The Perils of Unbelief

November 12, 2017 Series: Hebrews Scripture: Hebrews 3:7-12 by Chris Strevel

The TODAY of the Gospel (v. 7)

God’s Voice Our Only Life

At the heart of this section of Paul’s letter is a truth that fallen man denies: God’s voice is our life. If we are cut off from his word, we have no life and light. We shall stumble into a thousand dark and deadly pits, even calling them knowledge and virtue and liberty. Reckless perversity and polytheism have destroyed western civilization because have turned from God’s voice and word. God leads us along an older and narrower path, sometimes through the wilderness of affliction to prove our hearts and to teach us that we must live by every word that has come from his blessed mouth (Deut. 8:1-3). That ancient lesson is the same one that confronted these Hebrew believers facing persecution. The Holy Ghost spoke to them through the old but ever new word of God (Ps. 95:7-11). The Spirit thus reminds them and us that the old Scriptures were the living voice of God, the Spirit of Christ speaking through the prophets and holy men (1 Pet. 1:11).

It is important for us to be reminded of this, for high is the cost of holding fast to Christ, especially when the wicked are raging in their malice. Choosing Christ usually means choosing reproach (Heb. 11:25-26), not a life of ease, and many have stumbled out of the gate because they have forgotten this first lesson of discipleship. Thus, those struggling believers needed to be persuaded that the Holy Ghost was speaking to them, drawing new lessons from his older word. Since God had drawn near to speak to them familiarly, they must listen and trust that he will give them strength to endure persecution and to obtain his promises. Even more, since the Holy Spirit was talking to them, what else was this but God’s own pledge that he was with them, for when he gives us his Word, he gives us himself!

 If we are persuaded as we should be that God has spoken to us in his word and that the Holy Spirit is speaking to us in that living word, we shall not be afraid of monsters in our path. As long as my God is near to me, continues to give the sufferings and righteousness of his Son to me so that I am his and he is mine, let me face whatever terrors Satan may throw in my path, if only I may gain Christ and be found in him. This is what we are to think by this “the Holy Ghost says.” Let me not tremble at man’s threats but tremble with joy that my God is speaking to me by the Holy Spirit who indwells me. Armed with his word, I can face whatever the old man, Satan, and the world throw at me, for his word is an invincible shield. Let me hide behind thy voice in thee, God of my life and salvation!

Opportunity: Gospel God’s Offer

There is another reason for this solemn introduction. Others have faced decisive moments when the Lord has offered his word to them. This is what is meant by “Today.” Whenever God draws near to us in his word, he is offering life and salvation to us through his Son. We must hear his voice. The Israelites did not do this. Ten notable instances of disobedience (Num. 14:22) marked their rebellion in the wilderness, from Massah and Meribah, where they complained at having no water, to Kadesh Barnea, where they refused to obey God’s command to go up and take the land. They rebelled against God’s voice and gospel again and again. They missed all the “Todays” that God offered to them and thus brought crushing judgment upon themselves – forty years of wandering and death in the wilderness – all because they did not listen to the voice of God. This is compelling beyond words. All their suffering, loss, judgment and misery were because they would not yield to God’s voice, which was their life. It was the Garden of Eden again and again; the old world rejecting Noah’s preaching and being condemned to a watery grave. God’s voice is our life. When he speaks, when his word is preached, even when we read his word privately, it is TODAY – time to listen, believe, and obey. Grace has drawn near to us, for God does not give us his word, Son, and gospel to judge but to save us. Will we listen and live or rebel and die?

Urgency: Gospel Age Dominating

There is another aspect of TODAY that warrants our most careful attention. God was speaking and working in the days of Moses and the Israelites. He was preaching the same gospel to them as to us (Heb. 4:1-2). Yet, there is urgency to the gospel word of God today, for now Jesus Christ his Son has come and brought in everlasting righteousness. He has fulfilled all the promises; he is reality behind the types and symbols. The Word has become flesh and dwelled among us. There is no parallel to this in the totality of human experience. Never has there been condescension and mercy like this – for the holy and offended God to draw near in sovereign grace and friendship to condemned criminals who have violated his word and provoked his glory. Instead of drawing near to destroy, he draws near to give us abundant life in his Son. It was TODAY then, but it is especially TODAY now. The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:16), God by his Spirit drawing near to us. This sense of TODAY refers to the entire gospel age between Christ’s ascension into his glory to his return in glory to consummate his kingdom. This age is his mediatorial glory and kingdom (Luke 24:26).

