Saturday, October 2, 2010

one to another: the corporate Christian life

"Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know my ways'; as I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest.'" Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." (Hebrews 3:7-13)

At times I am rather perplexed at those who fell in the wilderness, not to enter into the rest of Canaan. These individuals and their ancestors had spent years (actually, centuries) as slaves in Egypt, yearning and longing for redemption that seemed to never arrive. Then, they hear of a man named Moses, along with his brother Aaron, whom God had raised up to deliver His people out of bondage. They witnessed plague after plague upon the Egyptians, while the Israelites remained unharmed. They witnessed how God worked through Moses so that Pharaoh would allow the Israelites to go and worship their God, the One True God. They witnessed how God protected them from Pharaoh and his army even after he granted them leave. They witnessed the miracles of God at the hands of Moses when he made the Red Sea as unto dry land for them to cross over to the Sinai Peninsula. They received God's protection and provision as He cared for them and met their needs, even providing their daily bread that came down from heaven in the wilderness. They witnessed the effects of the presence of God upon Mt. Sinai as God met with Moses and revealed to Moses His commands for the well-being of the people and for His own glory. And all this was firsthand witness; they saw the works of God with their very own eyes.

But, despite all this, they doubted the Lord, they questioned his benevolence and His presence, and they tested Him (see, for example, Exodus 17:1-7). As Hebrews states, quoting Psalm 95, the people "provoked" God and "tried [Him] by testing" Him, even though they "saw [His] works for forty years" (Hebrews 3:9; Psalm 95:9-10). The concrete horribleness of their prior experience that endured for generations began to vanish in their minds and they longed, at times begging, to return back to Egypt, back to enslavement. They feared when Moses delayed upon the mount as He met with God on behalf of the people who did not want to draw near to Him, and created idols to worship, proclaiming a golden calf that was fashioned by their own hands to be their strong redeemer out of Egypt. They disbelieved in the ability of God to fulfill His promises when they saw those who dwelled in the land of Canaan and their fortresses, ignoring God's works when He saved them from Pharaoh's destruction. Virtually every Israelite that God had tenderly brought out of Egypt, cared for and protected, failed to enter into God's rest because they refused to admit His providence, presence, and listen to His voice, although they ungratefully received His goodness and provision. They saw God's glory and the signs He performed both "in Egypt and in the wilderness," but they rejected Him and His ways, shunning His voice. Therefore, "[He] swore in [His] wrath" that they "should not enter [His] rest" (Numbers 14, especially vv. 22-23; Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11).

What should this tell me when I find that I am so perplexed about these people and these events? It tells me that I perhaps still do not understand the depravity of my own heart, which is in constant need of renewal by Christ. Apart from the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, my heart is "deceitful above all else and desperately sick;" like the Israelites whom God led out of Egypt, and like the scribes and Pharisees that demanded signs from Jesus, so I, too, crave signs and wonders even while refusing to listen to the voice of God (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:38-2). Still, even if I may know part of this deceitfulness, What, then, is the remedy? How do we Christians overcome the proclivity to, as the great hymn declares, "wander" and "leave the God [we] love"? In the above portion of the third chapter in Hebrews, we find that the answer is threefold (though bear in mind that these points are really quite related): 1) we must listen to God's voice and respond by obedience in love, 2) we must guard our hearts against unbelief, and 3) we must encourage one another as co-members of the body of Christ.

As we have discussed beforehand, the epistle to the Hebrews is rather unique in the New Testament in terms of its use of Scripture. That is, it is unique in the manner in which it attributes authorship to scriptural passages. In chapter 1, for example, we read that God the Father has spoken in times past, and this concept is reinforced by attributing divine authorship to the psalms which are quoted. Thus, the human author, though quite important, is typically ignored in Hebrews in order to emphasize the fact that God has spoken and is speaking, and this pattern does not appear with the same frequency outside of this book in the New Testament. In the second chapter, we see two types of Old Testament quotations: one in which the human author is dismissed (2:6), and another where the speech is attributed directly to Christ (2:11-13). In the present passage under consideration, we find yet another means of attribution of authorship wherein it is said that the Holy Spirit is speaking: "Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, 'Today if you hear His voice'" (3:7, emphasis added). As a result, we get a glimpse of every Person of the Triune God actively participating in God's Self-revelation through Scripture, a Trinitarian pattern that pervades the epistle to the Hebrews. This gives us blessed assurance to believe, trust, and appropriately respond to the Word of God that is being spoken.

