God is great. Celebration is good. Some people are poor.

I had the opportunity to preach this sermon on May 18, 2014 at Christ Presbyterian Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi.

The text was Leviticus 23:15-22.

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God’s House, Eternal Rest, and Living Sacrifices

Living in God’s House

The greatest danger we face in this life is that we live that life self-deceived about our true standing before God.

Jesus spoke of this self-deceit: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, this man went town to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 ESV)

In verse 9 Luke tells us the reason for these words of Jesus: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” An inflated view of oneself leads to contempt of others.

Matthew records another statement of Jesus along these lines:“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)

One can prophecy and cast out demons in God’s name and still not have eternal life. What is required is doing God’s will. John records Jesus saying this: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40 ESV). God’s will is that we look to Jesus and believe in him for our salvation. Nothing else can give us eternal life.

So when we look at our human performance and evaluate our standing before God based on how He is using us in ministry we are way off base. God uses both the righteous and wicked to accomplish His purposes. Salvation is not based on how God uses us or by comparing ourselves to others. Salvation is based on our turning to Jesus and believing in him.

The writer of Hebrews is dealing with church members who have developed a skewed view of what it means to be a Christian. They have watered down the Gospel with other things. They are blind to how they are going astray because they have been deceiving themselves. So the writer warns in Hebrews 2:1 (ESV): “Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”

The greatest danger to the Christian is not the big public sins like sexual immorality, theft, murder, and slanderous gossip. The real danger is the subtle self-deceit that says, “I’m okay with God because God is using me and I look around me and see myself doing much better than others.” For when salvation begins to revolve around us and our experience we start taking our eyes off of Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2). This diminishes Jesus and opens the door for all sorts of erroneous thinking and belief to enter our hearts.

The writer addresses this issue through a short exposition of Psalm 95. He introduces his exposition with a short introduction comparing Jesus with Moses.

Moses was faithful over God’s house as a servant. His purpose was to point people to something to come. Jesus, is both God’s son and the one appointed by God to build His house (3:3-6).

Jesus is the Son and heir to God’s house. In fact according to the writer he is the “heir of all things” (1:2). The house Jesus inherits is made of God’s people. It is a living house built with living people, not bricks and mortar.

“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5 ESV)

“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building…..Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17 ESV)

The writer of Hebrews uses the same word picture as Peter and Paul to describe God’s people. Jesus is the Son who rules over God’s house, a house formed of living stones, that is, His people.

How can one know they are a living stone being built into God’s house? The only way to know is if one holds fast to their confidence and boasting in their hope (3:6). The “hope” being the truths confessed by God’s people. We know we are God’s house if we stand firm in the Gospel and are willing to testify to our belief in it.

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8 ESV)

“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:17-19 ESV)

“So faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17 ESV)

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

“For we are his workmanship, creating in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV)

Salvation leads to bearing fruit (good works). A Christian’s life is the evidence of their faith. As one person once put it, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Those who are God’s house, His people, remain firmly rooted in Jesus.

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7 ESV)

The test for a church member to see if they are truly a “living stone” in God’s house and truly are a co-heir with Jesus Christ is they stand on the confession they have made. Is their confidence in Jesus? Do they still speak of Jesus as their Lord and Savior?

Psalm 95

Psalm 95 is a very sensible choice for the writer of Hebrews to develop themes of perseverance and apostasy.

Psalm 95 is both a song of praise and an exhortation. Imagine it being sung in the corporate worship of the Old Testament Church. For it lifts the soul up to see the glory of God and sing His praises and then reminds God’s people of the depths of their sin and warns them not to depart from a place where they are singing God’s praises.

“Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”

“For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands form the dry land.”

“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.”

“For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘they are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.’ Therefore, I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ (Psalm 95 ESV)

What does the Psalmist refer to when he writes about Meribah and Massah?

All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold,, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”

And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7-7 ESV)

Some years later Israel again was near the rock at Horeb and in need of water. Again God brought forth water for them, but this time, Moses stumbled into sin.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have ou brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.”

Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. (Numbers 20:2-13 ESV)

Rather than exalt God, Moses chose to exalt himself. He did not uphold God as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel. This sin prevented Moses and Aaron from leading Israel into the Promised Land.

Membership in the Old Testament Church did not guarantee one entrance into the Promised Land. Entrance into the Promised Land was through a faith that resulted in obedience. Throughout history God’s people are not saved by good works but are saved for good works.

This is why our confession states: “Good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have to the end, eternal life.” (WCF 16.2)

The Danger of an Unbelieving Heart

The writer of Hebrews uses Psalm 95 to discuss the biggest reason why church members don’t persevere in the faith until the end. They drift away because unbelief leads to a hardened heart. Those with hardened hearts never truly embrace Jesus is faith, and thus, are denied entrance into eternal life, which the writer describes as a “rest”.

After the writer quotes the exhortation to faithfulness from Psalm 95 he makes this statement: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you and evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12).

An evil, unbelieving heart leads members of the New Testament Church away from Jesus in the same way that an evil, unbelieving heart did in the Old Testament Church. At the heart of all apostasy is an unbelieving heart.

This is why it is so important for Christians to exhort one another “every day”. Why? So that none of us will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13). Sin lies to us and says we don’t have to stand firm in the biblical Gospel to be saved (3:14). It tells us we are okay if we accept a different Gospel, one that makes more sense to us.

