Hebrews 4:1–10 . . .

“A Sabbath-Rest for God’s People”

If it seemed to you in last week's commentary that the author of this epistle adequately explained Israel's rebellion (described in Numbers 14), effectively utilizing Psalm 95:7–11, hang on; he's got even more to highlight. In fact, he devotes the next ten verses in chapter 4 to making sure that these Jewish believers understand the critical point's meaning: Just being a Jew isn't enough!

Here in chpt. 4, the author applies the example of Israel to his audience. Just like the children of Israel failed to enter the God-promised land because of their unbelief, his audience of believers were also vulnerable. If they weren't faithful, they'd fail to enter into God’s rest, in his kingdom, while sharing in Christ’s reign. In effect, although Moses was unable to bring the Israelites into God’s rest, Christ certainly can, but only for those who truly believe in him.

Warning! Don't Forfeit God's Rest (4:1–2)

A Sabbath-Rest for the People of God

4 1Therefore, 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. 2For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed (4:1–2).

The opening "Therefore" directs us to an intentional continuation from chpt. 3, driving home the point that it was unbelief that had prevented the generation that escaped Egypt from entering the promised land. Thankfully, salvation is still available! "His rest" (v. 1) cannot refer ultimately to the rest in Canaan, offered to the Israelites. That temporary, earthly rest, gained under Joshua, suggested and pointed to a spiritual, eternal rest. Today, that promise of believers entering Father God's rest stands strong; we can enter into such rest by faith, but our unbelief can prevent us from appreciating a gainful eternal rest with God.

Warren Camp's Scripture Picture of Hebrews 4:1

Click to enlarge
and print.

The ancient Israelites, as well as those who lived in the psalmist's days, had the promise of "rest," a rest that could be attained only by faith. Because the first generation of Israelites failed continually to enter God’s rest (despite God's extensive revelation and the many miracles he performed to confirm it), we should be concerned with our own fallibility and subsequent risk of failure in our faith and behavior (4:1). The directive is, Don't fall short of the Messianic promise by dismissing Jesus as Messiah. This place of rest is so wonderful that we had better be very concerned if we or our brethren has been "found to have fallen short of it." Warning! There's absolutely no benefit in almost entering his rest; we must not fall short of fully entering it.

The follow-up emphasis in v. 2 is that the mere hearing of the gospel message won't effectively enable salvation. They had to believe the good news: God has promised a place of rest that will last forever; it's available to all who walk in God's way. The Hebrews' promised land is also a picture to us believers of that place of rest. The adults who exited Egypt failed to enter God's promised rest because they didn't trust Father God. For us, the promise of resting forever with God still stands. But we must be careful not to forsake our opportunity to enter his special place of rest.

The Hebrews were well aware of all the good news that had been proclaimed to them, just as those who participated in the exodus from Egypt (v. 2). God promised to lead the Exodus generation as a nation to a new land. But, to receive God's promised land, they had to put their trust in him. They failed to do so because they didn't accept and follow God's Word. As a result,l they all died in the desert, failing to benefit from living in their new land of milk and honey.

Believers today aren't very different from those ancient Israelites. Just as they received the good news of a promise to enter the land of Canaan, we've received an even greater revelation of good news: the good news of salvation, gained through faith in the person and work of Jesus. Just as the “good news” the ancient Israelites received did them no good because of their lack of faith, so our “good news” is only profitable through faith. It requires not only initial faith on our part, but on-going faith. This kind of faith is encouraged and stimulated by our association with others who share the same faith (v. 2).

While Unbelieving Prevents, Faith Permits (vv. 3–5)

With the events of Numbers 13–14 in his mind, the author points out that Moses didn't take the children of Israel into the promised land to enjoy the rest of God, but he assures them that the promise of God’s "rest" still remains, with the entrance key being one of true belief (v. 3).

3Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. 4For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” 5And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest” (4:3–5).

In v. 3, Psalm 95:11 is quoted again as it was in 3:11. The "rest" from the "creation of the world" is meant to accentuate the essential role of faith as opposed to works. Just as entering physical rest in Canaan demanded faith, so salvation-rest is entered only by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The rest that God calls us to enter (vv. 10–11) isn't our rest but his rest, which he invites us to share with him.

John Calvin writes this about v. 3a: "It is an argument from what is contrary. Unbelief alone shuts us out; then faith alone opens an entrance. We must indeed bear in mind what he has already stated, that God, being angry with the unbelieving, had sworn that they should not partake of that blessing. Then they enter in where unbelief does not hinder, provided only that God invites them. But by speaking in the first person he allures them with greater sweetness, separating them from aliens." About v. 3b, he adds: "To define what our rest is, [the author] reminds us of what Moses relates, that God, having finished the creation of the world, immediately rested from his works and he finally concludes, that the true rest of the faithful, which is to continue forever, will be when they shall rest as God did."

Simply said: Unbelief prevents many from receiving the blessings of God’s rest while faith ("we who have believed") permits and facilitates God’s people to enter and enjoy his rest. Note: That "They shall never enter my rest" quote was taken directly from Psalm 95:11, wherein we're to realize that the psalmist used the possessive "my rest."

David Guzik wrote this about God's rest: "God finished His work of creation long before Israel came into Egypt or before David wrote Psalm 95. Yet, although 'the works have been finished since the creation of the world,' He still spoke of 'My rest' — demonstrating that God still has this rest. . . This rest is after the pattern of God’s own rest on the seventh day from all His works, as described in the quote from Genesis 2:2." Verse 4, including its quote from Gen., serves to reinforce the concept of rest (as opposed to works).

