Christ Is Greater in the Rest He Gives (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
This long section is the second of the five exhortations in this epistle. In the first exhortation (Heb 2:1-4), the writer pointed out the danger of drifting from the Word because of neglect. In this exhortation, he explains the danger of doubting and disbelieving the Word because of hardness of heart. It is important that we understand the background of this section, which is the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and their experiences of unbelief in the wilderness. To begin with, we must understand that there are spiritual lessons in the geography of Israel’s experiences. The nation’s bondage in Egypt is an illustration of a sinner’s bondage in this world. Much as Israel was delivered from Egypt by the blood of lambs and the power of God, so a sinner who believes on Christ is delivered from the bondage of sin (Col 1:13-14). Jesus Christ is “the Lamb of God” whose death and resurrection have made our deliverance from sin a reality.
It was not God’s will that Israel remain either in Egypt or in the wilderness. His desire was that the people enter their glorious inheritance in the land of Canaan. But when Israel got to the border of their inheritance, they delayed because they doubted the promise of God (Num 13-14). “We are not able” wept the ten spies and the people. “We are able with God’s help!” said Moses, Joshua, and Caleb. Because the people went backward in unbelief instead of forward by faith, they missed their inheritance and died in the wilderness. It was the new generation that possessed the land and entered into their rest.
What does Canaan represent to us as Christians today? It represents our spiritual inheritance in Christ (Eph 1:3,11,15-23). Israel had to cross the river by faith (a picture of the believer as he dies to self and the world, Rom 6) and claim the inheritance by faith. They had to “step out by faith” (Josh 1:3) and claim the land for themselves, just as believers today must do.
Now we can understand what the wilderness wanderings represent: the experiences of believers who will not claim their spiritual inheritance in Christ, who doubt God’s Word and live in restless unbelief. To be sure, God is with them, as He was with Israel; but they do not enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing. They are “out of Egypt” but they are not yet “in Canaan.”
With this background, we can now better understand one of the key words in this section-rest (Heb 3:11,18; 4:1,3-5,8-11). The writer mentioned two different “rests” found in Old Testament history: (1) God’s Sabbath rest, when He ceased from His Creation activities (Gen 2:2; Heb 4:4); (2) Israel’s rest in Canaan Deut 12:9; Josh 21:43-45; Heb 3:11). But he saw in these “rests” illustrations of the spiritual experiences of believers today. The Sabbath rest is a picture of our rest in Christ through salvation (Heb 4:3; see Matt 11:28). The Canaan rest is a picture of our present rest as we claim our inheritance in Christ (Heb 4:11-13; note the emphasis on the Word of God). The first is the rest of salvation; the second is the rest of submission.
But there is a third rest that enters into the discussion, that future rest that an believers will enjoy with God. “There remaineth, therefore, a rest to the people of God” (Heb 4:9). This word for rest is the Greek word sabbatismos – “a keeping of a Sabbath” – and this is the only place in the New Testament where this word is used. When the saints enter heaven, it will be like sharing God’s great Sabbath rest with all labors and battles ended (Rev 14:13).
With this background of Israel’s history and the “rests” involved, we may now examine the passage itself. The writer gives a threefold admonition. Let us take heed (vv. 7-19). Take heed to what? To the sad history of the nation of Israel and the important lesson it teaches. The writer quotes from Ps 95:7-11, which records God’s response to Israel’s tragic spiritual condition. God had delivered His people from Egypt and had cared for them, revealing His power in many signs and wonders. Israel saw all of His and benefited from it, but the experience did not bring them closer to God or make them trust Him more. All that God did for them did not benefit them spiritually. In fact, just the opposite took place: they hardened their hearts against God! They put God to the test and He did not fail them; yet they failed Him.
The heart of every problem is a problem in the heart. The people of Israel (except Moses, Joshua, and Caleb) erred in their hearts (Heb 3:10), which means that their hearts wandered from God and His Word. They also had evil hearts of unbelief (Heb 3:12); they did not believe that God would give them victory in Canaan. They had seen God perform great signs in Egypt. Yet they doubted He was adequate for the challenge of Canaan.
When a person has an erring heart and a disbelieving heart, the result will also be a hard heart. This is a heart that is insensitive to the Word and work of God. So hard was the heart of Israel that the people even wanted to return to Egypt! Imagine wanting to exchange their freedom under God for slavery in Egypt!
God’s judgment fell on Israel in the wilderness at Kadesh Barnea. That entire generation was condemned to die, and only the new generation would enter the land. God said, “They shall not enter into My rest” (Heb 3:11). But what message does this bring to a believer today? No believer today, Jew or Gentile, could go back into the Mosaic legal system since the temple is gone and there is no priesthood. But every believer is tempted to give up his confession of Christ and go back into the world system’s life of compromise and bondage. This is especially true during times of persecution and suffering. The fires of persecution have always purified the church because suffering separates true believers from the counterfeit. True believers are willing to suffer for Christ and they hold firmly to their convictions and their confession of faith (see Heb 3:6,14). We are not saved by holding to our confession. The fact that we hold to our confession is proof that we are God’s true children.
