Strive to Enter God's Promised Rest
Topic: Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Hebrews 4:1–4:11, Psalm 95:1–95:11
I enjoy stories full of suspense, drama, heroic adventure, daunting tasks in the face of evil. I especially like those where you can relate to what the characters feel under the distress. Among them, though, my favorites end on a note of rest. Not everybody taking naps. I mean the bad guys eliminated, good prevailing, everything rightly ordered, people made whole, joyful festivities, big sighs of relief. Lord of the Rings, for example. The fellowship reunited; Aragorn crowned king; Bilbo and Frodo off to the Undying Lands; Sam and Rosie together in the Shire.
Stories that end that way, on that note of rest—why do those stories resonate with us? Would you believe me if I said, “The reason they resonate is that we were made for a rest far greater than any human story can tell”? A rest that’s real. A rest that lasts not just days, years, or even centuries, but a rest that endures forever. A rest where all is whole, everything good prospers. A rest with the Creator himself, whose holy presence makes everything and everyone beautiful.
It’s a rest we long for, because it’s also a rest we lost. In the Bible, God made Adam to enter that rest. If he passed the test in the Garden, all humanity would join him in an eternity of rest in God’s presence. But Adam failed as our representative. Now, all born in Adam enter a world without rest, a world where nations vie for power and leaders cause unrest. A world where evil unsettles and bodies are no longer whole. A world where creation isn’t always bountiful. A world wearied by sin and its consequences—we see the futility, don’t we? Like the tornadoes that took lives last Friday.
Even as Christians we battle sickness, depression, our own sinful impulses. We’re wearied by relational investments. We work hard to please the Lord, but see little to no fruit sometimes, no reward. Various tensions build from day to day, many times without resolution. Many serve faithfully, only to face persecution and death, or burnout and exasperation. We give and give and give, wondering whether rest will ever come—“and if not, why bother anymore? Should we give up?”
Hebrews 4 speaks to this. Hebrews 4 brings our stories of unrest and sets them in the much bigger story of God giving rest. Hebrews 4 encourages perseverance by holding out the promise of rest. It tells us what the true rest is, where God spoke of it before, and how we enter that rest through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” Shall we listen to his voice again? Verse 1,
1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God wouldn’t have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
Again, we’re in the middle of an argument. It began in 3:1. Already we’ve seen how Jesus is greater than Moses. That connection remains crucial. There’s a parallel. Moses delivered the people from bondage and led them through the wilderness toward rest in the Promised Land. Also Jesus delivered us from bondage; he’s leading us toward rest—but it’s a better rest than the Promised Land.
That analogy sits in the background of Hebrews 3-4. It comes from Psalm 95, which we covered more carefully last week. Chapter 3 focused on a warning imbedded in Psalm 95—“Today, if you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts.” Otherwise, you won’t enter God’s rest. The warning motivates us to persevere while living between redemption and inheritance. Beware of an evil, unbelieving heart.
Chapter 4 carries that warning a bit further, but adds to it. It gives further motivation. Not just a warning; God also imbeds a promise in Psalm 95. God’s promised rest. That promise becomes his primary focus in verses 1-11. I want us to follow the argument closely and make four observations about God’s rest. Here’s the first…
1. God’s rest belongs only to those who persevere in faith (4:1-3a).
“Therefore” in verse 1 looks backward. Chapter 3 established that unbelief—not believing God’s word—has serious consequences. God had mercy on Israel in Egypt. God appointed Moses to lead them. God delivered them from slavery. God proved his love for them. But they grumbled against the Lord. They despised their deliverance. The Lord was leading them to better rest. But they preferred Egypt instead. So God swore in his anger, “They shall not enter my rest.’”
Verse 19 reflects on this faithless, persistent, stubborn disobedience, and says, “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” They might’ve gotten out of slavery. They might’ve experienced God’s mercy here and there. But unbelief kept them from entering God’s rest. “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.”
He’s talking to Christians, to the church. He even includes himself—“let us fear…” We’re all vulnerable to unbelief—so be careful. He wants us to make it.
When he says, “lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it,” the idea isn’t “Well, they seemed to have failed to reach it, but not really.” No, they really didn’t make it. God killed them off in the wilderness. That becomes a warning to us. What’s in view is God’s judgment, God’s assessment of our true condition. That’s why he says, “Let us fear…” Not some general kind of fear disconnected from God.
