Have you ever received a phone call from a telemarketer who begins to solicit you for money by thanking you for a previous donation to their cause? You think hard about it but fail to remember ever giving money to their charity nor for that matter did anyone else in your household. When you confront the telemarketer about this he simply says that his records show differently and continues with his sales pitch.
Certainly not all marketing ploys are identical. It is doubtful that any of us believe everything we are told by them anyway. But when you open the Scriptures you can be sure what God says is consistently true throughout. The amount of Israelite men in Numbers 1:46 listed at 603,550 aged 20 and above together with some of their family members and later reported in Hebrews to have died in unbelief is given as a personal reminder what could happen to us if we are not careful with our faith (Heb 3:7-19). Now in our day, half a million people that rebel against God may seem of little consequence when you consider the extent of spiritual darkness in today’s world. But keep in mind that God had performed a series of powerful miracles expressly to convince Israel about His Goodness, Might, and Personal Care for them much like a Shepherd would His sheep. So, under these conditions, to learn that almost the whole nation had turned against Him is not something you would expect. Consider that within 11 months the nation had witnessed God’s dealings with Miriam who in her rebellion sought anonymity and authority for herself, and months earlier saw an awesome display of God’s holiness and power from Mt. Zion where both the commandments and instructions for the tabernacle were given to establish the Hebrews into a great nation. Now, one hundred and fifty miles North of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are perched to enter the land promised to them when they decide that they would no longer trust God and chose to return to Egypt and stone their existing leaders instead! All but two of the twelve scouts that had been sent into Canaan had come back with a “doom and gloom” report. Caleb and Joshua whose faith was firmly fixed on God attempted to convince the throng that God would fight for them as He did on previous occasions. Still, giants were found in the land. And even though God had shown His love and care for them multiple times, Israel’s faith gave way to fear, from belief to unbelief. In the book of Hebrews we are admonished:
Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience (Heb. 4:11)
Does this all seem possible when you consider how God had been so faithful to them? Instead, complaints and doubts seem to dominate their time in the wilderness, beginning just three days after their epic crossing of the Red Sea! I suspect that the statement found in Numbers 14:22 where it says Israel had tested God ten times was deliberate to remind us about God’s patience and mercy compared to Israel’s constant rebellious nature. But the incident at Kadesh was “the last straw” so far as God was concerned. There comes a “point of no return” and Israel had reached that point. God’s judgment at Kadesh for their refusal to enter the land that was promised them would be a major turning point for first generation Israelites as they would die in the desert and never cross over to Canaan. Even though afterwards, they expressed sorrow and a willingness to confront the Canaanites, it was too late.
What about us today? We are to do battle with unbelief, to keep from apostatizing from the living God. The word rendered “falling away” in the book of Hebrews, a regular term in the original Greek, means to apostatize or forsake — to leave one side and go to another. The true believer may backslide but he never apostatizes. In Luke 8:13, the parable of the sower speaks about those who are represented by the seed falling on stony ground: they hear the Word with joy, receive it for the time being, but in time of testing they fall away — apostatize. The word under consideration fundamentally means to leave one group and go to another place. But real faith perseveres to the end. Hebrews is written to teach the need for perseverance. James also exhorts us to persevere “under trials” because those who do will be blessed and will receive the “crown of life” which God has promised (James 1:12).
How we persevere is tantamount to running a race in that we must do so to win the prize. That means working through sufferings, trials and ordeals much as Christ did in that He learned obedience through the things he suffered. (Heb. 5:8). Any athlete will tell you that constant hard preparation is necessary for marathons and that during the race whatever difficulties or pains that may come up must be overcome to finish well. Those who quit will find it easier to quit the next time and the time after that too. The individual who professes to be a Christian who says “no” to God repeatedly may find himself in a state of disobedience, which if it continues indefinitely, may lead to a complete falling away. At the risk of sounding repetitive, going back into the world and leaving behind the Christian faith is not something that happens suddenly, but is often the consequence of repeated willful acts of disobedience, much like was documented for us in the wilderness and is a powerful reminder on what could happen to us. When you continually thwart God at every turn and choose a course of disobedience, in time you may find yourself doubting what you had once believed. Sadly enough, your deadened spiritual state may not matter to you at this point.
See to it, my brothers, that no evil, unbelieving heart is found in any of you, as shown by your turning away from the living God. (Heb. 3:12)
If we could turn back the clock and ask those who have fallen away from the Christian faith, I suspect they would say that it was incremental, leaving off going to church meetings, not dealing with personal sin, spending so little time with God…etc. Eventually, it adds up and what once might have looked like a vibrant Christian life slowly dies out. We must see to it that no evil, unbelieving heart is found in any of us. God is telling us the truth that the danger of leaving your Christian faith behind can happen to any of us. Each of us should take this warning personally, so that we do not end up as Israel did dying in a state of unbelief.
(In 2 weeks: Defending Yourself Against Unbelief)