“Therefore, in as much as the Holy Ghost is saying, ‘Today, if you would hear His voice, you should not harden your hearts as in the hardheartedness during the day of temptation in the wilderness, where your fathers were put to the test in a trial, and they saw My works; for forty years, therefore, I was angry with this generation, and I declared ‘They are always being led astray in their hearts and did not know My ways’. So I vowed in My anger, ‘Surely they shall not enter into My rest’. Beware brethren, lest there will be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief (or unfaithfulness) so as to fall away from the living God. But encourage each other each day, while it is called today, lest anyone of you should be hardened by deceitfulness of sin; For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold fast the original conviction of confidence securely until the end,” (Hebrews 3:7 – 14).
The historical context of this scripture refers to God’s people Israel, who were unfaithful – that is, disobedient – to God and were obliged to wander aimlessly in the wilderness instead of entering into the land of rest that God had prepared for them. That entire disobedient generation, having been put to the test and failed, perished in the wilderness without ever finding the rest of God (Hebrews 3:17).
“And to whom did He swear that they should not enter into his rest, but to those disobeying? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:18-19).
We should be mindful that the people that this happened to were God’s people; they were believers, but unfaithful and disobedient. We should also be mindful that God is speaking to us today in these scriptures just as He was to the Hebrew Christians of the first century. Every generation faces the same spiritual problems, and every generation needs to find the only solution that God has set down since before the beginning of time. The principal problem, though, is that in order to pander to our humanity, we try and make the Word of God mean something other than that which God intended it to mean.
There are several key words in this passage of scripture that bear careful and fearful examination; “hardening”, “unfaithfulness” (or unbelief as it is most often translated) and “falling away”; these words are vitally connected to each other and all form part of a problem that leads to God’s people being robbed of the promised rest.
Faith and Unbelief
“Unbelief” is the most common English translation of the Greek apistia, the negative of pistis which is translated as “faith”, “belief” “trust” and, in fact, encompasses all of these three qualities. It is plainly unbiblical to consider that you can have belief without trusting in God, although this is what many Christians do, just as did many Jews. “Faith”, in its Biblical sense, means believing and obeying. Of Abraham it is written “but looking to the promise of God he did not hesitate (debate, dispute) in unbelief (or unfaithfulness), but was strengthened in faith (trust), giving glory to God” Romans 4:20). Abraham, of course, is the father of faith and the example of faith always given in the Word; Biblical faith was demonstrated by Abraham – he heard, and he obeyed.
That is what the Bible means by “faith”. And apistia, “unbelief” or “unfaith” if you like, is either not believing, or not obeying. Bible translators, being men, generally eschew translating apistia as the unequivocal “unfaithfulness” preferring instead “unbelief”, a more ambiguous term, which is able to leave unfaithful believers in some comfort, since they know that, at least, they are “believers” in their own understanding of the term. Only the ASV, for example, translates apistos in Luke 12:46 as “unfaithful”, the rest opting for “unbelievers”. But it is self-delusion on a grand scale to be comfortable in what the Hellenistic mind calls “belief”, if it does not produce obedience; alas, this condition is endemic in modern western Christendom.
Israel, God’s people, were not able to enter into the land, but condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. The writer to the Hebrews tells us why; “And we see that they were not able to enter in because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). Now we know that, being God’s people, they were “believers” in the sense of the word given to it by the Hellenistic mindset, and in the same sense that Christians are “believers”. But they were not believers in the meaning of the word given to it by God; they were “unbelievers”, or unfaithful believers. Without altering one word in the original language Hebrews 3:19 is translated to read “they were not able to enter in because of unfaithfulness”, and such a translation gives a more accurate explanation of the reason for the failure of the Jews to enter in to the land of promise and rest.
The Bible is full of the records of those whose belief was frozen in unbelief:-
“At once, the father of the child, crying out with tears was saying; ‘I believe; help me in my unbelief’” Mark 9:24). What he was asking for was help in being faithful to his belief.
