The Nature of Rest
For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. (4:8–10)
it is spiritual
The rest spoken of here is not the physical rest of Canaan. That was only a picture. “For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.” God’s true rest comes not through a Moses or a Joshua or a David. It comes through Jesus Christ.
God’s rest is not essentially physical at all. Certainly, resting in God and trusting in His promises can relieve us of nervousness, tenseness, and other physical problems. But these are by-products of His rest. Many cults promise their followers happiness, wealth, and health in this life. The Bible does not. The rest God promises is spiritual, not physical. Whatever physical or earthly benefits the Lord may give us, His basic promise is to give us spiritual rest, spiritual blessing. Some of God’s most faithful believers are the busiest, the hardest working, and sometimes even the most afflicted people imaginable. Yet they are in God’s salvation rest.
it is for israel
The term people of God may refer generally to anyone who knows God; but here it specifically refers to Israel. Salvation is first of all for Israel. The gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). There is a rest remaining for the people of God, and in the Old Testament Israel is designated the people of God. His spiritual rest is promised first to Israel, and He will not be through with her until she comes into His rest.
it is future
For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. (4:10)
God’s rest is also future. In his vision on Patmos the apostle John heard these beautiful words from heaven: “ ‘Write, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!” ’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them’ ” (Rev. 14:13). I believe Hebrews 4:10 anticipates that final day when we cease from all effort and all work and enter into the presence of Jesus Christ. It includes the promised rest to Israel, the ultimate rest when she and all of God’s other people will cease from work and rest as God did when He finished His creation. That is the reality of Sabbath rest.
Entering God’s Rest
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Heb. 4:9–10)
Heaven is like first base in a Little League baseball game. It is said that the hardest challenge in sports is hitting a baseball, and after you do there are nine devils out there trying to keep you from safely reaching first. To many young boys and girls, reaching first base is a distant goal, a high calling not unlike Israel’s thoughts of the Promised Land.
I use this comparison without making light in any way of the heavenly rest that waits for all believers in Christ. I realize that the Christian life is considerably harder than Little League and that the stakes are so much higher. But what draws me to this comparison is the presence of two figures on the Little League scene: a father and his child.
It is not the child alone who labors to reach first base. There was a father who dreamt of seeing and cheering on, perhaps when those first steps were taken or even before. There was a father who conveyed his own love of the game, who told stories and first kindled the passion for line drives and stolen bases. He came home early from work when he could; he stood in the blazing heat or drizzling rain, throwing soft pitches one after another. There is a father who sits on rusty bleachers agonizing with his child over every pitch. Finally, when after long strife that little boy or little girl puts wood on the ball, races toward first, and plants foot on the bag while the umpire screams, “Safe!” it is toward the father that the child’s beaming face turns, as they together bask in the sheer joy of what has been gained. “Did you see my son?” he cries with delight. “Did you see my little girl?”
This is why first base is like heaven—not merely because of the toil that precedes it, but also because of the satisfaction we will share with our heavenly Father when we finally arrive.
The Rest That Remains
It is ultimately heaven that is on the mind of the writer of Hebrews as he urges his readers to enter into the rest of God through faith in Christ. The term “rest” occurs five times in this passage (Heb. 4:6–11). It first occurred in 3:11, where he quoted Psalm 95 with reference to the faithless generation of Israel during the exodus: “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ ” There “rest” referred to entry into the Promised Land of Canaan, the land of prosperity and security. For several paragraphs, the writer of Hebrews has been exhorting us not to follow the example of that exodus generation that complained against God, accused him of failing to provide, and refused to place their trust in him. As a result, they did not enter the Promised Land, but died in the desert between Egypt and Canaan.
As this argument develops, the author anticipates an objection. His readers might naturally wonder, “Yes, that faithless generation did not enter the rest in Canaan, but their children did under Joshua. Why, then, do you keep talking about a ‘rest’ that still remains?” The writer responds:
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (Heb. 4:6–9)
The last verse of that passage (v. 9) makes clear that our salvation rest is something that is ultimately future; it is something that still remains for the people of God to enter. As great as Israel’s rest in Canaan was, it was not the ultimate rest that God intended for his people. It was outward. It was physical and symbolic; rather than fulfilling God’s rest it symbolized the rest that was to come. John Calvin explains: “This is not the final rest to which the faithful aspire, and which is our common possession with the faithful of that age. It is certain that they looked higher than that earthly land; indeed the land of Canaan was only thought of as of value for the reason that it was the type and the symbol of our spiritual inheritance.”
