In Hebrews chapter 4, Paul was anxious that Israel's experience should not be repeated by those who he would be able to influence. As Israel wandered forty years in the wilderness, so forty years had elapsed from the time of Christ's ascension to the time of the writing of the book of Hebrews. Paul’s real concern was that the Israel of his time was no more ready to enter into God's rest than was Israel at the time of Moses.
The great events that Jesus had foretold were imminent. Their glorious city and the temple were about to be laid in ruins. God had at this time waited for the people to adjust themselves from the old ceremonies, to the new. The new covenant had been ratified by the blood of Christ, the old had been done away with, and now it was time that its symbol, the temple should be taken away. But Israel still clung to the old ceremonies. A generation had passed since the Aaronic priesthood had become ineffective, but the Jews still adhered to it. Thus far they had not ‘entered in to His rest’ with Him.
To Paul, the parallel between Israel at the time of the ratification of the old covenant and Israel at the time of the establishment of the new covenant was clear, and also ominous. Would Israel repeat the failures of their fore-fathers? There was every indication that they would. But God would not let them do this without one last appeal to save them from making this fatal mistake. Paul therefore recounts to them Israel's experience and tells them to beware, lest they should repeat the same mistakes.
Israel's failure to properly regard the Sabbath was one chief cause for their rejection by God, as is evident from Ezekiel 20. This was not because of their failure to observe the actual day, but rather because of their failure to understand what the Sabbath symbolised; which was conversion, complete dedication, sanctification, rest, fellowship and holiness — all to God.
“Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, as I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest.” – Heb. 4:1-5
The apostle discusses God's rest that Israel failed to enter, and connects it with the seventh-day Sabbath. This new Testament reference to the Sabbath of creation and its intimate relation to holy living makes this section an important contribution to the Christian doctrine for sanctification. It is not the question of merely a day, but of a life – a life of dedication and holiness. This life Israel of old rejected, and with it also its sign of sanctification, the Sabbath. Hebrews is still in the copies of the Bible today for a reason. Has humanity learnt to overcome all the same weaknesses of our fore-fathers, or are we bound to repeat them? Sadly the latter is too often true, there is danger that we will do the same thing today; hence the reason we have Hebrews to read in our generation.
In verse one, we have the “promise being left.” The present tense used marks that it is present and continuous, it also is present tense and a continuous invitation and counsel to enter. The promise had always been available, but each generation had rejected it, right up until probation closed for that era. Paul could see his generation was about to do the same, but while there was still a little time, God arranged to give one more invitation. The door was still open, and the promise was still accessible, but time was running out. They were again in danger of coming short of entering into His rest, as had Israel of old. God was trying to prevent it.
In verse two, we have mention of the gospel, or the glad tidings. “It was preached to us, as it had been preached to them.” Note the tense of the text. It is not, “Unto them was the gospel preached as well as unto us,” but the reverse: “Unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them.” Through types and ceremonies, in sacrifices and rituals, the fathers received a knowledge of the gospel.
But the record states they received little profit from the teachings, because the word was not “mixed with faith.” This is not merely the word preached, but the word heard, not being mixed with faith. This statement not only puts a high responsibility on preachers, but equally upon the hearers. Even Christ was limited by the receptiveness of the hearers. “He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” – Matt .13:58.
Just remember that sometimes the pulpit is less to blame than the pew!
As many of us are keenly aware, we are prone to blame the preachers for meagre results that preaching brings. This may well be the place where the blame belongs, for there are too many mediocre preachers, men with no vital message to give to others, men who themselves have not been touched by the power of God, who preach tame, dull, lifeless messages that weary both God and man. While this may be true, it is equally true that the responsibility for unsatisfactory results does not always rest upon the minister, and it this aspect which the text deals. It puts the blame onto the hearers. They did not mix faith with hearing.
In verse three, we have the words, “we which have believed do enter.” The last verse of chapter three tells us that Israel, “could not enter in because of unbelief.” Here Paul states that “we which have believed do enter.” This shows that the rest was still open at the very time when Paul was writing, some were entering. “They” could not enter because of unbelief, “we” which believe do enter. In the original text the rest here is exactly that, 'the rest'. It is not merely rest, or 'a' rest. It is a shame that the definite 'the' is left out, for it points clearly to 'His rest' in verse 1, which is God's rest. The point here is that the door is still open, and “we which have believed do enter.” God has not cast away His people. As proof of this the apostle says that some are now entering in. Moses did not bring Israel in, Joshua lead Israel into Canaan, but not into God's rest. God, therefore, had made call after call to each succeeding generation, even in Pauls day His house was not full. There was room for more to enter, and enter they did, they were entering – present tense.
From the very beginning of the creation of this world, God had in mind to provide rest for His people. This is evident from the fact that after the six days of creation God rested and invited men to rest with Him. God did not call Adam and Eve into existence merely to offer them a life of labour and continual work. The very next day after their creation, the second day of their life, He invited them to rest and spend the day with Him. They had had one day of labour, now came the day of rest. In these two days they had a complete taste of life as God intended it for them. God had given them a sample of what He had in store for them. This was done not a thousand years after creation, but as soon as “the works were finished from the foundation of the world.”
