D.A. Carson gives an excellent overview of the text in this message at The Gospel Coalition.
Here is the text of my sermon - hopefully some will find it helpful.
Of Lambs and Elephants (2 Pet 3:15-16)
Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome from 590 until 604, is credited with comparing the sacred Scriptures to “a kind of river… which is both shallow and deep, shallows where a lamb may wade and depths where an elephant may swim.” The Scriptures, in other words, contain a remarkable diversity. Some things are simple and straightforward, requiring little skill to grasp. Others are complicated and challenging, requiring rigorous study and careful meditation. The Scriptures themselves acknowledge this diversity. Peter writes about Paul’s letters, for example, that there are in them “some things hard to understand…”
Unfortunately, many American Christians, especially evangelicals, have in recent years confined themselves exclusively to the shallows – even claiming at times that it is sinful or wrong to try and plumb the depths. Consequently, our sermons are often trite and simplistic; our devotion to intellectual pursuits is often negligible; and our theological depth is frequently superficial.
This tendency to stay in the shallows – and to boast of staying in the shallows – is not something that the book of Hebrews countenances. Indeed, Paul rebukes his audience for failing to go deeper in their grasp of the faith. He writes (5:12) that “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again…” – and this, he insists, is a shameful thing. We are to press toward maturity with our minds as well as with our hearts.
I say all this by way of introduction to our text today (4:1-13) because it is one of the most challenging texts in Hebrews, it is a deep part of the river. It requires a great deal of concentration, attention, and meditation in order to understand it aright. For years now I have attempted to get my mind around this text – I think I’ve got it now; but I’m not positive. The main points, the shallows, are easy to grasp. But there are depths here that are very challenging. And Paul doesn’t apologize. He insists that it is our obligation as disciples of Jesus to understand and apply this word in our lives. There is no such thing as Christianity-lite. We are all called to serve Christ to the best of our mental ability. So don’t expect today’s sermon to be easy – it will most likely reflect the text I’m preaching. But it is the Word of God and worthy of our attention.
II. God’s Rest
A. Overview (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-5)
As I already indicated, this passage is one of the more challenging in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Let’s attempt, first, to get an overview of the text and then we’ll look in more detail at Paul’s argument and conclusion.
I think that part of the reason this text is challenging for us is that we moderns do not know how to read the Old Testament typologically. Let me illustrate with a parallel passage. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul compares the church to the Jews in the wilderness period – the very thing he is doing here in Hebrews 3-4. I want you to notice some of the comments Paul makes in that passage that will perhaps assist our study of Hebrews: READ 1 Cor 10:1-5
Paul writes that our fathers in coming out of Egypt and passing through the wilderness were a type – a picture, an anticipation, a shadow - of the church. NB verse 11: Now all these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. In other words, Paul tells the Corinthians, by observing Israel’s history, we can learn the particular challenges and dangers we will face as God’s people. So notice the things that Paul sees when he looks at the wilderness story:
v.2 - Our fathers were “baptized” into Moses and the sea – Baptism
v.3 - They ate spiritual food and drink spiritual drink – the Eucharist
v. 4- They drank from the Rock – Christ
Nevertheless, they died in the wilderness
Note that in reading the wilderness narrative, Paul sees Christ and the church at the center of it. Christ was leading them; they had essentially the same sacraments we do; so we must be careful to learn from these incidents. Now how many of us, when reading our OT, read with this perspective? Would we have seen Christ there? Seen baptism and the Lord’s Supper there? Not likely. And this inability to read typologically dogs us as we approach Hebrews 4 – for Paul is using this same typological framework to read the wilderness narrative again. Christ and His people, His Church, are at the center of the OT.
So let us return to Hebrews where Paul is discussing the same wilderness incident through the lens of Psalm 95 and warning his generation even as the psalmist had warned his: Beware lest you harden your hearts like our fathers. Take care! Don’t imitate their unbelief! Don’t die in the wilderness!
Now here’s a question you should be asking of the biblical text – but which we frequently don’t because “This is the Bible and we can’t ask questions!” But questions are absolutely necessary. When we’re reading the Bible, in order to understand we need to ask good, penetrating questions of the text. So here’s the question we need to ask: why must the psalmist’s generation, why must Paul’s generation, why must we beware lest we harden our hearts? Well, the texts say, remember what happened when our fathers hardened their hearts - they failed to enter God’s rest; they died in the wilderness. So beware lest you harden your heart. But again we ask: why? After all, the psalmist’s generation wasn’t on the cusp of entering into the land of Canaan – they were already in it; Paul’s generation wasn’t – they’d been in it for generations; we aren’t – we don’t even live close to it. What relevance does the wilderness judgment have for each of these generations? Much, if we’re thinking typologically.
