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The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 3

By Thomas Charles Edwards


      FUNDAMENTAL ONENESS OF THE DISPENSATIONS.

      Hebrews iii. i-iv. 13 (R.V.).

      "Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High-priest of our confession, even Jesus; who was faithful to Him that appointed Him as also was Moses in all his house. For He hath been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by so much as he that built the house hath more honour than the house. For every house is builded by some one; but He that built all things is God. And Moses indeed was faithful in all his house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were afterward to be spoken; but Christ as a Son, over His house; Whose house are we, if we hold fast our boldness and the glorying of our hope firm unto the end. Wherefore, even as the Holy Ghost saith,

      To-day if ye shall hear His voice,
      Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation,
      Like as in the day of the temptation in the wilderness,
      Wherewith your fathers tempted Me by proving Me,
      And saw My works forty years.
      Wherefore I was displeased with this generation,
      And said, They do always err in their heart:
      But they did not know My ways;
      As I sware in My wrath,
      They shall not enter into My rest.

      Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called to-day; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: for we are become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end: while it is said,

      To-day if ye shall hear His voice,
      Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.

      For who, when they heard, did provoke? nay, did not all they that came out of Egypt by Moses? And with whom was He displeased forty years? was it not with them that sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware He that they should not enter into His rest, but to them that were disobedient? And we see that they were not able to enter in because of unbelief.

      Let us fear therefore, lest haply, a promise being left of entering into His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good tidings preached unto us, even as also they: but the word of hearing did not profit them, because they were not united by faith with them that heard. For we which have believed do enter into that rest; even as He hath said,

      As I sware in My wrath,
      They shall not enter into My rest:

      although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all His works; and in this place again,

      They shall not enter into My rest.

      Seeing therefore it remaineth that some should enter thereinto, and they to whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter in because of disobedience, He again defineth a certain day, saying in David, after so long a time, To-day, as it hath been before said,

      To-day if ye shall hear His voice,
      Harden not your hearts.

      For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do."

      The broad foundation of Christianity has now been laid in the person of the Son, God-Man. In the subsequent chapters of the Epistle this doctrine is made to throw light on the mutual relations of the two dispensations.

      The first deduction is that the Mosaic dispensation was itself created by Christ; that the threats and promises of the Old Testament live on into the New; that the central idea of the Hebrew religion, the idea of the Sabbath rest, is realised in its inmost meaning in Christ only; that the word of God is ever full of living energy. Hereafter the Apostle will not be slow to expose the wide difference between the two dispensations. But it is equally true and not less important that the old covenant was the vesture of truths which remain when the garment has been changed.

      At the outset the writer's tone is influenced by this doctrine. He turns his treatise unconsciously into an epistle. He addresses his readers as brethren, holy indeed, but not holy after the pattern of their former exclusiveness; for their holiness is inseparably linked with their common brotherhood. They are partakers with the Gentile Churches in a heavenly call. Startling words! Hebrews holy in virtue of their sharing with Greeks and barbarians, bond and free, in a common call from high Heaven, which sees all earth as a level plain beneath! The middle wall of partition has been broken down to the ground. Yet soothing words, and full of encouragement! The Apostle and his leaders were standing near the end of the Apostolic age, when the Hebrew Christians were despondent, weak, and despised, both by reason of national calamities and because of their inferiority to their sister Churches among the Gentiles. The Apostle does not bluntly assure them of their equality, but gently addresses them as partakers of a heavenly call. His words are the reverse of St. Paul's language to the Ephesians, who are reminded that the Gentiles are partakers in the privileges of Israel. Those who sometimes were far off have been made nigh; the strangers and sojourners are henceforth fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God. Here, on the contrary, Hebrew Christians are encouraged with the assurance that they partake in the privileges of all believers. If the wild olive tree has been grafted in among the branches and made partaker of the root, the branches, broken off that the wild olive might be grafted in, are themselves in consequence grafted into their own olive tree. Through God's mercy to the Gentiles, Israel also has obtained mercy.

      The Apostle addresses them with affection. But his behest is sharp and urgent: "Consider the Apostle and High-priest of our profession, Jesus." Consider intently, or, to borrow a modern word that has sometimes been abused, Realise Jesus. Dwell not with abstractions and theories. Fear not imaginary dangers. Make Jesus Christ a reality before the eyes of your mind. To do this well will be more convincing than external evidences. To behold the glory of the temple, linger not to admire the strong buttresses without, but enter. Realisation of Christ may be said to be the gist of the whole Epistle.

