Augustine famously said, “You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” In a real sense, he was merely stating the obvious, and yet this statement resonates deeply with those who have come to know and love God.
This reality has been observed ever since sin entered the world with all of its ruinously restless results, and yet it becomes a joyful reality when the sin-wearied individual experiences the promised rest offered and secured by the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:28-30).
But it also resonates deeply with those whom, having been born again, nevertheless face difficulties that rock their rest. It is for this reason that Augustine’s axiom is a theme that “has always been contemporary and will find a responsive chord in every believer’s heart—especially if he or she is sailing into contrary winds of the world.”1
Hebrews 4 is a chapter that identifies the rest that we lack but that we eternally need. This rest is not in a program, nor is it a rest that can be purchased and packaged. No, this rest is in a person: the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, ironically, it is a rest that we must labour to enter. Apart from effort, there can be no rest.
As we return this passage in this study, I want to encourage you to enter the rest that God offers in Christ. And if you have entered that rest then my appeal is that you will experience and enjoy this rest. Enter, experience and enjoy God’s rest today—and determine that you will rest for the rest of the year.
The Rest Problem—Overview
It is necessary as we begin to review some of what we have considered previously. We can perhaps glean an important overview from 3:16-19, in which the author reminds us of the failure of the wilderness wanderers:
For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
Our restlessness is indicative of a deep wound in our souls. This is both inherited and self-inflicted, a wound caused by distrust of God. And such distrust produces the restlessness that is both the mother and the child of disobedience to God.
Consider, for example, Adam and Eve. They disbelieved God’s Word and therefore disobeyed God. When sin entered the world it brought with it a disturbance, which can only be described as cosmic. That is, it was huge in its implications. All of life was turned on its head. Man’s relationship with others, with creation, and even within himself, was broken. But, fundamentally, the deepest disruption—and the root of all disruptions—was between God and man. We fell short of the glory of God and the result has been a restless quest to regain this glory ever since. But apart from the gospel of Christ, our search for such restful fulfilment always results in mere idolatry, and our sense of alienation is usually exasperated. We place our trust in everything and everyone but the one in whom we should trust, and our restlessness continues. Our restlessness is proof that, apart from a right relationship with God, we just are never happy.
Sadly, many are actually unaware of their restlessness, or at least the cause of their restlessness. Listen to this observation concerning evangelising a postmodern people:
A . . . challenge encountered where a postmodern mind-set reigns is the increasing acclimatization to a lack of grounding. There is less and less nostalgia for absent absolutes. A generation ago, there were many who came to the conclusion that there are no transcendent truths or values. Yet this culminating conviction was for them traumatic. But yesterday’s conclusions are today’s starting points. The once terror-stricken tones have become calm and even care-free: “There are no absolutes, and I’ll have my eggs over easy.” In consequence, apologists and preachers who are looking for restlessness as a ready beachhead for the gospel will find such shores steadily eroding. Postmoderns seem to have a striking capacity to endure groundlessness and incoherence quite calmly. 2
In other words, there are many in our day who are so careless about the state of their souls that they really believe the lie that we are all okay. We have to help people to dig deep enough to see the ruinous restlessness of their souls.
The writer of Hebrews was well aware of this. This is one reason that he authored this epistle, and it is the particular reason for this long section in Hebrews 3—4. He addresses the problem of restlessness, and its solution, by an appeal to Psalm 95. The writer, wisely, appeals to Scripture for his authority behind his argument.
As we have seen, this long 26-verse section in Hebrews, commencing with 3:7 and running through 4:13, emphasises the need for those who have professed faith in Christ to go on and persevere in their trust in Christ. He has argued throughout chapter 3 that merely having an “exodus experience” is not sufficient assurance that one has been reconciled to God. As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and so continually tasting and seeing that the Lord is good is essential.
Israel of old had experienced the drama of the exodus only to die in the wilderness outside of the Land of Promise. The writer appeals to this negative example to exhort his readers to do better.
Some, of course, were being tempted to turn back to the old covenant rather than to keep looking to and trusting in Christ. But to do so would, as with the Israelites under Moses, result in restlessness. They would merely be wandering in the wilderness under the wrath of God. He hopes for better things for them and so his exhortation. He wants them to rest, for the rest of their existence.
Indeed, ours is a restless age. I suppose every age has been so. But perhaps ours is even more so. Consider among other evidences the ongoing quest for more and more of the material and the increasingly neglect of the spiritual. In fact this is the definition of restlessness. So what is the solution to this problem? First, we need to consider the rest that is promised.
