The Rest of the Story (Heb. 4:1-11)
If you want to read your Bible for the purpose of understanding, one of the things you want to do is to look for key words or ideas. What it the main idea here? And is that communicated through key words? Well, here in Hebrews 4, there is no doubt what the key word is. It is the word rest. The noun “rest” is used seven times in the first eleven verses, and the corresponding verb “to rest” is used three times. A similar word for “rest” is used in verse 9. So if we really want to understand what this passage (verses 1-11) is about, we need to really try to wrap our minds around what is being said here about this rest, what it is and why it is so important.
And rest is important, isn’t it? I think in one way or another, everyone is trying to find rest. If we are not seeking physical rest, we are seeking rest from feelings of guilt, from the past that haunts us, from the sense that what we have done with our life is not meaningful. Sometimes the things that nag us are not those things which are wearing us down physically, but the things which are wearing us down mentally and emotionally. And we want deliverance from those things; we want rest.
There is rest, and I am grateful that one of the ways that Scripture presents salvation to us is in terms of rest. Isn’t this what our Lord did? “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). However, the Bible is equally clear that this salvific rest is not for everyone. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isa. 59:19-21). So if we want true rest, we have to seek it in the way God gives it. And the book of Hebrews helps us here.
The author is still expositing, so to speak, from the ninety-fifth Psalm, which began back at 3:7. In chapter 3, the emphasis was upon the unbelief and disobedience of the wilderness generation of the Israelites. In this chapter, the emphasis is on what they rejected through their unbelief and what we obtain by faith: God’s rest. Given the importance of rest, we really need to understand what is begin said here about God’s rest. So with that in mind, there are three things I would like us to consider about this rest. First, I want to show that this is an available rest; second, that it is a heavenly rest; third, that it is an infinitely desirable rest.
God’s rest is an available rest.
First, we know it is still available because the rest promised to Israel is the rest promised in the gospel. This is the logic behind verses 1 and 2. In verse 1, the author argues that rest (spoken of in the previous chapter) is promised to us, although it is not an automatic thing and we shouldn’t take it for granted, and we should “therefore fear, lest . . . any of you should seem to come short of it.” But how is this rest promised to us? It is promised in the gospel, which is the point of verse 2: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them.”
Now this is interesting because a lot of people have a misconception here. There is this idea out there that people in the OT were saved differently than people in the NT. But this is not the Biblical picture. We are justified by faith in Christ under the New Covenant and folks were justified by faith in Christ under the Old Covenant. But you might ask, “How could people believe in Christ before he came?” Well, though it is true that folks who lived before Christ didn’t understand fully who he was or exactly how he would accomplish salvation, they did look forward to the promised Messiah, and those who put their trust in him were saved. And the way they looked forward to him was through the promise of redemption that God progressively unfolded through history, culminating of course in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The reality is that the gospel has been present and preached in the world since the Fall of man into sin. It is there in the promise of the Seed of the woman in Gen. 3:15, in the words of God to Satan: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” But it flashes even more brightly in the promise God gave to Abraham: “and in thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Here is the apostle Paul’s commentary on this verse: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). Did you hear that? God preached the gospel to Abraham. When did he do that? When he gave him the promises. And when Abraham believed that, he was justified (Gal. 3:6; Gen. 15:6). So you see, people have always been justified by faith in Christ, from the very beginning, even if they didn’t know as much about him as we know. Listen to what our Lord said about Abraham. “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (Jn. 8:56). If that’s not faith in Christ, I don’t know what is!
The point is that the gospel has been around for a long time. It is not just a NT phenomenon. It is of course much clearer today. It was presented in the OT period primarily through types and shadows. But through these types and shadows, the gospel was preached. In fact, I would say that it is in part because of the types and shadows, especially those under the Law in the sacrifices, that we can make sense of what Jesus did on the cross. We couldn’t really understand the gospel apart from the OT. God was building a vocabulary in the law for us to understand the substitutionary work of the sacrifice of Christ. But again, the point is that the gospel was preached long before Jesus was born. It was preached every time the promise of God to Adam and Eve was recited. It was preached every time the promise to Abraham was retold. It was preached in the promises that God made to King David. It was preached in the Law and it was preached in the prophets. And when people believed God’s promises, like Abraham they were justified.