“And He was amazed because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6). He is talking about Jews who were believers, but unfaithful believers.
“And He did not do in that place many acts of power because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). These are believers, once again, yet unbelievers and their unbelief, or unfaithfulness, limited the capacity of Jesus to do many miracles.
Of the Jews it is written; “Rightly they were broken off by unbelief, but you are established in faith, do not be high minded, but be fearful” (Romans 11:20).
But as Paul writes; “if they do not remain in unbelief, they will be grafted in” again (Romans 11:23).
In summary then, “unbelief” in the New Testament most often means lack of obedience rather than lack of belief.
Hardening the Heart
There are two Greek words that are translated as “hardening” or “hardened”. The first, porosis, is the Greek word from which the English “porous” comes, porosity being a condition that inhibits the holding of water. W.E. Vine says that porosis is used metaphorically of dulled spiritual perception and this is its meaning when applied to Romans 11:25 and Mark 3:5:-
“For I do not wish you to be ignorant , brothers, of this mystery, in order that you should not be wise in yourselves; that a partial porosis has become to Israel until the fullness of the gentiles should come” (Romans 11:25).
“And when He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the porosis of their heart, He said unto the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees went out, and straightway with the Herodians took counsel against him, how they might destroy him” (Mark 3:5-6).
In the scriptures, this porosis of the heart is most often expressed in the passive voice; that is, it is something that is done to a person rather than something a person sets out to do. Speaking of Israel, John quoted Isaiah in his gospel:
“He has blinded their eyes, and he hardened their heart; lest they should see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and should turn, and I should heal them” (John 12:40).
It was God who hardened their hearts; this porosis is inflicted by God on His people in judgement. That also applies to the partial porosis that has taken place to Israel, written of by Paul in Romans 11:25:
“That which Israel seeks, it did not obtain, but the chosen did obtain it, and the rest were hardened” (Romans 11:7). Here again is porosis and again in the passive, indicating that Israel didn’t harden their own hearts; it was God who hardened their hearts, because of their unfaithfulness.
“But their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:
Again the passive of porosis is used here to describe that the hardening of their minds was done to them rather than by them.
So this porosis form of hardening is something that happens to our heart because of God’s judgement, or as an inevitable consequence of our own conduct; it “becomes”.
The second Greek word translated as “hardened” or “hardening” is skleruno – a term applied to that which lacks moisture and so is rough and disagreeable to the touch; hence it came to denote hardness. It is always used as a term of reproach. The English word “sclerosis” is derived from this Greek word and means a morbid hardening of any tissue or structure; hence “arteriosclerosis’ or hardening of the arteries. This sclerosis is generally in the active voice and signifies that it is something that we do, rather than something that is done to us.
“He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way’” (Matthew 19:8).
It was not what God intended, but sclerosis had set in as men abandoned God’s way for their own ways. That is typical of the effect of a hardened heart.
“He again fixes a certain day, ‘Today’” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, ‘Today if you would hear His voice, you should not harden your hearts’” (Hebrews 4:
Do not harden your hearts, He is saying! In this case, God is not doing it, but we are!
“He who hardens his heart will fall into evil” (Proverbs 28:14).
Thus, the scripture teaches that there is a hardening that comes from God as a judgement on our unfaithfulness and a hardening that we do to ourselves. In both cases, this hardening cuts us off from hearing the voice of God.
“Take heed brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, falling away from the Living God” (Hebrews 3:12).
Unfaithfulness and hardening of the heart are often put one in relation to the other in the scriptures; the latter leads to the former and the former leads to the latter; the consequence being that we fall away. The vital thing for us is to understand how this happens; and that is subtly.