      This spiritual vision is not ecstasy. We realise Christ as Apostle and as High-priest. We behold Him when His words are a message to us from God, and when He carries our supplications to God. Revelation and prayer are the two opposite poles of communion with the Father. The dispensation of Moses rested on these two pillars,--apostleship and priesthood. But the fundamental conceptions of the Old Testament centre in Jesus. Though our author has distinguished between God's revelation in the prophets and His revelation in a Son, he teaches also that even the prophets received their message through the Son. Though he contrasts in what follows of the Epistle the high-priesthood of Aaron with Christ's, still he regards Aaron's office as utterly meaningless apart from Christ. The words "Apostle and High-priest" pave the way, therefore, to the most prominent truth in this section of the Epistle: that whatever is best in the Old Testament has been assimilated and inspired with new energy by the Gospel.

      1. To begin, we must understand the actual position of the founders of the two dispensations. Neither Moses nor Christ set about originating, designing, constructing, from his own impulse and for his own purposes. Both acted for God, and were consciously under His directing eye.[38] "It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful."[39] They have but to obey, and leave the unity and harmony of the plan to another. To use an illustration, every house is built by some one or other.[40] The design has been conceived in the brain of the architect. He is the real builder, though he employs masons and joiners to put the materials together according to his plan. This applies to the subject in hand; for God is the Architect of all things. He realises His own ideas as well through the seeming originality of thinkers as through the willing obedience of workers. Now, the dispensation of the old covenant was one part of God's design. To build this portion of the house He found a faithful servant in Moses. The dispensation of the new covenant is but another, though more excellent, part of the same design; and Jesus was not less faithful to finish the structure. The unity of the design was in the mind of God.

      Moses was faithful when he refused the treasures of Egypt, and chose affliction with the people of God and the reproach of His Christ. He was faithful when he chid the people in the wilderness for their unbelief, and when he interceded for them again with God. Christ also was faithful to His God when He despised the shame and endured the Cross.

      Yet we must acknowledge a difference. God has accounted Jesus worthy of greater honour than Moses, inasmuch as Moses was part of the house, and that part the pre-existent Christ erected. Moses was "made" all that he became by Christ, but Christ was "made"[41] all that He became--God-Man--by God. Moreover, though Moses was greater than all the other servants of God before Christ, because they were placed in subordinate positions, while he was faithful in the whole house, yet even he was but a servant, whereas Christ was Son. Moses was in the house, it is true; but the Son was placed over the house. The work which Moses had to do was to uphold the authority of the Son, to witness, that is, to the things which would afterwards be spoken unto us by God in His Son, Jesus Christ.[42]

      The Apostle seems to delight in his illustration of the house, and continues to use it with a fresh meaning. This house, or, if you please, this household, are we Christians. We are the house in which Moses showed the utmost faithfulness as servant. We are the circumcision, we the true Israel of God. If, then, we turn away from Christ to Moses, that faithful servant himself will have none of us. That we may be God's house, we must lay fast hold of our Christian confidence and the boasting of our hope out-and-out to the end.

      2. Again, the threatenings of the Old Testament for disobedience to God apply with full force to apostasy from Christ. They are the authoritative voice of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle is reminded by the words which he has just used, "We are God's house," of the Psalmist's joyful exclamation, "He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand."[43] Then follows in the Psalm a warning, which the Apostle considers it equally necessary to address to the Hebrew Christians: "To-day, if indeed you still hear His voice (for it is possible He may no longer speak), harden not your hearts, as you did in Meribah, rightly called,--the place of contention. Your fathers, far from trusting Me when I put them to the test, turned upon Me and put Me to the test, and that although they saw My works during forty years." Forty years,--ominous number! The readers would at once call to mind that forty years within a little had now passed since their Lord had gone through the heavens to the right hand of the Father. What if, after all, the old belief proves true that He returns to judgment after waiting for precisely the same period for which He had patiently endured their fathers' unbelief in the wilderness! God is still living, and He is the same God. He Who sware in His wrath that the fathers should not enter into the rest of Canaan is the same in His anger, the same in His mercy. Exhort one another. In the wilderness God dealt with individuals. He does so still. See that there be no evil heart, which is unbelief, in any one of you at any time while the call, "To-day!" is sounded in your ears. For sin weakens the sense of individual guilt, and thus deceives men by hardening their hearts.[44] All that came out of Egypt provoked God to anger. But they provoked Him, not in the mass, but one by one, and one by one, with palsied limbs,[45] they fell in the wilderness, as men fall exhausted on the march. Thus, for their persistent unbelief, God sware they should not enter into His rest--"His," for He kept the key still in His own hand. But persistent unbelief made them incapable of entering. If God were still willing to cut off for them the waters of Jordan, they could not[46] enter in because of unbelief.

