Let Us Enter His Rest!


Let Us Enter His Rest!

Hebrews 4:1-13

Main Idea: God invites us to enter his rest today. Therefore, let us hold on to our faith in Christ, maintaining the urgency of our belief, and let us encourage one another with God’s sustaining Word.

  1. Entering by Faith (4:1-2)
  2. Entering with Urgency (4:3-10)
  3. Entering with the Word (4:11-13)

Every generation of Christians faces theological crises, so every generation of Christians must fight to maintain the theological purity of its gospel proclamation. Getting the gospel wrong results in spiritual death. Because the good news of the gospel is the only means by which sinners can be saved, it must be preserved and protected at all costs by all Christians in every generation.

The author of Hebrews recognized the gravity of this reality. His letter strongly defends and defines the gospel for a people who found themselves in the middle of theological crisis. As we have seen elsewhere in the letter, one of the ways the author combats misconceptions about the work of Christ is by modeling how Christians should read the Old Testament. After demonstrating the superiority of Christ over the angels and over Moses, the author turns his attention to the theme of rest and demonstrates how Christ is the only foundation for true spiritual rest.

A brief survey of the word rest in Scripture reveals that the biblical concept of rest communicates a great deal more than taking a nap or going on vacation. As we have already seen in Hebrews 3, “rest” in the Bible is a deeply theological concept and one the author does not use apart from the metanarrative of Scripture. The same is true in Hebrews 4.

Entering by Faith

Hebrews 4:1-2

In Hebrews 3 we see how entering into “rest” in the Old Testament pointed to the people of Israel entering the land of promise. That land of promise was more than just a piece of territory. The land was indicative of God’s promise to Abraham and signified God’s plan to restore creation after the fall corrupted it. Thus, entering the promised land meant more than just entering a piece of real estate. It meant enjoying and entering God’s plan of salvation and inhabiting the very place where God set his dwelling.

Throughout most of the Old Testament, Israel disobeyed God and did not enter God’s rest. They were “found to have fallen short.” The old covenant people, by and large, did not have circumcised hearts and therefore did not respond to the grace of God with faith. While they may have physically entered the territory of Canaan, they never truly entered into the spiritual rest that the territory typified.

The author not only reminds his readers that those under the old covenant failed to enter into God’s rest, but he also uses this information to warn them. This is why he begins this verse with the word therefore. He reminds his readers of the failure of the Israelites to enter into God’s rest in order to exhort them to continue in the faith lest they too end up outside God’s rest. The author’s exhortation comes out even more forcefully in verse 2. The “good news” was preached to the ancient Israelites, just as it has also been preached to the author’s audience. But the Israelites failed to respond to that good news with faith.

A number of important points emerge from these two verses. First, this passage reminds us that simply hearing the message of the gospel is insufficient for salvation. Jesus himself (quoting from Isaiah 6) spoke of this when he reminded his disciples that there are those who hear the message of the gospel but do not believe it (Matt 13:10-15). Second, it reminds us that the only appropriate response to the gospel is faith. Israel heard the promises and warnings of God but did not respond with faith. As a result, they perished in the wilderness.

Third, this passage reminds us that faith is something much more than just intellectually apprehending the gospel message. The Israelites surely understood the promises and warnings God gave them, yet they did not rest on those promises. They disregarded the word of God and acted disobediently because they did not believe the word of God.

Finally, these verses remind us that the message of salvation was not different for those in the Old Testament. Regrettably, many false teachers have pointed to the numerous commands in the Old Testament and argued that works saved old covenant saints, but now, by the work of Christ, grace saves new covenant saints. This text, however, demonstrates that the same “good news” preached in the new covenant was also preached in the old covenant. Of course, now that Christ has come and fully revealed the Father (John 14:8-9), new covenant believers have a fuller picture and a greater understanding of how God has acted to save. Nevertheless, old covenant saints were saved by faith in the promises of God just as we are today. Paul makes this clear in Romans 4:1-25 when he argues that Abraham was justified by faith.

Entering with Urgency

Hebrews 4:3-10

In verse 3 the author once again quotes from Psalm 95:11, on which he has been basing his argument since Hebrews 3:7. “They will not enter my rest” resoundingly condemns the wilderness generation for its failure to trust the promises of God and enter his Sabbath rest. While Psalm 95:11 convicts the wilderness generation for its unfaithfulness, the author of Hebrews uses it to reiterate a great theme of this passage: those who believe enter God’s rest. In fact, the end of verse 3 affirms the availability of that rest to all generations—even the wilderness generation—since God’s rest started at the foundation of the world, a notion the author grounds in verse 4 by drawing from the creation narrative. Since the seventh day of creation, the opportunity to join God in his rest remains.

