Hebrews 4:1-14   


David H. Linden      imputed@gmail.com    revised December 2010



Hebrews 4:1-11 continues to deal with themes raised by Psalm 95. Warning and promise are joined. The issue of unbelief reported in Numbers 14 and Psalm 95 continues, and thus the writer speaks of danger again.  But now in chapter 4, hope is derived from this same psalm. 


Until we arrive in God’s city (13:14) we must fear our sin and the possibility of apostasy in us and among us. The man who does not trust his heart is a wise man (Psalm 26:2; 51:10; Jeremiah 17:9,10). The man careless of spiritual danger suffers from it already.  No man who has been saved by God will apostatize.   We only know we are genuine believers if we obey   (1 John 3:4-10).  If we live in disobedience, we are not Christians; we have only fooled ourselves.


Chapter 3 focused on the warning and the oath of God that unbelieving rebels would never enter His rest.  Chapter 4 will speak of His promised rest and appeal for diligence to enter it while the opportunity remains.  The discussion of rest in this chapter has many angles and requires extra attention.


Concerning Structure:   Most commentaries and editions of the Bible make a break at the end of v.13 and place v.14 in a new paragraph. Vv. 14 & 15 both mention Christ as a high priest, so the Bible editors quite naturally join those verses in the same paragraph. However, literary clues reveal the author’s intended beginning and climax. 3:1 opens with an appeal concerning the faithful high priest we confess.  Earlier in 2:17, Christ as high priest is both merciful and faithful.  Only after dealing with Christ’s faithfulness, and the need for ours, does Hebrews switch at 4:15,16 to a merciful high priest. V.14 links to the theme of our confession which began in 3:1, and exhorts to hold faithfully to our confession of Jesus as our Great High Priest. As the climax of what was said before, v.14 belongs to what precedes it. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (v.14). Further discussion of the priesthood of Jesus appears in v.15, but v.14 finishes what precedes it. In Greek, confession (3:1) and profession (4:14) are the same word.



An Illustration of Structure[1]


This pattern, common to Hebrew writing, appears throughout the book:

A. a certain theme

     B. a different theme

     B. the theme of B continued

A. a return to the theme in A. 


A. merciful and (2:17)

     B. faithful high priest (2:17)

     B. faithful high priest, and the requirement of a faithful people (3:1-4:14)

A. merciful high priest (4:15,16). 



4:1   The part of Psalm 95 that Hebrews quotes, does not state a promise of rest,[2] yet Hebrews 4 is certain that God was making a promise in that psalm.  The warning comes in such a way that it implies an invitation. In support of this I suggest the following reasons: 


  • The opening of Psalm 95 is a call to worship, a call to come to the Lord. The warnings in the rest of the psalm cannot contradict such an invitation. The warnings are not a pronouncement of no hope, but instead they urge us to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying.
  • The oath against unbelievers in Numbers 14 was against unbelievers only. The oath did not include Caleb and Joshua. It was against adult rebels, but their children living at the time of the oath eventually entered the land under Joshua.
  • The appeal to hear (3:7) and the warning not to harden their hearts (3:8), was a way to call on those in David’s day to believe with their hearts.


4:1   An exhortation to fear      Fear may be a healthy, joyful delight in God as in Psalm 103, but that is not the idea in 4:1. The NIV misses the urgency in the passage by translating “Let us fear” as “let us be careful”. It  softens the message when Hebrews warns sternly that our God is a consuming fire (12:29), and apart from Christ there is no sacrifice for sins. A person without Christ as his High Priest is left only with raging fire, severe punishment, and the dreadful plight of falling into the hands of the living God without a Mediator (10:26-31). Moses’ fear on Sinai was proper (12:21). The fear of facing death without forgiveness is a great bondage from which believers are delivered (2:14,15). That we might forsake Christ and renounce our confession of Him is something we ought to fear. If we cringe at the thought that unbelief is behind disobedience, and if we cry out to the Lord to preserve us, this is consistent with holding firmly to the faith in Christ we profess to have (3:1,14 & 4:14). 


The writer of Hebrews included himself in his let us fear. The night Jesus was betrayed none of the other disciples knew that Judas was the betrayer! In proper seriousness they each asked the Lord, “Is it I?” (Mark 14:19). Judas was one of the Twelve but never a believer (John 6:70).


