Hebrews 4:12-13

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Hebrews 4:12-11

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

In 1970 the late Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered his lecture after winning the Nobel Prize in literature. Near the end of the lecture Solzhenitsyn said, “And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions!” He the approached the conclusion of his lecture by quoting a Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”[1]

That is a fascinating statement, isn’t it? “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

Indeed, words of truth have weight. But the two verses we are about to consider are going to say more than this. They are going to say not only that words have weight, but that the Word, the word of God, actually has life…and power…and can dismantle…and can search…and can heal.

It is important that we not detach these two amazing verses from the wider context of Hebrews. We have seen, especially in chapters 3 and 4, repeated warnings against ignoring the word of God. We have been told that those Israelites who ignored the word of God in the wilderness fell under judgment. We have been told that those who did not cling to the word in the land of promise fell under judgment. And we have been cautioned again and again and again not to harden our hearts, not to commit the same mistake, but rather to hear and listen and receive what God is saying so that we can live and have life!

So these two verses follow with utter consistency from what precedes them: we must understand that the word of God is not like human words. The word of God is not some passive thing we can take or leave. Rather, it is living, it is life.

We dare not turn from the word!

Grant Osborne, like many others, has argued that the “word” in our text is referring to the scriptures in particular.

These verses provide proper closure to this first major section of the letter, for throughout the letter thus far, the author’s narration has centered on Old Testament citations that provide the background for his argumentation. He wants the readers to realize what this signifies, for it is the word of God, and not just human thoughts, that have been quoted.[2]

Yes, all of the verses that the writer has appealed to cement the point: God has spoken in His word and we must heed what he has said there. Let us consider carefully what our text says about the word of God.

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Hebrews 4:1-11

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Hebrews 4:1-11

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 

I think it is very possible that we have misunderstood one of the most famous verses of the Bible. I am speaking of Matthew 11:28. This will sound familiar to many of you:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

I say I think we may have misunderstood this because most times this is spoken of in terms of Jesus giving rest to tired people, Jesus giving respite to weary people. The problem is not that that is wrong. The problem is that that is not enough. In reality, the “rest” about which Jesus speaks is much more than that. In fact, as we will see in Hebrews 4, it actually means “salvation.” Christ will give us the eternal rest of the Kingdom, the eternal rest of His presence.

In the early church, the fathers spoke of there being “three rests,” and they used our text as one of the texts to justify this. For instance, John Chrysostom said:

He says that there are “three” rests: one, that of the sabbath, in which God rested from works; the second, that of Palestine, in which, when the Jews had entered, they would be at rest from their hardships and labors; the third, that which is rest indeed, the kingdom of heaven, where those who obtain it do indeed rest from their labors and troubles.

That seems clear enough. The church father Theodore of Cyr was even more succinct about the three rests:

…first, the seventh day…second, the land of promise; and third, the kingdom of heaven.[1]

Yes, there are three rests: sabbath, promised land, and the Kingdom of Heaven. This means that the first two rests are preparatory for and types of the greater rests the surpasses them. In other words, Jesus offers something than neither the sabbath nor entry into the promised land could offer, as Hebrews 4 will bear out.

I want us to talk about the rest that Jesus offers. We need to listen and listen very closely to how Hebrews 4 unpacks this important issue. We will approach it by considering two main ideas that emerge from this passage.

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Hebrews 3:7-19

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Hebrews 3:7-19

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

A few years back Penguin publishers published Cory Arcangel’s book, Working on My Novel. The book is simply a collection of tweets from various people that include the phrase “working on my novel” (with, oddly enough, drawings of kettles interspersed throughout). Arcangel, the compiler, said of the book that it

is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it’s the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But Dan Piepenbring, a reviewer for The Paris Review, calls it instead “a sad monument to distraction.” Piepenbring continues:

Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist…)

The reviewer then makes a devastating observation about these tweets:

But failure is seldom on the minds of these writers, except insofar as it stands, temporarily, between them and inevitable success. As of now, there are 675 of those would-be writers featured on the Twitter version of Working, and yet a rudimentary search shows that the word fail has been deployed exactly zero times. What prevails instead is a kind of Pollyannaish resilience…[1]

In other words the collection of distracted tweets reveals a kind of optimistic naivete on the parts of those who tweeted that there would in fact be time to finish their novels, that there is nothing a bit pitiful about so many comments about doing something one could not be actively doing while commenting on it, and that there was no worse-case scenario where their delays and distractions could result in the, to them, unthinkable: failure.

