My quiet time this morning, in Hebrews 4, took me to two of my very favorite passages of Scripture, one on top of the other:
For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart. No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13 HCSB)
Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens – Jesus the Son of God – let us hold fast to the confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time. (Hebrews 4:14-16 HCSB)
What powerful, life-changing truths! You could preach a sermon — write a book — on either of them. And sermons have been preached. Books have been written. Many of them.
But do you know what stood out most to me about these two passages this morning?
Out of context. The vast majority of the times I’ve heard these passages taught, they are not explained in context.
Hard to believe? Look at it. Read chapters 1-3. We’re talking about how the Hebrew prophets brought good news to the people: God has a place of special rest and you can enter it, if you will give him the honor he is due and walk in his way. But the people hardened their hearts and rebelled. They tested God and ignored 40 years of miracles in the wilderness. Finally, God said, “Their hearts always turn away from me. They refuse to do what I tell them” and he swore, “They will never enter my place of rest.” God’s people heard the good news but failed to enter because they disobeyed Him.
But wait! There’s more! “Now in these final days, God has spoken to us through his Son”! This Son is the spittin’ image of his Father. The Son became flesh and blood because only as a human being could he die and break the power of death that holds all of us in slavery. After he died to cleanse us and set us free from sin, God honored him by giving Jesus a seat at his right hand in heaven. God used Jesus’ suffering to make him the perfect leader to bring us into salvation — the special place of rest.
But wait! That’s not all!
— 2:1 So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it.
— 2:3 What makes us think we can escape if we are indifferent to this great salvation that was announced by the Lord Jesus himself?
— 3:12-13 Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God.
— 3:18-19 And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief, they were not able to enter his rest.
— 4:1b We ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it.
–4:3 Only we who believe can enter his rest.
–4:11 Let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall.
The disobedience and rebellion of God’s people is not hidden from him. His Word cuts through the facade and exposes our innermost thoughts. He holds us accountable, and we know we fall short in many ways. Thankfully, we have a great High Priest who understands our weaknesses, because he faced all the same difficulties we face. We can come boldly to God’s throne, knowing we will find the grace we need, right when we need it most.
That’s great news! But keep it in context: We must keep trusting God day by day just as firmly as when we first believed. If we are faithful to the end, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. But, today as then, if God’s people harden their hearts and refuse to walk in his way, they will not enter his rest.
Many lives, my own included, have been profoundly affected by the teaching of these two passages in Hebrews 4. God honors the exposition of his Word — even more, I suspect, when we put it in context.