Draw Near: Avoiding the Path of the Prodigal

The Problem

Recently I’ve found myself thinking about the wayward. Like me, you know far too many people with this story. They claim the name of Christ as kids and teens only to graduate from high school and check their so-called faith at the door. They enter the “real world” and show their true stripes. Christian media has many resources to help students avoid this, books like How to Stay a Christian in College or Thriving at College. I don’t want to denigrate these resources: they have their place and offer good, godly counsel. However, this isn’t a problem that plagues just teenagers.  Tragically, “deconversion” stories are a dime a dozen. It’s not uncommon to hear of even pastors walking away from the truth they once preached. What’s going on? Why are so many so-called believers turning their back on what they claimed to believe? Perhaps the more important question is, How can I avoid this path?

This is the predicament of the audience of the book of Hebrews. They have found new life in Christ, but are now tempted to turn back to Judaism–it’s comfortable and familiar, and people aren’t losing their heads for it. That’s why the author picked up his pen to tell them over and over, “Don’t turn back! Jesus is better than anything in your old life!”

The Context

Though I’d love to walk with you through the glorious trail of Hebrews 3-4, I just don’t have the space here to do so. Instead, let me give you a whirlwind tour to put us in context. The author has already claimed and proven that Jesus is better than angels (ch. 1-2) and better than Moses (3:1-6). However, while he will get back to Moses, the author pauses his argument to talk about holding fast and entering rest. In this discussion, he’s making the case that turning back to Judaism is for the original audience what the Israelites’ rebellion and desire to head back to Egypt was in the wilderness.

You remember the story. The Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land because of the ten spies’ bad report (Num. 13-14). To put it another way, they refused to enter the “rest” that God had promised them because of their unbelief and disobedience. However, the rest was not found just in Canaan. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been referred to later on, like in Psalm 95:11 (Heb. 4:7-9). This rest must be something else, something that the New Testament Christians likewise can enter, namely heaven.

The Commands

As application of this discussion about “rest,” the author gives his audience four commands, four things to do in response to what he’s telling them. And it’s in these commands that we find out how to avoid the prodigal’s path away from rest.

#1: Fear.

First, he tells them to fear (4:1). Turning back is a big deal with dire consequences. And just as God punished the rebellious generation of Israelites in the wilderness by forbidding their entrance into the land (“rest”), He will forbid the person who doesn’t persevere in his faith in Christ to enter the heavenly rest. This doesn’t mean that a person can lose his salvation; it means that he never had it in the first place. Scripture makes it clear that nothing can condemn a person in Christ or separate him from being in Christ (Rom. 8:1, 38-39). Therefore, the author must be talking about something else, namely, faking it.

Reading a warning like this should scare us a little bit. If we don’t read it and think, “What if that happens to me?” something is wrong. And that’s exactly the author’s point. We must take his warnings seriously. After all, we’ve probably all been the doubter at one time or another. We’ve all had big questions about God. In the middle of a trial, we’ve probably wondered if life would be easier if we just did our own thing. Does that mean we won’t enter God’s rest? We’ll come back to that. But for now, obey the first directive: “Let us fear.”

#2: Be Diligent.

Secondly, he tells us to be “diligent to enter that rest” (v. 11). This verse flies in the face of “easy believe-ism,” which basically affirms that if you say a prayer you’re good with God. You don’t need to turn from your sins or acknowledge Him as Lord of your life. Just believe. That’s it. Go on about your business.

Except that’s not Bible. The writer here teaches that we must be diligent. This means that we pursue the rest. That is not to say that we work our way to heaven, but that a genuine believer will persevere on their journey. A traveler that turns around at the first sign of difficulty is not really a traveler. Remember Pliable in Pilgrim’s Progress? When the going got tough in the Slough of Despond, he found the easy way out, left Christian to flail by himself, and never reached the Wicket Gate or the Celestial City.

 By “diligence,” I don’t mean just the spiritual disciplines of church attendance, Bible-reading, and prayer. Yes, a growing believer will do those things, but doing them doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is pursuing rest with diligence. This diligence means doing battle with sin. It means wrestling to the mats the doubts and lies of the devil. It means applying the Gospel to everyday life, not leaving it behind where I said a prayer at my mother’s knee as a child. We must be diligent.

#3. Hang On Tight.

There’s more. Third, the author tells us to “hold fast our confession” (4:14). This echoes what he said in 3:6.
“But Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm, until the end.”

Real members of Christ’s household will hang on to the Savior and to the Gospel for dear life. It is our only hope. Like a climber hanging on to his safety rope that’s the only thing between him and falling to his death, we must cling to Christ.

#4. Come Close.

But let me linger for a moment on the final imperative. It’s one of the most precious promises in all of Scripture, but perhaps one that we typically don’t set in its entire context. Here it is:

“Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

We usually think of this promise as an invitation to pray. We can come boldly before the throne of grace because of Jesus, our High Priest who intercedes on our behalf. And, if you read the surrounding verses, that is a good interpretation. However, if you consider the bigger context of all of chapter 4, you’ll see that it also speaks to our conversation about rest and entering or not entering.

This verse compels us to come near to the throne because we need help. We are every bit as irascible, cantankerous, and vexing as the Israelites. Forgetting the three previous commands, we lose our grip on the Gospel and neglect our diligence. And somehow the results often don’t cause us to fear too much. But this imperative comes with a promise. If we can just approach the throne—which we’re allowed to do because of our “great High Priest”—if we can just approach, and get near to the throne, we will receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.

I don’t think the author was referring only to finding grace to help with a rebellious toddler or a scary doctor’s appointment (though we find the grace for those things, too). I think the grace he’s holding out to us is even stronger. It’s grace to help us enter the rest. It’s the grace to finish well. It’s the grace to be diligent when we just want to give up. It’s the mercy to hold on when we just want to let go.

Draw near to the throne, my friends. Come boldly and plead loudly because the One through whom you pray is well acquainted with the temptations you’re facing. He knows what it feels like to want to throw in the towel. He won’t scoff, reprimand, or rebuke. No, He will extend mercy and distribute grace, specially packaged for your doubt, question, or struggle.

The warnings of Hebrews are meant for all of us, not just the wayward prodigal. They’re scary at times and perhaps make us think that we’ll never be able to do it. And we can’t. At least not without drawing near to the throne. So, come close and find the grace and mercy that you need to finish this day clinging to your Savior.

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