To understand what Hebrews means by a rest that remains, it helps to understand a theological concept known as realized eschatology. Eschatos is the Greek word for “last,” and eschatology means “last things” or “with reference to the end.” When we say that Hebrews holds a “realized” eschatology, we mean that the writer emphasizes our present possession of things that God has promised. Although those blessings will be fully received at the end of history, we already begin to realize their benefits now by faith.
For instance, we have already seen how Christ “destroyed” Satan by dying on the cross (Heb. 2:14). Some might argue that Satan is not yet removed from the scene; he is still a raging lion who torments us. Nevertheless, his doom is sealed and even now we experience freedom from slavery to him. This reality—which will be consummated at the end—is conveyed to us now by faith.
Another example of realized eschatology is the rest offered to God’s people. On the one hand, we now enter that rest by faith: “We who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). Note the present tense. Through faith we know the certainty of salvation and come into communion with the living God, which is what eternal life is all about. Instead of laboring in futility to earn forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God, we rest upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. Even in this present life of toil, our faith rests on him and his saving power. This is what we mean by a “realized eschatology”: the things of heaven, the things of the future which are promised us by God, are made real to us now through faith, so that we live by a strength that is not of us but of God. A major burden of this entire epistle is to encourage its early readers, with all their trials and weakness, that by faith they can be sure of what they hope for and certain of what they do not see (Heb. 11:1).
As strong as that emphasis is, however, it is important that we do not overstate the case. Israel in Canaan had a foretaste of God’s rest; that is what the Promised Land signified. But they were in fact surrounded by real enemies; their need for labor and warfare was very great. The Book of Joshua tells of their successes and failures; it is a book of war and not of peace. The Canaan rest pointed to a greater salvation, of which it gave a foretaste but not the fulfillment.
This same understanding applies to the Christian life. How wonderful it is that we rest upon our Lord Jesus Christ. We lay our burdens upon him, we bring to him our tears and our fears, and we find real rest in him. Yet what we long for is the day when there will be no more tears, when there will be nothing to fear, and when God’s promised rest is brought to full consummation in glory. Isaiah says of that day: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10).
But this is not our present experience. This present life compares to the wilderness journey, to the time of trial and testing, and not to the Promised Land itself. “There remains,” the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” Though we have very real blessings in this present life, what we now experience is not all there is for the believer, and we rightly long for a greater rest to come.
From Sabbath to Lord’s Day
This brings us to another matter that is of real importance for the Christian, namely, the relationship of the Old Testament Sabbath to the Christian church. There are two basic views on the Sabbath, both of which draw from this passage in Hebrews. What makes Hebrews of special interest is a change in terminology that takes place in these verses. All through this exhortation, the writer has been using the Greek word katapausis for the idea of rest, which in the Greek translation of the Old Testament stood for rest in the land of Canaan. In verse 4 he expands his idea of rest by referring to God’s rest in creation, so that his readers will start linking that geographical rest to the weekly Sabbath-rest of Israel. Now, in verse 9, the writer pointedly changes the word he uses for rest. Here he uses apoleipetai, combined with the word sabbatismos, a construction that designated the rest of the Sabbath day. It is because of this change of terminology that many English versions use the translation “a Sabbath-rest.”
Clearly, the New Testament readers are being directed toward the Sabbath day, but the question is how this fits in the new covenant dispensation. There are two views. The first is that with the coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the old covenant, the Sabbath ordinance no longer exists and the fourth commandment does not continue in force. This is a view widely held among evangelicals today, and draws the support of such writers as Ray Stedman, D. A. Carson, and Andrew Lincoln.
