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Awed by Joshua? (Hebrews 4:1-13)

Awed by Joshua?
Hebrews 4:1-13

Minister’s Summary
: God raises up the right person for the right time. When all seemed lost for Israel because that nation’s great lawgiver and leader could not complete his task, Yahweh selected Joshua to carry through. Jesus has been raised up at just the right time in history (cf. Gal.4:4) and in your personal crises. He is superior to Joshua!

Teaching Material

The preacher is still in exhortation mode. He warned them about unbelief with the example of Israel in the wilderness. The disobedient and faithless cannot enter God’s promised rest (Hebrews 3:16-19). But he hopes that his hearers are more predisposed to faith than the Israelites in the wilderness. Indeed, as we will see in chapter six, he is confident they are.

The basic exhortation of this section is for believers to enter the promised rest through faith. Twice, once in Hebrews 4:1 (“let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it”) and a second time in Hebrews 4:11 (“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest”), the preacher urges his hearers to persevere and continue their journey toward God’s promised rest.

“Rest” is the dominant idea in this exhortation. The noun or verb is used eleven times in eleven verses. The idea is occasioned by the use of the term in Psalm 95:11, which is quoted in Hebrews 3:11 (and in this section at Hebrews 4:3, 5). The “rest” which Israel in the wilderness failed to enjoy was the land of promise because they refused to trust God’s work for them in conquering the land. The hearers of this sermon also have the prospect of a “rest,” and the question remains whether they will be like Israel and fail to enter that rest or whether they will persevere in faith so as to enter that rest.

This section naturally divides into three parts. Hebrews 4:1-5 begins and ends with the notion of “entering God’s rest,” while Hebrews 4:6-11 begins and ends with the idea of “failure to enter because of disobedience.” Hebrews 4:12-13 offers the ground of God’s penetrating perception of human hearts—the Word of God pierces through the heart and judges its faith or faithlessness. The first section, then, explains the idea of rest, and the section applies the negative example of Israel to the situation of the hearers of this sermon. The third section reminds the readers that they cannot escape God’s judgment, which penetrates the heart.

Exegetical Notes

1. Hebrews 4:1-5.

Psalm 95 exhorts worshippers to persevere in faith so that they might enter God’s rest. Consequently, the preacher concludes that there is yet a rest that remains for the people of God. It is a rest into which we can still enter. The promise has not disappeared, but rather it is constantly renewed as each generation seeks God. The Word of God promises a rest. It is good news (gospel). The gospel is the promise of sharing God’s rest.

Yet, the gospel must be heard (embraced) with faith. We must trust God’s promise of rest and persevere in that faith through the wilderness in order to enter God’s rest. Without faith, the promise is of no avail. Without faith, we fall short and cannot enter the rest.

The preacher elaborates the idea of “rest” by combining Psalm 95:11 with Genesis 2:2. The “rest” is “God’s rest,” and God’s rest is his creation rest. He rested on the seventh day after creating the cosmos. When God rested on the seventh day and ceased his work, this does not mean that God ceased all activity and became a spectator of the human drama. Rather, the idea of “rest” here is the experience of peace and shalom. It is the delight of relationship with the created cosmos and the human community. It is a settled enjoyment of community. It is the absence of conflict, pain and sorrow. God invites us into this rest, to share life with him in community, and to experience shalom.

However, I think Guthrie is correct to see that this “rest” is a present experience, which anticipates an eternal future. We who have believed have already entered this rest, though there is yet a fuller experience of that rest in the future when the new heaven and new earth appear.

2. Hebrews 4:6-11.

This “rest” is available to the people of God, but it is available through faith. The disobedient cannot experience or enjoy that “rest”. No doubt the believers whom the preacher addressed were experiencing a state of “restlessness.” They lived in a hostile environment. They were discouraged. The preacher challenges them to persevere in faith despite the wilderness. There is a rest, the preacher announces; even “Today.”

“Today” rings loudly here. The “rest” is not simply a moment in past history when Israel entered the land under Joshua. “Rest” is a much larger and more pregnant notion. It is not simply rest in the land of Canaan. Rather, it is an eternal “Sabbath-rest” for the people of God. It has cosmic proportions. The “rest” is ultimately the restoration of creation—it is the renewal of all things. It is a new heaven and a new earth where the old has passed away and everything has become new. It is that heavenly city toward which we journey.

We experience this rest today as we enjoy communion with God among the people of God. This is our “Sabbath.” However, the day of rest so prominent in Israel is rooted in creation (Genesis 2:2) and is part of the 10 commandments (the fourth commandment). It bears witness to a principle of “rest”—rest within a workweek that is given to enjoying God’s communion and peace. It is a principle that will find its ultimate fulfillment in the new heaven and new earth where God’s people will enjoy God’s own rest.

The preacher’s exhortation is to “make every effort to enter that rest.” Do not follow the negative example of Israel in the wilderness, but rather follow Jesus (our Joshua!). Remember that Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. We have a Joshua who will lead us into the promised land. He is our high priest, Jesus. He is our champion who has paved the way for us. Consequently, the exhortation is “follow Jesus” and enter the rest.

3. Hebrews 4:12-13.

The relationship between this section and the previous exhortation is found in the word “for” that begins Hebrews 4:12. Don’t follow the negative example of disobedience and make every effort to enter the rest, because the Word of God is alive. It is no dead word. It is active and at work. It is not a dead letter.

