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Hebrews 4:1-11
Bob DeGray
October 21, 2001

Key Sentence

Don’t miss the chance to enter God’s promised rest.


I. God’s promised rest is entered by faith (Hebrews 4:1-5)
II. God’s promised rest is entered by obedience (Hebrews 4:6-8)
III. God’s promised rest is entered by balance (Hebrews 4:9-11)


        What do you think of when you hear the word ‘rest’. Picture yourself out in the yard, trimming, weeding, planting and fertilizing. The hot Houston summer sun is beating down on you. You’re sweating - there’s no polite way to put that. You’re tired. Now imagine there is a nice, cool pool in your back yard, shaded in the afternoon by tall green trees. You leave your sweaty work, walk to the pool, enter the cool clear water, and swim across into the shade where someone has left you a pitcher of icy lemonade. Then you half float on a seat in the pool and just relax. That’s rest.

        How about this one? It’s a rare cool, crisp Houston morning. It’s also your day off. You wake after sunrise: thin beams of light find their way through the blinds and filter across your bedroom. You’re not really tired, but you scrunch down a little farther under the warm covers, curl around your pillow, and close your eyes. That’s rest.

        You’ve hiked most of the day to reach this point. You’re not at the top of the mountain, but in a high alpine meadow, above the tree line. You sit cross legged on soft grass and sip from your water bottle, which you filled earlier from an icy pure stream. A gentle breeze cools you. Across the valley, filling your vision, is a mountain, green on it’s lower reaches, rocky at a level equal to your eyes, and white above, where the snow never quite melts away. The sky is blue, the air clear, and your mind is quiet while your eyes drink in the beauty of your surroundings. That’s rest.

        It’s Friday afternoon. For once in your lives, nobody has to go anywhere. You get home from work, consciously purging your mind of the worries of the day. You sit down at the table with your spouse and your kids and enjoy a simple but special dinner. Then you gather in front of the TV, with a child under each arm and watch a movie that you’ve seen before - one that is fun and funny and harmless. That’s rest.

        Your mind is filled with thoughts of the day. Too much to do; not enough time to do it. Worries about loved ones and brothers and sisters in Christ and the world situation. Preparations to be made for commitments that just keep piling up. Your head is down, shoulders set, movements quick, purposes compelling. Suddenly you nearly run into your spouse, who has imposed himself directly in your path. You stop. He opens his arms for a hug. You make eye contact and sigh. Still too much to do, still all those commitments, but you know you’re not alone. You take strength from the caring, and leave the hug lighter and more able to cope. That’s rest too.

        Hebrews 4:1-11 makes a promise, not once, not twice, but three times, that for the people of God there is rest. The images we’ve just created whet our appetite for what those promises mean, our appetite for the true rest promised in Christ. But Scripture also teaches that we can miss that rest through disobedience, disbelief, or simply being unbalanced in our perspective on the Christian life. We need to hear the author of Hebrews saying ‘Don’t miss the chance to enter God’s promised rest.’

        We saw in Hebrews 3 that when the people of Israel were in the wilderness they missed a chance to enter the Promised Land because they didn’t believe God could give it to them. They remained in the desert for 40 years until everyone in that generation died. They never entered the land and never entered God’s rest. But Hebrews 4:1 says the promise of entering his rest still stands. God’s promised rest is available to you and to me, today. But before we hear what this chapter says about taking hold of that rest, we need to explore what it is. What does the Bible say about rest?

        In the Old Testament rest is a stillness or a ceasing from labor or a peace associated with a time, a place, and often with a person. There are several Hebrew words translated ‘rest’ in our English Bibles. The most common is ‘nuach’. The first time it is used, it has a simple meaning: in Genesis 18 Abraham meets three strangers, and with true hospitality says “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lords, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.” So rest is a simple ceasing from labor, and it never loses that sense. But notice: by nature it carries the implication of a time and a place to rest.

        Rest is a time to slow down, to chill out. What is that time called, Biblically? Sabbath. Beginning as early as Genesis 2, we find that God, after the week of creation, rested on the seventh day. This became the model for his people. Exodus 31:15 “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest as you do.” The word ‘Sabbath’ is the second most common word for rest in the Old Testament, and it talks specifically about a time for rest, to regain strength.

