Lesson 5: A Sabbath Rest Remains

After explaining how Jesus is better than Moses (3.1-6), the author introduced Psalm 95 (3.7-11). There, the Psalmist (David according to Hebrews 4.7) exhorted the people of his generation to praise and reverence the Lord, to listen to His voice “today” unless they repeat the failures of the wilderness generation, the people of whom God swore, “they shall not enter my rest”. The author of Hebrews then proceeded to make the same appeal to his audience as David had made to his; don’t have a heart that falls away, rather encourage each other “today” lest they repeat the mistake of the wilderness generation, the people who were not able to enter His rest because of unbelief (Hebrews 3.12-19). 

However, Israel’s failure to enter the Lord’s rest doesn’t mean the rest is no longer available, quite the opposite. The Lord’s rest remains, and we can enter His rest! That is the point of Hebrews 4.1-11. Instead of going through the passage from beginning to end, we will examine the text by answering two questions: 1) what is the Lord’s rest and 2) how can we enter His rest?

What is the Lord’s rest?

  1. The rest was promised by the Lord (vs. 1). “Promise” is an important concept in Hebrews, occurring 14 times in the letter (the most in the NT). The author wants his audience (and us) to know that the Lord’s promise remains, it was not frustrated by Israel’s disobedience. The quotation from Psalm 95 is also significant for understanding the concept of the Lord’s promise. The Psalm, written by David (vs. 7), was composed centuries after Joshua led Israel into Canaan, fulfilling the Lord’s promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land (see Joshua 21.43-45). But the author of Hebrews is implying that the Lord’s promise of rest was not fulfilled in Joshua’s day or when David composed Psalm 95; His promised rest meant more than living in Canaan!
  2. The rest is for those who believe (vss. 2-3). Verse 2 is an important verse as it makes an important comparison between God’s people in the old and new covenants. Both have had “good news” proclaimed to them, but what differentiates God’s people in the new covenant from the old is that those in the new have faith! Don’t listen to anyone who says the old covenant system was one of works. Yes, it had a Law to follow, but so does the new (see Matthew 28.20). Israel’s failure wasn’t a result of a lack of God’s grace, for He made wondrous promises to them. Neither was their failure a result of a Law too difficult to keep, for God provided atonement for their transgressions. Israel’s failure was a lack of faith! Their lack of faith resulted in their failure to enter His rest, but “we who have believed enter that rest” (vs. 3).
  3. The rest has been in existence since creation (vss. 4-5). Vs. 3 concluded with the statement that God’s works have been “finished from the foundation of the world”. The author then quotes from Genesis 2.2 in vs. 4. Significantly, while the first six days of creation were marked by the refrain, “and there was evening and there was morning”, no such statement was made regarding the seventh day. God’s rest, begun after creation, has continued to exist ever since! Israel did not enter that rest, but we can.
  4. The rest remains for the people of God (vss. 6-10). The author proceeds to make a logical argument:
    • Israel, who had good news preached to them, failed to enter God’s rest because of disobedience (vs. 6).
    • The Lord has fixed a day when His rest can be entered: that day is “today” (vs. 7).
    • As we’ve already noted, Joshua did not give the people God’s promised rest, even though they received the land (vs. 8). So, there’s another day of which David was speaking. Note: “The name “Joshua” is the Hebrew form of the Greek name “Jesus.” “Joshua” is a good way of rendering the text, as it makes clear to the English reader who is in mind. The Greek text, however, says “Jesus”; and both the writer and his original readers would have been mindful of the connection with the name of Christ, even though the emphasis in the passage lies elsewhere. There had been a “Jesus” who could not lead his people into the rest of God just as there was another “Jesus” who could.” (Leon Morris, Expositors Bible Commentary)
    • There remains a “Sabbath rest for the people of God”. The term “Sabbath-rest” (sabbatismos) is found nowhere else in Scripture and in no manuscripts found dating prior to this letter. Hence, it may have been a term invented by the author. It hearkens back to the rest God now takes part in (vs. 4), a rest Israel was to commemorate each Sabbath day (Exodus 20.11). But the true fulfillment of the Sabbath rest wasn’t the weekly cessation from work, but the true rest of God is to rest from all his works (vs. 10).

Before we move to our next question, we need to address one feature of the promised rest. Specifically, is this rest speaking of our future rest with God in heaven, or something we can experience now. While heaven is the final fulfillment of this rest, I believe the author is speaking of something believers enter now. The promised rest is tied to “Today” (vs. 7), not a point in the future. Also, recall the promise of the Lord:  28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “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. 30 “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30 (NASB95) Those who place their trust in the Lord and come to Him experience real rest for their souls. They rest from their works in the sense that they no longer trust in their own merit, but place their trust in God.

How can we enter His rest?

  1. We “fear” (vs. 1). Fear of God is not contrary to faith. Israel not only demonstrated lack of faith, but lack of fear. The Hebrew author urges his audience to not make the same mistake. We must fear, or we will fall short. Recall that the author has already given reasons to fear (see 3.16-19).
  2. We combine the gospel with faith (vs. 2). God has promised us rest; that’s good news! But Israel was also promised rest, but they lacked the faith to receive God’s promise. The promise of rest remains, but it must be united with faith in those who hear.
  3. We maintain diligence (vs. 11). I maintain that God’s promised rest is something we enter now, but that doesn’t mean we cease diligently pursuing that rest. Each day is “today”, so each day is an opportunity to enter His rest, or to fall short of it. Again, Israel serves as an example of those who did not diligently pursue His rest and thus fell short through disobedience (see 1Corinthians 10.1-12). 

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