There’s nothing quite like being at home after a long absence or journey. In the course of my work I have travelled a few times to Japan. The trip would often begin on a Sunday evening with an overnight flight to Tokyo and an internal flight to Osaka. We stayed in a fabulous hotel and worked from Tuesday through to Friday. The return trip lasted about 20 hours from door to door, but what a great feeling it was to be back at home!
Hebrews chapter 3 is about Israel finding rest in the home God had given them. God had promised Abraham and his physical descendants, (Isaac, Jacob and the people of Israel) a land for ever, he had promised that Abraham’s descendants would form a great nation and that they in turn would bring blessing for all the nations. This ‘Abrahamic covenant’ is one of the key themes in the bible (see Genesis 12, 15 and 17) – it is the start of God’s plan to restore mankind and it is important to understand that this rescue plan is centred on Abraham’s physical descendants. The restoration plan would ultimately involve installing a replacement for Adam with a new ruler on earth. This new ruler was to come through the nation of Israel and his rule was to be centred in the city of Jerusalem. God promised king David that it would be through his line that this new ruler would come (2 Samuel 7). When he comes (the Messiah), he will come in power and will come to Jerusalem to set up his eternal kingdom (see for example Zechariah 14).
For this plan to be realised, there needed to be a nation formed from the descendants of Abraham. Things didn’t exactly get off to a great start! Abraham took matters into his own hands when he and his wife believed that God needed some help to enable them to have a child! When a child (born under miraculous circumstances) was born, Isaac didn’t exactly demonstrate himself to be either a good father or one who would listen to God’s instruction! Jacob, Isaac’s son wasn’t a great father either, showing favouritism and causing fights and disharmony amongst his 12 sons! Despite this, God was at work bringing about his plans to form a nation, a people through whom a new ruler would come. It wasn’t until the time of Moses that the nation really started to form and take shape.
Over the centuries, the nation of Israel has seen turmoil beyond comprehension. As we will see, this is much to do with their own disobedience, but one day they will find rest in their land. This 3rd (and 4th) chapter of Hebrews speaks of this rest and how it can be realised.
- Moses and Jesus
Moses is one of the key characters in the bible story, his name appears 803 times in the NIV translation of the bible! Some commentators have noted that the original role of Adam was as a ‘mediatorial ruler.’ What is meant by this title is that a man was appointed under God’s overall sovereignty to have specific rights and responsibilities to rule over God’s created world. We know that through Adam’s disobedience control of the world was taken by Satan who declared that his ambition was to make himself ‘like the most high.’ It seems that as God’s plans started to develop in creating the nation who would bring about the coming of the true mediatorial ruler (the Messiah) that the Moses was given his position as a mediatorial ruler. His role was to be God’s appointed ruler over Israel as it formed into a nation fit for God to use. In this sense it seems that Moses was a kind of forerunner of Christ. Just as Christ will become mediatorial ruler on earth, so Moses became mediatorial ruler over the nation and people though whom God would bless the nations of the world.
I recall with clarity coming home from school on the 24th of January 1965. I had not reached my 6th birthday, but I remember as I stepped into the house through the back door, my mother saying that Winston Churchill had died. It meant little to me as a young child, but it was a day of significant sadness for our nation as the great man who inspired and lead the country through the dark days of World War 2 went to meet his maker. In the early 1950s, Winston Churchill met privately with Billy Graham – you can read an account of that meeting here: Winston Churchill and Billy Graham – it makes for interesting reading. For the Hebrews, Moses was akin to what Winston Churchill is to the British. It was Moses who guided the people out of slavery in Egypt, it was Moses who set up the governing structure of the people and who instituted under God, a religious system that united the nation. The writer to the Hebrews describes Moses thus: ‘Moses was faithful in all God’s house. (verse 2b)’ and ‘Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house (verse 5).’ No doubt the Hebrews would nod in agreement.
So, Moses was revered by the Hebrews, but what is this about him being faithful in God’s house? We tend to think of God’s house as the Temple and we sometimes refer to a physical church building as ‘God’s house.’ This is not what is meant here! The Greek word (oikos) means ‘an ordered unit.’ It can mean a household or even a nation – in the sense of an ordered organisation. Interestingly, if you ever visit the Churchill war rooms (the underground government offices used at times during WWII) in Whitehall you will see a card on Churchill’s place at the conference table, on it are these words: ‘Please understand there is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat, they do not exist.’ These words were first spoken by Queen Victoria and they refer to her Royal household. The house over which Moses presided involved the nation of Israel, characterised by the giving of the law as a governing principle for the life of the nation, the physical presence of God and the role of Moses as a mediatorial ruler.
