by Matthew W. Bassford
The epistle to the Hebrews might be the most tightly reasoned book in the whole Bible. Sentence by sentence, clause by clause, the Hebrews writer constructs intricate arguments that establish the superiority of Christ over Moses and the folly of Christians returning to Judaism. The more closely we read Hebrews, the more we will learn.
The care with which Hebrews is written makes the apparent logical disconnect in Hebrews 3:18-19 all the more surprising. In context, the writer is discussing the Israelites who died in the wilderness during the time of Moses. He says, “And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Hold on here, Hebrews writer! You’ve given us evidence that God kept the Israelites from entering Canaan because of their disobedience. Why are you acting like you’ve shown us that they had an unbelief problem instead?
The writer, and indeed the Holy Spirit, make this logical jump because they want us to realize that they aren’t making a logical jump at all. Once the writer has established that the Israelites had a disobedience problem, he doesn’t have to prove that they had an unbelief problem — because disobedience and unbelief are the same thing. If we don’t believe God’s promises, we will not obey His word. If we don’t obey His word, fundamentally, it is because we do not believe His promises. Faith and obedience are inseparable.
This understanding is vital to us for at least two reasons. First, it answers the tedious argument that we are saved by faith, not by works, so we don’t have to be baptized to be saved. In reality, baptism is not an attempt to justify ourselves at all. Instead, it is an expression of faith in the promises of God. We believe that when the Holy Spirit says that baptism saves, He means it. Accordingly, we obey the gospel.
Second, it shows the importance of preaching, teaching, and study that builds faith. Some brethren are interested only in preaching that is practical. They want to be told about some godly thing that they can go home and do.
Instruction in righteous living is invaluable, full stop. However, if we’re not careful, too much focus on the nuts and bolts of practical discipleship can leave us short on the motivation to be disciples. Obedience is not and cannot be a just-because thing. If hearing is not united with faith in us, we will not obey.
Instead, if we want to be obedient, we must look too to the parts of the Bible that build faith. However remote the stories of the righteous men of old may seem to us, they all proclaim the same lesson: God is a God who keeps His promises, so if we rely on Him, we will not be disappointed. So also, the stories of the miracles of Jesus and His apostles, particularly the story of His resurrection, assure us that what He has promised, He is able to perform. When our minds are filled with these things, it becomes much easier to make the right choices — because we know how deeply they matter.