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, the author quotes Psalm 95:7-11:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors put me to the test, though they had seen my works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts, and they have not known my ways.’ As in my anger I swore, ‘They will not enter my rest.’” (Hebrews 3:7-11).
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 will not 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 (verses 1-5)
“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” 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 indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” The author urges us to be diligent, then he talks about “the good news.” 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. “For we who have believed enter that rest.” 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 objection by bringing it up: “…although his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’”
Genesis tells us that God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 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 will not enter my rest.” God’s rest was available to them, but they refused to enter.
Still available for us (verses 6-8)
God’s rest is available to us, too: “it remains open for some to enter it.” The offer is still open, and it is made even more clear and compelling through Jesus Christ. The Israelites at the time of Moses, “those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience.” Their disobedience was evidence of their lack of faith. They did not believe that God would give them what he had promised.
God “sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’” 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.
But didn’t the people enter God’s rest when they entered the Promised Land? No. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not [through David] speak later about another day.” 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 (verses 9-10)
The author then concludes: “So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God.” 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, even though they had the Sabbath, did not enter the rest he is talking about. God’s rest is entered by faith — by believing the gospel (verses 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 does he call this a sabbath rest? By using this word, he indicates that this is what the weekly Sabbath pointed to. Just as the bronze snake pointed to Jesus’ crucifixion (John 3:14-15), 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! “For those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” 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, the work of trying to be accepted by God. When we look to Jesus for our salvation, we quit looking to ourselves.
Practical applications (verses 11-16)
The author again draws a practical conclusion: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” Since the rest is available to us, let’s enter it with faith. Ironically, this rest requires effort, he says, rather than passivity. Our “effort” is that we should believe what God has done in Jesus Christ.
Why should we be so careful to respond? “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Just as Psalm 95 said, we must hear and heed God’s message. His word contains both promise and command, so we should respond with faith and obedience. 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 are exhorted to respond, right now, with faith in Jesus Christ.
Then comes another practical application: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” Again, the exhortation is not to a day of the week, but to Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Here’s a summary of the chapter: Since God’s rest is available to us and God cares about 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. Since Jesus has done this, we can be sure that he will help us now.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer and to be tempted to quit. He can strengthen us, so we need to come to him with confidence that he will help us.
We need rest, and Jesus offers us rest. Today, if you hear his word, trust in it, and enter his rest.