Beware of a Lack of Faith
“Beware, brothers, for fear there should ever develop in any one of you a wicked heart lacking faith by drawing away from the living God.”—HEBREWS 3:12.
1. What shocking reality do Paul’s words to the Hebrew Christians call to our attention?
WHAT a frightening thought—that people who once enjoyed a personal relationship with Jehovah could develop a “wicked heart” and ‘draw away from the living God’! And what a warning this is! These words of the apostle Paul were addressed, not to unbelievers, but to people who had dedicated their lives to Jehovah on the basis of faith in the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
2. What questions do we need to consider?
2 How could someone in such a blessed spiritual state ever develop “a wicked heart lacking faith”? Indeed, how could anyone who had tasted of God’s love and undeserved kindness deliberately draw away from him? And could this happen to any of us? Sobering thoughts these are, and it behooves us to look into the reason behind this warning.—1 Corinthians 10:11.
Why Such Strong Counsel?
3. Describe the circumstances affecting first-century Christians in and around Jerusalem.
3 It appears that Paul addressed his letter to the Hebrew Christians in Judea in 61 C.E. A historian observed that this was a time when “there was no peace or safety for any sober, honest men, either in the city of Jerusalem or anywhere else throughout the whole province.” It was a time of lawlessness and violence, fomented by a mixture of the oppressive Roman military presence, the bravado of the anti-Roman Jewish Zealots, and the criminal activities of thieves who took advantage of the chaotic times. All of this made things very difficult for Christians, who tried hard not to get entangled in such matters. (1 Timothy 2:1, 2) In fact, because of their neutral stand, they were viewed by some as being social misfits, even seditious. Christians were often mistreated, and they suffered personal losses.—Hebrews 10:32-34.
4. To what pressure of a religious nature were the Hebrew Christians subjected?
4 Hebrew Christians were also under intense pressure of a religious nature. The zeal of Jesus’ faithful disciples and the resultant rapid expansion of the Christian congregation provoked the jealousy and wrath of the Jews—especially their religious leaders. They stopped at nothing to harass and persecute the followers of Jesus Christ.* (Acts 6:8-14; 21:27-30; 23:12, 13; 24:1-9) Even if some Christians were spared outright persecution, they were, nonetheless, scorned and ridiculed by the Jews. Christianity was despised as an upstart religion that lacked the splendor of Judaism, having no temple, no priesthood, no festivals, no formal sacrifices, and so on. Even their leader, Jesus, was put to death as a condemned criminal. To practice their religion, Christians had to have faith, courage, and endurance.
5. Why was it essential for Christians in Judea to remain spiritually alert?
5 Above all, the Hebrew Christians in Judea were living at a crucial time in the history of that nation. Many things that their Lord, Jesus Christ, said would mark the end of the Jewish system had already occurred. The end could not be far off. To survive, Christians had to remain spiritually alert and be ready to ‘flee to the mountains.’ (Matthew 24:6, 15, 16) Would they have the faith and spiritual stamina needed to take immediate action, as Jesus had directed? There appeared to be some doubt.
6. What did the Christians in Judea urgently need?
6 During the last decade before the dissolution of the entire Jewish system of things, Hebrew Christians clearly were under severe pressure from inside and outside the congregation. They were in need of encouragement. But they also needed counsel and direction to help them see that the course they had chosen was the right one and that they had not suffered and endured in vain. Happily, Paul rose to the occasion and came to their aid.
7. Why should we be interested in what Paul wrote to the Hebrew Christians?
7 What Paul wrote to Hebrew Christians should be of immense interest to us. Why? Because we are living in a time paralleling theirs. Daily we feel pressures from the world under Satan’s control. (1 John 5:19) Being fulfilled before our eyes are the prophecies of Jesus and the apostles regarding the last days and “the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 24:3-14; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 2 Peter 3:3, 4; Revelation 6:1-8) Above all, we need to stay spiritually alert so that we “may succeed in escaping all these things that are destined to occur.”—Luke 21:36.
One Greater Than Moses
8. By saying what is recorded at Hebrews 3:1, what was Paul urging his fellow Christians to do?
8 Mentioning a vital point, Paul wrote: “Consider the apostle and high priest whom we confess—Jesus.” (Hebrews 3:1) To “consider” means “to perceive clearly . . . , to understand fully, consider closely.” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words) Thus, Paul was urging his fellow believers to make a serious effort to come to a true appreciation of the role that Jesus played in their faith and salvation. Doing this would strengthen their resolve to stand firm in faith. What, then, was Jesus’ role, and why should we “consider” him?
