The word “rest” is used at least nine times in the first eleven verses of Hebrews 4. This is a context that goes back to the seventh verse of chapter three. The main thought of this section is easy to ascertain. Many Israelites of Moses’ generation were not able to enter the land of promise due to their unbelief (3:19). Christians, too, look forward to a “promised land,” and we do not want to repeat the Israelites’ mistake and miss out on it!
More than one “rest” is mentioned in this passage. First, God rested on the seventh day after He had created all things in six days (Hebrews 4:4; Genesis 2:2). Referring to the message of Psalm 95:10,11, the writer of the book of Hebrews points to a second rest, the rest that Israel would enjoy by entering the land of Canaan. What God said about that was, “They shall not enter my rest” (Hebrews 4:5). Again, the context is talking about His refusal to allow some Israelites to enter Canaan “because of disobedience” (4:6).
God now speaks of a third type of rest: “For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day” (4:8). After Moses’ death, Joshua led Israel as they entered, conquered, possessed, and divided the land of Canaan among its tribes. Would it be correct to say that the Israelites had some form of rest in Canaan? For the Israelite nation, Canaan was a place of rest simply due to the fact that they no longer had to travel in the wilderness from place to place like they had done for forty years. No longer would they be required to dwell in tents, not knowing when they woke up in the morning whether the camp would move to a new location that day or not. Settling down in Canaan brought them stability.
When it came to Israel’s dealings with the inhabitants of Canaan, the Bible clearly says that the Lord gave them rest. Hear it: “So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it, and dwelt in it. The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers . . .” (Joshua 21:43,44). Well, if God truly gave them rest via Joshua, then why does the message of Hebrews 4:8 make it sound as if they did not secure a genuine rest? The truth is, what Israel obtained under Joshua’s leadership was not the final/ultimate rest that God had planned for His people. The rest which Israel enjoyed in Canaan was a type/foreshadowing of “another” rest that God wants to give (Hebrews 4:8).
So, Jehovah rested after His creative activity, the Israelites had rest in Canaan, and now under the new covenant of Jesus, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). Just as the Israelites dreamed of and hoped for an entrance into literal Canaan, so Christians look forward to our entrance into God’s rest/spiritual promised land after we leave this world. Yes, we have peace now through Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30), but the ultimate peace/rest still awaits us.
For whom has the Lord prepared a marvelous place of rest? It is solely “for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). We have it now in the form of a promise: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest . . .” (Hebrews 4:1). In Revelation 14:13, it is written, “. . . Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.’” When faithful saints die, they go to “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).
From the message of Hebrews 4:1-11, what do we learn about the kind of approach Christians need to take in order to be prepared to enter God’s rest? Here are four things:
(1) Fear – in the sense of reverence and horror at the thought of missing out: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it” (4:1).
(2) Faith – It is not enough to hear God’s word. Israel did that, but its message did not profit them. Why? It was not “mixed with faith” within them (4:2).
(3) “Do not harden your hearts” to what the Lord has to say (4:7). “Disobedience” prevented many Israelites from entering God’s rest. The Greek word for “disobedience” (“ἀπείθεια/apeitheia”) means “obstinacy, obstinate opposition to the divine will” [Thayer, word no. 543 via e-Sword].
(4) Diligence – “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (4:11). Yes, entrance into Jesus’ everlasting kingdom is for those children of God who give all diligence in serving Him (2 Peter 1:5,10,11). Heaven is not for the half- hearted, lukewarm, uncommitted folks who have an outward appearance of devotion to the Lord, but to be honest, their heart is not “into it.”
Thank God for His graciousness that provides a place of eternal rest for His people. Would that not be a great message for all people everywhere to hear?!
— Roger D. Campbell