It’s also not a paralyzing fear of never knowing whether you’re going to make it. What does Jesus tell his own? “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” There’s a kind of ungodly fear that doesn’t really believe God when he says, “Fear not, little flock.” But there’s also a kind of ungodly fear that treats God lightly. The little flock doesn’t have to fear in one sense, because they’ve already feared God in the right sense. They take his words seriously. They hold him in proper regard. They know deep down what Hebrews 10:31 says, “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied. Lots of people shy from this notion of fearing the Lord. But to do so will only produce a culture that fears man instead, that fears death instead. Once that culture enters the church, it won’t be long before we’re not a church, before we treat God’s words as mere suggestions. Crucial to our endurance is the fear of the Lord—feeling the gravity of his warning…
I alluded to the parallel between the wilderness generation and us. Verse 2 makes that explicit. “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” It’s not enough simply to hear God’s word. They heard God’s message too. They didn’t know all the details like we do. But the gospel did come to them in terms of its promise. The types and shadows of the exodus pointed forward to that greater work in Christ. They heard that message. But it didn’t do them any good.
Why? They didn’t trust in it. They didn’t keep trusting in it. Same is true for us. But even more, we have the greater revelation in Christ. In Christ we now see the true significance of the exodus, the covenant, and so on. Through his cross, Jesus provides the ultimate deliverance. He rescues us from our sin-slavery. That’s the good news. But that message will not benefit you without faith. You must take God at his word.
That’s why he quotes Psalm 95 once again in verse 3. “For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They [i.e., the unbelievers] shall not enter my rest.’” It’s the unbelievers who didn’t enter. But we who have believed enter that rest—that’s the only people the rest is for, believers, those united to Christ by faith. Why is that? Why believers only?
Because faith, by its very nature, doesn’t lean on self for its salvation. It leans on Christ alone. If God saved people by anything besides faith or in addition to faith—like something else we do—he wouldn’t get the glory. God designed faith to be the only instrument by which we receive his salvation. Faith does not look to anything we do, but only to God and what he did for us. It doesn’t look to anything we did at age 9. It doesn’t bank on an experience we had in high school. It looks to Christ and Christ alone.
The warnings in Hebrews don’t ruin assurance; they make sure we’re finding our assurance in the right place—in Jesus. Confidence in Christ and what he did for us enables us to enter God’s rest. Second observation…
2. God has offered his rest since finishing creation (4:3b-5).
In the rest of verse 3 to 5, Hebrews does something we should all do when reading Scripture. That is, we should read one passage in light of other passages that speak to the same themes. In this case, he notes God speaking of “my rest”; and you can see him working it out on the page. “‘My rest.’ God’s rest? Where else in Scripture does God rest? Ah…Genesis 2.” And the pieces start coming together.
Now, he just established that God’s rest belongs solely to believers. At the same time, he left something unexplained: “while the promise of entering his rest still stands”—that needs some more skin on it. So he takes them to Genesis 2.
Verse 3, “…although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” Or, you could also start a new sentence like this: “‘[Unbelievers] shall not enter my rest.’] On the other hand, his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’ And again in this passage he said, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ Since therefore is remains for some to enter it…”
See where he’s going? He’s showing how the Old Testament itself proves that God’s rest remains open. We see that by relating Genesis 2 with Psalm 95. Genesis 2 is the first place in Scripture we learn of God’s own rest. Quite apart from him giving us rest, God has his own rest—and by that Scripture doesn’t mean inaction, taking a nap, as if to say the work just flat out sacked God; he needed to regain some strength. No!
God’s rest has more to do with his delight in all he finished. He saw his works were very good. He blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Even more, his rest never stopped. Isn’t that right? Verse 3, his works were finished from the foundation of the world. Within the creation week the other days have a time marker: “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day…and there was evening and there was morning the second day…and the third day…” All the way to the sixth day, “there was evening and there was morning.” But you won’t find that with the seventh day.
