It is a word that sounds so good to say and so good to think about: rest. Rest sounds wonderful. We want to rest from our work. We want to rest on our vacation. We want to rest on the weekend. Our souls long for rest. The author of Hebrews is going to call for us to enter the true rest that is available to you today.
The Warning (4:1-2)
In chapter 3 we saw the preacher of Hebrews give a warning against an evil, unbelieving heart. Israel enjoyed the salvation and blessings of God, yet failed to enter the rest. The reason they failed to enter the rest is because they had an evil, unbelieving heart. Such a heart is revealed through disobedience and sinning. Since this is true, the author tells us that we should fear in 4:1. The Greek word is phobos and we should not soften the idea to mean to be careful or watch out. The NLT hits the idea well, “So we ought to tremble with fear.” We should be concerned about this truth that we can fail to enter the promised rest because of an evil, unbelieving heart. “Let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it” (4:1; ESV). The warning is very simple: what happened to Israel can also happen to us.
Look at verse 2. The good news came to us just as it came to them. But it did not benefit them. Think about what the writer of Hebrews just said about the people of Israel in the wilderness. They had the good news proclaimed to them. The gospel was in the Old Testament. The salvation of God is clearly found in the Law, which we have seen in our studies through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Israelites experienced the saving power of God in the exodus and were exhorted to enter the land of Canaan that awaited them. So what happened? If they received the good news, why did the message not benefit them? The answer the writer of Hebrews gives is: “They were not united by faith with those who listened.” They heard but they did not have faith like those who did hear and did have faith, namely, Joshua and Caleb. These two verses of chapter 4 then summarize what we learned in Hebrews 3. The people of Israel heard the gospel but it did not benefit them because they did not have faith. They did not have faith like those who did hear and did have faith and therefore did not perish.
The Rest Remains Available (4:3-10)
Now here is the big statement of hope to us in verse 3. “For we who have believed enter that rest.” This is a shocking and surprising statement. The rest that God promised to Israel is also available to us. So what the writer of Hebrews will do is prove that this is true in verses 3-10. The author’s starting point is simply this in verse 3: God’s rest is for those who believe. God’s rest is for any person who responds to God’s offer in faith. God’s offer for rest is not only for Israel but for any person who believes. This is how the writer of Hebrews started the chapter. Look at the beginning of 4:1. “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands….” The promised rest is still available. So let us consider how the writer of Hebrews proves this in the following verses.
Verses 3-5 contain the first proof in which he uses Genesis 2:2. As complicated as these verses sound, I believe the argument is rather quite simple. God promised that Israel would not enter his rest (4:3) which means that rest was available to Israel (a point that the writer of Hebrews has made since chapter 3). God entered his rest after finishing the creation, which is proven by the author at the end of verse 3 and in verse 4. Since God entered his rest and offered for Israel to enter that rest and failed, this means that when God rested from his creation works, his rest was not just for himself but was an offer to all the world to join him in that rest. The fact that God said that Israel would not enter his rest proves that after the creation of the world God’s hope for the world was for humans to enjoy this rest with him.
This gives us a critical definition of God’s rest. God’s rest did not mean God stopped all activity, since Jesus said that the Father has been working since the creation and even until now (cf. John 5:17). God’s rest meant God’s readiness and God’s desire for a permanent relationship and fellowship with people. This is what was pictured in a small way with the Sabbath that was given to Israel. On the seventh day the people of Israel were to stop what they were doing in regards to rigors of keeping themselves alive with their jobs and rest with God. This did not mean stopping all activity but a focus on worshiping the God who rescued them from Egypt and brought them into this relationship. This was God’s offer to Israel but the people of Israel failed to enter it. God’s rest was an offer for the world to join God in a permanent rest, which is in relationship and worship of him. But God made an oath that Israel would not enter that rest because they did not have faith.
This is the conclusion drawn in verse 6. The rest remains for some to enter it and those who received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience. Now the author of Hebrews will give a second proof that the rest still remains. This argument is also very simple though it can look complicated on the surface. The second reason we can know the rest still remains is found in the word “today.” The quotation that the writer of Hebrews keeps using comes from Psalm 95. Psalm 95 is a psalm of David, according to the writer of Hebrews, and was written long after Joshua led the people of Israel into the land of Canaan. But what did the psalmist say? He said, “Today.” The offer to enter God’s rest was being proclaimed by David, long after Israel entered the promised land. So notice verse 8. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.” This is second proof. If the rest God promised had been enjoyed, then why was David telling Israel to hear God’s voice today and not to harden their hearts like the people did in the wilderness? David is speaking to Israel who was already living in the land of Canaan, as were their ancestors for generations. What this must mean is that God’s rest continues to available to all people to all generations.
Simply occupying the land of Canaan was not the essence of the promised rest. Now when we read Joshua 21:44 it sounds like the people did enjoy the rest. Listen to Joshua 21:44-45.
