Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Blessing of the Righteous (Psalm 1)

The book of Psalms was not haphazardly put together.  In particular, the first Psalm was put here in the first place, not because it was the first psalm written, but because its content matter is meant to be a fitting introduction to the psalter and provide the context in which worship and praise and lament and prayer can truly happen.  With that in mind, there are three things highlighted in this psalm that I think are worth noting at the outset.

First, this is a psalm about what it means to be truly blessed.  Note how the psalm begins: “Blessed is the man” (1).  Isn’t it interesting that in the first recorded sermon of our Lord, his message also begins with the same word (the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5:3-12)?  This is important because, as the author of Hebrews puts it, we will not come to God in any meaningful sense if we don’t believe that he is and that is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6).  No one is going to want to worship God and sing and pray to him if they think all that God wants to do is to take away our happiness.  True religion, expressed in the kind of public worship which the psalms are meant to inspire, is in fact the overflow of hearts that have found true and lasting happiness in the Lord.  The apostle John writes, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 Jn. 1:3-4).  According to the Bible, knowing and worshiping God is not about losing your joy, it means replacing false joys with fulness of joy.

And this has been duplicated in the experience of the saints throughout history.  You see this repeatedly expressed in the book of Psalms.  For example, in Ps. 4 we read, “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good?  LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.  Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased” (4:6-7).  Ps. 116 opens with a glad-hearted expression of love to God: “I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications” (116:1).  In his first epistle, the apostle Peter appeals to the experience of his audience by saying this: “Whom [referring to Jesus] having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).

Of course, it is important to remember two things about this blessedness, and which will become clearer as we look at this psalm.  First, the blessedness spoken of here is a state that does not depend on our emotions; it is something which depends upon God.  God is the one who pronounces by his word who are blessed and who are not.  We may not always feel blessed, but this psalm assures us that the blessedness of the righteous is in no way dependent upon their fickle emotional status.  Second, the blessedness spoken of here can only be properly evaluated in light of the future.  You see in the contrast between the righteous and the wicked that is sustained throughout this passage.  But the contrast is not between the earthly goods of the righteous and the lack of earthly goods of the wicked.  Rather, the contrast is focused on the end of the righteous and the wicked.  You can see this especially in verses 4-6.  You don’t decide the blessedness of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) by looking at the rich man in his palace and Lazarus begging on his doorstep.  You evaluate who is or is not blessed by looking at their ends: the rich man in hell and Lazarus in heaven.  This is the same way we ought to evaluate the blessedness of our lives.  That does not mean, of course, that God does not bless his people now.  Of course he does.  But he also blesses the wicked this side of eternity – he sends rain (earthly blessing) on the just and on the unjust (Mt. 5:45).  We have to take the long view when looking at what it means to be truly blessed.

Second, this is a psalm about God’s word.  Does it surprise you that a book which was essentially meant to be the hymnal for the Old Testament community of God’s people starts off with God’s word?  It shouldn’t.  And it shouldn’t because unless our worship is informed and shaped and bounded by God’s word, it cannot be true worship.  God is not only worshipped in Spirit, but also in truth (Jn. 4:24).  We must have both: light as well as heat.  It is truth which causes us to grow spiritually.  We grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).  If we don’t want our worship to become a kind of syrupy emotionalism, we need to have our minds informed by the truth of God’s word and our affections enflamed by the truth of God’s word.

Finally, in the way of general observations, this is a psalm about the contrast between the righteous and the wicked.  There are three contrasts presented throughout this psalm that underline the blessing of the righteous and the blight of the wicked: Law vs. lawlessness; tree vs chaff; justification vs. judgment.  In the first two verses, the lawlessness of the wicked is contrasted with the love of God’s law by the righteous.  Then, in the next two verses, the fruitlessness of the wicked is contrasted with the fruitfulness of the righteous (3-4).  Third, in verses 5-6, the condemnation of the wicked is contrasted with the acceptance of the righteous by God. 

One of the really important things we should take from this is the simple observation that there are only two types of people in the world, the righteous and the wicked.  You are either one or the other.  And what puts you in the category of the wicked is not that you are like Hitler.  Rather, it is that you despise God’s law and instruction.  We need to remember that as we hear what this Psalm says about the wicked.  Also, although it is a good thing to emphasize that our acceptance with God does not in the final analysis depend upon our works (for we are saved by grace), yet neither must we say that works play no part in the life of the righteous or that the righteousness considered here is only positional.  No, my friend, the righteous man is a man who lives in righteousness.  He does not walk in the way of the wicked (1).  The implication of verse 2 is that he walks in the ways of God’s law.  Is he perfect?  No, and the book of Psalms bear this out.  There are plenty of Psalms (32 and 51, for example) that magnify the grace of God in forgiving repentant sinners.  But we must not go to the other extreme and think for a moment that if you are living in sin in despite of God’s word you are okay.  You are not.  This is not just an OT teaching, it is very NT also: “If ye know that he [God] is righteous, ye know that everyone that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 Jn. 2:29).  And, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 Jn. 3:10). 

That’s the big picture.  But let’s now take a closer look at the first psalm.  I take the first word of the psalm as the key to the whole: “blessed.”  The meaning of this word can escape us if we only associate it with steeples and stain glass windows.  To be blessed simply means to be happy.  It’s also the meaning of the word our Lord uses in the Beatitudes.  What I want to do now is to look at how this psalm approaches this whole idea of blessedness or happiness by asking three questions: (1) What does this psalm teach us about how to be happy? (2) What happens when a person delights in God’s word?  What does a happy/blessed person look like?  (3) Are there any other ways a person can obtain this happiness?

What does this psalm teach us about how to be happy?

Everyone is seeking happiness.  It is universal.  No one wants to be unhappy.  But at this point the Biblical instruction regarding how to find it diverges from what most folks in the world are doing to find happiness.   But if we want to be truly blessed and happy, doesn’t it make sense to seek direction from the one who made us?  And we have this sort of direction in the psalm before us.  To see this look at the first two verses.  Here we have something to avoid and something to embrace.  This in itself is worth some consideration: happiness in the sense that the psalmist is speaking is not something you are just going to stumble over, like your couch in the middle of the night.  No, there are some things we must do.  It is not just automatic; I must do something.  Let us beware of a fatalistic mentality.  The fact that God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure does not mean that we are not supposed to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13).  It is true in this case as well.  If you want to be blessed, then pursue it.  But you must pursue it in the way that God has ordained it to be found.  “The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22).  That’s the kind of blessing that I want.  So how do we get it?  By attending to two things.

There is something to avoid.

