Sermon preached on Hebrews 4:1-14 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/13/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Entering His Rest”
How often do you feel tired; not simply sleepy, but exhausted and worn out? Life in this pilgrim journey involves lots and lots of work! We need rest! We need it daily, yes. But we also know as Christians there is a final rest at the end of our lives on this earth. Not to sound morbid, but that’s even the common hope we see when we go to a cemetery – that common slogan written on tombstones, R.I.P, “rest in peace”. Of course, sadly death will not be rest for many. We’re reminded of that again in today’s sermon. For some, death will mean the beginning of God’s eternal judgment. For the Christian, on the other hand, we will enter into a wonderful and glorious rest, either when we die and go to be with the Lord, or when Christ returns and ushers us into paradise. The Christian will indeed rest in peace, for eternity, in the most amazing way. And so, we all need rest, but we need to make sure we don’t miss entering into that rest at the end. Today’s passage brings us this concern by continuing its exposition on Psalm 95. Last week’s passage essentially gave us a little sermon on Psalm 95. But as we keep reading in today’s passage, we see the sermon is not done yet. Hebrews will continue to teach on Psalm 95, developing this idea of rest.
Our first point then for today will be to see that the gospel we hold today – a gospel that includes an offer of rest – that was preached in the Old Testament too. That’s the explicit statement of verse 2. We have received gospel preaching in these last days with the coming of Christ. But the old testament people also received gospel preaching. Now, to be fair, surely the gospel wasn’t preached to them in the same clarity as we now have it. But at a minimum we see the text describe how they received the gospel at least in terms of entering God’s rest. And so, with that nuance in mind, it says that this gospel of rest was preached in the Old Testament too. Verse 2 has in mind especially the exodus and wilderness wandering generation that we studied about last week from Psalm 95. We saw Psalm 95 quoting Numbers 14 about how after the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites made it through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land of Canaan. There they sent twelve spies who spied out Canaan and reported back to that generation about how the enemy was too strong to conquer. They grumbled against God. Think of this in light of how it says here that they too were preached the gospel. God had preached to that exodus generation that he would give them the land, if only they would trust the Lord. For example, Numbers 13, God spoke to Moses to send out the 12 spies into Canaan because he would be giving the land to Israel. And then after the spies came back, two of the spies give their minority report – Joshua and Caleb. They say that the land was good and that God could give them the land, if they would but trust God, Numbers 14:6-9! We could even remember the original land promise God have given Abraham. All these words and more from God should have been received as gospel to them – good news! But as it says in verse 2, they didn’t believe God. This gospel promise of rest to them came, but it fell on deaf ears and hard hearts.
Similarly, we come to verses 6-8 and see that this gospel message came again later, in David’s time. This was long after God had given the people the Promised Land. After that wilderness wandering generation, God used Joshua to lead the next generation in a glorious conquest of the land. They entered the place of rest known as the Promised Land. In Joshua 23:1, it even says that God then gave the people “rest” from all their enemies. But notice what Hebrews says here about that. In David’s day, when he wrote under inspiration Psalm 95, he warned his generation about the failing of the wilderness generation. He warned them that if they ended up in the same fate, they too would not taste of God’s rest. Hebrews connects the dots for us. First dot to connect is that this means that in David’s day, they also had the gospel of rest preached to them, verses 6-7 makes that connection around the word “today” in Psalm 95. In David’s day, they too are being preached to that they can enjoy God’s rest if they keep trusting in God by faith. Again, that’s the same sort of gospel message that has come to us.
The second dot that Hebrews connects here is that therefore Joshua didn’t give God’s people this rest when he brought them into the Promised Land, verse 8. Hebrews isn’t saying that the New Testament teaches that (though it does). It’s saying that the Old Testament teaches that – in Psalm 95! The implication that David warns the people who were already safe and secure in the Promised Land to beware the unbelief of the wilderness generation, means that they too were still waiting to enter into God’s rest. This is very significant because it shows us that the earthly Promised Land of Canaan was only meant to be a type and shadow of a greater rest to come. Yes, in one sense, Joshua brought the people into a place of rest. But that earthly land was a foretaste and a sort of token of a better rest to come.