Thus, even the physical land of Canaan was meant to be a picture of the rest that we have in Christ. When the wilderness generation of the Israelites refused to believe that God was for them and turned away from the Promised Land, they were refusing much more than dirt and earth on the other side of the Jordan River. They were refusing to believe in God’s promises, and when they refused to believe they were in essence rejecting the gospel. What the author has been doing is to exhort the folks in the church there at Rome not to do the same, not to follow their bad example. It is only those who believe – who believe the promise of rest in the gospel who enter into that rest: “For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest” (3).
But now in the following verses, he essentially seeks to argue why the rest promised to Israel and the rest promised to us is the same rest. That is, he is going to show that the gospel preached to ancient Israel in the wilderness is the gospel which is being preached to first century Jews in Rome (and to us). Or, another way to put it: how is he justified in using Psalm 95 for a Jewish-Christian audience in first century Rome (or for us)? Up to this point, he has simply assumed and stated the fact; now he argues for it. And this is what he is doing in verses 3-9. Note the conclusion in verse 9: “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.” That is what he is aiming for. How does he justify this conclusion?
The key to his whole argument is to note the way God describes the rest in Ps. 95. It is not just any rest: it is “my rest” (cf. Ps. 95:11). This is God’s rest. And what does that refer to? It refers to God’s ceasing his work of creation on the seventh day. This is the point of the end of verse 3 and verse 4. In fact, the author quotes Gen. 2:2 in verse 4: “For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.”
However, it might seem strange the way this idea is introduced at the end of verse 3: “although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.” Why “although”? What does that mean? Why put this in the form of a concession? Usually, when you use the word “although” it is because what you are about to say seems to militate against it. For example, I might say, “Although I am tall, I am afraid of heights.” I use the word “although,” because you might think that being tall would make a person naturally not afraid of heights! So why would the fact that God’s works were completed on the seventh day be a problem with the promise of entering into God’s rest?
It is a problem because that’s in the past and the rest which is set before us in Ps. 95 and Heb. 3-4 is something into which we can enter now, today (note the present tense in Heb. 4:3). How can this past rest of God’s apply to us in the present? That is the question which is solved for us in the following verses. What is being argued is this: what is past with God is present and future with respect to us.
That it is past with God is the point in verses 3-4. Now look at verses 5-6. “And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief….” In verse 5, he again reminds us of Ps. 95:11. What he sees in this psalm are people being urged to not follow the example of the wilderness generation of the Israelites and to enter into God’s rest which they rejected. This only makes sense if that rest is still available, if we can still enter into it. David wrote this hundreds of years after the Exodus (the Exodus occurred about 1450 B.C. and David reigned about 1000 B.C.), and yet the promise of rest was still intact. And clearly this Psalm wasn’t just meant for Israel in David’s day, but for succeeding generations as well. In other words, what is past with God is present and future with respect to us.
Then note the argument in verses 7-8: “Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. For if Jesus [that is, Joshua] had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.” David wrote this long after the Exodus and the wilderness journeys. It would not make sense to tell people to enter into this rest if it only applied to the physical possession of the Promised Land in Canaan. Though Canaan is certainly a type of the rest promised here, it is not the rest in its fullness. It was pointing to something much, much better. Hence the conclusion of verse 9: “There remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God.”
God’s rest is a heavenly rest.
But how can we enter into God’s rest? How does that make sense? This is explained for us in verse 10: “For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.” In other words, the way we enter into God’s rest is by imitating him in his rest. How do we do that? There are several things to note as we think about this. First, the works from which God ceased were good works, not bad works. “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). I note this because it might be tempting to interpret ceasing from our works as no longer relying on our own personal goodness for salvation. “Works” are used that way in Scripture – to refer to things done in order to merit God’s favor. And of course we should never trust in our works, in our goodness, as the reason why we think God will accept us into his friendship and fellowship. We must trust only in Christ and in the grace of God through him. But that is not the meaning here, because those kinds of works are not really good works. It is not a good thing to trust in your works, in your righteousness, before God. Ceasing from that would be ceasing from a bad thing. So that is not the idea here.
