A few weeks back when we were looking at Hebrews 2 and this reference to the “world to come” over which redeemed humanity will reign, we found ourselves going back to creation (before Genesis 3) to get a glimpse there in the past of what will one day be in the future. We noted then that sometimes you have to look back to see what is to come. Well, I think it’s best to do the same thing this morning, especially as we come to look at Hebrews 4:1-13.
The reason I say that is because the thread that is woven throughout our text this morning is that of “rest.” It was introduced to us in the text we looked at last week as in 3:11, the author of Hebrews quotes David from Psalm 95 saying that the unbelieving Israelites in the wilderness were not able to enter God’s rest. And our text this morning begins in 4:1 saying, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands . . .” So, what is going on with this idea of rest? Well, as I noted, sometimes you have to look back to the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1-2 and see what is to come, and in this case, to see what the author of Hebrews is talking about. And I think it’s profitable for us to do that this morning before we dive into the details of this argument.
Now, the reason we’re pushed to look back as early as Genesis 1-2 is because the author of Hebrews points us there. He continually pushes us to think through these OT references to rest. Throughout our text, he cites OT texts that address rest. He quotes from Psalm 95 in verses 3, 5, and 7 (as he had in 3:7-11), all of which references “rest.” He refers to rest under Joshua in verse 8. And he points us back to God’s rest at creation in verse 4 as he writes, “For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’”
So let’s simply think through this idea as it’s developed throughout the Bible. In the beginning, as God created the world, the text would tell us that he created something on this day, something else on that day, etc. And each of the first six days would end with this phrase, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (or second, third, etc., see Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). But then we read in Genesis 2:2-3, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
That’s a text many of us are no doubt familiar with, but what we may have never given thought to is the fact that this day doesn’t have the typical refrain that the others have. That is, there is no corresponding “and there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.” And I think the reason why is because Genesis 2 is showing us that God’s rest was much more than his ceasing of creation activity on that seventh day; it was showing us a state of blessedness that would have existed if sin had not entered the world. And as we go through the rest of the Bible, we see that this is precisely how we are to see it. It’s as if God’s rest on that seventh day was picturing for us the kind of relationship that God’s people were to have with him. We were in his world he’d made for us to rule over, under his care and love, and living the life he’d made for us as his image-bearers. We might sum it up as God’s people, under God’s care, over God’s world, in a state of peace. That is the rest of Genesis 2.
With Genesis 3, then, that rest is lost. Adam and Eve are driven out of God’s land as they are driven from the garden. They no longer reign over the world as they ought. And they no longer reflect God in their character as they were intended to do. And so the rest of the Bible begins to answer the question, “How can we get back into God’s land, God’s presence, God’s rest?”
When God brings Israel out of Egypt, several years later, the Bible clearly echoes what we saw with Adam. Israel, like Adam, is called God’s son (Ex. 4:22; Luke 3:38). Israel is going to be brought into a land over which they can reign and represent God, like Adam had been placed in the garden to do the same. But, sadly, again, like Adam, Israel disobeyed. Therefore, God pronounces judgment on them (like he had Adam) saying that they would not enter the promised land. But, as you may have noticed from our text, when David provides for us a record of God’s word of judgment, he actually says, “As I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest.”
In other words, what God was doing with Israel as he delivered them from slavery and was bringing them into the promised land was more than just a nice blessing for them. He was giving them a picture of the rest that had existed in the garden and was lost in the fall. Like Genesis 2, we were to have seen God’s people, under God’s care, reigning over God’s land, in a state of peace. But Israel wouldn’t obey, so they did not enter God’s rest.
“But wait,” someone might say, “sure, that generation of Israelites didn’t enter the land. But the next did.” And sure enough when God brings that generation of Israelites into the land he says to them, in Joshua 22;4, “And now the LORD your god has given rest to your brothers to your brothers as he promised them.”
Ah, so there it is. Rest restored. But you can tell that this rest was simply a picture and not the full restoration of what was seen in Genesis 2. There still remains a rest to be restored. And sure enough, the author of Hebrews tells us in our text that the true rest wasn’t achieved under Joshua, “For,” he reasons, “if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on” (Heb 4:8). And what he’s referring to is David’s words in Psalm 95 that he’s already quoted.
You see, David wrote Psalm 95 a long time after Israel was first brought into the promised land. And I’ve already mentioned (and will mention again), the author of Hebrews is a really good reader of the OT. Therefore, he’s simply making an observation. If rest had been achieved under Joshua, why “so long afterward” (v. 7) was David still saying, “Today” that people should not harden their hearts like those did to whom God said, “They shall not enter my rest”? And his reasoning is that there must remain a rest for the people of God beyond whatever they experienced in the promised land because the Bible keeps talking about it. Clearly that rest of Genesis 2 hasn’t been restored, but it remains to be entered into by God’s people.