First, we see that the blessed, or happy, person is a person who avoids the wicked.  In particular, he or she avoids the advice of the wicked, the avenue of the wicked, and the assembly of the wicked.  They avoid the advice of the wicked, for the righteous man is the man “that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.”  This does not mean that the righteous man only reads the Bible, or that he is unwilling to look at a book written by a non-Christian.  But it does mean that he or she is discerning.  They know when what is being said is contrary to God’s word, and they avoid it.  They know that it is wrong and that they should not follow it.  Our Lord likens himself to a good shepherd who cares for his sheep.  But there are also false shepherds out there, who want “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (Jn. 10:10).  However, “when he [the good shepherd, our Lord] putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.  And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:4-5).  The blessed man or woman knows that the word of Christ is good for them, and they therefore reject everything that conflicts with it.

They also avoid the avenue of the wicked: “nor standeth in the way of sinners.”  They do not follow a multitude to do evil.  They do not go through the wide gate or walk along the broad path that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14).  They way of sinners can be very tempting because it is often the path of least resistance.  It is the most popular way.  It is the way most sympathetic to our carnal lusts.  But it is a way of death.  The righteous man knows this and avoids it. 

They also avoid the assembly of the wicked: “nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”  Now this does not mean that the Christian must not participate in the world, or that we must adopt a self-righteous attitude and go about as if we were better than those who are not followers of Christ.  We are not.  We are saved by grace: we have no right to look down our noses at anyone.  The fact that we ourselves are followers of Christ is owing to nothing in ourselves, but only to the grace of God.  So we don’t shun ungodly company for that reason.  Also, we are commanded to be light and salt, and how can we do that if we are not shining in the darkness and salt among the putrefying elements of the world?  We are in the world, but not of it (Jn. 17:15-19).  We witness to the world, but we do not join the world in the enjoyment of evil.  In particular, we do not adopt with them an attitude that makes light of the things of God.  The world mocks because they are blind; but the saint sees.  We know the reality and the relevance of eternal things.  There is a rejoicing with trembling (Ps. 2:11). 

So those are three things we avoid.  But there is not only something to avoid; we must not only put off, but we must also put on (cf. Eph. 4:22-24).  In particular:

There is something to adopt.

What is that?  Well, we see it in verse 2: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”  The godly man and the godly woman avoid the way of the wicked by adopting an attitude of delight in and obedience toward God’s word.  How do we know when the counsel of the ungodly is ungodly?  It’s not that ungodly men and women can’t say anything good.  The unbeliever has contributed many good and useful things to society.  The only way to have the discernment is to weigh it by God’s word.  Or how do we know when behavior is bad (the way of sinners)?  It is by looking at it in the light of God’s word.  How do we avoid the attitude of the mocker?  By bathing ourselves in the truths of God’s word.  In other words, the way to walk not in the counsel of the ungodly, and the way to avoid the way of sinners, and the way to avoid sitting the seat of scoffers, is to know and love and obey God’s word.

It is God’s word that is being highlighted here under the term “law.”  We shouldn’t think this just refers to the five books of Moses.  Law, torah, means “instruction.”  In that sense, the entire Bible is torah, both Old and New Testaments.  The godly person delights in the instruction of the Lord.  They have the attitude, not of the scoffer, but of Samuel, who was instructed to say when God called out to him, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth” (1 Sam. 3:9-10).  The blessed man does not chafe at God’s word because he knows it is good for him.  “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 Jn. 5:3).

But I do want to point out that we shouldn’t minimize the fact that God’s word here is referred to as law.  Some people think that law always means legalism, but it doesn’t.  Freedom and joy aren’t found by abandoning God’s law but by obeying it.  It is when we know the truth – truth which is comprehended in both doctrine and duty – that we are made free (Jn. 8:31-32).  Christ calls us to take his yoke and to become his disciples, but his yoke is easy, and his burden is light (Mt. 11:28-30).  I recognize that some boundaries are superficial and artificially imposed and therefore are not necessary and can in fact hinder true freedom.  But God’s boundaries, boundaries which are dictated by his word and law, are never arbitrary and are always for our good.  I love how God’s word is referred to in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus: they are “sound words” or “healthful words” (cf. 2 Tim. 1:13; Tit. 2:1).  God’s instruction, his torah, is always for our good and make us spiritually healthy.

The godly man does two things with God’s law.  First, he delights in it.  Like the prophet Jeremiah, who said, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16).  Or like the psalmist: “How sweet are thy words unto my taste!  Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103).  And, “I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold” (119:127).  To see the truthfulness of God’s word is to see its beauty, and to see its beauty must inevitably lead to delight. 

And this is so important.  It’s important because if you don’t find God’s word a delight, it will become a heavy chain about your neck and an imposition upon your life.  Those who delight in God’s law will seek to keep it, will seek to conform their lives to it.  It’s what keeps them from being deceived by the advice and avenue and assembly of the wicked.  Delight will lead to doing, whereas to grumble at God’s word will always lead to disobedience.

Then he meditates upon it day and night.  You have to remember that in ancient times, people didn’t have household copies of the Bible in their homes.  But they heard it from the priests, and they were to keep it in memory and were to ruminate upon it at all times.  This is what God is getting at when he gave these instructions to Moses: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:6-7).  God’s word was to be a constant companion.  In other words, this is not just a command to memorize God’s word and to meditate upon it during a discrete “quiet time,” but it is a description of the man or woman who takes God’s word with them into every aspect of life.  We are not talking about something you do and then forget about; we are talking about the discipline of applying God’s word to every task that we give ourselves to.  This is a very practical thing.  Delighting, of course, will lead to meditating.  What we delight in, we think about.  And what we think about, we do.

Which means that if we are stuck in a certain pattern of disobedience, the place we need to focus on is the place of God’s word in our affections.  Do we find it more desirable, more truthful, more amiable, more wonderful than the deceits of sin?  We need often to pray, “Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight.  Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness” (Ps. 119:35-36).

Do you want to be truly happy?  Do you want to blessed with God’s blessing?  We cannot have it apart from avoiding the way of the wicked and by adopting a heart that delights in God’s word.  “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Mt. 5:6).

What happens when a person delights in God’s word?  What does a happy/blessed person look like?

At this point, the psalmist gives us an analogy.  He has told us what the godly man does, now he tells us what he is like.  And he does this by painting a picture for us: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (3).   It is the picture of a tree planted by what were probably irrigation canals.[1]  There are therefore two significant things about this tree.  First, it was intentionally put where it was: it was planted.  And second, it was planted in a place that would guarantee lots of water all throughout the year.  There were plenty of “rivers” in Israel that were only full some of the time, during the rainy season, but during the rest of the year would have been dry.  Not so the irrigation canal.  Here was a tree that was sustained with a sufficiency of water at all times.  It is this to which the righteous are likened.  But what in particular is true of the righteous?  Three things.


