Entering God's Rest: A Study of Hebrews 4

The letter to the Hebrews weaves theology and practical application. After each doctrinal section, it urges the readers to do something as a result. This often takes the form of "Therefore, let us do such and such."

As part of that pattern, chapter 4 begins with the word therefore, meaning that the exhortations we read in chapter 4 are built on a point made earlier. So our study of chapter 4 must begin with a review of chapter 3. Chapter 3 tells us to look to Jesus, because he is superior to the angels and to Moses.

To make the point, he quotes Psalm 95:7-11: "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 on oath in my anger, `They shall never enter my rest'" (Heb. 3:7-11).

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Don't be like your disbelieving, disobedient ancestors, he says. They refused God so many times that he set them aside and shut them out. Don't test his patience, he seems to say. Listen to what God is saying now.

To develop this point, he elaborates on the last part of the quote from Psalm 95: "They shall never enter my rest." What is this rest, and what can we learn from it in connection with Jesus? This brings us to chapter 4.

How we enter

"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). We can paraphrase the thought in this way: God makes it possible for us to enter his rest, so we need to make sure that we accept his offer. If we do not keep our faith in him (the main exhortation of this book), we will fail to enter.

How do we enter? Verse 2 tells us, "For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith." The author urges us to be diligent, then he talks about the gospel. This implies that we enter God's rest by means of the gospel.

The ancient Israelites had the gospel in a veiled form, in symbols such as the bronze snake, the washings, the sacrifices and festivals. But despite the miracles, the people did not have faith in God and the message did not do them any good.

We do not have to make the same mistake. "Now we who have believed enter that rest" (v. 3). Believe what? Believe the gospel. All who look to Jesus, who have faith in Jesus, are entering God's rest.

But wait! Didn't God rest thousands of years ago? How can it be possible for us to enter something that is long gone? The author deals with this by bringing up the objection: "And yet 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' " (vs. 3-4).

Genesis tells us that God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2). That is, he had finished the creation. (He continues to work in the sense of upholding all things.) But the author of Hebrews observes that God's work has been finished ever since, which means that God is still resting.

God is still in his rest, and it is open for humans to enter. It was available for the ancient Israelites; otherwise there would be no point in saying, "They shall never enter my rest" (v. 5). Even though they refused to enter, God's rest was available to them.

Still available for us

God's rest is available to us, too: "It still remains that some will enter that rest" (v. 6). The offer is still open, and it is made even more clear and compelling through Jesus Christ.

The Israelites at the time of Moses, "who formerly had the gospel preached to them, did not go in, because of their disobedience" (v. 6). Their disobedience was evidence of their lack of faith. They did not believe that God would give them what he had promised.

"Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: `Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts'" (v. 7). Many years after Moses, God again spoke about rest, urging people to not harden their hearts and thereby fail to enter his rest. Hear him today, David urged. The offer was still good. People could enter God's rest, could be secure in his promise, if they listened with faith and willingness.

The author then eliminates another possibility: "For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day" (v. 8). The "rest" that Psalm 95 was speaking of was not the promised land. It was something that the Israelites, with few exceptions, failed to enter. They did not respond to God with faith and willingness.

Our Sabbath-rest

The author then concludes: "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God" (v. 9). Is he bringing up a new subject? No — he is still on the same subject, using different words to develop it further. He is saying, Since people did not enter God's rest in Moses' day, nor in Joshua's day, and yet we are still exhorted in the Psalms about God's rest, the conclusion is that this rest still remains for the people of God today. It is still available.

Why does he call this a Sabbath-rest? He is not slipping in a command for the seventh-day Sabbath. That would be totally out of context. His exhortation throughout this book is telling Jewish people to look to Jesus. He is not urging them to do a better job of keeping Jewish customs.

The ancient Israelites, who had the Sabbath, did not enter the rest he is talking about. God's rest is entered by faith — by believing the gospel (vs. 3-4). The author is not interested in a day of the week — he is concerned about how people respond to Jesus. A person who keeps the weekly Sabbath but rejects Christ has not entered God's rest. We enter God's rest only by believing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Why then does he call this a Sabbath-rest? By using this word, he indicates that this is what the Sabbath pointed to. Just as the bronze snake pointed to Jesus' crucifixion, and the washings pointed to forgiveness, and the sacrifices pointed to Jesus, similarly, the weekly Sabbath pointed to something spiritual: our rest through faith in Christ.

It is available — we may enter God's rest. Don't put it off — do it today!

"Anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his" (v. 10). God rested from his creative work, but what kind of work do we rest from? What do we quit doing when we come to have faith in Christ? The work of trying to earn our salvation, the work of trying to qualify for the kingdom. When we look to Jesus for our salvation, we quit looking to ourselves.

Practical applications

The author again draws a practical conclusion: "Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience" (v. 11). Since the rest is available to us, let's enter it with faith. Ironically this requires effort, not passivity. If we disobey God by refusing his Son, we will fall!

Why should we be so careful to respond? "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (v. 12).

Just as Psalm 95 said, we must hear God's message with faith and obedience. His word contains both promise and command. It calls for our response. And as Hebrews 4:13 says, nothing is hidden from God's sight. He sees everything we do and knows our thoughts, and we must give account to him. That is why we must respond, while it is yet today, with faith in Jesus Christ.

Then comes another practical application: "Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess" (v. 14). Again, the exhortation is not to a day of the week, but to Jesus Christ, our Savior.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by in 2002. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

Here's the thought of the entire chapter: Since God's rest is available to us and God judges us on how we respond, we need to keep believing in Jesus, because he is the one we need. He became human, so he understands our weaknesses, but he lived without sin, so he can be our Savior.

Hebrews 2:16-18 tells us that Jesus became human so he could save us humans. "He had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."

Since Jesus has done this, we can be sure that he will help us now. "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin" (4:15). Jesus knows what it's like to suffer and to be tempted to quit. He can strengthen us, if we trust him.

We need rest, and Jesus offers us rest. Today, if you hear his word, believe it, and enter his rest.

Michael Morrison
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