The idea in 3:12 reappears. There might be one person in the church who falls short and does not enter.  I wonder if this may be why Hebrews does not reveal its author. It could be an article for repeated use when over time church leaders (spoken of with approval in 13:7,17) would find individuals beginning to drift, and some wandering after false teaching (13:9). The letter is clearly a sermon for believers in a group setting, whom the author considers genuine in faith (6:9-12). Yet in 6:11,12, he reveals again his burden for each individual. Hebrews is an exhortation (13:22); today we would probably call it a sermon.


Authors identify themselves in letters, but in sermons we do not. This sermon arrived in writing before the speaker could (13:24). And the writing could have been the project of a team working under the individual who signed off in 13:23-25. (I expect that that individual was the Apostle Paul.) With further conjecture, I wonder if Hebrews was designed to be an argument for faith in Christ throughout a generation constantly tempted by the same issues. Many of these persons would never meet the writer of this sermon.


Pastoral Ministry to the Individual      The ministry of Christ, predicted in Jeremiah 23:5,6, is connected to a prediction that not one of God’s flock will be missing (Jeremiah 23:4).  That reveals an important aspect of pastoral work.  The Lord’s assignment from the Father was that not one whom the Father had given Christ would be lost (John 6:39).  It is common these days to think of attracting crowds while neglecting troubled souls who might take too much time.  The Good Shepherd laid down His life for all His sheep (John 10:15); He  would leave the ninety-nine and search for one lost sheep.  There is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7).  After that parable the Lord gave two more in Luke 15 about one lost coin and one lost son.   When a person renounces Christ we have little recourse but sorrow.  Hebrews 6:4-6 tells us such a person cannot be brought to repentance again.  But when we find a “brother” wavering, we seek to restore him.  Teaching is a vital part of Christian nurture, and so is the encouragement that flows from one person to another (3:12,13).


4:1   What is the rest promised?   The word rest is used in three ways: 


 1.    The rest of entering the land of Canaan   After living in tents and traveling in the desert, Israel entered the land God gave them and had rest (Deuteronomy 12:10). 


 2.    The rest God has had since creation   His creating work ended in six days.  God then looked on His work and pronounced it all very good and ceased from creating anything more.  His rest was not a rest prompted by weariness, but because His work was finished.


Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done   (Genesis 2:1-3).


God’s rest is a continuing rest. Unlike days one to six in Genesis 1, on the seventh day there is no evening, so it has been for God a day that does not end, an eternal rest. The Sabbath is presented in Scripture as a gift for man (Mark 2:27). Before he sinned, Adam enjoyed God’s rest in fellowship with Him. After the fall, man enjoys a Sabbath only once a week, but it is not yet a rest in the holy city. We humans cannot escape toil in work or pain in childbirth. Though our Sabbaths are patterned on God’s, our Sabbaths last but a day; God’s Sabbath is eternal. 


 3.    The rest promised in the gospel to believers     At this point we encounter rest from two perspectives. I say the dominant aspect in this text is our future ultimate rest after the Coming of Christ. Yet the entering is by faith now; we begin to enjoy this rest now and yet look forward to it in the presence of the Lord. It is like the Bible’s dual reference to eternal life, as something possessed now and yet enjoyed in fullness only in eternity. This looking ahead to what we do not see is a prominent feature of Hebrews 11. I suggest that that is the emphasis of Hebrews 3,4.


God offers His kind of rest to His people. This for us is the ultimate salvation.  It is rest where the hard labor man must do comes to an end (4:10).  It is from all that wearies us: sin, strife, trials, temptations, tears and pain.  Like God’s rest it is eternal bliss, yet its fullness awaits Christ bringing salvation to those waiting for Him (9:28).  We possess it now (4:3) by faith and we begin to enjoy what we will later receive as our inheritance (11:8-10). Meanwhile, since the devil seeks to devour us (1 Peter 5:8), we must shun a false rest where we are not on guard. Those who die in Christ rest from their labors (Revelation 14:13; Isaiah 57:2). Until then our pilgrimage is not one of coasting to heaven, but running a strenuous race involving struggle, resistance, endurance, and opposition (12:1-4). In Philippians 3:12-14 Paul refers to our pilgrimage as straining and pressing on. Laziness rejects the privilege of bearing the cross (Philippians 1:29,30). It means we want for ourselves a life far easier than Jesus had (Hebrews 5:7-10). The eagerly desired rest is still ahead, possessed by believers and guaranteed by Christ (7:22). It is only for those who believe in Him, and those are the ones who hold firmly to their confession. 


