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What is a Christian and how can you be sure that you are one?
Verse 14 begins by telling you what a Christian is.
A Christian is someone who has come to share in Christ. That is, something has happened to a Christian so that now they belong to Jesus. In a very real sense they have become a part of Jesus. They share in Him. And really the only human analogy that comes close to this reality is marriage. In marriage you come to be ONE FLESH with another human being. And you belong to each other. And perhaps you then have the same name, perhaps the same bank account, hopefully the same home, the same future – you are caught up in each other. A Christian has come to share in Christ by trusting Him with their life and death and eternity. And now through trusting Jesus we belong to Him and He belongs to us. So His name and status is ours – we are declared to be righteous children of God. His future is also ours – He will not divorce us, we are in an indissoluble union with Jesus and where He is, we will be also. He has gotten through death and lives immortally, we will get through death and live immortally with Him.
So that’s what a Christian is – someone who has come to share in Christ.
How can you be sure you are a Christian?
Well the ultimate answer that Hebrews gives is to look directly to Christ and know Him as YOUR Bridegroom, YOUR Heavenly Husband. (Heb 2:9; 3:1; 9:28; 10:19; 12:2,3). The ultimate way to assure yourself that you are a Christian is to look nowhere else but to Christ Himself and the Spirit WILL assure you that He is not simply the Saviour – but YOUR Saviour. That’s the ultimate answer.
But there are some other popular answers that people give. And some of them can be very misleading. One is the answer given by the happy clappys, the other is the answer given by the frozen chosen.
The happy clappy answer says “I am a Christian because I once had a great religious experience that gave me goose-bumps.” The happy clappy looks to a religious experience in the past to tell them they are a Christian.
Hebrews will tell us that if that’s the happy clappy’s answer – they are dangerously mistaken.
But then there’s another false answer. This answer comes from the frozen chosen. They say “I am a Christian because I’m always doing religious rituals.” The frozen chosen look to religious externalism to tell them they are a Christian. They share in church activities so they must share in Christ, right?
Wrong. Hebrews will tell us that the frozen chosen are also dangerously mistaken.
Here’s how verse 14 continues:
We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.
Here’s one way that true believers show themselves. The ultimate way is to look directly to Christ. But here’s another way. A true believer will show themselves by being a persevering believer. And both those words are important. A true Christian will be a persevering believer but they will also be a persevering believer. So they keep going till the end – they persevere. They’re not just like the happy clappy who looks to religious experiences of the past. They are a persevering believer. But also they hold firmly their confidence till the end. They’re not just like the frozen chosen who go through the motions, they are a believer. A persevering believer.
And one of the major concerns of the letter to the Hebrews is that we stand firm in confidence till the end.
Perseverance. Holding fast.
It’s not about a flash of religious enthusiasm, and it’s not about the rituals of religious externalism – the Christian life is about persevering faith.
Keeping going by trusting day by day. Patient endurance through suffering.
This perseverance doesn’t make you a Christian. Sharing in Christ makes you a Christian. But by the grace of God, true Christians persevere.
That’s what this letter says to us again and again. And in chapters 3 and 4 we get the image of the wilderness to help us think it through.
We’ve spent some time recently thinking about this – the Israelites were brought out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land. It was an incredible deliverance. 10 supernatural plagues fell on Egypt, but Israel was spared. At Passover, the firstborn of the land were killed but for the Israelites the lamb died in their place. They simply walked free from their slavery with the LORD at their head and with Egyptian treasures in their pockets. When they were hemmed in at the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army was pursuing, the LORD opened up the waters and all 2 million of them walked through on dry ground. The murderous Egyptians went in after them but were drowned. And so in Exodus 15, these Israelites stood on the far shore of the Red Sea and they broke out into incredible singing. It was a wonderful highpoint in the life of Israel. The bible says they trusted in the LORD and they rejoiced in their salvation.
But not only this, the LORD continued to lead through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. He fed them each day with the bread of heaven and slaked their thirst with water from the rock. He guided them, cared for them, spoke with them, appeared to them and promised them an unimaginably sweet future. But what happened?
