Saturday, January 14, 2012
“Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 3:1-19
There is something terribly final about revolt. Once open revolt is begun, anything short of victory is disastrous. For this reason, the American colonies were rather slow in taking the final action that would lead to open revolt against England. The chance for victory seemed slim, yet the chance did exist. In contrast, people often revolt against God when there is absolutely no chance of emerging victorious. It seems unimaginable that people made of dust formed in the image of God and made alive by the breath of God would ever openly revolt against God. Yet history is composed of one such incident after another.
1) The substance of revolt (Heb. 3:12).
Revolt is the exact opposite of faithful discipleship: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (v. 12). The main characteristic of an evil heart is unbelief. The unbelief spoken of here is the refusal to follow the leadership of Christ in the journey of faith: “in departing from the living God.”
Revolt is brought about by a hesitant spirit that refuses to follow Christ. In Hebrews 3:12 the word translated “departing from” is a verb form of the word apostasy. The literal meaning of apostasy is “to stand off from.” Rebellion is a standoffish relationship with God. There is much said about apostasy in the Bible. In Joshua 22:22 the word is used to speak of rebellion against God. Such rebellion amounts to a religious revolt against the authority of God.
Apostasy can be committed only by those who have identified themselves with Jesus Christ in a superficial way and then have gone on to live lives that are in utter revolt against the lordship of Christ. They are often described in terms of unregenerate church members. John describes such people as follows: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19).
The writer of Hebrews is waving a red flag of warning concerning the possibility of one’s professing Christ and yet possessing an evil heart of unbelief that manifests itself in a life that stands off from God and his leadership.
2) A case in point (Heb. 3:7-11).
The writer of Hebrews is not interested in vague generalities. He is quite willing to give us a “for instance”: “So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did’ ” (vv. 7-9 NIV). The writer of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 95, which in turn describes two events in the history of Israel. The words translated “rebellion” and “testing” are translations from the Hebrew names of Massah and Meribah. In Exodus 17:1-7 the Israelites rebelled against Moses because of the lack of drinking water and expressed great regret at ever having left Egypt. God told Moses to strike the rock at Meribah, whereupon water came forth.
In Numbers 20:1-13 a similar instance again occurred, but this time Moses struck the rock in anger instead of speaking to it as God had specifically asked on that occasion. Although this was a rebellion also on the part of Moses, the main purpose of mentioning it here is to depict again the people’s rebellion against the leadership of God. At every turn in the road, the people questioned God’s leadership and sought to put him on the spot by certain demands: “where your fathers tested and tried me” (Heb. 3:9 NIV). There are times when it is an outright sin to require God to perform a miracle for your own satisfaction. This is to put God on trial by demanding signs. The incidents at Meribah and Massah revealed certain attitudes that would ultimately lead to outright revolt as the people refused to enter the Promised Land after having sent men to spy it out. God had told them that they would be able to overcome the tribes in the Promised Land, but they were determined to see for themselves; and having seen, they decided that God did not know what he was talking about. God’s commentary reads as follows: “That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not know my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest’ ” (vv. 10-11 NIV).
For the next forty years, the people would see God’s work of judgment, having refused to yield to his work of grace. God’s judgment was that the Israelites would wander in the wilderness until every person over twenty years of age had died (Num. 14:29). Someone has estimated that there may have been a million Israelites in that age range. If so, this would mean an average of sixty-eight deaths per day for forty years. If burial was made only during the daylight hours, this would mean an average of six funerals per hour for forty years. (However, we must note that when God poured out his wrath on the people [e.g., the snake plague], many more died at one time.) Each funeral procession was a mute reminder of the futile restlessness brought on when people revolt against God.
3) How to avoid revolt.
Revolt can best be avoided by a recognition of its nearness. Although the unregenerate alone are capable of complete apostasy from God, children of God are quite capable of taking part in minor revolts throughout their lifetimes for which they must suffer the chastening of God and the loss of Christian influence. The writer of Hebrews has purposely made a contrast between the Israelites’ journey under Moses and the church’s mission under Christ. The church is composed of God’s “new Israel,” and its mission is presented in terms of a “new exodus.” The apostle Paul compared Christian baptism with the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (1 Cor. 10:2). Just as Israel crossed the Red Sea because of God’s deliverance and set forth on a divine mission, so the Christian follows Christ in baptism and sets out on a divine pilgrimage.
Personal sin is capable of making us callous and less responsive to God: “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13 NIV). We are prone to fall for Satan’s same old tricks time after time. A fox, having been caught in one trap, is forever wary of other traps. Yet even children of God seem never to learn the lesson about sin. Sin so easily deceives us. Our only hope of withstanding the temptation to revolt is to keep attuned to the voice of God: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” (v. 15 NIV).
The majestic stalagmites and stalactites seen in the beautiful Carlsbad Caverns were formed through the centuries by the constant dripping of water through the overlying limestone leaving deposits of crystalline calcium carbonate until at long last the hardened icicles were formed. Any one drop contains only a microscopic amount of sediment, yet the total accumulation is immense. Revolt against God begins with little things that are allowed to remain and stack up, one on top of the other, until God is hidden from our view, our hearts are hardened, and our ears are deaf.
God alone is able to set people free from the ravages of sin and the emptiness of a self-directed life. We remember Abraham Lincoln because he sought to set people free. Yet none of the great emancipation acts of history can compare to the freedom experienced in Jesus Christ. Revolt against Christ is revolt against the only freedom open to us. Otherwise sin becomes our master. If we choose to refuse to follow this Christ who speaks from heaven, then we have chosen a life of restlessness similar to that experienced by the Israelites during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Christ’s voice is the voice of God. His authority is the authority of God. To profess him is to yield to that authority and thus to find life. The time to decide is today.
Now in Conclusion
During his reign, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes decided to stage an invasion of Egypt. Rome was displeased by the action and sent an envoy named Popillius to order Antiochus to forget his planned invasion. Popillius caught up with Antiochus just outside the border of Egypt. Since they had known each other previously, they spent a brief time in friendly conversation before Popillius quietly told Antiochus that he must abandon his invasion by order of the Roman Empire. Antiochus replied that he would think about it, but Popillius drew a circle in the dust around Antiochus. Popillius then told Antiochus to give thought to the matter but to make his decision before stepping from the circle. The picture is a vivid one. Antiochus had his army with him while Popillius was alone. Yet all the authority of the Roman Empire was behind Popillius. Recognizing this, Antiochus realized his only course of action was obedience.
Christ does not come to us in an overwhelming array of divine power. He comes in a quiet voice and bids us to follow him. Behind his invitation stands all the authority of the God who has given us life. Scripture warns against any other alternative: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12 NIV).
God bless you all,