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“Heart Scan: Houston”

Hebrews 3:7-19
Bob DeGray
October 14, 2001

Key Sentence

Hard-heartedness is at best a sign of disobedience, but it can be a warning of entrenched sin or catastrophic disbelief.


I. The example of hard-heartedness (Hebrews 3:7-11)
II. The prevention of hard-heartedness (Hebrews 3:12-14)
III. The perils of hard-heartedness (Hebrews 3:15-18)


        One of the radio stations I listen to frequently plays an advertizement for an outfit called ‘Heart Scan Houston’. Parts of their web site are intriguing if you think of it as not talking about the physical heart but about the spiritual one: “Welcome to HeartScan: congratulations on taking the first step toward the goal of a longer, healthier life. Your visit will be a unique encounter in preventive health care. We will educate you about our technology, provide you the latest results from medical research regarding detection and prevention of silent heart disease, and answer your questions.

        HeartScan uses Electron Beam Tomography to screen for disease. “The EBT scanner is a sophisticated and extremely fast imaging tool that can provide early diagnosis of heart health problems. Consider the facts: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. This "silent killer" is a slow, progressive disease that can begin early in life and go undetected for years. For 150,000 Americans annually, the first and only symptom of heart disease is a fatal heart attack. Early detection leads to better treatment outcomes, a far greater chance that the heart disease can be slowed, or stopped or possibly even reversed.

        Hebrews 3 is one of several sections in this book where the author uses Spiritual Beam Tomography to help us detect and diagnose problems at the heart level. Early detection of these problems can lead to better treatment outcomes, because like physical heart disease, spiritual heart disease can begin before you notice symptoms, and can go undetected for years. But the earlier it is detected, the greater the chance it can be reversed. The secret is to use Hebrews 3, and other Scriptures to examine your heart and make a diagnosis. Hebrews 3 focuses on hard heartedness, which is at best a sign of disobedience, but it can be a warning of entrenched sin or catastrophic disbelief.

        Hebrews 3 began in the verses we studied last week with two examples of faithfulness: Moses, and more especially Jesus. Verse 6, immediately prior to today’s section, called us to faithfulness as well. “But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our confidence and the hope of which we boast.” Now, in verse 7, the author gives an example of unfaithfulness or unbelief from the history of Israel. Hebrews 3:7-11: So, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you hear his voice, 8do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. 10That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, 'Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.' 11So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.' "

         The opening phrase is striking “So, as the Holy Spirit says, today,” etc., and he quotes Psalm 95. Though David probably wrote this Psalm, our author hears the Holy Spirit speaking. ‘This is what the Holy Spirit says’ - present tense: “Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” The Psalmist expects his readers to hear God’s voice by applying the truths seen in the events of the Exodus to their own lives. In the same way the author of Hebrews expects his readers to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the text of the Psalm. He sees the Scriptures as the Word of God, living and at work in the lives of those who read it.

        So what warning does this Psalm bring to the readers of Hebrews and to us? ‘Today, if you hear his voice, 8do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert.” Notice the words “rebellion” and “testing”. The original Hebrew behind the word “rebellion” is meribah and “testing” is massah. Psalm 95:7-8 in your Old Testament reads: “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert.” In Exodus 17, after Israel escaped from Egypt, they camped at Rephidim by Mount Sinai and ran out of water and began to quarrel with Moses. Moses said ‘why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?’” Then, at God’s direction, he struck the rock and gave them water. The account concludes: “he called the place Massah, i.e. testing, and Meribah, i.e. quarreling, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” Their hard hearts were shown by their quarreling, their testing, and ultimately their lack of faith in the God who had miraculously rescued them from Egypt.

        For the author of Psalm 95, the apex of this hardheartedness came in the events recorded in Numbers 13 and 14. While Israel was camped at Kadesh Barnea, 12 spies were sent into the Promised Land, and returned with conflicting reports. They agreed that the land was ‘flowing with milk and honey’ but ten out of 12 said the land was untakable: ‘All the people we saw were of great size. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them’. That night, catastrophic unbelief seized Israel. The people were afraid: they called for deposing their leaders, stoning Joshua and Caleb, who dared to believe God’s promises, and returning to Egypt.