One way is by our hardening our own hearts; this is the result of hearing and not doing as James put it:- “But become doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
When you first hear God’s truth in your innermost being, your heart leaps in excitement and joy that a line of communication has opened up with eternity. You can see that response in the disciples on the road to Emmaus; their hearts “burned within them”. This is always the case when God brings a word of truth, a rhema, to mortal man. If you obey that truth, you will obtain more, as God carries out His intention towards all of the chosen; that is, to draw us deeper and deeper into His circle of intimacy and fellowship, and turn us into His true sons and daughters. And since, “to those who have, more will be given” (Matthew 13:12), as you obey what you have heard from God, you can expect that God will continue to draw you into the divine presence and reveal to you more and more of Himself and His purposes. How rich indeed is the man that dwells in that place of blessed intimacy with the Most High God!
Now each time God brings a truth to plant in your heart, you will respond in one of two ways; His nearness will either move you in the innermost part of your being, your “heart will burn within you”, and you will instantly move in the direction God indicates, or you will wait and see (which is another way of saying you will ignore what God is saying).
If you wait, you will find that the next time you hear a truth from God it will not move you deeply in quite the same way or bring you to respond with quite the same enthusiasm and zeal. The next time again, it will move you even less and the time will soon follow when the truth will not move you at all. Subtly but definitively, your heart is hardened and unbelief has arrived. Of course you still believe in God and Christ and His Word, and the whole of the revelation of God’s truth, but that truth no longer has life in you, it can no longer produce the response that God requires in you; your heart is hardened. Soon, “even what you have will be taken away”. You see, unless the truth is lived, it dies. “I am the way, the truth and the life”, Jesus said (John 14:6). These qualities of Christ are indivisible; if you have one you will have all; if you don’t have one you don’t have any. That is the way the economy of God works.
We harden our own heart by denying access to the Word of God to “discern the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), a fruitless attempt to conceal from God what is really going on in the heart. This is the Adam in us all, and draws a picture of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden; pretending that all is well and knowing that it isn’t. In trying to shut God out from telling us something we need to hear, we are doing exactly the opposite of what we should do; instead of guarding our heart for God we guard it against Him. Instead of openness of heart and complete intimacy with God, we endeavour to cover our tracks with religious activity and words; we become like “spin doctors” trying to pretend that what is, is not; or what is not, is. God is not confused by our manipulations, of course, but we manage to kid ourselves and our heart becomes hardened. Like the Pharisees, we have become hypocrites who ”say, but do not do” (Matthew 23:3). We have “fallen away” (Hebrews 3:12).
But the writer to the Hebrews warns us:- “See that you do not refuse to hear the One speaking; for if those refusing to hear the One warning upon the earth did not escape, much more we the One warning from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).
Note that it is the “living God” from Whom those with a hardened heart “fall away” (Hebrews 3:12); that is, it is the One Who Is from whom you fall away; you are still able to profess faith in the One Who Was and the One Who Will Be. But you fall away nevertheless, and the Greek word used here is apostenai, which of course is the word from which the English “apostasy” derives. So apostasy is falling away from the “Living God” – or the One Who Is; it does not mean falling away from a belief in God and Christ, but falling away from the Living God. We have a smart enemy and unless we are anchored in the presence of Christ Jesus, unless we abide in Him, this enemy will deceive us into thinking that we haven’t fallen away at all; after all, we still believe in Jesus don’t we? We still read our Bibles don’t we? We still pray don’t we?
So what often happens is that, seeking to cover our tracks, we retreat and find refuge in religious activity, but that doesn’t lead anywhere; it doesn’t satisfy; it doesn’t bring the blessed intimacy with Christ and the joy of hearing His voice and feeling His encompassing presence. It just brings a religious, fleshly comfort. The task for us is to recognise these carnal manoeuvres for what they are; attempts by the deceiver to harden our hearts in the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13).
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God” (Hebrews 10:31) we are told because “our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrew 12:
The most effective way for us to avoid falling away and becoming hardened in our hearts is to remain, to abide, in the presence of God. Always be conscious of the nearness of Christ and of the fact that “the Father is watching” (Matthew 6:4 and 6). If we do that, we will be safe.