Paul here uses this fact to prove that God from the very beginning had in mind to provide His creatures with fullness of life – a complete, satisfying life – a life that combined just the right proportions of labour and rest. In their wilderness experience during those forty years, they saw but little promise of rest. Year after year went by and still they were on the march. In Egypt they had a settled life where they could rear their children and live in comparative peace, even though their lot was hard labour. They had fleshpots and were not dependent upon manna from heaven for sustenance. Altogether, as they compared their present position with that in Egypt, they seemed to have it embedded clearly in their mind that Egypt held many advantages over the empty wilderness. If this was all God had to offer, they may as well go back to Egypt. Yes, God had offered them rest, but there was not rest in sight.
The question may well be asked, why didn't God lead them straight into the Promised Land? Well the simple reason was they were not spiritually prepared. As soon as they were ready, God would take them in, but not before. Their entrance was dependent upon their spiritual preparation. God would give them rest from their wanderings, rest from their enemies as soon as they had rest in their souls. They had been given the promise, “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” – Ex. 33:14. This was the rest that Jesus was talking about when He said, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” – Matt. 11:28,29. This was the call that came to Israel at the time of the captivity; “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.” – Jer. 6:16
“Rest for your souls.” This was the rest into which God would bring His people, the rest in which God was chiefly interested and the people the least. The people put priority in getting to the land of Canaan and finding rest from their wanderings, but the condition for this rest was rest in God, rest for their souls – actually a total submission and trust to Him and letting go of the world completely.
Continually Israel was thinking, “Will God ever bring us into the Promised Land? We have been in the wilderness ten, twenty, thirty years, and we are as far from Canaan as ever. Are we all destined to die here? Will it ever happen? Will we ever get our rest?” Paul is answering their questions in Hebrews 4:3. Yes God will bring His people in. He will give His rest. This has been God's ideal and plan from the time “the works were finished from the foundation of the world.” After His work was finished, He rested. The rest was a definite part of His plan, just as much as His work. Give yourselves to the moulding hand of God, and He will give you rest – rest for your souls, and rest from your wanderings. We are not to look at the immediate for God’s promises. Sometimes He allows us to wait if we are not prepared, for our own benefit, or for others if and when they are prepared, but his plan will be fulfilled.
Coming to the time of Paul now, as he writes for his own generation, the Jews had been God's chosen people; but despite this, it seemed to them that they had suffered more than any other nation. They had certainly lived for many centuries in the Promised Land, but they certainly could not say they had rest from their enemies. A crisis was approaching. They didn’t know what was ahead of them. It’s easy to see now as we look back upon the past, but regardless their opportunities were fast running out. The last call was about to sound. Would they heed the call of Jesus and come to Him that they might find rest for their souls? Was it too late? No, Paul says some are entering. “we which have believed do enter.” That obviously meant others could enter also.
In verses four and five, the seventh day is introduced – the rest of the soul in which God wanted in the hearts of men right from the very start of Creation is closely connected with the Sabbath. Rest in God means oneness with God, a complete dedication of the whole being to Him, every obstacle to perfect communion removed. The rest of the soul means entire sanctification, a yielding to the Master, a complete giving over to Him.
Of this experience the Sabbath is a sign. “I gave them my Sabbaths, to be a sign between them, that they might know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify them.” —Eze.20:12. God further says that, “they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am the Lord thy God.” —verse 20.
In these verses God combines sanctification and the Sabbath, saying the latter – the Sabbath, is a sign of the first – sanctification. These are companion statements to those in Isaiah 56, “Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it and keepeth his hand from doing evil.” – Isa. 56:2. To “the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant,” God says, “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” – Isa. 56: 4,5.
If we think all these promises were for the Jews only, God adds, “The sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it and taketh hold of my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” – Isa. 56:6,7
These statements all make it very clear that the Sabbath is closely connected with true Christianity, with rest in God, with sanctification, so closely that God calls it a sign of sanctification.
As God rested the first Sabbath with His creation in the Garden of Eden, perfection met the eye everywhere. There was nothing to hurt or destroy in God's holy mountain. And as “God did rest the seventh day from all his works.” He saw a finished creation. The whole world united in His praise, and everywhere was harmony and love. The Sabbath was the perfect setting for this occasion, the pearl of all days, the day for which the other days had been a preparation. So, “on the seventh day God ended all his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” —Gen. 2:2,3
God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, He rested the seventh day from all His work. This day which He in the beginning sanctified and upon which He rested, became the sign of sanctification, of holiness, of rest in God. Hebrews calls it “his rest,”, “my rest,” “that rest.” – Heb. 3:18; 4:1,3,5,11
“In this place again.” The author is here repeating what He said before, that the disobedient shall not enter. It is an affirmation of the statement, “To whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not.” – Heb. 3:18
With this background it can easily be understood why God should call attention to the seventh day when He speaks of entering into His rest, as in Hebrews 4:4. The Sabbath is so closely connected with God – with sanctification – that He could not do otherwise. Yes, there is still an opportunity for us to enter into that rest. The era is different, very different, we are now about 2000 years different, but the promise is still exactly the same as it was when Paul penned these words. Yes, the promise is the same, the invitation is the same. The question is, will we enter in and find that rest of soul with God?
Based on Hebrews 4 from M L Andreason