Therefore, the rise and fall of men and nations are due not to impersonal economic and historical forces but to men’s response to God’s gospel in his Son. This is the flow of history – blessings for listening to the voice of the Son of God, curses for rejecting his voice. This is as true outside as inside the church, but especially here we must listen to his voice, for the church is his dwelling place. Judgment must fall particularly hard upon professing friends of the King who disobey his word (1 Pet. 4:17). His sheep listen to his voice and follow him (John 10:27). This is the primary way his true people and church are marked out in the world – not by ritual or external marks but by obeying the voice of our Shepherd and King. Hear him, I urge you, as the Father did on the holy mount, as the apostles did at Pentecost and throughout the world, as the large parade of heaven-sent preachers have done since their days, as history does now in its unfolding bleakness, poverty, and perversity wherever men reject his voice and his life. Hear the voice of Jesus Christ TODAY! There is life and salvation in no other name. Reject Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, refuse to yield to him as the King of kings, and you will walk in darkness (John 12:35).

The WARNING of Israel’s Unbelief (vv. 8-11; Ps. 95:7-11)

The Source of Unbelief: Not Hearing God, a Hard Heart

What follows is an extended warning against unbelief. It is a little shocking that the Holy Spirit compares Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness with the actions of these Hebrew believers. Most today do not think that what a man believes or does not believe is all that important. Everyone is free to believe what he wants, as long as it is personally meaningful and satisfying to him, and provided he does not impose his beliefs upon others. None but fools and those trying to deceive the masses ever adopt such an impossible and unworkable theory of truth and belief. Against the rebellious immaturity of modern men, belief is not person-to-person relative (and irrelevant), for truth is absolute, eternal, and grounded solely upon the self-revelation of God to man his creature, in nature, in man’s own heart, and in his revealed word. God has spoken. Legitimate belief is grounded upon the speaking God; “in his light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). God spoke to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and they rebelled against his word. He made promises to them, and they doubted him and complained. He gave them commands, and they directly disobeyed him. They were destroyed in the wilderness because they rejected his word.

The compelling thing is the parallel the Holy Spirit draws between Israel’s rebellion and ours – for all these things happened for our examples (1 Cor. 10:11)! They are divinely intended to be used to rebuke our unbelief and to warn us against doubting, distrusting, or disobeying God’s word. With the greater grace that is ours in Christ, there is a greater responsibility to receive his word with meekness (James 1:21). All the Scripture teaches and warns us in God’s will and ways. His word does not merely contain moral examples or spiritual lessons; it contains concrete example, warnings, laws, and directives for our lives. What he says is always our light; what he commands is our duty; what he reveals must be believed. But they did not listen to his word. Their hearts were untamed before the Lord. They “always erred in their heart” (v. 10) and did not walk in his paths. There is nothing worse than a heart untamed before the voice of God. There are no limits to which it might go in its rebellion. On the other hand, nothing is more precious to God than a meek and quiet spirit before him (1 Pet. 3:7). Godly men pray constantly with David, “Teach me thy ways, that I may walk in thy paths” (Ps. 25:4; 119:26; Isa. 2:3).

From the disobedient example of the Israelites, we learn the danger of a hard heart. We come into this world with darkened minds and stubborn wills, each of which is part of that hard heart that will not yield itself unto the Lord. Our hardness is intensified by our sinful choices and feeding of our corruption. That hardness can become vicious and beyond recovery, as it was with Israel, when we self-consciously sin against God’s word and grace, then persist in that sinfulness so that we become hardened in unbelief and disobedience. It is perilous to hear God’s word, know something of its truth, and then sin against it anyway. And so the warning comes – beware not listening to God! Beware a hard or hardening heart. Carelessness with grace can harden our hearts, as can sinning against known truth and against conscience. The heart is God’s throne, and he will have it for himself so that Christ Jesus can dwell there by faith (Eph. 3:17). Trials and prosperity alike are a temptation to harden our hearts against the Lord, and thus provoke him. If we do not run to him in our trials and trust his promises, our hearts can become hardened by fear and distrust of his love. In times of plenty, hearts grow hard under blessing, become presumptuous, and are not humbled by God’s goodness. The Israelites saw God’s deliverance at the Red Sea, but almost immediately doubted his faithfulness at Massah and Meribah. This is the likely reference of Psalm 95. If we have tasted of Christ, we must move forward to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to take him into our inmost being, defying the world and Satan’s assaults. If we pull back from God’s love and grace, allow temptations to make us doubt him and grow worldly, our hearts will grow hard against God. We will stop listening to his word with the enthusiasm, awe, or humility that once marked our attention. Beware! The Holy Spirit says, “Remember what happened to them because of their hard hearts.”