What is it about this tree that makes it different from so many others?  Well, first of all, it is a fruitful tree: “that bringeth forth his fruit in his season” (3).  In the book of Jude, we are told what apostates from the faith are like.  They are like clouds without water, and “trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots” (Jude 12).  Our Lord uses a similar analogy, but with a vine and branches.  He tells us that fruitless branches are taken away and thrown away and cast into the fire (Jn. 15:2, 6).  However, “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (15:5).  Fruit here is a metaphor for good works, for a life that brings glory to God and good to people.  So the analogy of the tree here in the first psalm tells us that the godly are people who bring forth fruit unto God.  And this is not a sporadic thing; it is characteristic of their lives.


But that is not the only thing.  They are also beautiful: “his leaf also shall not wither” (3).  They are made so, not in physical appearance, but in their spirit.  The fruit of the Spirit, which is produced in their lives, makes them beautiful: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).  When Paul says, “against such there is no law” he is saying that everyone recognizes that these virtues are good.  It’s why Paul will exhort Titus to tell servants to show “all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Tit. 2:10).  To “adorn” means to make beautiful and attractive.  That is what the fruit of the Spirit does to the Christian. 

Of course this is a lifelong process.  Thank God that we are a work in progress!  That even though our outward man is perishing and getting older and more decrepit, out inner man is being renewed day by day.  The outward beauty of the Christian may and will diminish, but their inward beauty grows day by day.

The world only knows how to adorn the outward man.  But makeup will not make up for the lack of inner godliness.  My friends, let us advertise the goodness of Christ by displaying the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.


Next the psalmist writes, “and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (3).  Let us be careful that we don’t interpret “prosper” here in a modern American sense.  This does not necessarily mean a big house and a nice car and lots of comfort.  In fact, it could involve tremendous suffering.  Think of our greatest example, Jesus Christ, who said, “Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.  He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.  If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be” (Jn. 12:24-26).  To be fruitful at least means dying to yourself.  It may even mean martyrdom.  But death is followed by life.  Those who overcome will be crowned (cf. Rev. 2-3).

Again, we must view success, not from the standpoint of a Donald Trump, but from the standpoint of God.  My friends, you can be the most successful businessman or woman and go to hell.  What good then was all your “success”?  But even the lowliest Christian will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your lord” (Mt. 25:21).  Can any amount of earthly comfort replace the joy of hearing those words?  That is success.

In fact, even our trials can often be the source of our greatest fruitfulness.  Spurgeon put it this way: “Our worst things are often our best things.  As there is a curse wrapped up in the wicked man’s mercies, so there is a blessing concealed in the righteous man’s crosses, losses, and sorrows.  The trials of the saint are a divine husbandry, by which he grows and brings forth abundant fruit.”  It is why the apostle Paul would say, “we glory in tribulations also” (Rom. 5:3).

Are there any other ways a person can obtain this happiness?

The answer is no, and you see this especially in verses 4-6: “The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.  Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.  For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the wicked will perish.”  

Scripture recognizes that the wicked will often prosper in this world (cf. Ps. 73:3; 17:14).  But ultimately, they will face the judgment from the God they have rejected and whose word they mocked (cf. Ps. 73:16-19).  Note the comparison here: the psalmist doesn’t compare a healthy tree with a dead tree, but he compares a tree with chaff.  Chaff is completely useless, something which can only be burned.  And chaff has no real rootedness; it is thrown up into the wind by the winnower and the wind blows it away.  In contrast, the tree of verse 3 has roots.  It is secure, it is unmoved and unmovable.  This is like the saint; we have real security because of who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do for us.

The final contrast is so important: “for the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous” (6).  We should not interpret this merely in terms of bare knowledge, for in that sense God knows everything, including the wicked.  This is knowledge in the Biblical sense of love and care and concern.  God knows and cares about the needs and the weaknesses of his people.  No matter how great the wicked become, no matter how famous they are, no matter how much power they accrue, God’s people are always in a better position because they are the friends of God.  God is for them in the truest sense.

How so?  Because of who Christ is and what he has done.  How is God for us?  Paul answers: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?  Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?  It is God that justifieth.  Who is he that condemneth?  It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:32-34).  Let us not think that we can become the righteous man or woman of Psalm 1 apart from Christ, for it is in him that we receive righteousness and are justified, and it is by his Spirit that we are made righteous and sanctified.  It is in Christ that we are known by God in the sense of Ps. 1:6. To be outside of Christ is to be in the way of the ungodly who will perish.  So come to Christ, trust in him, rest in him, for it is only in him that you will find that God is for you in the truest and highest sense.

[1] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms [EBC] (Zondervan, 2008), p. 82.

Monday, August 16, 2021

What’s the problem with unbelief? (Heb. 3:14-19)


We live in an intellectual environment that makes faith in God, not to mention faith in the truthfulness of the Christian Scriptures, look uncool and unreasonable.  Unbelief in such things is seen today not as the hallmark of wrongful sin but of rational sense.  You don’t have to look far to hear people say that the existence of God is something that simply has never been and cannot be proven.  These are people who think of themselves as modern and scientific.  I had a student once who told me flat out that he didn’t understand how I could be a mathematician and a pastor at the same time.  It boggled his mind that someone could embrace science and faith simultaneously.  For him, and for many others, these are irreconcilable contradictions.

So for many people around us, religious unbelief is not only not bad, it’s good.  Which makes the passage we are considering this morning very counter-cultural.  For the main idea of this passage is that unbelief is not only bad, but that it comes with terrible consequences.

Let’s get to the passage itself.  In verse 14, we are given a reason why we should exhort one another to persevere in the faith.  The reason is that “we are make partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end.”   This is very similar to the statement in verse 6, that we belong to the household of Christ, “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.”  We’ve argued that passages like these show that perseverance in the faith is not optional, and therefore we should use every available means that God has given us to press on “toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). 

In verse 15, we are reminded of the Psalm (95) that the exhortation of verses 12-13 is based on.  It also provides the context for the following verses (16-19).  And in these verses, we are told that the main reason why the wilderness generation of the Israelites failed, and why they did not end up entering themselves into the Promised Land, is because of unbelief.

Verse 16 in the KJV is translated as a statement, but in almost every modern version, it is rendered as a question.  So, for example, the ESV translates it this way: “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled?  Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?”  Now it doesn’t materially affect the overall meaning, but I think the modern translations are correct.  One of the main reasons why they put this as a question is because of the parallelism in verses 16-18.  All three verses are pulling from the imagery and language of Psalm 95, quoted in verses 7-11.  Verse 16 corresponds to verse 8, verse 17 to verses 9-10, and verse 18 to verse 11.  So if verses 17 and 18 are a question, shouldn’t we also translate verse 16 as one?  This seems to me to be a very strong argument for rendering it in the same way.

Now you may wonder why this is even a problem.  Why not see which verses have a question mark and which ones don’t?  Problem solved!  Well, the reality is that the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament were uncials, which means in part that they didn’t have much punctuation.  That was added later, and so in some sense question marks are themselves an interpretative addition to the text by later copyists and translators.  That doesn’t mean that it is in general hard to discern where they should go.  But in a few cases, there can be a question made about question marks!  However, I do want to reaffirm that whether or not you put verse 16 as a statement or a question doesn’t materially affect the meaning or the interpretation of the overall text.  The basic idea remains the same.