Meaning, his rest continues. It’s like a never-ending day. We know it continues because he speaks of it again centuries later in Psalm 95—“my rest.” In other words, by relating Genesis 2 with Psalm 95, we see that God’s original rest was still being offered to a later generation, just as it’s offered to us now. The fall of Adam into sin didn’t interrupt God’s original rest. It certainly excluded all of us from it. But in the gospel message, God offers the promise of rest again and again to generation after generation. Hold that thought while we move now to a third observation…
3. The Sabbath and Canaan foreshadowed God’s rest (4:6-8, 9).
This is verses 6-8, with another comment on the phrase “Sabbath rest” in verse 9. Verse 6 summarizes the argument so far. “Since therefore it remains for some to enter it”—that summarizes verses 3-5. “And those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience”—that summarizes verses 1-2. “…again [God] appoints a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ For if Joshua had given them rest, God wouldn’t have spoken of another day later on.”
He’s tracing the Bible’s storyline now. Joshua was Moses’ successor. His name means “Yahweh saves.” Moses got them out of Egypt. But Moses didn’t lead them into the land of rest. Joshua did; and he did do successfully. To where even Joshua 21:44 says: “And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers.” Very well. Joshua got them in. The Lord gave them rest. Then end?
Psalm 95 says, “Not so fast.” Psalm 95 addresses those already in the land of Canaan. They’re already in the “land of rest.” And yet they won’t participate in God’s rest, if they choose to harden their hearts like the wilderness generation did. Hmmm…
There must be a “rest” beyond Canaan. They’re in the land of rest, but it’s but a foretaste of the ultimate rest. “If Joshua had given them rest, God wouldn’t have spoken of another day later on.” Point being, Canaan was always a pointer, a pointer to a better rest, a taste of something better to come… On that note, it would be good to pause and describe what God’s rest includes. Scripture gives us only glimpses.
Some we find in Canaan, at least ideally speaking. Israel obviously didn’t obtain the fullness of rest due to their sin. But ideally, the land of rest involved freedom from enemies and oppressors. It involved everything rightly ordered before the Lord. It involved the land producing bountiful food and wine—so much that some places speak of people tying up their donkeys to the choicest vine. But at the very heart of Canaan was the presence of God himself resting among his people, the presence of God sanctifying the whole land and filling his people with joy.
Another glimpse comes with the Sabbath itself. Exodus 31:14 describes it as a day of refreshment. Every six-day week concluded with Israel observing a day of rest, a day to reflect on God’s goodness, a day to remember God’s deliverance. Why practice this again and again and again once they’re already in the land? Because it pointed to that day of refreshment in God’s presence that would never end.
Jesus’ ministry also gives us a few glimpses, doesn’t it? He is Lord of the Sabbath. And what do we find him doing on the Sabbath? Undoing what sin destroyed. Restoring the man with the withered hand. Making people whole again. He came to bring God’s rest to us. We get glimpses of God’s rest in the ministry of Jesus. In Jesus we see God’s presence making all things new again.
No enemies, no sickness or death, creation bountiful, everything rightly ordered, everybody made whole—all in the presence of God. This is the rest in view. This is the rest promised and held out to those who believe. There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Don’t take that to mean, “There remains a Sabbath day for the people of God.” He’s not talking about a day of the week. He’s not reinstituting the old covenant. He’s talking about the day of rest and wholeness in God’s presence that never ends. It remains for you; and you know how you’ll get to enter that rest, believer? Your Savior has already entered it for you. That’s the last observation we need to make…
4. Christ leads us into God’s rest by finishing his work (4:10-11).
Look at verse 10. “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Hmm. “Whoever has entered God’s rest…” Is that simply a general, timeless truth about all believers? Maybe along the lines of Revelation 14:13? “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…that they may rest from their labors…” Is that the people in mind? I’m not so sure it is.
It is singular. Also, the action in “whoever has entered” more likely describes a past, completed work of that individual.[i] More significantly, though, this same verb, “to enter into” occurs several more times in Hebrews in the past tense; and each time it’s applied to Christ entering the Most Holy Place. Hebrews 6:20, “[the inner place behind the curtain], where Jesus has entered into as a forerunner…” Hebrews 9:12, “[Christ] entered once for all into the holy places…” Hebrews 9:24, “Christ has entered…into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
Could it be that this is yet another place where we find Jesus entering into God’s presence as a once for all action on our behalf? I think so. So the argument goes something like this. Verse 9, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” How can that rest remain open for us? “He who entered God’s rest [namely, Jesus] has himself also rested from his works, as God did from his.” The NASB comes really close to this: “For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.” It’s talking about Jesus. He entered God’s rest.[ii]
Just like Joshua, his name means “Yahweh saves.” He is the true Joshua. Jesus entered God’s rest already. Adam was supposed to lead humanity into God’s rest by completing his works. But he failed. Likewise Israel was to enter God’s rest too. They were to complete their works. But they failed. Then enters Jesus. Jesus completes his works with unwavering faithfulness. He succeeds and enters God’s rest. All the works the Father gave him to do—identify with humanity, bear God’s image, reveal the Father, fulfill the law, become your righteousness, make the sacrifice for your sins, absorb God’s wrath, enter death to conquer it, crush Satan’s head—all of it Jesus finished.
