What Does Hebrews 3:4 Mean?

A sermon on Hebrews 3:1-6 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 6 February 2022

In June 1966 John Lennon created headlines around the world when he said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. What he had meant was that the Beatles were more popular with young people than the church. What he meant was that he quite liked Jesus but wasn’t fond of his disciples. But his comment was widely misunderstood to mean that he thought the Beatles were better than Christ. During the tour of the US in 1966 protests were held in the Bible belt of the American south. Albums and effigies were burned, concerts were picketed and death threats were made.

Lennon offered a kind of apology at the time that satisfied many. Many protests were cancelled and lots of records were played rather than burned. But the man who murdered him twelve years later was inspired to hate him for his words.

The truth is that the words of the writer here in Hebrews chapter 3 would be just as offensive to practicing Jews today as Lennon’s words were to many Christians in the 1960s. For this passage’s simple message is that Jesus is greater than Moses because Moses was just God’s servant, but Jesus is God’s Son.

What? a good Jew might ask. Are you seriously saying that Moses was “just” God’s servant? Moses who was born a Hebrew but raised as a son of the Egyptian princess. As a young man he had dreams of rescuing his people from their slavery but he was found out and ran away. He lived as an exile among the herders outside Egypt’s borders, until God spoke to him in the burning bush. “Go to Pharaoh. Tell him that the Lord says, “Let my people go.”” Through Moses ten plagues fell on Egypt until the king begged the Israelites to leave. Moses led them through the Red Sea all the way to the holy mountain. Moses climbed to the top and received the Ten Commandments written by the fingers of angels.

Thou shalt have no other god before me.

Thou shalt not make for thyself a graven image.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.

Thou shalt not murder.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife nor his male servant nor his maid servant nor his ass, nor anything that belongs to him.

I’m pretty sure that you’ve heard of one or two of them. Moses who led the Israelites through their wandering for forty years, and who ultimately was led to sin out of pure frustration and was not allowed to go into the Promised Land himself. Sure, Moses was a servant. Perhaps the greatest of all of God’s servants. But a good Jew would say that it was unfair to call Moses “just” a servant especially in comparison to Jesus.

The writer’s message in Hebrews chapter 3 could easily offend anyone. But it is truly no more offensive than Jesus’ own words. Take the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Many people view it as Jesus’ greatest speech. Perhaps some people think that it is the only part of the whole Bible that they can agree with. Love each other. Treat people the way you want to be treated. You know, the Golden Rule and all that. And yet, if you listen to Jesus’ actual words you’ll find that he didn’t just put his own opinion on a par with Moses, but sometimes above Moses.

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Again, you have heard that it was said “Do not break your oath.” But I tell you, Do not swear at all.

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.

One day the teachers and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. “Teacher,” they said. “In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

Jesus said to them,

If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

I’m not sure that Jesus is implying that Moses is in any way wrong. But he is claiming to be the one who explains what Moses was really trying to say. That there is a law from God and it was given to Moses but he alone knows what it means.

And then there is our other reading today from Mark chapter 9 about the transfiguration. When Jesus and three of his disciples went to the top of a mountain and Jesus’ appearance was changed so that he shone with light, as if for this brief moment in time a curtain was drawn and his disciples saw his true glory. Elijah and Moses appeared. They talked with Jesus because there was something that Jesus was going to do that they couldn’t do for him but they could help him with. A cloud appeared and voice came from heaven. It didn’t say, “Listen to Elijah.” It didn’t say, “Listen to Moses.” It said,

This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!

And when they looked around the disciples couldn’t see Elijah. They couldn’t see Moses. They could only see Jesus who was left on his own to do what he alone could do. For one night Moses tried to help Jesus. He served him. But then Jesus, God’s own beloved Son, had to roll up his sleeves and do his Father’s will on his own.

