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Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

The writer expressed concern in this verse that some of his readers might conclude that they had missed entering into their rest (i.e., their full spiritual inheritance). Apparently some of the original readers had doubts because the Lord had not yet returned. They expected Him to return soon after He ascended into heaven (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). Later the writer urged his readers to wait patiently for the Lord to return (Hebrews 10:36-37). None of the original readers had failed to enter their rest (inheritance) because they had missed the Lord’s return.

Five views of the "rest" in Hebrews
1. Heaven
2. Present rest in (enjoyment of) our riches in Christ
3. Future (eschatological) enjoyment of all that God wants us to enjoy (i.e., our full inheritance)
4. Some particular blessing in the eschatological future
5. A peaceful life now as Christians

Some people interpret this verse to mean that the readers should fear that they would not go to heaven if they proved unfaithful. This cannot be the meaning because God has promised heaven to every believer regardless of our faithfulness to Him (Ephesians 1:3-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:10; 2 Timothy 2:13; 1 Peter 1:3-6; et al.).

"To equate the inheritance [only] with heaven [cf. Matthew 11:28] results in a glaring inconsistency. It would mean that believers, by entering the church, are already heirs of the kingdom. Why then are they uniformly exhorted to become heirs by faithful labor when they are already heirs?" [Note: Dillow, p. 83.]

Teaching that compares crossing the Jordan with the believer’s death has clouded divine revelation concerning the Christian’s future rest (e.g., the hymn, "I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger"). Crossing the Jordan marked the beginning of God’s testing of the new Israelite generation. He had previously tested the former generation during the wilderness wanderings. Each succeeding generation throughout the history of Israel faced its own tests. The people’s responses to these tests determined the amount of rest they experienced. Likewise the Christian’s response to his tests (whether he will trust and obey God faithfully or depart from God’s will) determines how much rest he or she will enjoy.

Another view is that rest refers to the present life of the believer who rests in the Lord: the "faith rest" life. [Note: Pentecost, pp. 80-81; Wiersbe, 2:289.] Having been saved, we enter into our rest as believers by surrendering our lives to Him and enjoying peace with God. This view seems unlikely because of how the writer equated rest and inheritance after the pattern of Old Testament usage, namely, as a future possession. Furthermore, if rest equals enjoying our spiritual blessings now, the writer should have warned his readers about losing their rest if they departed from God (Hebrews 3:12). The writer himself could have done this. Instead he warned them about failing to enter into their rest.

The writer used the term "rest" as Moses did, as an equivalent to entering into all the inheritance that God promised His people (Deuteronomy 3:18-20; Deuteronomy 12:9-11; cf. Hebrews 1:14; Hebrews 3:11; Hebrews 3:18; Hebrews 4:3-5; Hebrews 4:10-11; Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 6:17). For the Christian this inheritance is everything that God desires to bestow on us when we see Him. [Note: See Joe L. Wall, Going for the Gold, p. 84.] It is an eschatological rest, not a present rest. We enter into our rest after we cease from our labors in this life. We then enter into our "Sabbath rest," the rest that follows a full period of work (i.e., a lifetime; cf. Hebrews 4:9-11). I believe this is the correct view.

"An eschatological understanding of ’my rest’ in Psalms 95:11 is presupposed in Hebrews 4:1 and is fundamental to the exhortation to diligence to enter God’s rest in Hebrews 4:1-11." [Note: Lane, p. 98. Cf. Hodges, "Hebrews," p. 788.]

The readers might fail to enter their rest, in the sense of losing part of their inheritance, if they apostatized. Losing part of one’s inheritance probably involves losing the privilege of reigning with Christ in a position of significant responsibility in the future, at least (cf. Matthew 25:14-30). As it is possible to receive a greater or a lesser inheritance (reward), it is also possible to enter into more or less rest. The generation of Israelites that crossed the Jordan with Joshua only entered into partial rest in the land due to their failure to trust and obey God completely. Israel’s compromises with the Canaanites mitigated their rest. Subsequent generations of Israelites experienced the same partial rest, as the Book of Judges reveals. They apostatized, God disciplined them, they repented, and then they experienced rest until they (usually the next generation) apostatized again.

It also seems better to identify rest with our full future inheritance rather than solely with participation in the Millennium [Note: G. H. Lang, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 73.] or with our "heavenly husband" [Note: Bruce, p, 78.] or with some other particular blessing in the future. One writer assumed this meant the right to worship before the personal presence of Yahweh. [Note: Gleason, p. 297.] God has assured all Christians of enjoying the millennial kingdom and our "heavenly husband" (i.e., Jesus Christ). The New Testament links receiving other particular blessings (crowns, rewards) with specified conditions (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:25; Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:11).