        But rest is also a place. God promised that when the people of Israel entered the land they would find rest. Deuteronomy 12:10 “But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety.” He gives them a place of safety and provision, “a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.” In a place of rest your needs are met and there is safety, rest from your enemies, rest from war and striving. If you were a special ops soldier in Afghanistan right now, you might look forward to the time when the helicopter would come and lift you out of those dirty, dry, dangerous hills to a base with clean cold showers and hot food. A place of provision and safety.

        Rest is a time. Rest is a place. But as the Old Testament goes on it becomes clear that rest is mostly a person. In Exodus the Lord says to Moses: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Those two things are intended to go together: His presence and rest. In Deuteronomy, Moses said of the tribe of Benjamin: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders." Isn’t that a neat picture? To rest or dwell between God’s shoulders, as a child rests on her daddy’s back.

        Throughout the Psalms we find rest associated with the presence of God. Psalm 62: “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.” Psalm 91: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” Rest is found when we take shelter in God and seek salvation and strength in Him.

        In the New Testament, rest is especially associated with a person. Who? Jesus. Matthew 11:28_30 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." In the New Testament the two Greek words translated ‘rest’ share a common root, ‘pauw’, from which we get the English word ‘pause’. The two Greek words literally mean ‘pause again’ and ‘pause more’. There is a strong element of ceasing from striving. In Jesus we find a person in whose presence we cease from striving.

        So rest is a time, rest is a place, rest is a person, and Hebrews 4 teaches us that we can enter that rest. By we I mean you and me, us, sitting here, just as the author of Hebrews meant his readers. In verses 1 to 5 he says God’s promised rest is entered by faith. Hebrews 4:1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. 3Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, "So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.' " And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: "And on the seventh day God rested from all his work." 5And again in the passage above he says, "They shall never enter my rest."

        Chapter 3 concluded with the comment that the generation of Israelites that left Egypt did not enter the promised land because of disbelief. But God’s rest isn’t limited to one time or one land. Though the specific times and places where rest was promised had long since faded into history the promises themselves still stood. They still stand for us. There is a promised rest and we can enter it. That which you and I long for - that we make all those mental pictures about, and that we occasionally enjoy in the physical realm - is available in the spiritual realm through Jesus.

        The promise still stands, but we, like the Israelites can fall short of it through disbelief. Notice verse 2: “for we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them because those who heard did not combine it with faith.” The gospel heard by the Israelites was the good news of a place of rest, the land in front of them which was theirs for the taking. The gospel we’ve heard is the good news of a person of rest - Jesus - who on the cross paid the price of our sin, whose goodness and love and forgiveness are ours for the asking.

        But the gospel they heard did not have any permanent effect because they did not combine the message with faith in what it said. They didn’t trust they could take the land. In the same way, we can hear the gospel of Jesus - his life, his love, his death, his resurrection, his grace, his salvation, but if we hear the message and do not respond with faith, it does us no good. Verse 3 is the key “Now we who have believed enter that rest.” Faith is essential. ‘We who have believed’ is in past tense, indicating that we trusted as a result of hearing the good news about Jesus. But entering his rest is a present experience. It is already in the process of being fulfilled, it is not just something hoped for in the future, but an essential present reality for Christians.

        Verses 3 to 5 prove to the readers this rest is still available to them. That first generation of Israelites never entered, but the promise of rest still stands because rest has been part of God’s design since the beginning of creation. Rest was modeled by God on the seventh day: “God rested from all his work.” So rest is not limited to the one promise of entering the land: that’s just a concrete example of a more basic truth and a more general promise that still stands: rest is a central part of His design.

        So what have we seen in these first few verses? There is a promise of rest and it is still available. How do we enter that rest? By faith: “we who have believed enter that rest.” In purest form this faith is simply wholehearted trust in the good news about Jesus. ‘Jesus I throw myself on you knowing I can do nothing to rescue myself from sin and death, but believing that what you did on the cross pays the price for my sins.’ We enter rest through faith, and we also experience rest through faith. It is faith which looks around us at busyness or difficult circumstances of any sort and has the perspective to say ‘it’s okay. I’m going to trust God and seek Him and not get hyper about this.” Daily rest is almost always the result of daily trust in God.