But what is the basic idea?  The author is reminding us why the wilderness generation of the Israelites were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land.  They weren’t allowed to enter because they provoked God by their rebellion (16), because they sinned (17), and because they did not believe (18).  But what I want to underline here is that all of this is summed up in terms of unbelief in verse 19: “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.”  In other words, their unbelief was the summit of their rebellion and sinning.  And it was therefore their unbelief that was the fundamental reason why God did not allow the rebellious Israelites entrance into the Promised Land.

Now I want to focus on that reality today.  In particular, I want to show you why God considers unbelief so bad, and therefore why we should continually maintain and grow in our faith.  But to do that I first need to push back on the idea that faith is bad, that religious faith and faith in the Bible is only for cultural Neanderthals, and that to be intellectually grown up we have to reject our religious commitments.  Having done that, I want to go on to consider what faith is and to think about some reasons for faith as the alternative to unbelief.  And finally, I want to show that unbelief is primarily not based on reason but on rebellion against God, and how therefore unbelief in particular dishonors God.  That is to say, this morning we want to consider the faith of unbelief, the alternative to unbelief, and the evil of unbelief.

The faith of unbelief

As we’ve already pointed out, a lot of people today will claim that religious faith is untenable today, that the scientific mind cannot consistently be religious.  And they will triumphantly claim that there is simply no proof for the existence of God, end of story.

Many times, you will find that the argument goes like this: you are religious, and I am secular; you base your ideological commitments on faith, and I base mine on proof.  And to them, this shows the superiority of the secular mindset to the religious one: science versus faith, proof versus piety.  But there is a real problem with this line of reasoning.  The problem is that no one has beliefs that can be proven down to the bottom.  Or another way to put it: everyone has beliefs that they cannot prove.  That is to say: we all live by faith.  There are no exceptions to this!  The person who rejects Christianity for the secular mindset has not gotten rid of faith commitments.  They have simply replaced one set of faith commitments for another.

How is this, you might ask?  Well, if someone tells you that there is no proof for God, you might ask them what constitutes proof.  For many people, when they say that they want proof for God, what they mean is that they won’t believe in God until science proves God.  And what they mean by that is that there must be scientific evidence for God that everyone will accept.  Or that you must have an argument that everyone will accept, no matter what.

Now I do think science points towards God, and that the universe itself and the laws which govern its motion point to God (of which more later).  But that aside, let’s consider the problematic statement that one will only accept scientific statements about God.  It’s a problem because it cannot bear its own burden of proof.  What they are essentially saying is that science is the only door to knowledge or that I cannot know anything apart from the deliverances of science.  But how do you prove that by science?  How do you prove scientifically that science is the only way of knowing?  What sort of experiment will you run for that?  The answer is that there is none, and there isn’t one because to say that science is the only door to knowledge is not a scientific statement, it’s a philosophical one. 

Or consider the statement that we should only accept propositions that can be rationally proved, like a mathematical theorem.  Don’t get me wrong: I think reason is good, but again, that’s not a statement you can prove.  As one theologian has put it, “Obviously, you cannot prove a norm of rational proof without using it.  So reason can make a case that it is the way to truth only by appealing to itself.”[1]  He goes on to write that “both the statement ‘there is no supernatural reality beyond this world’ and the statement ‘there is a transcendent reality beyond this world’ are philosophical, not scientific, propositions.  Neither can be empirically proven in such a way that no rational person can doubt.  To state that there is no God or that there is a God, then, necessarily entails faith.  And so the declaration that science is the only arbiter of truth is not itself a scientific finding.  It is a belief.” [2]

Is secular unbelief better than the Christian faith?  Is it a good thing to abandon faith in God?  Well, no, and what I am trying to point out is that one of the main reasons that people give for this is inadequate.  They think they can prove everything they believe, and religious people cannot, and therefore the secular accounting of things is better than the Christian one.  But this is false.  They too accept things which they cannot prove.  They too live by faith.  They too accept things without absolute and unassailable proof.  It’s simply not enough to argue that if I cannot pull God out of a test tube, therefore God must not exist.  For you too have beliefs that cannot be proven in any laboratory.

Some things that people cannot prove but accept are things like the belief in the progress of civilization, a belief in human rights, a commitment to universal human dignity, and a belief in right and wrong.  Today there is a lot of kerfuffle about the environment.  Okay, but why should we care about the environment?  Why should I care about later generations?  Why should I not be selfish, and what makes that wrong?  You cannot prove that I should be selfless with respect to the environment or with respect to anything else for that matter by pointing me to science.  Science doesn’t tell me what I ought to do; it simply tells me what the material world is like and how it operates.  You don’t get ought from is, you only get is from is.  Why then do you believe that we should protect the environment for future generations, if you don’t believe in God, and if the only basis for your beliefs is science?  The answer is that you don’t get that from science at all; it’s a matter of faith.

C. S. Lewis once gave an excellent illustration as to why it is ridiculous to rest everything on science.  When the first Russian cosmonaut came back from space, it prompted the Russian premier at the time to say that man had been to space and had not found God.  As if a quick trip around the earth was enough to say that God does not exist.  But Lewis responded that trying to find God in space was like Hamlet trying to find Shakespeare in the attic of his castle.  In other words, trying to find God under the microscope or in the telescope assumes that God is part of the furniture of the universe.  But he is not!  He is not hiding behind Jupiter; he made Jupiter and everything else.  If God exists, you will not find him by searching for him among material causes, for he is the one who made the laws of physics themselves.  He is not in the attic of the universe; he is its author.

The bottom line is that the beliefs of modern man ultimately rest on faith.  Science does not explain everything.  It doesn’t even explain things that we hold most dear: things like right and wrong, human rights, and respect for the environment.  Faith cannot therefore be so bad, and unbelief is not a sign of intellectual maturity.  It is not a question of who is a person of faith; it is a question of whose faith fits better with the data of life and experience, and whose beliefs have more internal consistency?  I believe very strongly that the Christian accounting of things is better, and I now want to move on to consider some of the reasons.

The alternative to unbelief

Most people think that faith is a leap in the dark.  Unfortunately, some Christian thinkers have given credence to this (folks like Kierkegaard, and many of the neo-orthodox theologians).  Faith is popularly viewed as something that has no rational basis for it.  In fact, faith is almost endowed with creative powers – if you have enough faith, you can bring something out of nothing!

But that’s a problem.  Who wants to embrace faith when it has no rational foundation?  Isn’t faith then a sign of credulity and intellectual backwardness?