The rest Hebrews 4 promotes is not life in the land of Canaan.  Those who were the first to read Psalm 95 were already in the land. In Psalm 95, the Holy Spirit was pointing those people to a better rest, one called My rest. One of the Lord’s most cherished promises is, “I will give you rest.”  His rest for the soul now is a foretaste of the complete rest to come (Matthew 11:28,29). Meanwhile, the wicked have neither rest nor peace (Isaiah 57:20,21). Our present rest is patient assurance in the sufficiency of the work of Christ and His commitment to us. Our future rest entails our transformation in a new creation free from all sin, strife, and tears (Revelation 21:4,5).


“Rest” is not a frequent way to picture salvation in Scripture. (But note Isaiah 30:15 & Matthew 11:28.) In Hebrews it is found only in chapters 3 & 4. It is a synonym for peace (Romans 5:1), but whether the word itself is common, the concept stated in other words is pervasive:


… Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded [with His rest]. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive… [the ultimate rest] he has promised.  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed [missing God’s rest] but of those who believe and are saved [and will enter the fullness of God’s rest]. (Hebrews 10:35-39)


4:2,3   They had the gospel preached to them. God had promised to take His people into the land; they needed to believe Him. He promised to go in front of them and defeat their enemies (Psalm 44:1-8). That divine overture was gospel. Likewise, for others in God’s Today hearing the gospel of Christ, God promises His rest. The Israelites did not believe and so did not receive what was promised. They had disdain for God’s promise, so He swore that they would never enter the rest once held out to them. God had promised to take them into the land. They had seen His power to deliver from Egypt, yet they treated the Lord their God with contempt (Numbers 14:11,23). They did not combine what they heard with faith. Thus they became the great example of unbelief and disobedience in Psalm 95, and a warning to all ever since (1 Corinthians 10:6-12).


4:3   Different aspects of time   Just as believers have eternal life in the present (John 3:16) even before the resurrection, so people are entering God’s rest now. V.3 has the present tense for ‘enter’. 4:6 says it remains for some to enter who have not, so some may yet believe, though God makes no promise beyond Today. (Like the time of Christ’s return, the duration of Today is known only to God.) Then this passage also looks upon believers as those who have entered when it uses a past tense in v.10 (The NIV has enters, the ESV entered. The ESV is preferred here.)   


I think Hebrews is saying we are entering now because the promise of rest has not closed. It is a present reality. New people enter every day. God has not revealed when this day will close. All who have believed have already entered. We enter only once, having received the gospel promise in faith. When we believe we receive title to eternal rest immediately, and shall enjoy it to the full eventually.  


4:3-5   God’s work has been finished since creation. His rest began then and has continued ever since. His rest is open to those who do not harden their hearts. God still presents Christ to us as the way (John 10:7-10) to enter His rest, which is offered to all, but entered only by believers. 


4:6-7   God has brought up this subject. This is a current gospel, repeated in Scripture long after the rebels in Numbers 14 disobeyed. Psalm 95 has not been revoked. The promise in it still stands. The ‘Today’ in Psalm 95 has not been revoked. When men die, they face the judgment (9:27); there is then no more ‘Today’ for them. Through the psalm, God warned them not to harden their hearts. The alternative to hardening hearts is faith in His promise. 400 years after the rebellion in the desert, people may still enter God’s rest – not meaning the land of Canaan, but God’s rest. This is very lovely gospel; sinners once expelled from Eden may by faith enter the paradise of God’s rest to walk with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:3).


4:8   The rest Psalm 95 refers to cannot mean the Promised Land, the land Israel entered under Joshua.  Joshua had not given the rest Psalm 95 had in mind. Long after Joshua, God spoke in that psalm to people already in the land. The Today of Psalm 95 was the time Psalm 95 was written. Paul also spoke of the day of salvation in 2 Corinthians 6:2. Centuries later, in the longsuffering of God, Today is still here.


