As we consider the remainder of the third chapter of Hebrews, we must remember what we have already learned about the house of Christ. He is the Lord over the same house in which Moses served. We see the importance of understanding this as we consider the duty of repentance under the New Covenant.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’” Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief (Heb. 3:7-19).
The author of Hebrews quotes here from the 95th Psalm. The theme of the psalm is clearly salvation (v. 1), and clear, humble worship (vv. 6-7). When the Lord’s voice speaks, and a man hears it, and the day can be called today, then he has a moral duty to not harden his heart. The one addressed should not sin in the same way that his fathers sinned. A very common temptation confronts Reformed Christians influenced by the prevailing baptistic assumptions around us. This temptation is to draw contrasts between us and the Jews in the wilderness at precisely the points where the New Testament is drawing parallels. But the author of Hebrews is here saying that we need to listen in just the same way that they needed to listen. We need to guard against hardness of heart in just the same way that they needed to guard against hardness of heart. Brethren, he says, take care that an evil heart of unbelief not be found in any of you. Any of you what? Any of you brethren.
So the writer is saying, “Brethren, beware.” This is the larger purpose of the entire epistle. The words of the psalm are applied to these first century believers. The speaker addresses them as his brethren, which means they are also brethren to Christ, and to Moses . . . and to those who fell in the wilderness. This means that scriptural warnings based upon what happened to the Jews in the wilderness are applicable within the new covenant. Moreover, they will be applicable as long as a man can say, “Today.”
Apostasy is a real sin, committed by real people. This is something that Arminians get, and that most Calvinists do not get. None of the elect can every be taken out of God’s electing and sovereign decree. This is something that Calvinists get, and that Arminians do not get. Arminians can read Romans 8 through 11 and not see the absolute sovereignty of God, which is something that never ceases to astonish me. But lest we Calvinists get on a high horse, Arminians can read though Hebrews and can see real apostasy there. There are few things more exegetically embarrassing than to hear a Calvinist talk about how the warnings are hypothetical, like “keep off the grass” signs in the middle of the Sahara. There are many things that can be said to this, but the most compelling of them is that the warnings invariably deny that they are anything like hypothetical. Like here. “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” The rebellion referred to was not hypothetical, and neither was the warning to not do it again.
We are talking about the sin of unbelief. The sin warned against here is that of evil unbelief, pure and simple. Not only is it unbelief, it is unbelief resulting in apostasy — departure from the living God, falling away from the living God. The sin is spoken of in the sternest possible way — rebellion, hardened hearts, evil heart of unbelief, and a departure from God. Now, in order to depart from the living God, I have to have been in some measure, in some way, connected to the living God. Can I depart from the ultimate decrees, made before the foundation of the world? Of course not — that would be nonsensical. But can I fall away from a real, covenantal union with Christ, a union that exists objectively here in this world? Absolutely, and that is what this epistle is seeking to prevent.
These warnings are addressed to those who have been partakers of Christ. The word partaker is important in the book of Hebrews. The word is metochos, and we see used in various ways in the book. All of them are addressed as partakers of the heavenly calling (3:1). Partakers of the Holy Spirit cannot be brought to repentance if they fall away (6:4). All legitimate sons are partakers of God’s chastening (12:8). And here, those who hold their confidence firm to the end are genuine partakers of Christ.
So who falls away? The warning in v. 12 is to those who would be tempted by their evil heart of unbelief to depart from the living God. But one cannot depart from a place where he is not. Who was it who fell in the wilderness? Were they not those who had been led out from Egypt by Moses?
We see the warnings are directed against those who were in covenant with God, but who fell into unbelief. This book is about the sin of apostasy. Can a Christian fall away? Yes. Can someone who is truly regenerate, elect of God, an eternal Christian, fall away? No, clearly not. This means that unbelievers within the covenant receive a stricter judgment. The Bible teaches us that men are divided into three important classes—unbelievers outside the covenant, unbelievers within the covenant, and believers within the covenant. At the last day, there will only be two categories, but until that day, as long as it is called today, the three categories are still being sorted into two categories.
Those in this second category fell in the wilderness many years ago. And so shall we, if we do not believe. If we are the elect of God, we will persevere in that evangelical belief. If we are not, then we will not. But in either case, we are in the covenanted household of Christ unless and until we depart from it.