It is this sort of thing that got Jesus killed on the cross. Not because he was a great teacher, although he was. Not because he did great miracles, although he did. But because he called himself God’s Son, making himself equal with God and above all the ancestors and prophets of Israel. Nobody kills great teachers. Nobody puts to death great miracle workers. But they do kill trouble makers, agitators, blasphemers. People like John Lennon. People like Jesus.

All this is consistent with the message of Hebrews chapter 3.

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house.

The writer, we don’t know his name, wrote his letter to Jewish Christians. They had been Jews, but they had put their faith in Jesus as the Lord’s Messiah. For that they had been treated like Jesus. Disowned by their families. And thrown out of the synagogues. And they always faced the pressure of going back to what they had grown up with. To turn their back on the church and to go back to the synagogue. To give up on the gospel and to go back to the Ten Commandments. To leave Jesus and to return to Moses.

And the first thing the writer did in this passage was to draw a similarity between Jesus and Moses. Jesus was faithful to his Father just as Moses was faithful to God. Moses had obeyed the will of God and spoken in God’s name and led out God’s people from their slavery. And Jesus had obeyed his Father’s will. He had not succumbed to the devil’s temptations. He had not been worn down by the resistance and opposition he faced. He had not lost heart when his own disciples struggled to believe. He walked obediently to the cross and with his last breath placed his life in his Father’s hands. Just like Moses Jesus was faithful.

But then the writer to the Hebrews draws a significant point of difference between Moses and Jesus.

Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself.

And he’s right. We can admire a house. A house can even win an award. But the true genius behind the house are the people who designed it and built it. The writer’s point is that Moses is part of God’s building, his people,            Israel in the Old Testament, the church in the New Testament. But Jesus is the builder, the brains behind the design, the one whose actions brought it all together and made it what it is.

What Moses and the prophets promised in the Old Testament Jesus delivered, and through his life and death and new life Jesus has brought all his Father’s plans for humanity to completion.

For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything.

And as God’s Son Jesus brings his Father’s purposes for creation to fulfilment. A new people is created. Not built on the foundation of the ten commandments, but on the gospel. A people who do not just love their neighbour as they love themselves, but who love each other as Christ loved them.

In verses 5 and 6, the writer changes the metaphor. He is still talking about a house, but Moses is no longer a part of the house, but a part of the household that lives in the house.

Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house.

In God’s house Moses was not just the stable boy or the scullery maid. He was like the butler, the one who works behind the scenes to make sure everything goes smoothly. But in the end he is just another servant. The greatest of the servants. The most reliable and the best paid. But when the master dies, the butler might get a bonus and a generous retirement package, but the master’s son inherits everything.

Jesus was faithful in God’s house, in God’s household, his people. But not like the butler, but a faithful son who will inherit his Father’s kingdom. Jesus is greater than Moses. He is better than Don Bradman. He is bigger than the Beatles. Not because he is more popular, but because he is God’s Son, who creates a new people for his Father and who inherits his Father’s kingdom. All human heroes will fail you. But Jesus never will.

Of course, the whole point is to take us back to the beginning of chapter 3.

Fix your thoughts on Jesus.

Because the Ten Commandments are wonderful words from God. If people paid more attention to not committing adultery, they might be happier and families staying together and children healthier. But the commandments are not God’s last words. God has something better to say to us than do this and don’t do that. Jesus is God’s last word to us. His precious Son and his perfect revealer. We have to fix our thoughts on him and not on some moral program to improve society.

Because the ten commandments are all well and good but they set an impossible standard. We can’t obey them and we seriously don’t really want to without the love of Jesus in our hearts and the power of his spirit in our lives. Fix your thoughts on Jesus. Listen to his words. See his wonderful deeds. Trust in his cross. Believe in the power of his resurrection. Know that he is at the right hand of his Father, and where he is he has promised that you will be.

Because Moses can’t save you and I can’t save you, no human being has the power or right to save you. All human heroes will fail you and let you down. But Jesus never will.