4:9-11   The Sabbath-rest in v.9 is not our weekly Sabbath, though our Sabbaths are a type of it. V.9 refers to God’s rest opened to His true people, those who believe. That rest remains though Psalm 95 was 1000 years before the writing of Hebrews. It remains even though another 2000 years have passed.  


Who are the people of God?   The Sabbath-rest is for the people of God (4:9). Therefore those mentioned in Hebrews 4 who disobeyed and fell cannot be God’s people in the same sense. 10:26-31 speaks of the Lord judging His people, and that a person could be sanctified by the blood of the covenant and yet could still come under the wrath of God. In Leviticus 26:12,13 God’s people were the ones who left Egypt, so all the Israelites in one sense were His people, yet their sin was such that they are called a “wicked community” (Numbers 14:35 NIV). Then God said of His people who left Egypt and who would not believe, that they would never enter His rest (Numbers 14:20-23). So the Bible speaks of God’s people both ways. Some are God’s people by birthright, but like Jacob and Esau, some of them are saved and some are not. There is a true Israel – the believing remnant (Isaiah 10:21; Romans 9:27; 11:5) – and there was an adulterous Israel (as in Jeremiah 3:6-10) who despised her covenant with the Lord. “… Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel(Romans 9:6). Some are His people in name only. They think they are His and say they are, but their hearts, like Simon’s in Acts 8, are not right with God. Simon was baptized on his profession of faith and thought to be a Christian. His sin proved that he never was one of God’s true people. (See 1 John 2:19.)


4:10   The future rest of believers is so connected to fellowship with God that God calls it My rest. Since God rested from His work, so will we. This pilgrimage will end, and all the labor that occupies us now. Our rest will really be like His. The Jewish people used the Greek word for ‘Sabbath-rest’ to indicate Sabbath celebration and festivity, a time of joy and praise. Everyone senses how happy it is when a big task is completed, such as joy in harvest time when the work is done (Psalm 65:9-13; Psalm 67). That is the idea here. There is an eternal day of the enjoyment of God ahead, when the curse of exhausting work will be over forever (Genesis 3:17-19). God has already rested from all His work, and so will we.  


4:11   Such a rest and such a future day as this should be very motivating to us. But it will only be if we believe God’s promise that such a rest is true. It should make us diligent in all the ways Hebrews emphasizes. It makes us patient in hope (13:6). We must not throw away our confidence (10:35); in a little while Christ will come (10:37). The OT saints did not receive all that God had promised them, but they lived and died in faith (11:39); some died deprived of all the comforts of life. The Lord will not disappoint them. We need diligence of heart to believe God’s promises when we cannot see the outcome. Faith when we cannot see is emphasized in Hebrews (11:1,3,7,13,27). The context of this entire passage is the appeal to fix our thoughts on Jesus as our Great High Priest (3:1; 1 Samuel 12:24). By faith in our High Priest and no other, we enter rest now.   


The writer has more to teach about Christ (5:11). His exhortation to diligence encountered their laziness toward doctrine when he sought to teach that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Note how 5:10 is followed by reproof!) Hebrews commands diligence in doctrine too. We cannot enter rest apart from the work of our priest.  Holding firmly to the faith we confess (v.14) is simply holding in heart and mind to Jesus and His priestly work.  Whenever we make no effort to learn such things (5:11; Proverbs 2:1-6), we fail to sense our need of Christ, and careless drifting (2:1-4) has already begun. Making every effort to enter that rest involves grasping doctrine, believing promises, and living in the light of these convictions in the face of temptation (2 Peter 1:3,4). It means running a race and enduring weariness as the Lord did (12:1-3). “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). At the end of this race our rest involves personal perfection and all that has ever been promised to God’s people (11:39,40).


Our salvation depends on a work we did not do; it was our High Priest Who offered His blood. We offer nothing. Sometimes, as in Numbers 29:1,7,12, the people were to do no work. God does not accept us for our good works (Ephesians 2:8,9). Our works are never a factor in our justification (Romans 3:28). In fact, faith is set in opposition to works for justification (Romans 4:5,6). Hebrews 4:11 is not teaching that justification comes by our effort; it is teaching the rigor of being a disciple already justified. We must exert ourselves to cast off sloth and hindrances of every kind, for soon our efforts will be replaced by God’s eternal rest. If we really believe that, it will affect all we do, and help us run our race.