The Rest Promised
As we come to chapter 4, the author continues the theme of rest begun in the preceding chapter, and moves in vv. 1-5 to the rest promised:
Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. 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. 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. 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”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.”
It is worthwhile noting that the writer uses Psalm 95 in two different ways in this section in Hebrews.
First, he uses it in an illustrative or moralistic way. He does so in 3:7-19, where he appeals to the bad example of Israel’s disobedience in the wilderness. He is concerned that these believers not turn back but that they persevere to the end. He warns them to not be presumptuous about their faith in Christ but to prove their profession by perseverance.
But, second, from 4:1 (actually it is hinted in 3:19) the writer now uses Psalm 95 in a typological way. He will argue that not only does Psalm 95 serve to exhort us to persevere but it also points us to the prophesied rest that would and could only be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. He exegetes the passage in such a way that we see that God is still promising His rest to the weary. The promise of rest is still available to those who struggle with the problem of restlessness.
These verses in chapter 4 are a logical exegesis (interpretation) of Psalm 95. We learn here not only that Christ is the centre of Scripture and that Christ is at the centre of the gospel, but we also learn something of how we should read the Old Testament in the light of progressive revelation. In other words, as the writer told us in the opening verses of chapter 1, God not only spoke in time past but is continually speaking today. And what He is saying, among other things, is that He is resting and He invites us into His rest.
The rest that is promised is nothing less than the rest of God. I don’t mean simply the rest provided by God. Indeed, rest is His gift, but I am referring to the rest which God Himself enjoys. It is this rest to which the author is referring in vv. 3b-4. It is the rest that God has been enjoying and exercising since the close of the sixth day of creation.
In v. 3a he quotes Psalm 95:11, not to emphasise God’s wrath, but rather to emphasise God’s rest. And he does so to encourage those “who have believed” that they have indeed entered into that rest (“we who have believed do enter that rest”), and so they need not fear judgement for a failure to do so.
After this word of encouragement, he defines what this rest looks like (vv. 3b-4) by appealing to the words of Genesis 2:1-2. He closes this subsection with a reference again to Psalm 95:11 to emphasise that the rest that he is speaking of is God’s rest. As Bruce puts it, “The rest which God promises to His people is a share in that rest which He Himself enjoys.”3 Now let’s flesh this out.
Upon His completion of creation, the Lord God sanctified the seventh day “and rested on the seventh day from all His works” (Genesis 2:2). It needs to be noted that the previous six days of creation were bracketed at the beginning and at the end of the day. In each instance, we are told that the “morning” and the “evening” were the first (or second, third, etc.) day. This is not the case, however, with the seventh day. Rather the seventh day is left, as it were, open. This is significant, for it reveals that the rest that God entered on that day so long ago (as we measure time) is still being experienced by Him. God is still resting. But what does this mean?
First, it will prove helpful to establish what it does not mean. It does not mean that God has not been busy since then. The Lord Jesus said, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (John 5:17). God has been providentially ordering the world ever since the completion of creation. God is moment by moment operating in this world of His creation. Hence, we can learn that the idea of a Sabbath does not mean a complete cessation of all activity; it refers instead to a cessation of a certain kind of activity.
But what did this rest consist of? What does it look like?
A clue is found in that, after each day, the Lord surveyed His work and concluded that it was “good”4 (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the last day, He concluded that His creation was in fact “very good” (Genesis 1:31). A job well done was His evaluation. “We should think of the rest as something like the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment. For the completion of a task, from the exercise of creativity.”5
In other words, God ceased creating since He concluded that it was “very good,” and hence it needed neither improvement nor improvisation. As Hughes notes, this rest was “the proper repose that comes from completing a great work.”6 In some way, this is the rest to which those who believe the gospel—those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ—have entered.
It has been helpfully observed that, upon completion of His creation, God, as Sovereign over His creation, rested in His self-enthroned glory. All was well, and all was according to His plan. He could therefore rest.
Of course such descriptions are anthropomorphisms, by which man can comprehend something of the otherwise incomprehensible character and conduct of God. The point that God wanted to communicate to His creation is that He is sovereign, He is ruler and ruling, and therefore all is under His control. Such a position is one of rest. And clearly, since He is still resting, He is still ruling.
