Hebrews 04(01–13)


The one who is Son is greater than the prophets, through whom God used to speak, because the one who is Son is God. He’s the Only Begotten Son of God; and he’s the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being. He is God. And who better to reveal God than God himself? And the one who is Son is greater than the angels, through whom God revealed his law, because the angels were made to worship and serve him, whereas he is the Only Begotten Son of God and he’s the Eternal God who made all things. And the one who is Son, and who came to earth as one of us, is greater than Moses, because while Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, Jesus was faithful as a Son over God’s house. And we are God’s house if we continue to believe what God has said to us about his Son and our salvation.

And do you remember how the writer emphasised in the passage we studied last week how vital it is for us to persevere in the faith? Fix your thoughts on Jesus. Hold on to your confidence in God’s promises. See to it that you don’t have an sinful, unbelieving heart. See to it that you don’t turn away from the living God. And instead exhort one another daily so that you won’t be taken in by sin’s deceitfulness. Hold firmly to the end your confidence in what God has said.

Again and again the writer warned his readers — and us — that we need to stand firm in the faith. We mustn’t disregard God’s word about Christ and our salvation. We mustn’t disbelieve, but we must believe and keep believing, every day. And the reason he emphasised this was because the people who first read this letter were suffering for the faith; and they were being tempted to give up the Christian faith and to return to the religion of the Old Testament. But why go back to the Old Testament prophets, when Jesus is greater than the prophets? And why go back to the angels, when Jesus is greater than the angels? And why go back to Moses, when Jesus is greater than Moses? Don’t turn back, because what you’re turning back to is inferior to what you have now, because now you have Christ, the Eternal Son of God, who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being and who became one of us in order to die for us and to overcome death and the devil for us and to deal with sin for us; and who, because he suffered when tempted, is able to help us when we suffer and are tempted. So, don’t turn back, but fix your thoughts on him and keep believing in him.

And that’s a message for us as well because being a Christian may be hard for you sometimes. And maybe you look at your unbelieving friends and you think things are so much better for them. And perhaps you’re tempted to think you would be better off if you gave up the faith. But unbelief leads to death and condemnation, whereas believing leads to eternal life in the presence of God. And so, we need to hear this warning: See to it. Take care. Watch out. Beware. Be warned. Make sure your heart does not become a sinful, unbelieving heart so that you no longer believe what God has said about his Son and about your salvation.

So, that was last week’s passage. And the writer based much of what he said on Psalm 95. That’s the psalm where the psalmist warned his readers not to harden their hearts when they hear God’s word as the Israelites did. Instead of trusting God at Meribah and Massah, the Israelites tested his ability to help them. And instead of believing God’s promise that he would help them take over the Promised Land, they did not believe and said they would return to Egypt. And therefore God was angry with them and he declared on oath that none of that generation — apart from Joshua and Caleb who believed — would ever enter ‘my rest’. That is, they would never enter God’s rest: the rest he promised them in the land of Canaan, where they would have rest from their enemies and be able to build homes and plant fields and live in peace. That’s what the psalm was about and much of what the writer said last week was based on it.

And he continues to base his thoughts on Psalm 95 in today’s passage. In fact, he takes two keywords from Psalm 95 and bases what he says around those two words. The first keyword is the word ‘rest’. And the second keyword is the word ‘Today’. In the psalm, God said, ‘They will never enter my rest‘. And in the psalm, the psalmist said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ In verses 1 to 5 he focusses on the word ‘rest’; and in verses 6 to 11 he focusses on the word ‘Today’. And then he concludes the passage with verses 12 and 13 which are about God’s word.

Verses 1 to 5

And so, let’s turn to verse 1 of chapter 4 where he says:

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.

It might be helpful to spend a few minutes recalling what the Bible say about God’s rest so that we’re clear what entering his rest means.

