Last week I suggested that if you were going to preach through the epistle readings from Hebrews for the next few months, you may want to consider doing a series called: “Jesus Is Greater Than...” As we saw last week, the author of Hebrews was demonstrating how Jesus is greater than angels. This week, you could continue the theme with the good news that Jesus is greater than Moses.

The assigned reading does not offer much by way of comparing Jesus and Moses. The focus is more on the temptation towards apostasy. However, the example that warns the recipients of this letter comes from those whom God rescued from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and yet still rebelled, fell away, and did not enter the Promised Land. That is to say, those who rejected God’s salvation under the ministry of Moses serve as a warning to us who, though saved by Christ Jesus, are prone to wander from Christ into sin.

If you choose to preach this pericope with the idea that Jesus is greater than Moses, you will need to be clear on what you mean by “greater.” Just as with the angels, we do not mean something like Jesus is good and Moses is bad, or as we Lutherans (following Paul in 2 Corinthians) tend to say, “Moses is Law, but Jesus is Gospel.” There is a place for that conversation, but it is not this text. When the author of Hebrews is showing us Jesus is greater than Moses, he is saying the salvation Christ brings is of a greater significance, or perhaps better, a more eternal importance. Whereas Moses faithfully rescued God’s people from slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land of Canaan, Jesus has done something greater. He has rescued us from the slavery of sin and the tyranny of the Devil to lead us to eternal life. He has won for us no mere earthly kingdom but has made us to be citizens in the Kingdom of God, now by faith, and one day by sight.

What this means for our particular text is that to reject this salvation from Christ is a greater loss than what the Israelites lost in their desert wanderings. To be saved from Egypt only to wander away into sin and not enter Canaan was bad. To be baptized into the Kingdom of God and to be reconciled to Him through the saving work of Jesus Christ, only to abandon this for the sinful siren calls of this world is worse. To return to Judaism (as the recipients of this letter seem to be doing) after having been saved by the Jewish Messiah is tantamount to calling up Pharaoh and asking for your old job back, only worse. It means eternal death and slavery. To reject Christ is not just to die in the wilderness, it is to reject eternal life. So, the author writes today to encourage Christians to persevere in the face of trial and temptation.

He has won for us no mere earthly kingdom but has made us to be citizens in the Kingdom of God, now by faith, and one day by sight.

Sermon Structure

There are several ways you could preach this week’s text. You might consider retelling the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, recounting their temptations and sins, and demonstrating how such temptations exist even today for those who are in Christ’s Church. For guidance, consider the Bible Story Interrupted structure.

You might also consider using the five rhetorical questions in verses 16-18 with a modified Question Answered structure. The author begins by warning the individual members of the church that “an evil and unbelieving heart” is a real threat which could cause them to “fall away from the living God” (3:12). To prove his point, he appeals to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness and, though being saved from Egypt by God’s gracious activity alone, ultimately fell away because their hearts were hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13). You could then show how this worked by asking each of the five rhetorical questions and fleshing out the answers in a way that connects the rebellion of Israel with the sins and temptations of the Church today. You could conclude, then, with a question of your own: How does one resist falling away? Or what has God done to prevent such a rebellion? At this point, you can point to 3:13 and how God sustains us in our faith by the ministry of the Church in Word and Sacrament and by the support and encouragement from our fellow pilgrims along the way.

Christ in the Text

Just as Moses rescued Israel from Egypt by leading them through the waters towards the Promised Land, Christ Jesus has drawn us out of the waters of baptism where we were not just rescued from an earthly tyrant but crucified with Him and raised to a new life (Romans 6:1-6). Christ told His disciples their job, and really the job of the Church, is to make disciples by baptism and to sustain them in the faith by teaching them everything He has said. It is through the work of Word and Sacrament that He is with His Church to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

The warning we have in this text, then, is that abandoning the ministry of Word and Sacrament will lead to apostasy. Christ is fully present with His Church and is working through the ministry. If one rejects that ministry and wanders off after other teachings, other gods, other temptations which appeal more to the flesh, they are cutting themselves off from the One who will sustain them to life everlasting. The answer to the danger of apostasy is not to go off by yourself and figure out how to fix your struggling faith on your own. Rather, it is to be gathered with the saints around the Word of Christ, encouraged, prayed for, and absolved. As John Kleinig notes, “So, the threat of individual apostasy is best undone by mutual encouragement in the Divine Service.” [1]

Christ is at work in His Church for each individual, but individuals cannot survive on their own. Christ has given us His Church and calls us to give each other His gifts, “...every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). To be in the Body of Christ, receiving His gifts, is what it means to “share in Christ” (3:14). It is there, with His Word placed in your ears and His body and blood placed on your lips, where He sustains you into life everlasting.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Hebrews 3:12-19.

Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Hebrews 3:12-19.

[1] John W. Kleinig, Hebrews. Concordia Commentary. (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2017). Pg. 197