Consider: from what were our fathers excluded? Well notice what God says in the text (4:3): “So I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter My rest.” Note that the fathers were excluded from God’s Rest. Now when God excluded our fathers from the Promised Land, was the Promised Land synonymous with God’s Rest? They didn’t get to enter into God’s Rest, that is, they didn’t get to enter the land of Canaan? No! That doesn’t seem right. How could God’s Rest be limited to the land of Canaan? Ah, now you’re on to something – you’re on to the same thing that the psalmist saw, that Paul saw: the land of Canaan was a mere type, an anticipation of the true rest that God was offering our fathers. Their failure to enter the Promised Land was symptomatic of their failure to enter God’s Rest. They did not believe God, did not live in anticipation of His promise to grant them true rest. So this is why the psalmist reissues an invitation to God’s Rest to his generation. The rest from which the fathers were excluded was a rest that remained accessible to the psalmist’s generation – unlike their fathers they could enter into God’s Rest – and, Paul writes, so can we.
So notice the typological connections: rest in the land of Canaan was a type of the ultimate rest that God has promised to those who trust Him. Just as the Rock pointed to Christ; just as the passage through the Red Sea pointed to baptism; just as the manna and water pointed to the Eucharist, so the rest in Canaan pointed to the final resurrection. Canaan Rest was a mere type of the Resurrection Rest that God has promised to those who love Him. And it is this Rest that remained open in the psalmist’s day, this rest that remained open in Paul’s day, this rest that remains open in our day. So long as it is called “Today” this Rest remains accessible. Therefore, we must be diligent to enter that Rest.
B. Basic Structure
So with this overview of what Paul is saying – let’s look at the way Paul says it. Paul’s words are organized as a sandwich. He gives an exhortation in v. 1 that he repeats in v. 11. Between these exhortations he gives his rationale. So let us begin by looking at his exhortation.
1. Paul’s Exhortation (vv. 1, 11)
We begin in v. 1 - Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest – notice that immediately Paul is highlighting that the rest held out to the fathers continues to remain open to the present. By warning his hearers, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” the psalmist is indicating that God holds out the promise of rest for the psalmist’s generation even as He did for the fathers in the wilderness. And Paul’s point is that this promise continues to his own day. A promise remains of entering God’s rest.
Therefore, since this promise remains, since God continues to hold out to His people the prospect of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. This command represents the heart of Paul’s message here in Hebrews 4. The command in v. 1 – let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it – is reiterated in v. 11 – Therefore, let us be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. Paul is reiterating the necessity of perseverance. Do not grow weary – don’t turn back; don’t drift away; don’t harden your hearts. All these commands serve the same basic function – Paul is reminding his readers of the absolute necessity of perseverance. Persevering in the faith is not an option; if we fail to persevere then we will not enter into God’s rest.
2. Paul’s Rationale (vv. 2-10)
Between these two exhortations, the bread on either side, Paul substantiates his assertion that a promise remains of entering God’s rest. After all, if the rest does not exist, then what’s the point exhorting us to enter into it? It would be the equivalent of urging us to make our way to the land of Oz – a vain journey since no such country exists except in fairy tales. So Paul wants us to understand that the rest toward which we are pressing is not some fictional country but a real place. Note that this is the point of the word “for” (v.2, 3, 4, 8) – Paul is giving the rationale for his assertion that a promise remains of entering God’s rest.
Paul’s rationale is very elaborate and difficult to follow. I will do my best to explain it –but if my explanation goes over your head just remember that the issue is with the text. This is “hard to understand.” Nevertheless the central thrust of Paul’s comments is clear and it is this: Scripture demonstrates that God’s rest, begun at the beginning of creation, continues to be open and accessible to those who believe.
So look at Paul’s argument. It is divided into two main sections: in vv. 2-5 he insists that the rest from which our fathers were excluded is a rest that has existed from the beginning of creation; then in vv. 6-8 he insists that it is to this rest that Psalm 95 invites God’s people; in vv. 9-10 he states his conclusion: this rest remains open to us.
a. The Origin of God’s Rest (vv. 2-5)
So let us look first at the origin of God’s Rest – Paul insists that the rest from which our fathers were excluded is a rest that has existed from the beginning of creation.
· We have had the gospel preached to us just as they did – God said to them – “I will bring you into a land of milk and honey and I will give you rest from your enemies”; Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” We receive the same invitation they did – the invitation to enter into God’s rest.
· But the fathers didn’t enter this rest because they didn’t believe God’s word; “No, God’s not going to bring us into the land of milk and honey, he is going to destroy us here in the wilderness.”
· But those who believe do enter the rest - witness Joshua and Caleb who said, If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land which flows with milk and honey.