        But then God answered: “the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. The Lord said to Moses, ‘how long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?’” God knew the hardness of their hearts and judged them. He sentenced them to wander for forty years in the desert. Except for Joshua and Caleb, that whole generation of disbelieving Israelites died out. They never entered the land he promised, which meant that they never entered the rest he promised them through Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 12 and other places. To enter the land would have meant rest from their wandering, from the enemies all around, and from the hardships of desert life. But they never received this rest.

        The principle reason for judgement was the hardness of their hearts. Notice some of it’s external characteristics. First, they were negative - “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and to them as well.” Second they grumbled - Numbers mentions grumbling no less than four times. This led them to voice their distrust of God “Is God really among us?” and to conspire in disobedience: they refused to enter the land. Negativism, grumbling, disbelief, disobedience: these are characteristic of a hardened heart. In my experience I have seen all of these, and one more: hardness of heart shows up in a sullen, closed, set expression. These hard hearted Israelites probably looked like they’d been sucking on a lemon - but it’s not funny.

        The example of Israel’s hard-heartedness in the desert leads the author to express his own concern for his readers. In verses 12 to 14 he begins to apply the Scripture to show them a practical way of preventing hard heartedness. Hebrews 3:12 12See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. 14We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.

        In my years as a pastor, especially in recent years, I have become increasingly sensitive to the significance of a hard or soft heart for the success or failure of God’s people. More than anything else a person’s heart attitude has come to indicate whether or not someone will respond in a godly way to the situation they are in or will reject God’s way of handling it and fall into sin or despair or simply walk away from God.

        In marital counseling situations, for example, I have frequently found that one marriage partner comes with a soft heart and a willingness to work, while the other comes reluctantly, grudgingly, with a hard heart toward the counseling and toward God. Unless the heart of that second person can be changed, counseling will not make much progress. The same is true for those who become hardhearted over sin in their own life, over the death of a loved one, over difficult relationships, over financial burdens, over conflict in the church: over every issue that plagues a fallen world.

        So with the author of Hebrews I want to plead with you this morning to keep a close watch on your heart: to keep it soft and open to God and his word and his correction. The author warns “See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” A hard heart, to a greater or lesser extent, is always a heart captured by sin, or characterized by disbelief, or turned away from God. A soft heart, on the other hand, is one that is quick to recognize and repent of sin. It is one that steadfastly believes what God has done, has said, has promised. It is one that turns to God in times of trouble or trial or difficulty. This verse is a call to examine our own hearts and see if there is any hardening there.

         Dr. Morris Weigelt tells of a childhood memory: “I can recall the various stages a pond near my house went through as it began to freeze. As the water just began to freeze, it formed a thin sheet of ice that you could throw a small pebble through. After it had frozen a little more, you could throw a small rock through it. Soon it would be thick enough for a squirrel to run across. A little longer, and a person could walk on it as the ice gave just a little. Finally it became so thick and hard you could drive a tractor across it!” This is what the process of developing a hardened heart is like - it starts imperceptibly, but little by little, sin by sin, disbelief by disbelief, turning by turning a heart becomes fully hard - so hard you could drive a tractor across it.

        So what should you be watching for? First, you should be watching for places where you give yourself permission to sin. Think through your actions and attitudes, looking for areas where you have decided that it’s OK for you to indulge in just a little sin. You may have told yourself that “God would understand my doing this because of the difficulty of this relationship, because of this financial pressure I’m under, because temptation is so great in my situation, because I’ve been goaded into this and I’m just reacting.” Or maybe you give yourself permission to sin because you don’t feel able to change, because you’ve failed so many times in the past that you despair of ever really getting a handle on your sin. The first step to a hard heart is allowing yourself, consciously or unconsciously, to continue in sin.

        The second area to examine is your belief. A hard heart is almost always an unbelieving heart, one that does not take hold of what God has done, said and promised. C. S. Lewis and others have called this ‘practical atheism’, that is, living as if God didn’t exist, or as if you didn’t believe. Your faith is in trouble if you never act on it, or make choices based on it. You are a practicing atheist if you never go against your own will to do something according to God’s will. You are a practicing atheist if you never take a step of faith, never take a risk because you trust that God is caring and providing for you. You are a practicing atheist if you constantly grumble and quarrel and have a negative attitude and presume the worst, as the Israelites did. You are a practicing atheist if you say you believe in prayer and the Word of God but never spend any time pursuing either. You are a practicing atheist if you never see another person and think how glorious it would be if they believed in Jesus. You are a practicing atheist if your faith makes no difference. Does it?