The repetition of Psalm 95:11 in verse 5 emphasizes the urgency of entering God’s rest. When a biblical author repeatedly returns to the same issue, it is most likely because the hard-heartedness of sin-prone people requires the repetition. Only one thing can satisfy the restlessness of the human soul—the “rest” of God. And the only way we can access God’s rest is by faith in Jesus Christ, the One who secures God’s rest for believers through his death and resurrection. If we reject the promises of the gospel, then we will die in the wilderness. But if we trust in its promises and in the God who makes them, we will enter God’s rest. This is a message stubborn sinners need to hear over and over again.

In verses 6 and 7 the author brilliantly applies what he said previously, as the words “therefore, since” indicate. These verses are also rich with theological and hermeneutical treasures. The author affirms both David’s authorship of Psalm 95 and the historicity of the events surrounding the wilderness generation. Moreover, just as David did for his original audience, the author of Hebrews applies the significance of the wilderness events to the current situation of his congregation. In other words, Psalm 95 simultaneously condemns the wilderness generation for its disobedience and invites its original hearers to respond to God’s promises in faith, which the author of Hebrews picks up and applies to his own audience.

Furthermore, just as David urged his original hearers to respond to God in faithfulness “today,” so too does the author of Hebrews urge his readers to respond to God in faithfulness “today.” David’s words to the Israelites in his own time are just as valid and urgent now. God has appointed today for us so that we might respond to his call in faith and not harden our hearts. We cannot presume upon tomorrow. Today may be the only day we have left. But as long as you have today, you have an invitation to faith.

Joshua’s name in verse 8 can seem somewhat unexpected. However, once we understand the context of Psalm 95 and the theological rationale of the author, the introduction of Joshua at this point in the argument no longer seems strange at all.

Until this verse, the author has essentially given his readers a biblical theology of Israel’s disobedience. Psalm 95 anchors his biblical theology because it both rehearses the story of Israel’s disobedience and provides God’s interpretation of those events. As we have seen, Psalm 95 specifically focuses on Israel’s rebellion against God and against Moses in the wilderness—a rebellion that kept them from entering the promised land.

Moses, however, did not lead the people into the promised land. His successor Joshua did that, which is why the author introduces him in verse 8. The author has already demonstrated that Christ is superior to the angels and Moses. Now he must demonstrate that Christ is superior to Joshua.

As the writer notes, even though Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan, he did not lead them into God’s “rest.” Even in Canaan the people of Israel continued to rebel against God. When the people of Israel journeyed across the Jordan River into the land of Canaan, they did not journey into rest; they simply moved from one place to another. Thus Psalm 95, written by David long after the events of the conquest, still speaks of a Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God.

How do we enter this Sabbath rest? The whole letter of Hebrews tells us: by believing in Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. Joshua led Israel into the land, but Jesus leads his people into God’s true eschatological rest. Verse 10 elaborates on this. We rest from our works and enter God’s rest when we trust in Christ. We no longer have to live our lives trying to “prove” our righteousness before God. Instead, we “rest” from that labor because Christ has already proved that righteousness on our behalf.

Like John 3:16, Hebrews 4:10 powerfully captures the message of the gospel in a single verse. The gospel is not morality. The gospel is not external religion. Nor is it a seven-step program for obtaining a better life. The gospel is the message of Christ’s accomplishments on our behalf so that we might “rest” from our works by trusting in his work. When we trust in Christ’s work, we rest from trusting our own.

Excursus: Hebrews and the Inspiration of Scripture

I have noted several times throughout this commentary how unashamedly clear the author of Hebrews is regarding his high view of Scripture. As we saw in Hebrews 3:7, the author often introduces Scripture with the words “the Holy Spirit says,” even when the Scripture he’s quoting comes from a historical person (David in this case). Such instances demonstrate that the author of Hebrews wholeheartedly believes Scripture’s ultimate origin is God himself.

Hebrews 4:7 gives us another important example of the author’s theology of Scripture. The author believes the words of Psalm 95:11 ultimately come from God, but he does not ignore the fact that they also come “through David.” Thus, the writer of Hebrews simultaneously affirms the divine and human authorship of the Bible. God speaks in Scripture, but he speaks through certain individuals. B. B. Warfield called this the “concursive” theory of inspiration (Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 95).

The apostle Peter speaks about the divine and human authorship of Scripture in 2 Peter 1:21: “No prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” God used real, historic people with peculiar vocabularies and personalities to write the Bible, but he also providentially “carried them along” so that they would write exactly what he intended. Article VIII of the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (which makes a series of affirmations and denials about the doctrine of Scripture) states the doctrine this way: “We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.”

Amazingly, God used the personalities, writing styles, experiences, and life situations of the human authors in order to accomplish the production of an “inscripturated” text; men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote God’s Word. This does not mean the authors passively entered trances as they composed Scripture. Nor does it mean God merely dictated the words to them. The authors actively engaged in the composition process, yet God carried them along in such a way that everything they wrote was exactly what he intended; Scripture is the actual word of God.