We know what happened, we studied it recently. In Numbers 13 and 14 the spies went into the promised land and reported back that it was indeed an exceedingly good land. Caleb and Joshua are keen to go but the people harden their hearts.
Read from verse 7:
7 So, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me [even though] for forty years they saw what I did. 10 That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, `Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.' 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, `They shall never enter my rest.'"
They had seen what the LORD had done for 40 years. They had seen the incredible power and kindness and daily provision of the LORD. But they hardened their hearts, they rebelled, they said they didn’t want the LORD’s future. In fact they decided they were going to appoint another leader to take them back to Egypt.
And the LORD is so grieved by that. The old King James version translates verse 10 as “grieved.” The LORD is angrily grieved when He holds out His arms to His people and they spit in His face. I want us to get a sense of the passion in God's heart. This passage is so much about both God's heart and ours, but we'll never understand the bible's expectations for our emotions until we hear of God's passions.
Here’s how He described it in Hosea 11:
"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them…. 7 My people are determined to turn from me. (Hosea 11:1-7)
Do you hear the grief in the LORD’s voice here?
It is the grief of unrequited love. And Hosea is all about unrequited love. Do you know the story of Hosea?
The book begins with the LORD telling the prophet Hosea that he is going to be a visual representation of the LORD so that everyone can look at Hosea’s life and see what the LORD is like. Sounds like a good job, until the LORD says –
"Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD." (Hosea 1:2)
So Hosea is called on to marry a woman called Gomer. And Gomer will sleep with anyone. Anyone it seems except her husband.
And the LORD says – that’s just like my people. They give themselves to a thousand other loves but not to me. And incredibly, in chapter 3, the LORD calls Hosea to go and bring back his runaway wife. This time she’s not just in the arms of her some other lover, she’s working in a brothel. And Hosea has to go and pay the prostitute’s price to win his own wife back.
And the LORD says – that’s the story of me and my people. My people are adulterous, unfaithful, prostitutes, pursuing a thousand other loves. When all the while their true Love has paid everything to win them back and He’s calling them home.
But that is what the LORD is like – He will pursue His unfaithful people, do whatever it takes, pay whatever it cost to bring them back to Him.
And in the wilderness when the people said they’d prefer the slavery of Egypt than a future with Him in the promised land, He is angrily grieved.
I don’t know what picture of God you have. I don’t know what picture of your sins you have. I think we tend to view our sins as legal transgressions against some impersonal rule-book. No the LORD Jesus is our Husband. And He is grieved – not so much by this particular sin or that – but by our hearts that seem to pursue satisfaction in anything but Him. He is the spurned Lover, the rightfully Jealous Husband to whom we belong but against whom we sin every day.
But ultimately, if at the end of the day a person does in fact prefer adultery to His marriage, well Hebrews 3 tells us He will give them what they want.
Verse 11 describes the point at which the LORD says “Ok, you don’t want me, that’s very clear – you might call yourself a Christian, you might claim some past religious experiences or some present religious rituals – at the end of the day that’s not what’s important. The plain fact of the matter is that you don’t actually want me. Your heart (v10) is elsewhere. Fine, you don’t want me? You don’t get me. You prefer desert and slavery and death? You’ve got it.”
God always gives us what we want. Always. He never hands us over to what we don’t want. He always hands us over to what we do want.
But it grieves and angers Him that His people, His bride, the apple of His eye – constantly prefer death in the desert to life with Him.
When we talk about being hell-bent – we’re talking about the natural inclination of the human heart. With our natural, hard, straying hearts we prefer to wear a self-made crown in hell, than bow the knee to Jesus.
What’s our problem? Verse 19 sums it up in a word:
19 …they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
Unbelief is the greatest evil imaginable. The greatest sin in the bible is not murder, rape, terrorism, paedophilia – all these are symptoms of the really big sin. THE great sin is unbelief. It’s jilting our Bridegroom Jesus even as He pronounces His incredible wedding vows. It’s our clenched fist to Christ when His arms are spread open on the cross. It’s preferring to trust ourselves rather than trust our Maker, our Saviour and our Husband.