 

The Peril of Unbelief: Tempting and Provoking God

Unbelief is perilous because it tempts and provokes God. We are never to put him to the test. He is also jealous for us, as a husband for his wife. He has drawn near to us in covenant mercy. He has given his word to us. He gave that covenant and word to the Israelites. He sealed it with a multitude of incontestable signs and a mighty deliverance from Egyptian slavery. He sent a deliverer, Moses, in remembrance of his holy covenant (Ex. 3:23-25). Having all these promises and graces, Israel then doubted that the Lord would take care of them (Ex. 17:7). By this unbelief in God’s word, ungrateful forgetfulness of his faithfulness and provision, and distrust of his promises, they provoked the Lord’s jealousy. They tempted him to strike him down. In effect, they put him on trial – here we are – will you take care of us or not? We demand that you do so at this moment. We do not care what you have done for us in the past; do something now. This was such an evil heart of unbelief that it is a wonder that the Lord did not strike them all down at that very moment.

What are we to make of this? That nothing is as evil as having the Lord give us his word, testimonies to his faithfulness and love, and commands to obey that we might show our thankfulness for his mercy and love, but then to rebel against him and plug our ears against his word. The bloodiest tyrant in history will receive far less stripes than those who so provoke God and put him to the test (Luke 12:47). This is to sin with a high hand, presumptuously, to have God’s word near to you but to choose to disobey it. The danger is greater than we know, especially in the new covenant. It is true that his grace is wonderfully revealed in Jesus Christ, so that “as sin has reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:21). We may always confidently hang the hat of faith upon the hook of his grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. There is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1)! Yet, his grace must not be received in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). His grace teaches us to “deny ungodly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age” (Tit. 2:11-12). We must receive his word with meekness, or we reject it to our condemnation. God has drawn near to us in his word, and we must not provoke him by careless sinning or tempt him to wrath by our rebellion. These warnings are not given to make us to doubt his love but to remind us of the giddy weakness of our hearts so that we are driven to hold fast to Christ and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

The Consequence of Unbelief: No Rest

How patiently he bore with all their provocations in the wilderness, culminating in their rebellion at Kadesh Barnea, when influenced by the ten unfaithful spies, they refused to go up and take the land. That was enough. The Lord cut off that generation. No rest to them. Sin unsettles and disturbs. Sin is disobedience to God’s word, and as his word is peace through righteousness, sin makes peace impossible for unrepentant sinners. “There is no peace to the wicked” (Isa. 48:22; 57:21). This is just as true for us as for them – is not the Holy Ghost talking, drawing from what happened then warnings for us now, so that we do not “lust after evil things as they did?” When we receive God’s grace meekly, we willingly take our Savior’s yoke upon us and find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:29-30). Notice the connection between yoke and peace. What is his yoke? It is the same yoke he wore – delighting to do his Father’s will (Heb. 10:9-10), his “not my will but thine be done.” This is the pleasing, easy yoke of grace – to have our hearts renewed by the Holy Spirit and God’s law written on these fleshly tablets, so that like our Savior we love and obey our Father’s will. “This is the love of God, that we obey his commandments; and his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