With this observation he confirms that the land and the people’s blessed relationship with God there (however short it was) was only a type, shadow, or picture of what God was really holding out to his people. Actually God wanted to bring his people back into a glorious relationship with him like was pictured in Genesis 2. He wanted to bring them back to the state of Sabbath rest pictured in the beginning where we would be in God’s perfect world, under God’s perfect care, reigning and representing God perfectly. That’s what we looked at a few weeks ago in Hebrews 2 when we spoke of this glorious world to come, and now we can add that the coming glorious new creation can be characterized as a state of rest where we can cease from our labors and sufferings that we face in this age.
This is no doubt what Jesus is pointing us to when he comes in Matthew 11:28 saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” It’s not that Jesus just realized everyone wasn’t getting enough sleep in the first century world. Rather, he was saying, “This glorious eternal state that was first pictured in the garden, I can give it to you.” And this picture of rest is seen in Revelation 14 where we are told that the wicked have no rest as they are tormented day and night (v. 11) but that God’s people are blessed and “may rest from their labors” (v. 13).
Therefore, as we’ve noted, when we come to Hebrews 4:1-13 (and even our text last week, 3:7-19), the author of Hebrews is highlighting a thread that runs throughout the whole Bible—literally from Genesis to Revelation—rest. And what he’s saying is that this Sabbath rest is the blessed state of the people of God, under God’s love and care, in God’s good world (i.e. the new creation to come), reigning and reflecting his rule as his image-bearers, and that it is ours if we “hold fast our original confidence firm to the end” (3:14). What then does he want us to do in these verses in light of this rest that can be entered into by God’s people? He wants us to fear and to strive. Let’s take them one at a time.
We should fear that we might not enter God’s rest.
Now this kind of exhortation to fear can be a bit hard to handle for believers. After all, we can point to other texts that seem to suggest we shouldn’t fear. For example, John writes in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” So, it would seem that we should not fear punishment. Yet, our text begins, “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). So, how do we square the fact that perfect love casts out fear because fear has to do with punishment and the fact that we are actually exhorted here to fear not entering God’s rest?
I think that John Piper gave a really helpful illustration of this once that I’m going to alter ever so slightly and see if we can’t make sense of this. Let’s say after the service you were talking to a young child, and you said, “You are free to go out and play on the playground that has slides, etc. and is inside a fence, and you can play until we’re ready to go. However, I don’t want you wandering outside of the fence, up in the grassy area out front near the road because I don’t want you to be hit by a car.”
Then, here is the question, “Do you want your child to be gripped by a sense of fear about being hit by a car?” Well, the answer is yes and no, isn’t it? As long as he’s playing on the playground inside the fence, his heart can be completely free of fear. The thought of a car doesn’t have to enter his mind. But, the second he thinks about wandering out of that fence and heading toward the road, you do indeed want fear to grip his heart, don’t you?
I think that illustration helps explain how the Bible can hold up a life free of the fear of punishment while also containing an exhortation to fear. For the believer, you should live your life free of the fear of divine punishment. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. The Father delights in you. Jesus died and rose for you. The Spirit indwells you. Live there, in his love, free of fear. But the second you think, “I want to run from my Father. I want to dive into sin,” then you need to let fear grip your heart, like that child tempted to run toward the street. In other words, as long as you’re walking in repentance and faith, rejoice in perfect love that casts out fear. But the second you’re wanting to turn away from obedient faith, let fear drive you back.
And this is why the author of Hebrews tells his hearers to fear. They are feeling the pull away from Jesus. They are being tempted to run from Jesus toward the Old Testament sacrificial system. And he’s telling them that God has a rest for his people that was first seen in the garden, was pictured in the promised land, and is held out to us. But it’s not a guarantee for all people. Nor is it ours simply because we’ve heard the gospel. He notes about that generation of Israelites that died in the wilderness that the good news that came to us also came to them, but then he adds, “But the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (v. 2).
The Israelites didn’t believe, and consequently God did not allow them to enter his rest, but they faced his wrath. That’s why he said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” (v.3). And now these Jewish believers were standing in the same place. We might imagine the Israelites, on the brink of the promised land, deciding whether they’ll believe and obey or fail to believe and disobey. Well, the author is saying, “You’re standing on the brink as well. Will you continue to believe in Jesus, walk in continued repentance and faith, and enter his rest? Or, will you be like the Israelites, turn from Jesus in unbelief and not enter his rest?” And his exhortation is to let fear—fear of God’s wrath—grip they’re hearts as they’re thinking, “I think I’ll choose to turn from Jesus in unbelief.”
