Epistle: Hebrews 3:12-19 (Proper 23: Series B)
The epistle readings are a lectio continua through Hebrews, as we had previously with the select readings through 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, and James this Pentecost season. The Epistle’s correlation with the Gospel or Old Testament readings is not always obvious, as every preacher knows. This week, however, the connection is rather clear. Love of money is evil idolatry that draws us away from the living God, transgresses the First Commandment, and leads us to trust in worldly securities rather than Christ. Money is not mentioned specifically in Hebrews 3, but unbelief and a heart turned from God are at the heart of the writer’s admonition. More to the point is that unbelief draws us away from the apostolic confession of Christ as the Apostle and High Priest (3:1) of the New Covenant.
A couple of important exegetical decisions need to be made before we can get to preaching the text. First, one has to decide whether “brothers” in v. 12 is referring to pastors in a gegenüber position to the congregation or whether the writer finds solidarity with the congregation. Are we talking apostolic “we” or Christian “we?” John Kleinig’s Concordia Commentary may be of some assistance here, if you have it on hand. Although we tend to interpret this “brothers” (and in 3:1) as a Christian “we,” there is a great deal of hearing and speaking going on, don’t you think? The writer certainly recognizes himself as a mouth piece of the Holy Spirit, and his admonitions certainly seem to address his fellow preachers who must tend to Christ’s house (see 3:1-6).
Whether you agree that the letter (or sermon!) is pastoral in nature, you still have to wrestle with the infinitival phrase in 3:12, “ἐν τῷ ἀποστῆναι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ζῶντος.” Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 593) suggests that 3:12 is the only place in the New Testament where ἐν + infinitive indicates a result, that is, the unbelieving heart falls away from God. But in what sense? The language of apostasy (ἀφίστημι) from God is bound up in the New Testament with apostolic doctrine and Christ’s word. Consider last week’s reading about “paying much closer attention to what we’ve heard, lest we drift away” (2:1). The writer is not merely urging the congregation to be good hearers. He is primarily concerned with pastors being good hearers of the apostolic doctrine, so that their preaching would lead the church safely through the midst of persecution and worldly temptation.
We discover very similar episcopal tones from James and Jude concerning the preservation of the apostolic message. These letters often read like encyclicals sent out to the churches to preserve them in the unity of doctrine, life, and worship. The liturgical context of Hebrews makes it clear that teaching a true confession of Christ (ortho-didaskalia) also leads to right worship (orthodoxy). Pastors are put into the office of Christ for exactly this reason. If “one of you” (τις ἐξ ὑμῶν) has his heart hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and you fall away from the living God and the true confession of Christ, it will be devastating to your hearers. That is why pastors need reminding that “we have become partners [μέτοχοι] with Christ,” if indeed we hold our original ordination vows to the end (3:14, adapted). The word μέτοχος should be given some attention (see BDAG’s suggestion on translation), since it seems to indicate a partnership in office, as we find in Luke 5:7. Pastors, you’re preaching Christ, but you’re also preaching with Christ and Christ with you.
Wallace also helps to clarify the two adjectives describing the heart gone wrong in 3:12: καρδία πονηρὰ ἀπιστίας. He argues, I think quite rightly, that the phrase should be translated “a heart evil with reference to unbelief” (Wallace, 128), or more simply, “a heart that is evil because of unbelief,” rather than “an evil, unbelieving heart,” as you have it in the ESV. The two adjectives are not to be understood as apposition. The heart has become evil because “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). This also relates to the true confession of Christ and the way that sin (here, not listening to the Holy Spirit who says “Today!”) entices us away from Christ as our Sabbath Rest and true Promised Land.
By reading this text in its ecclesiastical setting, the preacher is freed from “applying the text” to individual believers. This is about the church militant who still must journey through the wilderness of this evil world with the promise of rest in Jesus. The writer uses Psalm 95 (the part that we leave off in the Venite for Matins) to warn us by way of Israel’s unbelief. The Exodus and journey to the Promised Land is a picture of the Church’s life now. Yet we have Christ, who is greater than Moses, and who is Himself our rest. We’ll have a lot more to say about that next week.
Concordia Theology: Multiple Resources on Hebrews 3:12-19
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Arthur Just’s translation work on Hebrews 3:12-19