We need not look further for the cause of the unrest of our day, the confusion that reigns in the hearts of many, and the divisions in the churches than our failure to understand the relationship between listening to God’s word and his peace. When we are worldly and determine to live as we please, when we rationalize our sins – our Sabbath breaking, why we do not avail ourselves of God’s preached word, or feel it is fine to criticize others who do not agree with us, or hold grudges, or love only those who love us – then we may be sure that we are provoking God. He is holy. We are now brought near to the consuming fire of his holiness, and of his grace and love (Heb. 12:29). He has given us his word, his gospel, and has made this whole age TODAY so that all may have abundant opportunity to hear, repent, and trust his grace. If we would enter into his rest, however, the full enjoyment of salvation in Christ, his peace and fellowship, the growing hope of eternal life, and righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost (Rom. 14:17), we must guard our hearts against unbelief. We cannot simply live with areas of disobedience in our lives, for Satan is stalking and the world is mocking. The moment of testing is coming, our TODAY, the TODAY of this generation. Where there is hardness of heart, which is always revealed through temptation’s pressure, we provoke his holiness and tempt him to chasten us. Where the hardness has become vicious, there is no remedy (Heb. 6:1-5).

Brothers, TAKE HEED! (v. 12)

That generation pained God to his heart. He was grieved with them, as we grieve his Spirit (Eph. 4:30) by willful sinning, not listening to his word, and not framing our lives around the most careful and joyful obedience to him. The only way we can avoid a wandering heart from God is to guard it carefully (Prov. 4:23). Is it true anywhere in us that we are wandering in our hearts from God’s truth, stubborn under his rebukes, and unwilling to yield ourselves to him? Repent TODAY! Some consider these warnings to be nothing but spiritualistic drivel, but be well assured that the condition of our hearts is at God’s heart. He will have not only our words but also and more importantly our hearts (Isa. 29:13). Nothing we do is acceptable to him if the heart is not fundamentally right with him through faith in Jesus Christ and his imputed righteousness. Nothing we do will bring satisfying joy to us as believers unless our hearts are growing in union with his heart through faith and obedience (John 15:9-11). These are the reasons we are told to “take heed.” Unbelief is evil. Do we not find it compelling that this warning is given to professing Christians?

Is there in any of us – at any time, in any one of us – an evil heart of unbelief? First, we must recognize that unbelief is evil. When God speaks and whatever he speaks about in his word, is absolutely the truth, and we must believe it all times. His word is not up for a vote, subject to man’s criticisms and investigations, or to be believed and obeyed only when independently proved according to the canons of human reason and experience. “Eternal in the heavens, thy word, O Lord, is established” (Ps. 119:89). “Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth forever” (Ps. 119:160). This is the very conviction we often lack. God has given us his word in his Son, and we must believe every word that has come from his mouth. All that is opposed to his word is a lie; all that is beyond his word is unnecessary and uncertain; all that is short of his word impoverishes and neglects his light that he offers to us.

Second, we must guard against unbelief, which forsakes the living God. What! Forsake the Rock of ages, the God of wisdom and revelation, the God of our, salvation in Jesus Christ? Turn from eternal truth that is able to save our souls? Many have and are doing so at this minute. Some started out in the church, but they began to distrust God’s voice. They gave way to their wandering heart and would not restrain their feet within the safe range and pasture of our Father’s voice. They began listening to others voices – no walk this way, think like this, do this. So many false prophets have gone out into the world, and our careless hearts are only too willing to listen. Understand that no matter how much you present know and profess to believe, no matter how strong you are or others think you, your only stability is to guard your heart, bring it before God for examination and sifting, and to seek from him the strength you lack in yourself. Can it be that churches here and around the world that once hosted the preaching of men like Luther, Calvin, Knox, Bucer, Chalmers, Spurgeon, and Palmer would now be sewers of heterodoxy and moral filth? Yes. That an institution like Harvard that was founded to educate men for the gospel ministry and was dedicated to the glory of God should now be a den of such iniquity that were its founders to return to it today, they would burn it to the ground this instant? Ah, they would, but they knew something we have forgotten.

Unbelief is evil. Rejection of God’s voice is evil. His word is our life because he is. We have light only if we walk in the light that he gives us in his word and in his son. This is the TODAY, the gospel invitation that we must hear, heed, and obey. Our life depends upon it. Reception into heaven depends upon our hearing the voice of the Son of God (John 5:25). Are you hearing him? Where is there unbelief in your heart, hardness against some of God’s precepts, or disobedience to what you know to be true but simply do not want to obey? Be careful. It is more dangerous to provoke God than to drink the deadliest poison.

 

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