Entering God's Rest: A Study of Hebrews 3 & 4
by Michael Miller
Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 call us to enter God’s creation rest. What exactly does that mean? Let’s take a moment to explore these chapters.
1 Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. 2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. 4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.
Hebrews was written to the early Jewish converts to Christianity. Prior to becoming Christians, these converts spent their entire lives practicing Jewish customs. It is likely that they had friends and relatives who disagreed with their decision to follow Christ. They were contending with arguments that they should give up Christianity and return to their Jewish roots. Hebrews encourages them to stay the course.
A common theme throughout Hebrews is that “Jesus is superior.” In the first two chapters, the author of Hebrews explained that Jesus is superior to the angels. Chapter 3 continues this line of thought but redirects the focus onto Moses. Today we take it for granted that Jesus is superior to Moses, but this was once a very radical idea. The Jews greatly revered Moses. One of the worst offenses possible in their culture was to dishonor Moses! To make the claim that “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses” was considered blasphemy in their culture! Consider these scriptures:
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.
It is in this environment that the author has directed the reader’s attention to Jesus’ superiority to Moses. Verses 1 & 2 put the reader’s focus onto Jesus. Verses 3-6 proceed to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus. Starting with verse 7, our attention is drawn to something else:
7 So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me
and for forty years saw what I did.
10 That is why I was angry with that generation,
and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
The first of three things we see here is a 40-year period of testing in the desert. This is referring to the 40 years of wandering the children of Israel did before entering Canaan (for further context, see verse 16). The second item of importance is the word “Today.” It almost seems insignificant in the passage above, but this word is repeated five times in these two chapters and will soon prove to be very significant. The third thing to notice is the phrase “They shall never enter my rest” which will also be repeated multiple times. How exactly does the wandering in the desert relate to the superiority of Jesus? What happens “Today”? What is meant by “They shall never enter my rest”?
12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. 15 As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
Verse 12 introduces the concept of belief when it encourages the converts to not be found with an unbelieving heart. In addition to repeating the mysterious “Today,” verses 13 & 14 continue to encourage the new Christians to hold firm to their confidence in Jesus. Verses 15-18 return to the imagery of wandering in the desert.
During their wandering, the children of Israel kept the weekly Sabbath. The penalty for Sabbath breaking in those days was death! Yet, despite their Sabbath keeping, the children of Israel never managed to enter God’s rest. God’s rest, which is being spoken about here, is in the context of “Today.” Something else other than the weekly Sabbath is being spoken about as “God’s rest” here, but what? What is God’s rest that they failed to enter? Once again the word “Today” appears, but why?
Another point to notice is that the concept of belief reappears in verse 19. Just as verse 12 encourages the new converts to have a believing heart, verse 19 says that the children of Israel didn’t enter God’s rest because of unbelief. Verse 18 mentions their disobedience, but verse 19 says it was their unbelief which prevented them from entering God’s rest. We will explore this again when we get to 4:8-11.
1 Therefore, 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. 2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
The promise of God’s rest (which the children of Israel did not enter) still stands and we are invited to enter it! According to verse 2, God’s rest involves the gospel message. We see that the children of Israel had the gospel message preached to them, but they failed to enter God’s rest. The key to entering God’s rest is belief relating to the gospel message, but what exactly is God’s rest?
3 Now 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 work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
For the first time we are given some context to identify “God’s rest.” When Hebrews 3 & 4 refers to “God’s rest,” it is speaking about God’s creation rest. Verse 3 tells us that God’s creation rest never ended. God’s rest is still continuing today. Although the children of Israel entered into the weekly Sabbath rest, they could not enter into God’s creation rest.
6 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. 7 Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it "Today," when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
The children of Israel were entitled to the Sabbath rest once per week. The rest of the week they had to work. God’s creation rest is “Today” (every day)! God invites us to enter that rest. How exactly does one enter God’s rest? What we know about God’s creation rest so far is that:
- Despite keeping the weekly Sabbath, the children of Israel did not enter this
- It involves the gospel message and belief.
- It began on the seventh day of creation and has not ended (Gen 2:2 records no "evening and
morning" as in the previous 6 days of Gen. 1).
- It is “Today” (every day), not just once per week.
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest [sabbatismos] for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
Finally we can put all of the pieces together. Here in Hebrews we have imagery of the weekly Sabbath (resting from work), yet contextually the scripture is talking about God’s creation rest, which is “Today.” We already know that those who previously kept the weekly Sabbath (the children of Israel) didn’t enter this rest. After 40 years of wandering they entered the promised land, but Joshua still could not give them rest. As indicated earlier, we need to look at the gospel message to understand why:
- We are all sinners (Rom 3:10). It is the law which points this out to us (Rom 3:20). If we could keep the law we would be saved, but none of us can keep it perfectly (1 Jn 1:8). By our nature, we are objects of wrath (Eph 2:3). There is absolutely nothing we can do to “earn” our way to heaven!
- The law, which we cannot keep, points us toward a solution to the sin problem (Gal 3:19-25).
- Jesus came and lived a perfect life on our behalf. He fulfilled all of the requirements of the law and the prophets (Mat 5:17, Lk 24:27, Lk 24:44-45, Rom 3:21-28). He is our perfect substitute (2 Cor 5:21).
- If we recognize our complete inability to save ourselves, repent of our sinful nature, and believe in Jesus to save us (instead of our own work-righteousness), then we are His! (Rom 4:4-5, Jn 5:24, Jn 3:16-18, Rom 8:1-2).
What this reveals is really quite amazing! The weekly Sabbath God gave to the children of Israel was actually a representation of the entire gospel message. Our human sin nature makes us want to “work” our way to heaven. If we just do enough good we will earn favor with God, right? Not so! God gave 613 laws via Moses to prove this point. If just one person could keep all of them then that person would be worthy, but none of us is that righteous. Our attempts at obedience only point out just how disobedient we really are. If we attempt to “work” our way to heaven, we will only be found to be “following their example of disobedience.”
If the children of Israel had combined the law God gave them with faith (belief) then they would have realized their complete inability to keep it and they would have cried out for a savior! Instead of recognizing the problem, they chose to work even harder at earning their own salvation!
Salvation is a free gift (Eph 2:8-9). Yet even today, many people will not let go of the belief that their own “work” will earn them favor with God. That is nothing less than rejecting the free gift of salvation from Jesus. Our works cannot obtain or maintain our salvation…Jesus is the only way!
The weekly Sabbath is an interesting paradox which points out the gospel. With the commanded restrictions placed on Sabbath keeping, the Israelites had to “work” at not breaking the Sabbath commands. So, while it was a day of rest, it was also a rest that had to be worked at to keep. If working at it was required, was it really still rest? God gave the weekly Sabbath to the Israelites as a reminder of the creation rest, yet it also pointed out the solution to the sin problem (the gospel). We need to simply stop trying to earn salvation and let God do the saving! Thus, Hebrews 4:10 says that “anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.”
So, anyone who “Today” enters God’s rest also rests from his own self-righteous work. Today we rest fully in the knowledge that Jesus took care of it all for us. We do not “work” for our salvation! The weekly Sabbath was a “shadow” pointing forward to Jesus (Col 2:16-17). Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:28-30).
Praise God that “Today” we can rest fully in assurance of our salvation through Jesus Christ!
Michael Miller, December 2010