Reading Hebrews – From Idols to Christ
Rev. Doug Floyd
We will continue our study this week in Hebrews. The lesson is from Hebrews 3:1-6. I’ll talk about Hebrews 3 and part of 4. I may not specifically read those passages, but you’re familiar with them because this is where he begins to talk about the promise of entering God’s rest, and the failure of Israel to do so. He quotes Psalms 95.
In the daily office, we pray this each morning,
“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.’ ” (Heb 3:7–11)
The rest of the passage is about coming to hear God’s voice, trust him, and enter into His rest.
This passage today is written at the backdrop of a story. We can think of that, it’s got a story behind it. I think we all love stories. I love stories. I love literature and films and listening to the stories of other people. I can’t count the times I’ve been so touched my eyes are full of tears. Then the commercial goes off. Stories can often touch us deep where we live and feel, or as Lucinda Williams sings, “Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.”
The Lord created us as storytellers and story listeners, and he begins his great revelation of redemption and glorification of humanity with stories. As we read the strange and sometimes confusing ancient stories in Scripture, the Lord shapes our imagination into the rhythms of his grace. Our lesson from Hebrews 3, is written against the backdrop of the story of the children of Israel crossing the wilderness to the Promised Land. The Feast of Booths or Sukkot is the festival that reverses and retells this ancient story.
When the Jews rehearse their history, they don’t clean it up and make it seem better than it was. They rehearse the story of human failure, human struggle, and God’s grace. That encourages me. Growing older seems to bring into clearer focus my own failings and struggle and doubts.
The story of the pilgrimage from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land actually begins in Egypt. While the Hebrews are still enslaved in Egypt, the Lord raises up Moses as a rescuer. In Exodus 7:1-2 we read, “And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land” (ESV). Moses becomes like a god in the land as he calls down plagues upon Egypt. While being pursued by the Egyptian army, he leads the Children of Israel through the middle of the Red Sea to safety while also drowning Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea.
Then Moses leads the people to Mt. Sinai and meets with the God of all Gods, atop the mountain in a terrifying display of fire and light. The glory is so stunning that Moses shines with God’s glory and must cover his face after meeting to keep from terrifying the people.
Moses receives instruction from God for the people about how to live, how to worship, how to cross the wilderness and follow into the Promised Land. He is commissioned to teach and guide them in the way of the Lord, for they are being shaped into a holy people, a nation of priests. Israel is to become a house of God in the midst of the world.
When Moses descends the mountain, he discovers the people are already turning toward idolatry in worship. In this case the idol is not a rejection of YHWH, it’s an attempt to worship the Lord using the patterns and structures they know from Egypt. They’re importing alien forms of worship into the way of YHWH. Before they even begin the journey toward the promised land, they are reshaping the worship of God into patterns of the world. This story is already telling our story, telling the story of human and our tendency to idolatry.
Once Moses addresses this situation and cries out to God on behalf of the people, they begin building the Tabernacle. The house of God in their midst. This Tabernacle is also a picture of Israel. For they are called to be the house of the Lord in the midst of the nations. According to Hebrews 3, Moses is serving this house: the House of God or the children of Israel called to be a royal priesthood.
According to Hebrews, the father builds the house, and Jesus is the son over the house. He’s the heir. Now he is referring to the church, so it’s this one house across history, the people of God. It’s a house that moves through time. The writer of Hebrews doesn’t even attempt to clarify all the allusions he’s making there, but he’s building a picture of a house that moves through time, a group of people where God dwells. Think about it, that’s what a house is. It’s where relationships dwell. When we build a house, the house is to contain the relationships.
But sometimes when we get at it the other way around, the house sometimes becomes just a marker for our wealth and our privilege. People build big houses, far bigger than what the relationships need, and then they spend all their time working to pay for their houses, and then they don’t invest in the relationships in the houses. Then, many times there’s fragmentation in the families, and suddenly the house becomes an image of the failure to build a dwelling place, which is true in every city in our country.
Moses is serving in the house of the Lord. He instructing Israel to be a holy people, set apart unto God. Now imagine the challenge: over two million people crossing the wilderness. It could easily become a state of absolute chaos with all the challenges of simply moving that many people. As the people travel, these face challenges. Most of us know those stories about the people thirsty and not having water, and God providing water from the rock. Or crying out for food, and God providing manna. Eventually getting frustrated with the manna, and God provides a quail.
The journey is a story of one struggle after another. When I read this story as a young person, I focused on their absolute failure, their tendency to doubt. The older I get, the more I realize I’m worse than they are. It’s very difficult to really rest in God’s faithfulness. Every little thing can set us off. The Children of Israel struggle with common human needs: food, the water, family conflicts, tribal conflicts.
There are several stories about questioning authority. Who’s really in power? There are threats from outside, dangerous enemies that threaten the tribes as they travel. Finally, we get to the first part of the journey, when they’ve reached the entrance to Canaan, and they send in 12 spies to look at the land. 10 spies come back and say, we can’t do it. It’s too dangerous.
