The letter continues using the example of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness to summon believers not to make the same error of unbelief and thereby fail to enter God’s “rest.” In the desert, Yahweh decreed that the generation of Israelites freed from Egyptian bondage would not enter the promised land. And so, disciples who fail to “hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end” will face a similar fate.
The promised “rest” corresponds to the inheritance that the generation of Israelites led by Moses failed to receive, namely, possession of the land of Canaan. However, the consequences for followers of Jesus who turn away from his superior word are far more severe.
THOSE WHO HEAR
Chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews form a single literary unit that sets the stage for the further explanation of Christ’s priesthood. That subject was introduced in the preceding chapter, and the narrative will return to it at the end of chapter 4.
“Let us fear, therefore, lest haply, a promise being left of entering into his rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good tidings preached to us even as also they, but the word of hearing did not profit them because it was not united by faith with them that heard. For we who have believed do enter into that rest, even as he has said, As I swore in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works, and in this place again, They shall not enter into my rest” – (Hebrews 4:1-5).
“With them who heard.” This clause refers to the remnant of Israel that did hear in faith and reported the “good tidings” about the land of Canaan. But the message did “not profit” the rest of the people because they did not believe the positive report by Caleb and Joshua.
The letter continues to apply lessons from the commentary in Psalm 95 to its recipients. Since Israel failed to enter the “rest” provided by God from the “foundation of the world,” logically, the promise remains open and must be available for others.
“Having believed, we are entering into that rest.” The Greek clause uses a progressive present tense verb or “entering” to stress the ongoing process in which followers of Jesus are now engaged. They began to enter this “rest” when they first “believed” and have continued to do so ever since.
The clause “having believed” translates a verb in the aorist tense that corresponds most closely to the English simple past tense. It looks at the initial act of faith in the believer’s past.
As for the unbelieving, “they shall not enter.” God fully intended for Israel to enter the land of Canaan, but she did not because of her disobedience and unbelief.
“God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” The citation is from Genesis 2:2 and refers to His original creative efforts that were completed in “six days,” and from which He ceased on the seventh day.
“Seeing, therefore, it remains that some should enter thereinto, and they to whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter because of disobedience, he again designates a certain day, Today, saying in David so long a time afterward, even as has been said before, Today if you shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts. For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remains, therefore, a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. Let us, therefore, give diligence to enter into that rest that no man falls after the same example of disobedience” – (Hebrews 4:6-11).
“So long a time afterward.” This refers to the period between the time of Joshua and David. Since the promise of “rest” was reaffirmed in the Psalm centuries after Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness, the promise is still valid for others. And, as before, “glad tidings” or “gospel” refers to the good report given to Israel by Joshua and Caleb. And this is confirmed by the reference to Joshua (“if Joshua had given them rest”).
Since there yet remains a “sabbath rest” for believers, the passage does not refer to the weekly Sabbath. That would make little sense in a letter intended to prevent disciples of Jesus from leaving the church for the synagogue. Moreover, believers began to enter this “rest” following their conversion, and they are doing so even now as long as they continue in the faith.
In the passage, “rest” represents the Greek noun katapausis, a general term for the cessation of labor. “Sabbath rest” introduces a new term into the argument. This translates sabbatismos which is used elsewhere for “keeping the Sabbath.”
Here, it harks back to the original creation when God “rested” from his works – “from the foundation of the world.” The formal observation of the seventh day with all its various regulations was not established until later under the Mosaic legislation, including the several annual feast days.
The term rendered “TODAY” translates the Greek word sémeron, and here, it is quite emphatic and denotes the sense “THIS day” as a day that is distinct from all others. It is used at the start of the letter to describe the high position now held by Jesus. “You are my Son; this day I have begotten you” – (Hebrews 1:5, 5:5).
The decisive “day” coincides with the “word” that God has “spoken in His Son,” the salvation that is available to all because Jesus “achieved the purification of sins” and sat down on the “right hand of the Majesty on high.”
“For he that entered into his rest has himself also rested from his works.” Here, “his rest” refers to the “rest” provided by God. It does not refer to an individual resting from his own personal labors. The past tense used for “entered” does not mean the believer has entered fully into God’s rest.
The letter’s proposition means that when someone does enter this “rest,” whenever that is, he or she will cease from his or her works “just as God did.”
If believers already enjoy the full “rest” of God, there is no reason to exhort them to “give diligence to enter into that rest that no man falls after the same example of disobedience.”
At this point, the letter does not detail what this “rest” will look like. The purpose is not to describe the wonders of the future life, but to admonish believers “this day” not to engage in disobedience and pull back from their calling and commitment.
Now is the time to press forward and cling to all the promises of God. Failure to do so will mean that the believer will NOT enter God’s “rest,” and instead, he will taste bitter defeat and a loss far more costly than the denial of any land inheritance.