The Lord's Day Morning
March 10, 2013
“Don't Stop Believing”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 3. It's been three weeks since we've been in Hebrews together, so allow your eyes to look back to Hebrews 3:1-6. We’re going to be concentrating on verses 7 to 19 this morning, and refresh your mind as to the content of that passage because it will help you understand why the author of Hebrews is addressing us about this particular topic this morning.
If you look at Hebrews 3 verses 1 to 6 you will notice that the author of Hebrews is comparing Moses and Jesus and he compliments Moses’ faithfulness to the Lord in his service of the Lord to the children of Israel in the Old Testament, but he comments as well that Jesus is faithful over God's house as His Son. Moses was faithful in God's house as God's servant; Jesus is over God's house as God's Son. So it's a passage that speaks of the superiority of Jesus even over Moses. Now this is very significant because one of the temptations that this congregation is facing is that many of them, having come out of Judaism into Christianity, are now being tempted to leave Christianity and go back into Judaism. And so showing the superiority of Jesus over Moses is a very important part of the author of Hebrews’ pastoral counsel to them. And of course it also spawns what he's going to do in verses 7 to 19.
You will notice in verses 7 to 19 he takes you to Israel in the wilderness. And it's as if thinking about Moses’ faithfulness in leading Israel in the wilderness gets him thinking about Israel's unfaithfulness while they are in the wilderness. And that is the topic of the passage that we're going to be studying today. If you notice – now some of your Bibles will have it in all capital letters and some of your Bibles will have it set apart as a quotation and some of your Bibles will simply have it in quotation marks – there is a large chunk of Psalm 95 that is quoted in the passage this morning, from the very last sentence of Psalm 95 verse 7 all the way down to verse 11, that whole chunk of Psalm 95 is quoted in Hebrews 3. By the way, I opened up with a quotation from Psalm 95 in the Call to Worship that are the words that immediately precede this section that is quoted in Hebrews 3. Now from Hebrews 3:7 all the way to Hebrews 4:14, the author of Hebrews is essentially giving you a commentary on, a sermon about, an application of Psalm 95 verses 7 to 11. So this is an extended sermon based on Psalm 95 preached to Christians designed to warn them not to turn their back on Jesus and go back into the Judaism from whence they had come. Don't turn your back on Jesus the Savior; He's superior to Moses and then in this passage it will be shown that Israel was unfaithful in the wilderness. So going back to where you've come from is not going to be the answer because Israel herself was unfaithful in the wilderness. That's the context for the passage that we're going to be studying together today.
Let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing as we read His Word.
Heavenly Father, this Word is for us. It's not just for Christians who lived two thousand years ago or for Jewish people who lived twenty-five hundred or three thousand years ago; it's for us. And so we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word and that by Your Holy Spirit You would apply this truth to our hearts right where we are today. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it, beginning in Hebrews 3 verse 7:
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’’
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
There is something important for us to learn about the living of this life. There's something important for us to learn about the living of the Christian life from the story of Israel's journey in the wilderness. Have you noticed that, on more than one occasion, New Testament writers take Christians to the story of Israel in the wilderness and they treat the Christian life as if it were a new exodus and that we are to learn from both the mistakes and the triumphs of the children of Israel in the wilderness how we are to live this Christian life? Well this passage does that. In fact, as I was reading Hebrews 3 verses 7 to 19 I immediately thought of 1 Corinthians chapter 10 where the apostle Paul does the same thing. He takes us back to the rebellion in the wilderness and he warns us not to make the mistakes that the children of Israel made. But in this passage, the point of the author of Hebrews is not to criticize the Jewish people of old, but to warn Christians now about the dangers of unbelief. In fact, in this passage, I want you to see at least four things that he teaches us about the living of the Christian life. We've said all along that the book of Hebrews is about Christ and the book of Hebrews is about the Christian life. And to live the Christian life you have to fix your eyes on Jesus. Well once again, the author of the Hebrews has four words to us about the living of the Christian life.