It’s in light of this typology that we don’t seek a physical land anymore as God’s people. There is often confusion about this. But the types and the shadows of the old covenant have given way in light of the coming of Jesus. It’s like how Jesus spoke of the time that was coming under the new covenant where people would no longer worship in Jerusalem but in spirit and truth. Similarly, there is no religious reason why we should care if ethnic Israelites control that plot of land in the middle east – that’s Old Jerusalem, we should want New Jerusalem. There may or may not be political or humanitarian reasons why someone may have an interest in that earthly land, but there is no compelling reason from a biblical standpoint; that land is no longer the “holy land”. Even back in David’s day, that should have been their ultimate perspective, even while they were in the typological land of rest; as special as it was under the old covenant, it shouldn’t have been their heart’s ultimate desire. Now under the new covenant, this is even more so, that our interest and desire must now turn to the greater rest to come, which Christ has already entered into.
What then does this rest look like? Well, so far, we see in this text that it something beyond this world. We’ve seen it described here as the world to come. Last chapter, verse 1, spoke in heavenly terms of how we have a heavenly calling. This idea that the Promised Land looks forward to a heavenly rest will continue to be developed in this book, especially in chapter 11. The exciting point to notice now, is that this rest is something far better than any current land of milk and honey in this world.
That leads us the to our second point to think about God resting on the seventh day after creating the world. This will further define what the kind rest is in mind here. Hebrews here has been teaching from Psalm 95, but now starting in verse 3 begins to connect the rest mentioned in the psalm with the rest God did in Genesis 2:2. In verse 3, he basically is saying that God’s rest has been available for people ever since the creation of the world. It’s not something God will one day begin to have; right now God has already entered into his rest. He entered into it after the six days of creation, and has been in that glorious rest ever since. Verses 4-5 repeat the connection between Genesis and the psalm by showing that they both refer to God’s resting. In other words when God says in Psalm 95 that the unbelievers won’t enter into his rest, he means God’s own rest that he began on day 7 of this world.
Of course, when we go back to Genesis, we can see the point. Each of the first six days mentions “and there was evening and morning” to mark the conclusion of that work day and the start of the next day. But that repeated refrain isn’t there for the seventh day. After God completed creating the world in six days, he rested from his creative works. It’s not like after the seventh day he started back up making more worlds. No, he created in six days, and essentially entered into an ongoing seventh day of rest. Likely, Jesus had this in mind when he defends his work on the earthly sabbath observance by appealing to how God is always working (John 5:17). In other words, God has a way that he always works that doesn’t contradict the fact that he is also enjoying his ongoing sabbath rest. But I digress. The point is that God worked in creation and then enter into his rest.
This then further describes the kind of rest God has offered us. Verse 10 applies this by talking about how we cease from our works when we enter into this rest. That is obviously akin to God’s own work then rest. But the other implication here is that God is not just offering believers rest in general, he’s offering for us to join him in the very same rest he enjoys. The rest God began to enter into from the creation of the world – that’s what he promises to give those who trust in him. That’s the promise – the promise that’s mentioned in verse 1 as still being held out by God – the promise of joining God in his heavenly, eternal rest by which he rests over the joy of his finished creation. What an amazing thought.
So then, we come to the ramification made in verse 9: “There remains therefore a sabbath observance for the people of God.” You notice I quoted it differently than the pew Bible’s translation. The word in verse 9 for “rest” is a completely different word than what is used for “rest” in the rest of the chapter. The word in Greek is sabbatismos and most literally translates as a sabbath observance or sabbath rest. It clearly is still dealing with the point of God resting on the 7th day because that is when the original sabbatismos was instituted. The question interpreters have asked here then: is this reference to a sabbath observance referring to how we will in the future have an eternal sabbath rest in the world to come? Or is it saying that this is why God’s people now under the new covenant still observe a weekly sabbath rest (on the Lord’s Day), because of the future coming rest? My answer is “yes”. I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think it is a both/and. Our continued keeping of the 4th commandment to weekly rest in holy worship points to the eternal rest we will yet have in the age to come. In fact, it’s not just pointing to it; it’s an experience of it. Our resting on the Lord’s Day is actually an experience in part, a foretaste, of the same sabbath rest we will enjoy in glory.
