Hebrews 4: 1-13

Jimmy JoHebrews, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read Hebrews 4: 1-13 here.

Our passage today continues the train of thought that we’ve been following for the past couple of weeks.  The section as a whole begins with the author of Hebrews comparing Jesus with Moses – specifically, stating that Jesus is greater than Moses.  And as we discussed, the primary criteria by which Jesus is judged to be greater than Moses is faithfulness – Jesus is greater than Moses because His faithfulness is greater.  In last week’s passage, we looked at how the author therefore exhorts his readers to respond in faithfulness – because Jesus is faithful, so should the people of God be faithful.  And specifically, he frames it as a warning.  He says, don’t be unfaithful like the Israelites in Moses’ time.  And that brings us to our passage today. 

Once again, our passage today continues the train of thought that began a couple of passages ago.  And specifically, it picks up from the verses from last week which state: 

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.

Hebrews 3: 18-19

So our passage today specifically follows the author’s thought around rest.  And what we saw last week was that, because of their unfaithfulness, the Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt did not enter the rest that God had promised.  As we know, they failed to trust in God despite the overwhelming, extravagant displays of His faithfulness.  And when they heard the reports of the Israelite spies, in spite of the encouragement from Joshua and Caleb, they grumbled and were afraid, saying “we should have stayed in Egypt” (in fact, we know that they pretty much grumbled and complained the whole time).  And as a result, God caused them to wander the wilderness for 40 years until that entire generation died out.  These Israelites did not enter the rest that God had promised. 

At this point we should note that the author again is using the rhetorical device of comparison, but his terms are different.  We’ve seen that he has been comparing Jesus to, first, angels and then Moses.  Here, the author is comparing the ancient Israelites with his contemporary readers.  Or, the author is comparing the ancient Israelites with us.  And what the author says is that, though the ancient Israelites failed to enter the rest of God, failed to take hold of the promise of God, because of their unfaithfulness, we today (or the audience of the author’s letter) can still enter God’s rest – if we remain faithful.  We can see this just by looking at the first paragraph of our passage today.  The author’s point, again continuing the thought from the passage we looked at last week, is don’t be like the Israelites. 

1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us (cf. the Israelites) be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it (like the Israelites). For we also (like the Israelites) have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they (the Israelites) did; but the message they (the Israelites) heard was of no value to them (unlike, hopefully, us), because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed (hopefully, us). Now we who have believed enter that rest (unlike the Israelites), just as God has said,

“So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They (the Israelites)shall never enter my rest (but you still can).’”

Hebrews 4: 1-3

And again, reviewing the argument from last week’s passage, this is a matter of faithfulness.  The author says, be faithful because, in Christ, God has been extravagantly faithful.  And if we are faithful, unlike the Israelites, we can still enter into God’s rest. 

Now upon some reflection, we can also see that the author is expanding the notion of rest.  That is, he is taking what some of the people may have thought was meant by “rest” and interpreting it through an eschatological lens.  In other words, it was never just about Canaan.  So we are seeing another comparison here.  First, we saw that he is comparing Jesus with Moses; then we saw that he is comparing the unfaithful Israelites with his readers (or us), exhorting us (unlike them) to be faithful and enter into God’s rest; and now we’re seeing that he is making a distinction between the rest for which the Israelites worked and walked (and failed), and the rest for which we are being exhorted to remain faithful.  Or simply, the author is saying, there is more to this rest. 

I’m not sure, but this may be related to why the author brings up the seventh day of creation – the first sabbath.  In vv. 3b-4, he says: 

3b And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.”

That is, the author may be saying something along the lines of, the rest is not a purely goal-oriented thing.  Or, it’s not something that is only related to where the post-Egypt Israelites were going (i.e. geographically or even politically).  Rather, rest is something that is built into the order of God’s creation.  In the creation, rest is the point. 

So, when the author goes on to say in the next verse, “And again in the passage above he says, ‘They shall never enter my rest,’” he may be saying something like, not entering rest is about more than not entering the physical land of Canaan.  Or conversely, God’s rest is about more than the land (or whatever else).

Therefore, the author goes on to say essentially, there is a rest that still remains.  That is, Canaan is behind us (so to speak), but God’s true rest is still to come – the promise is still to come.  If Canaan were the point, if it were the fulfillment of God’s promise, we would have missed it.  Moreover, as the people of that time knew well, it had been lost.  But God’s promise, and therefore the true rest, is still to come. 

Without breaking it down, it seems to me that this is what’s going on in vv. 6-11.

Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4: 6-11

“Therefore, since it still remains for some to enter that rest…” – since the promise is still ahead of us, there is still a hope for which we live, because “there still remains a Sabbath-rest”…“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.”  Or, let us remain faithful – not like those Israelites who failed to enter Canaan, who failed to enter into their rest.  Unlike them, let us take hold of God’s rest.  

That God’s rest still remains is good news, I think, for most of us.  That God’s rest has yet to be fully realized is good news for most of us.  Can you imagine, for example, being one of the Israelites who might have thought that entering the land of Canaan was the fulfillment of the promise?  What if we, like them, thought that was the end of God’s promise?  Because as we know, the Israelites faced plenty of struggles, plenty of difficulties in the midst of Canaan.  The Israelites, as we know, failed to live up to their calling in Canaan.  And it wasn’t long until they were taken out of that promised land, taken into exile, robbed of their home.  And if Canaan had been the end of God’s promise, what could they now think? 

But the promise, the real promise, was still ahead of them.  And it is still ahead of us.  And that’s good news because of course we know that this life is full of trial, full of struggle.  We know that we are hard pressed on every side, beaten, frequently disappointed, always looking over the horizon. 

And God is saying, take heart; don’t despair.  The promise of God still holds; your rest is still coming. 

And make no mistake, this rest is not just about stopping.  It’s not just about, for example, stopping work.  God’s rest is not just about an end to travails. 

And this rest is also not just a break between struggle.  The way our world is set up, the way our economies are set up, in this world, rest is often just about a temporary respite from work so that we can do more work.  In our society, it can often feel like the entire point of the weekend is to prepare us for the work week.  Most of us have had that employer who believes that the only value of a vacation is to make you more productive (in fact, some of us have even had employers who assume you should use your vacation for more schooling or training).  In this model, the rest exists only to serve the struggle. 

But what we see in the example of the first Sabbath – that story in Genesis – is that God rested from His work and saw that what He created was very good.  And it suggests to us – it suggests to me, at least – that the point is to live fully into what was created.  The rest, the break, the Sabbath doesn’t serve the work, but rather is about taking hold of, living fully, enjoying God’s creation of which we (and our work) is a part. 

True rest is not about taking away (taking away work, hardship, or struggle); true rest is about more (more life, more love, more joy). 

Sabbath rest is about fully living; sabbath rest is about celebration; sabbath rest is about taking hold of all that God has prepared for us. 

And that rest, God’s rest, still remains.  The promise still holds. 

But make no mistake, the author of Hebrews offers a promise but also a warning.  “4:11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.”  And as the final paragraph of our passage says: 

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Hebrews 4: 12-13

And so, with the author of Hebrews, I would encourage each of us to continue to be faithful.  Be faithful because of the overwhelming, extravagant faithfulness of our God.  Don’t let go of the promise, but continue to pay attention to and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Let us take hold of and live fully into the promise of God’s rest. 

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