Pastor David B. Curtis


God's Rest

Hebrews 4:1-11

Delivered 11/12/2000

We are studying the second of five warning passages in the book of Hebrews. The first warning was in 2:1-4. This second warning is the longest of the five and runs from 3:1 thru 4:16. Chapter 3 ended with the warning that it was unbelief that kept the people of Israel from entering into the promised land and the rest God had promised there.

Hebrews 3:19 (NKJV) So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.

The point we drew from this in our last study was that we must care enough about each other that every day we get in each other's lives and exhort each other not to let distrust in God creep in and destroy our lives. We got this from:

Hebrews 3:12-13 (NKJV) Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; 13 but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.

So one conclusion to draw from the warning of 3:19 is that unbelief is such a constant and dangerous temptation that we must help each other fight it off. Persevering in faith is a community project. Small groups at Berean will have a tremendous seriousness about them, if you believe what this says. We meet and form relationships of mutual accountability and love because our faith depends on it.

Now, at the beginning of chapter 4, the writer draws another conclusion from the warning of 3:19. He says:

Hebrews 4:1 (NKJV) Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.

"Therefore" - that's the sign that he is drawing a conclusion from what he just said in 3:19. So what is his conclusion from the fact Israel was not able to enter God's rest because of unbelief? His conclusion is, "...let us fear...." Who is the "us"? It refers to the writer of Hebrews and its first century readers. Understanding this is crucial to interpreting the text correctly.

What are they to fear? "Fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it (God's rest)." What is it that they were to fear? The connection with verse 19 surely tells us the thing they were to fear was unbelief.

Hebrews 3:19 (NKJV) So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.

Therefore, fear unbelief, because that's what will keep you from entering God's rest.

From a reading of our text, it is easy to see that the prominent word in this chapter is "rest." It is the subject of this whole section, and occurs no less than eleven times from 3:11 - 4:11. It's easy to see that the subject is "rest," but it's not so easy to understand just what that "rest" is. One writer said, "This is one of the most difficult texts in the most difficult book of the Bible." This book and this text are difficult if you don't understand the theme of the book. In fact, every book and every text are difficult if you don't understand their theme and purpose.

The theme of Hebrews is the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old covenant. This letter is written to encourage those suffering Christians to persevere in spite of the tribulation they were experiencing. First, the writer stressed that Jesus is better in every way compared to the Old Covenant system. Second, the New Covenant is better in every way compared to the Old Covenant. And third, the faith of the New Covenant is better in every way compared to the faith of the Old Covenant. He seriously tried to demonstrate to these struggling Christians that the new age that was dawning would bring to completion the new and much better covenant.

Not only do we need to understand the theme and purpose of the book if we're going to understand this text, we also need to understand what "rest" is. So, let's see if we can figure out what "rest" refers to.

By far the most popular view is that "rest" refers to salvation or redemption. One writer says, "You stop doing what you are doing. Action, labor, or exertion is over. Applied to God's rest, it means no more self-effort as far as salvation is concerned. It means the end of trying to please God by our feeble, fleshly works. God's perfect rest is a rest in free grace." That sounds nice and spiritual, but does it fit the context in Hebrews 3:11 - 4:11? Was Israel's problem that they were trying to please God by their fleshly works? Yeah, they really tried to please God, didn't they? Not!

Another writer says, "While it is true that the apostle's warning in Hebrews 3 is taken from the history of Israel, it needs to be born in mind that in connection with Israel, there was an election within an election (Ro. 9:6). Unless this fact be steadily remembered much misunderstanding an error will ensue. It was only the spiritual remnant, the elect of God within the nation, who foreshadowed His saints." He is saying that "rest" is equal to redemption and only the elect remnant, those really saved, entered the rest of God.

If this "rest" is salvation, then the elect remnant was really small, wasn't it? Only 2 out of 1,200,000 adults, only Joshua and Caleb were saved. What about Moses, Aaron, Mirium - were they all lost? Was Moses an unbeliever?

Hebrews 3:2 (NKJV) who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house.
Numbers 12:3 (NKJV) (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.)
Hebrews 11:24-25 (NKJV) By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, 25 choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,

According to Scripture, Moses was a faithful humble man of great faith. But because of an act of unbelief, he didn't enter into the rest of Cannan - SO THIS REST CAN NOT PICTURE SALVATION. There is no way the context will allow this, no wonder many say this text is difficult. If you try to make "rest" equal to salvation, it is very difficult!

