22. The Realities of Unbelief

Meditations in Hebrews 3: 22.  The Realities of Unbelief

Heb 3:19   So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief

It is a legitimate question to ask, why is this writer to the Hebrews bringing these warnings to his readers?  He started it, we said, back in 2:1 – We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away,” and then he hinted at the same thing in 3:6 – “we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast,” and then he came with that big quote from Psa 95, concluding with “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) Then there was that final nudge, we saw, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (3:14) So, four times there have been indirect and direct warnings to hold onto our faith. Why?

There is, I suggest, a very simple reason: it is so easy to drift away IF our hearts are not firmly committed to Christ. Having said that there will always be three forces or resources that God will use to stop this happening, three POSITIVE forces at work – His own Holy Spirit, who speaks and seeks to convict us when we get it wrong or get into wrong thinking, His own word, the Bible, which He uses to challenge and teach us (see 2 Tim 3:16,17) and indeed the church and its ministries, and other believers.  So, in one sense it is not so easy because God will always be seeking to use all these things to draw you back to himself.

However, we also need to be aware that although there are these three positive forces that God seeks to use to keep us on the right tracks, there are also three NEGATIVE ‘forces’ at work that will seek to draw us away from God. First, the Bible shows us, there is Satan who seeks to tempt us into wrong, distract us from our path and lead us away from God. Second, there is what the New Testament simply refers to as ‘the world’, not the physical planet on which we live, nor all the people who live on it, but the ungodly outlook that sin brings about. We live with this all around us and so we are constantly bombarded by expressions of unbelief through, say, the media. Third, there is our own Sin. Now when we came to Christ we died to that and were revived by the power of the Spirit, to help us live new lives, but the truth is that Sin, which I define as self-centred ungodliness, is always lurking there in the background, which was why the apostle Paul taught, “(You) put to death therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” (Col 3:5) and “(You), do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” (Rom 6:11) Now I have inserted the word ‘You’ in both those quotes because Paul is asking us to make an act of will and we need to make the effort to do that.

But that is when we confront this thing called free will because we have the choice, always, how we will act. We can choose not to act badly. So it is that the writer to the Hebrews keeps on pressing this point by referring back to the experience of Israel. Israel’s history is tragically littered with unbelief seen in disobedience. So he now says again, “As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” (v.15) Note the expression, ‘the rebellion’. What rebellion, because there were many in different forms throughout the Old Testament? Researching this some time back, I concluded that the whole of the Old Testament history is there to make us realise the reality of Sin and our need for the salvation which comes in the New Testament.

He wants his Jewish readers to think about the time between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, a time that should have been a matter of a few months but turned out to be forty years! Stop and think about this, he implies, think about what went on back there as recorded in the Pentateuch (Gen to Deut). He asks a series of questions, starting with, “Who were they who heard and rebelled?” (v.16a) We may take this for granted when we read the Bible but there is something incredible here. So who were the rebels? Answer: “Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?” (v.16b)

Now stop and think about those people. They had witnessed ten incredible plagues, they had witnessed God drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, they had witnessed God cleansing water in the desert, providing fresh water in the desert, providing a constant supply of food in the desert, and had known God help them overcome an attack of the Amalekites in the desert. Then they had come to Mount Sinai and had a series of the most incredible experiences of God there. On their traveling to the Promised Land they had again known God’s provision, as well as His chastising. Again and again and again and again they had experienced the powerful presence of God, there for them, guarding them, guiding them and providing for them AND YET they rebel and refuse to follow God into the Land (and it was ‘follow’ because He had said He would drive out the inhabitants before them) but STILL they were rebellious and refused to enter.

So the writer presses home the point: “And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.” (v.17-19) This is the harsh reality. Israel sinned in disobedience born out of unbelief DESPITE their incredible experience of the Lord and as a result the Lord refused to let them try to then force their way into the Land and so that entire generation died of old age, but still in the desert – all because of their unbelief.