This argument holds that since the Old Testament Sabbath, like Joshua’s entry into Canaan, is a symbol that points to the greater Sabbath that came in Jesus Christ, it no longer holds force. The reality has come; the symbol has been fulfilled. The fourth commandment reads, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:8–10). According to Ray Stedman, in the new covenant this refers to “that cessation from labor which God enjoys and which he invites believers to share … [it is] dependence on God to be at work through us.” That being the case, Sabbath-keeping no longer consists of observing a special day, but sabbathkeeping “is achieved when the heart rests on the great promise of God to be working through a believer in the normal affairs of living.”3 Those who make this argument also point to Paul’s admonition in Colossians 2:16–17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Based on these arguments, the view that is perhaps dominant today holds that the Sabbath command is exhausted with the coming of Christ and thus has no binding control on Christian practice.
As compelling as that position is, there are some significant problems with it. These are pointed out by those who differ, among whom are John Owen, A.W. Pink, and Richard Gaffin. First, they note that the Sabbath is instituted as one of the Ten Commandments. They then observe that all of the other nine commandments remain in force in the New Testament. For instance, children are admonished to obey their parents, and in making that admonition Paul explicitly references the fifth commandment (Eph. 6:1–3). More obvious examples have to do with murder, adultery, and blasphemy; no one denies that these are prohibited as much in the New Testament as in the Old. Isn’t it peculiar, therefore, for only one of the commandments to be abrogated, especially when no such abrogation is stated in the New Testament?
Another problem is more telling. Those who argue against a Christian Sabbath note that the Sabbath was a sign pointing to something that now has come. When the reality comes, the sign passes away. This is the very argument that Hebrews will make about the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Since the true Lamb of God has come and shed his blood for sins once-for-all, there is no longer any need to sacrifice bulls and goats and lambs. Indeed, to do so is to deny the reality and sufficiency of Christ’s work.
But when it comes to the Sabbath, the very point of verse 9 is that the reality to which it points has not yet come: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” In other words, there is still a valid need for and benefit from the sign of the Sabbath rest. Yes, Hebrews teaches a realized eschatology in which we have a great part of its possession now as we trust in the Lord Jesus and rest on him. But this realized eschatology is not yet fully realized. There is something still to come, and the Sabbath points not to what has already come in Christ but to what has yet to come in fulfillment as part of his future work.
As is often the case, the concerns of both sides are worth listening to. People opposed to the idea of a Christian Sabbath are concerned that we not fall into either a legalistic or a mechanical approach to our worship. It is certainly true that with the coming of Christ we have passed from the administration of law to that of grace. But this does not do away with the Ten Commandments. We still must reckon with the realities of God’s moral obligations, one of which deals with observing a full day of rest out of dependence on God. What then was the point of Paul’s admonition to the Colossians (Col. 2:16–17)? In context with the whole New Testament, it seems that Paul was correcting those whose faith consisted of little more than keeping a calendar of special days.
It is as a concrete expression of faith in the sovereign resting God that the idea of a weekly Sabbath has particular value. Even Ray Stedman, who opposes the Sabbath, can still write:
This does not mean that we cannot learn many helpful lessons on rest by studying the regulations for keeping the sabbath day found in the Old Testament. Nor that we no longer need time for quiet meditation and cessation from physical labor. Our bodies are yet unredeemed and need rest and restoration at frequent intervals. But we are no longer bound by heavy limitations to keep a precise day of the week.
Citations like this show that among Bible believers, even opponents of the Sabbath end up advocating what amounts to Sabbath-keeping. The reason for this is obvious. Everyone agrees that Sabbath-keeping amounts to dependence upon God. But how you can possibly say that you actually depend on the Lord, that you are looking ultimately to him for provision, and not to your boss or to the work of your own hands, if in fact you labor without ceasing every day of the week, if you observe no regular pattern of rest? We have freedom to follow God’s own pattern of labor and rest precisely because we are not left to our own devices. If I were to examine your weekly schedule, would it be clear that you are a person who depends upon the living God? If you find it impossible to set aside one full day a week (and surely this is the pattern we find in Scripture, not to mention the example of Jesus, who regularly assigned long portions of time to prayer and communion with the Father) to worship and draw near to God, then your claims to dependence on him are surely called into question.
A recent television commercial for an overnight parcel service began with great fanfare and the rolling of drums to herald a big announcement: “We now offer full service on Sundays. Now you can work unhindered seven days a week!” I could not help but think of the mud-pits of Egypt, in which the slave population of Israel labored day after day, without a Sabbath rest. I found it depressing that today we celebrate our willing return to the very kind of slavery from which the people of Israel were delivered in the exodus. Surely Christians will avoid such a view of life.
