The First Reading for Friday’s Mass is far more significant than the attention, I fear, it too seldom receives. And even if it receives any mention in what are usually short Friday homilies, its true significance can be missed if not seen within its larger context within the entire Letter to the Hebrews. And besides, what does the message from a debated, seemingly obscure New Testament book have to say to us mature, modern Christians living nearly two thousand years later in this increasingly woke digital Age?
Well, there’s far from enough space in this short article to give justice to the full context of Hebrews, but let’s at least consider the message of chapters 3 and 4 together.
The author—whom I’ll take as St. Paul, following the earliest Christian writers—was possibly writing back to the Jewish Christians living around Jerusalem. Like his letter to the Romans which preceded his visit to Rome, this letter may have preceded his last return visit to Jerusalem. He was likely writing to Jewish believers whose faith was being challenged from without and within, especially for their abandonment of the Temple worship and the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood. St. Paul begins:
Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession. He was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in God’s house. (Hebrews 3:1-2)
When Paul describes “God’s house” he could not be referring to the Temple, because it was generations away from being built. Nor is he referring to the pre-temple traveling Tabernacle tent, because this too constrained the application to Christ. Rather, I would suggest, given the context of all OT Scripture, that Paul is referring to God’s home in the hearts of His people, and then extending out from there to the world around them. God’s house was their shared life beginning in their faithful hearts.
From the beginning of Creation to the End as depicted in Revelation, all of Salvation History can be subsumed in the idea of the Two Ways: the Righteous Way versus the Wicked Way, or as described in the early Christian book, The Didache, the Way of Light versus the Way of Darkness. Those who turn from sin, repent, and walk in God’s ways, according to His commandments, are the “righteous”, whereas those who turn away from God and His ways are called the “wicked.” At the core, what separated the righteous from the wicked is whether they have made their hearts God’s home. This is what set David apart from, say, Saul, for even though David certainly wasn’t perfect, his heart was right with God. David expresses his commitment to walk in God’s righteous way, to forever make his heart God’s home, when he wrote: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps. 23:6). Jesus Christ, therefore, walked faithfully according to the commandments of God His Father, keeping His heart as God’s home, as did His prototype before Him, Moses.
In the next paragraph, Paul points out that Jesus was more than merely an obedient human being like Moses; Jesus as the Son of God, the third person of the Trinity, was the very creator of Moses’ heart, and of “all of God’s house” which meant the entire world, extending out from Moses’ heart, in which Moses tried to live out his walk with God:
Yet Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house. (For every house is built by some one, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son. (Hebrews 3:3-6a)
Then comes the all important application:
And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope. (Hebrews 6b)
Jesus once spoke to His disciples about making their hearts His home, when he said, “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4a). And what was crucially important is that making their hearts Christ’s home was a free choice they made, inviting Him into their hearts, which then empowered them to produce the necessary spiritual fruit, apart from which their hearts could not remain Christ’s home. Jesus said:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. … Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:4-6, 2)
It’s important to see that whether or not our hearts remain Christ’s home is conditional upon our producing fruit—in other words, growing in holiness, walking in God’s Righteous Way. This is why Paul said that “we are his house IF WE HOLD FAST our confidence and pride in our hope.” This is not confidence and pride in ourselves, but in Him, which means not turning away from His path but following Him faithfully.
What follows is Paul’s reminder of what happened under Moses, quoting Psalm 95, how the people turned away from God, and what God thought about this:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” (Hebrews 3:7-11)
St. Paul brings that Psalm forward, saying it applies, not only to the Christians of his own day, but to Christians now—today, offering the same warning:
Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, while it is said, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:12-15)
It saddens me when I think of the hundreds of thousands of Christians trapped in the “once saved-always saved” heresy. This hopeful, optimistic presumption sells well from the pulpit, gathering many to turn from sin and surrender their lives, convinced that no matter what they now do, no matter how heinous, they are now guaranteed for heaven, “in the name of Jesus!”
But this is not what Scripture teaches. Here Paul is speaking to Christians who have already turned from sin and to Christ in faith—he’s speaking to “holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call” (3:1). But there is a danger that any “born again” baptized believer can develop “an evil, unbelieving heart, leading [any Christian] to fall away from the living God.” Therefore, one of the reasons for the “ekklesia” or Church is so that we can constantly “exhort one another” to remain faithful, so that our hearts, Christ’s home, do not become “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Hear, then, how strongly Paul says that this fellowship in Christ is conditional: “For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end”. The emphasis here is that it is up to you and me to remain faithful, to not abandon our confidence in Christ, to not allow our hearts to become hardened, and this is only by the help of grace, for as Jesus warned His apostles, “apart from me you can do nothing.”
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). In this letter to the Hebrews, Paul recounts some of these failures:
Who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? And with whom was he provoked forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:16-19)
Now we finally reach the First Reading chosen for tomorrow’s Mass, which, based on what has come before, exhorts Christians not to repeat what their forefathers have done:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, `They shall never enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this place he said, “They shall never enter my rest. Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:1-10)
The key verse in this paragraph is the first one: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.” This means that regardless of how faithful we might appear on the outside, if our heart is not Christ’s home—if our hearts have become hardened by a root of bitterness or by “the deceitfulness of sin” or by abandoning that confidence in Christ we are called to hold until the end—we may not enter into His rest.
And so St. Paul exhorts these first century Christians, as he in turn exhorts us—and the “word of God” referred to here is not specifically the Scriptures, as many conclude, but Jesus Christ Himself, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit:
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:11-13)
In other words, He knows the condition of our hearts—He knows what we have made the treasure of our hearts (cf. Matt. 6:21); He knows whether we truly believe and trust in Him; He knows when our recitation of the Liturgy and the liturgical prayers is nothing but empty, vacuous words; He knows when our love is shallow and actually self-centered.
But the mercy of God always gives us a chance to turn, to repent, and start again, for we are never alone. We can return by grace to that gift of faith we once had maybe long, long ago:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
This is what we should be saying in our hearts whenever we kneel before our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar—“the throne of grace”—begging our Heavenly Father for the mercy and grace we need to “hold fast our confession”. Lord Jesus, help us in our time of need.