The Rest God Gives
Chapter 3 of Hebrews presents two types of rest: that of entering Canaan (the rest offered to Israel) and that which comes from a life of faith in Christ. All the Israelites 20 and older, except for Joshua and Caleb, were denied life and rest in the Promised Land of Canaan because they rebelled against God in unbelief after He redeemed them from Egypt (Heb. 3:18–19). Chapter 4 urges readers not to miss the rest God now provides in Christ.
Promise of Rest
The author warned Jewish believers in Jesus who were suffering severe persecution not to succumb to the same fate as their forefathers: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it” (v. 1).
Some considered returning to Judaism to escape persecution. But by doing so, they would fall “short” of the life of faith and rest that God had designed for them.
What does the author mean by rest? Some teach it speaks of the personal salvation that results in eternal life. This is doubtful because those redeemed out of Egypt and those addressed in Hebrews were believers, not unbelievers. No true believer can lose his or her salvation. Scripture clearly teaches that the lives of believers are hidden with Christ in God and that Christ will not lose one soul the Father has given Him (Jn. 6:37, 39; Col. 3:3).
Others teach that rest refers to the Millennial Kingdom rest at Christ’s Second Coming. Although both millennial and eternal rest will be granted to all believers, neither one was the rest promised to the Israelites when they took possession of the Promised Land under Joshua. Theirs involved security, protection, the guarantee of God’s presence, and rest from war (Dt. 12:9–11).
The rest promised in Hebrews is appropriated by faith in Christ and produces peace, harmony, and joyful fellowship with Him even amid opposition and conflict in the world.
Jewish believers delivered out of Egypt and those in Hebrews were given God’s message: “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Heb. 4:2).
The “gospel” proclaimed in Moses’ day was the good news of divine grace bestowed on Israel. It was good news that Israel was (1) delivered from Egyptian bondage, (2) given a sacrificial system that covered sins through blood atonement, and (3) given the Promised Land. The gospel heard by the Jewish believers addressed in Hebrews was salvation through Jesus Christ.
Both groups received God’s Word, but it did not profit those under Moses because it was not mixed with faith. Many Israelites rebelled in unbelief, desiring to return to Egypt. Hebrews warns Jewish people professing faith in Christ not to make the same error, for the gospel is of no profit unless it is believed and received by faith. “For we who have believed do [now] enter that rest, as He has said: ‘So I swore in My wrath, “They shall not enter My rest,”’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world” (v. 3). In other words, today God’s rest is only obtainable through faith in Christ. Through Jesus, people can receive “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). Those who rebelled under Moses did not receive God’s promised rest because they died in the wilderness due to their unbelief.
Presentation of Rest
God’s rest for both Israel and believers in Christ was “finished” in eternity past, before God created the world.
For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience (Heb. 4:4–6).
God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2), signifying that He was satisfied with His creation; nothing more was needed. This does not mean God became inactive, but rather, His purpose and plans for creation and humankind were completed.
The author boldly repeated his warning using Psalm 95 (cf. Heb. 3:10–11, 18–19; 4:3), driving home the seriousness of missing out on God’s rest because of disobedience. Although Israel failed to enter God’s rest, that rest remained available for future generations of believers. The author proved his point by using two Old Testament illustrations.
The rest offered to Israel in the wilderness was reoffered in David’s day: “Again He designates a certain day, saying in David, ‘Today,’ after such a long time, as it has been said: ‘Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts’” (Heb. 4:7; cf. Ps. 95:7–8, 11; Heb. 3:7–8, 15).
Since no permanent rest for Israel was established in Moses’ day, it was reoffered to David’s generation. But David’s generation failed to trust in God as well. Therefore, the permanent rest God offered in David’s day would be reoffered to the Jewish people and to all who received Christ through faith. Again, the author strongly warned his readers not to turn from the Lord in hardness of heart but to put faith in Christ quickly lest they suffer the same fate as their forefathers.
Nor did the Israelites find rest in Joshua’s day:
For if Joshua had given them rest, then He [God] would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest [literally, “Sabbath rest”] for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His (Heb. 4:8–10).
In other words, if Joshua had given Israel a complete and final rest when the new generation entered the Promised Land, then God would not have reoffered rest to Israel under David 500 years later, as recorded in Psalm 95. Since Israel under Moses, Joshua, and David did not appropriate the rest offered, there still remains a rest for the “people of God.”
The Greek word for “rest” (sabbatismos) in verse 9 differs from the word (katapauo) used elsewhere in chapters 3 and 4 and from the physical rest of Canaan that Israel anticipated enjoying. Sabbatismos refers to the rest God enjoyed after creating the universe (4:4) and pronouncing with satisfaction that it was “good.”
Furthermore, this rest does not involve keeping the Sabbath as practiced in Judaism. Neither is it acquired by works. Rather, this promise of rest is the joyful fellowship, peace, and harmony that believers experience now through faith in Christ and the solace they will enjoy when life’s pains and struggles are ended and they enter the eternal rest promised by God (Rev. 14:13).
The author then challenged and exhorted readers to take personal responsibility and act on what he said: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).
The author concluded his argument by urging professing Jews not to return to Judaism because God’s Word will detect whether their faith in Christ is real. One might deceive himself and others, but not God.
He also made five statements concerning how God’s Word works in the life of a professing believer.
- “The word of God is living” (v. 12). Since revelation is God-breathed, it is alive and therefore able to give spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead.
- It is “powerful” (v. 12), actively working in believers to teach them doctrine, diagnose sin, discipline them, and provide direction for them when they hear and heed it.
- It is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (v. 12). Like the short Roman sword of the day, sharp on two sides, it can deeply penetrate an individual, cutting in every direction (Eph. 6:17).
- It is “piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow” (Heb. 4:12). As a knife divides flesh from bone, God’s Word penetrates the soul and spirit, revealing what is deep inside an individual.
- It is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (v. 12). The word “discerner” (Greek, kritikos) means “critic” or “judge” and speaks of one who has the capability and right to judge. God’s Word strips away the façade; delves deep into a person’s heart; and exposes his or her true thoughts, motives, attitudes, and intentions—good and evil.
Therefore, “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (v. 13). God knows (sees) everything in His creation, no matter how small or secretive. The deeds, thoughts, imaginations, and intentions of our hearts and souls are exposed to God for what they are, because God’s Word exposes them.
The word open pictures a wrestler bending back the neck of his opponent in a death grip—leaving him prostrate, powerless, defenseless, and defeated. Likewise, every heart is “open,” or powerless, defenseless, and defeated before God and His Word.
This is a graphic warning concerning one’s commitment and accountability before God. And it admonishes all people to make their salvation sure by accepting Jesus’ invitation, “Come to Me…and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28–29).