Hanging on to Jesus
by Jack Wald | October 1st, 2000

Hebrews 3:1 – 4:13

Moses is arguably the greatest human in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. Moses is mentioned 762 times in the Hebrew Bible and an additional 85 times in the New Testament. Who, other than Moses, was Prophet, Judge and Priest for Israel.

God originally made his covenant with Abraham, but it was Moses who was alone with God on Mt. Sinai when Israel was given the law of the covenant. Moses is likely the author of much of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch which contain the law of the covenant and the early history of Israel.

Moses alone of all humans was given the privilege of seeing the glory of God pass by him as he hid in a cleft of a rock. The central event of Jewish history was the Exodus from Egypt and Moses led Israel in this exodus.

When Jesus appeared in his heavenly glory with Peter, James and John as witnesses on the Mount of Transfiguration, who was it that appeared with Jesus? Moses and Elijah.

To mention the name of Moses to anyone familiar with the Bible is to raise up images of greatness and power. Confronting Pharaoh, parting the Red Sea, striking a rock so that it produced water for Israel, pleading with God for the life of Israel. So when Hebrews 3 begins with a discussion of Moses, the Jewish Christian recipients of the letter picked up their ears at the mention of this greatest of their ancestors. It’s not Moses, it’s MOSES!

The Jewish Christians living in Rome, who were the recipients of this letter, were struggling with their faith. They had suffered under the persecution of Claudius in 49 AD and were beginning to experience the persecution that was coming from Nero. They had left the comfort of their synagogues with rituals and ceremony and were meeting in simple homes. Why not return to their Judaism upon which their Christian faith was based? Why not step back from the discomfort of being a Christian in a hostile environment and revert to the foundation for their Christian faith – Judaism?

The writer of Hebrews confronts this drifting over and over again in this letter. After a three verse prefix in which Jesus, in no uncertain terms, is raised beyond the level of any person in creation, past, present or future, he makes the case for Jesus being greater than angels. Now, in Chapter 3, he makes the obvious case that Jesus is greater than Moses. In doing so, he draws on the history of Israel during the time of Moses to warn the Jewish Christians in Rome that if they do not pay attention and persevere in their Christian faith, they will suffer the same fate as their ancestors who died in the wilderness without going into the Promised Land.

This is a pattern that repeats itself over and over in Hebrews. Jesus is held up and shown to be without equal and then a warning is issued to not drift away from Jesus.

In some ways this letter is like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the last movement there is the famous Ode to Joy chorus. We sing that as a hymn, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee. But in leading up to that chorus, there are hints of its arrival. There are bits and snatches of it. Just a few notes and then it disappears. But it keeps on coming back, building in its intensity until finally it explodes with all its wonder and power.

In the same way, the writer of Hebrews points to Jesus, shows how great he is and then smacks us with a stick to warn us that we dare not fall away. As we move through the book, our picture of Jesus continues to grow and the stick  gets bigger and bigger. The case for the supremacy of Jesus becomes stronger and stronger and the warnings correspondingly get stronger and stronger.
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.  2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house.  3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself.  4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything.  5 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future.  6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.

The writer of Hebrews reminds these Jewish Christians that as great as Moses was, Jesus is even greater because it was Jesus who created Moses. Jesus is greater than angels and now Jesus is greater than the greatest ancestor in Israel’s history. Jesus is supreme, so now it is time for a warning.

We find the first hint of warning in Chapter 2 when we read,
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  2 For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment,  3 how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

This was the warning given after the discussion about Jesus being greater than angels.

But now the warning begins to get stronger.
And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.    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
and for forty years 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.’”

The writer of Hebrews uses the history of Israel to issue a warning. An entire generation of Israelites died in the wilderness, unable to cross over into the Promised Land, because of their disobedience. God had miraculously rescued them and brought them out of Egypt. They had seen the ten plagues inflicted on Egypt because of Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel depart. They had seen the Red Sea parted so they could pass over and then seen Pharaoh’s army destroyed when the water swept back and drowned them. They had seen God provide daily manna for their food, a miraculous provision of quail and water from a rock that Moses struck with his staff. But despite all the miraculous ways in which God had delivered them and provided for them, they were afraid to cross over into Canaan and so were punished. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the Israelites chickened out and refused to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land of milk and honey.

As a consequence, Israel wandered through the desert for forty years until all the adults who had been alive at this time had died. Only Joshua and Caleb of that entire generation remained alive and crossed over into the Promised Land.

The writer of Hebrews  uses this part of Israel’s history to make the point that these Hebrew Christians should be careful that they do not end up with the same fate and lose their eternal rest with God.

For the Christian, death is not the end but the beginning. We look forward to eternal life, life lived in the presence of God. We look forward to our heavenly existence. The writer of Hebrews warns that this Promised Land to which we look is at risk for them if they back away from Jesus.

This is a warning that can’t be ignored because it gets stronger and stronger as we move through the letter to the Hebrews.

So what’s the deal here? Can you lose your salvation? If once you prayed to ask Jesus to be your Lord and Savior, can the gift of salvation you received be taken away from you? Is it possible for we who are Christians to drift away and lose what we once possessed?

John 10
The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me,  26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.  29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  30 I and the Father are one.”

Jesus says that he is our shepherd, keeping us safe and secure. “no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Romans 8
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How do we reconcile these passages which we often read at funerals to comfort us in the midst of grief with:
6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.