So, brothers and sisters, the reminder to us is that fear is a perfectly acceptable response in our heart if we’re tempted to run after sin. And if you’ve been holding on to that which you know the Lord condemns, I’m pleading with you this morning to be afraid of the wrath of God. Be afraid that you’ll not enter his rest but face his judgment. And let that fear turn you to repentance.
And don’t think that somehow you might fool the Lord, as if he doesn’t see what you’re doing in your sin. It is true that an individual can fool masses of people around him. There have been individuals in my life who suddenly declared they were no longer followers of Christ, and I thought, “I did not see that coming. I had no idea.” But the Lord did. That’s the point of verses 12-13 in our text. After reminding us of the Israelites who disobeyed and did not enter God’s rest, the author reminds us of the word of God. He writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”
Do you see what he’s saying here? Don’t get caught up in asking, “Wait, can you really separate joints and marrow, and do we really have a soul and a spirit?” That’s not the point. The point is that God can see through things that no one else can. God sees the secret things that are hidden to everyone else. We’re all completely exposed before the one who judges us. So do not think today that just because everyone else around you is fooled and thinks all is well with you that you can keep holding on to your sin and be okay. God sees. And on the day of judgment you’ll fool no one. So, if you’re unwilling to repent today, let fear take hold of your heart and drive you to the crucified and risen Lord. Jesus will lavish his grace on all who run to him in repentance and faith, but those who refuse to repent and believe will face the wrath of the Lamb, and that is something you should be terribly afraid of as you walk in unrepentance.
But there is also a positive exhortation. We should strive to enter God’s rest.
We should strive to enter God’s rest.
From verses 4-10, the author of Hebrews walks through the biblical storyline to show that God still holds out a promise of entering his rest. It’s an argument I tried to establish from the outset to orient us to what he was talking about by rest. He notes in verse 4 that God rested from all of his works, establishing a picture of this relationship we were to have with God had sin not entered the world. He notes in verse 5 that the Bible keeps talking about this reality of God’s rest even after Genesis 2, and he notes in verses 6-7 that it remains for us to enter or to fail to enter through unbelief, as the Israelites did in the wilderness. In verse 8 he notes that though Joshua gave them rest, that wasn’t the full reality of what God promised; otherwise David wouldn’t have kept holding out the hope of rest for God’s people so long after Joshua in Psalm 95. And he therefore concludes in verse 9 that God’s intent for his people is to know the glorious relationship with God of dwelling in a state of rest with him that will mean nothing less than (here in v. 10) resting from our works. The days of painful labor, enduring in suffering, and persevering in affliction will be done. We will get to dwell with God forever in a new creation in a state of glory that we’ve never known. And all of that builds to his exhortation in verse 11 as he says, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.”
So, in light of that exhortation, let me ask you what you’re striving for. Is it to be known? Is it for the passing and temporary pleasures of sin? Is it to have riches and comfort? Is it for everyone to recognize that you’re a great husband, wife, parent, or whatever? There are a hundred things that we can find ourselves striving for, and we allow them to shape every decision of our lives. But the author of Hebrews tells us that we need to be striving to enter God’s rest.
What we need to allow to shape our lives is the reality that there remains a rest for us to enter. It is a glorious state of walking with our God, under his care, over his creation, perfectly reflecting his image. We see it briefly in Genesis 2, but we’ve never known it. We see it typified in Israel coming into the land, but that’s just a pale shadow. But it’s more glorious than we can imagine. In fact, it’s glorious enough that it should shape our lives. These early Jewish believers had taken their eyes off of God’s promised rest and were tempted to miss it just like the Israelites in the wilderness. And my prayer is that it won’t be said of us that we too were distracted by temporary things that we allowed to shape our lives and pull us away. Instead, I pray that it might be said of us that we lived our lives with our eyes on that rest to come, allowing it to bring us to repentance and faith again and again. We lived so focused that the pull of sin was met with fear that led to repentance because we wanted nothing to keep us from God’s promised rest for his saints.
So it seems fitting for us today to repent if fear has gripped our hearts because of sin. After all, that’s why he’s told us to fear. He doesn’t want us to be paralyzed but to let the fear lead us to repentance. And it also seems fitting that we today renew our focus on the rest that is ours in Christ and will be ours fully at the resurrection. Let’s not forget it as we continue to walk in repentance and faith in his age, seeking to love our Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. May the Lord come quickly and we know that promised rest. Amen.