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.