Entering with the Word

Hebrews 4:11-13

Verse 11 introduces the “so what” of the preceding section. In light of what has preceded, “Let us then make every effort to enter that rest” (emphasis added). The accent in this verse is on the exhortation to strive for God’s rest so that the threat of falling by disobedience will not come true for these believers as it did for the wilderness generation. We must not be like the Israelites in the wilderness. We must strive to enter God’s rest. In other words, we must work at resting. This means we must work against all of our efforts to prove our righteousness. We must strive against all our efforts to justify ourselves.

One of our chief responsibilities in the Christian life is to exhort one another to faithfulness. This is one of the things we do every Sunday in corporate worship when we sit under the preaching of the Word of God. This is what we do when we sing together. This is what we do when we pray together. This is what we do when we fellowship together. We gather in corporate worship to encourage one another to be fully satisfied in Christ and in him alone, lest we fail to enter his rest.

The author also underlines the role of God’s Word in our perseverance in verses 12 and 13. The designation “word of God” requires some definition. The author uses the phrase to point to the entirety of divine revelation—both written and incarnate. Regrettably, many Christians divorce the Bible from Jesus. “I don’t need theology or the Bible, I just want Jesus,” some may say. This is a misguided assessment. Christ cannot be divorced from Scripture. Our knowledge of Jesus as the divine Son of God and his accomplishments for us only come through Scripture. We cannot have Jesus Christ apart from the witness of the Bible. The two are inseparably wedded.

The author establishes two characteristics about the Word of God in verse 12. First, the Word of God is “living and effective.” This highlights the enduring vitality of Scripture. Since God is the author of Scripture, it is not a dead book. As God lives, Scripture lives. Furthermore, as we see throughout Scripture, when God speaks, God acts. This is what is meant by the adjective effective. For example, God created the heavens and the earth with his word. Thus, Scripture, because it is God’s Word, is alive and life giving. The Bible is not a bunch of dead, lifeless words. It is the living Word of God. It accomplishes everything God wills. As the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “so my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do” (Isa 55:11).

Second, the author describes Scripture as “sharper than any double-edged sword.” As a sword, Scripture is “penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The description of the Bible as a sword that can pierce and divide the soul demonstrates the invasive quality of the Word. When we approach Scripture with a humble hermeneutic of submission rather than a haughty hermeneutic of suspicion, then it is not we who read Scripture, it is Scripture that reads us. Scripture untangles the human heart and unearths sin like no other book can. No other book can discern the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. Only God’s Word can do that.

Scripture is like a scalpel wielded by God to perform spiritual surgery. In conjunction with the Holy Spirit, the Word of God cuts through the sin and darkness of the human heart to restore spiritual health and vitality for Christ. Without the Word, we are as good as dead. God’s Word, however, eradicates the disease of the human heart and breathes life where there is death.

Verse 13 shifts from the Word of God to God himself, which shows the intrinsic link between God and Scripture. Just as God’s Word graciously reveals God to man, it also makes man accountable before God as Judge. When God reveals himself to us, we in turn realize that we all “are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” Scripture strips us bare before our own eyes and before the eyes of God because it exposes God’s ineffable character. As Calvin famously stated, “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked on God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (Institutes, I.I.2).

God gives us the gift of Scripture so that we will not follow the example of Israel’s disobedience. The Bible is our guide to trusting God and finding full satisfaction in him. Furthermore, God has revealed the truth about Christ to us in his Word. This is why we must be students of God’s Word and maintain the centrality of its teaching. Scripture leads us to Christlikeness. If we are to become like the incarnate Word, we must study the inscripturated Word.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What are some theological crises the evangelical church faces today? How are these crises threatening the purity of gospel proclamation? In what ways can we better defend and define the gospel in light of these issues?
  2. Many unbelieving Israelites entered the physical land of Canaan but still failed to enter into God’s rest. What does that tell us about the heart of these Israelites? What does it suggest about the importance of the heart in regards to salvation?
  3. How does the creation narrative and God’s Sabbath rest on the seventh day of creation serve the argument of this passage?
  4. In what ways does the author’s treatment of Scripture in this passage, particularly the Old Testament, bolster your confidence in the inerrancy and divine inspiration of Scripture? Explain in your own words the concursive theory of inspiration and the role of the human author in the composition of Scripture.
  5. Why is it so difficult for us to rest from our attempt to merit our own righteousness? Why is resting such a constant struggle for Christians? How does our union with Christ and his righteousness help us in this matter?
  6. How does Scripture help us strive to enter God’s rest? How do the attributes of Scripture described in this passage strengthen your perseverance?
  7. How would you respond to someone who says, “I don’t need theology or the Bible; I just need Jesus”? How could you use this passage to support your argument?
  8. How is the author using Joshua to illustrate his point? Why is Jesus superior to Joshua in the context of this passage?
  9. What was the “good news” preached under the old covenant? Why was it the same message we have heard preached under the new covenant? What does it mean to have faith?
  10. Explain the many ways Psalm 95 is functioning in the author’s argument.