A Warning Against

the Deceitfulness of an Unbelieving Heart

The context for today’s passage is an admonition to professed believers based on a comparison and an analogy. The comparison is to the work of Jesus; the analogy is to the work of Moses. The writer affirms the perfection of the work of Jesus in that he is both merciful to sinners and faithful to God. This completed work depended on his labor as a man, like his brothers in their nature, in his work of propitiation. The effect of that work is the certainty of its success. He, indeed, has made propitiation for the sins of the people and will certainly, therefore, bring many sons to glory. The next paragraph summarizes the message of Hebrews, so give careful attention to each part of it. It is an explanation of the comparison between Christ’s faithfulness and ours.

The success of the work of Christ was infallibly established in the eternal covenant. That is, it was not possible that he should not be successful in his mission on earth. Nevertheless, his success was not attained apart from the faithfulness with which he obeyed the mandate given him by his Father. God’s decrees always involve the moral texture that causes them to be consistent with his character. So it is true that Jesus’ success was established by the eternal counsel of God and yet also was attained by His obedient life. When God’s eternal counsel is viewed in proper relation to Jesus’ earthly effort, we see immediately that neither trumps the other but that there is a perfect integration between the two. In the same way, the final safety of the sons for whom he died depends on their faithfulness to the message by which they were brought to an ostensibly genuine profession of faith in his saving work. His death secures their salvation but their salvation is not attained apart from their faithfulness to the gospel message. 

Chapter 3 begins by establishing this principle: “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him . . .” Jesus could not fail, but his success was directly dependent on his being faithful to the specific appointment received from the Father. Those who have received the call of the gospel and presently confess faith in Christ’s priestly work, must consider the implications of Jesus’ faithfulness.

Moses, as a servant in the house that God is building, finished his task with faithfulness in his receiving of the Law and his leadership of the people till the time they were to enter the promised land. While he was faithful, most of them, that had the same advantages as he, were unfaithful. Moses’ faithfulness was a vital element of the construction of the house of redemption. Jesus, greater than Moses and the consummate architect and builder, gives completion to this house. The question is, “Are we of the material that Jesus had placed in this completed house?” Though Moses was more strategically placed in the overall scheme of things flowing from the redemptive decree, our place as part of the house is analogous to that of Moses. As a servant, he was faithful in God’s house and so must each part of the house Christ is building maintain faithfulness in its own setting. The writer answers the question by stating the thesis of the letter as it relates to the hearers of the message. “We are his house [whose house we ourselves are] if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (verse6).

A. T. Robertson notes, “The author makes no effort to reconcile this warning with God’s elective purpose.” Robertson’s statement, however, misses the emphasis of Hebrews as well as the theology of election. The writer is showing the manner in which God’s electing purpose works itself out in the lives of the elect. In the same way the life and obedience of Christ shows how God’s determination for the success of his Son’s labors (“whom he appointed the heir of all things” 1:2) proceeds step by step through the obedient life that ends with a sacrificial death, so he shows how God’s electing purpose is manifest in the faithful and obedient pilgrimage of “the people,” Moses and all who constitute God’s house (2:17).

I. A biblical example of forsaken privilege – verses 7-11

A. In his quotation of the Psalm 95:7-11, the writer points to the inspiration of the passage: “”As the Holy Spirit Says.” The word translated “therefore” or “wherefore,” points out that this Scripture reference is immediately relevant to the situation of these Hebrew Christians.

B. “If you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” To the subjects of this Psalm, God spoke by Moses, by signs of power, and through the giving of the Law. They could not see the marvelous grace that was theirs in being a nation set aside for a special purpose by the one true and living God. Hard hearts always resist every display of God’s holy character and purpose. They are much like the devil himself who has come only to kill and steal and destroy, rather than give life.

C. When the newly released slaves from Egypt came into the wilderness they soon forgot the mighty acts of God that had delivered them. Nor did they consider the importance of their faithfulness as a nation for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. They looked merely at the present hardship that interrupted their pleasures and expressed a desire for garlic, leeks, and onions rather than usefulness for the glory of God in his redemptive purpose. Their wisdom is from below, earthly, unspiritual and demonic and is dominated by selfish ambition, jealousy, and disorder.

