Strive to enter God’s rest. That seems like an oxymoron. He’s saying “work hard not to work hard for your salvation.” Don’t go back under the Mosaic law and be weighed down by the onerous burden of having to perfectly obey every law. Not only that, but the encrustations to the law that the Pharisees had added over the years. Don’t go back to that!
Why would anyone want to go back to that? Well, because it was familiar and comfortable. Because they would escape persecution. Because then their peers would accept them.
We are in Hebrews 4. The author of Hebrews is drawing a conclusion based upon the historical experience of the exodus generation that he had recounted in Hebrews 3. They had forfeited their rest due to unbelief in God’s goodness and God’s promises, and the current generation of professing Jewish Christians were in danger of doing the same.
The “rest” for the exodus generation was freedom from slavery and victory over their enemies so that they would be able to live and flourish in the Promised Land. The exodus generation forfeited that.
The “rest” for these first century recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews was not a strip of geography, but an infinitely more glorious and valuable antitype, the full and final and ultimate experience of salvation, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from slavery to sin and Satan, freedom from judgment and death.
Hebrews 4, starting in 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 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.
Unbelief caused the exodus generation to forfeit their rest, and unbelief would be the cause that this generation (or any generation) would forfeit their rest.
I want to establish four principles regarding this promised rest.
First, ultimate rest necessitates belief in the Gospel. Look at verse 1, “therefore” (as a consequence of this historical example of unbelief and failure with the exodus generation)…” while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.”
We talked last week about the doctrines of eternal security and perseverance, and that true Christians will persevere, in other words, they will not fail to reach that rest.
Two important observations can be made.
First, the failure of God’s people, the Jews, to enter the promised land because of unbelief, did not in any way nullify God’s promise to bring his people into rest. God always keeps His promises, even though some individuals or generations may forfeit them. They are still in effect.
Thus, God is still extending this promise of rest to people today. The promise of entering God’s rest still stands in this current day.
Now, it is clear from this present application that the promise of entering into his rest does not mean the Promised Land. The current audience of this letter, and we today, are not being promised a piece of geography. We aren’t being given citizenship in the land of Israel whenever we trust in Christ. Rather, the author of Hebrews is talking about something better and greater—the fullness of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ.
That promise is still available to us this very moment.
If you are not a Christian, you need to know this promise. God’s promise of eternal rest is open to you. It is possible for you to experience reconciliation with God, peace with God, forgiveness of all your guilt and shame, freedom from slavery to sin and Satan, freedom from judgment and eternal damnation.
However, it was clear in chapter 3 and again here in vv. 7-9 that this offer is extended to us “today,” at this very moment. It may not continue to be offered tomorrow. We have no assurance of that.
What this means is that a positive response to this promise should be made today. I think if you are still exploring it and thinking about it tomorrow, that God extends his mercy. But if you refuse Him today, there is no guarantee that the Spirit will be calling you tomorrow.
Second, falling short of ultimate rest ought to be of great concern to every professing Christian. It you are a believer, you should give some concerned thought to the question of whether you are, or could ever, fall away.
Somehow there are people today who have come to believe that what the doctrine of eternal security means is that no Christian ever needs to look at himself with any kind of scrutiny or assessing—that it is always and in every way sinful to ever doubt one’s salvation, that any kind of questioning or critiquing of oneself is out of bounds.
But the writer of Hebrews, and Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5 and the apostle John throughout 1 John would say otherwise. Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?–unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5)
In the original of Hebrews 4:1, the word phobos is used, revealing a strong concern. Literally, it reads, “let us be fearful…let us be scared!”
“Such warnings against apostasy are misunderstood when they are thought to teach that true believers may fall away and be lost. For just as accidents are avoided by obeying the road signs which are put up for our safety, so we are persevered from the dangers of our pilgrimage by paying heed to those warnings which are annexed to the promise of salvation.”
True believers shouldn’t have to live in fear because they prove themselves; they do persevere.
In Acts 27 Paul was traveling to Rome and a hurricane comes up that tosses them to and fro and this goes on for days. Finally, the men on the ship give up hope and they panic and they ready themselves to die…but Paul speaks up. He says (summary of vv. 1-25), “God has given His word that no one on this ship will be lost. This ship will be destroyed, but everyone on it will be saved.”
At that point, God had spoken. Those men could stake their lives on that promise. The sovereign God had given his word. It was unqualified; it was final. “The ship would be lost, every life would be preserved.”
Yet, several days later, as the hurricane persisted, several men attempted to escape from that ship in a lifeboat. Paul had no hesitation going up to the Roman soldiers and say, “No one will be saved at all if they try and get away from this ship.” So the Roman soldier cut the rope to that “alternative method of salvation.”
The point is this: Those ordained to salvation, only obtain it by using the appointed means to that end.
We depend upon the preserving grace of God. So we do not say, “I’m going to live as a please and believe what I want, because after all, I’m eternally secure.”
No, you do the very opposite. You guard your heart with all diligence. You make no provision for the flesh with regard to its lusts, precisely because you are very mindful of the possibility of your own apostasy. You know very well that you could fall away, were it not for the grace of God keeping you.
Believers overcome. 1 John 5:4 says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” Our writer, is afraid that those who had heard the gospel were now, in the face of opposition, in danger of the possibility of turning away from Christ. To do that would be to “fall short” of the promise.
