Does Hebrews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?
Those who believe that Christians are required to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, especially as it applies to resting from work, sometimes cite Hebrews 4:9-11 as a proof-text. In the New International Version these verses say the following:
There remains...a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall.
If this passage requires Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, it would be the only direct post-resurrection scriptural command to do so. Suppose, however, that Hebrews 4:9-11 does not contain a command to rest on the Sabbath?
If it doesn't, then we have no existing proof-text command specifically written to the New Testament church mandating the keeping of the Sabbath. In view of this, it is extremely important that we understand clearly what the verses in question are telling us.
An important principle in understanding a specific passage of Scripture is to see it in context. The context includes the immediate subject at hand in which the questionable verses are found, as well as the overall context of the book itself.
A passage in question should also be understood as much as possible on its own terms. It should not be interpreted on the basis of an assumed premise, such as in this case: God commands Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath.
Theme of Hebrews
In order to understand Hebrews 4:9-11, then, we must first ask ourselves what the book of Hebrews itself is about. At this point, we recommend that time should be taken to read the entire epistle in a modern translation.
We can state the theme of Hebrews in the following brief summary. It is generally believed that Hebrews was written to Jewish believers. At the least, it was written to gentile believers who had become convinced that the Judaistic form of worship had a central meaning for them as Christians — and was even required.
The writer of Hebrews takes issue with this idea. He is intent on portraying the classic Judaism of the time as representing the then obsolete old covenant. Christians, he says, are under the better and greater new covenant. This theme is sounded in many ways throughout Hebrews.
Chapter 8, in particular, makes this point. Here the writer cites Jeremiah 31:31-34 to show that the Hebrew scriptures themselves say that the old covenant would become null and void. They also look forward to a time when God would make a new covenant with his people. The writer summarizes his point in these words: "By calling this covenant `new,' he [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear" (8:13).
Moses and Jesus
Throughout the epistle, the Hebrew believers are admonished to look to Jesus as the center of their faith. The writer summarizes this claim by saying:
The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man (8:1).
In this connection, the writer of Hebrews takes pains to show that Jesus has a superior position to Moses in God's plan of salvation. While Moses may have been the mediator of the old era, Jesus is the mediator of the new. The writer felt that Moses — and the law system inaugurated through him — needed to be put into perspective because both were so highly venerated in classical Judaism.
William Barclay wrote in Daily Study Bible Series commentary on Hebrews that:
To the Jew it would have been impossible to conceive that anyone ever stood closer to God than Moses did, and yet that is precisely what the writer of Hebrews sets out to prove (page 29).
Hebrews tells us: "Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself" (3:3). Moses, of course, represents the old covenant, as many scriptures tell us. To place Christ above Moses, then, is another way of saying that the new covenant supersedes and has better promises than the old covenant.
The entire New Testament attests to this fact. An excellent passage expounding this point outside of Hebrews is 2 Corinthians 3. Paul says of his ministry, "He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (3:6).
Hebrews is telling Christians to look to Jesus and the new covenant and not to Moses and the old covenant as the authority for faith and religious practice. In this connection, the writer insists that Jesus is the true High Priest, not the Levitical priests in the temple.
He also makes the point that the worship components of the law were only shadows and copies of spiritual truths (8:1-5; 10:1). The old covenant laws given through Moses regarding temple rituals and the priesthood have only metaphorical value for Christians in that they point to the fully delivered faith through Jesus Christ.
Having said this about the theme of Hebrews in general, let us now turn to the specific context of Hebrews 4:9-11.
The subject at hand in these verses actually begins to be addressed in Hebrews 3:7, when the writer quotes from Psalm 95:7-11. This psalm is used liturgically by Jews to inaugurate the Friday evening service of prayer. There is indication that it may also have been sung during the days of the early Church as part of the temple service, before the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.
Here is the passage from Psalm 95:7-11 as it is quoted in Hebrews 3:7-11:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, "Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways." So I declared an oath in my anger, "They shall never enter my rest."
Psalm 95 refers to the wilderness story as told in Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13. There are several things we should notice about this passage.
The author focuses on the introductory word of the quotation, "today" and the phrase in which it is found. He repeats the word "today" five times (3:7, 13, 15; 4:7, twice) and the phrase "Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts" three times (3:7, 15; 4:7).
The phrase with its opening word "today" is significant for the writer in that it allows him to apply the promise of "rest" found in the Scripture to his present readers. William Lane discusses this point in the Word Biblical Commentary on Hebrews:
"Today" provided the writer with a catchword for bringing the biblical statement before his hearers sharply. "Today" is no longer the today of the past, surveyed by the psalmist in his situation, but the today of the present, which continues to be conditioned by the voice of God that speaks day after day through the Scriptures and in the gospel tradition (page 87).