· So notice the wording of the psalm - “they shall not enter My rest” – God is making a distinction; some are entering into the rest and others are not. So what is this rest? It’s God’s Rest.
· And where else does Scripture speak of God’s rest? In Genesis. So note Paul’s words, “And yet this rest (that some entered and others did not) has been accessible from the beginning of creation” – it wasn’t something that originated after the Exodus. It was something that existed from the beginning of creation into which the fathers were invited to enter. After all, what does it say in Genesis? On the 7th Day, God rested from all His works.
· And it is from this rest, God’s Rest, this creational rest, that God excludes the unbelieving.
Note, therefore, that the rest from which God excluded our fathers was the rest into which He Himself had entered upon finishing the creation. It wasn’t primarily the land of Canaan that they missed out upon – it was God’s rest to which the land of Canaan pointed. God’s Rest originated at the beginning of creation.
b. The Invitation to God’s Rest (vv. 6-8)
But the psalmist didn’t warn his readers to no end, to no purpose. He wasn’t just issuing the warning for fun. Why is he warning his generation about the failure of our fathers to enter God’s rest? Because God’s rest remained open to them: Today if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. The invitation to enter God’s Rest was still open in the psalmist’s day. Notice Paul:
6a – Since therefore it remains that some must enter it – since God’s rest remains open and accessible;
6b – And since our fathers failed to enter it because of disobedience and unbelief;
7a – God reissued the invitation through David saying, “Today”
7b – if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts
God continued, through the psalmist, to invite His people to enter into His Rest, the rest that had been established since the foundation of the world. You see when God preached the Gospel to our fathers – I will bring you into a land of milk and honey and grant you rest from all your enemies – he wasn’t just inviting them into Canaan. The rest in Canaan was a mere type or picture of the rest God was promising. For (8) if the rest which God promised our fathers was exhausted by entering into Canaan, then God wouldn’t have spoken of another rest much later through David.
c. Conclusion (vv. 9-10)
Notice, therefore, Paul’s conclusion in v.9 – There remains, therefore, a Sabbath rest for the people of God. So long as it is called “Today” we can enter into God’s Rest. There will come a time when the strenuous push to persevere is completed; when our sanctification, now begun, ends in glory. At that time we will be able to rest; to concern ourselves no longer with the constant need for vigilance and perseverance. Just as God completed His labor and rested, so our labor will be complete. But it’s not complete yet! So (v.11) let us be diligent to enter that rest!
C. Meaning of God’s Rest
What then is this rest to which Paul is pointing? As I’ve already indicated, the rest to which Paul points is the resurrection – when Christ returns in glory, the dead are raised, and we are transformed into glory. This is evident from a comparison of chapters 3&4 with chapters 1&2. Remember the flow of Paul’s words in chapters 1&2:
1:5-14 - Demonstration: Jesus is the Exalted King, God’s Son
2:1-4 - Warning: Beware Drifting Away
2:5-18 - Why should we beware falling away? Because the mission of the Son of God is to bring us to glory & honor; to teach us to rule; to make us fully human. Remember 2:10-11: “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren…”
Notice now the similarity with this new section:
3:1-6 – Demonstration: Jesus is the Exalted Prophet, Greater Moses
3:7-19 – Warning: Do not harden your hearts
4:1-13 – Why should we beware hardening our hearts? Because Jesus has put before us the promise of rest, the promise of glory and honor. The promise of rest, therefore, is the promise of our ultimate exaltation. When we are crowned with glory and honor we will sit down just like our elder brother; we will enter into our rest. Rest, in other words, equals glory and honor, equals resurrection.
So let us close with two brief observations/applications:
· Consider, brothers and sisters, what God has placed before us: rest. Not mere cessation of activity but rest, enjoyment, satisfaction, delight, fullness of joy. Is not God good and gracious? Despite our rebellion against Him, He has provided for us a way to enter into rest; to no longer be harassed by our enemies – the world, the flesh, the devil and those various folks in league with these forces. God promises us rest. We’ll consider this more next week.
· In light of this promise, the promise of entering God’s rest, let us fear lest any of us come short, lest we miss out on that which as human beings we all long for without knowing it. We all long for rest, peace, delight, and enjoyment. We labor for it; we sin trying to achieve it; we destroy others to try and grab hold of it. And the sober reality is this: it is possible to miss it. Our fathers missed it and we can too. So let us be diligent to enter that rest.
To remind us of the nature of this rest toward which we are pressing, this rest we are striving toward, God invites us to this feast, to this Table. He invites us to eat with Him. But it’s a feast not open to all: it is open only to His people, reminding us that the final meal too is not universal. There are some who will have no part in that feast even as there are some who have no right to this one. So let us be diligent to enter that Rest even as we come here to this anticipation of it.