        Self examination will show if your heart is becoming hard. Do you excuse sin? Do you live your life apart from your faith? And finally, do you turn away from God? When you encounter troubles or difficulties, trials or persecution or hardship of any kind, do you turn toward God for strength, comfort, help and righteousness? Or do you turn to the world system for help and thus away from God? Are your financial difficulties solved by plotting, scheming and manipulating, by the world’s methods of increased debt and increased risk? Or do you trust God to provide, and work hard and honestly to do your part? When sickness comes do you flail around from doctor to doctor in a frenzy of worry trying to find the one pill, the one technique, the one operation that will solve the problem or help your loved one? Or do you rest in the arms of the great physician, call on the elders for prayer and trust that the medical choices you make are the ones God has provided?

        When emotional struggles in relationships or with circumstances threaten to overwhelm your soul, do you find strength, renewal and hope through increased and deepened time in the presence of God? Or do you run from one self-help solution to another, from one psychological drug to another, adopting the techniques of the secular world rather than the thinking, methods and goals of Scripture? I’m not saying that all medical help is wrong, even in cases of mainly emotional problems. Some difficulties have physical causes which should be treated, and often counseling can help. But our hearts should be turned to God.

        Finally, when you are challenged or even criticized, do you accept the words humbly and examine them carefully before God for their truth and application? Or do you reject criticism out of hand and at the same time reject the one who brings it? I have seen this so often in people with hard hearts. They might be willing to listen to correction from God himself, but they turn from all correction that comes from God’s people. The heart attitude that says to others ‘go away, leave me alone, don’t keep bringing up that subject’ is a sure indicator that you have also turned away from God.

        So the prevention of a hardened heart starts with self-examination, and specifically looking for indications of sin that is becoming entrenched, of practical atheism, and of turning away from God or God’s people. The second ingredient in prevention of spiritual sclerosis is encouragement from others. We see this in verse 13: “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.” Notice first that the key is not criticism but encouragement. You may at times be called to point out what someone else is doing wrong, but the goal is to encourage them to do right - to encourage them to right attitudes and right behavior and real trust in God.

        Second, this is a ‘one another’ command. You encourage others and others encourage you. It has to happen in the body of Christ, in the context of fellowship and openness to one another. If you turn away from the church in dealing with sin or difficulty you won’t be able to hear the encouragement of brothers and sisters in Christ.

        Third this is to be done regularly. Do it daily, while it is still called today. I know that I am guilty of providing encouragement only in times of apparent crisis, and of being silent when things appear to be going OK for someone else. This is an area where I really need to improve: it is supposed to be an ongoing thing.

         Notice, last, that the purpose of the encouragement is to keep others from being hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Encouragement from a brother or sister in Christ undermines the narrow self-focus and self-deception that temptation and sin bring into our lives. In the words of this text, encouragement helps us see through sin’s deceitfulness. How often have I said ‘sin makes you stupid, temptation makes you stupid.’ But when you receive honest encouragement from others, it pops the bubble of self- deceit you have built around your sin.

        So self examination, encouragement from others, and finally, the best prevention of hard heartedness is holding fast to our confidence in Christ. The title of this whole series in Hebrews is ‘Fixing our eyes upon Jesus’ and verse 1 of this chapter said ‘fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.’ It is in fixing our eyes, our thought, our minds, our emotions outward onto the truths of who Jesus is and what he has done that we best prevent hard-hearted, self-focused self-deceit. The New American Standard says “hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” We should remain just as sure about Jesus and about the salvation we have found in him as we were when it first began. In fact, that first blush of assurance that you and I found when we placed our faith and trust in Christ is only real if it continues. If it does not, the author says, then we have not come to share in Christ. We are not really believers if we do not continue in belief.

