What Does Hebrews 4 Really Say?
At one time I was convinced that the verses of Hebrews 4:8-10 were clear "proof texts" that the seventh-day Sabbath rest still remained unchanged by Jesus to another day. Today, I believe even more deeply that Hebrews 4 is a most significant passage undergirding the seventh-day Sabbath, but for different reasons. While I no longer see Hebrews 4:8-10 as a proof text for the Sabbath, the message of Hebrews 4 has become laden with a deeper meaning for the seventh-day Sabbath.
In a special sense Jesus Christ stands as the center of the book of Hebrews. His work for us as high priest in heaven is foundational to the entire message of Hebrews, and especially the urgent yet beautiful appeal of verses 9 and 10.
In the exhortations of chapters 3 and 4 our author is speaking to a group of Christians, the pilgrim people of God who, though once well-grounded in the faith, have become weary and in danger of giving up altogether. 1 The author traces for them God's redemptive history from Creation through the wilderness wanderings of Israel, to David's day, to Christ's day, and finally to their own today, calling on them to hold fast their confidence in Christ's work, and warning them against failing to enter God's rest as their forefathers had done. Therefore, the basic issue to be interpreted in He brews 4:9, 10 centers on this concept of God's rest.
Basic issues of interpretation
The first issue raised by Heb. 4:9 is one of time. When is the "rest" of God to be entered? Bible students have long disagreed over the meaning of the phrase a rest remains (apoleipetai). Some have viewed the rest primarily in a future sense and therefore refer it to the coming new earth, basing their concepts heavily on the Old Testament promises of rest in the Promised Land. Others emphasize the textual context of today and feel the present tense of the verb remain adds weight to the present availability of the rest.
This article takes the position that a study of the context, with special attention to the words remain (kataleipo), today (semeron) and enter (eiserchomai), indicates the author of Hebrews has in mind a rest that is presently available and still remains today to be entered. The verb tenses and the repetition of the word today seem to demand such a conclusion, as does also the strong exhortative and probationary tone of the pas sage.
However, stress on the present entering into rest does not nullify implications for the future in the author's argument. True, the entering into rest will not always be available, and the opportunity must be seized today (cf. 3:13, 14; 4:1). However, we must not forget either the author's use of the Creation Sabbath to illustrate God's rest or the fact that the promised rest in the Old Testament did include, among other things, the gift of the land.
Before attempting to describe the "rest" of Hebrews 4:9, we must ask: (1) To whom is the rest avail able? and (2) How is it entered?
From the general argument of the book of Hebrews and also from such texts as Galatians 3:26-29, it be comes clear that the wandering people of God since the cross are no longer the Jewish nation exclusively, but all those who are Christ's. He brews 4:9, R.S.V., declares that the rest remains "for the people of God," and verse 10 adds "whoever enters," indicating the rest is avail able to anyone who accepts Christ and the rest He offers.
How does one enter this rest? Hebrews 4:3, R.S.V., says, "For we who have believed enter that rest." The word faith (pistis) appears repeatedly in these verses and is clearly the criterion for entering God's rest. Faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, form a continual contrast in the context of Hebrews 3 and 4. "Whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (Heb. 4:10, R.S.V.). Faith, obedience, and ceasing from our works as God does from His gives us the key to unlock the meaning of the rest (sabbatismos) in Heb. 4:9.
Throughout Hebrews 3 and 4 the author refers to the rest of God (katapausis) as the goal to be entered. But in Heb. 4:9, R.S.V., he uses a different word for rest. "There re mains a sabbath rest (sabbatismos) for the people of God." This new word has been interpreted in many different ways, of which we will deal with only two.
One interpretation sees sabbatismos, together with the illustration from Genesis 2, as a "proof text" for the necessity of observing the seventh-day Sabbath in the New Testament. According to this view, if God didn't want the Sabbath kept after the cross, "would he not after ward have spoken of another day" (Heb. 4:8, K.J.V.)? This interpretation is not consistent with the con text, the language, or the main point of the author's argument.
A second interpretation denies any implications whatsoever concerning the seventh-day Sabbath and sees sabbatismos totally inter changeable with katapausis, both referring only to the deeper rest of righteousness by faith, which the Jews under Joshua failed to enter. This argument also fails to consider adequately the total context or to account for the change from katapausis to sabatismos, a word possibly coined specifically for this occasion, and that possibly has as its root the Hebrew shabath ("sabbath"). Neither does this interpretation take notice of the symbolism of Genesis 2.
