This weekend we did a painting project in our home. Though we had the room’s lights on and could see most things, it wasn’t until we turned on additional floor-lamp that the shadowy corners were illuminated. We didn’t need that extra light to see the biggest things, but it does help us notice things we might have otherwise missed (like where the wall needed a second coat).
Scripture sheds light on Scripture. Sometimes the link is explicit, either through a quotation or a direct allusion, while other times connections are present but without immediately standing out. As you dive deeper and look at important themes and words, you see the overlap. Reading Scripture as one book that’s unified and cohesive allows Scripture to not only interpret Scripture but to give further insight or clarity to itself. Reading a passage with related themes can be like turning on the additional light in the room. It might just help you see something otherwise hidden with an “aha” moment.
Hebrews 3-4, Psalm 95, Exodus 17, and Numbers 14
As I studied Hebrews 3-4 this week, I found a few examples of this. There will be a good amount of cross-referencing or jumping around from one book of the Bible to another, so stick with me.
Hebrews 3:7-11 quotes Psalm 95:7-11. Hebrews draws on the words of David (Heb. 4:7 attributes the psalm to David) where he encouraged his fellow Israelites to worship their God and Shepherd in gratitude (95:1-7) and exhorts them not to ignore God’s voice with grumbling or unbelief (95:7-11). Hebrews picks up the message of David in Psalm 95 and applies it throughout Hebrews 3-4 (quoting Ps. 95 six times.) The message of Psalm 95 about responding rightly to God in faith, rather than in unbelief, sheds light on what Hebrews warns its readers of.
Part of what’s interesting is Psalm 95 itself draws on two earlier episodes in Israel’s history: Exodus 17:1-7 (Israel’s grumbling and the provision of water from the rock) and Numbers 14:20-38 (Israel’s grumbling and failure to enter the land of rest). These passages from Exodus and Numbers inform what’s taking place in Psalm 95, and all three shed light on Hebrews 3-4.
John 10, Hebrews 3-4, and Psalm 95
While the connection between Psalm 95 (including the Exodus and Numbers references) in Hebrews is explicit because of the quotations, I think Hebrews 3-4 connects with John 10 through strong thematic similarities. When you tie together a passage through thematic connections, it takes a bit more digging and examining of the evidence. But as the connections line up and synonymous ideas reveal themselves, this overlap allows the passages to better speak into and explain what’s going on in one another.
In John 10, Jesus makes one of his authoritative “I am” statements. With these statements in John’s Gospel, Jesus draws from the Old Testament to show that he is who Israel was looking for and who God promises to send. Jesus is the divine and human Messiah, the true and better Israel. In John 10, Jesus claims to be the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
“I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11)
John 10 follows the miracle of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9, which leads to a discussion or debate about the identity of Jesus (a common question in John’s Gospel). In this conversation, there are present Jews who believe in and follow Jesus and there are present Jews who listen to the words of Jesus but reject him and his message.
In this context, Jesus explains he is unlike so many of the shepherds Israel experienced who preyed on and abandoned the sheep. He will sacrificially lay down his life to save his sheep (John 10:11). He will guard and protect them, to the extent that none of them will be lost or snatched away (10:28-29). He also explains that those who are his sheep are the ones who both hear and heed his voice (10:27). Because they are his sheep, they recognize, trust, and follow the voice of Jesus.
This is part of how the sheep are protected and kept safe, as they respond to the wise and caring voice of the shepherd calling them out of danger. It’s not so for the ones who are not his sheep. They don’t listen to, respond to, or obey the voice of Jesus (10:26). They do what they want, rejecting the voice of Jesus (to their own destruction). While the sheep are led into salvation, good pastures, and safety by following the good shepherd’s voice, those who aren’t his sheep disregard his voice and suffer the consequences.
The text quoted from Psalm 95:7-11 begins with similar shepherding language.
“For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Ps. 95:7)
Hebrews 3-4 draws on Psalm 95 (and its reference to the episodes in Exodus and Numbers). There were many in Israel who never experienced the promised land because they rejected God’s Word through unbelief. Like David in Psalm 95, the author of Hebrews doesn’t want to see his generation make the same mistake. Hebrews 3-4 urges its audience to listen, heed, and respond to God’s voice (“Today!”). This responsiveness leading to perseverance is how God leads us into eternal salvation and rest with God. There’s a strong warning for those who don’t listen to his voice but reject it (in unbelief and through hardness of heart), and thereby experience the judgment that comes from unbelief and turning from God.
Hopefully you can already hear the echoes in John 10 and Hebrews 3-4, as well as Psalm 95:7-11.
Though Hebrews 3-4 doesn’t specifically use the language of Jesus as our “shepherd,” you see this theme in how he relates to us as a high priest, and how we follow him as his people. The end of Hebrews makes a direct connection to Jesus’ priestly ministry and him being our great Shepherd.
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Heb. 13:20-21)
Notice these other thematic connections between John 10, Hebrews 3–4, and Psalm 95.
- Jesus speaks and his sheep hear and obey his voice, while those who are not his sheep do not: John 10:3-5, 26-27; Heb. 3:12, 16 (cf. 2:1-4); Ps. 95:7
- Jesus is the faithful Son to the Father: John 10:15, 17-18, 25, 29-31, 36-38; Hebrews 3:1-6
- Jesus is the one sent (Apostle) by the Father: John 10:18, 36; Heb. 3:1. [Jesus being the sent one is a primary theme in John’s Gospel, and it shows up clearly in Hebrews 1:1-4; 3:1-6.]
