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. 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. 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. 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.”
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 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.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 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 account. – Hebrews 4:1-13 ESV
There is an ominous-sounding warning in these verses. When the author speaks of the people of God not entering the rest provided for them by God, it can’t help but get our attention. But what does he mean when he writes, “those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 4:6 ESV)? There have been many over the centuries who have tried to equate the crossing over of the Israelites into the land of Canaan with the death of the believer and their entrance into heaven. But if we apply this analogy to the author’s meaning of “rest” we will find ourselves wrestling with the possibility of one losing their salvation. Because he is writing to believers and he is warning them not to make the same mistake as their ancestors in the wilderness. They “heard and yet rebelled” (Hebrews 3:16 ESV). They sinned and their “bodies fell in the wilderness” (Hebrews 3:17 ESV). “They were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19 ESV).
That last line is key to understanding what is going on in these verses. The issue is that of unbelief. He warned his readers, “Take care, brothers, lest there by in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 ESV). He encouraged them to exhort one another, “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13 ESV). The problem with equating the promised land with heaven is that the people of Israel had to immediately to battle once they entered the land. They had to strive to possess the land and dispossess the people that lived there. Their time in the land of promise was one of testing, conflict, and a constant struggle to trust God rather than their own resourcefulness. Yes, God blessed them. He gave them victories over their enemies. But because of unfaithfulness, they were eventually evicted by God from the promised land and sent into captivity for their rebellion against Him. That is why making the promised land analogous to heaven makes no sense and eventually breaks down. No one will be evicted from heaven because of unbelief.
So what is the author talking about? What is this rest he warns against not entering? Several times in these verses he refers to the “good news” they had received. “For the good news came to us just as to them” (Hebrews 4:2 ESV). He uses the Greek word, euaggelizō which is the same word used by Jesus when referring to the gospel message He preached. It is the same word used by the angels when they told the shepherds in the field of the good news regarding the birth of Jesus. The author of Hebrews says that the people of Israel had heard the good news, “but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:2 ESV). They heard, but they did not listen. They heard, but failed to believe the good news given. They had evil, unbelieving hearts.
Several times in this passage the author refers to the sabbath rest of God. He talks about the fact that God, after having created the universe, rested on the seventh day. The Hebrews word shabbath means “rest.” God was not tired, but he ceased from His labors because His work had been completed. All that He had intended to do had been done. His will had been accomplished. The writer makes it clear that the entering into the land was not the rest that God intended. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later one” (Hebrews 4:8 ESV). In fact, he writes, “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9 ESV). The issue seems to be that of works verses faith. The rest the author is speaking of is the belief we are to have in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and our complete and total dependence on what He has done for us. We can rest in the sufficiency of His sacrifice. There is nothing more that we need to do. The Jewish audience to whom this letter was addressed had heard the good news regarding Jesus and His sacrificial death on the cross, but they ran the risk of hearing, but not listening. They, like their ancestors, were prone to go back to their own methods of attempting to achieve a right standing with God. Rather than resting in the finished work of Christ, they were being tempted to go back to Judaism with all of its ritual and rights. So the author warns them to “strive to enter that rest so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11 ESV). He is not suggesting that they can lose their salvation, but that their initial “belief” may not have been belief at all. They had not been fully convinced that God’s redemptive work on their behalf was complete. They were not resting in the promise of eternal salvation. They were not trusting in the sufficiency of Christ and the hope of their future redemption.
Jesus did not promise us a trouble-free, peaceful life on this earth. He did say, “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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV). And yet, He told His disciples right before His death, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:32-33 ESV). Our time on this earth is anything but easy. But we can have peace in the midst of the struggles because we know that He has overcome the world. Our rest is found in the promise of His finished work. He is going to some day return and wrap up what He started and complete what God has given Him to do. It is in that fact that we are to find our rest. The temptation for all of us is to doubt God, to fail to take Him at His word. We can look at the circumstances surrounding us and begin to disbelief His promises and question the reliability of all that Christ has done. So the author invites us to allow the Word of God as a divine scalpel to penetrate our hearts and expose and remove those thoughts and intentions of the heart that would cause us to doubt and disbelieve God. He wants us to rest in the reality of our future rest. He wants us to trust in His promise of not only our future redemption, but the final restoration of the world. God’s will WILL be done. And we can rest in that fact.