Despite Moses’ great contribution to the nation and his role as mediatorial ruler, the writer to the Hebrews contrasts Moses’ with Jesus – they were not to fix their attention on Moses, but rather on Jesus. Why? Because ‘Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses (verse 3).’ Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, but Christ is ‘faithful as the Son over God’s house.’ In case there is any doubt as to the identity of the house, the writer states ‘we are his house.’ The Hebrews are his house.
- Jesus greater than Moses
Israel’s history is marked by repeated and catastrophic spiritual failure. There is no doubt that the enmity spoken of in Genesis 3 between the serpent (Satan) and the woman (Israel) has contributed to the difficult experience of Israel in this world, but the nation itself has repeatedly failed to be faithful to God. We can think of their failure to enter the promised land after their remarkable escape from Egypt, their failure in the wilderness (when they created and worshipped a golden calf), their failure as they set up the nation in the land, their failure to listen to the warnings of the prophets, their failed kings, the list goes on an on. Why was this? It seems that there are three reasons. First and foremost, the will of the people. The people collectively had the ability to do what was right, but they chose to follow other gods rather than follow the true God of the universe. Second, on a personal level the law as given through Moses could not fully deal with the sin nature of the people. Sins could for sure be covered by the blood of animals, but there remained within each individual person a sinful nature and a heart of stone – this does not mean that none could be in fellowship with God, many lived faithful lives and were obedient to the procedures of the law in so far as they were able. Thirdly the mediatorial rulers of Israel, Moses included, were ordinary men affected by the sin nature. The combined effects of this brought Israel to a sorry place: they rejected the warnings of the prophets, they rejected the Messiah himself, and they rejected the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
For Israel to fully realise the promises given to them and for God’s rescue plan for this world to be accomplished, something new was required. Moses was not enough, but Jesus is enough! Jesus brings the possibility of change form hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, from lives dominated by the sin nature (for which the law could do nothing to change) to lives energised by the Holy Spirit and a new nature.
Next Sunday evening at our church we will have communion, we will read Paul’s words when he quoted Jesus who said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ It is the new covenant that brings hope for Israel and us too! What is the new covenant? It is the promise (originally given to Israel) of an internal change brought about by the sacrifice of the Lord. The writer to the Hebrews has much to say about this later in the book, but for now we should note that this is not only our hope today, but it is Israel’s hope for the future. One day their presently hard hearts will experience a change: ‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son (Zechariah 12).’ Why? Because the new covenant will at last be accepted by the people, here’s how Ezekiel saw it (I give the full quote as it’s important!): ‘31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”’
- The warning
Israel has not experienced the rest they were promised. They did not experience it when the entered the land under the leadership of Joshua and they have not experience it since. But there is a day, when Jesus will become the appointed mediatorial ruler. He is qualified as he is the son of man, the son of God and the son of David. When he is king, he will at last lead the people into the rest they were promised. That rest will effectively restore conditions on the earth to those that were experienced before the fall of Adam. As far as I can see form God’s word, that day can only come when Israel repents and is ready to receive their king. There is thus a warning for Israel not to repeat their past failures! Verse 7: do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath,‘They shall not enter my rest.’ The message is clear for future Israel: don’t do what you did in the past! It seems that as the nation puts its trust in God, that they will become subject to a dreadful onslaught from Satan who by that time will realise that God is closing in on him in judgment. We can’t go into all of this now, but this time is not called the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble’ for nothing (see Time of Jacob's trouble for more on this).
The advice to the Hebrews is thus to be on their guard, to encourage one another, to be obedient and not to repeat the failures of the past. Such obedience and faithfulness would indeed bring about God’s promised rest. This surely speaks to us too. Once we have experienced God’s forgiveness we cannot be lost, we are his children, we cannot be un-born again, but we can lead disobedient and unproductive spiritual lives. Let’s take note of the warning to the Hebrews not to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.