Lane makes the point that Psalm 95 "was a prophetic announcement that God was determining a future date for making his rest available" (page 100). The writer of Hebrews insists that the prophecy is being fulfilled in his day, in the Church — and his readers need to heed its call.
He wants his readers to make a connection between themselves and the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. The author emphasizes a key concept: The Old Testament promise that God's people would enter into "rest" is being fulfilled in the Church and through Christ.
He begins by discussing God's "rest" in terms of the promise of God to bring the rescued Israelites into the promised land. But as we know, and as the Scripture points out, the first generation of freed Israelites did not enter God's "rest," but they died in the wilderness (Numbers 14:26-35). The Israelites Moses led out of Egypt did not enter into God's "rest."
The author wants his Christian readers to focus on the meaning of this tragedy. They are not to turn away from the living God (3:12) or be "hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (3:13). Rather, they are to "hold firmly till the end" their first confidence (3:14) so that they may enter into God's "rest."
The writer summarizes his admonition by saying, "Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it" (4:1).
The readers of Hebrews are encouraged to keep up their faith and hope in Christ. Otherwise, as the unbelieving Israelites in Moses' day lost their opportunity to enter the rest in Canaan, the believers may forfeit the greater blessings of the new age "rest."
"Rest" from the Beginning
The author of Hebrews then turns to a discussion of God's "rest" from another point of view. He says that this "rest" has been available to mankind since the beginning:
His work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: "And on the seventh day God rested from all his work" (4:3-4).
The "somewhere" is Genesis 2:2. In the days when Hebrews was written, the Scriptures were written on scrolls. It was much more difficult to look up specific passages, so writers often quoted passages from memory.
The "rest" described in Genesis 2:2 can be considered as the archetype of all later experiences of rest — including the Sabbath command given at Sinai, the rest Israel received from its enemies under Joshua (a type of Christ), and the promised future rest of the kingdom of God.
The Genesis "rest" of God, in force since the beginning of the seventh day of creation, is meant to typify the spiritual salvation of the people of God. That means the weekly Sabbath rest is a lesser expression — a shadow, as it were — of the true "rest" inaugurated at the seventh day of creation. This makes the weekly Sabbath a metaphor of the Genesis rest, as was the Canaan rest.
The idea of the Genesis rest is that, beginning with the seventh day of creation, God ceased creating. He continues in a state of nonwork so far as further creating is concerned. However, this doesn't mean God has been idle. Leon Morris points out in the Expositor's Bible Commentary on Hebrews:
It is worth noticing that in the creation story each of the first six days is marked by the refrain "And there was evening, and there was morning." However, this is lacking in the account of the seventh day. There we simply read that God rested from all his work. This does not mean that God entered a state of idleness, for there is a sense in which he is continually at work (John 5:17). But the completion of creation marks the end of a magnificent whole.... So we should think of the rest as something like the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment, from the completion of a task, from the exercise of creativity (page 41).
F.F. Bruce also explains what this means in The New International Commentary on the New Testament for the book of Hebrews:
When we read that God "rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done" (Gen. 2:2), we are to understand that he began to rest then; the fact that he is never said to have completed his rest and resumed his work of creation implies that his rest continues still, and may be shared by those who respond to his overtures with faith and obedience (page 106).
Thus, God's "rest" has been available from the time the creation was finished — from the foundation of the world. Even though it has been available, very few people entered into it before Jesus' death and resurrection.
The offer of salvation "rest" still stands. The writer of Hebrews makes this point by saying: "It still remains that some will enter that rest" (4:6). Whatever this "rest" is, the writer is emphasizing that it is — at the time of writing — a promise his readers can take advantage of. In fact, they must take advantage of it, and not fail to achieve the "rest" because of disobedience (4:6).
The author of Hebrews must have realized something as he wrote. There had been an apparent large-scale exception to his claim that no people had achieved the "rest" God had promised. After all, the second generation of Israelites who were saved from Egypt did enter the promised land under Joshua.
Under Joshua, "the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them" (Joshua 23:1). But the writer of Hebrews quickly points out that this is not the "rest" that constituted God's ultimate objective — the one promised to Christians. He writes:
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God (4:8-9).
Hundreds of years after Joshua led the Israelites into the rest of the promised land, the psalmist is still insisting that there is a "rest" his readers must enter into. Clearly, there is more to the "rest" in question than mere entry into Canaan.