God’s rest is first mentioned in Genesis 2:1+2 where we’re told that by the seventh day, the Lord had finished the work he had been doing to create and to shape and to fill the heavens and the earth. And so, on the seventh day, the Sabbath Day, he rested from his work. He rested, not because he was weary from all that work, but because he had finished his work of creation. That’s the first mention of God’s rest in the Bible. The Lord then refers to it again in the Ten Commandments and in the fourth commandment in particular which is to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. And the reason given for keeping it holy is because God rested on the seventh day after making the heavens and the earth. So, the weekly Sabbath which the Jews were required to keep was a reminder of God’s rest. Then we need to jump forward to the book of Joshua which records how the next generation of Israelites — that is, the children of the ones who died in the wilderness — entered the Promised Land, with Joshua as their leader. And near the end of the book of Joshua, in chapter 21, it says that the Lord gave Israel the land and they took possession of it and settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he has sworn to their forefathers. And in chapter 23 of Joshua, it says God gave Israel rest from all their enemies. And so, they were able to settle there.

However, we know from Old Testament history, that this rest, in the land of Canaan, did not last. Because of their sin and rebellion in the time of the Judges, God let their enemies attack them over and over again. Then, when Saul and David were kings, the Philistines attacked them often. And, of course, because they persisted in their unbelief and rebellion, and ignored the prophets who were sent by the Lord to warn the people, the Israelites were removed from the land and taken away into exile. So, while they once enjoyed a kind of rest in the land of Canaan, it did not last.

And then, we can jump right to the end of the Bible and to the book of Revelation. In chapter 14, John heard a voice from heaven saying about the saints in glory: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ And then the Spirit said: ‘Yes, they will rest from their labour….’

So, God’s people enjoyed a kind of rest in the land of Canaan, but it did not last. However, those who die in the Lord — that is, believers who die — will find rest in the presence of God.

And so, what does the Bible mean when it refers to entering God’s rest? It’s means receiving eternal life in the presence of God. After God made the heavens and the earth, he rested from his work. He entered his eternal rest. We say it’s his eternal rest, because while each of the six days of creation came to an end, the Bible never says anything about the end of the seventh day. It continues forever. And believers will one day enter God’s eternal rest; and we will live with him in perfect peace and rest forever and forever. So, when the writer of Hebrews refers to entering God’s rest, he’s referring to eternal life in the presence of God.

Having said all that, let’s return to the passage where the writer says that the promise of entering God’s rest still stands. So, God has not revoked his promise; and the promise of entering his rest and enjoying eternal life in his presence still stands. It remains. But we must be careful that we don’t fall short of it as the Israelites did. So, they had made a good start, because they were delivered from their captivity in Egypt and they began the journey to the Promised Land. However, they fell short, didn’t they? They didn’t reach their destination. They didn’t enter the Promised Land of Canaan, but they fell dead in the desert. And the writer is saying to his readers: You’ve made a good start, but don’t turn back now. Don’t fall short of reaching the destination, which is eternal life in the presence of God. ‘Be careful’, he says. In fact, he really says ‘Let us fear….’ But this is a healthy kind of fear, isn’t it? This is the fear we need to have when we’re walking beside a cliff face and we need to be careful let we take a wrong step and fall over the cliff. And so, we need to be careful that we don’t take a false step and fall away from Christ and from salvation.

And then he goes on to say in verse 2 that we’ve had the gospel preached to us, just as the Israelites did. When he says the gospel was preached to them, he probably means they heard the good news from God that he would give them the land of Canaan. Hadn’t God promised to give it to them? Hadn’t he promised that he would help them defeat their enemies? And didn’t God preach the good news to them through Joshua and Caleb, who said to them that the land was exceedingly good, a land flowing with milk and honey; and, if the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into it; and you needn’t be afraid of our enemies, because the Lord will swallow them up; and God is with us, so do not be afraid of them. So, didn’t the Israelites hear the good news from Joshua and Caleb?

But the good news was of no value to them, because those who heard it did not combine it with faith. That is, they heard the good news, but they did not believe the good news. Whereas Joshua and Caleb believed the good news, and they believed God would give them the land, the others did not believe.