Many people in the church today are what the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock called “practical atheists.” These church members confess Jesus with their mouths and then turn around and live as if he doesn’t exist. This is the danger of sin’s deceitfulness. It subtly leads us away from God. So God is confessed and denied at the same time.

But, like slowly turning up the heat on a frog in a kettle, the subtle deceitfulness of sins of the heart lead us away from God into a world of unbelief. It isn’t until our hearts have been hardened that we even recognize the transformation. Many grow up in the church and become church members, all the while they are embracing a tradition instead of Jesus, and their hearts slowly harden until they drift away.

Paul tells Timothy of a time coming when people will fashion their own Gospel that suits their own passions: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV)

God, through the prophet Hosea, speaks of how material wealth leads to a pride that turned Israel away from Him: “For I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up, therefore they forgot me.” (Hosea 13:4-6 ESV)

In both cases people who appear to be true believers drift away into apostasy. Those who drift away aren’t even aware of what is going on inside them to cause them to drift away. They focus on their desires on their own pleasure and lose the capability to truly examine what lies inside.

So what was the status of those who turn away? Were they truly living stones that were part of God’s house, the temple of God’s Spirit? Not according to the writer of Hebrews.

“For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (3:14). The Greek word translated “confidence” appears most commonly in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) as the ground or basis of hope. We know we truly have eternal life if Christ continues to be the basis of our hope and we hold that hope to the end. This is what we call “perseverance of the saints.” God’s people remain faithful to the end of their lives.

The writer goes on to point out that those who had hardened their hearts were the ones who had left Egypt with Moses. It was these people who experienced God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt who rebelled against God in the wilderness. They were the ones who provoked God and, because of that, were prohibited from entering the Promised Land (3:16-18). In other words, they disobeyed the call to believe and trust in God alone.

The writer of Hebrews points out that this fundamental disobedience is the fruit of unbelief. “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (3:19). So despite seeing miracles and being used by God in many wonderful ways, at the heart of the generation that came out of Israel in the exodus was a stubborn lack of faith that resulted in disobedience.

This is what James calls a dead faith, a faith without works. Jesus spoke in a passage quoted above that an unhealthy tree cannot bear good fruit.

The writer of Hebrews sees the people to whom he is writing and is unsure of their true standing before God. He sees some as embracing the Christian community without really embracing Christ. They were Christian by tradition, not they have a faith that leads to eternal life. Those who are Christian by tradition are not “rooted and built up in Christ,” so they fall away into apostasy.

So the Gospel to these church members is: Don’t count on the fact that you are church members or that God may be using you for His glory. You need to repent and embrace Jesus as he is offered in the Gospel. You need Jesus. You need to truly be part of God’s house. If you aren’t truly part of God’s house you will fall away just as so many Israelites did in the wilderness under Moses.

The promise of eternal rest (i.e., eternal life) is still there (4:1). Those who hear these words still have an opportunity to become part of God’s house. The opportunity for repentance and faith won’t remain forever so the writer emphasizes “today” as the time for action.

The good news came to the Israelites in the wilderness, but the message didn’t benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who did hear the Gospel message. They made a decision to reject God because God had not brought them by faith into His house (4:2).

For the writer entering eternal rest is a matter of faith. For it is “we who believed” that enter the rest (4:3). But for those who do not enter the rest it is a matter of disobedience, “those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience” (4:6). One enters eternal life by hearing the good news and responding with faith. One is condemned to eternal death, not because one fails to hear of Jesus, but because of one’s disobedience.

The Sabbath rest for the people of God is not yet a present reality but a future hope (4:8-10). It is a future hope that is realized by those who live by faith in Jesus. “I have been crucified by Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

In conclusion, the writer of Hebrews sees an evil, unbelieving heart as the great barrier to entering God’s eternal rest. The unbelieving heart gets hardened and drifts away into apostasy. But the believing heart remains firm in the good news as it was proclaimed and becomes a “living stone” in God’s house.

In the Church, the true believer perseveres until the end. Those that don’t truly believe drift away into apostasy.

Living Sacrifices
The writer of Hebrews has his own version of Paul’s teaching on sanctification and living sacrifices. Sanctification is the process by which God makes us holy.

In the case of sanctification he writes: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:11).

Compare with Paul’s writing: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

In the case of living sacrifices he writes: “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. 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.” (4:12-13)

The writer here uses a vivid word picture to describe how God’s word cuts us up. The language and imagery is that of preparing an animal for sacrifice. God’s word is the sharp sword that cuts us up into a living sacrifice.

Remember what Peter wrote: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5)

Also remember what Paul wrote: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship.” (Romans 12:1-2)

We are a holy priesthood that offers ourselves up to God as living sacrifices. It only makes sense to worship God this way. The way we prepare ourselves for sacrifice is to be chopped up by God’s Word. If we want to live a life that is pleasing to God we must understand the role the Bible plays in that life. It is the Bible that God uses to prepare us to be an acceptable sacrifice to Him through Jesus Christ.

The Bible teaches that we are living stone in God’s house, His temple, that is being built. Jesus, His Son, is the head of the house and the heir. We are a royal priesthood called to offer ourselves up as living sacrifices to God. God’s Word, the Bible, is what he uses to prepare us to be His living sacrifices.

This is why the Bible is so important to a Christian’s life. It isn’t just some book that must be read to be spiritual. The goal isn’t just to acquire knowledge about God. The Bible is also a tool in God’s hands in which He prepares us to live a life that truly brings Him glory.