If you had to choose a word to sum up the theology of the book of Hebrews, you might choose the term “better.” Jesus is superior to the angels, Moses, any high priest in Israel’s history, and a greater priest-king than Melchizedek. He is a more perfect sacrifice for sin than all the bulls and goats slaughtered on Yom Kippur for 1,500 years. The covenant of Christ’s blood is superior to the one made with Abraham or those made with Israel at Sinai and Moab. Something else which has been improved beyond description is God’s “rest.”
In Hebrews 3:7–4:13, the writer gives his longest exposition of the entire book. He begins by quoting, with minor alterations, from the Septuagint (Greek) version of Psalm 95. You may note the differences in Psalm 95 in your Old Testament, especially in 95:8 (cf. Heb 3:8), mainly in the use of the terms “meriyba” (rebellion) and “masa” (testing). In the Masoretic Text, compiled about A.D. 1000 and the basis for modern English Old Testament translations, these words appear as proper nouns. They point to the events of Exodus 17:1–7 and possibly the post-wilderness story of Numbers 20:2–13. In these instances, Israel had grumbled and complained about God’s inability to provide them water. In both cases, God miraculously provides water from a simple rock. God was put to the test by a short-sighted people of little faith.
A plain reading of Hebrews 3:7–4:13, and a study of most scholarship, reveals the author did not have the stories of Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 in mind, but rather the stubborn rebellion and resulting wrath of God in Numbers 13:25–14:38. God had promised Israel the lush land of Canaan, an oath Israel should have had great confidence in considering the recently witnessed miracles of the exodus. How could God not defeat the armies of Canaan when He just brought the mightiest superpower of the age to its knees? Caleb and Joshua had faith, but the cowardly influence of the other ten spies carried the day. The sentence for those twenty years old and up was to die in the wilderness instead of entering the Promised Land.
The Hebrew writer’s warning to his Christian audience is to not repeat the mistakes of ancient Israel. He emphasizes the immediacy of “today,” the current gospel age. We cannot delay or falter in making the right decision. Those who declare Christians can never “fall away” cannot read this passage and maintain this position with intellectual honesty. We often quote Hebrews 4:12 without consideration of its context. While this is a beautiful and inspiring verse standing alone, it is much more poignant when seen as the crescendo of this powerful exhortation. God has given us His Word and demands compliance. We are obligated to learn it and obey it. In 5:11–6:12, the Hebrew writer again emphasizes growing in scriptural knowledge to avoid falling away.
The faithless Israelite’s failed to believe the promises of God and missed out on entering His “rest.” There is a much better “rest” promised by God for those under the new covenant who “strive to enter that rest.” Even David, while sitting in the land of promise, knew the “rest” provided by Joshua’s near-conquest of Canaan was not the absolute end to the exodus of God’s people (4:7–8). The end of the road for the people of God is Heaven, a perfect place of “rest’ where God rested (4:4). Let’s all strive to know the Bible better and learn of His commands, character, love, and faithfulness. God keeps His promises. I hope to see all of you at the last “rest” stop on life’s highway.