First Corinthians 10:1–13 stresses the continuing validity of the Old Testament for new covenant believers, explaining that the things that happened to the old covenant community were examples for us and were written down “for our instruction.” Unsurprisingly, the author of Hebrews shares this view, as seen in the many Old Testament allusions and quotes that permeate the book. In today’s passage, he begins his second explicit warning not to stray from Christ, using an old covenant event to prove his point.
Hebrews 3:7–11 quotes from Psalm 95, which in turn refers to the rebellion of the wilderness generation against the Lord that we find recorded in Numbers 14. In Numbers 13, we read that when the spies returned after being sent by Moses into the promised land to see what the Israelites would be up against, none of them except Joshua and Caleb expressed confidence that they could take the land of Canaan. They believed that having God on their side would not be enough despite the fact that the Lord had already led them out of Egyptian slavery and destroyed Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea (Ex. 12–14). When the Israelites heard their report, they believed it and did not share the confidence that Joshua and Caleb had in the Lord. Consequently, God punished that generation by not allowing it to enter the promised land. They escaped slavery, but they did not reach the goal of their redemption by settling in Canaan (Num. 14).
Psalm 95 applied that lesson to a later generation of old covenant Israelites, telling them that they would fall short of inheriting God’s promises if they imitated the wilderness generation by rebelling against the Lord by disbelieving Him. Now, the author of Hebrews applies that same lesson to his original audience and, by extension, to all professing Christians. It is possible, Scripture tells us, to start out apparently well—just like the Israelites who were liberated from bondage in Egypt—but then to fall short of God’s glory and not inherit salvation. Now, the point here is not that those who have been redeemed can actually lose their heavenly citizenship, as we will see in the days ahead. The author of Hebrews is not giving a theological treatise on the conditions under which one may or may not fall out of the saving grace of the Lord. Instead, he appeals to a well-known old covenant event in order to stress the importance of perseverance. He does not want us to be like those who were never really rooted in Christ and thus fall away (Matt. 13:1–23).
The Christian life is not merely a single decision to follow Christ, as decisive as our conversion is. The Christian life is an ongoing commitment to Jesus, a daily turning to Him in repentance and faith as we await the fulfillment of our citizenship in heaven. Those who are truly in Christ seek communion with Christ, praying to Him, reading His Word and hearing it preached, partaking of the sacraments, and enjoying fellowship with His people.