The disbelief on behalf of the people in the wilderness that was evidenced at the waters of Meribah was but one demonstration of a constant mindset of refusal to listen to and obey the voice of God. And, it was ultimately their resolute disbelief and unwillingness to "know [God's] ways" that resulted in God's disallowing their entrance into the Promised Land, into His rest. We too, as believers in Jesus Christ, await the rest of God, the rest that Joshua could not grant (Hebrews 4:8-9). For this reason, we must "be diligent to enter into that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience" as the men and women who disobeyed in the wilderness (4:11). We must hear and obey the voice of God the Holy Spirit who exhorts us toward "Today," allowing the Word of God to render its proper effect of reaching toward and transforming the depths of our being, even unto "the thoughts and the intentions of the heart" (4:12). We are indeed of the house of the Son of God "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm unto the end" (3:6). For this reason, if we are not to follow the example of going astray, as did those in the wilderness, if we are to not have "an evil, unbelieving heart," we must first listen to the God who has spoken and is still speaking, urging us to "Today," inviting us to respond now (and continually) in belief, and obedience in love (3:7, 10, 12).

In addition to actively listening to the words of God, we must guard our hearts against unbelief. Again the writer of Hebrews provides a strong exhortation that moves us toward action: "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (3:12). Although it is indeed true that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ," we must bear in mind that in a sense we can "hear" God's words and yet fall short because we do not allow it to penetrate our innermost being (Romans 10:17). This is not something we can generate ourselves, we must continuously depend upon God Himself, and the strength and grace He provides through the Comforter that He has sent to dwell within us. The Israelites that fell in the wilderness were not deaf to the audible characteristics of God's words being proclaimed through Moses. Rather, they did not "hear" because they were unwilling and allowed their "hearts" to be "hardened" (Hebrews 3:7; Psalm 95:8). But God has "sealed us" and given us "the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge"; if we are to not "fall away from the living God," we must guard our hearts against unbelief by being washed continually by His Word, which by the New Covenant that Jesus Christ has Himself inaugurated, is written directly on our hearts (2 Corinthians 1:22; Hebrews 3:12; Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16; Jeremiah 31:33).

The third way in which we can overcome our propensity to wander lies in the very nature of the body of Christ. In order that we not become "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin," the writer exhorts the readership to "encourage one another day after day, while it is still called 'Today'" (Hebrews 3:13). Again, reference is made to Psalm 95 by invoking the temporal present, but another crucial element is the implicit notion of corporate communion that necessarily inheres to the Christian life: "encourage one another." This is a theme that recurs later in Hebrews, since the communal aspect of Christianity relates directly to the spiritual health of both the whole and the individuals that comprise it (10:24-25). Individual belief and responsibility are indeed paramount, but we must be careful not to overemphasize these aspects by (unintentionally) negating or diminishing the corporate nature of the Christian life. The call to "encourage one another" necessarily implies that there are others to both encourage and be encouraged by; barring extreme circumstances, lone Christianity is neither supported nor advocated by biblical texts. Instead, we repeatedly encounter the opposite in the New Testament, for example:

[D]o not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another. (Romans 15:14)

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)

[B]e subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Collossians 3:16)

Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Perhaps, then, it should not surprise us to see emphasized this "one to another" ministry among the members of the body of Christ, the Church. These three principles we encounter in this passage of Hebrews all relate to the greatest commandments: love God and love one another (knowing that it is not possible to leave out one and in truth fulfill the other). We have a responsibility toward both God and toward each other, by God's grace believing His words and "encourag[ing] one another day after day," that is, continuously (Hebrews 3:13). Sin is ever deceitful, and so are our very own hearts if we will be humble enough to acknowledge this, inviting God to transform every facet of our being more and more into the image of His Son. God is indeed gracious to reveal Himself and to speak to us, inviting us into the sublimity of a relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ, "whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" (3:6). But we cannot forever afford to delay; "Today" will not be such for much longer.

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