There is only one sin that will take you to hell. Murder, rape, war crimes are atoned for by the blood of Jesus. Again and again Hebrews tells us that Christ by His death has made a purification for sins, He has atoned for sins, He has borne our sins, He has put away sin once and for all by His sacrificial death on the cross. Sin is dealt with, but there is still one thing that will take you to hell – unbelief. Do you trust Jesus? If you do, then you have come to share in Him, and He – like the rich Husband that He is – has absorbed all your debts and given you all His riches, and He remembers your sins no more. If you don’t trust Jesus then you have not come to share in Him. You are rejecting the one Sacrifice for sins, your One hope of heaven. And as He spreads His arms open for you on the cross – if you spurn this love, God the Father swears on oath you will never enter His rest.
Believe me when I say this. I am declaring to you the truth of Scripture. So today as you are hearing His voice, do NOT harden your hearts.
And as I repeat this warning to you I am repeating a warning that has rolled down through history. First through Moses in the wilderness, then 500 years later when David wrote Psalm 95 which is quoted here. Then a thousand years afterwards Hebrews picks up the warning. And now 2000 years after that I am repeating this warning – you ARE hearing God’s voice through the Scriptures. It is very possible for people call themselves the people of God to spurn His love and to go to hell. Don’t harden your heart.
MANY Israelites went through the waters of the Red Sea, they sang the songs, they shared in the wilderness experiences, but there were 2 million graves dotted through that desert. You can be a passenger in the Christian life and never actually love the LORD who saves you.
For us – it’s one thing to go through the waters of baptism and to belong outwardly to the people of God and to sing our songs and to share in the wilderness experiences of the church – it’s another thing to love Jesus. Not everyone who shares in Christianity shares in Christ.
There’s a way of being a happy clappy without a change of heart. There’s a way of being a frozen chosen without a change of heart. And I can’t think of anything more tragic than a person sharing in Christianity – getting baptized, taking communion, hearing the gospel, being a part of the life of church – and then on the day of judgement Jesus says to them “I never knew you.” In Matthew 7, Jesus says He will say that to many people. People who say “Lord, Lord, I did loads of Christian things.” Jesus will say to many “I never knew you.”
Today if you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart.
Because I hope you can see – that’s the real issue. This whole passage screams to us – it’s the heart, the heart, the heart, the heart. The heart of our problem is the problem of our heart.
Look at verse 8 – do not harden your hearts
Verse 10 – their hearts are always going astray
Verse 12 – See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart
Verse 13 – may none of you be hardened
Verse 15 – do not harden your hearts
The LORD Jesus wants a heart-to-heart with us. He is the great heavenly Husband and He’s not primarily after our wills, He’s not primarily after our intellect – He’s after our hearts.
By nature our hearts are hard, wandering and unbelieving. And at the end of v13 we see that they can get even worse through sin’s deceitfulness. Sin lies to us. We are dying of thirst in the desert and instead of going to our Lord Jesus and asking for the living waters of His Spirit – sin comes along and says “Here, have a bucket of salt. It’s much tastier than boring water. This is what will satisfy you.” So we spurn our Lord and His Living Waters and we slake our thirst on a bucket of salt.
And as we believe the deceitfulness of sin – it hardens us. It makes us less and less likely to ask for the Living Waters in future. That’s the scary thing. Sin doesn’t change the LORD’s attitude to us so much as it changes our attitude to Him. Sin doesn’t harden Jesus’ heart towards you – His death atones for it all. But the really scary thing is that sin harden’s your heart towards Jesus.
On the positive side though – Hebrews teaches us about what God can do with our hard hearts.
We’re told in chapter 4:12 that the Word of God can come like a surgeon’s scalpel and bring out the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun does it, but heart surgery isn’t fun – but it’s necessary. And when we read or hear the Word of God it can expose what our hearts are like. And then Hebrews 10:22 says our hearts can be sprinkled by the blood of Jesus. It’s the idea of Christ’s death becoming so real to us that we feel the benefits of His sacrifice deep in our hearts. In the OT whatever was sprinkled by the blood of the sacrifice was (ceremonially) cleansed. So if we have our own hearts sprinkled by Christ’s blood, it’s knowing the deep cleansing of our hearts through Christ’s sacrifice.