The people ignore Joshua and Caleb’s positive report and listen to the fear. Numbers 14 records,
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Nu 14:1–4).
This is a direct rejection of the call of God. According to Psalm 95, it is rebellion and the Lord is ready to strike them down. Moses and Aaron intercede. The Lord spares the nation but judges that generation. They will die in the wilderness and their children will inherit the land.
We don’t have time to consider all the struggles of faithlessness in the wilderness, but I want to focus on their idolatry. It reveals their unwillingness to fully trust in God. Idolatry is usually not an overt abandonment of God for stone figurines. It is the subtle adoption of rituals or practices or thought patterns that begin to alter our understanding of God and shift our trust from God to self and to self-imposed or culture-imposed patterns of thought and action. To put it simply, idolatry is misplaced hope. It is placing hope for salvation in something, someone, or some idea other than God. This false hope not only shifts our focus from God, it subtly alters our perception of God and other people. The extreme result of idolatry in Scripture is human sacrifice. The image of God and humans has become so corrupted that the idolater thinks God requires us to sacrifice one another.
Before we assume that we are incapable of such abhorrent behavior, we must pause a bit longer over this theme of idolatry. N.T. Wright explains that idolatry “is always the perversion of something good.” He continues, “Greed—worshipping the appetites and what they feed on—is the perversion of the God-given instinct for the proper enjoyment of the good creation.”[i] Idolatry is the subtle shift from God at the center of our lives to something or someone: friendship, entertainment, job, financial security, political parties, health, personal goals or dreams, and even church. A thing, a person, or even an idea can move toward the central focus or trust of my life.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, we meet a series of characters who are idolaters. One man’s pursuit of justice keeps him from discovering the perfection of justice in the cross of Christ. One woman’s obsessive love of her son prevents her from knowing the true love of God in Christ. These characters choose hell rather than giving up the idols they cling to with absolute abandon.
Wright points out that the proper response to idolatry is not a denial of the created world including our feelings and thoughts. Rather, it is a fresh turning toward Christ. Freedom from idolatry can only come through Jesus Christ.
Throughout our lives, we will find ourselves pulled in different directions or gradually losing sight of our central trust in Christ alone. Our response is simply to repent and return.
When Moses commissions Joshua to take his place he says, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Dt 31:7–8).
Joshua must lead the people by trusting in the presence and guidance of the Lord just as Moses did. In today’s lesson, the writer of Hebrews explains that Moses is a faithful servant but Jesus is the son of the house, that is the heir of the house. The house is the people of God in ancient Israel and in the church. The builder is God the Father. Moses served the Lord in this house, but his work was pointing to fulfillment in Jesus, the heir of all things. Jesus is the Son over the house, “and we are his house, if indeed we hold fast to our confidence and our boasting in hope” (Hebrews 3:6).
This last part, we are his house, “if indeed we hold fast to our confidence and our boasting in hope” is a word of warning and exhortation to the church. We will face the same challenges of ancient Israel. We will grow weary. At times, we will question God’s provision. We will be tempted to trust in people, places, ideas, money, and many other things along the way. We must return to Christ each day, each morning, each hour. For He is present and leading us by His Sprit.
As Augustine wrote, “Christ as God is the country to which we go—Christ as man is the way by which we go.”[ii] Christ is leading us to the land of promise, the place of rest. Christ is the rest, the Sabbath in whom we live and move and have our being. Thus our whole passage through life is learning to trust in Christ. As we read in Hebrews 3:14, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Just above that we verse, we read, “[E]xhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. We grow in faithfulness to the Lord together. Thus even in the baptism service, the whole congregation is exhorted, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
This is our commission for every believer in the body. We support one another in our lives in Christ. We exhort one another daily by prayer, words of encouragement, and words of wisdom.
The commission that Moses gave to Joshua is a commission that each of can hear “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn…It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Or as the writer of Hebrews reminds us by quoting Psalm 95, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Heb 3:15). This warning is not to create fear, but to remind us that the Lord is present. We must not let our lives be shaped by fear, loneliness, depression, lust, greed, anger, or any other idol. We must turn and keep turning to the Lord who is present, who is speaking and who will lead us. Let us not harden our hearts but take heed and listen and wait.
Jesus Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1:3). He upholds the universe by the word of his power. He also became human and lived through our sufferings and temptations and struggles. In the cross and resurrection, He ascended to the right hand of the Father and now intercedes for us as our Great High Priest.
He is the very one who leads and speaks to us by His Spirit. He is leading us into his rest today. For today is the day of salvation. We’re not looking to the past simply remembering what God has done for His people. We are not looking to the future for the time when He will finally let us escape our problems. No, we look and listen and wait for Him today.
Today we lift up our doubts, our struggles, our health problems, our fears, our questions, our hurts, our anger, our temptations, our failures. We lift up our heart and lives in all our messiness and struggle and wait for Him today. He is present, He is faithful, and He will lead us into the fullness of His rest.
[i] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 223–224.
[ii] Philip Schaff, ed., The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886).