As it turns out, Israel had not secured the true "rest" after all. Thus, the writer can exhort his readers to seek, obtain and hold on to this superior "rest" in Christ — which is the true "rest" to which Genesis 2, the literal Sabbath, the wilderness experience, the Joshua rest, and the prophecy of Psalm 95 all looked forward to. He is interested in the redemptive and eternal rest in the kingdom of God, of which the weekly Sabbath and Canaan rests were symbols.
On this point, William Lane, in the Word Biblical Commentary on Hebrews, explains why the Joshua rest was but a type of the true "rest":
The settlement of Canaan did not mark the fulfillment of the divine promise but pointed to another, more fundamental reality. If in fact Joshua had achieved the promised rest, there would have been no need for the renewal of the promise in Ps 95. Accordingly, the experience of rest in Canaan was only a type or symbol of the complete rest that God intended for his people, which was prefigured in the Sabbath rest of God (page 101).
We have now come full circle to the verses in question, Hebrews 4:9-11, and we see something interesting. The author is not telling his readers to keep a weekly seventh-day Sabbath holy by resting on it. He is not talking about the weekly Sabbath at all. Rather, he is making the point that there is a spiritual "rest" that God's people should be entering into. It is the heavenly counterpart of the earthly Canaan, and is the goal of the people of God today. The epistle of Hebrews has made this point by creating an analogy between the Israelites entering the promised land and Christians entering the better promise of a new-covenant spiritual "rest."
A Present Rest?
The promised land was a physical type or foreshadowing of a spiritual "rest" that the Israelites had not yet entered. And that is the point. Christians have entered God's "rest" by their faith in Jesus Christ. "Now we who have believed enter [or, "are entering"] that rest," the writer insists (4:3).
Jesus himself during his ministry had promised a rest for the spirit:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).
Leon Morris points out in The Expositor's Bible Commentary that the word for "enter" in 4:3 is in the present tense. This would mean the author of Hebrews was suggesting that his readers were already in the process of entering the "rest" of salvation that Jesus had promised.
Some commentators agree that the Hebrews 4:3 "rest" into which Christians have entered begins now, in this life. Leon Morris quotes Hugh Montefiore on this point:
Contrary to some commentators, the Greek means neither that they are certain to enter, nor that they will enter, but that they are already in process of entering (page 40).
In fairness, Morris points out that some other commentators feel that the "rest" is something that occurs in the future. The present tense used here, they insist, is meant to be applied only in a generalizing sense. Morris concludes by saying:
Either view is defensible and probably much depends on our idea of the "rest." If it lies beyond death, then obviously "rest" must be understood in terms of the future. But if it is a present reality, then believers are entering it now (page 40).
Our view is that in a certain sense Christians have begun to enter "rest" now. Peter says that Christ "has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). Paul says God "has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Colossians 1:13). The author of Hebrews says that we are "the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven" (12:23).
It's really a question of when the kingdom of God comes — now or in the future? The answer is, both. The kingdom is already, but not yet. There is a sense that the kingdom is both present and yet obviously future in its full reality.
Christians live in the tension between promise and fulfillment, between the already and the not yet, between the glimmer and the reality. But they have nevertheless entered the "rest," even if only in an imperfect and qualified way.
We have already been invited to enter God's end-of-creation "rest" by believing in the Son of God. By faith, we have joined with him in his "rest." By faith, we have become new creations — created anew. Our re-creation is not yet complete, but we, so to speak, have our foot in the door of his kingdom "rest."
To be evenhanded, the writer of Hebrews does not directly state how he views the time in which the "rest" takes place. But as we've seen, his concern seems to be with the present time — with today. He no doubt understands that the fullness of rest comes only with a future resurrection (10:37-38; 12:26). But his point of view in Hebrews 3 and 4 is the present time, the time for which he is writing.
It's important that we understand the writer is thinking of the salvation "rest" as beginning in the present. Otherwise, one can be misled about which "rest" he is interested in — the spiritual one or a physical one such as the weekly Sabbath day.
One traditional commentary, the Critical, Experimental and Practical Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, became confused on this issue and came (we feel) to a wrong conclusion:
It is Jesus, the antitype of Joshua, who leads us into the heavenly rest. This verse [4:9] indirectly establishes the obligation of the Sabbath; for the type continues until the antitype supersedes it: so legal sacrifices continued till the great antitypical sacrifice superseded it. As then the antitypical Sabbath rest will not be till Christ comes to usher us into it, the typical earthly Sabbath must continue till then (page 537).
The authors have erred. Christ has already led us into the heavenly rest just as he is already our sacrifice for sin. We have come to Christ and he has given us rest. This argues against the commentary's claim that the literal Sabbath is in force. The antitypical salvation rest has already been ushered in, albeit incompletely, thus the shadow (the literal Sabbath) is no longer necessary.
