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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Hebrews 3

Verse 1

We should give careful attention to Jesus because of our solidarity as brothers and our holy calling as participants in His future reign and joy (Hebrews 2:10-12). Our calling as Christians is not just earthly but also heavenly.

Jesus Christ is the "Apostle" (lit. delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders) in that He is the One God sent to reveal the Father to humankind (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2; John 1:14; John 3:17; John 3:34; John 5:36; John 5:38; et al.). Furthermore He is the "High Priest" in that He is the One God anointed to represent human beings to Himself (Hebrews 2:17-18). Our confession is that for which we take a public stand in water baptism, namely, Christianity (cf. Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 10:23).

Verses 1-6

A. The Faithfulness of the SON 3:1-6

"The author steadily develops his argument that Jesus is supremely great. He is greater than the angels, the author of a great salvation, and great enough to become man to accomplish it. Now the author turns his attention to Moses, regarded by the Jews as the greatest of men. . . . The writer does nothing to belittle Moses. Nor does he criticize him. He accepts Moses’ greatness but shows that as great as he was, Jesus was greater by far." [Note: Morris, p. 31.]

It was important to convince the Jewish readers that Jesus Christ is greater than Moses because the entire Jewish religion came through Moses. Christianity came through Christ.

"Observing the grammatical markers supplied by the writer, we submit that the development of the author’s thought reflects the following scheme:

Hebrews 3:1-2 introduction of the comparison between Jesus and Moses;

Hebrews 3:3 assertion of Jesus’ superiority to Moses;

Hebrews 3:4-6 a explanation for this assertion;

Hebrews 3:6 b relevance for the congregation." [Note: Lane, p. 72.]

Verses 1-10


The writer proceeded to take up the terms "merciful" and "faithful" from Hebrews 2:17 and to expound them in reverse order. He spoke of the faithfulness of Jesus (Hebrews 3:1-6, exposition) and the need for his hearers to remain faithful as well (Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:14, exhortation). He then encouraged his audience with a reminder of Jesus’ compassion as a merciful high priest in the service of God (Hebrews 4:15 to Hebrews 5:10, exposition).

Verse 2

We should probably translate this verse to tie it in directly to Hebrews 3:1 rather than making it a separate statement. The idea is that Jesus Christ is now faithful, not that He was in the past. He is faithful now as Moses was in the past. We can see Moses’ faithfulness in how he served regarding God’s "house," the tabernacle, and regarding God’s "household," Israel. He served exactly as God instructed him (cf. Numbers 12:7; 1 Samuel 2:35; 1 Chronicles 17:14). The Greek word oikos can mean "house" and "household."

Verses 3-4

We can see the difference between Jesus Christ’s superiority and Moses’ by comparing the builder of a building with the building itself. No matter how grand a building may be, its creator always gets more glory than the building itself. Whereas Moses served faithfully in the system of worship the tabernacle represented, Jesus Christ designed that system of worship. These verses are a powerful testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ. If God built everything, and Jesus Christ built God’s house, Jesus Christ is God.

Verses 5-6

Moses functioned as a servant (Gr. therapon, one who freely renders personal service) preparing something that would serve as a model for a later time. The tabernacle was a model of the real temple from which Jesus Christ will reign eventually (cf. Hebrews 1:8-13; Hebrews 2:8), first in the Millennium and then in the new heavens and earth. It is a spiritual temple in contrast with the physical tabernacle. Messiah’s rule over the earth was a revelation about which the prophets who followed Moses spoke more fully. Jesus Christ will not serve. He will reign. He is not God’s servant but God’s Son. As such, He sits. He does not stand like a servant. He is the possessor of all things, not one who makes preparation for things, as Moses did.

"By defining Moses’ service in this way, the writer indicates that Moses’ status as servant corresponds to that of the angels, who are servants to the heirs of salvation (see . . . Hebrews 1:14)." [Note: Ibid., p. 78.]