At a minimum, Christians need to set aside time not only to worship God but also to enjoy him and his bounty, to rest upon him and experience at least a partial taste of that Sabbath rest that is to come. And while we are admonished by the apostle Paul not to set stock in particular days or calendars, surely we will find ourselves worshiping together with the people of God on a regular schedule, so that our normal practice will be to set apart Sunday as the Lord’s Day, for both his worship and our enjoyment of the rest he has promised and now gives, at least in part. Few things are more profitable for Christians than to set apart the Lord’s Day for true rest and enjoyment of God’s provision, as well as for the worship he so surely is due.
Some will object that this seems legalistic. One use of the law is to reveal God’s character; the fourth commandment does this like all the others. The second use of the law is to condemn sin and drive us to the cross for salvation. All of us, no doubt, have sins under the fourth commandment which, like the others, can be forgiven through Christ. Third—and this is my emphasis here—the law is a fitting guide for living our lives. In this respect, the fourth commandment is an apt example of what James meant when he spoke in his epistle of the “law of liberty” (James 1:25). Having been forgiven by Christ and now living by the power of God’s grace, for us to live according to his commandments is the path of blessing and true freedom. In the case of the fourth commandment the freedom is from working without ceasing to a life of worship and rest.
Entering God’s Rest
All of that hard interpretive work puts us in a good position to make sense of the last two verses in our passage, which tell us: “Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:10–11). At first glance, this seems contradictory. Verse 10 tells us that entering God’s rest means resting from our work as he did from his. The very next verse tells us to get busy working for that rest; we are to make every effort to enter it and not fall away, as the Israelites did in the wilderness.
In fact, there is no problem here at all. The overarching model for this whole exhortation is the exodus wanderings of Israel. They had left the bondage of Egypt, but had not yet entered into the land of rest. We, too, are to press onward through our difficulties, not complaining against God or hardening our hearts against him, but relying on him in this present day of testing. We are to strive with the resources of his rest. In contrast to the unfaithful Israelites, who failed to trust the provision of God’s grace, we follow and strive because our faith receives the benefits of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. Appreciating the reality of our present challenge—here is the difference between a realized and an overrealized eschatology, the latter of which forgets our present pilgrim status—we eagerly draw forth on every resource of grace that God provides.
Now is the day of our labor, the day when we do work. We rest our burdens on Jesus Christ, and he sends his Holy Spirit to help us shoulder the load. But the same Savior who offers us rest is also the Lord who commands, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Our final day of rest is yet to come. It awaits us in heaven. God worked for six days and then he rested; now is the time when we work, after which we too will rest. This is what verse 10 emphasizes, pointing to the rest that is yet to come.
So understand that your labor now is not in vain. Your struggle, born of faith, fueled by God’s Holy Spirit as he works in you, is not for nothing. We are storing treasure up in heaven. As the angel proclaimed to the prophet Daniel: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).
All of this brings me back to the subject of little boys and girls and the trials of Little League. Yes, it is they who swing the bat; but it was the father’s hands which taught them how to grip it, his strong hands gently wrapping around their little ones until they got it right. His voice patiently gave instruction, coached them, encouraged them, inspired them. And when they get that first base hit, it is his voice that rejoices with them, saying to them as our heavenly Father will say to us on that great day, “Well done, my child. Well done.”
Now is the day of our trouble and our toil. Now is the time of tears, of wrestling with sin, of witnessing to those around us, many of whom will scorn and abuse us. But if we do it all with our eyes looking up to heaven, gazing toward our home, trusting our heavenly Father, and asking him to find pleasure in our meager works, then we can be sure that he will. And in the day of our rest, we too will find joy in them forever.
9–10 And picking up the reflections of vv. 3–5, that rest is now described as a “sabbath-rest.” The term used is not the regular sabbaton but sabbatismos, a verbal noun used nowhere else in biblical literature but with the effect of focusing on the experience of “sabbathing” rather than merely on the day itself. Such an experience of enjoying sabbath “remains” for God’s people in that it has not yet been fulfilled in history. It is boldly equated with God’s own experience of enjoying sabbath when he had finished his work of creation. So too God’s faithful people (the evocative noun laos [GK 3295], typically used in the LXX for Israel as God’s chosen people, is here used for the people of faith), their earthly work of serving him duly completed, can look forward to joining him in his heavenly rest (cf. Rev 14:13). For the prospect of joy and security in heaven as an incentive for faithful service on earth, cf. 11:13–16; 12:22–24.