What is the idea? I think we get at it in Rev. 14:13. There John writes, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” Those who die in the Lord rest from their labors. Their works follow them in the sense that the memory of them never dies (“God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love,” Heb. 6:10). To rest, then, is to rest from the labors of the good works done now by the grace of God for the glory of God. This is a rest that we really only truly enter into when we enter into heaven. Right now, the Christian life is a life of labor, of blood, sweat, and tears. “We must through much affliction enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We must strive to enter in (Lk. 13:24). To follow Christ and to honor him this side of heaven is not always easy. Our Lord described it in terms of dying to yourself, of taking your cross and following him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We are presently to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). And it is the reason why we read, in verse 11 of our text, “Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” This side of heaven we are laboring, we are striving, we are working. We are not yet resting in the sense of the rest promised here. But for those who belong to Christ, that rest is sure to come. There is coming a day when we will no longer have to fight the flesh, the world, and the devil. Our tears and pain and toil and fears will one day cease and we will enjoy unfettered fellowship with the living God.
This interpretation of rest is supported by what the author has already said in chapter 3. Remember that it is in chapter 3 that he introduced the passage from the Psalm. That Psalm was meant to support statements like these: “But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb. 3:6; cf. ver. 14). The rest promised corresponds to the hope that we have in Christ, and this hope points us beyond this life into the next. It is the same hope shared by the patriarchs: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having received them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:13-16). Our rest is in heaven; until then we are strangers and pilgrims upon the earth.
But I want to notice something else about this rest. This heavenly rest is not a rest in the sense of total cessation of all activity. Heaven is not going to be a place where we just lounge around. It is not a place where we will just be floating around on clouds plucking at a harp. Frankly, that would be boring after about one minute. No, my friends, heaven will be a place of unceasing activity. When God rested, he did not stop all activity. His work of creation stopped, yes; but he continues to work in providence and salvation. In the same way, our resting means ceasing from one sort of activity (the labor of pursing holiness under the condition of sinfulness and the opposition of the world) to another (the never-ending, ever-increasing joy of unbroken and unhindered fellowship with God). Heaven, will, I believe, be a place where we will expand the creative abilities given to us by God, only this time without the sweat of the brow. Remember that before Adam sinned, he worked; work as such is not bad, but sin has made it difficult. Our working will not completely cease, but the sin which makes it untasteful and difficult will.
It is important to remember this, because if the only idea you have of heaven is as a place of ethereal existence floating around singing all the time, it will be hard for you to get excited about it. No, we are embodied souls, and we will enjoy eternity in resurrected bodies in a very tangible new heavens and new earth, and worship will be something that will be inevitable because we will not be able to help rejoicing and praising and glorying in the beauty and glory and excellence and majesty of the God whom we will see and know even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). Think about all the things that make earth distasteful for you and those will be gone. No more sin, no more worry, no more hurting, no more loneliness, no more rejection, no more failure, no more shame, no more frustration. Pure, unbroken fellowship with God. We will be able to be fully what God created us to be. And that is a reason for hope.
But if this rest is a heavenly rest, and we know that the only way we can get into heaven is by the unmerited grace of God, why are we told to labor to enter into it? Why are we told to fear not entering into this rest? How is that consistent with the fact that eternal life is a free gift of the grace of God that not only saves us but keeps us?
Well, it certainly doesn’t mean that we are to labor in order to earn it. We can’t do that. We are sinners before God and against God. We have given up any chance on earning eternal life. As the apostle Paul put it, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:2-5). Eternal life is “the gift of God . . . through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:23).
