The Promised Land in Hebrews
The theme of the Promised Land is crucial to understanding the warnings contained in the book of Hebrews. As should be noted in any discussion of baptism, the crossing into the land was highlighted by the baptism/circumcision of Joshua (Josh 5:1-9), the transfer of prophetic leadership from Elijah to Elisha and the preparation of Israel by John the baptizer. All of these events build the theme of the Promised Land.
In a similar fashion, both the prophecy of Ezekiel (Eze 20:37-38) and the apostle Paul (1 Cor 10:1-6) speak to the historical events of those who fell in the wilderness outside the Promised Land. These warnings in both cases were to God’s covenant people that the risk of the wilderness still existed for the church. But what does this mean? And what does it mean in Hebrews?
12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. – Hebrews 3:12
The theme of the Promised Land begins early in the book of Hebrews. Under the auspicious contrast between Christ and Moses that author starts by warning the church to “hold fast” (Heb 3:6). As a preliminary removal of concern, this “holding fast” is not a meritorious work but the “boasting” in the hope of Jesus Christ’s finished work. The author of Hebrews proceeds to support this warning by attributing Psalm 95 to the Holy Spirit. In this quotation is contained rebellion, the judgment of the wilderness, and a guilty element of an unbelieving heart (Heb 3:7-8, 12). All of this is wrapped up by the author of Hebrews by affirming that “we hold…firm to the end” and become partakers with Christ (Heb 3:14). This idea of sharing/becoming partakers with Christ will be more thoroughly evaluated later (Heb 6:4) but suffice it to say that the soteriology of Hebrews is eschatologically focused. It is looking to the final judgment, final salvation, final rest, and final union with Christ. “Hold fast” is contrasted with unbelief (Heb 3:19). Humble confidence in the work of Christ is covenant faithfulness. The point is plain, this type of faithfulness is needed lest the wilderness happen again (Heb 3:17). Those who were disobedient were not permitted to enter (Heb 3:19) and those who reject Christ perform this type of disobedience.
All of this is consistent with the prophetic warnings of Ezekiel (Eze 20:37-38) and Isaiah (Isa 63:8-10). The warnings of the book of Hebrews are continuation of long performed covenantal warnings. This type of warning makes sense for a group of “believers” who may still fall in the wilderness. And it is fair to call them believers because the author of Hebrews said these people crossed the Red Sea “in faith” (Heb 11:29). These warning affirm that this involves a partially unregenerate covenant community. Yet it is a completely a community of faith. It also must affirm that “rest” is only achieved by God remembering His covenants and blessing through the Holy Spirit (Isa 63:11-14).
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. – Hebrews 4:12-13
Hebrews 4 flows naturally out of Hebrews 3 in its application to the church. Here the “church in the wilderness” motif gets its basis. The promise of rest is still obtainable (Heb 4:1). Just as the “good news” (literally gospel) came to Israel it has come to the church (Heb 4:2). Neither has fully entered into this rest (Heb 4:11). Entrance into it requires obedience. But not an obedience of works. For those who have believed (Heb 4:3) have entered into God’s rest from works (Heb 4:10). Obedience does not keep the church in the Promised Land but disobedience keeps the church out (Heb 4:11). It is in this context that the “word of God” is described as “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). It is the unilateral giving of the word of God to the hearts of the covenant community that determines faithfulness. It is this word of God that the church has “tasted the goodness” (Heb 6:5) and it is belief in this word that permits the church to “receive mercy and find grace” (Heb 4:16)
The application of “the church in the wilderness” paradigm must affirm all of this. The covenant people of God exist across the Biblical example of the Old Testament. The covenant community has been ransomed from Egypt. They are led through a period of trial with God in the wilderness. It is only upon rejecting God’s promises about the land that they were turned aside to wander in judgment. Through “disbelief” some fell in disobedience while their offspring, typologically, entered the rest from works. The promise land motif in the book of Hebrews confirms the new covenant community must be a mixed group. It includes regenerate and unregenerate individuals.