Another view, and one that makes much more sense, is the "faith-rest" view. The Keswick speakers have used Hebrews 4 to teach a present rest in faith. For the most part, I agree with their teaching on faith-rest, but I don't believe that this is what the passage is talking about. Contextually, the idea of faith-rest fits, Israel did not rest in faith, they would not trust God. But the rest spoken of in Hebrews 4 is a future rest (future to the original audience) not a present rest.

Hebrews 4:3 (NKJV) For we who have believed do 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.

The words "do enter" are from the Greek word eiserchomai, which is an emphatic futuristic present meaning: "we are sure to enter in, we who believe."

If rest isn't referring to salvation or faith-rest, what does this rest refer to? Let's begin by looking at the context of Chapter 3. If we are going to understand the meaning of "rest" in Hebrews 3 & 4 we must give due attention to this concept from the Old Testament perspective. In the setting of the Exodus and the Conquest, there is little doubt what the term "rest" referred to.

Deuteronomy 3:18-20 (NKJV) "Then I commanded you at that time, saying: 'The LORD your God has given you this land to possess. All you men of valor shall cross over armed before your brethren, the children of Israel. 19 'But your wives, your little ones, and your livestock (I know that you have much livestock) shall stay in your cities which I have given you, 20 'until the LORD has given rest to your brethren as to you, and they also possess the land which the LORD your God is giving them beyond the Jordan. Then each of you may return to his possession which I have given you.'

The land of Cannan was seen as a rest. The LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) text of verse 20 uses the terms "inherit and inheritance" for "rest."

Deuteronomy 12:8-10 (NKJV) "You shall not at all do as we are doing here today; every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; 9 "for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you. 10 "But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety,

We can see from this that "the land of Cannan", "rest" and "inheritance" are synonyms - to which we may add security from enemies.

Westcott has an interesting comment, he says, "The Jewish teachers dwelt much upon the symbolical meaning of the Sabbath as prefiguring the world to come." The rest into which the first generation did not enter because of unbelief, but which the second generation under Joshua and Caleb did enter, was the promised land of Cannan.

Joshua 1:6 (NKJV) "Be strong and of good courage, for to this people you shall divide as an inheritance the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.
Joshua 1:13 (NKJV) "Remember the word which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, 'The LORD your God is giving you rest and is giving you this land.'
Joshua 11:23 (NKJV) So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had said to Moses; and Joshua gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. Then the land rested from war.

From these passages we see that "rest" equals inheritance, dominion and possession of the land. The word "rest" does not mean cessation of activity, but puts the accent on the completion of the work, and God's satisfaction with it.

Did the Israelites possession of the land of Cannan fulfill the promise of God? No!

Hebrews 4:1 (NKJV) Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.

This promised remaining "rest" is not geographical. God's rest is primarily and fundamentally eschatological, that is, it is brought about by the second coming. Cannan was a type, a picture of the "rest" in the New Covenant age. The possession of the land of Cannan was indeed a fulfillment of the promise, but only in a proximate, this worldly sense. The perspective of faith discerns its ultimate fulfilment in the entry of a heavenly country.

Hebrews 11:13-16 (NKJV) These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 12:22 (NKJV) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels,

This "heavenly Jerusalem" is the New Covenant, according to Galatians 4:24-26. The Israelites who were camping in the wilderness were to find "rest" in the land of promise. And the Hebrew believers were to find "rest" in the consummation of the New Covenant. >From a New Testament perspective, are the Hebrew believers in the land or waiting to enter the land?

Hebrews 13:14 (NKJV) For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.

The rest-inheritance of Cannan was a type of the true rest-inheritance that was to come with the consummation of the New Covenant, when the Old Covenant was destroyed. Israel of old lost their inheritance because of failure to trust God in the trials of life. And the Hebrew believers can loose their "inheritance or rest" by failure to trust God.

Most readers of the book of Hebrews don't understand that we live in a different age than they did. The Hebrew believers lived in what the Bible calls the "last days"- they were the last days of the Old Covenant. Those "last days" began with the preaching of Jesus and ended at AD 70 when the Jewish temple was destroyed. We now live in what the Bible calls "the age to come," which is the New Covenant age. The forty year period, from Pentecost to Holocaust (the destruction of Jerusalem), was a time of transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. In this transition period, the New Covenant had been inaugurated but not consummated. It was a time of "already but not yet."