However the writer of Hebrews conceives of the future millennial rest, he is not concerned to discuss it in chapters 3 and 4. He is interested in his readers who are alive when he writes — and who need to take hold of the promise of spiritual "rest" during their lifetime.
F.F. Bruce agrees that the millennial rest is not in view in the passage in question. He says in The New International Commentary on the New Testament commentary on Hebrews:
The identification of the rest of God in the Epistle to the Hebrews with a coming millennium on earth has, indeed, been ably defended; but it involves the importation into the epistle of a concept which in fact is alien to it (pages 106-107).
The writer of Hebrews is not so much concerned with the future as with the present spiritual state of his readers. That's why he stresses the word "today." It was the privilege of those to whom the epistle was addressed to enter God's "rest" then — and it is also our privilege to do so now. The promise of entering God's "rest" remains valid for each generation — and is repeated to each successive generation — in the church age.
We Enter God's "Rest"
Hebrews 4:9-11 is telling us we have entered into God's promised "rest," the one he inaugurated on the seventh day of creation. This is the writer's main theme.
The epistle has already noted that God's "work has been finished since the creation of the world" (4:3). That is, the "rest" of salvation has been in existence — and promised to mankind — since the foundation of the world. It was, in a manner of speaking, a work of creation, inaugurated with man and for man. Donald Guthrie writes:
What believers can now enter is none other than the same kind of rest which the Creator enjoyed when he had completed his works, which means that the rest idea is of completion and not of inactivity.... It is important to note that the "rest" is not something new which has not been known in experience until Christ came. It has been available throughout the whole of man's history. This reference back to the creation places the idea on the broadest possible basis and would seem to suggest that it was part of God's intention for man. "Rest" is a quality which has eluded man's quest, and in fact cannot be attained except through Christ (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, "Hebrews," page 113).
As long as we have faith in Christ — the main point of Hebrews — no matter what day of the week it is, we have entered God's "rest" and we are resting from our own work. "We who have believed enter that rest.... Anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his" (4:3, 10).
What does the author mean by "work"? He is not discussing the question of employment on the weekly Sabbath day. That is not his interest. (He has been encouraging his readers to enter the spiritual "rest" of salvation throughout Hebrews 3 and 4.) The writer of Hebrews wants his readers to stop putting their faith in the works of the law and to place their faith in Christ as Savior. He wants them to look to the work of Christ, which work of forgiveness and empowerment through the Holy Spirit allows us to enter the true spiritual "rest."
On the other hand, the writer has a low view of the "works" of the law. He says of the law in general and the Levitical priesthood as a whole:
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God (7:18-19).
The author of Hebrews seems to be suggesting that what we rest from is our own human ways and from the "work" we do in a religious way in an attempt to make (and keep) ourselves acceptable to God. But our own "work" (whatever it may be) cannot save us or endear us to God. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and we are endeared to God by that same grace.
The Jewish Christians or gentile believers to whom Hebrews was written were already enamored of Judaistic practices. They would have already been observing the Sabbath day and would not need any admonishment to rest on this day.
Even the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary understands this point. We find this explanation for Hebrews 4:9 on page 423:
Certainly, in writing to Jews, the author of Hebrews would not consider it necessary to prove to them that Sabbathkeeping "remaineth." If the conclusion of the extended argument beginning with ch. 3:7 is that Sabbathkeeping remains for the people of God, it would seem that the writer of Hebrews is guilty of a non sequitur, for the conclusion does not follow logically from the argument. There would have been no point in so labored an effort to persuade the Jews to do what they were already doing — observing the seventh- day Sabbath.... What relationship a protracted argument designed to prove that Sabbath observance remains an obligation to the Christian church might have to the declared theme of chs. 3 and 4 — the ministry of Christ as our great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary — is obscure indeed.
The writer of Hebrews is interested in the spiritual or heavenly meaning of such things as the Sabbath and animal sacrifices, not their literal observances, which are shadows of the true "rest" and sacrifice for sin.
In fact, the very Israelites who had been given the Sabbath (the generation that left Egypt) failed to enter God's "rest." So did the Jews who strictly kept the Sabbath day when Hebrews was written. Keeping the Sabbath does not automatically bring someone to God. Why, then, would the writer of Hebrews insist on it? The fact is, the literal seventh-day Sabbath is not in his view at all.
Two Greek Words for "Rest"
We should now briefly take up the issue of the Greek words for "rest" used in Hebrews 4:9-10. We quote here the verses in question and show the two Greek words being used:
There remains...a Sabbath-rest [sabbatismos] for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest [katapausin] also rests from his own work (4:9-10).
