In this section (i.e., 4:1-13) the author writes in stark contrast to the former (3:7-19). The content is the same, but the author has switched from a warning to an exhortation, from the negative to the positive, from stern words to a word of hope – God’s promise.
He reasons that since it is still “today” (the language of Psalm 95) the people of God can enter into the rest of God. This includes both opportunity and responsibility. “Opportunity in that we live in God’s day of grace, and responsibility on our part not to despise or turn away from this privilege” (Hughes, 155). The word “seem” (dokeō) is interpreted by O’Brien as referring to “to be found or judged” and thus the eschatological tone is emphasized (160).
The “good news” spoken of in this verse is taken to be Num. 14:7-9 were Caleb and Joshua preached the good news that the land is there for them and that the Israelites will conquer their enemies with the help of God (see also Lane, 98 and O’Brien, 161 who takes it to be “the open-ended promise of entering God’s rest”; 161). This even might refer back to Ex. 19:3-6; 23:20-33 where the summary of God’s act of deliverance and his promise of a land is given (see Bruce, 105).
Yet this message did not benefit, because they did not believe. The same is valid for today. The Gospel being preached is not beneficial if not met by faith (cf. Rom 10:14-15).
Using Gen 2:2 in verses 3-4 the author of Hebrews shows that the rest was always there from the beginning of creation (Bruce, 106; Moffat, 51). An interesting observation is that in the creation account (Gen. 1-2) each of the six days has a beginning and an end, yet of the seventh day no end is written about (Hughes, 159). This may imply that since creation the rest of God is available. The people of Israel (here in context the wilderness generation!) did not fail to enter it, because it was not available, but because of their unbelief.
Moving again to the “today-theme” the author now sees the following: since David so many years later still wrote about such a rest, it still must be available. “For him, the fact that God, through David, generations after the wilderness wanderers failed to enter the land of Canaan, set a ‘day’ for entering ‘the rest’ (i.e., ‘today’) gives assurance that this rest was not limited to entrance into Canaan (4:6-9)” (Guthrie, 955). There is still a “Sabbath-rest”. This term (“Sabbath-rest”; Gr.: sabbatismos) is described the following way:
[It] designates more closely what the people of God should expect when they enter the [katapausis; i.e., rest] of God…Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation from all his works, so also will believers find the eternal sabbath rest on the day of the completion of salvation in God’s “place of rest” (see 4:10)…The statement in Heb 4:9f. remains dependent on a Jewish sabbath theology that associates the idea of sabbath rest with ideas of worship and praise of God…Accordingly, the author of Hebrews understands by [sabbatismos] the eternal sabbath celebration of salvation, i.e., the perfected community’s worship before God’s throne” (Hofius, EDNT 3:219).
Guthrie summarizes the significance of the “rest” theme in this passage:
[I]t may be suggested that the “rest” of which the author of Hebrews speaks is entrance into the new covenant. Some in the community are in danger of rejecting it, not combining faith with their hearing of the “good news” (4:1-2). It is a rest that one must strive to enter (4:11)—the entrance into the new covenant involves taken a bold stand with Christ and his people—but at the same time involves ceasing from one’s own works (4:10). In context, this seems to point to a life of faith and obedience to God, in which a person turns away from a “wandering” way of life in order to embrace the proclaimed word of God. Finally, it is a rest that may be entered now by believing (4:3) and will be consummated at the end of the age. (960)
We also agree that the “rest” being pointed to has more of a future significance whereas the present state should not be entirely excluded. The context, however, surely points to the future (see O’Brien, 164-166).
Again (verses 11-13) the author exhorts the readers to enter and not to fail to do so by their disobedience. The following verses speak of the “word” (logos) of God and are closely related to the theme of disobedience. God’s word is thus related both to promises and as well as to warnings.
His word is “living and active”. It is thus valid and accomplishes its purposes. It is “alive” because it is spoken by the “living God” (3:12; cf. Acts 7:38; 1 Pet 1:23) – the source of life and goodness – and “active”, i.e., “effective”, because it is God’s words which “powerfully examines and discerns” and is very much able “to effect the purpose for which he has uttered it (Isa. 55:11)” (O’Brien, 176).
His word is “sharper than any two-edged sword” – in both manners of direction 1) for salvation and 2) for condemnation (because it is either met with faith or unbelief) – “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (deep penetration) both the psychological as well as physical side of the human nature; i.e., entirely!
God’s word is “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” so that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (logos)”, thus nothing is hidden from God. We are “naked” (gumnos), i.e., “completely exposed” the picture being of a wrestler who brings “an opponent down by a decisive hold on the neck”, we are completely helpless in front of the word that God speaks (O’Brien, 178).
So what can we do then? Where should we turn? The author gives us the answer in verses 14-16 (next post). Through the gracious providence of God, granting us a merciful and faithful high priest, we are able to come to His throne with confidence!
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007.
Hofius, O. “σαββατισμός”, in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3. Eds. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.