It is important that we take heed and recognize the spiritual dangers that exist. But it is also important that we encourage each other to be faithful to the Lord (Heb 3:13). We get the impression that some of these believers addressed were careless about their fellowship in the local assembly (see Heb 10:23-25). Christians belong to each other and need each other. Moses, Caleb, and Joshua did try to encourage Israel when the nation refused to enter Canaan, but the people would not listen.
It is clear from this section that God was grieved with Israel during the entire forty years they wandered in the wilderness. The Jews had not been out of Egypt long when they began to provoke God (Ex 16:1 ff). After He supplied bread for them, they complained about a lack of water (Ex 17:1-7). Moses called that place “Massah and Meribah” which means “provocation and trial.” These same words are used in Heb 3:10.
The sin of Israel is stated in Heb 3:12 – “departing from the living God.” The Greek word gives us our English word “apostasy.” This is the only place His word is used in Hebrews. Does “apostasy” mean abandoning one’s faith and therefore being condemned forever? That does not fit into this context. Israel departed from the living God by refusing God’s will for their lives and stubbornly wanting to go their own way back to Egypt. God did not permit them to return to Egypt. Rather, He disciplined them in the wilderness. God did not allow His people to return to bondage.
The emphasis in Hebrews is that true believers have an eternal salvation because they trust a living Saviour who constantly intercedes for them. But the writer is careful to point out that this confidence is no excuse for sin. God disciplines His children. Remember that Canaan is not a picture of heaven, but of the believer’s present spiritual inheritance in Christ. Believers who doubt God’s Word and rebel against Him do not miss heaven, but they do miss out on the blessings of their inheritance today, and they must suffer the chastening of God.
Let us fear (vv. 1-8). Believers today may enter and enjoy their spiritual inheritance in Christ. We must be careful lest we fail to believe God’s Word, for it is only as the Word is “mixed with faith” that it can accomplish its purposes. The argument in this section is given in several propositions: (1) God finished His work and rested, so that His rest has been available since Creation. (2) The Jews failed to enter into their rest. (3) Many years later (Ps 95), God said that a rest was still available. That “today” is still here! This means that Joshua did not lead Israel into the true rest, because a rest still remains. (Note that the name “Jesus” in Heb 4:8, KJV, ought to be “Joshua.” “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua.”)
The Canaan rest for Israel is a picture of the spiritual rest we find in Christ when we surrender to Him. When we come to Christ by faith, we find salvation rest (Matt 11:28). When we yield and learn of Him and obey Him by faith, we enjoy submission rest (Matt 11:29-30). The first is “peace with God” (Rom 5:1); the second is the “peace of God” (Phil 4:6-8). It is by believing that we enter into rest (Heb 4:3); it is by obeying God by faith and surrendering to His will that the rest enters into us.
Let us labor (vv. 9-13). “Give diligence” is a good translation of this admonition. Diligence is the opposite of “drifting” (Heb 2:13). How do we give diligence? By paying close attention to the Word of God. Israel did not believe God’s Word, so the rebels fell in the wilderness. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom 10:17).
In comparing the Word of God to a sword, the writer is not suggesting that God uses His Word to slaughter the saints! It is true that the Word cuts the heart of sinners with conviction (Acts 5:33; 7:54), and that the Word defeats Satan (Eph 6:17). The Greek word translated “sword” means “a short sword or dagger.” The emphasis is on the power of the Word to penetrate and expose the inner heart of man. The Word is a “discerner” or “critic.” The Israelites criticized God’s Word instead of allowing the Word to judge them. Consequently, they lost their inheritance.
Of course, God sees our hearts (Heb 4:13); but we do not always know what is there (Jer 17:9). God uses the Word to enable us to see the sin and unbelief in our own hearts. The Word exposes our hearts; and then, if we trust God, the Word enables our hearts to obey God and claim His promises. This is why each believer should be diligent to apply himself to hear and heed God’s Word. In the Word we see God, and we also see how God sees us. We see ourselves as we really are. This experience enables us to be honest with God, to trust His will, and to obey Him.
All of this is possible because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. (The two “He’s” in Heb 4:10 refer to Jesus Christ.) God rested when He finished the work of Creation, God’s Son rested when He completed the work of the new creation. We may enter into His rest by trusting His Word and obeying His will. We can do this as we listen to His Word, understand it, trust it, and obey it. Only in this way can we claim our inheritance in Christ.
Before Joshua conquered Jericho, he went out to survey the situation; and he met the Lord Jesus Christ (Josh 5:13-15). Joshua discovered that he was second in command! The Lord had a sword in His hand, and Joshua fell at His feet in complete submission. It was this action in private that gave Joshua his public victory. We too claim our spiritual inheritance by surrendering to Him and trusting His Word. We must beware of an evil heart of unbelief.
(from The Bible Exposition Commentary. Copyright © 1989 by Chariot Victor Publishing, and imprint of Cook Communication Ministries. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)