So then what does it mean to labor to enter it? Well, there is only one road that leads to eternal life. You don’t get on that road because you are better than those who aren’t. You’re there because of the grace of God. But the road that leads to glory is a path that involves repentance and perseverance and killing sin and denying self. If you aren’t on that road, you can’t say that you are saved. It’s what our Lord was getting at when he said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Mt. 7:13-14). What kind of road ends in eternal life? It is the road that begins with the strait gate. The road is narrow. The way is hard. It is a road which requires your full attention. It can be very hard and difficult at times. The way of the world, on the other hand, is easy. It is a broad way, an easy way. It lets you be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do. Both these roads end, but what they end in does not end. The broad road ends in eternal destruction. The narrow road, the laboring road, ends in eternal life.
If you want to see what this looks like, consider the example of the apostle Paul. This is what laboring to enter in looks like: “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended” – in other words, he didn’t think he had arrived; there was still much growing to do, much laboring to do. “But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Reach forth, pressing forward for the prize – that’s what it means to labor to enter into God’s rest. Or, as the apostle Peter puts it, “Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:12). In other words, all of life is to be lived in light of eternity. My choices and priorities, and the way I spend my time, ought to reflect that. Does it?
God’s rest is an infinitely desirable rest.
The fact that we are to fear lest we don’t enter into this rest, that we are to labor to enter into it, shows that this rest is an infinitely desirable rest. The fear here is not a fear that the elect will lose their salvation; that is not possible. But it is the fear that I might be a fake. It is that healthy sort of fear which leads you to examine yourself to see if you are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). The fact of the matter is that there are people out there who call themselves Christian and they have never been born again, they have never truly repented of their sins, and they have never truly put their faith in Jesus Christ. And when the going gets tough, like Pliable in Pilgrim’s Progress, they will leave the faith. This is what the author is saying here. Make your calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). The biggest fear should not be earthly loss. The biggest fear is that my faith is not real and that my hope is the hope of a hypocrite.
But here’s the point: I only fear missing out on those things that I really want and desire. I will only put in maximum effort for those things that I find truly valuable. And that’s the reason why this text is bookended the way it is. Fear lest you fail to enter in (1); labor to enter in (11) – why? Because eternal fellowship with God is infinitely more desirable than amassing earthly wealth or growing a business or going on exotic vacations or basking in fame. All those things will eventually rot. You can’t take any of them beyond the grave. But you will meet God, and you will either enter into eternal rest or eternal ruin. And in light of eternity, God’s rest will be seen to be infinitely desirable and every other object of one’s desire will shrink into comparative meaninglessness.
So many people labor for that which does not profit. But Christ is infinitely valuable and supremely desirable. The prophet Isaiah put it this way: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat that which is good and let your soul delight itself in fatness” (Isa. 55:1-2). Without Christ, you are laboring for that which is not bread and does not satisfy. With Christ, no matter what we endure, we know that in the end we will have eternal life and unbroken joy. And you know the amazing thing about this bread and water of life? You can have it without paying for it. For if you belong to Christ, you already have eternal life by virtue of his perfect life and atoning death. As the hymn puts it, “He paid the price; he bore the burden.”
Another way to put this is, how do we keep the sabbath? The word “rest” in verse 9 is actually a different word from what is used every other time in this chapter (4). It is the word sabbatismos and literally means “keeping of sabbath” or “a sabbath rest.” What the context shows is that God’s sabbath points forward to an eternal sabbath rest, this rest to which we are pointed in our text (it is sometimes noted that the seventh day in Genesis doesn’t have an evening to it; that is, it doesn’t end – it too is an eternal rest). And this sabbath is kept in Christ. It is to what the weekly sabbath, the resting from physical labors one day out of the week, was meant to point. Christ is the fulfillment of that sabbath, which is why the apostle Paul will tell the Colossian believers, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). We don’t keep the sabbath holy in the New Covenant era by literally physically resting one day out of seven (not that this is bad; it is just no longer part of our obedience to God). However, that doesn’t mean we don’t keep the Sabbath at all – it just means that we keep Sabbath in the truest sense of the word, by finding eternal rest in Christ. He is our sabbath, and we find rest in him by faith (cf. Mt. 11:28-30).
“Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Bruised and mangled by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.”