Ephesians 2:19-22 (NKJV) Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom YOU ALSO ARE BEING BUILT TOGETHER FOR A DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IN THE SPIRIT.

The process was still occurring. They were "being built" for a dwelling place of God. But the clear blessing of the New Covenant was that God would dwell with His people:

Revelation 21:1-3 (NKJV) Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "BEHOLD, THE TABERNACLE OF GOD IS WITH MEN, AND HE WILL DWELL WITH THEM, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.

The New Jerusalem is the New Covenant, according to Galatians 4: 24-26.

The exodus out of Egypt and into the promised land, by the children of Israel under Moses, is a direct shadow of the exodus of the New Testament generation from the cross to the entrance into the eternal land of rest - the New Covenant.

Let's look at some similarities between the Exodus generation and the transition period saints. With each covenant, a 40 year transition period followed the initial act of deliverance, unto the entrance into the land of promise.

1. Both forty year periods are described as a time of particular "temptation" (Heb. 3:8; Luke 8:13, 11:4, 22:40), through which they must need to endure unto the end, to be saved or physically delivered. (Heb. 3:13-14).

2. During both periods, the people saw God's works forty years (Heb 3:9; Acts 2:17-21). God manifested Himself to His people by signs and wonders: in the desert under Moses' leadership, daily manna, miraculous supplies of water or meat, and the appearance of the cloud and the fiery pillar revealed God's presence. In the transition period to the New Covenant, the apostles had special gifts of healing, prophecy, and tongues-speaking, and testified to the coming of the kingdom of God and the destruction of the wicked (I Cor 14:22). These gifts were specifically slated to end, once Christ had come, and not until (I Cor. 13:8-10).

3. During both periods, those who lacked faith were not allowed to enter into the land of promise (Heb 3:11,17; Matt. 12:30, 13:49).

4. At the end of the first 40 year period, the Israelites of faith entered the temporal land of promise, in which God enabled them to defeat their physical foes. At the end of the second 40 year period, salvation was complete, and God's people entered their eternal Promised Land in which God enabled them to defeat their spiritual enemies (I Cor. 15:26,54-57).

What is the "rest" spoken of in our text? I believe that "rest" here refers to the New Heavens and New Earth, the New Covenant Age. The Old Covenant was ended when the Jewish temple was destroyed in AD 70, thus ending the Jewish persecution against Christians and bringing the consummation of the New Covenant age. Those believers who grew weak in faith, turned back to Judaism and were most likely killed in the destruction of Jerusalem. This is the same idea that is taught in:

Matthew 24:13 (NKJV) "But he who endures to the end shall be saved.

The Lord is telling the believers that if they remain faithful right up to the end, they will be saved from physical death in Jerusalem's fall. The Greek word "saved" is sozo. It means: " to save, i.e. deliver or protect (lit. or fig.):--heal, preserve, be (made) whole." The Christians who did not endure, but turned back to Judaism, died when Jerusalem fell. Those believers who remained faithful, fled to the mountains as the Lord told them to, thus saving their lives.

With this in mind, let's examine our text:

Hebrews 4:1 (NKJV) Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.

Keep in mind, this is written to believers, to people that were, "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling" (3:1). It follows from the tragic example of Israel that these New Testament believers should also take warning, because the promise of entering His rest still stands. The words "come short of" are the translation of a verb which could be rendered either "should seem to have fallen short" or "should think that he has fallen short or come too late." The historical background and the context are decisive for the last, since the following context seems dedicated to demonstrating that God's rest is still open. The danger is that some of his hearers may cast away their faith, and to do so is to miss entering the promised rest.

Hebrews 4:2 (NKJV) 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.