What then is the "rest" of God? It is evident the rest does not refer to an external observance of the seventh-day Sabbath or merely to entering the Promised Land. Joshua and the Israelites did both and yet did not find the true rest (Neh. 9:28). The only way to understand the true rest is to follow our author's illustration back to the first Sabbath when God looked at His work of Creation and said, "It is good." God then blessed the day and rested. God did not cease all activity; therefore, the rest man enters is not one of idleness, but of proper activities. In the context of Hebrews 3 and 4 the author points to Christ's rest after His perfect work of Creation, and also to His rest following the perfect work of His human life, which is the basis for the confidence man is to have. This reminds us, incidentally, of Christ's cry, "It is finished" (John 19:30), after His completed work of re-creation just before He rested in the tomb on the Sabbath.
Therefore, in Hebrews 3 and 4 sabbatismos is the author's term for man's entering into God's katapausis. Sabbatismos of Hebrews 4:9 is clearly not a proof text for Sabbath observance, but obviously the author is uniting the deeper rest experience, to which God calls His people, with the symbol of faith that God Himself instituted—the Sabbath. Man is to enter by faith and obedience into God's completed work for him. His rest is not in his own accomplishments, but in God's. After quoting Heb. 4:9, 11, Ellen White says: "The rest here spoken of is the rest of grace, obtained by following the prescription, Labor diligently. . . . Those who are unwilling to give the Lord faithful, earnest, loving service will not find spiritual rest in this life or in the life to come. Only from earnest labor comes peace and joy in the Holy Spirit happiness on earth and glory hereafter." —The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Heb. 4:9, 11, p. 928. 2
Jesus said, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). This is the rest of Hebrews 3 and 4. The wandering people of God enter today by faith into the rest of grace, trusting Christ's completed work for them. Then as they get into His yoke they find, not idleness, but beautiful, restful activity.
Though the Sabbath is mentioned only incidentally in a context that stresses the availability of salvation rest to man, the rest of God on the seventh day of Creation week reveals that the Sabbath is a symbol and a sample of the rest of grace. Just as man communes with God by faith and thereby obtains the rest, so it is in the realm of time that this communion finds its ultimate expression in the God-given symbol of the Sabbath.3 When our author introduces the concept of God's rest it is no coincidence that he makes a play on words by introducing the word sabbatismos. The relation be tween the rest of God as experience and the Sabbath as its symbol is aptly stated by E. J. Waggoner: "The rest in Eden was Sabbath rest. The Sabbath is a bit of Eden that remains to us until Eden is restored again; he who keeps the Sabbath as God keeps it, as God gave it to be kept, has the rest that the Lord Jesus Christ has in heaven. But how can one keep it?—By Faith." 4
The Sabbath as a symbol of the reality of spiritual rest has implications for the future, as well as for past and present salvation. The Sabbath is a special link with the con summation of the promised rest of God. Principles of Bible interpretation stress that the Old Testament covenant promises, without their geographic and ethnic limitations, are to be fulfilled in principle to spiritual "Israel" in the new earth. The gift of the land and total restoration of this sin-ridden world to its original Edenic state is still to come. The Sabbath as a symbol of that eternal rest is, in a special sense, the sign between God and His real covenant people (Eze. 20:12). It is a foretaste of the eternal rest and communion to come with Him who is the ground of our confidence and our Creator, Jesus Christ. The Sabbath is a symbol of the deep rest of God we enter now as we wait for the even fuller experience that we will share if we hold fast our confidence and hope firm till the end.
Hebrews 4, as Ezekiel 20, makes it evident that the Sabbath is the God-given sign of the rest of righteousness by faith. This chapter points us back to Eden, where Adam spent his first day of life, resting in God's completed work. In its total context the passage also shows us the Sabbath as a God-given sign or symbol of our having begun now to rest in God's completed work of redemption on the cross. Therefore, the Sabbath is not the "rest" that remains, of Heb. 4:9, but is the God-given symbol and sample of that very rest of grace into which believers can enter in a special sense on the seventh day of every week.
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1 Heb. 2:1-4; 3:6-4:16; 5:11-6:20; 10:19-39; 12:1-13:25.
2 Ellen G. White manuscript 42, 1901.
3 Albert E. Liersch, "Exegesis of Hebrews 3 and 4 With Particular Reference to the Theological Interpretation of the 'Rest' That Remains and the Sabbath as Symbol," unpublished term paper, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1968.
4 Ellet Joseph Waggoner, "Studies in the Book of Hebrews," General Conference Bulletin, 1897, p. 301.