Salvation rests on God alone. What He extends to us is His promise. Our certainty that we have believed does not rest in some past “decision” we make. We must be aware of our lives being transformed and of the fruit of the Spirit coming from us (1 John 4:12). A text like 4:10-13 makes us examine ourselves, even test ourselves – something we need to do (2 Corinthians 13:5) to find out by the fruit of repentance whether we are really God’s elect (Luke 3:8; 2 Peter 1:10-11). If we do not have obedience, that lack points to one not being in Christ at all (John 15:1-8).


4:12-13   The Word of God   In 3:7-11 God’s word was a word of warning. Those who did not believe doubted His word and tried to enter the land God swore they could not (Numbers 14:39-45). They quickly learned that He stood behind His word when they fell under the sword of the enemy. Numbers 14:43 uses the word “sword”, which could be the reason “sword” is used in 4:12. Like God Himself, His word is powerful and living. God and His Word cannot be separated. Those who decline His promise find His word of death inescapable. Whatever God says, He fulfills. No one can stop Him or fool Him. Just as a sword penetrates, so God’s Word penetrates into the hidden area of man’s secret thought. It judges because God knows our motives. We may be able to hide from others but never from God. 



The Word of God      When God speaks His Word, it is more than mere communication; it is God in action.  By His Word He created (11:3); by His Word He sustains (1:3); by His Word He gives birth (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23); and by His Word He will judge (John 12:28). That is simply a way to say that God created, sustains, gives life, and judges. 4:12,13 speaks of the judging ability of the Word, which is another way to express the ability of God to observe and discern (v.13). God’s Word is identified with Him as the tool by which He acts. 



God Who speaks His Word, judges by it. He reads the response of the heart to His promise. If our response to the gospel is unbelief, such hidden sin cannot be kept from Him. God is transcendent; nothing in creation is like Him. Only God can read man’s heart (Psalm 44:21). A man could say with his mouth that Christ is his priest. If  then he secretly turns from his confession, God knows. Hebrews emphasizes the unbelief of a hardened heart (3:8); now it speaks of the heart open to the eyes of God. Jesus always knew that Judas did not believe (John 6:63,64), because He could read his heart. 


The Gentiles heard the message of the gospel; God knew their hearts; they believed in Christ, and so He accepted them (Acts 15:6-11). He is the One to Whom we must give account. In the Judgment Day all secret unbelief will be exposed, while believers are rewarded (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). God does not need to ask if we believe. He knows. Nothing is more terrifying to the unbeliever than the truth that God searches the heart.   


4:14   The appeal in 3:1 is repeated. The Apostle and High Priest (2:5-18) we confess is the Son of God. The apostles (Acts 1:9-11) saw Him go up to heaven. He has entered the sanctuary of God (9:11,24). Our faith cannot be in a greater priest. Faith in Christ is faith in the ultimate Priest. His work has won God’s acceptance of His sinful people; it would be folly to turn from Him. We have no other hope, because there is no other hope. The readers of Hebrews had made a public confession of Christ (3:1; 4:14); now the writer calls on himself and his readers to hold to it, because of Who Jesus is and what He has done. They faced persecution (10:33); the powerful traditions of having visible priests and daily sacrifices (7:27), the enticement of false doctrine (13:9), the weariness of the race (12:1,12,13), lethargy in articulating their testimony (5:11,12), and even imprisonment (10:34). These are not reasons to give up the Great Priest Who has put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Our Priest has entered the presence of God in heaven and remains there. We belong to the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22-24), and we have a Lord who has promised never to forsake us (13:5). We confessed (3:1) at one time that we believe in Him; now we must not give up this confidence. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (10:23). So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded (10:35). It will be rewarded with God’s rest. 


[1]  The purpose of these notes is to deal with the message and meaning of Hebrews.   For my preparation I have benefited greatly from the writing of scholars who have researched the technical structure of Hebrews.  I shall not take much space to point out this kind of feature in Hebrews, except where it is quite obvious in the text.  William Lane’s commentary is very helpful in maintaining attention to various “inclusios”.

[2]  This is an example of how Scripture may be handled.  We accept what it says; we should also deduce whatever it implies, and collect all such truths together to establish doctrine.  This is what theology is.