And the writer says in verse 2 that we have heard the good news. Not the good news about Canaan, but the good news about entering God’s eternal rest and enjoying eternal life in his presence. And we’ve heard the good news about the Saviour, who is the Only Begotten Son of God, who became one of us so that he could suffer death on our behalf and provide purification for our sins as our great High Priest. We have heard the good news about him.

And what are we to do with the good news? We’re to believe it, aren’t we? That’s what we’re to do with the good news. And ‘those who believe the good news enter his rest.’ That’s what he says at the beginning of verse 3. They enter his rest. That is, whoever believes will enter his rest. They will enter his rest when Christ comes again at the end of time to gather his believing people together to bring them into God’s eternal rest in the new and better world to come.

So, the promise of entering God’s rest still stands. The offer hasn’t been closed. You receive a money-off token in the post. And you put it away safely. But time passes and you forget all about it. And then, one day, you’re poking through the drawer and you find the token, but the offer has expired. It’s now too late. But it’s not too late to believe God’s promise. So, whether you’ve never believed before, or whether you once believed, but have drifted from the faith, it’s not too late, because the promise of entering his rest still stands and you may still have eternal life in his presence, because whoever believes and who continues to believe enters his rest.

And the writer goes on to say in verse 3: ‘just as God has said….’ We should perhaps treat this as a new sentence. But what has God said? He’s said that those who don’t believe shall never enter his rest. He’s quoting from Psalm 95 again. And then he goes on to say that, according to Genesis 2, God’s rest began in the beginning, because on the seventh day of creation, God rested from all his work. And I think what the writer is saying to us here is that God’s rest exists. It has existed ever since the creation of the world. And it’s real. It’s not a fantasy that someone has made up; it’s not a dream that will never come true. It’s real. But those who don’t believe will be excluded from it. And yet, on the other hand, those who believe in the Saviour — who suffered death for us and who has provided purification for our sins — those who believe in the Saviour will enter that rest and they will receive eternal life in the presence of God.

Verses 6 to 11

And so, the focus of verses 1 to 5 is on the keyword ‘rest’. The focus of verses 6 to 11 is on the keyword ‘Today’. So, God came to his people in the days when Psalm 95 was written and he promised rest to his people. And, at that time, this is what he said to them: ‘Today, if you hear my voice, don’t harden your hearts. Don’t harden your hearts, but believe the good news and enter my rest.

And that’s the case every time God’s word is proclaimed. Through the reading and preaching of his word, God comes to us and he says to us: ‘Today, if you hear my voice, don’t harden your heart, but believe the good news and enter my rest.’ Every time we hear his word, he says to us: You need to believe today.

And then the writer mentions Joshua. Do you see that in verse 8? Why does he mention Joshua? Well, remember what I said earlier? After the first generation of Israelites died in the wilderness, their children were allowed to enter the land of Canaan. And they enjoyed a kind of rest, didn’t they? They had peace from their enemies for a time. They were able to build homes and plant their fields. And for a time they lived in peace and safety. But it did not last. And that means that Joshua gave the people a kind of rest. He gave them a measure of rest. But he did not give them a permanent rest. He did not give them eternal rest. And God has something far better in mind when he comes to us through the reading and preaching of his word and says to us, ‘Today, don’t harden your heart, but believe and enter my rest.’ He has something far better in mind, because the rest he has in mind, and which he offers to us through the reading and preaching of his word, is his own rest. It’s a permanent rest. It’s an eternal rest. It’s a rest that will never end. It’s eternal life in his presence.

And so, as the writer says in verse 9, there remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; and anyone who enters that rest — which is eternal life in the presence of God — rests from his own work. He means that, so long as we go on living in this world, we have to work. Every day is full of activity, from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep again at night. Every day there are lots of things for us to do: duties and responsibilities and chores. If you’ve got a job, there are plenty of things you need to do as part of that job; and even on your day off, there are plenty of jobs for you to do around the house. And if you don’t have a job, there are still plenty of things for you to do. And when you retire, it’s not that your day is suddenly empty, because it fills up with other things that you had put off. There are always things to do and places to go and people to see. And then, because of God’s curse on this fallen world, our work in this world is often frustrating and difficult.

