Meditations in Hebrews 4: 23. The ‘Rest’ God has for us
Heb 4:1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.
In chapters 3 and 4 the word ‘rest’ comes up ten times, twice in chapter 3 and 8 times in chapter 4. We need to understand what it means. However, the explanation is spread out over the next eleven verses so we are going to have to do a large passage study, which unravels as the writer goes on. But be warned, this is, in our opinion, one of the most complex arguments in this book and it will take some thinking through. We will, however, do all we can to work through it to explain it clearly and then at the end, produce a summary of our findings. Now as we come to these verses, I know I usually use the NIV but in this instance that version is, I believe, confusing and commentators and interpreters have struggled with it, so I am going to use the ESV which I think is more straight forward.
The ‘Therefore’ links us with the previous chapter that he ended with this reminder of what had gone on after the Exodus from Egypt. The ‘rest’ referred to in 3:11 and 3:18 was clearly the Promised Land which, through lack of faith, that earlier generation failed to take.
So now our writer starts with a warning which he assumes at the outset we will understand: “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.” (v.1) Now I warned just now that this is a difficult argument to follow so let’s put out front what the writer is going to prove from the Old Testament Scriptures, that “entering his rest” has its origins at the end of the days of Creation, but was a term used to apply to Israel entering the Promised Land, BUT ALSO at any other subsequent time when God challenges and calls us.
Let’s just assume to start with that this ‘rest’ is in general terms ‘God’s goal for each one of us’. When ‘rest’ is used as ‘the goal of our salvation’, he tells us that the promise is still there, that it IS possible to enter a similar state that God entered when He finished Creation, so, says our writer, don’t miss the goal.
In case we haven’t understood the jump between the OT and NT goals, he links that Goal with the Gospel: “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.” (v.2) The ‘us’ is us who are now Christians and the ‘they’ refers to the Israelites under Moses. The implication is that they were told there was a land that God had for them, but it needed taking by faith. The only trouble was that they didn’t have that faith. There is a subtle indirect warning behind this, for us not to be casual about the Gospel. Be careful that you haven’t fully received it, is what he is saying.
Now in verse 3 he first reassures us because we have believed, and reminds us (by way of warning) what happened to those in the OT who didn’t believe: “For we who have believed enter that rest, (so we’re OK, in contrast with them) as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’”, (even though that ‘rest’ existed from after the Creation) although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” i.e. God’s rest – His own goal achieved, Creation and rest – existed thereafter and He is telling us that we too can enter into that experience of rest if we come to Him by faith.
The words, “my rest” he referred to in the quote back in 3:11 and now here in 4:3 suggest that it is as if the Promised Land isn’t the only thing God means when he speaks about us not entering HIS rest. When he writes, “And yet,” it’s as if the writer means, “But don’t forget the Creation story where God finished His work and then rested,” and so he goes on to speak of that, “For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” (citing Gen 2:2) That was God’s rest, the completion of Creation. God had done His part. When he now refers back to that warning of Psa 95: “And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” (v.5) it was simply to remind us that although God has a rest (a position of having achieved His goal of Creation and thus now being able to relax, so to speak) that particular group of unbelieving people did not enter into it. That’s what the prophetic warning was in that Psalm.
The ESV arrangement of verses 6 and 7 show us a “this-then argument” i.e. IF one group of people failed to enter THEN God sets up a new way of thinking about it: “Since therefore (IF) it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, (THEN) again he appoints a certain day, “Today”, saying through David so long afterwards, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
The Message Version explains it well: “God keeps renewing the promise and setting the date as today, just as he did in David’s psalm, centuries later than the original invitation: Today, please listen, don’t turn a deaf ear . . .” or as the Easy to Read Version puts it, “So God planned another special day. It is called “today.” He spoke about that day through David a long time later using the words we quoted before: “If you hear God’s voice today, don’t be stubborn.” i.e. merely because that one group of people failed to enter into the ‘rest’ God had for them, that was not the end of the story. God applies the word again and again in history so it can apply numerous times, just as he did in that Psalm of David’s.
Do you see what the writer is saying? It seems complicated but is, in reality, very simple. The warning came first of all to those Israelites to enter the ‘rest’ God had planned for them, the Promised Land, but when they failed to do that, it didn’t annul the fact that after the Creation God rested and used that ‘rest’ as an illustration of what everyone who came to Him by faith could experience – rest, in a completed world, with all of God’s provision! The goal of God’s plans from before the beginning of time, is a ‘rest’ that means being at peace with God and at rest in His will, with all that He now has available for us.
There is more to come but we’ll leave it until the next one. There has been a lot to take in and you may need to reread the whole of the study to catch it. (We will do a recap in the next study) The outworking of all this? God has an experience that He wants for all of His children, all those who will come to Him by faith, an experience whereby we can be at complete rest in the knowledge that we have received the end goal of God’s plans – His salvation through Jesus Christ that reconciles us to Him, so no more striving, no more worry, no more wondering, ‘Am I good enough for God?’ As Jesus said on the Cross, “It is finished!” Hallelujah!