The scriptures take a decidedly more realistic view. They discourage us from speaking much of tomorrow or of later. They encourage us to make the most important decision—the decision to come to God—now. And they paint a rather chilling picture of the terrible consequences of waiting too long. The latter half of Hebrews 3 paints just such a picture, though, as we will see, the picture it paints is supported by numerous other texts.

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Matthew 16:13-23

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Matthew 16

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Michael Card once wrote a song about Simon Peter that I find beautiful and moving. Here is how the song begins:

You bore the burden of a name
Along a road that would lead to the cross
Bold and broken, upside-down
A light for the least and the lost

He called you the rock, the foundation
Of a temple formed from God’s love
His robe of forgiveness wrapping you up
Meant trusting in Him was enough

His love called you out on the water
And held you when you were alone
For you were the rock that was
Broken by love, forever the fragile stone

I like that a lot. The image of Peter as “the fragile stone” is a good one, and an accurate one. Card is drawing from our passage by using this image. In Matthew 16 Peter demonstrates that he is (a) a rock, a stone and also (b) that he is a fragile stone.

What I would like to do is focus on Jesus’ two responses to two things Peter says to Him in back-to-back episodes here in Matthew 16. In the first episode, Peter says something correct about the person of Jesus and is blessed. In the second Peter says something wrong about the work of Jesus and is condemned. Consider:

Episode #1

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Here, Peter correctly proclaims that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus’ response to this proclamation is one of joy. More than that, He tells Peter of the great ministry that He, Jesus, has for Peter.

Episode #2

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Here, Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from the cross, bluntly announcing that the event of the cross should not, must not, happen! Jesus’ response is one of sharp and devastating rebuke.

In the first episode Peter is in step with Jesus. In the second he is out of step with Jesus. Jesus’ response, then, is not merely to Peter but is also to all of us when we are either in step with or out of step with Jesus.

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CBC Holy Week 2022 Services

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Just a note to let you know that audio (when available) and video of the Central Baptist Church Holy Week services can be found here.

New Volume Released

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[Purchase here.]

“This volume of Garrett’s collected writings does not disappoint. In them, we again see the keen analysis of a theological giant, a historian who could see beyond clutter to essence, and within all his labor, lovingly seek the edification of his community of faith. This rich volume renews our appreciation for the mind, heart, and pen of Garrett and our gratitude to God for giving him to us.”

Jeffrey Bingham, School of Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Hebrews 3:1-6

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Hebrews 3:1-6

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.

Michelangelo created his great statue of Moses from 1513-1515. It is currently housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.

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I have stood before this statue and marveled at its beauty. One of the most fascinating features of the statue are the horns coming out of Moses’ head.

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Here is a helpful description of why Moses has these horns (and why they are frequently in artistic depictions of Moses):

Following the iconographic convention common in Latin Christianity, the statue has two horns on its head.

The depiction of a horned Moses stems from the description of Moses’ face as “cornuta” (“horned”) in the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage found at Exodus chapter 34, specifically verses 29, 30 and 35, in which Moses returns to the people after receiving the commandments for the second time. The Douay-Rheims Bible translates the Vulgate as, “And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tablets of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.” This was Jerome’s effort to faithfully translate the difficult, original Hebrew text, which uses the term קָרַן‎, qāran (based on the root,  קֶרֶן‎ qeren, which often means “horn”); the term is now interpreted to mean “shining” or “emitting rays” (somewhat like horns). Although some historians believe that Jerome made an outright error,  Jerome himself appears to have seen qeren as a metaphor for “glorified”, based on other commentaries he wrote, including one on Ezekiel, where he wrote that Moses’ face had “become ‘glorified’, or as it says in the Hebrew, ‘horned’.” The Greek Septuagint, which Jerome also had available, translated the verse as “Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified.” In general medieval theologians and scholars understood that Jerome had intended to express a glorification of Moses’ face, by his use of the Latin word for “horned.” The understanding that the original Hebrew was difficult and was not likely to mean “horns” persisted into and through the Renaissance.[1]

All of this is very interesting, and it should be noted that other theories have been put forward by way of explanation. Even so, what strikes me most about this from a layman’s and a bird’s eye view is a simple point: glory looks a little odd on human beings, does it not? There is something glorious about human beings and, as we saw earlier in Hebrews 2, human beings were made to reflect the glory of God. Even so, glory sits awkwardly on us.

