06.28.15 Do Promises Depend on Belief Hebrews 3:1-19 Sermon Summary
Does God’s faithfulness to his promises depend on belief? I hope not.
- Faith and Jesus in the book of Hebrews
- The concept of the covenant (vs. a contract)
- What happens when we confuse covenant and contract
- Three teachings on our role in the covenant
- The good news of the new covenant
The original audience of the book of Hebrews appears to be a mixed community of Jews and non-Jews who had experienced some kind of hardship, maybe even persecution. Some in the community have begun to lose faith. All of have doubts and for good reasons. The author of Hebrews assures us that, God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel makes both faith and doubt possible.
The first section of the book (it’s really better thought of as a sermon) establishes Jesus as the foundation of Christian faith. He is this because he is the pinnacle of Jewish faith. And foundational to Jewish faith is the Covenant God has with Israel.
Covenant is a complex idea, but it boils down to a relationship based on promises. You might think of the difference between modern marriage and a business contract. Marriage is a covenant relationship based on promises: “I promise to love you unconditionally”. Business is a contractual relationship based on mistrust: “If you don’t fulfill your part, I do not have to fulfill my part.”
Some covenants from Judaism include:
- With Noah, never to flood the earth again
- With Abraham and Sarah, progeny outnumbering the stars
- With Moses and Joshua, commandments and land
- With David, perpetual monarchy
Sometimes the idea of covenant and contract get combined. This happened in part of the theological and biblical development in ancient Israel, evident especially in the book of Deuteronomy. So, for example, Deuteronomy 4:1 says, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” This perspective hardens by chapter 28 which lists all the blessings which will result from obedience, and all the curses that will befall disobedience.
This confusion of covenant and contract is very compelling to individuals and nations. We work really hard at our religion if we believe God will withdraw his promised blessings if we don’t. If you’ve ever heard that our nation is or will experience God’s judgment because of some decision of government, that’s a Deuteronomy perspective of covenant mixed with contract.
When we confuse covenant and contract we recognize the mutuality between the partners. It shows that both parties are responsible—able to respond. But confusing them also neglects the nature of the one’s making the covenant. While both are responsible, both are not necessarily equal.
Consider again the marriage vows. The best vows are realistic but aspirational—things that are reasonable but beyond what we are presently doing. We vow to do things that requiring God’s blessing, because we can’t do them alone. What is more, wedding vows are witnessed by a community that pledges to support us with prayer and care. All this makes wedding vows meaningful because ONLY GOD KEEPS HIS PROMISES FAITHFULLY. In our covenant relationship with God, we fail; God does not. We are both responsible, but not equal.
Finally we can listen to Hebrews 3 for what it has to teach us about God’s covenant relationship with us. The first thing it says is that only those who are believing, trusting, and faithful enter God’s promised rest. By contrast, “Those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness,” and “those who were disobedient,” those who failed to trust God for provisions and complained, did not enter the Land of Promise, God’s rest.
So the author exhorts us not to likewise have an “evil, unbelieving heart, that turns away from living God.” In other words, don’t be someone who figures that God is uncaring and as good as dead. If we live according to this belief, we will forfeit resting in God.
Second, we are vulnerable to unfaithfulness when we are alone. The author address his (her?) “holy partners,” fellow inhabitants of the “house” of God. We’re told to “exhort one another” because we are “partners with Christ.” The assumption throughout the sermon, made explicit in 10:23-25, is that we exist faithfully in community, and without community we cannot be faithful.
Third, we are vulnerable to unfaithfulness when we forget. God complains that the ancient Israelites tested God “though they had seen my works for forty years.” The author urges our faithfulness “today,” as we depend on the memory of yesterday. And what is more, our faithfulness “today” gives us hope for tomorrow.
Some find in the book of Hebrews a mixture of covenant and contract. It seems there are many conditional statements, even threats to those who are unfaithful. But here’s the Gospel. Though a generation fell in the wilderness, it is true, God kept his promise to deliver Israel. In the end, God’s promise is fulfilled, even though Israel disbelieved.
Let’s say, as Hebrews might teach, that “sin” includes a lack of confidence, a loss of hope, or disbelief in God’s promise. Still, Jesus comes with a “New Covenant, sealed in the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of sins.”
Today if you hear his voice, come to the Table. Come renew the covenant, this new covenant, God has with you. For God is faithful to his promises, and your sin, even your disbelief, cannot thwart his fulfilling them.