However, this is not a Biblical view of faith.  Nowhere does the Bible tell us to believe things for no reason.  You see this in the passage we are considering.  Why was the unbelief of the Israelites so bad?  It was because, despite all that they saw, despite all the reasons God had given them to trust in him, they still refused to do so.  They had plenty of reasons to believe: the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna, and on and on.  Every day they encountered new miracles.  And yet they did not believe.  As the Lord put it to Moses, “Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their father, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it” (Num. 14:22-23).  Of these same folks, the Lord complains, “How long will this people provoke me?  And how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?” (Num. 14:11).  The problem with their lack of faith was not the lack of evidence.  The problem was their lack of faith despite the abundance of evidence. 

Now I realize that we haven’t experienced the same things.  So people today might take the approach that they too would need to see Mount Sinai on fire before believing.  However, though we might not have seen the Ten Plagues, God has not left himself without witness (cf. Acts 14:17).  And so still the reason for our unbelief is not a lack of evidence.  God does not ask you to believe something without good reasons.

When I talk about believing, of course I mean the Bible in general and the gospel in particular.  The Israelites in the wilderness didn’t believe God’s word to them, but the author of Hebrews casts this as a rejection of the gospel: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:2).  Hence the unbelief which is here condemned is a refusal to believe the gospel.  So what lines of evidence do we have for that?  Now there have been whole books written on this, and I can’t reduplicate all the arguments in the short time that we have.  But I want to give you some pointers to a few lines of evidence, and if you are interested in pursuing these further, I will be happy to visit with you or to point you to some helpful books.

Let’s consider how the apostle Paul does this in his letter to the Romans.  And so I begin where he does there, with the existence of God (cf. Heb. 11:6).  He tells us that God’s wrath comes upon men who suppress the truth.  What truth is this?  It is the truth that God’s exists: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).  The apostle says that there is no reason why anyone should deny the existence of God or fall into idolatry.  The evidence for God in the creation of the world is too great to be withstood or to leave folks with an excuse for their denial of the God of the Bible.  Now some people today seem to think that science has taken away the need for belief in God’s existence, and that religious faith can only shrink as scientific knowledge increases.  But this is false.  It fails to grapple with the fact that there are different explanations for things and that science has not, and indeed cannot, explain everything about the universe. 

John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician, puts it like this.  Suppose you ask me to explain the Model T.  I say, “It is explained by the principles of engineering that make the internal combustion engine work.”  Well, that would be true as far as it goes.  But it does not completely explain the Model T.  Another explanation is Henry Ford himself.  And these are not competing explanations: they are mutual and complementary – and they are both true.  Saying that physics pushes God out of the equation is like saying that the laws of mechanics push Henry Ford out of the picture when it comes to explaining the existence of the Model T, which is ridiculous. 

Creation points to God for the following reason: God exists because things exist, in the same way that the existence of the Model T points to Henry Ford.  The key thing to remember here is that the things around us are not eternal, they do not necessarily exist.  They are contingent.  But for anything to exist, something or someone has to necessarily exist.  In other words, for there to be something rather than nothing, God must exist.  This is, I think, Paul’s point in Romans 1:20.  You don’t need an elaborate argument for God’s existence; just look around you.  The things around you are not eternal; they did not always exist.  But if they began to exist, there must be a reason for their existence over their non-existence and that reason must go back to the existence of a Being outside the universe which necessarily exists, namely God.  Physics can indeed tell us how the universe operates; but it cannot tell us why the universe exists, or why there is something rather than nothing.  The laws of physics cannot even explain themselves; God is their explanation.

But that’s not the only line of evidence.  We come next to the presence of a moral order.  In the book of Romans, in chapters 1-3, the apostle builds a case for the universal sinfulness of man, culminating in the statement that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  Along the way, he argues that all men have an innate sense of right and wrong, even those who do not have God’s written revelation: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law [God’s special revelation], do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14-15).  In other words, we don’t just inhabit a physical world; we also inhabit a moral world, a world in which it makes sense to call certain things wrong and other things right.  We inhabit a world with sin and sinners, which is just Paul’s point.

No matter therefore how secular the world becomes, it cannot seem to get rid of a sense of right and wrong.  There is a reason for that.  It is because there is right and there is wrong.  But you cannot have right and wrong without a lawgiver, without a standard of justice.  Otherwise, everything becomes preference.  I know that the problem of evil is a difficult problem.  But you cannot have evil without justice, and you cannot have justice without a Judge.  In fact, Aquinas made the point that because evil exists, God exists; not because God created evil, but because you cannot adequately explain the sinfulness of sin apart from the standard of God’s holy law.

And then there is the gospel itself, the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).  What is the gospel?  Paul gives it to us in Rom. 3:21-26, but he summarizes it succinctly in his letter to the Corinthians: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures; and that he was seen” (1 Cor. 15:3-5).  The greatest argument for faith is Jesus Christ himself.  Here is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead.  In rising from the dead, he vindicated his claims as God’s Son.  We have argued recently that the evidence for the resurrection is very strong indeed.  To say that we can’t trust the record of his resurrection is both intellectually lame and lazy. 

In the book of Acts, the apostles continually point to the resurrection of Christ as a reason to believe (Acts 2:24-36; 3:15; 5:31-32; 10:40-42; 13:30-39; 17:30-31).  God raised Jesus from the dead, and exalted him as Lord and Savior at his right hand.  There were witnesses to this; it didn’t happen in a corner.  When Paul was presenting the gospel before Herod Agrippa, and was ridiculed as being “mad” by the procurator Festus, Paul responded: “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.  For the king knoweth of these things, before whom I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.  King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?  I know that thou believest” (Acts 26:25-27).  The gospel was not preached as if it were some kind of gnostic system with hidden knowledge; it was preached as being based on facts that everyone could observe.  And it spread through the Roman Empire, not because it was false, but because it could be verified as true.

Not only is the gospel based on believable historical realities, but it rings true because it meets one of the most fundamental needs of the human condition and it does so in a way that nothing else can.  It is the need created by guilt.  How do you deal with your guilt?  The world does not know how to do this without projecting it on others, or by denying that it really exists.  But this is clearly not sufficient.  Guilt is real, and it is personal.  There are many religious systems that attempt to meet the need created by guilt by making man his own savior.  We purge our own sins.  But this too is insufficient if we are honest with ourselves. 

It is guilt that pulls us to the solution presented to us in the gospel.  Guilt reminds us that we live in a moral universe presided over by a holy God, by whom we live and to whom we are all accountable.  And it also tells us that we cannot atone for our own sins: we need a Mediator.  And it is this that the gospel gives us in the person of Jesus Christ.  He is able to purge our sins by his atoning death.  He could do this because he is both man and God.  Because he is man, he can stand in our place, and because he is God, he can fully and completely atone for our sins.  The gospel tells us that we don’t deal with our guilt by trying to remove it ourselves, but by trusting in the sacrifice that Christ made for those who believe in him.  People all over the world in every generation have found this to be true.  And they have found it to be so because it is true.

