Foundations: “The Sabbath” (Part Three) — Hebrews 3:7b-4:13 — Todd Braye

Todd BrayePlease open your Bibles to Hebrews 3:7. Today we resume our studies on the Sabbath. And though we shall pick up from where we left last week with chapter 4, we’ll read from chapter 3 verse 7 for the sake of context. Hear then the holy and inerrant word of God:

7b …
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’ ”

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
4 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. 12 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. 13 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. [1]
         The one who reads the entire book of Hebrews discovers perseverance to be one of its major concerns. Faithfulness to Christ to the end is undeniably pressed in this ‘word of exhortation.’ Why this is so is made abundantly clear in our text. We have seen in our previous study how God deals with those who, in faithless rebellion, fall away from Him. Such a possibility for those who find themselves in the rank and file of God’s people is a danger illustrated with crystal clarity. It was the first generation, those Moses led out of Egypt, who, notwithstanding being the objects of a degree of grace, were nonetheless the recipients of wrath. God swore an oath that that generation, ‘those who heard and yet rebelled,’ ‘those who left Egypt by Moses,’ would not enter and thus obtain the goal of their ‘redemption’ on account of unbelief manifested in disobedient rebellion. On their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, a place where they would find rest, and in a state of complaint & grumbling, the people express the desire to have died in the wilderness (Num. 14:2). It is a rather striking observation that God gave them what they so desired. That entire generation died in the wilderness. They did not enter the rest of Canaan. They all fell short of it, save Caleb and Joshua. Therefore, the words “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” the immediacy, if not urgency, of God’s word is pressed upon us.
Rest Promised
         The warning of chapter three, however, gives way to the encouragement of chapter four. In the very first verse of that chapter, we see that “the promise of entering his rest still stands.” God promises rest. He promises it. His promise is still valid. It is open and still stands.
It’s dreadful to admit however, that we’ve no idea what the word ‘promise’ means. We can look it up in the dictionary and find definitions such as “vow,” “pledge” “guarantee,” “oath” and “covenant.” Promises, we all learn at some point in our lives, and not without a great deal of discouragement, are made to be broken. Not so with God. God doesn’t break His word. He is the promise-keeper because it is impossible for Him to lie (Heb. 6:18). God is faithful to His word. All His promises find their Yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1: 20). There has never been a time, nor will there ever be a time, when God’s promises fail. What He says He will do, He will bring it to pass.
The content of the promise here is defined by the word ‘rest.’ Whatever this ‘rest’ entails, context here suggests it is not merely a state or condition, but a place. The first exodus generation did not enter the rest of Canaan, an actual country, a piece of physical real estate. The Promised Land of Canaan would’ve been a ‘rest’ for the people. But they refused that place because of unbelief. So, I submit to you that “the promise of entering his rest,” because of contexts both near and far, is a promise of entrance into a place, not just a state or condition.
Fear Exhorted
        Rest is promised. But fear is also exhorted. The main phrase in the first verse is “let us fear.” “Therefore…let us fear…” The consequence of unbelief and disobedience is placed before us. Rebellion towards God, not holding fast to the word of God to the end, going astray in their hearts resulted in exclusion from the promised rest. “Therefore, while a promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear…” We must see this! Rest is promised. But presumption, as that kind of thinking which rests on the absence of good reason (like the belief that does not beget obedience), is never to be our posture. True faith begets obedience, not disobedience and rebellion. Let us fear, not let us presume. On this, Calvin writes that this fear is “not that which shakes the confidence of faith but such as fills us with such concern that we not grow torpid with indifference.” Who among us does not know lethargy, sloth, indifference, and even presumption, even in the face of divine things? “It can’t happen to me,” is a thought that flies in the face of that of which Hebrews warns, is a manifestation of pride, and is the fruit of a heart less than sensitive to God’s word.
The reason given for the exhortation is failure to reach God’s rest. “Let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it,” it says. A better translation in my judgment is the International Standard Version rendering. It says: “Let us be afraid lest someone among you fails to reach it.[2]” “It can’t happen to me” is therefore the thought of a man in a perilous state. Falling short at the end, being excluded from God’s rest, is a possibility. Are the truly saved finally lost? No. But “we share in Christ, if indeed we hold…firm to the end.”
The grounds upon which this exhortation rests are two-fold. First, there is a point of commonality expressed. Verse 2 states that both those who fell short and those Hebrews addresses ‘Today,’ had good news preached to them. First, those who fell on the wilderness were in possession of good news. Exodus 3:16 & 17 tells us precisely what that news was. To Moses, God said: “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.” ’[3] God promised Israel a redemption culminating in a resting place. God promised to bring them from one physical address to another physical address, from one piece of real estate to another. Did He do so? Yes, He did. Joshua 21: 43-45,
“43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”
But that was the second generation, the people Joshua led, not the first under Moses. They fell short. They fell short, but they had good news of promise. They heard good news, but they did not receive it. They heard good news. But they failed to attain that which was promised.