D. They did not respond to judgment, but continued to seek their own pleasure and trust their own wisdom. They failed to enter even when God’s promise was clear of their success; they sought to enter then on their own strength when God had withdrawn his protection and found themselves soundly defeated. For forty years they saw his provision of food and the maintenance of their garments. All of this was provided for them, as Paul says, by Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4). In other words, in pursuit of his messianic purposes the Son of God preserved this nation in the wilderness.

E. Even though they were partakers of all these advantages and walked in the same company with Moses and Joshua and Caleb, God was provoked with them for they still went astray in their hearts and, after so much opportunity, “they have not known my ways.

F. The result of this failure to embrace the eternal purpose of God through their deliverance resulted in their failure to enter God’s rest. This refers to the gaining of the land promised to Abraham, but even beyond that, the rest of salvation that comes through faith in the redemptive work of God. The writer reiterates all this in verse 16-19 by pointing to the startling reality that these not entering God’s rest are those that were led “by Moses,” and yet sinned by their constant posture of unbelief.

II. A warning about unbelief 12

A. Because of their profession to have received the Messiah, the writer addresses all of his readers as brothers.

B. They must be keenly aware, however, that even with all the advantages they had had, and in spite of the fellowship in which they have participated, their hearts could still be attached to this world and its comfort, pleasure, and apparent safety. Even at this stage of experience, still some could have “an evil, unbelieving heart” that would make them depart from the living God.

C. The reason they would depart is that presently they still are under the power of a heart that has not found its rest and pleasure in the surpassing excellence of knowing Jesus Christ. They have not counted all things as loss for him (Philippians 3:7, 8).

III. An Important admonition – verse 13

A. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Therefore, the way for faith to come to those that might still be bound with a hard heart, is for exhortation to be the common diet of the fellowship of believers. As Paul told Timothy: (2 Timothy 4:2, 3) “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching” but will seek those that court favor with them by approving their present passions.

B. It is a lamentable fact, that many who even now are in places where they hear the truth, enjoy at an earthly level the company of spiritually-minded people, and have confidence in a good standing with God, nevertheless, will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Their confidence is in something besides the sovereign, unmerited mercies of God as given through Christ. Either their confidence is placed in some manner of personal goodness that they find endorsed in a church context, or they hold the profession loosely, ready to forsake the harder teachings and the tougher discipleship central to true Christian faith.

C. The knowledge that sin is deceitful and that perseverance in truth is requisite to genuine saving faith will engender the right kind of alarm and care in the true believer so that he will take precaution not to fall into unfaithfulness or unbelief.

IV. A Present Faith will not vanish, but remain firm to the end – 14, 15

A. In a verse similar to verse 6, the writer infers a future attitude from a present state. Those that hold fast their confidence in Christ alone to the end presently are “his house” (verse 6). Those that hold that original confidence in Christ “firm to the end” are those that presently share in Christ. Those blessings that are resident in Christ, all those spiritual blessings that are in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:4) are found in Christ and those that believe share them. Paul said that “the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” This alone gains that saving share in Christ.

B. The warnings in Hebrews are means through which sincere faith is affirmed and by which it may be tested. These warnings are not given under the assumption that a saved person could re-harden his heart or could change from being a believer to being an unbeliever, not are the warnings even hypothetically aimed at warning a true believer that apostasy will end in an irreformable condition. They are given in light of the subtle deceitfulness of the human heart under the assumption that some might be among them that profess on the outside but will in the end prove to have had, all along, “an evil, unbelieving heart.” Some of those, even yet, might be brought to a discerning frame of mind by these admonitions and repent of their hypocrisy and be saved. The awareness of the danger of deceit will be a provocation to the believer for courage, faithfulness, healthy self-examination, and endurance in the things that develop spiritual growth and strength.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts

Get a Free Book!

Get a FREE COPY of Luke Griffo’s The Beauty of the Binary when you support Founders by becoming a Founders Alliance Member during the month of June!