A Greek-English interlinear of the New Testament will show that the Greek word katapausin is used to denote "rest" throughout Hebrews 3:7-4:11. There is one exception, in 4:9, as shown above. Here, sabbatismos is used, and it is translated "Sabbath-rest" in the New International Version. The word is formed from the verbsabbatizo , which means to "keep/observe/celebrate the Sabbath."
The only time in the Bible that sabbatismos is used is here in Hebrews 4:9. The word is not found in ancient Greek literature until well after the time when Hebrews was written.
Some decades later, sabbatismos is found in Plutarch as part of a list of superstitious practices. In his work, the word signifies weekly Sabbath observance. In later Christian documents, sabbatismos sometimes indicates the celebration or festivity associated with the Sabbath day.
With this in mind, William Lane translates Hebrews 4:9 as: "There remains a Sabbath celebration for the people of God." He points out that the use of sabbatismos is meant to "define more precisely the character of the future rest promised to the people of God" (Word Biblical Commentary, volume 47, "Hebrews," page 101). It conveyed something about the promised spiritual rest that katapausin would not have done — "the special aspect of festivity and joy, expressed in the adoration and praise of God" for his wonderful grace (page 102).
On one level, the writer of Hebrews seems to have used the two Greek words interchangeably. In 4:9, he says that a promised Sabbath-rest (sabbatismos) remains for the people of God to enter into, and this same rest is called God's katapausin "rest."
Some scholars suggest that the writer coined the word. He wanted to differentiate between the ultimate spiritual "rest" and the promised land rest into which Israel went. If so, the author may also have been making the same difference between the true spiritual "rest" and the weekly Sabbath rest. That is to say, the Sabbath day is a metaphor of the true rest in the same way that the entering of the children of Israel into the promised land rest under Joshua was also a metaphor for spiritual rest.
Since the seventh-day Sabbath is a symbol of the true spiritual rest (which is much more important), the writer would have no logical reason to stress the keeping of the weekly Sabbath (which is of lesser importance). Like the promised land, the Sabbath day itself was but a shadow that prefigured the coming reality — the spiritual "rest" of the Christian.
To summarize: The spiritual rest of salvation into which God's people are entering is a sabbatismos — a "sabbath keeping" — a participation in God's own "rest," which we enter by faith (4:3). "Anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his" (4:10).
That is to say, the sabbatismos rest of God described in Hebrews 4:9 refers to the salvation "rest" into which all Christians have entered. Of course, as mentioned earlier, the culmination of this rest does not occur until the resurrection. But, upon conversion, we have begun the journey.
The book of Hebrews, considered as a whole, tells us that the practices of the Mosaic law are obsolete (7:11-12, 18-19). This would refer to the works or observances of the law (of which the Sabbath is one example) as opposed to its great moral principles. These "works of the law" include such practices or observances as meticulous tithing, circumcision, purification rites, festival regulations, temple worship and avoiding certain foods.
The new covenant theme of Hebrews suggests that the weekly Sabbath day as described in the old covenant has been superseded by a better promise. The weekly Sabbath can be celebrated and kept, but it need not be. However, Hebrews 4:9-11 itself does not directly state this.
Hebrews 4:9-11 tells us what the Sabbath pictures — the eternal rest of God into which we enter. But that is all it tells us. It does not seem to address the issue of whether the weekly Sabbath should be kept or not. This simply is not the author's interest.
Certainly the weekly Sabbath rest can point to the blessing and joy of the spiritual "rest" Christians have in Christ. This may be why the author of Hebrews may have coined the word sabbatismos — making a play off the word for the Sabbath day (sabbaton). That is, sabbatismos stressed the joy, the celebration, the peace, the jubilation of the spiritual "rest." (We've put "rest" in quotes here because inactivity is not really what is meant.)
Admittedly, Hebrews is a bit unclear as to the writer's attitude toward the weekly Sabbath day. Perhaps he wanted his readers, who were attracted to old covenant customs, to understand the Sabbath's true meaning in the light of the Christ event — without having to make an issue of whether it needs to be kept or not.
The Sabbath is meaningful on its own terms, just as the Passover-Exodus is. After all, the Sabbath stands as a metaphor of the whole purpose and meaning of redemption. It foreshadows the true spiritual "rest" we have in Christ every day.
But Hebrews 4:9 issues no command about keeping or not keeping the Sabbath. This verse cannot be used as a proof-text to insist that Christians keep a weekly seventh-day Sabbath rest. In summary, the verses in question do not exhort us to keep an old covenant Sabbath, but they do admonish us to enter the spiritual "rest" of God by having faith in Christ.