The alternative therefore to unbelief is not blind faith.  The alternative is faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, “the words of truth and soberness” (Acts 26:25). 

The evil of unbelief

And this brings us to our closing consideration.  “They could not enter in because of unbelief.”  The Bible tells us again and again that the reason why people reject the gospel is not fundamentally because of a lack of evidence.  It is because of the condition of the heart, a condition rooted in a commitment to self-sovereignty.  If evidence were all people wanted or needed, the Israelites in the wilderness would have been the strongest believers.  And this is the problem today, as it was in Jesus’ day: “But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him” (Jn 12:37).  This is not a problem in Bible times only; it is a problem endemic to the human condition.  We are all by nature like that generation of wilderness Israelites.

The unbelief there was rooted in a heart of rebellion and provocation (Heb. 3:15).  The rebelliousness of the heart is what led them to moral and spiritual blindness, that left them unmoved despite all the miracles and mighty works of God’s power that they saw.  It is the same today.  This is one of the reasons why apologetics, no matter how cogently and winsomely presented, can leave people unconvinced.  The reasons of a heart committed to doing its own thing and refusing to submit to God’s rule will not be interested in submitting to the righteousness of God in Christ. 

And this is what makes unbelief so evil.  Unbelief is not merely a psychological description of those apart from Christ; it is sin (cf. John 16:9).  What we need to understand is that no one is neutral.  The Bible tells us that we are either for God or against him; there is no neutral ground. 

This is not to say that doubts are not real, or that if we deal with doubt God won’t have anything to do with us.  That is not true, either.  The greatest saints in the world have had doubts, like John the Baptist.  Jesus didn’t rebuke John, but gently reminded him of the reasons to believe.  The problem, however, is that we can imagine ourselves in our doubts to be in some objective, neutral position.  That is false.  Again, we are never neutral; we are always reasoning in conjunction with our hearts, will and affections.  And if our heart is against God, is hostile to God, all the reasons in the world are not going to bring us to him.  But hostility to God is sin and must be repented of.  It is this sin which stands behind so much of the refusal to believe God’s word to us.

So how does this relate to you and me?  Well, we are being warned here about the evil and the danger of unbelief.  The evil of unbelief in that it is symptomatic of sin and rebellion.  The danger of unbelief in that it keeps us from experiencing God’s greatest blessings.  This is true on any number of levels.  It keeps those who will not embrace Christ by faith from embracing the only hope of freedom of sin and guilt which is found in Christ.  It keeps them from the rest that can only be found in him.  This unbelief is fundamentally rebellion against God, and we must repent of it.  But it can keep even true followers of Christ from experiencing God’s blessing as we could.  Let us not think that unbelief is found only in those who do not yet follow Jesus; even those of us who have come to him and sometimes relapse in certain points to unbelief.  It was to his own disciples that our Lord said, “Why are ye so fearful?  How is it that ye have no faith?” (Mk 4:40).  We too, often have a reason for repentance.  We who have found God faithful again and again, how is it that we fall prey so easily to the sin of unbelief?  Oh, let it not be said of us, and of this church, that “he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Mt. 13:38)! 

How do we challenge the perennial temptation to unbelief?  Well, once again, we do so by exhorting each other, by reminding each other of God’s promises and his character and his faithfulness.  We do so by pointing each other to Christ and to the gospel.  What a privilege and a blessing it is to do this.  May we all be constantly encouraging each other to faith in the one who is worthy of all our trust, Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking, 2016), p. 33.

[2] Ibid., p. 35.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Exhort one another (Heb. 3:12-13)


The epistle to the Hebrews is a sermon, a word of exhortation (Heb. 13:22).  If you want to know what a first-century sermon looked like, you need proceed no further than this letter.  In this sermon, the preacher is trying to encourage these beleaguered saints to hold fast (3:6, 14).  To accomplish this, he is helping them to understand the reasons why they should hold fast (theology), and then exhorting them on that basis to hold fast (duty).  Now up to this point, he has given several very personal and pointed exhortations.  They are to “give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard” (2:1); they are told to “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus” (3:1); they are exhorted to “harden not your hearts” (3:8).  These are things that could be appropriated and applied on the level of the individual.  And indeed, we must start there.  I don’t follow Christ by thinking only about how his word applies to someone else.  Yes, we are to bear each other’s burdens, but at the same time, we must also begin by bearing our own (cf. Gal. 6:2-5).  We must take the truths of God’s word and apply them daily and constantly to ourselves.

However, it doesn’t stop there.  We must not privatize the faith.  To do so is to subvert one of the purposes of God in creating the church.  When we are converted to Christ, we are not converted in order to live out the Christian life in isolation; we are converted in order to grow in the faith in harmony and unity with other believers.  In fact, this is the way that the apostle Peter frames conversion: “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Pet. 1:22).  What is the purpose of conversion (which I take to be referred to by the phrase “purified your souls in obeying the truth”)?  It is “unfeigned love of the brethren” – note the word unto.  And this is not a merely emotional thing, it is to be worked out in very practical ways.  As we “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1:22), we are to lay aside “all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings” (2:1).  We are urged: “be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous” (3:8).  We are to “above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (4:8).  You cannot love the brethren if you are not willing to invest yourself in the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the brethren.  As the apostle John would put it, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18).

Nowhere is this clearer than in what the apostle Paul writes about the church in Eph. 4.  He begins by talking about the unity that we have in Christ (4:1-6), but then he goes on to talk about the gifts given to the church so that the church will grow (4:7-16).  Here is how the apostle puts it in verses 15-16: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV).  In other words, the body of Christ, the church, grows when “each part is working properly” which means that every believer has a place in the life of the church, and, specifically, in helping the church to grow in grace.  This doesn’t mean that the pastor is pointless.  In fact, in 4:11-12 we have the purpose of the pastor-teacher given in terms of equipping the saints to do the work of spiritual service.  The pastor teaches, and in teaching he equips the saints, so that they can exercise their spiritual gifts for the good of the church.  You are probably not going to have one without the other.

Or consider the way Paul puts it to the Corinthians.  There he is also talking about the gifts of the Spirit.  And the bottom line is this: “But the manifestation of the Spirit [in spiritual giftedness] is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7).  The ESV translates this as: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Who has spiritual gifts?  The answer: “every man” or “each (one).”  In other words, no one has a monopoly on spiritual giftedness in the church.  I don’t have them all, and neither do you!  Now why have we been given spiritual gifts?  So we can impress others with them?  This is apparently what was happening at Corinth, and it was wrecking the church.  No, our spiritual gifts are not given so we can strut around like a barn-yard rooster; they are given to us “for the common good.”  In other words, the gifts God gives to me, he gives them to me so that I can help others.  And the others need them, and I need the gifts of others, which is Paul’s point about the hand and the foot, the ear and the eye, in verses 15-21.