And so, our life here on earth is a life of work. But do you remember that verse from Revelation 14? ‘The dead who die in the Lord are blessed.’ Why? Because they will rest from their labour. Their work is over. And they’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest in the presence of God. That’s what believers can look forward to when we enter God’s rest and rest from our own work too.

And, of course, Sundays are a weekly reminder of the rest we will enjoy in God’s presence. Six days we labour and do all our work. But then, Sunday comes, and we can set aside our work and all the other things that take up so much time and attention throughout the week. We set those things aside and we rest from our activity; and we worship God. And that weekly Sunday rest reminds us of our destiny. It reminds us of the eternal rest which God has promised to give to all who trust in his Son, when we will rest from our labour and when we will worship the Lord forever and forever.

And so, God comes to us in the reading and preaching of his word. And each time he comes, he says to us, ‘Today, don’t harden your heart, but believe.’ And whoever believes is promised eternal rest. And so, according to verse 11, let’s make every effort to enter that rest. Think of someone who is running to catch a bus. They’re running flat out. They don’t want to miss the bus. They keep going. They’re tired. Their legs are giving out. They almost trip, but they regain their balance. And they keep going. And at last they make it. And they get on the bus. And what do they do? They flop down on the seat. And now, at last, they can catch their breath and rest. So, right now, in this life, we need to persevere. We need to put up with many obstacles and setbacks and frustrations. We need to endure much suffering and many trials. We need to resist every temptation to give up the faith. We need to make every effort to keep going. That’s what we have to do in this life. But then, afterwards, in the life to come, in the presence of God, we will rest.

Do you know the best thing we can do to make sure we keep going in the faith? What’s the best thing we can do to keep ourselves on track? It’s very simple really. It hardly takes any effort. I see people running down the Antrim Road, trying to keep fit. Or people cycle miles on their bikes. Or they go to the gym and take all these classes to stay fit. It’s so much work and effort. But the best thing we can do to help us persevere in the faith takes hardly any effort at all. Do you know what it is? It’s to keep coming to church. God has given us our services of worship — which include the reading and preaching of his word, and the sacraments, and prayer — to help us to keep going. He works through these things to strengthen our faith and to build us up in comfort and holiness. And whenever we gather here, he comes to us and he says to us, ‘Today, don’t harden your heart, but believe’. And that’s what we need: a regular reminder to keep believing.

Verses 12 and 13

And in the final two verses of today’s passage, the writer refers to God’s word. God’s word, he says, is living and active. And it’s sharper than a two-edged sword so that it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit and joints and marrow. And it judges our thoughts and attitudes.

Some of the commentators think the writer is thinking here of the angel who stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword in his hand to keep Adam and Eve away from the Tree of Life. However, I’m inclined to think the background to this image of the word of God as a sword is from Numbers 14. The Israelites did not believe God’s promise; and they refused to enter the Promised Land. And so, God was angry with them and swore they would never enter his rest. And he commanded them to turn back. However, they once again disregarded his command and they decided to try to take the land by themselves. And it says in Numbers 14 that, in their presumption, they went up towards the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the covenant went with them. And what happened? The Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived there came down and attacked them and beat them down. That is, they struck the Israelites down with their swords. The Israelites couldn’t get past the swords of the Amalekites and the Canaanites.

And, you see, there’s no getting past God’s word, is there? There’s no getting past God’s word. He has said there’s only one way to enter his rest; and it’s by believing in his Son. There is no other way. And so, there’s no getting past his word and what he has said. Whoever believes will enter his rest, but whoever does not believe will be kept out and destroyed. And since nothing is hidden from God’s sight, he knows who has believed and he knows who has not believed. Everything is uncovered before him. And since this is true, what should we do? We should believe in his Son; and we should keep believing in his Son; because whoever believes in his Son enters God’s eternal rest.