And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:44–45 ESV)
So how can the writer of Hebrews say that Joshua did not give them rest? I think the answer is quite simple. Keep reading Israel’s story and consider if Israel entered into permanent rest with God. No, they did not because as soon as Joshua dies, Israel loses the rest because they are oppressed and attacked by enemies. God did as he promised and brought them to rest but the people refused to remain in it. The promised rest was for an unthreatened and uninterrupted communion with God (cf. Deuteronomy 12:8-12). But Israel’s rest did not endure. Was this God’s fault? No, for as we read the prophets we learn that the problem was the people who lacked faith, had an evil, unbelieving heart, and turned away from this relationship with God. God was already in his rest but Israel chose not to join him.
The point has been made by using Genesis 2 and using David in Psalm 95. So there remains a Sabbath rest for God’s people (4:9). God’s rest is available to you for you to enter when you rest from all your works. Now what is this rest? We start seeing the picture of rest crystalize in Deuteronomy 12 and it is the same picture that we read in Joshua 21. Rest is about relationship with the Lord that is uninterrupted by the cares and concerns of the world. Unfortunately, we have turned the rest into physical rest, trying to prove that every human needs a day off. The Sabbath had absolutely nothing to do with needing a break from work. A work day being limited 8 hours did not begin until 1810. Our five day work week began in 1908. We cannot read our modern conventions back into ancient Near Eastern culture. God’s point has nothing to do with your physical body. God’s point has to do with your attention. God is offering uninterrupted fellowship with him that is free from the concern of keeping these human bodies alive and free from the worries and concerns of life. Do you see how that worked with Israel’s Sabbath day? Did they have to worry about food on the Sabbath? No, because God gave them enough food the day before that their time could be completely devoted to worship and fellowship with God that day.
We must see that the reason why God was so insulted by Israel throughout their history in disregarding the Sabbath was because it was supposed to be the one day in the week when you could no longer worry about the cares of this life and about physical survival and just focus on him. But the people did not want that. Even during the days of Jesus, the Pharisees had changed the Sabbath away from a focus on enjoying time with the Lord to burdensome rule-keeping that distracted the people away from enjoying a focused worship with the Lord. Now, Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath. But we should be very concerned if we have the same attitude as Israel that looks at a day like today, the first day of the week, and rather than looking forward to and enjoying a few hours of rest in fellowship and worship with God, we would rather spend our time concerned about human cares, concerns, and survival. This is a moment that we should desire to enter into, not desire to get out of. If we desire to get out of it and hurry this time to end, then we are no different than how Israel perceived its worship time with the Lord.
Enter The Rest (4:11-13)
This brings us to the encouragement we need in verses 11-13. Let us strive to enter that rest so that we do not fall by following their example of disobedience. Israel did not want the rest and disobeyed. Do we want the rest that God offers? Do we want uninterrupted fellowship with the Lord? Do we want unending worship time with our Creator and Savior? We must strive to enter this rest that is being offered to us. How do we strive to enter the rest? Look at verses 12-13.
The word of God is how we strive to enter. Why did Israel fail? Go back to Hebrews 3:7 and Hebrews 3:15 where the writer of Hebrews keeps beginning his quotation of Psalm 95. “Today, if you will hear his voice.” Israel failed because they did not listen to God’s words. So for us to strive to enter the rest, we must listen to the word of God. The word of God is the only tool to combat unbelief because it cuts to the core. The word of God penetrates and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hopefully we experience this regularly. Hopefully we experience that uneasiness and concern after hearing the word of God because we are allowing the word of God cut through us, down to our very motives and thoughts. God’s word is the only tool that can change you. God’s word is the only way that you will be able to enter the rest. God’s word is the only way that you will not fail to enter. There is no hiding our thoughts and intentions from God and his word. We can hide our thoughts and intentions from others, but not from God. God’s word exposes what is truly in our hearts. This is what must happen to keep from having an evil, unbelieving heart: let our hearts be constantly exposed to God’s word. Have you noticed how true this is? We fall far from God when we stop spending time in God’s word and listening to God’s word. God’s word is the tool we use to encourage each other from not having an evil, unbelieving heart. So we do not avoid it. We sit down and let it penetrate deeply into us so that we can have the rest God offers.
Today, there is still a rest available to you. This is the only true rest there is. Nothing else is a real rest. We go on vacation to rest but eventually that vacation ends and so does that rest. Sometimes that vacation does not even offer rest because what are you doing but still worrying about life. We go to sleep for rest but we still must wake up with all our problems and difficulties that we had the day before. There is still not true rest. Everything we do for rest is only temporary. Real rest is not worrying about survival, suffering, or life and all of its problems and just simply focusing on God. I hope for one hour you were able to experience that today. This is God’s offer of rest (cf. Isaiah 55). All of this other stuff that we are working for and wearying ourselves after does not offer rest. Buy a new house and what you now have to do is keep it up. Buy a new car and now you have to take care of it. Everything we do requires more effort and more energy to put into those things.
But that is not true with God. A rest remains for the people of God. You can rest in him. Every once in a while I hope you experience that truth. You experience it in worship. You experience it when you pray fervently. You experience it when you are deep in God’s word. You experience it when your heart is lost in song to God. Think about what Jesus offered as he went around teaching.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29 ESV)
This rest in a limited way starts now and will be fully enjoyed when we rest from our works.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.“ (Matthew 6:25–34 ESV)
What did Jesus offer but rest! Focus on God and God will give you rest. Strive to enter the rest. Do not strive for this world.