This passage is not talking about living a peaceful life here and now either. That is not the rest that is in view. This should be clear from the context. Throughout this epistle the writer used the terms "rest" and "inheritance" as the Old Testament used them when speaking of what the Israelites in the wilderness anticipated. These terms refer to blessings that God’s people could anticipate in the next stage of their lives if they followed Him faithfully in the present stage of their lives. For the Israelites in the wilderness, this meant enjoying the peace and prosperity of the Promised Land to the full. For Christians, it means enjoying all the blessings that God has promised that faithful believers will experience in heaven.

Verses 1-14

C. The Possibility of Rest for God’s People 4:1-14

The writer returned again from exhortation to exposition. He now posed the alternatives of rest and peril that confronted the new people of God, Christians. It seems that this section ends with Hebrews 4:14 rather than 15 since 14 contains the end of an inclusio that begins in Hebrews 3:1. The writer warned his readers so they would not fail to enter into their rest.

"Since Moses was unable to lead the Israelites into Canaan, the writer reflects on the position of Joshua, who did lead them in. But he shows that even Joshua did not secure for his people true rest. Joshua failed for the same reason as Moses, that is, through the people’s unbelief." [Note: Guthrie, p. 110.]

Verse 2

What is the "good news" that both the Israelites and the original readers of this epistle had heard preached to them? It was probably the news about their inheritance and the possibility of entering into their rest. This seems clear from the context. This is not a reference to the gospel message. The good news the Israelites heard did not profit them because they refused to trust God but rebelled against Him. Likewise the good news of our inheritance and rest may not profit us if we fail to trust God but turn from Him in unbelief. By inheritance Moses and this writer meant all that God wanted and wants to give His people. We will all receive many blessings even if we apostatize, because we are God’s children whom He has promised to glorify (1 Peter 1:3-9). Nevertheless we will not enter into full rest or experience all we could inherit if we depart from God.

Verse 3

A better translation of "we who have believed" would be "we who believe" (Gr. pisteusantes, aorist active participle). The writer was not looking back to initial faith that resulted in justification but to present faith that would result in entering into rest (inheritance). The quotation from Psalms 95:11 emphasizes the impossibility of entering without faith. The writer added that this was true even though God had planned rest for His people when He created the world. God’s purpose and provision did not guarantee that His people would experience it. This depended also on their faith. Even Moses failed to enter rest in the Promised Land because he failed to trust God at Meribah (Numbers 20:12).

Verses 4-5

The writer evidently introduced the idea of God resting on the seventh day (cf. Hebrews 4:3) because it illustrates the fact that rest follows work. The work God called the Israelites in the wilderness to do was trusting and obeying Him. This would have resulted in rest from wandering in the wilderness, rest in the land, if they had carried this work out. The work He calls us to do is also continuing to trust and obey Him. If we do this we can look forward to receiving our full inheritance (rest) when we see the Lord, but if we turn from God we cannot. The writer stated the positive prospect in Hebrews 4:4 and the negative possibility in Hebrews 4:5.

Verses 6-7

All the descendants of Abraham did not lose their opportunity to receive God’s inheritance because the generation of Israelites living during the wilderness wanderings failed God. In David’s day God re-extended His offer of entering rest, and that generation had to respond. The title of Psalms 95 in the Septuagint credited David with writing it. They had their "today" of opportunity also. Every generation of believers needs to continue to trust and obey to enter into our rest (inheritance).

"Tinas ["Some"] is generally explained as implying a warning that not all the readers are certain to receive what God promises (cf. . . ., Hebrews 3:12; also Hebrews 4:13; Hebrews 4:1; Hebrews 4:11 . . .)." [Note: Ellingworth, p. 250.]

Verse 8

The prospect of rest for the Israelites, specifically the possession of the Promised Land and full blessing in it, did not end when Joshua defeated the Canaanites. Each succeeding generation had to continue to trust and obey God to assure its own rest in the land.

Verse 9

The Sabbath rest in view is the rest (inheritance) that every generation of believers and every individual believer enters into when he or she, like God, faithfully finishes his or her work. That work involves continuing to trust and obey God (i.e., walking by faith daily as opposed to apostatizing). Christians will enter into our rest, if we have persevered in faith, when we receive our inheritance from Jesus Christ at His judgment seat (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:9-10).

Millennial rest in the Promised Land will be the portion of Israel in the future. Walter Kaiser also interpreted the rest as future. He believed that first Israel and then all believers would fulfill this promise by possessing the Promised Land in the Millennium. [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., "The Promise Theme and the Theology of Rest," Bibliotheca Sacra 130:518 (April-June 1973):149-50.] However this passage seems to be referring to eternal rest for all believers of which the Millennium is just the beginning. Israel will be the primary people God blesses and makes a blessing in the Millennium. Neither is this Sabbath rest the present rest that Christians enjoy because God has finished His work of providing salvation for us in Christ and we have entered into it by faith. That should be clear because the rest in view is still future for us (cf. Hebrews 4:1; Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:9; Hebrews 4:11).