What is so amazingly wonderful about this is that the writer to the Hebrews is informing them—and us—that we can experience this rest that God experiences if we will believe and continue to believe (and thus obey) the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, of course, our rest is not in all points like God’s. After all, becoming saved does not make us sovereign over anyone or anything. Salvation, in fact, delivers us from a restlessness that arises from our attempts to be sovereign. Rather, when we are saved, we are in a position to enjoy the rest that comes from God being sovereign. Since He is in control, we no longer need to live in such a way as to take control.
Is this not precisely the cause of our restlessness? But when we place our trust in Christ Jesus then we are immediately seated in heavenly places in Him. We are “enthroned” in and next to the Sovereign. Peace can then be ours to enjoy.
Such a revelation, and the resulting faith-filled realisation, would be a word of great comfort to those who were in the midst of a great storm because of their profession of faith. As these believers were facing ostracism, rejection and even persecution for their faith they could rest knowing that the one whom they were trusting was ruling over all. Such realisation does much to give us rest.
As we face strained relationships, we can rest because God is sovereign. As we face trying circumstances, we can rest knowing that God is in control. We can rest in God despite our financial trials. When emotional unrest strikes, there is no need to be anxious, for we can rest in our sovereign God. Mentally, we can rest, free of worry from the future, because God controls all things—including the future.
But this rest, because it is God’s rest, is like God’s rest in that we still work. As we have seen, rest in the sense of a Sabbath rest does not mean a cessation of all labour. We do continue to labour, but we do so with certainty and confidence.
God labours (John 5) out of the sense of certainty of purpose. His will will be done. His work is therefore one that is filled with anticipation. There is no anxiety on God’s part; only a patient certainty. In fact, it is this certainty that guides His providential involvement in all of life. And it is joyful one since He knows that, ultimately, all that happens will result in His being glorified and in His people’s good.
We too must labour with such a certainty. And I would maintain that, as we do so, with the right mindset, we will find joy in our rest of labour.
The Rest Postponed
In vv. 6-8, the author reminds his readers that the rest promised to the wilderness generation was postponed because of their unbelief.
Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, 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.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.
In a masterful exposition, the writer in these verses shows how Psalm 95 was not merely giving a history lesson of the children of Israel in the wilderness. Nor was David (the author of this Psalm) speaking primarily about his contemporary situation. Rather, this psalm had the “today” of the writer to the Hebrews in view. And, as we shall see, it has our “today” in view as well.
The phrase “since therefore it remains that some must enter it” (or, “since therefore it remains for some to enter it,” ESV) makes it clear that Psalm 95 was inviting a later generation of Israelites into God’s rest. The rest was forfeited by the first generation of Hebrews and so this rest was available to a future generation of Hebrews.
In v. 7 the writer explains that, in David’s day, the rest was still being offered. Therefore, it is clear that the promise was not specifically to the first generation that came out of Egypt, because the promise of rest was being offered in the “today” of David’s day!
In other words, this rest was not confined to a piece of real estate. The promised rest was not a parcel of ground but was something else. This, by the way, would have been of great significance to this audience. After all, as we will see more clearly later, the material was a very real stumbling block to this first generation of Hebrew Christians. The temple and Jerusalem itself loomed so large culturally and religiously that they were being blinded to the true gospel in the person of Christ; the one who was the true Temple and the true Israel of God.
But in v. 8 the writer now applies this further. After all, Joshua did lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land, and yet clearly did not give them “rest.” And how do we know this? Because David wrote long after Israel has been in the land and yet they were still restless. It is for this restless reason that David in Psalm 95 warns the people of his own generation that “today” they need to enter that rest. Clearly, David is pointing to a rest that, in a deep sense, has nothing to do with the Promised Land. The writer of our epistle is slowly but surely filling in the exegetical blanks and informing them (and us) that this rest can be theirs (and ours) “today” because Christ is being offered today.
All that transpired in old covenant history was a prelude to the rest that would ultimately be secured through trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why the rest was, in the providence of God, “postponed.” It was not by accident that Israel never entered the rest, but it was all according to the predestined plan of God.
The Rest Provided/Personified
In vv. 9-10 there is a natural and intentional connection with the immediate preceding passage. There, we were told that Joshua was not able to give them rest; even though he did lead the nation of Israel into Canaan. Now, the writer speaks of a “rest” that presently remains for “the people of God.”
There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.