God’s house over which Jesus Christ sits in authority represents the whole system of worship that our Lord inaugurated with the New Covenant. He sits in God’s place, the holy of holies of this house. The tabernacle foreshadowed this final system of worship in which Jesus rules as King Priest. The tabernacle was a microcosm of God’s greater house. Moses served in the model (prototype) faithfully. Jesus rules over the larger house faithfully, not as a servant, but as God’s Son with full authority.

"In some sections of Jewish Christianity Christ’s role was envisaged as primarily that of a second Moses; here He is presented as being much more than that." [Note: Bruce, p. 58.]

Verse 6

God’s household consists of people, not boards, bars, and curtains. The writer was thinking of priestly functions, as is clear from the context. His concern was that his readers might not remain faithful to God (cf. Mark 4:5-6; Mark 4:16-17). This would result in their losing their privilege as priests that included intimate fellowship with God and the opportunity to represent God before people and people before God. This is what the Israelites as a whole lost when they turned away from the Lord and built the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32). Instead of all the Israelites being priests (Exodus 19:6) God limited this privilege to the Levites who remained faithful when the other Israelites apostatized (Exodus 32:26-29; cf. Numbers 3:12-13). Just so today it is possible for us to forfeit the privilege of functioning as a priest in the future (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). The writer shifted from using "house" to refer to the place where priestly functions take place, to using "house" to refer to the people engaged in those activities, namely, a household.

The writer’s point in this pericope was that his readers should follow the example of faithfulness to God that Moses and Jesus set or they could lose their privilege as priests. Essentially priests represent people to God. They exercise leadership of people God-ward. The writer had previously warned his readers that unfaithfulness could result in their drifting away from God’s truth (Hebrews 2:1-4). Moreover by contrasting Jesus and Moses he helped his Jewish readers appreciate the superiority of Jesus over Moses and so discouraged them from departing from Christianity and returning to Judaism. [Note: See Brett R. Scott, "Jesus’ Superiority over Moses in Hebrews 3:1-6," Bibliotheca Sacra 155:618 (April-June 1998):201-10.]

"When we withdraw from the exercise of our priestly New Testament worship, we are no longer fellowshipping with the other believers. But this does not mean we are not saved or that we had salvation and lost it." [Note: Dillow, p. 458.]

Verses 7-11

"Today" stresses the urgency of immediate action. This writer used it eight times in Hebrews. The context of the words quoted (Psalms 95:7-11) is very significant. The verses immediately preceding those quoted (Psalms 95:6-7 a) are a call to bow down and worship the Lord. That was the writer to the Hebrews’ desire for his readers. The words he quoted urge avoidance of Israel’s sin. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ initiated a new Exodus.

". . . the writer of Hebrews appeals to his recipients not to become discontented because of their suffering, and not to let discontentment give way to open rebellion-lest they, like their forefathers, lose the blessings of the privileges that now were available to them as believers." [Note: Pentecost, p. 76.]

"The grand and terrible lesson of Israel’s history is that it is possible to begin well and end poorly. In fact, this tragic human tendency dominates much human spiritual experience." [Note: R. Kent Hughes, 1:98.]

"’Rest’ (katapausis), as used here, points to a place of blessing where there is no more striving but only relaxation in the presence of God and in the certainty that there is no cause for fear." [Note: Morris, p. 35.]

"Rest" is another of the writer’s favorite words. For Israel, "rest" meant the enjoyment of all that God had promised the nation when they entered the Promised Land, not just entrance into the Promised Land. The next generation of Israelites did enter the Promised Land and experienced rest there because they chose to trust and obey God (cf. Joshua 1:13; Joshua 1:15; Joshua 21:44; Joshua 22:4; Joshua 23:1). For the Christian, "rest" is the enjoyment of all that God has promised us, not just going to heaven. This includes the full enjoyment of rewards that can be ours if we follow the Lord faithfully. All Christians will go to heaven and receive many blessings (Ephesians 1; 1 Peter 1), but some blessings are reserved for believers who continue to trust and obey God when faced with temptations to apostatize. [Note: See the Appendix at the end of these notes.] The crown of righteousness, the crown of life, the crown of glory, etc., are such rewards. Much confusion has resulted because Christians have interpreted "rest" simply as Canaan and heaven. In chapter 4, the writer spoke of "Sabbath rest," which is something different.