HEED THE BIBLE
And the first one you will see in the very first words of verse 7. Look at that verse with me. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice” — now let me just cut off in the middle of the sentence because already, in just those words out of the partial sentence, we see the first words that the author of Hebrews has for us in the living of the Christian life. And it's this — Heed the Bible, and even the Old Testament, if you want to live the Christian life. Heed the Bible, and the Old Testament, if you want to live the Christian life. Now you say, “Well Ligon, I'm not sure exactly how I see that there in verse 7.” Let me explain. Notice that he is about to quote Psalm 95 verses 7 to 11. That's what's going to come beginning in verse 7 of Hebrews chapter 3 running all the way down to verse 11. And he introduces that quotation from the Psalm, from the Old Testament, with these words, “As the Holy Spirit says.” So this is not just the psalmist writing something about the history of Israel that has nothing to do with Christians; it's the Holy Spirit speaking to Christians in the Psalm.
Furthermore, notice what the next word is. “As the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today -’” Now he’ll repeat that if you look down in verse 15 of Hebrews chapter 3, he’ll repeat that phrase again. “Today, if you hear his voice.” He's emphasizing that when the Holy Spirit says what He says in Psalm 95 verses 7 to 11 He's not speaking a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, He's speaking to you today. These words are for you. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they are for you so that you can know how to live the Christian life. Now Paul says that, doesn't he, in 2 Timothy chapter 3. “All Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that the man of God may be equipped for every good work.” And the “all Scripture” that he's talking about there in 2 Timothy 3 is especially the Old Testament Scriptures. It applies to the whole Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, but what has he just said to Timothy? “Timothy, your grandmother and mother taught you the Scriptures when you were on their knee.” Now Jesus was not alive when Timothy's grandmother was alive. She was alive before Jesus. Timothy's mother would have probably been a contemporary of Jesus. So the Scriptures that Paul is speaking about being profitable there are the Scriptures that the church possessed before the New Testament was written — the Old Testament! And Paul is emphasizing that those Scriptures are not dusty, musty history texts that are boring and irrelevant for believers; those Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit so that we would know how to live the Christian life. And so the first thing that I want us to see is that the author of Hebrews wants us to heed the Bible, and even and especially the Old Testament, if we want to live the Christian life right.
HEED THE WARNINGS OF THE BIBLE
The second thing is this. Look with me at verses 7 to 9. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.” Here, the author of Hebrews says, “There is a warning for you, Christian, in the unbelief and the rebellion of Israel in the wilderness. And so, if you’re going to live the Christian life, you need to heed the warning of the Bible, not as a discouragement to you but as an encouragement to you to live the Christian life.” That's the second thing we learn. Heed the warnings of the Bible. They’re not meant to be a discouragement to you, Christian. They’re meant to be an encouragement to you to live the Christian life.
Let me explain. The children of Israel, as you know, get out in the wilderness, they have been miraculously delivered from the bondage and slavery of Egypt into the freedom of God's promise, on the way to the Promised Land, and they get out into the wilderness and it's hot and it's hard and they’re scared. And what do they start to do? They grumble; they grumble against God and they grumble against Moses. And they say, “We had it so good in Egypt! It was great being a slave. It was great being beat up by somebody and not paid and mistreated and it was just wonderful. I just wish we could go back to Egypt!” And they grumble against God and they rebel against Him. And what does God say? “Not one of this generation, not one of this generation is going to enter into My land. Only Joshua and Caleb out of this generation will enter into My land because you didn't believe Me. You didn't trust Me. You didn't believe My promises. You didn't believe My providences. You didn't believe the good news of My bringing you out of Egypt that I was going to bring you into the Promised Land. It's because of your unbelief that you’re not entering in.” And the author of Hebrews shows you that story in order to warn us against unbelief because unbelief if the great enemy.
And so I want you to understand how these warnings function. You know I've talked with a number of you since we started this series on the book of Hebrews and it's quite interesting. I've heard two repeated themes. Several of you have said to me, “I'm enjoying studying through the book of Hebrews because that book has always been hard to me. It's been hard to understand and I feel like I'm understanding it better as we work through it.” And it's true; it is a hard book. All of the commentators in this section, all of them, talk about how hard to understand this section can be. There's some very challenging things in this section of the book of Hebrews. And so some of you have been saying to me, “You know, I feel like I'm understanding Hebrews a little bit better because it's a hard book.” The other thing you've been saying to me is, “You know, I've always been a little scared of the book of Hebrews because there are some hard warnings in the book of Hebrews and sometimes those warnings have really disturbed me.” And this is the second warning. And Hebrews 6 and Hebrews 10 are looming. There are more warnings to come.