This rest is not for the physical Israel of God, but the people of God as defined under the new covenant as the true “Israel of God” (see Romans 9:6; Galatians 3:25-29; 6:16; etc.): Those who trust in Christ wholeheartedly for their salvation.
The writer uses a word in v. 9 (sabbatismos) that does not appear anywhere else in Scripture. In fact, it seems that he coined this word himself. As Morris says, “He did not have a word for the kind of rest he had in mind so he made one up.”7 The rest, of course, was the spiritual rest that Jesus secured for His people through His perfect life, followed by His substitutionary death and glorious resurrection three days later.
The name “Jesus” is important to consider, for a first century Hebrew would understand that the Hebrew name Joshua and the Greek name Jesus were the same. They both mean “Yahweh saves” and point to Messiah.
I am surmising that that the writer is making a subtle point, which he will drive home in v. 10, that it is the Joshua who died on the cross for sinners who alone gives true rest. The Joshua of the old covenant could never provide the rest that the Hebrews needed but this Joshua—Joshua of Nazareth—could. Better yet, He did and He does!
It is because of Jesus of Nazareth—the one greater than the angels, the one who is so much better than Moses—that there is indeed a new covenant rest; a sabbatismos for the new covenant people of God. In fact, it is because of Jesus of Nazareth that there was a spiritual rest for the old covenant people of God (see Hebrews 11).
In v. 10 the writer says, “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.” You will note that, in the NKJV the first “his” is not capitalised. I think it should be. The writer is saying that “he” (Christ) entered “His” (God’s) and has Himself ceased from His works, just as God did from His. In other words, just as God entered a Sabbath rest after creation, so did God’s Son after His work of the new creation. Though this is not stated categorically, nevertheless the entire flow of the argument justifies such an interpretation. In fact, I would argue that what follows from v. 14 onwards further substantiates such an interpretation. Our High Priest is seated in His Sabbath rest!
This is the primary reason why the writer coined the word sabbatismos in v. 9. Just as the Father had a special Sabbath upon completion of His work, so the Son has a specially designated Sabbath rest upon His completed work. This is why, under the new covenant, we view (or at least we should view) Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as our weekly Sabbath observance. It is to be a day on which we reflect both individually as well as corporately on the eternal rest into which we have entered in Christ, and which we will one day enjoy uninterrupted by the restless disturbances of living in sin-cursed bodies in the midst of a sin-cursed world.
The Rest Prioritised
In the closing verses (vv. 11-13) of our particular text, we learn of the rest prioritised.
Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.
We have seen in previous studies that there are five major exhortations in this epistle, and here we have the second. It, like the first (2:1-4), is an exhortation to perseverance.
The writer, it would seem, was a preacher with a pastor’s heart. He desired that this flock of Hebrew believers would truly believe and obey the Lord. In other words, he desired what was best for them—hence the exhortation, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest.” Since there is a rest for the people of God, we are told to make sure that we do not fall short of experiencing and enjoying it. The sabbatismos is commended as that which we dare not neglect.
It should be noted that the writer is telling us that actually our rest is doubly sure, for not only is the Father resting (vv. 3-5) but so is His Son, our older Brother (vv. 8-10). Small wonder that we should prioritise entering and experiencing and enjoying this rest!
Make Haste and Don’t Delay
The exhortation to “be diligent” (v. 11) might be rendered “make haste.” The phrase literally means “to use speed.” The writer, of course, ultimately has in mind trusting God in Christ for salvation. Such an entering would result in spiritual rest from the labour of trying to prove ourselves to God; the rest from the burden of our sins (Matthew 11:28-30).
But we dare not ignore the application concerning the rest that we are to enjoy in all areas of life because of this ultimate salvific rest. F. F. Bruce captures the fuller meaning when he writes, “This blissful rest in unbroken fellowship with God is the goal to which his people are urged to press forward; this is the final perfection which has been prepared for them by the sacrifice of their heavenly high priest.”8 In other words, this is a pastoral exhortation to enjoy fellowship with God in His ongoing Sabbath rest. It is an exhortation to continue to rest in the Gospel of God.
We should contemplate what this involves.
As we have seen, God is perfectly at rest because He is perfectly in control of everything. He was not surprised by the Fall and hence His rest, which commenced in Genesis 2:1, was not interrupted by the events of Genesis 3. In fact, He was still walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, even though He was fully aware of the sin that had entered Eden. Creation was now, in many ways, no longer “very good,” yet God was still very much at rest. It is into such rest that we are invited. It is this rest that we are exhorted to experience. We dare not disobey as did Israel of old.