I think there is a reason for this. Only God wears glory naturally. The glory of humanity in our original creation was necessarily derivative and, after the fall of man, it is now both derivative and dimmed. But the glory of Jesus is not!

Moses did indeed have a kind of glory, but it pales in comparison to the glory of Jesus. This is the point the author of Hebrews is making as we move into Hebrews 3, and he makes it in a few different ways.

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Hebrews 2:14-18

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Hebrews 2:14-18

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the character Billy Pilgrim shares something interesting about the Tralfamadorians, the alien race he encounters in the novel after being abducted by them and taken to their planet.

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements. So it goes.[1]

Interesting: an alien race more interested in Charles Darwin than in Jesus Christ because Darwin accepted death as an improvement. At the very last one must give the Tralfamadorians this: they rightly understood that Jesus would not accept death as a natural part of life, much less as an “improvement.” In fact, the writer of Hebrews informs us that Jesus was the death-killer and He came to destroy death and the fear of it that so enslaves us.

Hebrws 2:14-18 is a beautiful text that makes much indeed of Jesus Christ! His great work of salvation is depicted here in powerful images. Let us consider four of them.

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Hebrews 2:5-13

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Hebrews 2:5-13

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor,  8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” 13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”

When I was in ninth grade I went on a school trip to Italy. The trip was led by mother, Diane Richardson, who was for many years the Latin teacher at Thomas Sumter Academy in Dalzell, South Carolina. It was a wonderful trip. I will never forget first seeing St. Peter’s, the Coliseum, the Pieta, the Sistine Chapel and so many other amazing creations and works of art. But what I was really unprepared for was Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence.

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The statue itself is overwhelming. It is 17 feet tall and weighs 12,000 pounds. It was carved from a single block of marble. The detail on it is stunning. I remember looking at the veins in those massive hands and thinking, “How on earth did Michelangelo do this?!” That statue is so realistic that you can imagine David simply stepping off of the pedestal and walking out into the world. It is truly amazing!

But I must say that the effect is profoundly heightened by the building in which it is placed and the journey that the viewer must go on to reach it. The statue of David is housed in Accademia Gallery in Florence. To get to the statue one must pass down a hallway known as the Hall of the Prisoners.

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The hall is called this because it contains a number of unfinished statues by Michelangelo in which male figures are still imprisoned in their blocks of marble. The statues were intended to be part of what would have been another of Michelangelo’s great creations: a massive and awe-inspiring tomb for Pope Julius II. Alas, the tomb never came to be and the statues remain half-formed and imprisoned in marble.[1]

It is a powerful and somewhat disturbing experience to stand before these figures in the Hall of Prisoners. They look as if they are straining to be free, straining to be complete, pushing to break loose from the marble in which they are captured.

So the visitor to the Accademia Gallery in Florence walks down this amazing hallway studying these half-formed prisoners. But, at the end of the Hall of Prisoners, under the great dome of the Tribune, stands David: free, majestic, complete, seemingly perfect.

It is the contrast that gets you: incompletion gives way to completion, deformation gives way to formation, flaw gives way to perfection, imprisonment gives way to freedom. The Hall of Prisoners gives way to the great resplendent statue of David!

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It really must be seen to be believed!

As I read Hebrews 2:5-13 my mind went back to the prisoners and to David, to this experience of passing from this hallway to the great work of art that the statue of David is. Maybe it resonated with me and, I suspect, with the vast majority of viewers because it symbolizes a tension that we all feel in our souls: the tension between what we want to be and what we really are, the tension between our aspirations and our realities, the tension between our “oughts” and our “is-es.”

We want to be David, but we feel that we are half-formed blocks of marble.

We want to be great, but we look at our lives and realize we are anything but.

Our text steps into this dynamic and tells us something important: we were made to be resplendent children of God and, though we have fallen and are marred, though we became prisoners through our sin, in Jesus we can become what God wants us to be.

But there is more. The scriptures tell us that Jesus, the perfect God-Man, stepped off of his pedestal and walked into the hall of prisoners that is the world and took on our imprisonment and our fallenness on the cross in order to set us free to become all that God intends.

Put another way: Jesus’ humility and exaltation enable and encourage the church to be more and to accept that we aremore than what the devil tells us we can be and are.

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