But I digress again. The point that is being made in all this, is that this wonderful rest is something we want to enjoy; it is God’s very own rest that we can enjoy with him. How then do we enter into this rest? This leads us to our third and final point for today. This is the continued main theme of Hebrews. We need to be diligent to enter into this rest by persevering in our faith. Verse 11 commands us, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest.” This verse and this passage might make us ask the question if this rest if something we enter into now or later? Well, in one sense, we enter into it now, when we truly cease from our works of trying to earn our salvation and instead trust and rest in Jesus for grace and mercy. Yet, we realize with the saints of old, that there yet remains patience and waiting until the heavenly world to come is ushered in. That will be the consummate rest. That is why we need to heed the warning for diligence in faith.
That diligence is being commanded in light of that wilderness generation who did not persevere in faith. They showed by their disobedience that they were never truly knew the Lord. Verse 2 says they didn’t respond to the gospel preaching with faith. Verse 6 connects their lack of faith again with their disobedience. Verse 11 then takes this example of their unbelief to a more graphic level when he goes on to talk about the Word of God as sharper than any two-edged sword. Remember, when that wilderness generation grumbled against God, saying that they couldn’t conquer the mighty Canaanites, God then issued his judgment against them. That’s when he swore that they wouldn’t enter his rest. So, what did that unbelieving generation do? Numbers 14 says that when they heard God’s judgment, they mourned. They changed their tune and said they were willing to go to battle after all. Yet at that point, it was too late. Moses tried to warn them that God had spoken. Unless God relented, they should not try to attack the Canaanites now, because they’d be struck down. Moses specifically tells them that now God was not with them and if they go now, they will fall by the sword. Sadly, they ignored Moses warning, again another act of unbelief, and they suffered a great defeat by the sword of their Canaanites.
Realize the point Hebrews is making. In their obstinance, the sword of the Canaanites kept them from entering the typological land of rest. Here, Hebrews says there is a greater sword that must not be ignored. Don’t ignore the warning of Scripture, including Psalm 95. If you do not believe that Word and don’t keep your faith in God, God’s Word will stand – it will strike! You will be kept out of that eternal, divine rest. You will be kept by a greater sword than any earthly foe can wield. For that sword of the Lord can uncover even the secret intentions of the heart. As it says in verse 13, no creature can hide from it. You won’t sneak into the eternal rest with a fake faith. Only those who truly trust in Jesus will enter.
And that is the positive way this whole sermon on Psalm 95 ends. It again points us to the great high priest that we have in Jesus. 3:1 started this section by telling us to see Jesus, the high priest of our confession. Now this section in Hebrews ends in verse 14 with pointing us to our great high priest, again telling us to hold fast our confession of faith. Verse 14 adds that this high priest has passed through the heavens. In other words, he’s gone before us into God’s rest. He’s begun to taste of that rest which he promised to us who believe. The fact that Jesus is ascended into that eternal rest is to encourage our faith. Continue to confess and trust Jesus. What a wonderful gospel that we can enter this glorious rest on the work of Jesus. Cease your works of trying to earn your salvation. Trust in Jesus. Follow him as your King and Lord! Stand in this faith.
And the encouragement that comes for us in terms of perseverance is the very fact that we have a high priest in the heavens for us. I think of the intercession Jesus did for his disciples while on earth. In that high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus prayed to the Father that God would keep them in his name (17:11). While on earth, he interceded for his disciples for their perseverance. Surely, all the more while in heaven, Jesus continues to intercede for us and our perseverance. Surely, that reminds us to keep in mind the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints when we hear this exhortation. That’s not meant to do away with the exhortation, but it is meant to encourage us in the exhortation.
In conclusion, I point us back to verse 1 from our passage for today. “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.” Let us fear. If you like the more palatable translation, the NIV says let us be careful. But it literally says to be afraid of missing out on this rest. This rest is so wonderful. But history shows that many whom we would have thought would have entered into it, end up missing out on it. Be careful if you think you stand, lest you fall. That wilderness wandering generation thought they stood but when troubles came they stopped trusting God. You might think you trust Christ, but testing will test you. We need to fear falling away in the sense that we need to be aware of the threat and be on guard against it. But, the solution is not to look then to your own strength. The solution is to diligently come again to consider Christ Jesus. Let us diligently renew our trust in the risen Lord Jesus today. For he, our great high priest, is able to keep us from stumbling and ultimately present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.