The word "gospel" is the Greek word euaggelizo, a verb which means: "to announce good news." The character of the good news must be defined by the context. "Gospel" doesn't always mean the plan of salvation. This verb was fully capable of having a non-technical sense in the New Testament as in:

1 Thessalonians 3:6 (NKJV) But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and brought us good news [euaggelizo] of your faith and love, and that you always have good remembrance of us, greatly desiring to see us, as we also to see you;

In Hebrews 4:2, it is used of good news of the promised rest as in:

Hebrews 4:6 (NKJV) Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached [euaggelizo] did not enter because of disobedience,

Verse 2 says, "...the gospel was preached to us as well as to them...." - "us" is the writer of Hebrews and its readers, and "them" refers to Israel in the wilderness. The "good news" they heard about was of no value to them, because of their lack of faith. The Israelites heard "good news" from Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who encouraged the people to enter the good land (Numbers 13:30, 14:7-9).

Numbers 14:7-9 (NKJV) and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: "The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 "If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, 'a land which flows with milk and honey.' 9 "Only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us. Do not fear them."

What was the good news preached to them? It was the good news of God's promise that God would bring them into the land of milk and honey and be with them if they would trust him and not rebel. But this good news was not "mixed with faith"; it was not believed. It was interpreted to be bad news, for they were convinced that if they entered the land, they would be "devoured" by its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32). Because the good news was not believed, it was of no benefit to them.

The end of Hebrews 4:2 should read, "...not being united by faith with those who heard...." an allusion to Joshua and Caleb.

The point is: this good news was not believed by Israel, and so they did not enter God's rest, God's promised joy. They doubted God. They distrusted him. They did not have faith in his promise to give them a better future than they had in Egypt, and so they gave up on God and wanted the old life. And what was the result of that unbelief? Verse 2 says: the promise "did not profit them." It was of no value to them. They did not enter God's rest. They fell in the wilderness.

So the point of verse 2 is exactly the same as the point of 3:19 - it's a reason why we should fear unbelief (Verse 19: "They were not able to enter because of unbelief.") Therefore, (v. 1) fear unbelief, because (v. 2) when the good news to Israel was not united to faith, it profited them nothing, and they perished in the wilderness. The main point is: fear this happening to you. Fear hearing the promises of God and not trusting them, because the same thing will happen to us as to them; we will not enter into God's rest if we do not trust his promises.

That's the main point of the paragraph: Fear unbelief. In the last sentence of the paragraph, he says the same thing in different words:

Hebrews 4:11 (NKJV) Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.

The word "diligent" is the Greek word spoudazo. It means: "to exert one's self, endeavor, give diligence." The verb speaks of intensity of purpose followed by intensity of effort toward the realization of that purpose. The words "let us"are first person plural expressing the writer's oneness with the readers and in effect issuing a warning not only to them but to himself as well. Thus the thought returns to the necessity of holding onto their Christian profession to the end.

In other words, Israel fell from the promised joy of God because of the disobedience of unbelief. And the same thing can happen to the Hebrew Christians. To keep it from happening, he says, "Be diligent to enter God's rest." Be diligent! Pay close attention to what you've heard (2:1); don't neglect your great salvation (2:3); consider Jesus (3:1); do not harden your hearts (3:8); take care against an unbelieving heart (3:12); exhort one another every day against the deceitfulness of sin (3:14); and FEAR the unbelief that will keep you from your promised rest (4:1).

Verses 3-10 are written to support the main point which we have looked at in verses 1 and 11, namely, be diligent to enter God's rest and fear lest you fail to enter it because of unbelief. The way verses 3-10 support this main point is by showing from the Old Testament that there is a rest to enter into - that is, that God has a plan for his people to join him in the wonderful rest. The text is very complicated.

Hebrews 4:3 (NKJV) For we who have believed do 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.

It is those who believe who enter rest. The concept of belief here should be taken in context of:

Hebrews 3:12 (NKJV) Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;
Hebrews 3:19 (NKJV) So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.

It is not that they didn't have faith and were unbelievers, it was that their faith was failing because of persecution.

Hebrews 4:4 (NKJV) 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";

The writer quotes from Genesis 2:2, which notes that God rested on the seventh day after having completed his work in creation. The fact that God rested on the seventh day became the basis for his gift of the Sabbath to Israel (Exodus 20:11). In resting on the seventh day, the Israelites were to imitate God. The purpose of resting was to recognize God's work in redeeming them from Egypt (Exodus 31:13, Deuteronomy 5:15). So God wanted the Israelites to rest in order to recognize him.

Hebrews 4:5 (NKJV) and again in this place: "They shall not enter My rest."

