Strive to Enter God’s Rest, part 1 (Hebrews 4:1)

Hebrews 4 promotes the “rest” that was introduced in Hebrews 3:18-19, the rest that the Exodus generation forfeited due to their unbelief, which led to grumbling and complaining, and disobedience, eventually turning to other gods.

As Christians, we understand there is no rest for the soul apart from Christ. St. Augustine, in the fourth century, gave this truth its eloquent, classic expression in his Confessions : “Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Book I.1.1) (Philip Schaff, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , vol. 1, The Confessions of St. Augustine , trans. J. G. Pilkington (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 45).

Blaise Pascal, perhaps the greatest of French minds, wrote even more explicitly in his Pensées :

What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. (VII, para. 425) (Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 33, Pascal , trans. W. F. Trotter (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), p. 244).

The Exodus generation did not experience their rest because they doubted God’s Word.  They didn’t believe God could deliver them from their enemies in the Promised Land.  They perceived these enemies as bigger, stronger and better fortified.  Because they didn’t believe God’s promised victory, they died in the wilderness.  The next generation entered the land and conquered most of it, but forfeited their rest because they failed to eliminate all the godless Canaanites from the land.

Our author’s current generation was in danger of forfeiting their rest.  They had found it in Christ, but were in danger of returning to the more familiar Mosaic law.  They wouldn’t be persecuted for returning to the law; but they would forfeit their rest.  Their experience of Christ was not living up to their expectations.  They had given up their old religion but now they were suffering for their faith in Jesus.

So it is to these people that the author of Hebrews is writing.  And to us, because we, too, are in danger of giving up our faith in Jesus Christ because it is just not popular today to be a Christ follower.  The world calls us homophobic, racist, hypocritical, uncaring, and leaving our brains at the door.  It is clearly not popular being a Christian anymore.

Will we jettison our faith for something easier?

Back in Hebrews 2:4 our author exhorted us not to neglect this great salvation.  Is this the way you think of it?  A great salvation, a marvelous salvation?  Do you see it as so valuable, that like Paul, you would give up everything for the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ?

Just think of our salvation, how God redeemed us out of sin, judgment and death!  Just think of how he adopted us into his family to enjoy fellowship with him and be joint-heirs with Jesus!  Just think how he justified sinners through faith!  Let it sink in how he reconciled rebellious enemies to himself through the death of His only, beloved Son.

Or I could speak of the blessings that come with salvation, things such as peace with God, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a sure and solid hope for the future, the promise of eternal life in the new heaven and new earth, forgiveness of sins, and the guarantee that we will one day be transformed or changed into the moral likeness of Christ himself, what the NT refers to as glorification.  (Sam Storms)

And one of the most precious gifts of this great salvation is rest, the ability not to have to work for or strive for God’s approval.  Jesus said “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” (Matt. 11:28-29).

In the context, Jesus was speaking of the rest that comes from having one’s guilt and shame removed not by the works of the law, but simply through faith in Jesus Christ.

You can clearly see that this promise of “rest” is the focus of our author’s appeal here in Hebrews 4:1-11.  

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 would not 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.

We read in Hebrews 3 about the tragic events that followed in the wake of Israel’s exodus out of slavery to Egypt, how the people griped and complained and didn’t trust God, despite repeated miracles throughout the wilderness wanderings.

The result of this was stated in no uncertain terms in Hebrews 3:11 – “As I swore in my wrath,” said God, “’They shall not enter my rest.’”

We need to understand what this “rest” is, this “rest” from which the unbelieving Israelites were excluded.  We need to know because immediately following this horrible declaration of judgment in Hebrews 3:11 and 3:18 we encounter the word “therefore” in Hebrews 4:1.  Evidently, our author is about to draw a very important conclusion about this issue of the availability of “rest” and the failure of the Israelites to enter in and experience it.

And that conclusion couldn’t be any clearer or more explicit than what we read in 4:1 – “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.”

I believe in the eternal security of the believer.  I believe that God eternally preserves all those who are truly His.  I have never believed otherwise.

The reason I possess this immovable conviction is not simply because it feels right, or because I was taught it since a young boy…none of these are legitimate reasons for believing anything.  I believe it because dozens of passages teach this truth explicitly and many others teach it indirectly.

I believe all “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30).  This is an unbroken chain.  If you have been justified, you will be glorified.  In fact, the glorification of the elect and justified is so sure it is put in the past tense, as if it has already happened.  In fact, we are already “seated in the heavenlies” (Ephesians 2:7).

I believe no true child of God will ever be lost, for “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  Earlier in this chapter Paul had said, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

We are “kept by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:5), not our own strength.  It is God that holds on to us (John 10:28-30) in the two-fold grip of the all-powerful Son and the all-powerful Father.  We are sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30).  Therefore, we are totally, eternally secure.

Nothing in the book of Hebrews contradicts the doctrine of eternal security.  However, the purpose of the book is not to directly teach that doctrine; rather it is focused on warning those who think that they are saved about the dangers of falling away from Jesus.

It is not directed at genuine believers who are really struggling about whether God will keep them through to heaven.  It is rather a strong warning to professing Christians in danger of turning their backs on Jesus.

In that setting, the companion doctrine of eternal security needs to be stressed: the perseverance of the saints.

The writer of Hebrews is nowhere suggesting that true, genuine believers can or will fall away from the father, but he is saying that true Christians will always endure to the end.  Perseverance is a proof of true saving grace.

