as the invitation is still open. It is always “today” as long as God invites and before the judgment arrives.

The problem is an evil heart of unbelief—a rebellious rejection of God’s promises. Sin is subtle as well as overt; it is deceitful. The heart of unbelief is a deliberate turning away from God. The response of the community is to encourage each other as they continue their communal journey. Communal encouragement will hinder/prevent the hardening of the heart.

The danger in the Roman community is that outside pressures will discourage and plant seeds of unbelief in the hearts of the church. Through the deceitful attractiveness of sin, believers will harden their hearts and turn away from God. They will refuse to believe that God will keep his promises. It is the danger of apostasy; the willful rejection of God’s Son.

To counteract this, the preacher encourages them to “daily” encourage each other, and to recognize that they are partners with Christ. They partake of Christ’s glory, and share his journey. If they will remain faithful, just as Christ was faithful, they too will receive the promise and inherit the salvation that Christ won for them.

c. Second Citation of Psalm 95 and Exhortation (Hebrews 3:15-19).

This exhortation is negative in character. It looks back to the rebellion (“the sin”) of Numbers 14. They heard the word of promise, but refused to believe it. They “sinned.” This sin is no mere act of weakness, but is rather a resolute rejection and opposition to the promise of God. The rebellious will not enter into God’s rest. They refused to obey and embrace “unbelief” as a way of life.

The rebellion to which Hebrews 3:16-19 alludes is found in Numbers 14. It was a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, but ultimately against God as well. The connection here with Hebrews 3:1-6 is obvious. If they refused to believe God’s promise through Moses and thus could not enter the rest, how much will the fail to enter the rest if they reject God’s promise through Jesus who is God’s faithful son.

It is important to understand the nature of this “unbelief” in Hebrews 3. This is not a temporary lack of faith, or trust. It is not a moment of weakness. It is, rather, a willful rejection of God’s promise. It is rebellion. The rebellious cannot enter God’s rest.

Theological Substance

The contrast in this text is between the persevering faithfulness of Jesus (and Moses) and Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness. Jesus persevered to the end and was faithful through his wilderness experience (suffering in human form). Israel, however, rebelled in their wilderness experience and rejected the promises of God. Faith persevered in Jesus, but unbelief reigned in Israel.

The believing community that the preacher addresses in Hebrews is in a weakened, immature state. They are drifting and in danger of neglecting the salvation that Jesus has won for them. The community has people within it that have already rejected Jesus and forsaken him. The exhortation in Hebrews 3 is intended to prevent further defections due to unbelief.

Theologically, I think we must distinguish between weakness and rebellion. All of us sin—which is no excuse for sin, but the origin of our sin is also significant. A person with a heart of faith still sins and due to weaknesses of one kind or another fails to be all that God intends them to be. We are weak, and therefore we sin. However, rebellion is a different matter. Rebellion is the deliberate rejection of God. It is an assertion of unbelief by action or confession. It is a heart of unbelief.

Believers who sin out of weakness are still believers. But the rebellious act out of unbelief. Believers, despite their sinful weakness, are assured of God’s grace because their faith is directed toward God’s promises in his Son. But the rebellious have no faith and thus no assurance.

What the preacher condemns and warns about is a persistent heart of rebellion; a heart of unbelief that rejects God’s promises. That kind of heart will not enter God’s rest.

However, he encourages believers who are struggling with their weaknesses to continue their journey. They are “partners” with Christ, and he will provide strength for the journey. They should not be discouraged by their weaknesses, but turn toward each other—encourage each other and persevere in their faith. Jesus is their “champion” and he will lead them into the promised rest.

Every community of faith lives with the reality that some in their midst give up their faith, reject God’s promises and refuse to obey. The community shrinks by attrition. We see people come and go. The preacher encourages us not to be one of those people, but to claim the work of Christ for ourselves and embrace the promise of God’s rest. He encourages us to persevere in faith.

In particular, don’t let the wilderness destroy your confidence in God. Persevere through the wilderness; continue to believe. Don’t give up, and encourage others in their journey. It is a communal undertaking—a communal experience. We are on the journey together, so let us help each other along.

Teaching Options

There are, of course, many ways to teach this material. The following suggestion is only one.

I think I will begin with Psalm 95. Let the class sink into the mood of worship/praise that begins the text and reflect on the nature of worship a bit. Then, the text will also press the exhortation upon us—don’t harden your heart. We are invited to worship, but we are also warned against apostasy. Numbers 14 will help illuminate the text in this setting.

Then, I will move to the exhortations of Hebrews 3:12-19 and talk about their application in the context of the original hearers of this sermon. The preacher encourages them to persevere in the face of opposition.

Then, I will move the application to our context. We have our own wilderness experiences. We move through tragedy, death, temptation, persecution, etc. Will the wilderness create a heart of unbelief, or will we persevere by faith through the wilderness? How does this text encourage us to persevere? What perspectives emerge from the text that enables perseverance? How does Hebrews 3:1-6 provide the ground of perseverance?

What is a “hard” heart? How does is it hardened? What does it mean to encourage each other daily? How is sin so deceitfully attractive? What does it mean to partner with Christ? How does this encourage us?

In the final section (Hebrews 3:16-19), I will reflect on the rebellious character of Israel in contrast to the weakness that we so often experience. Can we feel assured if we sense weakness? Does this text apply to the weak or only to the rebellious?

It seems to me that when we sense weakness, this means that we are still alive. We sense the contrast between Christ and ourselves, and yet we yearn to be like Christ and want to be like him. Rebellion, however, reflects no desire to be like Christ.

Your discussion in class, then, can focus on any number of things. You can discuss this distinction between weakness/rebellion and the nature of assurance. You can discuss ways that we can encourage each other as a community (practical things we can do). You can discuss the ground/basis of the perseverance of faith and what sorts of things/actions do we need to consider as we seek to persevere. Part of that discussion could focus on what makes a heart “hard” and how does a heart become “hard.” What does that mean?

The Navipress material has some good questions and applications for incorporation into your lesson plan.


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