So it's very important for you to understand how these warnings work. The author of Hebrews is not trying to unsettle sensitive and sincere Christians who are engaged in the normal fight with sin in the Christian life. And it happens all the time. I talk with sincere, sensitive Christians who are struggling with the fight of sin in the Christian life and they come to the warnings of Hebrews and they end up in my office saying, “Am I a Christian? Have I fallen away from the faith?” And they’re deeply disturbed by the warnings that they encounter in the book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is not trying to discourage sensitive and sincere Christians who are struggling with sin. Let me tell you something, when you begin the Christian life you are going to be in a fight against sin in your life until the day you die. And the fact that you are in a fight against sin is not a sign that you are not a Christian, it is a sign that you are a Christian. People who are not Christians are not worried about the fight against sin. They’re worried about where they can get more of it. It's people who are fighting against sin that have been changed by the Holy Spirit. There would be no fight in you against sin had the Holy Spirit not changed your heart. So the author of Hebrews is not trying to discourage sensitive, sincere Christians who are struggling with sin. That is the normal state of the Christian life. That's not the exception to the rule; that's the rule in the Christian life. It's because we're alive that we're fighting against sin. If we were dead in sin we would not be fighting against sin. It's because we're alive by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that we're fighting against sin.
So what is the author of Hebrews trying to do in these warnings? Well, his purpose is to warn those who are considering turning their backs on Jesus and trying to find their hope somewhere else. This congregation has some people in it who have come out of Judaism and their Jewish contemporaries and friends, maybe even some Essenes from the Qumran area, because we know now what they taught, they may have come into contact with some of these folks and said, “Look, you can have everything you’re looking for in Judaism as long as you will turn your back on Jesus and come back to Judaism.” And the preacher here in Hebrews is preaching a message and here's the message. “Do not turn your back on Jesus!” He's warning them with all he's got. Don't turn your back on Jesus! And what is he saying in this passage out of Psalm 95? He's saying, “If you turn your back on Jesus, you will be just like the children of Israel in the wilderness who turned their backs on God. They got out in the wilderness and it got hard and they turned their backs on God and they looked back where? To Egypt, to their bondage, to their slavery, to their sin.” And he said, “If you turn your back on Jesus, you’re turning your back on the one person who can help you. If you turn your back on him there's no hope anywhere else.”
And my friends, that's a contemporary problem. You show me a Christian who is struggling with an incredibly difficult burden in their life and I’ll show you a person who's tempted to not believe that Jesus can really help you. You know, you run into Christians who have been deeply hurt and wounded in the context of the church and sometimes you see Christians do what? You see Christians wounded in the church and they bail on Christianity. You know, “I got hurt in the church. I'm done with Christianity.” You know it's interesting. I was listening to a sermon by John Piper that he preached at Southern Baptist Seminary a few weeks ago and he's preaching on 2 Timothy chapter 4, the second half of the last chapter that Paul ever wrote in a book. And he's commenting on the fact, and you’ll see it in 2 Timothy 4:16, which I think is one of the saddest verses in all of the Bible, that Paul was largely abandoned at the end of his life and ministry. Do you remember what he said? When he got up to give his testimony, his defense, before the Roman court in Rome, he said, “None stood by me, but all deserted me.”
And there are Christians that have those kinds of experiences in life. They feel deserted, abandoned, betrayed by other Christians, and then they make this deduction — “I've been let down by the church; I've been let down by Christians. I'm leaving Jesus.” And as Piper preaches that sermon he says, he just blurts out, “I hate the devil! Because here's what Satan tempts you to do. You've been let down by Christians so you decide since you've been left by Christians you’re going to leave the one person, the one being in this universe who will never leave you or forsake you. That's what Satan tempts you to do! You've been let down by Christians so you’re going to leave the one being in this universe who will never leave you or forsake you!” And you see, the author of Hebrews is saying something like that. He's saying, “Don't turn your back on Jesus. He is the one being who will never let you down and you will not find hope outside of Him or apart from Him.” That's what he's saying in this passage.