But this purpose of God in the church has often been subverted.  It can be subverted in any number of ways.  When we begin, for example, to think of church in terms merely of a meeting in which we barely participate, or as a show in which we are only observers, then we cannot do what the apostle envisions for the church in Eph. 4 and 1 Cor. 12.  Now I want to make it clear that I am in no way implying that the sermon is not important; it is very important, but it is not the sum and substance of what it means to be a church.  If the only place you are being built up in the faith is through the sermon, then something is lacking.  Do we need the sermon?  Yes (and Hebrews, considered as a sermon, is an argument for its importance).  Of course I believe that, or I would not be doing what I am doing!  But the point is that this is not all that the church is about.  The pastor is not the church; he is simply one member in the church.

This is why the author of Hebrews says what he says here in 3:12-13: “Take heed, 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.”  He knows that in order for these embattled saints to persevere, they are going to have to help each other.  In other words, they are going to have to be the church.  Must we preach to ourselves?  Yes.  But we must also preach to each other, we must encourage each other in the faith.

So what I want to do this morning is to consider the importance and the application of this command to exhort one another.  This is not just something that the church there at that time was meant to do.  It is something that we are meant to do also.  Remember that this is an application of the OT passage from Ps. 95.  The Holy Spirit wasn’t just speaking to ancient Israel, he was also speaking to the church to which this letter was addressed, hundreds of years later.  But Hebrews was inspired by the same Holy Spirit and preserved to be a part of the canon of Scripture, and this means it is just as applicable to us.  As a church, we need to be doing this.  What then does this look like?

I think a very simple way to sum up the content of this command is to put it like this: we do this when everyone is exhorting each other every day to hold fast to our faith in Christ.

What is the responsibility?  Exhortation.

It is to “exhort one another.”  What is meant by that?  The word used here has numerous connotations.  It is often translated in the KJV as “beseech.”  “I beseech you therefore brethren” (Rom. 12:1).  “As though God did beseech you by us” (2 Cor. 5:20).  I like that, for to beseech someone means that I am fervently urging upon them some behavior or action.  I am not neutral about it; I am not dispassionate.  Rather, I am fully committed to seeing it done and carried out in them or through them.  And this full commitment belongs both to the person I am addressing as well as the action I am wanting to see done.

But of course when you beseech someone, you are wanting to see them do something, change something.  Later in Hebrews, we have the same word used again in chapter 10: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (10:24-25).  Here we see that the idea behind exhortation is filled out in terms of provoking (or stirring up) to love and good works.  In other places, “to exhort” is combined with building up (1 Thess. 5:11), or with reproving and rebuking and teaching (2 Tim. 4:2).  It is also translated in several places as carrying the idea of providing comfort or encouragement (Col. 2:2; 1 Thess. 4:18).

So this is a word that can carry a lot of connotational freight.  It can mean a lot of things.  But this is what is so amazing about why it is used here.  It means that there is a lot of ways that we can help each other by this mutual exhortation.  We can encourage each other, we can warn each other, we can counsel each other, we can reprove each other, as the case may require.

But underneath all of that is the fact that the most basic thing that we are doing is that we are beseeching others.  The point is that you don’t beseech out of anger or from a standpoint of defensiveness.  If warning or rebuke needs to happen, we do this in the most loving and brotherly way that we possibly can.  This is not a word given to an enemy; it is something spoken to someone that we consider a brother or a sister in Christ, to those who share with us in our heavenly calling.

But let’s examine this a bit more carefully.  What are we to do as we exhort one another?  What are we exhorting each other to?  Let me put it like this: we are to exhort each other to believe the promises of God so that we do not depart from him out of an evil heart of unbelief, and we are to exhort each other to see through the false promise of sin so that we do not become hardened in a habit of unbelief.

Before we unpack this in terms of the text, I want to notice one way that this is different from what a pastor does.  Or another way to put it: how is the exhorting which is done here different from the exhorting which is done in the Sunday sermon?  This is particularly relevant because this verb (“exhort”) is related to the way the author here describes his sermon (“a word of exhortation,” Heb. 13:22).  I would say that one essential difference is this: one of the primary things the pastor-elder does in his ministry to the church is to authoritatively teach what we believe and why (cf. Eph. 4:11).  Of course application comes into this as well, but he is there to teach the church the doctrine which has been handed down from the apostles and prophets.  What we are considering here in Heb. 3:12-13 is not so much a teaching ministry as it is applying the teaching which has been given by the spiritual leaders of the church.  And this is something which we must all of us be doing.  But now let’s consider exactly how we are to do this.

Exhort each other to believe the promises of God.

I get this from verse 12: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”  The danger here was to walk away, to drift from the living God.  And what the author sees behind falling away is an evil heart of unbelief.  The exhortation of verse 12 is clearly meant to forestall this eventuality.  Hence, it must mean combatting unbelief.  And the way we combat unbelief is clearly through faith.

But what is the unbelief referred to here?  Well, we must go back to Psalm 95.  In that Psalm, we are reminded of the Israelites who hardened their hearts and fell in the wilderness.  The unbelief there was a failure to believe the promises that God had given to Israel: “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.  And none of those who despised me shall see it” (Num. 14:22-23).  God had made a promise to Abraham, a promise which he confirmed with an oath (cf. Heb. 6:17).  It is this that they did not believe.  They did not believe God’s promises to them.

Hence, when I say that we should encourage each other to faith, I think in this context it means that we should encourage each other to believe the promises of God.  We are to be reminding each other of God’s promises.  Like Israel of old, we too have been given a promise of entering into rest (Heb. 4:1), not the rest of a physical inheritance like Canaan, but the spiritual rest that comes through salvation in Christ, a rest which culminates in our eternal enjoyment of God’s presence in heaven.  It is so important to keep this perspective, to look not on the things which are seen but on the things which are not seen (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18).  The blessings of the age to come are infinitely better than anything which the world can promise us.  Even the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).  When we remember this and believe this, we are far less likely to fall to the temptation of unbelief. 

Believing the promises of God is important, not only because they are true but because they keep us trusting in God himself.  Believing God’s promises is the door through which we learn to repose ourselves upon the living God.  Remember that the unbelief of the Israelites was a failure to trust in God because they did not remember his promises.  We too will fail to trust in God and believe that he is for us if we do not remember his promises.  Thank God for his great promises!  “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1:4).  How can we really think that God is somehow against us, or that he has forsaken us, when he has promised us such things?  And we know that the God who promises us these things cannot lie (Tit. 1:2).