      3. Similarly, the promises of God are still in force. Indeed, the steadfastness of the threatenings involves the continuance of the promises, and the rejection of the promises ensures the fulfilment of every threatening. As much as this is expressed in the opening words of chap. iv.: "A promise being left to us, let us therefore fear."

      To prove the identity of the promises under the two dispensations, the Apostle singles out one promise, which may be considered most significant of the national no less than the religious life of Israel. The Greek mind was ever on the alert for something new. Its character was movement. But the ideal of the Old Testament is rest. Christ came into touch with the people at once when He began His public ministry with an invitation to the weary and heavy-laden to come unto Him, and with the promise that He would give them rest. Near the close of His ministry He explained and fulfilled the promise by giving to His disciples peace. The object of our author, in the difficult chapter now under consideration, is to show that the idea most characteristic of the old covenant finds its true and highest realisation in Christ. After the manner of St. Paul, who, in more than one passage, teaches that through the fall of Israel salvation is come unto the Gentiles, the writer of this Epistle also argues that the promise of rest still remains, because it was not fulfilled under the Old Testament in consequence of Israel's unbelief. The word of promise was a gospel[47] to them, as it is to us. But it did not profit them, because they did not assimilate[48] the promise by faith. Their history from the beginning consists of continued renewals of the promise on the part of God and persistent rejections on the part of Israel, ending in the hardening of their hearts. Every time the promise is renewed, it is presented in a higher and more spiritual form. Every rejection inevitably leads to grosser views and more hopeless unbelief. So entirely false is the fable of the Sibyl! God does not burn some of the leaves when His promises have been rejected, and come back with fewer offers at a higher price. His method is to offer more and better on the same conditions. But it is the nature of unbelief to cause the heart to wax gross, to blind the spiritual vision, until in the end the rich, spiritual promises of God and the earthly, dark unbelief of the sinner stand in extremest contrast.

      At first the promise is presented in the negative form of rest from labour. Even the Creator condescended thus to rest. But what such rest can be to God it were vain for man to try to conceive. We know that, as soon as the foundations of the world were laid and the work of creation was ended, God ceased from this form of activity. But when this negative rest had been attained, it was far from realising God's idea of rest either for Himself or for man. For, though these works of God, the material universe, were finished from the laying of the world's foundations to the crowning of the edifice,[49] God still speaks of another rest, and threatens to shut some men out for their unbelief. Our Lord told the Pharisees, whose notion of the Sabbath was the negative one, that He desired His Sabbath rest to be like that of His Father, Who "worketh hitherto." The Jewish Sabbath, it appears, therefore, is the most crude and elementary form of God's promised rest.

      The promise is next presented as the rest of Canaan.[50] This is a stage in advance in the development of the idea. It is not mere abstention from secular labour, and the consecration of inactivity. The rest now consists in the enjoyment of material prosperity, the proud consciousness of national power, the growth of a peculiar civilization, the rise of great men and eminent saints, and all this won by Israel under the leadership of their Jesus, who was in this respect a type of ours. But even in this second garden of Eden Israel did not attain unto God's rest. Worldliness became their snare.

      But God still called to them by the mouth of the Psalmist, long after they had entered on the possession of Canaan. This only proves that the true rest was still unattained, and God's promise not yet fulfilled. The form which the rest of God now assumed is not expressly stated in our passage. But we have not far to go in search of it. The first Psalm, which is the introduction to all the Psalms, declares the blessedness of contemplation. The Sabbath is seldom mentioned by the Psalmist. Its place is taken by the sanctuary, in which rest of soul is found in meditating on God's law and beholding the Lord's beauty.[51] The call is at last urgent. "To-day!" It is the last invitation. It lingers in the ears in ever fainter voice of prophet after prophet, until the prophet's face turns towards the east to announce the break of dawn and the coming of the perfect rest in Jesus Christ. God's promise was never fulfilled to Israel, because of their unbelief. But shall their unbelief make the faithfulness of God of none effect? God forbid. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. The promise that has failed of fulfilment in the lower form must find its accomplishment in the higher. Even a prayer is the more heard for every delay. God's mill grinds slowly, but for that reason grinds small. What is the inference? Surely it is that the Sabbath rest still remains for the true people of God. This Sabbath rest St. Paul prayed that the true Israel, who glory, not in their circumcision, but in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, might receive: "Peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God."[52]