        This leads us into the next section, verses 15 to 19 were the author shows us, again from the example of the Israelites, the perils of having a hardened heart. Hebrews 3:15 As has just been said: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion." 16Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

        After repeating his quotation from Psalm 95, the author of Hebrews asks and answers three rhetorical questions intended to highlight the perils of a hardened heart. The first question is “Who were they who heard and rebelled?” and the answer is “all those Moses led out of Egypt.” The point is that mere association with the people of God, even witnessing the work of God is not enough to ensure allegiance to God. All of these people had seen the plagues, had survived the Passover, had walked on dry land through the Red Sea. They had seen God’s work firsthand, and yet they were the ones who asked “Is God among us or not?” Mere experience does not guarantee the presence of faith. In the same way today the feeling of conviction that sends you forward at a crusade, or the experience of emotional worship, or the companionship you feel with believers does not guarantee that you have truly given up on yourself and placed your whole trust in God. Mere association does not provide salvation. It can lead to hardness of heart and thus to catastrophic unbelief.

        The second question is “with whom was God angry for forty years?” And the answer is “those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness.” The point here is that hardness of heart is often characterized by entrenched sin, an equally catastrophic sign of disbelief. The third question continues that thought: “and to whom did he swear they would not enter his rest?” The answer? “Those who were disobedient.” The presence of entrenched sin in your life can be a profound warning that there is no saving relationship with Christ present. If ‘entering his rest’ is a metaphor for salvation, then those who persist in disobedience are not saved. In fact the author clearly ties sin and disbelief together when he closes the paragraph saying “so we see that they were not able to enter because of their unbelief.” Entrenched sin and catastrophic disbelief are two sides of the same coin.

        In the extreme, even for you and I, a hardened heart is a profound warning that we may not be saved even though we can point to some experience or habits that would normally go along with salvation. If our heart attitude or lifestyle are persistently opposed to obedience and faith, we must suspect that we have no faith at all. Now I’m not saying that there are not moments of disobedience and doubt and even some hardening of heart for believers. But a profound hardening of your heart, entrenched sin and persistent unbelief can be signs that you do not really have a share in Christ.

        Therefore, there must be two levels of application for this text. If after self examination you sense that whatever experience you had in the past and whatever habits you have now are dwarfed by your entrenched sin and persistent practical atheism, then you must go back and discover Jesus. The basics of salvation are that all men have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards; that the result of sin is death, mortal death and eternal separation from a holy and loving God; that because of his love Jesus died on the cross in our place, as a sacrifice for sin, so that rather than being punished for our sin we can be forgiven; and finally that this salvation is gained not through works but simply through believing the truth of what Jesus has done.

        Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace for all who believe. As we’ve seen in this text, such belief is not merely an experience, not merely a habit or association with others. It is a personal commitment of trust, an entire giving up on ourselves, throwing ourselves into the arms of Jesus because only what he has done will rescue us from sin and death. The most significant thing a hard heart can tell you is that you need Jesus. You need real salvation, a result of true faith. Maybe the time has come today to tell Jesus that now, finally, you believe.

        But the verses also apply to those who are ‘in Christ’. Even believers can suffer at times from hardened hearts. Each of us needs to examine ourselves to see if we are excusing or ignoring our own sin, and to see if we’re living in practical atheism, as if our faith made no difference. We need to see if we’re turning away from God in our daily lives and examine how we accept the encouragement of others.

        If in any of these things we appear hardened, we need to turn from them to cling more devotedly to the confident faith that we had at first. We need to ask Jesus for a soft heart that will be characterized by sensitivity to sin, by frequent repentance, by practical faith in our day-to-day circumstances, and by clinging to God in times of trouble or hardship, or when confronted by others.
        Let me repeat what I said a few moments ago: in my opinion there is no more important characteristic in the life of a believer than a soft heart toward God. Over and over I have seen people hurt and broken and in some cases destroyed by the hardness of their hearts. In some cases I have become convinced that these people were never really believers. But in many tragic cases these are believers whose belief has been hemmed in little by little and encrusted by layer after layer of hardness on the soul.

        Keith Green, shortly before his death wrote a song that captures both our tendency toward a hard heart and the desire we should have for renewal. He says:
        My eyes are dry, my faith is old, My heart is hard, my prayers are cold;
        And I know how I ought to be: Alive to You and dead to me.
        But what can be done With an old heart like mine? Soften it up with oil and wine
        The oil is You, the Spirit of love Please wash me anew In the wine of Your blood.

        Is your heart hard? Only Jesus can soften it.