Verse 10

When we enter that rest we can cease walking by faith because then we will experience what we now only hope for (Hebrews 11:1; cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12). We will cease from our work as God did from His. The Hebrew word translated "rested" in Genesis 2:2 literally means "ceased." His work of creating did not exhaust God. He simply stopped creating on the seventh day.

Verse 11

In the meantime we need to follow Jesus and Moses’ examples of faithfulness to God. We need to carry out the work He has given us to do (i.e., to continue to trust and obey rather than turning from Him; Hebrews 3:2; Hebrews 3:6; Hebrews 3:14). Note again that the writer said he faced the same danger as his readers: "Let us" (cf. Hebrews 4:16).

"We enter into rest only when we persevere in faith to the end of life. When we do this, we will obtain a share in the inheritance, the millennial land of Canaan, and will rule with Christ as one of His metochoi [partners] there. Rest is not just the land itself; it also includes the state or condition of ’finished work,’ of final perseverance, into which the faithful Christian will enter. God has not set aside His promises to Israel. The promise of the inheritance, the land, is eternally valid, and those Christians who remain faithful to their Lord to the end of life will share in that inheritance along with the Old Testament saints." [Note: Dillow, p. 109.]

Christians need to be diligent to enter that rest. If the rest were just heaven, we would not have to exercise diligence because God has promised that all believers will go to heaven (John 10:27-28; Romans 8:30; Philippians 1:6; et al.). If the rest were just the rest we presently enjoy because God has forgiven our sins, we would not have to be diligent to enter it either because we already have entered into that rest.

Verse 12

After we die, or experience the Rapture, God will do a spiritual postmortem on us at the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). He will examine our innermost attitudes and motives. The "scalpel" He will use is His Word. The Word of God is "living" because it is the word of the living God (Hebrews 3:12), and it is "active" (energetic, powerful). The sword in view (Gr. machairan) was originally a small one like a boning knife that cooks used to cut up meat. In its double-edged form it was a symbol of judges and magistrates in the Roman world. It illustrated the power of those officials to turn both ways to get to the bottom of a case. However it is possible that by the time Hebrews was written machaira (sword) had come to mean a sword of any size, long or short. [Note: Moffatt, p. 56.] The Word of God can express and distinguish what is "soulish" (natural) and what is spiritual in our motivation and actions. It can do so even when those elements are as close to each other as our joints and marrow. It is even able to expose our thoughts and attitudes (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:5).

"What the author is saying is that God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being. We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God. We cannot keep our thoughts to ourselves." [Note: Morris, p. 44.]

Many Christians use this verse to show that God will judge unbelievers with His piercing Word, but in the context it refers to God judging believers to determine rewards (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).

Verse 13

Our Lord will examine every Christian; not one can avoid His judgment seat. This prospect should motivate every Christian to remain faithful to God until we see Him. We should "fear" (anticipate seriously, Hebrews 4:1) as we prepare for it (cf. 1 John 2:28). Will God find us faithful when we see Him?

Verse 14

Our "great High Priest" (Hebrews 2:17) has already proved faithful through suffering and is now in God’s presence where He intercedes for us (cf. Romans 8:34). Compare our "great salvation" (Hebrews 2:3). He is not just a priest serving on earth, like Israel’s high priests. He is our file leader (Hebrews 2:10), and we will follow Him through the heavens one day. This great High Priest is none other than Jesus, not an angel (Hebrews 1:4-14) or Moses (Hebrews 3:2-6). He is the Son of God (Hebrews 1:2).

"The picture of Jesus Christ as High Priest is the most distinctive theme of Hebrews, and it is central to the theology of the book." [Note: Fanning, p. 388.]

Notice that this verse does not say that since we have such a High Priest we will hold fast our confession. Perseverance in faith and good works is not inevitable, though perseverance in salvation is (2 Timothy 2:12-13). Since we have such a High Priest we must be careful to hold fast our confession. This verse concludes the exhortation to enter into our rest that began in Hebrews 3:12.

"The warning in Hebrews 3:1 to Hebrews 4:13 is inextricably related to the Exodus generation and the concept of rest. By referring to Moses’ and Christ’s faithfulness in the house of God, the writer exhorted his readers to remain faithful to their worship function in God’s house as believer-priests (Hebrews 3:1-6).

"The generation in the wilderness is an example of those who failed to be faithful and as a result experienced both temporal discipline and eschatological loss. A royal enthronement psalm (Psalms 95), with its past and present perspectives, was used as the basis for explaining Israel’s failure.