He said it as clearly as could be said in Hebrews 3:14, “we come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”  This is how we can know we have become partakers of Christ, or to use Pauline terminology, to know how we are “in Christ,” IF we “hold firmly” to the end.  Not that it keeps us saved, but it proves that we have been saved.  Perseverance does not determine our salvation, but it demonstrates our salvation.  We do not become partakers if we persevere, but we persevere because we “have become” partakers.

Remember that twice in chapter 3 our author referred to his readers as “brothers” (3:1, 12).  It appears that as far as can be humanly assessed, these are people who have professed Christ as their Savior.  So why does he talk so strongly about the possibility of falling away?  Because he understands that no one but God knows those who are truly His. 

So there can be among the gathered people of God those who have made some kind of profession of faith, those who may have walked an aisle, raised their hands, signed a card, those who have been baptized, those who have become members of a church, and those who are involved in serving Christ or involved in leadership, but in the final analysis are still without the life of God in their souls.  They were never born again.

That is why Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 are so chilling.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

These people are doing some amazing things.  They are serving God, doing it in the name of Christ (i.e., for his glory)—prophesying, casting out demons, doing miracles—and yet in the final analysis will be excluded from heaven because Christ “never” knew them.  His words are clear, He “never knew” them.  It’s not that He knew them before and then they did something wrong and he forgot them and excluded them.  No, they had always been excluded because Christ never knew them.

Listen to me:  Anyone who has been associated with the church, its experiences and lifestyle, still must beware of the cultural religion that falls woefully short of personally experiencing salvation.  You can adopt the lifestyle, copy the language, imitate the convictions and yet never possessed a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Demas was a companion of Paul whom Paul must have considered with esteem, because he mentions him along with Luke in Colossians 4:14.

Now, Paul was a great guy, but where the work of the ministry was concerned he had little patience with those who weren’t “sold-out faithful,” who weren’t “all in.”

On his first missionary journey a man named John Mark went with Paul and Barnabas, but when things got rough, he ran home to momma with his tail between his legs.

Sometime later, when Paul and Barnabas were getting ready to go out on another missionary journey, Barnabas, being an encourager, wanted to take John Mark along, give him a second chance.  Paul’s response was “no way!”  And they argued about it and split up.

My point is not to debate the rightness or wrongness of this situation, but just to show that Paul wasn’t about to coddle someone who was not up to the task.  Demas must have been that kind of man.

Yet, in Paul’s last letter, with Paul awaiting imminent death, he wrote to Timothy and said, “Do your best to come to me quickly.”  Why was this such a matter of urgency?  “for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:10).

John Mark was restored, but in the end Demas deserted Paul (2 Timothy 4:10-11).  The doctrine of eternal security guarantees that authentic Christians will never be lost.  It does not affirm that counterfeit Christians will be saved.

The most notorious example of all is the one who lived among Jesus’ disciples for more than two years.  I’m talking about Judas Iscariot.  His skills at hypocrisy were so refined that none but God himself could see through him.

What am I saying?  That the only thing that can distinguish a true Christian from a counterfeit one is an encounter with opposition.  By the grace of God true Christians will endure; counterfeits, on the other hand, will wash out.

The writer of Hebrews understands this.  He knows this theological truth.

But even he had not been given the privilege of knowing who the elect are.

He loves each and every one of these people and wants to believe the best about them.  Many may have made a profession of faith in his very presence and even been baptized by him, so he makes his appeal to them as “brothers” and warns them “don’t fall away…don’t fall away.”

Eternal security does not mean that God will save apostates.  Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:12-13 “ if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself.”

If any of these Hebrews fall away fully and finally, it is because they were never saved to begin with.

Listen to Spurgeon: “We detest the doctrine that a man who has once believed in Jesus will be saved even if he altogether forsook the path of obedience.  We deny that such a turning aside is possible to the true believer.  No beloved, a man if he be indeed a believer in Christ, will not live after the will of the flesh.  When he does fall into sin, it will be his grief and misery, and he will never rest until he is cleansed from his guilt.  But I will say this of the believer: that if he could live as he would like to live, he would live a perfect life.”

Isn’t that true?  Is it true of you?

You may have heard someone say, “Once saved, always saved” and then they go out and live any way they want to.

But Spurgeon is saying that the true believer will want to live a life that is pleasing to God, not pleasing to themselves.

1 John 3 says that God has put his seed in my heart and changed my very nature.  In this way the children of God and the children of the devil are “obvious.”  They stand out from each other.  A true child of God will not live like the world.  A true child of God will not live in such a way that people cannot tell the difference between a pagan and a Christian.  The Bible says the difference should be “obvious.”

So here in Hebrews is a pastor, writing to those whom he dearly loves…some of whom are giving serious consideration to turning away from Christ.  So he warns them that to do so would be to forfeit their rest, to forfeit their salvation in Christ—their peace with God, their freedom from the guilt and shame of sin.

He does this by citing the historical experience of their own forbears.  The exodus generation had started out so wonderfully.  They started out mightily from Egypt, experiencing miracle after miracle, many displays of God’s supernatural power.  They all started out so wonderfully, yet ironically only two adults out of many hundreds of thousands made it alive to the Promised Land.

So many evidences, yet they persisted in unbelief, and as a result they were debarred from entering the Promised Land.

Were they saved?  The Bible doesn’t say…in those words.  But just keep these things in mind.

Being born a Jew had no saving benefit.  Experiencing many miracles did not guarantee salvation.  Like us, they had to have faith, and many of them disbelieved.  Don’t let that happen to you.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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