        We said earlier that disobedience and disbelief are two sides of one coin. So we would expect that just as we enter his rest by faith we also enter his rest by obedience, and in verses 6 to 8 we see that to be true in the lives of the Israelites. 6It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in because of their disobedience. 7Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." 8For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. Notice the second promise of God’s rest: “It still remains that some will enter that rest.” But it wasn’t the people of that Exodus generation, ‘those who formerly had the gospel preached to them.’ They did not go in because of disobedience. They refused God’s command. Their disobedience was a direct reflection of their disbelief: they didn’trust God for the victory. None of which negates the promise. “Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’” David said this long after that first generation of Israelites had perished in the desert. Yet David sees the promise as applicable. He sees his peers as having the same opportunity in a spiritual sense to enter God’s rest as the Israelites had in a physical sense.

        Now you may have been wondering whether the author of Hebrews has forgotten Joshua and the events that occurred after the forty years in the desert. He hasn’t. He says “if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day” When Joshua led the people into the Promised Land they did in a very limited sense find a place of rest. But because they turned to idols rather than obeying the living God, they soon lost their time of rest, for other gods did not have a Sabbath, and they lost their place of rest and safety as they never expelled their enemies from the land, and most of all they lost their person of rest, as God’s presence left them due to their idolatry. Joshua didn’t give the people rest. David recognizes this and says 400 years later that the promise was still available in the ‘today’ of his readers.

        The author of Hebrews says the same thing. The promise of rest still remains: his readers could enter if they followed the path of belief and obedience. And I’m saying the same thing. We talked last week about disbelief and disobedience being symptoms of a hardened heart toward God. It is precisely those whose hearts are hard toward God who do not experience his rest. It is those whose hearts are soft toward God, quick to repent, living by faith in daily situations, turning toward him in trials who find his rest today. It’s true that we don’t have a physical place of rest. But we have a person of rest. We have the presence of God and the person of Jesus.

        We enter his promised rest by trust, by obedience and finally by balance. Let me read the verses, then I’ll explain what I mean by that. Hebrews 4:9. 9There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

        This is the third promise of rest. The word ‘remains’ implies something like ‘when the dust has cleared away’ or ‘when everything else is gone.’ The thing that remains behind is a ‘Sabbath rest’ for the people of God. It is a ‘sabbatismos’, not the usual Greek word for rest, but a transliteration of the Hebrew ‘Sabbath’. It is a time of rest in which you cease your labors to worship and remember the God of your redemption.

        This sabbatical - to use an English word also taken from the Hebrew - is available to ‘the people of God’, a great phrase because it includes all believers of all times and ages. The promise ‘you will be my people and I willbe your God’ is one of the Bible’s most prominent promises. You could almost say that all of Scripture is intended to display God’s fulfillment of this one promise, made first to Abraham and confirmed to Moses: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” It is repeated over and over to the very end of Scripture. In Revelation 21 John reports “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” These are the ones who receive the Sabbath rest.

        How do they receive it? “Anyone who enters God’s rest, also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” All rest implies a ceasing. You are working hard to climb the mountain or accomplish your things to do list, and then you stop to rest. In the same way, entering God’s rest requires you to stop working. I believe the author means that those who attempt to find or please God through their good works never do it. Instead it is those who by faith believe who enter his presence and his rest. Paul says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith__and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God__ not by works, so that no one can boast.” Salvation is not by working but by resting. One of the things you rest from is the futile effort to live a righteous life in your own power. You can’t do it, and you defeat yourself trying. You achieve by resting in Jesus what you can never accomplish by works.

        But if that’s true, how do you explain verse 11? “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” Wait a second! You want me to strive, to exert myself to rest? And you want me to do it while at the same time ceasing from my striving? Isn’t this a contradiction?

        No - it’s a balance. In many senses it is the balance of the Christian life. Rest is God’s gift and is entered by faith not by works. But obedience is our responsibility and disobedience and disbelief are two sides of the same coin. Therefore we must trust entirely in God to achieve this rest, but at the same time we must obey God or we’re not really trusting. Salvation is by grace through faith alone. But saved people are called to live in obedience and submission. That’s the striving. No one who hardens their heart and willfully continues to sin will be blessed by God with rest. A here- and-now experience of rest is founded on a here- and-now willingness to obey.