"Hebrews 4 begins with an application to the present readers. Four times the text says that the promise of rest remains [i.e., is future] (Hebrews 4:1; Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:9; Hebrews 4:11).

"The concept of rest in Hebrews 3:1 to Hebrews 4:13 includes (a) a historical sense related to the Exodus generation and Joshua (Psalms 95; Joshua 21:44); (b) an eschatological sense related to the Exodus (Psalms 95); and (c) the sabbath rest related to the readers with its eschatological perspective (Genesis 2:2-3; Hebrews 4:9).

"The readers’ entrance into this eschatological rest depends on their faithfulness in doing good works. As metochoi (’companions’) of Christ they must be diligent to receive eschatological reward (Hebrews 4:11-13) at the judgment seat of Christ. Failure to persevere may result in temporal discipline (Hebrews 12:4-11) along with the loss of future rewards and authority to rule with Jesus in the millennium." [Note: Oberholtzer, 578:196.]

"The reference to Jesus in his office as high priest in Hebrews 4:14 is not an afterthought, but the intended conclusion of the entire argument. The crucial issue for the community is whether they will maintain their Christian stance. The issue was posed conditionally in Hebrews 3:6 b, and more pointedly in Hebrews 3:14. It was raised again forcefully in Hebrews 4:14 in the exhortation to hold fast to the confession that identified Christians as those who had responded to the message they had heard with faith (cf. Hebrews 4:2). The ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary as a faithful high priest in the service of God gives certainty to the promise that God’s people will celebrate the Sabbath in his presence if they hold fast their initial confidence." [Note: Lane, p. 105.]

D. The Compassion of the SON 4:15-5:10

Having explored the concept of Jesus as a faithful high priest (Hebrews 3:1 to Hebrews 4:14), the writer proceeded next to develop the idea that Jesus is a merciful high priest in the service of God (cf. Hebrews 2:17). A high priest must be faithful to God and compassionate with people. This section is entirely exposition, except for Hebrews 4:16, which is an exhortation to pray. Hebrews 4:15-16 of chapter 4 announce the perspectives that the writer developed in Hebrews 5:1-10.

"A The old office of high priest (Hebrews 5:1)

B The solidarity of the high priest with the people (Hebrews 5:2-3)

C The humility of the high priest (Hebrews 5:4)

C’ The humility of Christ (Hebrews 5:5-6)

B’ The solidarity of Christ with the people (Hebrews 5:7-8)

A’ The new office of high priest (Hebrews 5:9-10) . . .

"As a unit Hebrews 4:15 to Hebrews 5:10 lays the foundation for the great central exposition of Jesus’ priesthood in Hebrews 7:1 to Hebrews 10:18, where the emphasis will be placed on his dissimilarity to the Levitical priesthood." [Note: Ibid., p. 111.]

Verse 15

Jesus experienced temptation in every area of His life, as we do. Obviously He did not experience temptation to waste His time by watching too much television, for example. However, He experienced temptation to waste His time and to do or not do things contrary to God’s will. His temptations did not come from a sinful nature, as some of ours do, since He had no sinful nature, but He suffered temptation as we do because He was fully human. Since He endured every temptation successfully He experienced temptations more thoroughly than we do when we yield to them before they pass. Consequently He can sympathize (feel and suffer) with us when we experience temptation. The writer’s point was that Jesus understands us, He sympathizes with us, and He overcame temptation Himself.

As an illustration of the thoroughness of Jesus’ temptations, imagine a large bolder on the seacoast. Since it does not move, it experiences the full force of every wave that beats against it. Smaller pebbles that the waves move around do not because they yield to the force of the waves. Similarly Jesus’ temptations were greater than ours because He never yielded to them. Likewise a prizefighter (Jesus) who defeats the champion (Satan) endures more punishment than other contenders who throw in the towel or are knocked out before the end of the fight.

". . . in this epistle as high a Christology as is conceivable is combined with an emphasis on the real humanity of Jesus. Nobody insists on the limitations of Jesus’ human frame as does the writer of Hebrews." [Note: Morris, p. 17.]

Verse 16

Since we have such a High Priest to intercede for us with God, we can approach God confidently in prayer (cf. Hebrews 3:6; Hebrews 10:19; Hebrews 10:35). Every Christian can come to God’s heavenly throne, not just the high priests of Judaism. The high priests of Judaism could only approach God at His earthly throne, in the holy of holies in the tabernacle or temple, once a year. God’s throne of judgment, for the Israelites, has become a throne of grace (undeserved help) for us now. Our Sovereign will be merciful (not giving us what we deserve) and gracious (giving us what we do not deserve). This verse again contrasts the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Hebrews 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/hebrews-4.html. 2012.
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