Those to whom the writer now writes are in a similar position. They’ve heard good news. They’re in possession of it. They’re in possession of it, and yet, they’re in danger of drifting away from it (cf. 2:1). And what good news it is! It is far better than the news spoken through the prophet Moses. It is vastly superior to the redemption Israel eventually experienced. It speaks of purification for sins (Heb. 1:3). It speaks of a redemption accomplished and even secured eternally (Heb. 9:12). It also speaks of the promise of rest. There remains a Sabbath day rest for the people of God. The promise of entering His rest stands. The question is “Will we, those who profess the name of Christ, those who have heard the good news countless times, enter that rest? Or will we be found to have fallen short of it?” They had good news. We have good news. They were in a privileged position. We are in a privileged position. They fell. They failed. Will we? They hardened their hearts. Will we? Let us, all of us, fear lest someone among us fails to reach it, what was promised, why? Good news came to us just as it did to them, to those who got what they wished for and died in the wilderness.
But there is also a point of major difference between those who fell and those Hebrews now addresses and exhorts. It is before us in the last half of verse two: “…but the message they heard did not benefit them [why not?], because they were not united by faith with those who listened [i.e. with those who heard so as to believe and thus obey what was heard].” In other words, faith is key. Had they believed what they heard they would’ve benefitted from it, been joined to those who did in fact believe it (i.e. Caleb and Joshua, the believing remnant here) and marched right in to Canaan. So, no faith = no rest. No faith, no rest. Rest hinges on faith. Rest depends on faith. No faith in the message heard, that is, no persevering faith, then no profit and no rest. For as the argument continues in the 3rd verse, “we who have believed enter that rest.” Belief is the door through which one walks to attain Sabbath rest. That much is clear here. Sabbath rest has nothing to do with walking through a church door. As much as that is a necessity (just look at Hebrews 10:25), there is no physical act here, just faith. What isn’t so clear is when this entering occurs. Does it occur at the moment of faith? Or does it happen much later, i.e. at the end of the Christian’s life, at the end of ‘pilgrim’s progress’ if you like? To this we shall return in a moment or two.
Rest is promised. Fear is exhorted. Next is Sabbath Expounded.
Sabbath Expounded
        How does Hebrews, a book monumentally foundational to life under the new covenant, understand the Sabbath? I submit four things to you.
1. Sabbath is rest. Chapter four ninth verse makes this explicit. It states: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” This is simple. But we ought to be mindful of it. The nature of this rest has already been defined for us. Since faith is the door through which one enters this rest, this rest is spiritual.
2. Moses does not have the final say on the Sabbath. It should not escape our notice that Genesis 2:2 is linked to Psalm 95:11. Moses is linked to David, in other words. Just look at it with me. In support of verse 3’s “although his works were finished from the foundation of the world,” verse 4 quotes Moses in Genesis 2:2 with the words “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” Immediately he then quotes David in Psalm 95: “They [i.e., the rebellious] shall not enter my rest.” The effect of the connection underscores the continual nature of God’s rest. That God rested from the work of creation on day seven means that He did not resume it. God is finished creating. He never resumed that work. The end of day six came, He was happy with all He accomplished, and he stopped creating. It was done. And so He rested. His rest continued through the time of David. We must understand that in the scheme of redemptive history, David and his generation lived way after Moses. God rested after day six. God’s rest was still in effect in David’s day. And His rest still stands. God is at rest! He is at rest “Today.”
But we must also understand by this connection that Hebrews connects the Mosaic Sabbath with its argument here. Genesis 2 gives way to Psalm 95, which is then quoted by Hebrews. There is an unfolding of revelation here that we must see if we are to understand the Bible’s message. The Bible isn’t flat like southern Alberta. If anything, the Bible is like a valley and a summit. Genesis is the valley. Christ is the summit. Genesis is the base. Christ is the snow-capped, jagged and majestic peak. At any rate, do not miss the obvious here. The Sabbath of Genesis, and therefore Exodus 20, is coupled with the ‘rest’ of Hebrews 3 and 4. This shows that the Sabbath cannot be defined in simple old covenant terms. This also shows us a fundamental principle of interpretation: the new interprets the old; the old does not interpret the new. The first words in this epistle underscore this: God spoke by the prophets. But in THESE last days, He has spoken to us by His Son who is the very radiance of God and the exact imprint of His nature.