9. Why did Paul refer to Jesus as “apostle” and “high priest”?
9 Paul applied the terms “apostle” and “high priest” to Jesus. An “apostle” is someone sent forth and here relates to God’s means of communicating with mankind. A “high priest” is one through whom humans can approach God. These two provisions are essential to true worship, and Jesus is the embodiment of both. He is the one sent from heaven to teach mankind the truth about God. (John 1:18; 3:16; 14:6) Jesus is also the one appointed as the antitypical High Priest in Jehovah’s spiritual temple arrangement for the forgiveness of sin. (Hebrews 4:14, 15; 1 John 2:1, 2) If we truly appreciate the blessings that we can realize through Jesus, we will have the courage and determination to remain firm in faith.
10. (a) How did Paul help Hebrew Christians to appreciate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism? (b) What universal truth did Paul cite to reinforce his point?
10 To stress the value of Christian faith, Paul compared Jesus with Moses, whom the Jews viewed as the greatest prophet among their ancestors. If Hebrew Christians could wholeheartedly grasp the fact that Jesus is greater than Moses, they would have no reason to doubt the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Paul pointed out that while Moses was counted worthy of being entrusted with God’s “house”—the nation, or congregation, of Israel—he was only a faithful attendant, or servant. (Numbers 12:7) On the other hand, Jesus was the Son, the master over the house. (1 Corinthians 11:3; Hebrews 3:2, 3, 5) To reinforce his point, Paul cited this universal truth: “Of course, every house is constructed by someone, but he that constructed all things is God.” (Hebrews 3:4) No one would dispute that God is greater than anyone, for he is the Builder, or Creator, of all. Logically, then, since Jesus was God’s coworker, he must be greater than all other creation, including Moses.—Proverbs 8:30; Colossians 1:15-17.
11, 12. What did Paul urge the Hebrew Christians to hold on to “firm to the end,” and how can we apply his counsel?
11 Truly, the Hebrew Christians were in a highly favored position. Paul reminded them that they were “partakers of the heavenly calling,” a privilege to be treasured above anything that the Jewish system had to offer. (Hebrews 3:1) Paul’s words must have made those anointed Christians feel grateful that they were in line for a new inheritance rather than feel sorry that they had given up things connected with their Jewish heritage. (Philippians 3:8) Urging them to hold on to their privilege and not to take it for granted, Paul said: “Christ was faithful as a Son over the house of [God]. We are the house of that One, if we make fast our hold on our freeness of speech and our boasting over the hope firm to the end.”—Hebrews 3:6.
12 Yes, if Hebrew Christians were to survive the impending conclusion of the Jewish system of things, they needed to hold on to their God-given hope “firm to the end.” We must do the same thing today if we want to survive the end of this system. (Matthew 24:13) We must not allow the anxieties of life, the apathy of people, or our own imperfect tendencies to make us waver in our faith in God’s promises. (Luke 21:16-19) To see how we can fortify ourselves, let us pay attention to Paul’s further words.
“Do Not Harden Your Hearts”
13. What warning did Paul give, and how did he apply Psalm 95?
13 After considering the favored position of the Hebrew Christians, Paul gave this warning: “As the holy spirit says: ‘Today if you people listen to his own voice, do not harden your hearts as on the occasion of causing bitter anger, as in the day of making the test in the wilderness.’” (Hebrews 3:7, 8) Paul was quoting from the 95th Psalm, and could therefore say “the holy spirit says.”* (Psalm 95:7, 8; Exodus 17:1-7) The Scriptures are inspired of God by means of his holy spirit.—2 Timothy 3:16.
14. How did the Israelites respond to what Jehovah had done for them, and why?
14 After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were given the great honor of entering into a covenant relationship with Jehovah. (Exodus 19:4, 5; 24:7, 8) Instead of showing appreciation for what God had done for them, however, they soon acted rebelliously. (Numbers 13:25–14:10) How could that have happened? Paul pointed to the reason: the hardening of their hearts. But how do hearts that are sensitive and responsive to God’s Word become hardened? And what must we do to prevent this?
15. (a) How has ‘God’s own voice’ been heard, past and present? (b) What questions do we need to ask ourselves regarding ‘God’s voice’?
15 Paul started his warning with the provisional clause “if you people listen to his own voice.” God spoke to his people through Moses and other prophets. Then, Jehovah spoke to them through his Son, Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 1:1, 2) Today, we have God’s complete inspired Word, the Holy Bible. We also have “the faithful and discreet slave,” appointed by Jesus to provide spiritual “food at the proper time.” (Matthew 24:45-47) Thus, God is still speaking. But are we listening? For example, how do we respond to counsel about dress and grooming or choice of entertainment and music? Do we “listen,” that is, pay attention to and obey what is being heard? If we have the habit of making excuses or taking exception to the counsel, we are opening ourselves to the subtle danger of hardening our hearts.