      The faithfulness of God to fulfil His promise in its higher form is proved by His having accomplished it in its more elementary forms to every one that believed. "For he that entered into God's rest did actually rest from his works"[53]--that is to say, received the blessings of the Sabbath--as truly as God rested from the work of creation. The Apostle's practical inference is couched in language almost paradoxical: "Let us strive to enter into God's rest"--not indeed into the rest of the Old Testament, but into the better rest which God now offers in His Son.

      The oneness of the dispensations has been proved. They are one in their design, in their threatenings, in their promises. If we seek the fundamental ground of this threefold unity, we shall find it in the fact that both dispensations are parts of a Divine revelation. God has spoken, and the word of God does not pass away. "Think not," said our Lord, "that I came to destroy the Law or the prophets; I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the Law till all things be accomplished."[54] On another occasion He says, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away."[55] These passages teach us that the words of God through Moses and in the Son are equally immutable. Many features of the old covenant may be transient; but, if it is a word of God, it abides in its essential nature through all changes. For "the word of God is living,"[56] because He Who speaks the word is the living God. It acts with mighty energy,[57] like the silent laws of nature, which destroy or save alive according as men obey or disobey them. It cuts like a sword whetted on each side of the blade, piercing through to the place where the natural life of the soul divides[58] from, or passes into, the supernatural life of the spirit. For it is revelation that has made known to man his possession of the spiritual faculty. The word "spirit" is used by heathen writers. But in their books it means only the air we breathe. The very conception of the spiritual is enshrined in the bosom of God's word. Revelation has separated between the life of heathenism and the life of the Church, between the natural man and the spiritual, between the darkness that comprehended it not and the children of the light who received it and thus became children of God. Further, the word of God pierces to the joints that connect the natural and the supernatural.[59] It does not ignore the former. On the contrary, it addresses itself to man's reason and conscience, in order to erect the supernatural upon nature. Where reason stops short, the word of God appeals to the supernatural faculty of faith; and when conscience grows blunt, the word makes conscience, like itself, sharper than any two-edged sword. Once more, the word of God pierces to the marrow.[60] It reveals to man the innermost meaning of his own nature and of the supernatural planted within him. The truest morality and the highest spirituality are both the direct product of God's revelation.

      But all this is true in its practical application to every man individually. The power of the word of God to create distinct dispensations and yet maintain their fundamental unity, to distinguish between masses of men and yet cause all the separate threads of human history to converge and at last meet, is the same power which judges the inmost thoughts and inmost purposes of the heart. These it surveys with critical judgment.[61] If its eye is keen, its range of vision is also wide. No created thing but is seen and manifest. The surface is bared, and the depth within is opened up before it. As the upturned neck of the sacrificial beast lay bare to the eye of God,[62] so are we exposed to the eye of Him to Whom we have to give our account.[63]

      FOOTNOTES:

      [38] Chap. iii. 2.
      [39] 1 Cor. iv. 2.
      [40] Chap. iii. 4.
      [41] =poiesanti=.
      [42] Chap. iii. 5.
      [43] Ps. xcv. 7, sqq.
      [44] Chap. ii. 13.
      [45] =ta kola=. Cf. chap. xii. 12.
      [46] =ouk edynethesan= (iii. 19).
      [47] =euengelismenoi= (iv. 2).
      [48] Reading =synkekerasmenos=.
      [49] Chap. iv. 3.
      [50] Chap. iv. 8.
      [51] Ps. xxvii. 4.
      [52] Gal. vi. 16.
      [53] Chap. iv. 10.
      [54] Matt. v. 17, 18.
      [55] Matt. xxiv. 35.
      [56] Chap. iv. 12.
      [57] =energes=.
      [58] =merismou=.
      [59] =harmon=.
      [60] =myelon=.
      [61] =kritikos=.
      [62] =tetrachelismena= (iv. 13).
      [63] =ho logos=.

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See Also:
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Preface
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 1
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 2
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 3
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 4
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 5
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 6
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 7
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 8
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 9
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 10
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 11
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 12
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 13
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 14
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 15
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 16

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