Numbers 14 tells a story of fear, rebellion, and failure. Israel sent twelve spies into the promised land to see what it was like. Upon their return, ten of the twelve spies gave bad reports. These bad reports told of giants in the land who would crush the Israelites like grasshoppers. In the eyes of the ten spies, there was no way Israel was going to be able to enter and take the promised land. Despite God’s promise to deliver the Israelites into the promised land, the ten said it was impossible for them to win. Their hope was misplaced. Their hope was in their own strength. The ten were right to doubt their own strength, but they failed to recognize God’s strength. So we see the Israelites’ hope was not in the promises of God.
As the story goes, the ten decided that a better plan was to elect a new leader to take them back to Egypt. Convinced they were going to suffer and die in the wilderness, the Israelites’ hope for relief from their current situation was revealed. To be sure, the Israelites’ situation was not a desirable one, they were wandering around in a desert with nothing to eat or drink beyond what God miraculously provided. However, their hope for relief was a lesser hope than what God had promised. God had not merely promised relief, he had promised rest in a land flowing with milk and honey. So we see, the Israelites’ hope was not for the promises of God.
In the wilderness, where the Israelites’ hope was doubly misplaced, their rebellion is best understood as a failure to believe. The Israelites heard God’s voice, but they did not believe his message. In Psalm 95 the psalmist uses the wilderness-spy episode to warn Israel many years later against a failure to hope in and for the promises of God. Likewise, the author of Hebrews, quoting Psalm 95, warns his audience, and us, of the same rebellion of faithlessness.
As with the Israelites in the wilderness, we have heard the voice of God offering us rest in the eternal promised land, the New Jerusalem, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and we must examine our hearts for both failures of the Israelites. On the one hand, we can walk in rebellion by not hoping in the promises of God secured by Jesus Christ. Through the deceitfulness of sin we can be convinced that the finished work of Jesus Christ, his incarnation, death, and resurrection, is not enough to deal with our sin. “It can’t be that easy,” we might say, “my sin is to gross to be forgiven.” Through the deceitfulness of sin we can be convinced that Jesus is good, but I have to do my part also. “What really matters,” we might think, “is that I obey God, keep the golden rule.” In both scenarios, we are failing to hope in the gospel that says, Jesus paid it all. On the other hand, we can walk in rebellion by not hoping for the promises of God secured by Jesus Christ. Through the deceitfulness of sin we may hold onto the lesser hope of material, mental, or emotional comfort in this life. “Just make the pain (or fear or shame or whatever) stop,” we might say. Through the deceitfulness of sin we may hold onto the lesser hope of “blessing.” “What God really wants is for me to be happy,” we might say. In both scenarios we are failing to hope for the freedom from sin and eternal rest that is promised in the gospel.
The problem with not hoping in Jesus is clear and often dealt with. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6, ESV). The promises of the gospel are exclusively offered in Jesus Christ. To hope in something (or someone) other than Jesus Christ is to lose the eternal hope offered in Jesus Christ. To look to anything other than Christ for the things offered exclusively in Christ is idolatry and will lead to condemnation.
The problem with not hoping for the promises of God secured by Jesus is a bit more sneaky. If I hope for something less than what the gospel offers, then there are myriad options beside Jesus by which I may have that hope fulfilled. If I hope for something less than sin being finally and fully dealt with and all things being made new through Jesus Christ for the glory of God, then I will look to something less than Jesus to have that hope fulfilled. However, if I hope for what is offered exclusively in the gospel, then I will look exclusively to Christ for its fulfillment. Why do so many people seek to define the basic problem of humanity as something other than sin that has offended the holy and just judge who reigns perfectly over his creation? The answer is simple, they can offer no solution, and therefore no hope, if sin is the problem. If redemption from sin is what we hope for, then Jesus Christ is the one we must hope in.
So we see that the author of Hebrews appropriately point the readers back to Psalm 95 and the failure of the spies in Numbers 14 in order to remind us to hope in Jesus Christ for things promised through Jesus Christ. There is a rest that remains for the people of God, and that rest is only found in Jesus Christ. Hope for rest. Hope in Christ.