Now this is the scary reality: you and I can choose to be foolish, choose not to believe, choose to be disobedient and choose to be recipients of God’s discipline. We too have no excuses. We have the Bible, we have the testimony of the Church over two thousand years, and we have the Holy Spirit, and we have one another. I do not have a problem with people who have a problem with poor church life epitomized by the church in Laodicea (See Rev 3) but if any of us struggle with unbelief and make excuses for just drifting away, I have to say, please, please, look at these things, listen to these things, heed these things. It is down to you. Our unbelief is not God’s fault; it is our choice. Remember God has three resources or forces working to help you stay on track (I may be part of one of them), so listen to His Holy Spirit, read His word with an open heart, listen to your brothers and sisters, because this writer to the Hebrews knows his people, and the Jews are no different from the rest of us; we all have this tendency to drift away and so we must be aware of it and resist it. Amen? Amen!

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13. Spiritual Blindness

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  13 :  Spiritual Blindness

1 Thess 2:14-16   You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

There is a sense whereby we should be grateful to the Jews of the Bible for making so obviously clear to us the effects of sin, the sin that contaminates all of mankind. The only reason to pick on the Jews is that they are the people God chose in the period of Old Testament history. Throughout the Old Testament the message from God was that they were intended to be a light to the Gentiles, a light to the rest of the world, revealing God. His intent was that they would reveal His love and goodness although He must have known that, in the event, with some notable exceptions – say David, Solomon, Josiah etc. – so often they would reveal the awful realities of Sin – rebellion, stupidity, self-centred godlessness.

Read the Old Testament and see God’s side of it.  Again and again He purposes blessing, He purposes doing good for Israel, but time and time again they turned away and fell into disarray and defeat before their enemies. The presence of the miraculous in their midst and the awareness of amazing testimonies of God’s power and love, there on their behalf, seen so clearly through such times as the Exodus, failed to keep them on track, failed to stop them drifting away, failed to stop them relying on legalistic or mechanistic religion instead of a wonderful relationship with the living God.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, declared of them just before they stoned him to death, You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?” (Acts 7:51,52)  Jesus himself declared, “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, `I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 11:47-51) Was the fulfilment of Jesus’ words the destruction of Jerusalem and the casting the Jews out into the rest of the world until the mid 20th century?  But that was the truth: they had rejected all those God sent.

Wherever you look in the New Testament there is this condemnation of the unbelieving Jews, e.g.  “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:22,23) What a condemnation that was in the midst of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Jesus had done such amazing things but the unbelieving Jews of Jerusalem, the very hierarchy of Judaism, the chief priests and keepers of the temple, rejected all of that, ignored it and distorted the truth and killed Jesus. In that respect they are like the modern crusading atheists of today who find fault with the extreme edges of the Christian world and ignore the wonder of transformed lives in the middle of it, and all the good they have done through the centuries. And they do this all to maintain their own godless prejudices.

This is the truth and it was true of those Jews throughout the Bible. Although there was always a believing remnant (and those became the foundation of the Christian church – all the apostles were Jews, as were all the early believers) the majority preferred to rule their own lives and do their own thing, ignoring God and ignoring His Law that He had provided for them. So they killed prophets when they came and they killed Jesus when he came. Jesus told a parable that could not be more pointed: “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, `This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ” `The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Mt 21:33-43)

Wherever Paul and his team went they received opposition from the Jews in the town. This is the tragedy of history, that those who should have been the first to see, failed to see and instead became those who opposed the Gospel, opposed Jesus and opposed God. Even in Israel today, orthodoxy exists, a few believe in Jesus but the majority are not known for their spirituality. The best we can say is that in this, they reflect the rest of the world. If we look at them and see their failure beware complacency. Their day may yet come. Paul warns of these things in Rom 10 & 11.

In Israel we see revealed so clearly a spiritual blindness and it comes as a warning to all the rest of the world – is this how you are too? Beware.