Verses 7-19

B. The Danger of Disbelief (The Second Warning) 3:7-19

"The comparison between Christ and Moses leads to one between their followers. The writer uses the conduct of the Israelites as a means of challenging his readers to a closer walk with God." [Note: Morris, p. 33.]

The writer next reminded his readers of the fate of the Israelites when they failed to continue believing God at Kadesh Barnea. His purpose was to help them realize the serious consequences of that behavior and to motivate them to persevere faithfully in the apostles’ teaching. This exhortation is really a commentary on Psalms 95:7-11 in which the writer assumed a correspondence between the successive generations of God’s people and consistency in God’s character. [Note: Lane, p. 83.] In Hebrews 3:6 the writer warned of losing our privilege of serving as priests in the present. Now he warned of losing some of our privileges as heirs in the future.

Verse 12

Here is an exhortation to apply this lesson from the past. Note again that those to whom the writer addressed this epistle were believers: "brethren." Their danger was apostasy, departure from God, not failure to come to God in saving faith. [Note: See Hodges, p. 787.]

"The rebellion he warns against consists of departing from a living, dynamic person, not from some dead doctrine. Jews might retort that they served the same God as the Christians so that they would not be departing from God if they went back to Judaism. But to reject God’s highest revelation is to depart from God, no matter how many preliminary revelations are retained." [Note: Morris, p. 36.]

The Greek words translated "to apostatize" (lit. to stand away, aphistemi) and "apostasy" (defection, apostasia) do not by themselves indicate whether believers or unbelievers are in view. The reader must determine this from the context. Here believers seem to be in view (as in Luke 8:13; Acts 15:38; 1 Timothy 4:1; cf. Luke 2:38; 2 Timothy 2:12 b; Hebrews 4:4) since the writer called them "brethren." Some people refer to Christian apostates as backsliders. However the apostates in view here were very serious backsliders. In other contexts, unsaved apostates are in view (e.g., Luke 13:27; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:11). In still other passages there is not sufficient information to pass judgment on their salvation (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:3; cf. Titus 1:14).

Other Scripture seems to reveal quite clearly that genuine Christians can renounce their faith (Matthew 10:33; Mark 8:32; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 3:8). Experience confirms this conclusion. False teachers have deceived many Christians into believing that the truth that they formerly believed is not true, even truth about Jesus Christ. For example, many young people abandon their Christian faith because a respected university professor convinces them that what they formerly believed is not true. The cults are full of people who formerly professed belief in the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith but who no longer do so. However this does not mean that genuine Christians who become deceived will lose their salvation (John 10:28; 2 Timothy 2:13). [Note: See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "aphistemi, apostasia, dichostasia," by Heinrich Schlier, 1:512-13.] They will not. We are not saved by our good works, and we do not lose our salvation by our bad works (i.e., failing to persevere faithfully in the faith). Justification is a legal verdict that God renders in which He declares the believing sinner forgiven, and He never rescinds that verdict.

"No believer today, Jew or Gentile, could go back into the Mosaic legal system since the temple is gone and there is no priesthood. But every believer is tempted to give up his confession of Christ and go back into the world system’s life of compromise and bondage." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:288.]

As often in Hebrews, references to God as "living" imply that He is the giver of life. [Note: Ellingworth, p. 654.]

Verse 13

If a sinner continues in his sin, he may conclude that sin does not matter, as the Israelites at Kadesh Barnea did. Their unbelief there was the tenth instance of unbelief since they left Egypt (cf. Numbers 14:22). This is sin’s deceitfulness: we may think that because God does not punish the sinner immediately, sin really does not matter. Sin matters very much. The writer counseled his readers to encourage each other to continue to walk with God. He did this to help us avoid the rationalizing that we can get into when we do not confess and forsake our sins. Meeting with other Christians for mutual encouragement regularly can be a great help to any Christian in remembering that failing to continue to trust God will bring bad consequences. Mutual encouragement in godliness is something we all need frequently so we do not become hardened to sin.