3. Israel’s history does not have the final say on Sabbath rest. Chapter 4 verse 8: “…if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.” This shows that the land as rest cannot be defined in simple Abrahamic covenant terms. Genesis 12: Abram comes to the land of Canaan. The Lord promises him to give his offspring that very land. Numbers 14: His offspring refuse to enter the land. Joshua 21: God is said to have given Abram’s offspring all that was promised, including the rest of Canaan. But Hebrews more than implies Joshua did not give them rest. We are not to see contradiction in this. There is no contradiction here, only distinction. Joshua did give them A rest, just not the rest spoken of here. The rest Joshua gave was a physical rest. It was a type of rest, a mere shadow, or even snapshot, of that rest of which Hebrews speaks, of which God had intended since before the foundation of the world. It is but a mere glimpse of the glory of the ultimate rest to which every other rest points. Commentator Peter O’Brien states:
“The psalmist’s appeal to heed God’s voice ‘Today’ looks forward to the true or ultimate rest God has for his people. The rest in Canaan was ‘a type or symbol of the complete rest that God intended for his people, which was prefigured in the Sabbath rest of God, according to Gen 2:2.’”[4]
4. Comes in the form of a question. When does one enter this Sabbath rest? I said we’d return to this and here we are. Does entrance occur at the point of faith or at the end of faith’s journey? Coupled with that question is “Precisely what is this Sabbath rest? Is it a Person or is it a place?” Answer: Yes! There is a real tension in this text. There is a ‘now but not yet’ aspect to the matter. Sabbath rest is begun at the point of faith. Chapter 4:3- “For we who have believed enter [or ‘are entering’] that rest.” The verb tense is hard to ignore here. Faith in Christ and His finished work is the door through which one must walk if rest is to be known. Jesus did say; “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Furthermore, exhortation is given to take care, lest there be on any one of us an evil, unbelieving heart. Just because we are who we are, possessing full Bibles, attending studies and church week in and week out, having a ridiculous amount of access to some incredibly solid teaching, does not mean these things benefit us. Believers enter. Unbelievers do not. Believers are entering. Unbelievers are not.
The verb tense in Hebrews 4:3 is not decisive however. Faith is indispensible for rest. No faith, no rest, no salvation. But context demands a ‘not yet’ understanding. In fact, I would argue the ‘not yet,’ future sense is the primary sense. Three arguments for this:
1. The Pastoral Argument. The concern here is not evangelistic. The concern is for the faithful endurance and perseverance of believers. Therefore, the beginning of the pilgrimage is not the concern. The end of the pilgrimage is the concern.
2. The Textual Argument. Two verses are decisive enough. First, chapter 4:1 (ISV)- “Let us be afraid lest someone among you fails to reach it.” “Someone among you” is none other than someone among those previously addressed as ‘brothers.’ Second, chapter 4:11- “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” This hardly speaks of justifying faith. It speaks rather of one on a journey, running a race, striving to attain the prize.
3. The Contextual Argument. I start with the context far away and then get close-up. I simply quote various Scriptures. Just listen:
Isaiah 66:1. “Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” [5]
Isaiah 8:18. “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” [6]
Psalm 132:13-14. “…the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.” [7]
Hebrews 6:18-20. “…we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever…” [8]
Hebrews 9:24. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself…”
Hebrews 12:22-24. Feel the tension of the now and not yet here. But do hear the not yet. “…you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…”[9]
What is Sabbath rest? What is the Sabbath of which Hebrews speaks and God has always intended to share with His true people? It is that place in which Christ now sits, having made atonement. It is that place in which Christ now dwells, even the holy of holies. It is that place in which the saints enjoy rest from all their labors (Rev. 14:13). It is that place where God dwells with His people, where He wipes away every tear, and death shall be no more, nor crying nor pain. It is that place where all the saints have new bodies. It is that place where only righteousness dwells. It’s that place of a beauty unmatched, a glory yet unseen, and a joy unfathomed. Listen to what John records for us about the New Jerusalem. Listen now with New Covenant ears:
“22And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” [10]
Consummation of our salvation depends on faithful endurance. That’s Hebrews. Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your heart.
Diligence Encouraged
       Rest has been promised. Fear has been exhorted. Sabbath rest has been expounded. And finally, diligence is encouraged if not pressed. Verse 11 presses us to strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by that disobedience displayed in the wilderness. They always went astray in their heart; they did not know the ways of the Lord. Again, we’re told the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. It is pressed upon each of us therefore, that we not go astray in our hearts, that we not reject His Word, and that we not be given to indifference, sluggishness, or carelessness in the pursuit of heaven. Go hard after heaven, in other words.
Are you going hard after heaven, or not? If not, then you are in a dangerous position.
The reason given for this final exhortation centers on God’s Word. God spoke, God has spoken, and He still speaks. I look at these final few verses and basically see the power of God’s Word along with the powerlessness of any to hide from its judgment. It is because of this piercing Word and our inability to hide from it that we who call ourselves Christians need to make every effort to avoid the outcome of the past generation.
Rest has been promised. That is a reality. There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. The danger, the very real danger, is not entering it. So, I simply close by repeating what is before us: “Let us [even as a church, together as a body, looking to each other] let us strive to enter that rest.”
When we’ve been there 10,000 years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing His praise,
Than when we first begun.
[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Heb 3:7–4:13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] International standard version New Testament : Version 1.1. 2000 (Print on Demand ed.) (Heb 4:1). Yorba Linda, CA: The Learning Foundation.
[3] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ex 3:16–17). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[4] O’Brien, P. T. (2010). The Letter to the Hebrews. The Pillar New Testament commentary (170). Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
[5] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Is 66:1). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[6] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Is 8:18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[7] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ps 132:13–14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[8] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Heb 6:18–20). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[9] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Heb 12:22–24). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[10] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Re 21:22–27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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