4:9 / The promised rest, therefore, remains … for the people of God to enjoy. Sabbath-rest comes from a single word that occurs only here in the whole of the Greek Bible. This word suggests God’s own sabbath-rest after creation (v. 4). God’s gift of rest may thus be regarded as the gift of his own rest. To enjoy the blessings of the eschaton is to participate in the sabbath-rest of God.
4:9–10. These two verses provide a conclusion (v. 9) and the explanation of the conclusion (v. 10). Then introduces the conclusion: God’s people enjoyed a rest patterned after God’s own rest on the seventh day. Sabbath-rest is a new word, appearing only here in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews may have coined the word to express the special significance which he wanted to communicate. God’s people will share in God’s own rest. Those who enjoy this rest will be believers, those who have approached God through Jesus Christ.
Just what kind of rest can believers enjoy? When do they enjoy it—now, at death, or in the resurrection? This rest is not merely the entrance into Canaan. It is a present experience with Christ in which the Lord provides his presence, peace, and joy to replace the labor and heavy burdens of life (Matt. 11:28–30).
God’s own rest (see 4:4) becomes the pattern of the rest of the believer. God’s rest involved the completion of his work and not mere cessation of activity. Believers have become complete in Christ (Col. 2:10), and they can live in the light of a fulfilled relationship to Jesus as their exalted head.
The work from which believers have rested is perhaps a reference to the minute details of Jewish sacrificial ritual and purifying washings. Concern about these insignificant details was unnecessary. Christ’s full work on the cross made it possible for believers to trust him instead of their own works.
When do we begin to enjoy this rest? We can live in those blessings here and now by faith. However, our present enjoyment of these blessings is not the whole story. We will receive more at the time of the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23).
Let us summarize an involved idea: The writer of Hebrews called his readers to faith in Jesus and the enjoyment of the blessings which accompany that faith. Through faith in Jesus, believers today enjoy peace, joy, and fellowship with the living Lord as a part of their rest in him. This foretaste, which we now enjoy, will become a complete, unclouded experience of bliss at the time of the return of Jesus and the resurrection. As believers we can say, “Hallelujah!”
9. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10. for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.
From Psalm 95 the author has shown that the rest that the Israelites enjoyed in Canaan was not the rest God intended for his people. The intended rest is a Sabbath-rest, which, of course, is a direct reference to the creation account (Gen. 2:2; see also Exod. 20:11; 31:17) of God’s rest on the seventh day.
For the believer the Sabbath is not merely a day of rest in the sense that it is a cessation of work. Rather it is a spiritual rest—a cessation of sinning. It entails an awareness of being in the sacred presence of God with his people in worship and praise. John Newton captured a glimpse of what Sabbath-rest is to be when he wrote:
Safely through another week
God has brought us on our way;
Let us now a blessing seek,
Waiting in His courts today;
Day of all the week the best,
Emblem of eternal rest.
The day of rest is indeed an emblem of eternal rest! During our life span on earth, we celebrate the Sabbath and realize only partially what Sabbath-rest entails. In the life to come, we shall fully experience God’s rest, for then we will have entered a rest that is eternal. “ ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them’ ” (Rev. 14:13).
Who then enters that rest? Only those who die in the Lord? The answer is: All those who in faith experience happiness in the Lord because they are one with him. Jesus prays for those who believe in him, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21). In God we have perfect peace and rest.
My heart, Lord, does not rest
Until it rests in Thee.
However, the text indicates that whoever enters God’s rest does so only once. He enters that rest fully when his labors are ended. He then enjoys uninterrupted heavenly rest from which death, mourning, crying, and pain have been removed; at that time God’s dwelling will be with men; he will live with them and be their God, for they are his people (Rev. 21:4).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 103–104). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 123–132). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 67). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hagner, D. A. (2011). Hebrews (p. 71). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 70–71). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, pp. 111–112). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.