"A hardened attitude is not a sudden aberration, but a habitual state of mind." [Note: Guthrie, p. 107.]

We need to get started "today," while there is still opportunity.

"One of the best ways of keeping ourselves true is to help other people, and the duty is here set forth of exhorting one another. There is scarcely anything more striking in Christian experience than the fact that in helping others we often help ourselves." [Note: Thomas, p. 44.]

Verse 14

Even though we are already partakers of a heavenly calling (Hebrews 3:1), we can only partake of all that God wants us to enjoy in the future with the Messiah by persevering. Conversely we can lose the privilege of partaking with Christ fully if we stop trusting and obeying God. Likewise we can lose the privilege of serving as priests to the extent that we could serve as priests by proving unfaithful (Hebrews 3:6; cf. Luke 19:11-27; 2 Timothy 2:12). The condition the writer stated here is the same as in Hebrews 3:6. We must continue to walk by faith, to trust and obey God daily, just as we began the Christian life by faith.

". . . A son who leaves home ceases to be an active partner in the home, though he does not thereby cease to be a son!" [Note: Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, p. 76.]

"To begin well is good, but it is not enough, it is only those who stay the course and finish the race that have any hope of gaining the prize." [Note: Bruce, p. 68. Cf. 12:1-2.]

Verse 15

We see the example of failure in Israel’s unbelief at Kadesh-barnea, which the writer repeated for emphasis. Much misinterpretation of the warnings in Hebrews has arisen over failure to appreciate that this writer was drawing parallels between the behavior of God’s people in the past (Israel) and the behavior of God’s people in the present (the church). Christians face the same kinds of temptations that the Israelites did, and we should learn from their mistakes (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-22).

"The allusions to Numbers 14 are significant because they indicate that unbelief is not a lack of faith or trust. It is the refusal to believe God. It leads inevitably to a turning away from God in a deliberate act of rejection." [Note: Lane, p. 86.]

Verses 16-19

These verses constitute an exposition of the passage quoted. The questions indicate the diatribe style of rhetoric in which the speaker raises questions and provides answers. The Israelites who died in the wilderness were mostly redeemed believers (cf. Exodus 14:31). [Note: See Randall C. Gleason, "The Old Testament Background of Rest in Hebrews 3:7-4:11," Bibliotheca Sacra 157:627 (July-September 2000):288.] They died as believers; they did not lose their salvation. However they did fail to enter into the blessings that could have been theirs because they refused to believe that God would defeat their enemies and bring them into rest in the Promised Land. If we fail to believe that Jesus has defeated and will defeat our enemies (Hebrews 1:13-14), we too will fail to enter into all the blessing that can be ours in heaven. We need to continue to trust and obey just like the Israelites should have done.

"By saying So we see that [Hebrews 3:19], the writer assumes that his reasoning will be self-evident." [Note: Guthrie, p. 110.]

"The conclusion thus introduces the motif of the impossibility of a second repentance after apostasy, in anticipation of a fuller treatment later in the sermon (Hebrews 6:4-8; Hebrews 10:26-31; Hebrews 12:16-17 . . .). The hearers are left with the overwhelming impression that unbelief would expose them to the same precarious situation as Israel at Kadesh." [Note: Lane, p. 89.]

The apostate generation of Israelites failed to enter the Promised Land when they hardened their hearts and provoked God by their disbelief. Is the implication that Christians who do the same will not enter heaven? Many interpreters have taken this view. However, the New Testament elsewhere teaches that all who believe in Jesus Christ will go to heaven because simple faith in Christ is what saves us (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). God has promised to complete the work of salvation that He began in us (cf. John 10:27-28; Romans 8:30; Philippians 1:6; et al.). He will glorify us just as he justified us and just as He is sanctifying us. He will do this despite our subsequent unbelief (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13). If our subsequent unbelief resulted in our loss of salvation, the condition for being saved would have to be faith plus faithfulness, which it is not. Remember, "rest" does not equal the Promised Land (for the Israelites, or heaven for Christians) but obtaining all the inheritance that God wants to give believers in the Promised Land (or heaven).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Hebrews 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.