14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.

11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

If you try to discount these conditional statements and warnings, hold on because, as I said, they only get stronger as Hebrews moves along.

That we can have assurance of our salvation is a foundational belief for Christians and there is abundant Scripture to assure us of our salvation. The passages from John and Romans are only two of those.

But what then do we do with these sections in Hebrews?

One way of looking at this is to remember that the writer of Hebrews is using every thing he can think of to convince these Jewish Christians in Rome that they need to stop drifting and persevere in their faith. He reminds them of who Jesus is and then threatens them with the loss of what they are beginning to take for granted. These warnings are a threat attempting to get them back on track with Jesus.

I have a difficult time with this view. It is like me making absurd threats to my daughters to get them to behave. “Clean up your room or I’ll make you sleep outside for the next month.” Why threaten them with something that will not or can not happen?

So I think there is another way to look at this.

It is true that Jesus has earned our salvation for us. We have been given an unearned gift when we accept the gift of salvation. God perseveres for us on our behalf. When we stumble in our faith, God pursues us. The parable Jesus told about the son who left his father with a premature inheritance reveals the extent to which God pursues us. God pursues us, he perseveres on our behalf. But if we are truly Christians and not just playing at church, we also need to persevere and we will indeed persevere.

Let me use an image from Les Miserable, the novel by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean is the main character in this novel and he adopts a young girl, Cozette, whose mother has died. He is being pursued, so to escape detection, he has to climb the walls of Paris. Once inside, he can disappear in the city and not be found. This is a feat of great strength, but he puts Cozette on his back and tells her to hang on to his neck and they climb the wall.

Now, both Jean Valjean and Cozette climbed the wall but who did the work? Did Cozette climb the wall? Without Jean Valjean, would she have made it over the wall? Obviously not. Jean Valjean did all the work.

But Cozette also had to work. She had to hold on to the neck of Jean Valjean. At any time during the climb, if Cozette had relaxed her grip she would have fallen and not made it over. Jean Valjean climbs stone by stone, going higher and higher and Cozette has to hang on to his neck.

I think this is an appropriate way to view our relationship with Jesus. It is Jesus who has done all the work. It is Jesus who died in our place so we could live. We have assurance that we will go to heaven when we die because of the work Jesus has done.

But, we also have work to do. We also have to persevere. We have to hold on to Jesus no matter how difficult our circumstances or how alone we feel.

What does it mean to hold on to Jesus?

The writer of Hebrews uses the generation of Israelites who did not get to enter the Promised Land as an example and then urges these Jewish Christians:

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

After this warning to “make every effort to enter that rest” so as not to follow the example of the Israelites, comes this well-known verse about how the Bible functions in our lives. And I think this is probably related to our holding on to Jesus, making “every effort to enter that rest.”

We hold on to Jesus by reading the Scriptures and allowing them to do surgery on us. We dwell on the Scriptures and let them uncover in us our hypocrisy, our unacknowledged sin, our pretenses and stubbornness.

We are made pure by the word of God that penetrates deeply into our soul and spirit. When we persist in our reading of Scripture and allowing it to do surgery on our soul and spirit, we hang on to the neck of Jesus as he does the work for us.

When we persist in our Christian lives, doing what we know is right even when and particularly when it costs us something, we hang on to the neck of Jesus as he does the work for us.

When we experience doubts and fears and anxieties and nevertheless persist in our faith, we hang on to the neck of Jesus as he does the work for us.

When we seek out other Christians with whom we can share our concerns and pray, we hang on to the neck of Jesus as he does the work for us.

When we persist working with and for the church even when someone hurts our feelings or offends or annoys us, we hang on to the neck of Jesus as he does the work for us.

For what reason did God call you here to Morocco? To start a business? To work in an embassy? To help with street children or handicapped children? To raise a family? To build up the church?

For whatever reason God called you here, you cannot do what God wants you to do by yourself. You can do a lot of things. You can be busy. But what God wants you to do cannot be done on your own effort.

If you are a Christian, you have been called here to help build up the kingdom of God, to share your faith, to love and encourage those around you, to proclaim the good news.  But this will be an impossible task if you do not hold on to the neck of Jesus. You alone may be able to start a cult if you have the right personality for it, but the church cannot be built without God.

What God wants you to do will be accomplished because he does the work with you hanging on to his neck.

You may be discouraged, you may at times despair. Persevering may take more energy than you think you have. But the writer of Hebrews urges us and I urge you and I urge myself to hang on to the neck of Jesus. He will do the work he called us here to do if we hang on.

If you are discouraged and don’t see how you will be able to make it here in Morocco, remember that it is Jesus who is doing the work he called you here for. Your efforts are required. You cannot quit. You cannot give up. You must persevere. You must hold on. But the work God called you here to do will get done because God will persevere if you persevere.

I have been attracted lately to the example of the apostle Paul who described himself in Romans as a slave of Christ. Paul was one who often had reason to be discouraged but chose not to give in to despair. I want to follow his example. I pray that you will follow his example.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.  2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.  3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

This week and in the following weeks, I want you to keep this image of Jesus climbing a wall with you hanging on to his neck fresh in your mind. Whenever you begin to be discouraged, let this image come to your mind and then relax, knowing that whatever work God wants you to do will be done by God, if you keep holding on.

Continue in what God has called you to do, even when it seems impossible. What God called you here for he will do. He will climb the wall but you must hold on.