        This balance - salvation by grace which brings a response of obedience - is found all through the New Testament. A few minutes ago we read Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. It is not by works.” But the very next verse says “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” It’s a balance: we rest in God even as we work to be righteous.

        How do we enter his rest today? By faith in Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and faith in God who lovingly guides, guards and cares for his people. By believing what he has promised, especially about Jesus. We also enter by obedience, by wholehearted desire to serve the God who saves us. We give 100 percent to him just as he gave everything for us. It is all who trust by obeying who enter that rest.

        What does this look like in the daily life of a believer? I think the key is our Old Testament definition of rest. Rest is a time. Rest is a place. Rest is a person. So, in a very real way, if we make the time and find the place and focus on the person of Jesus, we will find rest. The examples I gave had these elements. When working out in the yard you took the time from the work, and had a place to rest. When snuggled in bed you had both the time and the place to relax. Sitting with your family, you had time, place and people. Given a quick hug by your spouse you had a limited time, a coincidental place, but a sudden focus on a person that made rest a present reality.

        Here’s the bottom line: to experience God’s rest set aside a time and a place for a person. Ideally the time is a block of time set aside for the purpose. If you could set aside a day or a weekend or a week my recommendation would be to devote part of it to just catching up on your sleep, and then the rest to time with God, or time spent enjoying what God has provided - creation and your loved ones in particular. But often the time will be shorter - a few minutes in the morning or a moment during the day. Don’t let that discourage you. You can find rest even in busyness if you will take the mental step of stopping what you are doing for even a moment of contact with your sovereign Father. When we talked about prayer we called these spontaneous prayers - prayers lifted to God in the midst of your circumstances. In the same way time lifted to God in the midst of your circumstances can lead to rest.

        A place. Ideally this is that mountainside I always talk about - watching a mountain go by or some equivalent for you. It’s nice to rest in the midst of what God has created. But if you can’t the place can be something as simple as a closet - that’s what Jesus said ‘go in the closet’. If that’s not available, any place can be a place of rest: the kitchen sink, your desk, the laundry room, the car, even a hospital room.

        The thing that can make any time a time of rest and any place a place of rest is the person of rest, Jesus Christ. “Come to me, all of you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” That’s his promise. It’s wonderful to me that any time and any place I can turn a mental corner from distraction street to focus avenue and be in the presence of God through Jesus. It is as simple as that: as a believer, any time you consciously turn toward his presence, you are in his presence. And his presence is the place of rest: “I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” In the briefest moment you can find your soul washed, your heart calmed, your load lightened, your perspective adjusted by that simple mental step into the presence of your loving Father through the ministry of Jesus.

        But, if you’ve got more time, if you’ve got a quiet time in a quiet place, an hour or a day away from the noise and busyness of life, the rest you receive can go from just a surface washing of your soul to a deep cleansing of your soul. Rest soaks in, but it requires time and peace to do so: a quiet time, a quiet place. You and I need to make this a priority. I need to: I’m the person who never gets done as much as he would have liked. I need to be forced to rest: I need to be forced to take some time alone, some time with Gail, some time with family - and whenever I do I am better for it. I benefit from the instant rest I can receive by a conscious turn to God, but I benefit more deeply from a more extended time in a more peaceful place.

        You know what? I think you do to. We enter his promised rest by faith. We enter his promised rest by obedience. We find his promised rest to be a time, to be a place, and most especially, to be a person. Jesus.
        Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of who you are;
        I am finding out the greatness of your loving heart.
        You have bid me gaze upon you, and your beauty fills my soul,
        For by your transforming power, you have made me whole.

        O, how great your loving kindness, Vaster, broader than the sea!
        O, how marvelous your goodness, Lavished all on me!
        Yes, I rest in you, Beloved, Know what wealth of grace is thine.
        Know Thy certainty of promise, And have made it mine.

        Simply trusting you, Lord Jesus, I behold you as you are,
        And your love, so pure, so changeless, satisfies my heart;
        Satisfies its deepest longings, Meets, supplies its every need,
        Surrounds me with your blessings: yours is love indeed!

        Ever lift your face upon me As I work and wait for Thee;
        Resting 'neath your smile, Lord Jesus, earth's dark shadows flee.
        Brightness of my Father's glory, Sunshine of my Father's face,
        Keep me ever trusting, resting, Fill me with your grace.

        Don’t miss God’s promised rest.