We find v. 3's quote from Psalm 95:11 reappearing in v. 5. The Jews believed they were people of God. Being children of Abraham by birth, they were sure that they'd go to heaven. But they were wrong because, to enter God’s life of rest, people must obey God's Word. For those of us today who know, accept, and follow Jesus Christ, we've become people of God who'd told us in Psalm 95:11 that those who didn't believe in him would never enter his rest. Nobody can enter his rest and gain from its blessings without believing in God and what he says.

What We’re to Do “Today” (vv. 6–9)

God has created his place of rest to be a home for us. There's nothing that can stop God from keeping his good-news promises. He's made them fully available to us, so long as we — God's people — believe in him and keep ourselves from disobeying what he's told us. 

6Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, 7God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:
    "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
8For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; . . . (4:6–9).

Seeing in v. 6 that "it still remains for some to enter that rest," it's possible that the author wanted to make it clear that it wasn't in vain that God created his place of rest. That is, if the Israelites ("those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them") failed to enter "because of their disobedience," then others would have the opportunity to enter into his rest. Israel's going into Canaan under Joshua was a partial and temporary entering of that rest, not an end of entering it, as the continuing invitation from Psalm 95 reveals.

We're told in v. 7 of "a certain day" that's called "Today." It's a day of divine grace, an opportunity to trust God that won't last indefinitely. Because the people who first received God’s promise failed to enter his rest, God has dedicated another day; that day is "Today," when we may, after trusting God, enter his place of rest. But David warns us all in Psalm 95:7–8: When you hear God's voice today, don't let your heart become hard. Unless you hear and obey God's Word, you cannot enter and enjoy an endless enjoyable rest with God.

Our author emphasizes in v. 8 the historic situation in which Joshua (Moses' successor) couldn't lead the people to God's place of rest. He lead them into the land that God had promised them but that land wasn't the place of God’s rest; at best, it was a picture of it. Incidentally, the name "Joshua" (Hebrew) is the same as "Jesus" (Greek). The Jesus of the Old Testament (Joshua) couldn't lead God's people into a rest with God, but the second Joshua — today's Jesus Christ — is greater than Moses and the first Joshua. Jesus can lead us there and very much wants us to accept his invitation and offer to us of his Sabbath-rest.

Concluding this Old Testament account, the author tells his readers, convincingly in v. 9, that a Sabbath-rest remains available for those of God's people who hear God's voice and believe and obey his words. God had told the Hebrews to keep one day of the week holy by doing no work because it was to be a day to honor, praise, and appreciate God. They were commanded to spend time with God on that Sabbath. Here the writer parallels God's rest with the Sabbath. During both situations, people are to rest entirely from work while devoting their attention and dedication to praising, honoring, and enjoying Almighty God.

Want a more personal interpretation of God's "rest"? Pastor/teacher/elder Bob Deffinbaugh says this: "The 'rest' into which we enter is God’s rest, God’s Sabbath rest, such as we find in Gen. 2:2 — the rest God entered after He had finished His work of creation. It is this rest into which the ancient Israelites failed to enter, for 'My rest' is God’s rest, God’s Sabbath rest. This is the rest some failed to enter, but which remains available to us today — a rest received by faith (vv. 3–6). God’s 'Sabbath rest,' still available, is a rest of ceasing futile works in an effort to earn God’s favor. The one who has entered God’s rest has set aside striving in the flesh while trusting in the work God has finished, in Christ (vv. 7–10)."

This vision of rest is such a beautiful thing to one who's weary of striving to please God in his (or her) own strength. To trust in Jesus is to cease one’s labors and efforts, and receive the fruit of the work that Jesus did on Calvary's cross. For a Hebrew Christian to entertain thoughts of retreating back to Judaism, living under the Law, would amount to setting aside rest for fruitless works.

Finding Rest from Our Works (v. 10)

After Father God had made the earth and sky and all creation, he rested from his creative work. Similarly, when a person enters God's rest, he or she stops doing work and, instead, lives with God and enjoys him and the fellowship of believers who've already fully begun to appreciate the Lord's Sabbath-rest.

10. . . for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his (4:10).

The primary idea of this last verse is this: There's no longer any circumstance in which one's works act as a contributing basis for one's righteousness.

Generally, the object of this passage wasn't to show that Israel was excluded because of their unbelief; this was sufficiently shown in 3:12–19, and it's the assumption underlying the passage (4:2, 6, 11). Instead, it was: (1) to show the Israelites who'd been excluded (3:19) that the blessing of rest was still available to others (4:1, 9); (2) to identify this rest referred to in Psalm 95 with Christian salvation (vv. 6–8); and (3) to exhort the Hebrews not to miss out on gaining God's rest as Israel had sadly done in their day (vv. 1, 11). It's the rest that God entered after his creation (Gen. 2:2). It had been made available to Israel, however, because of their unbelief, God wrathfully swore that they'd not enter it.

This exclusion applied only to the Hebrews of Moses' day. It didn't invalidate Father God's planned provision to allow man to enter into and share the personal ''my rest" (vv. 3, 5). Therefore, he renewed his promise to man and defined a new time to enter what he calls his Rest: The new promise is his revelation through his Son; the new time is the Christian age; and Rest itself is Christian salvation.

As a result of worldly worries, we can forsake "our rest." It's through those worrisome endeavors that God strives to lead us to rest, rather than permit us to trust in futile works of the flesh. But let us rest in Christ Jesus! He's done all the work for our salvation and sanctification, and continually promises to lead us to our eternal rest with him.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Have you entered that "rest," which only Christ can make available to you?
  • Q. 2  Is God's promised "rest" the promised land? Is it Sundays off? Heaven? God's presence?
  • Q. 3  What's the proper response to v. 1's warning?

This Week’s Passage
Hebrews 4:1–10

New International Version (NIV) or view it in a different version by clicking here.
Listen to chapter 4, narrated by Max McLean.