- Jesus makes us holy through his death: John 10:14-16, 28; Heb. 3:1 (cf. 4:14-5:10)
- Jesus leads his sheep into salvation and rest: As the door who gives salvation and pasture (John 10:9); the better Moses & Joshua leading us in an Exodus out of sin (Heb. 3:16-18; 4:8); and the one who leads into salvation and rest (Heb. 4:1-10)
- The connection of God’s Word to sheep hearing his voice: John 10:34-38; Heb. 4:11-13
- Genuine (True) and Spurious (False) Faith: John 10:42 (cf. 2:23-25; 8:30-47); Heb. 3:7-4:10
- Jesus is the one who keeps his sheep: John 10:27-29; Heb. 3:1-6; 4:14-5:10
- Both Psalm 95 and John 10 have a group of grumblers who should be grateful worshippers; Ps. 95:1-6 vs 7-11; John 10:19-20, 31, 39
- One of John’s primary themes is Jesus in the wilderness but faithful where Israel was not (see esp. John 6-11); Psalm 95 looks back on the wilderness generation to warn the present generation; Hebrews 3-4 also look back on the wilderness generation to warn against being like them.
Preservation & Perseverance
Now that we’ve “turned the lights on” by seeing how these related passages shed light on one another, here’s one reason it matters, or one thing it helps make sense of.
While John 10 includes an implicit admonition we should heed Jesus’ voice if we are his sheep, the overall encouragement in the chapter is on how Jesus saves, keeps, and preserves all who are his. Though both are present, the emphasis on Christ’s work to preserve more than our perseverance.
Hebrews 3-4 seems to reverse the emphases, focusing on the call to persevere. While there are encouragements in this section about Christ’s work that saves and preserves us–see especially 3:1-6 on how Jesus is faithful over his house, him making us holy brothers and sisters, participants in a heavenly calling, and being our apostle and priest–the primary message is the exhortation to persevere and endure by heeding the message of Jesus through his Word (Heb. 4:11-13). Hebrews holds up both truths, that Jesus as High Priest fully saves, keeps, and protects all who are his own–through his past work and ongoing ministry–and he does so in part through our perseverance that follows and responds to his voice.
While the emphasis of Hebrews 3-4 leans toward the warning and exhortation to persevere, the related passage of John 10 (as well as the surrounding context of Hebrews 4:14-10:39 on Christ’s ministry for us as High Priest) helps us keep in view both the encouragement that Christ preserves us alongside the exhortation to persevere by holding fast to him.
I think the main idea (and the logical argument) of 3:1-4:13 is that Jesus is superior to Moses, and therefore, while Moses was faithful in leading Israel out of slavery but unable to guard many of them from unbelief, Jesus does guard all of his own and protect us from unbelief so that we (unlike Israel) will not fail to enter his rest. Jesus is more faithful than Moses because Jesus not only sets us free from captivity but he takes us all the way to the promised land (and not just some of his people but all of them will enter). This is the better-ness of the New Covenant rooted in the superiority of Jesus as the perfect High Priest, mediator of the covenant, and founder of our salvation. We prove to be his people and experience his rest by heeding his Word and responding in obedience rather than hardening our hearts through unbelief. Both John 10 and Hebrews 3-4 provide us with the comforting assurance God will preserve us as well as the necessary jolt through the admonition (God’s means) to persevere in faith in Jesus. But the exhortation to persevere is grounded in the foundational promise that God preserves us.
Just as Jesus told his audience in John 10 that some of them do not hear (recognize and obey) his voice because they’re not his sheep, so also in Hebrews those who don’t respond to Jesus’ voice are not his sheep, but his own will listen to his voice in faith (though I think, along with Tom Schreiner, the argument in Hebrews is all who are truly his will hear these warnings and respond in faith).
Both John (and 1 John) and Hebrews believe there are those of true faith and those of spurious faith, and it’s not that true believers fall away but that true believers are proven as they persevere and are preserved while “apostate believers” (unbelieving but professing people who renounce their faith) prove their unbelief by falling away. John and Hebrews emphasize the need to continue and obey—as well as the fact that Jesus keeps us and preserves us—while 1 John (see 2:19-20) emphasizes how those who walk away prove they were never truly part of us.
The readers of Hebrews 3-4 are to consider that Jesus is their Apostle and High Priest, who has (1) made them holy brothers and sisters, (2) made them partakers in a heavenly hope, and (3) is fully faithful over God’s house in a way that supersedes Moses. They are his, and therefore, they should listen to and heed his voice which calls them to cling to Jesus rather than drifting from him. The argument throughout Hebrews includes both ideas, that Jesus is the High Priest who saves and keeps all his own perfectly (unlike the old covenant), and therefore, don’t turn from but hold fast in faith until the end.
Listen to the Shepherd’s voice—spoken in the written Word (Heb. 4:11-13)—as a grateful, trusting follower. The shepherd leads and guards his sheep into safety and rest through the means of calling to them so they will hear his voice and follow him. There is both a call to action through heeding Christ’s voice as the means by which God preserves his people through our perseverance, but also the indication or revelation of who those people are through their receptive response to Christ’s voice.
Hear Christ’s Word speaking to us “Today” and obey without delay. Today’s perseverance in faith produces tomorrow’s preservation until the end. God is faithful to keep us and hold us by giving us and sustaining our faith; and part of how he holds us in faith is calling us to a faith that clings to him. The “means” and the “end” are not opposed to each other; God works in both to create a mysterious but wonderful harmony.