16. What is one way in which our hearts can become hardened?
16 Our hearts can also become hardened if we beg off from doing what we can and should do. (James 4:17) Despite everything that Jehovah did for the Israelites, they failed to exercise faith, rebelled against Moses, chose to believe a bad report about Canaan, and refused to enter the Promised Land. (Numbers 14:1-4) Jehovah therefore decreed that they would spend 40 years in the wilderness—long enough for the faithless members of that generation to die off. Disgusted with them, God said: “‘They always go astray in their hearts, and they themselves have not come to know my ways.’ So I swore in my anger, ‘They shall not enter into my rest.’” (Hebrews 3:9-11) Do we see a lesson in this for us?
A Lesson for Us
17. Even though they saw Jehovah’s mighty deeds and heard his pronouncements, why did the Israelites lack faith?
17 The generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears the mighty deeds and pronouncements of Jehovah. Still, they had no faith that God could lead them safely into the Promised Land. Why? “They themselves have not come to know my ways,” said Jehovah. They knew what Jehovah had said and done, but they had not developed confidence and trust in his ability to care for them. They were so obsessed with their personal needs and wants that they gave little thought to God’s ways and purpose. Yes, they lacked faith in his promise.
18. According to Paul, what course of action will result in “a wicked heart lacking faith”?
18 These further words to the Hebrews apply with equal force to us: “Beware, brothers, for fear there should ever develop in any one of you a wicked heart lacking faith by drawing away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12) Paul got to the core of matters by pointing out that “a wicked heart lacking faith” is the result of “drawing away from the living God.” Earlier in this letter, he spoke of ‘drifting away’ because of inattention. (Hebrews 2:1) However, the Greek term rendered “drawing away” means “to stand off” and is related to the word “apostasy.” It denotes a deliberate and conscious resisting, withdrawing, and defecting, with a note of contempt thrown in.
19. How might failing to listen to counsel lead to serious consequences? Illustrate.
19 The lesson, therefore, is that if we fall into the habit of failing to “listen to his own voice,” ignoring counsel from Jehovah through his Word and the faithful slave class, it will not be long before our hearts become callous, hardened. For example, an unmarried couple may get a little too intimate. What if they simply ignore the matter? Would that protect them from repeating what they did, or would that only make it easier for them to do it again? Similarly, when the slave class offers counsel on the need to be selective in our choice of music and entertainment, and so forth, do we gratefully accept it and make adjustments where necessary? Paul urged us ‘not to forsake the gathering of ourselves together.’ (Hebrews 10:24, 25) In spite of this counsel, some take a casual view of Christian meetings. They may feel that missing some of them or even omitting certain meetings entirely is inconsequential.
20. Why is it essential that we respond to Scriptural counsel in a positive way?
20 If we do not respond positively to Jehovah’s “voice,” clearly expressed in the Scriptures and Bible-based publications, we will soon find ourselves “drawing away from the living God.” Passive ignoring of counsel can easily become an active belittling, criticizing, and resisting of it. If left unchecked, the result is “a wicked heart lacking faith,” and recovery from such a course is usually very difficult. (Compare Ephesians 4:19.) Jeremiah aptly wrote: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) For this reason, Paul urged his fellow Hebrew believers: “Keep on exhorting one another each day, as long as it may be called ‘Today,’ for fear any one of you should become hardened by the deceptive power of sin.”—Hebrews 3:13.
21. What are all of us exhorted to do, and what prospects do we have?
21 How happy we are that Jehovah is still speaking to us today, through his Word and his organization! We are grateful that “the faithful and discreet slave” continues to help us to “make fast our hold on the confidence we had at the beginning firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14) Now is the time for us to respond to God’s love and direction. As we do so, we can enjoy another of Jehovah’s wonderful promises—that of ‘entering into’ his rest. (Hebrews 4:3, 10) That is the subject Paul next discussed with Hebrew Christians, and it is also the one we will consider in the following article.
Josephus reported that shortly after Festus’ death, Ananus (Ananias) of the sect of the Sadducees became high priest. He brought James, Jesus’ half brother, and other disciples before the Sanhedrin and had them condemned to death and stoned.
Paul evidently quoted from the Greek Septuagint, which translates the Hebrew for “Meribah” and “Massah” as “quarreling” and “testing” respectively. See pages 350 and 379 in Volume 2 of Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
Can You Explain?
□ Why did Paul write such strong counsel to Hebrew Christians?
□ How did Paul help the Hebrew Christians to appreciate that they had something better than life under Judaism?
□ How does one’s heart become hardened?
□ What must we do to avoid developing “a wicked heart lacking faith”?
[Picture on page 10]
Are you exercising faith in Jesus, the Greater Moses?