Practically, when you are undergoing trials, enjoy the rest that is yours because your Father and your older Brother are perfectly at rest. I know that they are grieving with you, yet they are resting because of a certainty of purpose. So rest in Christ by resting in the gospel (see Romans 8:28-34).
When you are struggling with temptation to bitterness (which is symptomatic of being a control freak!) then obey God and rest in Him (see Ephesians 4:26-27; 31-32).
When you are struggling with envy, obey God and rest in Christ (see James 4:1-5).
When you are struggling with the desire to fight fire with fire, obey God and rest in Him through the gospel of Christ (see 1 Peter 2:21-25).
When you are tempted to despair because of loneliness, make haste to seek the Lord, and His fellowship will fill your restless soul (see 2 Timothy 4:16-17).
When you are tempted to anxiety over financial, need then obey the Lord and rest in His power and providence to provide for you (see Philippians 4:19).
When you are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel and to turn away and deny Christ in the numerous subtle ways presented to you, obey Christ and rest in Him as the one who is quite secure even though He is slandered and opposed (see Psalm 2).
The point in all of this is that we are to take ourselves in hand and lay hold of the rest that is real and available for the taking. As Hughes reminds us, “Nothing can prevent the promised rest from taking effect except distrust and disobedience. God’s promised rest stands. Anyone can have it.”9 Will you ‘make haste’ to enter, to experience and hence to enjoy this rest?
Make Haste and Remember the Sword
In v. 12 we are instructed concerning the power of the Word as a means to prioritising and pursuing this rest: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
The Word of God is effectual. It is by means of the Word that the resting God is also the reviewing and the judging God. In other words, if you refuse to enter God’s rest then you will enter into His wrath.
The conjunction “for” indicates that what is being said is related to what has just been said. And there is probably a subtle reference here to the events at Kadesh Barnea, as recorded in Numbers 14:39-45. There, the children of Israel presumed upon God’s grace and were literally devoured by the sword. Perhaps here the author is saying that if these Hebrews likewise presume upon God’s grace and do not enter they will be slain by the Word of God as it judges them. We need to remember that the epistle opens with a reminder that God is speaking today. And hence, as Brown notes, “If God has spoken so clearly to His people, then it is a mistake to suppose that man can trifle with such a word. It is alive.”10
The failure to rest is both the judgement of God as well as that for which we will be judged by God. This judgement is severe because to reject God’s effectual Word is tantamount to rejecting God Himself.
Beware how you respond to God’s offer of rest as extended through His Word. As Bruce reminds us, “God is not to be trifled with; His Word cannot be ignored with impunity, but must be received in faith and obeyed in daily life. God’s ‘Today’ has arrived let us take His word seriously and make haste to enter His rest.”11
Oh that we would appreciate the power of God’s Word to lead us the blessed rest offered by and in Christ. As Hughes helpfully writes, “Blessed be the double-edged sword of judgment and sanctification. God cuts us deeply that we might die. God cuts us again with His word, that we might live.” Live today!
Make Haste to Drop the Disguise
Finally, in v. 13, the writer exhorts us to drop all forms of playacting before God: “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (v. 13).
Plenty of people fake it when it comes to contentment and the illusion of being “at rest.” This verse reminds us that such playacting is futile, for God knows the true state of our souls.
Like any congregation, there obviously were some in this Hebrew congregation who were externally professing Christ while internally rejecting Him. They are here told to beware. The God “to whom we must give account” is the same God both of the old and of the new covenant. He is not to be trifled with. As Westcott comments, when it comes to God’s scrutiny of our hearts and thoughts, “all things are stripped of every disguise which might conceal their true nature and brought by an overmastering power into full view before His eyes.”12
So, as we bring this to a close let me ask, what is the true condition of your soul? Are you resting in Christ alone for your salvation? Are you experiencing and enjoying the rest that remains? If not then may today be the day on which you enter. May you find rest today, rest for the rest of the year, and such rest that will one day be perfected in glory.
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 108. ↩
- D. A. Carson, ed., Telling the Truth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 85. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 73. ↩
- The exception is the second day, on which God did not declare what He had done to be “good.” ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:41. ↩
- Hughes, Hebrews, 111. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:42. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 75. ↩
- Hughes, Hebrews, 112. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 91. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 80. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 104. ↩