We should also remind ourselves of the promise that in Christ the throne of God is a throne of grace (Heb. 4:15-16).  We can often become discouraged when we begin to believe the lie that God does not hear us, or will not hear us, or cannot hear us.  But this verse tells us that if we belong to God through Christ, we have access through Christ by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:14).  Think of it: we can bring every need, every complaint, every want, every worry to the God of heaven.  He knows and cares about us.  In fact, Jesus our Lord himself prays for us.  The Spirit intercedes for us.  And as Robert Murray M’Cheyne put it, “Distance makes no difference; Jesus prays for you.”

Or think about all the explicit promises that God will in fact never leave us nor forsake us.  “Let your conversation [conduct] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.  So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:5-6).  Again, the only reason why anyone would walk away from Christ is if they did not believe that these promises were really true.  To walk away from promises of this magnitude for the mere temporary enjoyment of this world is insane.

In being like this, we are like the saints of old.  How did they persevere?  We are told how in Heb. 11: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (13).  It is worth it to be a stranger and a pilgrim now when we are looking forward to the sure and eternal enjoyment of what God has promised to his people.

But not only that, but we are to . . .

Exhort each other to see through the false promise of sin.

To encourage belief in the promises of God is important.  This is the positive thing.  But we must also do the negative thing: we must see through the pretense of sin.  This is the point of verse 13: “But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”  How is it that we are hardened?  We are hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.  We need to therefore not only understand what sin is, but why it is bad, why its appearance of good is only a mirage, why its promises are all false.

Why do we sin?  Well, James tells us: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (Jam. 1:13-14).  “Lust” of course is desire.  We sin because we desire it.  We sin because we want it.  And the reason why we want it is because we believe it will make us happier if we sin than if we don’t sin.  We are deceived.

How then do we get undeceived?  Well, I do not pretend that it is easy.  The world around us is preaching the gospel of sin and self, and so is our own corrupt hearts.  It is a daily battle.  Let no one think that they are above the fray.  Neither let us get discouraged when we do fall.  By grace, let us get back up again, and wade back into battle.

Well, the point of this passage is that one way we see more clearly, and see through the deceptive nature of sin, is by having other people speak truth into our lives.  Sometimes, I just need to hear someone else tell me what the Bible says about this or that particular sin with which I am struggling.  I don’t know why this is sometimes more effective than just saying it to ourselves, but it is.  I think one reason is that we so easily deceive ourselves into believing that we are alright when we are not.  King David is a good example here.  He was a man after God’s own heart, and yet he apparently convinced himself that what he had done with Bathsheba and Uriah was okay.  But when God sent the prophet Nathan to him, to say to him, “Thou art the man,” he was devastated.  The house of cards that he had built came crashing down.  He was immediately undeceived.  Oh may God make us like Nathans, and brings Nathans into our lives!

So I need to hear someone else remind me not only that the promises of God are great, but that the return on sin is terrible.  To forsake God for sin is to do what the ancient Israelites did: “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit.  Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate saith the LORD.  For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13).  We need to be reminded that, “Bread of deceit is sweet to a man, but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel” (Prov. 20:17).

One more thing before we move on from this.  The sort of exhortation that will move us to closer obedience can only happen if I am willing to let people into my life.  If I keep up a front and a defensive barrier, this can never happen.  At least, it won’t happen until things get out of control in my life, and it becomes painfully obvious to everyone around me that I have become hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.  What this means is that we all need to be developing relationships in the church in which we can be honest and open with someone about the things we are struggling with.  This can be hard.  It can be frightening.  But I think of all places the church should be the one place where we ought to feel like we can do this.  Why?  Because in the church we all recognize that we are sinners saved by grace.  No one gets to feel superior to anyone else because we all relate to God in exactly the same way: through the sovereign grace of God on the basis of what Christ has done for us on the cross.  We are all forgiven sinners, and this should make us willing to be vulnerable – since God has already fully accepted me as a son or a daughter in his Son.

Who should be doing this?  Everyone.

Note what is said here.  This is addressed to the church as a whole, not to a part, not to the most spiritual, not to the pastors.  “Take heed, brethren.”  This is a term for the collective body of believers that the NT writers us over and over again.  When Paul says in Romans 12, “I beseech you therefore, brethren,” he also is speaking to the Roman church as a whole, not to a part of it.  So the fact that this exhortation is directed to the “brethren” is evidence that this is something that we are to all be doing, if we are part of the church. 

Then he says, “lest there be in any of you and evil heart of unbelief.”  “Any of you.”  No exceptions.  The same ones who are addressed as “brethren” are the same ones under consideration here.  Certainly the scope of this command is the whole church.  No one is excluded here.  The same phrase occurs in the next verse as well: “lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” 

The point is that the command to “exhort one another” is not just a job for pastors.  It is not something that is done only on Sunday morning by the spiritual leaders.  It is being done by everyone, or at least it should be.  And we should therefore look for opportunities to do it.

One of the things I would like to do in the future is to help small groups form that will facilitate this kind of mutual exhortation.  I’m talking about men’s groups, women’s groups, and home groups.  We’re still in the process of thinking through this, but even though we’re still in the planning stages, if you’re interested in being a part of this, have some thoughts about it, or if you’re interested in helping to lead something like this, please let me know.  But however this takes shape, we want to be a church where we are being discipled and are discipling others too.  In other words, we want to be a church where we are exhorting each other to remain steadfast in the faith.

How often should this happen?  Every day.

What does the text say?  It says we should do this every day.  In fact, he says it twice: “But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today” (13).  Now why add the phrase “while it is called Today”?  Isn’t it enough to say “daily”?  Well, one reason could be that he is tying this back to the Psalm 95 quotation: “Today, if ye will hear his voice” (7).  This command to daily exhortation is something which a true and faithful application of that text demands and he brings this out by referring back to the word “today.”  Nevertheless, the reality is that there is an emphasis here upon the daily application of the practice of mutual exhortation. 

I don’t think this means we’re supposed to be in church every day.  Nor does this only happen in a semi-formal group setting.  But it does mean that I’m giving and receiving this kind of exhortation on a daily basis.  It starts at home.  Husbands and wives exhorting each other.  Parents exhorting children (and sometimes children exhorting parents!).  A family worship time can contribute to this.  But then we have our brothers and sisters in Christ who are there for us and we are there for them.  Far from being harder nowadays, it is easier: we have these things called smart phones, after all. 

But it does mean that we are looking for opportunities of this sort, not avoiding them.  It also means that we want this to happen.  This is not meant to be a yoke around the necks of believers.  It is meant to be a means of encouragement, comfort, hope-building, and joy-filling in the Lord.  It is to stir us up to love and good works (Heb. 10:25). 

We should all want the church to be a family of hope-filled, joy-exuding, God-centered, gospel-proclaiming people.  We should want to live in such a way that people see that we are different and ask about the hope that is ours in Christ (1 Pet. 3:15).  And one of the ways this begins is by being the kind of people who are obeying the command of Heb. 3:12-13, who are exhorting each other to believe God’s true promises and reminding each other of sin’s false promises.  May the Lord make it so among us.


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