The promised land is a picture of God's ultimate rest, and their unbelieving rebellion excludes them from it. Which raises the question whether there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Was the time of Joshua, who took the people into the promised land, the final, ultimate rest God had in mind for his people? Verse 8 answers no:

Hebrews 4:8 (NKJV) For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.

"If" is a second class condition meaning: "if and it's not." It is determined as unfulfilled. A first class condition would mean: "if and it is" or "since." And a third class condition would mean:"maybe yes, maybe no." The KJV's"Jesus" is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. If Joshua had given them rest, but he didn't. The point of verse 8 is that the rest of Joshua's time is not the rest which the promise involves, that rest was just a type. How could God have offered rest in David's time, if it was already realized in Joshua's time?

In other words, even though Joshua gave some relief to the people of God in the promised land, that was not the final rest God has planned for them. How do we know that? God spoke of another day, another rest, centuries later:

Hebrews 4:7 (NKJV) 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."

This is a quote from Psalm 95:7. So, long after the people enjoyed the rest of the promised land, David says that God is still holding out to his people an offer of rest: "Don't harden your hearts, and you will enjoy God's rest" (referred to at the end of the Psalm).

Hebrews 4:9 (NKJV) There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.

This is the central point of the argument of 4:1-11. This is a different Greek word for "rest". The word used here is sabbatismos, which is the word used of the Sabbath rest.

The Sabbath and the land are linked once again here, for in verse 8, the writer spoke of Joshua, whose work concerned the land, but verse 9 is linked to verse 8 by use of the word "therefore" and speaks of the Sabbath, not the land.

It is natural to think of the Sabbath day when we hear or read the word "rest". When first introduced to the nation of Israel, it was spoken of as "the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the LORD" (Ex. 16:23). This was the seventh day rest, patterned after God's own rest following the creation (Gen 2:2). It was encoded into the Law given on tablets of stone (cf. Ex. 20:8-11). But the Sabbath as a day of rest was given only to the nation of Israel. It was not given to the nation's fathers (i.e., ancestors such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) (Deut. 5:2-22; Neh. 9:13-14). It was given to Israel as a weekly remembrance of their deliverance from Egypt (Deut. 5:12-15). The only Gentiles ever commanded to keep the Sabbath were those living among the Israelites in Canaan ("your stranger who is within your gates").

The Sabbath day, like the rest of the Old Law, has been done away. It was nailed to the cross (cf. Ep 2:14-15; Co 2:14). As part of "the ministry of death" (the Old Covenant), it has been replaced by "the ministry of the Spirit" (the New Covenant) (2 Co 3:5-8,11). It is now a matter of indifference to God, left to one's individual conscience, and not to be bound on anyone (cf. Ro 14:4-6; Co 2:16-17).

In verse 10, the writer explains the contemporary meaning of Sabbath rest.

Entering into this rest, God's rest, means resting from one's works. What works does one rest from? One rests from his works as God rested from his. How did God rest? God rested by blessing the seventh day and setting it apart for relationship with humanity. Rest doesn't mean absence of activity, then; it means: "enjoyment of the relationship"

So, the "rest" spoken of in our text refers to the New Heavens and New Earth, the New Covenant Age. The Old Covenant was about to end with the destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70, thus ending the Jewish persecution against Christians and bringing the consummation of the New Covenant age. Those believers who grew weak in faith turned back to Judaism and were most likely killed in the destruction of Jerusalem. Moses and Joshua did not provide this "rest", which is just another reason why the Hebrew Christian should not forsake Jesus and return to Judaism. The writer of Hebrews encourages them to hang on to their faith lest they turn back to Judaism and loose their life in Jerusalem's destruction.

What does this text mean to us?

We already live in the New Covenant age, the New Heavens and Earth; so how does this text apply to us? I think that we can apply this text by using "rest" as faith-rest. If we do not trust God, if we grow weak in faith, we will lose the temporal benefits of the New Covenant age. By that I mean, we will lose our fellowship with God and come under His chastening hand. As we draw near to God in faith, we "rest" in His care.

One day, Philip Malanchton told his friend, Martin Luther, "Martin, this day we will discuss the governance of the universe." Luther answered, "This day, you and I will go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God." What allowed Luther to respond in this way? His knowledge and belief that God could take care of things. As we move close to God, we realize that he will take care of things, and we can rest.

Continue the Series

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