HEED THE DANGER OF UNBELIEF
And that leads us to a third thing. I'd like you to look with me again now, starting in verse 12, but you can glance down at verses 15 to 19 as well. Here, the author of Hebrews says this — Heed the danger of unbelief. Heed the Bible, heed the warnings of the Bible, heed the danger of unbelief. Look at verse 12. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart.” Look down at verse 19. “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” The author of Hebrews is saying the root sin, the master sin, that led the children of Israel into disobedience and rebellion and ultimately destruction in the wilderness was? Unbelieving. They stopped believing God. They stopped believing His promises. They stopped believing His providence. They stopped believing His good news. They lost faith. And he's saying, “Christian, don't do that. Don't stop believing.” We live the Christian life, how? He will make this case in Hebrews chapter 11 — “we walk by faith and not by sight.” And so my friends, the battle to believe is very much at the heart of the Christian life because unbelief is a root sin, it's a master sin, it leads to all kinds of other sin, and ultimately to death.
Look at what he says again in verse 12. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart” — what? “Leading you to fall away from the living God.” Do you believe, Christians? You know, you don't start the Christian life with faith to leave that behind. You live the Christian life by faith. And let me say, as glorious and dramatic as some of our conversions are, when we just come completely out of darkness and into His marvelous light, there are trials in the Christian life that can be just as dramatic, where you’re forced to ask yourself the question, “What do I really believe? Who do I really trust? What really matters to me? Where is my faith? Where is my hope? Where is my trust? Where is my treasure?” And the author of Hebrews is saying, “When you get to those points in the Christian life, do not stop believing. Continue to believe God's promises. Believe His power. Believe His providence. Believe His Gospel, because we walk by faith and not by sight.
ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER TO BELIEVE
And that leads me to the fourth thing that I want you to see. Look again at verse 13. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Do you see what he's saying? Not only heed the Bible, not only heed the warnings of the Bible, not only heed the danger of unbelief, but heed the call to encourage one another. Don't stop believing, keep on believing, but encourage one another to believe. You know, Nate Shurden mentioned some of our runners in the congregation and he called into question your integrity when you say that you like to run. Well I observe our runners too. You know, we have some ultra-marathoners in this congregation. They will run a hundred miles. And very often they will take along with them a friend who will run part of the way with them just to encourage them because it's just such an exorbitant amount of mileage to travel while you’re running. And I'm sure there's a term of art for that person who runs along and encourages you, but that's what they’re supposed to do. When you’re running a hundred miles, maybe they run forty of it with you. They couldn't run a hundred miles themselves, but they can run far enough to just encourage you to just keep going, keep running, don't give up, keep on.
And the author of Hebrews is saying we need to do that with one another in the Christian life. We need to say to one another, “Keep running! Don't stop! Don't stop believing! Keep on going! Don't fall away! Don't turn your back on Christ!” We need one another. And we need to be exhorting one another. Recently, two of your elders and I had to sit down with a pastor from another church, not one of our ministers but a pastor from another church in our capacity as we serve in this presbytery. And it's one of those conversations you never want to have. It was about a moral failure and it was a poignant time. And after we met with that dear brother, one of the elders who's been a friend of mine for a long, long time, looked me in the eye and he said, “Ligon, don't fall. Don't stumble like that. Don't make the mistake that he did.” And those words pierced my heart because don't think that I hadn't been thinking that the whole time that we were meeting with that brother. I thought, you know, the chairs could be reversed here. You see, that wasn't a discouragement to hear; that was an encouragement. That was a brother who is with me in the fight and he's not just going to let me fall without encouraging me, “Brother, keep running. Don't stop believing. Don't stumble and fall. Keep on going.” That's what the author of Hebrews is saying we need to do with one another because the Christian life sometimes is a wilderness.
I'm so thankful when you find yourselves in those oases that come in life where you just feel like, “I just want to stay right here, Lord.” I love it when you give me the testimony that the lines have fallen for you in pleasant places. But I also know that even when those lines have fallen for you in pleasant places there are hard places in your life that you have to deal with, and when you’re there, there is a temptation to stop believing and to fall. And that's why we always need to be exhorting one another, “Don't stop believing. Don't stop running. Keep believing on Jesus. Don't fall away.” We need one another, brothers and sisters. You see, that's the encouraging message of the author of Hebrews. He's not trying to discourage you with this warning; it's quite the opposite. His point is to encourage. Keep on. He knows it's hard. It's a jungle out there, a wilderness out there, but keep believing. Let's pray.
Lord God, we thank You for this word. We know that we need it, so help us sing with faith as we sing about faith in this next song and keep us from falling. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
Would you take your hymnals and turn with me to number 499 and we’ll sing, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.