Here is the current application, verse 2 in Hebrews 4, “For good news came to us just as to them…” They heard the good news. Now the exodus generation did not hear the gospel, but rather the promise of inheriting the land. They heard that promise about the land, but it did them no good. Why? Because they did not combine the hearing with believing. Faith has to be joined to listening, believing must proceed from hearing. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Israel had heard the “good news” (that is, the good news brought by Caleb and Joshua that the land was theirs for the taking, the Nephilim notwithstanding).
So confident were Caleb and Joshua in heralding the good news that they said, “They are bread for us” (Numbers 14:9), or in today’s language, “It’s a piece of cake!”
But Israel’s response to the good news was tragically deficient: “the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” Literally, “they didn’t mix it with faith.” As the NEB says, “They brought no admixture of faith to the hearing of it.”
This is amazing because they had had constant witness of God’s character and provision. They had the spectacular historical examples of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. And there were also the ubiquitous pillars of cloud and fire and the day-in, day-out provisions of manna. But now, faced with a new challenge, they simply did not trust God and so failed to enter their rest. Many, perhaps thousands, were believers (they believed in God), but only two really trusted God and found rest.
Be afraid, he tells us in vv. 1-2, that what happened to them might happen to you. Be careful lest you become bored and indifferent and eventually become hardened in your heart and fail to embrace God’s promised rest by faith in Jesus.
So, am I saying that living in fear of forfeiting your salvation is the ideal way to live.
Well, there are passages that tell us to have a greater concern than we often do: such as “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:13) and “let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
But there really is only one thing to fear: faithlessness, refusing to believe or refusing to continue to believe.
But this is like a child whose parents tell him or her to “stay out of the streets. It’s dangerous out there.” As long as they don’t play near the streets, they have no need to live in fear and anxiety. Fear only arises, and it should, when one gets close to the street, or maybe we should say, when one gets close to the street without holding a parent’s hand.
Use the bad feeling of fear to cause you to run back to the safe yard of God’s goodness and promises. The normal Christian life, then, is aware of the fearful danger of unbelief, but does not live paralyzed or terrorized by it. It lives in faith. Fear only rises where faith starts to weaken. As long as faith remains strong, there is no need to fear.
So, hear the gospel and believe the gospel. Hearing is not enough. There will be a great number of people on that final day who have had the opportunity to hear the gospel, but will be ushered into eternal damnation and separation from God because they did not believe. The prerequisite for spending eternity in heaven is not hearing the gospel, but believing the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again. The promise of ultimate rest is the reward that God gives to believers.
What did Paul say when the Philippians jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Very simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s it. That’s all that God requires.
John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…” It’s just that simple. Those who inherit eternal life do so by faith…and only by faith…and by faith alone. We are declared “just” before God on the basis of faith alone.
Have you believed the gospel? Heaven is for those who have set their hope on the work of Jesus Christ alone. It is not enough to hear the gospel, or to know the facts of the gospel. To have all of that but not believing in it, not trusting in it, is to fall short of the promise.
The gospel is to be embraced by faith. That is the way God ordained for you and me to enter that rest. You will not experience rest unless you believe in the gospel.
Principle Two is ultimate rest is the experience of God’s own rest.
Look again at verse 3: “Now we who have believed enter that rest.”
“Trust brings rest,” says Alexander Maclaren, “because it sweeps away, as the north wind does the banded clouds on the horizon, all the deepest causes of unrest.” It sweeps away the guilt and shame, the uneasy conscience, and gives us peace and assurance and confidence.
The principle is so simple: the more trust, the more rest. There is not a fretful soul in the world who is trusting. “The message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (v. 2)—and so it is with us. Our belief or unbelief makes all the difference.
Now, what is the rest that the author of Hebrews is referring to? Verse 3 goes on to say “as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” My rest, God’s rest. He quotes from Psalm 95, but only so that we will clearly hear those last two words. In verse 1 it was called “his rest.”
God rested? Of course He did, not because He was tired, but because He was finished. Verse 3 goes on to say, “his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” The “foundation of the world” was the time and act of creation. Verse 4 clarifies, “For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’”
The first mention of “rest” in the Bible is found in Genesis 2:1-2. There it obviously describes God resting after the work of creation. God entered into a time of celebratory joy and a glorious satisfaction that came with knowing that all he had made was “good,” in fact “very good.”
The second instance of “rest” focuses on its geographical dimensions. Simply put, the promised land of Canaan was an expression and offer of “rest” from God to his people.
A long time before the promised rest in the land of Canaan was ever an issue, God entered into His rest…a rest into which He fully intends to bring His own people. A rest of which the land was merely symbolic.
Let me explain.
If you read the creation account carefully, you will see a repeated refrain throughout the six days of creation that reads like this: “There was evening and morning…the first day…the second day…the third day…the fourth, fifth and sixth.”
That phrase marks out the boundaries of each day. But when we come to the seventh day, there is no such demarcation. All we read is this: “On the seventh day God rested from all His work.” But there are no boundaries, no parameters, no limits to close off that period of time…as if it goes on forever.
When he finished the cosmos, he entered into an unending epoch of rest. It wasn’t because God was tired and needed to catch his breath, nor was it because God doesn’t do anything anymore (deism). God’s rest is not inactivity, for Jesus said in John 5, “My Father is always working.”
Now, we’re to understand God’s rest like this: At the conclusion of God’s magnificent creation, there was nothing more to add. It was perfect, complete, harmonious. It was exactly the way God wanted it to be. It was “very good.” And that’s what God’s rest is: perfect satisfaction, perfect peace, perfect contentment in the knowledge that God has done very well. John will expand on this in Revelation 21:3-5: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”