Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,'” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.
Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (NKJV)
Hebrews chapter 4 flows naturally out of chapter 3, in which the author of Hebrews warns his readers not to harden their hearts as Israel did at Massah (“Testing”) and Meribah (“Provocation” or “Strife”; Exo. 17:7). In both the Psalmist and the author of Hebrew’s mind, the incident at Meribah—in which Israel demonstrated a lack of faith, or trust, in God when they ran short of water and complained against Him—is emblematic of the lack of faith which characterized their whole journey through the desert, the same lack of faith which resulted in them being turned away from the Promised Land and forced to wander for forty years (Psa. 95:10-11, Heb. 3:10-11):
And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. (Heb. 3:18-19)
Note that the author connects the lack of belief/faith/trust (Gr. apistian) with a lack of obedience. The Lord’s brother Ya’akov makes a similar statement when he states that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:17)—we are indeed saved by faith rather than works (Eph. 2:8-9), but a saving faith will result in works, for which we were saved (v. 10).
Why the author of Hebrews selected Psalm 95 rather than, for example, a passage from the Torah (perhaps the narrative of the twelve spies) is a question that few ask, but is important to our understanding of his point. Stern explains the significance:
Psalm 95, quoted at 3:8-11 and explained in the subsequent verses, was sung on Shabbat in the Temple and remains part of the Shabbat liturgy in the synagogue. Therefore it is natural for the author to make his point about rest by introducing a quotation from another Shabbat-related passage (used today in the home service before the Friday night meal), Genesis 2:1-3 . . . (Stern, Commentary 672)
Just as if, for example, someone began a sermon in a Sunday church by quoting from the song, “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” you would understand him to be leading into a teaching on Christmas and Christ’s birth, so the original recipients of Hebrews would have understood its author to be leading into a teaching on the Sabbath. As we will see in a moment, this is exactly what the author is doing.
The rest that God withheld from the rebellious generation might be thought by us to refer to simply the rest of settling the Promised Land and by way of a midrash to those who have put their trust in the Messiah Yeshua (4:1-3). However, the author of Hebrews, reading this Psalm in the context of the Temple and synagogue liturgy, has another point in mind, which he develops through two distinct threads of reasoning:
First, he connects the concept of rest with the original Sabbath on which God rested “from all His works” (Heb. 4:4, Gen. 2:2). In v. 3, he notes that God’s works “have been in existence since the founding of the universe” (CJB—lit. “the works are coming into being from the foundation of the world”). That is to say, God worked to create the universe for six days and then rested on the seventh, and all that he created in those six days remains to this day.
Second, he notes that the Psalmist speaks to those who have long since been settled in the Land when he says, “’Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.’ For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day” (vv. 7-8). Therefore, Hebrews argues, there is a rest that one should endeavor to enter into, even centuries after entering into the rest of the Promised Land. Likewise, there is a rest that one should endeavor to enter into even after receiving the Gospel (vv.6-7).
This brings us to the author’s conclusion, which is correctly rendered in the CJB:
So there remains a Shabbat–keeping for God’s people. For the one who has entered God’s rest has also rested from his own works, as God did from his. Therefore, let us do our best to enter that rest; so that no one will fall short because of the same kind of disobedience. (Heb. 4:9-11)
The word translated above as “Shabbat-keeping” is sabbatismos, which is incorrectly rendered in the KJV and NKJV as simply “rest”! (Note to the KJV-Only advocates out there: This is a flagrant mistranslation, and probably deliberate on the part of the translators!)
Even versions that translate this word “Sabbath-rest” (nearly all others) miss the mark. Thayer’s Lexicon notes that the correct translation is “a keeping sabbath.” Likewise, Barnes’ writes in his Notes on this verse, “It properly means ‘a keeping Sabbath’ from σαββατίζω sabbatizō – ‘to keep Sabbath.’ This word, not used in the New Testament, occurs frequently in the Septuagint; Exo. 16:30; Lev. 23:32; Lev. 26:35; 2Ch. 36:21; and in 3 Esdr. 1:58; 2 Macc. 6:6.”
Again, see the author of Hebrews’ reasoning:
- Those who rebelled against God in the wilderness did not enter the rest of the Promised Land.
- However, even those descended by those who did enter the Promised Land were enjoined by the Psalmist not to harden their hearts, but to enter His rest. Therefore, even entering into the rest of the “Promised Land” of faith in Yeshua, we should not harden our hearts against God’s commands.
- God rested on the seventh day. Therefore, there remains a keeping of the Sabbath for those who rest in Yeshua in which we rest from our own works as God did from His—on the seventh day!
Nearly all Christian commentators correctly note that in an ultimate sense, we look forward to the true Sabbath-rest of the Millennium and/or Eternity, and partake of it by resting our souls in Yeshua now. I have no argument against that; however, in searching out the midrash (the deeper meaning, the teaching), nearly all miss the p’shat (the road, the plain meaning): Just as the Israelites were commanded to continue to keep the weekly and Feastday Sabbaths long after they entered the rest of the Land, so we who are in Messiah should do the same even after entering His rest.
As demonstrated elsewhere, we are told not to let anyone judge us for keeping the Sabbath, or other feastdays, since they are “a shadow of things that are coming” (Col. 2:16-17, CJB). We also see that Yeshua never countermanded the Fourth Commandment; rather, He only sought to correct the rabbinical excesses in trying to regulate the Sabbath, giving us as its defining principles, that “what is permitted on Shabbat is to do good” (Mat. 12:12), and “Shabbat was made for mankind, not mankind for Shabbat” (Mark 2:27).
Yeshua HaMashiach alone has the right to define the Sabbath, “For the Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat!” (Mat. 12:8), and He declined to either remove it (which would have amounted to removing a blessing) or move it to Sunday.
In closing, let me again quote Barnes, who though he gets the date wrong, correctly writes of the Sabbath:
[T]he Sabbath here should be like heaven. It is designed to be its type and emblem. So far as the circumstances of the case will allow, it should be just like heaven. There should be the same employments; the same joys; the same communion with God. One of the best rules for employing the Sabbath aright is, to think what heaven will be, and then to endeavor to spend it in the same way. One day in seven at least should remind us of what heaven is to be; and that day may be, and should be, the most happy of the seven.