Then he rested from his works as God did from his. He took delight in them. They were very good. You ever work super hard to complete a project, repair something around the house, mow the yard, get something straightened out at work; perhaps you’re an artist and you’ve just completed a painting—and you sit back and say, “That looks good, I like that, I’m satisfied with that work”? In a far greater way, Jesus delights in his works on your behalf. They are very good.
“Therefore,” he says. “Therefore,” based on Jesus’ finished work, based on Jesus entering God’s rest already as our forerunner, based on Jesus preparing you a place in the kingdom, “let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” That’s your application. “Let us fear” was earlier. Now, “Let us strive to enter that rest.” We’re presently in a struggle that will finally result in rest. Our representative has entered his rest. In that sense, we’ve entered it with him. But in our present experience the rest is still future.
Now is the day to persevere, to make every effort to enter that rest. Again, we enter that rest by faith, by trusting in Christ and following him. There’s a real sense that even now we can find rest in Christ himself. At least some part of that future rest can be experienced now in knowing the person of Jesus himself. He says, “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.”
To find this rest in Jesus, though, doesn’t lead to inaction. Resting in Jesus doesn’t mean inaction. Rather, resting in Jesus and his finished work leads us to live for his kingdom in a way that’s not burdensome but rewarding. It’s an active restfulness, or a restful activism. We delight in his finished work and then labor to help others find the same rest in him. See, we haven’t finished our works. Christ finished his. But that finished work compels us to do ours. God prepared good works for us to walk in. We should make every effort to recommit ourselves to those works. We’re not talking about self-righteous deeds; we’re talking about good works growing from our love for Christ.
We strive to enter God’s rest by trusting in Christ and following in his footsteps. That’s not an easy road. Think of all the ways Israel was challenged in the wilderness. They were met with opposition by those who hated God. They faced challenges that led them to doubt God’s care. They feared people, like when they felt like grasshoppers to the Nephilim. Various idols lured away their hearts from following the Lord. They had to wait a long, long time for God’s promises to be fulfilled; and that waiting led some to doubt God’s goodness. They watched others just give up and walk away from the Lord. That too led others to do the same.
Likewise, many of us face a culture who hates God. Many of us will be met with opposition. Some of you have faced challenges lately that made you wonder whether God cares, whether God sees. Others of you fear man—you fear your supervisor, you fear your circumstances. A few of you have grown very fond of your idols, and they’ve begun to control you and your attitude. Others of you wonder whether the rest will ever come. You’re asking, “How much longer can I go?” Cynicism has become your friend. Others of you have labored well; you’ve fought hard. But there seems to be little reward.
No matter what you’re facing though, take courage in this: Christ finished his works on your behalf. Everything you need to enter God’s rest, he secured for you. All your labors, all your sacrifices, all your endurance will not be in vain. Why? He secured the rest for you. His rest is the goal, and it’s coming for us. It’s part of the joy set before us. No enemies, no sickness or death, creation bountiful, everything rightly ordered, everybody made whole—all in God’s presence.
The warning of chapter 3 pushes us toward that rest. The promise of chapter 4 pulls us toward that rest. Don’t give up, beloved. God’s holds out his promised rest to you. He sent his Son to bring you into it. Trust him. Be faithful until the end. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Strive to enter that rest.
[i] Every time the same type of participle appears in Hebrews, it refers to the past. Meaning, it’s highly unlikely that he’s describing a general, timeless principle about all believers.
[ii] Several recent commentaries have dismissed this interpretation, but I found persuasive the discussion in John Owen, Hebrews, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 89-90, which is only a summary of his more extensive argumentation in John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980; reprint of London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1855). Building on Owen’s work is Nicholas J. Moore, “Jesus as ‘The One Who Entered His Rest’: The Christological Reading of Hebrews 4.10,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36.4 (2014): 383-400, to whom I am indebted for the grammatical observations here.