So the Word of God exposes us, but the Cross of Christ cleanses us.
And then the other mention of hearts in Hebrews is the promise of the new covenant in chapter 8:10: God says “I will write my laws on their hearts.” It’s the idea of the Holy Spirit changing us from within, putting God’s ways into us.
There’s actually another major reference to the heart in chapter 13:9 – it says that the GRACE of Jesus strengthens our hearts – but we don’t have time to look at that.
But there is a remedy for our hearts – the word of God to expose them, the Cross of Christ to cleanse them, the Spirit of God to renew them.
But there’s one other key weapon in the fight against a hard heart. Read with me from v12:
12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.
Encourage one another. Encourage one another each day, while-ever it’s called Today. SO THAT none of you may be hardened. Here is a crucial weapon in the fight against hardness and unbelief.
There’s this revealing verse in Proverbs:
The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out. (Prov 20:5)
If you know Jesus, you are a person of understanding. Jesus is Wisdom (according to Proverbs) and if you have Jesus you have understanding. That means that if you know Jesus and if you get to know me – there’s a deep sense in which you know me better than I know myself. I am a mystery to myself – I look down at my heart and it’s deep waters, I can’t see the bottom. My heart is deceitful and wayward and difficult to pin down. And there’s a profound sense in which you are much better positioned to diagnose the problems in my heart than I am. We don’t know ourselves – we need community to draw out what’s really going on in us so we can deal with these wayward hearts of ours.
Is your heart open to other people of understanding? To brothers and sisters who can help you to see your waywardness and hardness? See to it that you seek out this kind of community. Not just having fun with other Christians, that’s all well and good. We’re talking here about the kind of community that gets to the heart – are you pursuing that kind of encouragement? You won’t survive the wilderness without it.
We need community to draw things OUT of our hearts, but we also need community to take things INTO our hearts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a wonderful little book on the importance of encouragement and he called it “Life Together.” And a line from that book is one of the most insightful things I’ve ever heard about encouragement.
“The Christ in the word of my brother is stronger than the Christ of my heart.”
You might know in your head that Jesus is your Glorious and Beautiful Husband who shed His own heart’s blood for you, but when your Christian brother or sister looks you in the eye and says “X, Jesus loves you and gave Himself for you.” That has a power to soften the hardest heart.
And I think that happens because faith always comes to us from outside ourselves.
You can’t make yourself to believe something. As an experiment now: try believing something. Try summoning up faith from your own resources. You can’t do it. Faith has to come from outside ourselves.
Believing is like falling in love. You can’t make yourself love. We don’t talk about jumping in love. We talk about falling in love. We get swept off our feet, there’s a reality that’s bigger than us and it captures our hearts.
And really that’s how we come to be people of faith. We constantly put before our eyes and ears the worthiness and the trustworthiness of Christ. And it’s that experience of Christ that makes us say “Well of course I trust you Jesus, look how great you are.”
Now Christ can show Himself to you in His word while you’re reading by yourself. But there’s something so powerful about Christ coming to you in the word of your friends. Because faith comes from outside ourselves. And when we meet together we have the power to offer Christ to one another in ways that keep our hearts soft and trusting.
As we do that – let’s, together, unsheathe the scalpel of the Word of God. When I read the bible on my own I have many blindspots, but you can help me to apply the razor sharp word of God to my heart’s attitudes. Let’s do encouragement with the word of God but also with the cross of Christ.
Christ’s cross is bigger than your sin. But so often our sin seems bigger than Christ’s cross. We need each other to keep reminding us that the blood of Jesus purifies me from all sin. That will cleanse my heart.
And we need to do encouragement in dependence on the Spirit of God. He renews our hearts ultimately so we need to be in prayer for each other and with each other for the Spirit to do this deep work.
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.