On the contrary, the Word of God (the word of promise; the good news; the judgment of disobedience) is a judging sword that discerns the heart. It opens up the heart as in surgery, or it cuts through the heart like a sword that penetrates the body. It unveils the heart. The heart language is important in this section, as the quotation from Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3:7 reminds us.

The Word of God, therefore, as it comes to us as a word of promise about the rest, will judge the heart’s faith or faithlessness. It will uncover what lies at the bottom of the heart. When the Word of God confronts us, it will discern whether we harbor a heart of unbelief or whether our heart believes the gospel (good news). The heart will give an account of itself before the light of God’s Word.

Theological Substance

“Rest” and the perseverance of faith that is necessary for entering that “rest” are the key theological themes in this section of the homily. The familiarity of our preacher with the Old Testament is especially evident in this section because “rest” is a theological theme that runs throughout the whole biblical story. And this is the story to which the original hearers of the sermon belong, and to which we also belong. “Rest” is God’s restoration of relationship with his people and their enjoyment of God’s peace and community.

Significantly, the “rest” is God’s rest. It his experience; his enjoyment of peace and harmony. It is “shalom.” It was what God created, and the preacher takes us back to creation to understand this shalom. After God had created, God rested (Hebrews 4:4; Genesis 2:2). “Rest” does not mean that God ceased all activity. Rather, it reflects the harmony and peace of creation and God’s relationship with it. God lived in community with his people, walked among them and enjoyed the mutual love they shared. This is rest. It is life without conflict, without pain, and without suffering.

But the entrance of sin into the world disturbed this “rest”. Wilderness invaded the Garden. Sin transformed the Garden into a Wilderness. But God still sought to give his people “rest.” God called Israel into being as a holy community in which he would dwell with his people. He would “rest” among them, and they would “rest” every seventh day (Sabbath; cf. Exodus 20:11; 31:17). The preacher remembers the “sabbath” as part of the rest into which God had called his people (Hebrews 4:9 uses “sabbath” terminology though it is transformed into something more than a seventh day).

He called them to a land where he would give them “rest;” where they would have peace from their enemies and live together in harmony as God dwelled in their midst (cf. Exodus 33:14; Deuteronomy 12:10: Joshua 1:13-15). This was the “rest” that wilderness Israel was called to enter, but they could not because of their unbelief and disobedience, that is, because of their rebellion. It is also the “rest” that Israel would experience in its history at time when peace reigned (cf. 1 Chronicles 22:9, 18; 23:25; 28:2; 2 Chronicles 14:7; 15:15; 20:30). God himself “rested” in Israel as he reigned with joy and delight among his people (2 Chronicles 6:41; 1 Chronicles 28:2).

Psalm 95 evidences a belief that there was yet a “rest” that the original worshippers who heard Psalm 95 could embrace and enter. Even though they possessed the land, there was a “rest” they were to embrace rather than hardening their hearts as Israel did in the wilderness. There is the yearning in the heart to “find rest” in God as we experience the wildernesses of life (cf. Psalm 62:1,5).

The preacher of Hebrews envisions a “rest” which believers can embrace and toward which they journey. I think Guthrie is correct that the preacher believes that the “rest” of God is both present and future. It is primarily future in the sense that believers are on a journey toward the heavenly city, but it is also genuinely present in the sense that by faith we participate in the city already. It is future in the sense that we wait for fullness of God’s glory and shalom upon the earth, but it is present in the sense that we enjoy God’s presence now and experience the peace of God through the reconciliation achieved by the suffering and exaltation of our high priest. It was experienced in Israel through Sabbath rest as well as inner peace. The preacher speaks to his hearers in the wilderness and exhorts them to persevere so as to enter God’s rest. It is a rest that they can experience now by faith, but it is also a hope in the promise of God for the restoration of shalom to the cosmos on that final day when Jesus comes again.

Christians have a “sabbath rest.” Though it is not a seventh day as in Israel, we may experience through a day of rest that is focused on enjoying God’s communal life and community (his people). It is the experience of living in relationship (community) with God. We can have peace as we trek through the wilderness because God is with us and our champion leads us toward the joy of eternal rest. We live in hope of an eternal “sabbath rest” because of the eternal redemption that Christ has won for us. We can endure the wilderness because Jesus leads us and because the wilderness is not eternal. One day the wilderness will pass away and the Garden of God will once again appear and we will enter God’s eternal rest.

Jesus invites us to come to him and he will give us “rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). When we come to Jesus, we experience “rest,” but when we are rebellious and disobedient—when we have a heart of unbelief—there is no “rest.”

Teaching Options

There are several ways to teach this text. One option is to begin back in chapter 3 with a review, and carry the argument forward in chapter 4. You could then move through the text step by step as the preacher unfolds the argument in his three sections. The Navipress book has questions appropriate for each section.

Another option is to treat the chapter theologically. Let your class see the “big picture” by telling the story of “rest” through the eyes of the biblical history of redemption (as in the theological section above). You could begin with creation and the intention of “rest” God had in mind, remind your class of the fall and how sin destroys shalom, and then carry the class through a kind of history of redemption as God seeks to bring “rest” to his people in Israel. This would lead you up to Psalm 95, and from Psalm 95 you could bring the class to Hebrews 4 and the situation of preacher and his audience. At each step, engage the class in a discussion of what “rest” means in each of those texts in anticipation of what “rest” means for us today in our journey of faith.

Ultimately, we need to bring the “today” to our audience. “Today” God still promises “rest.” “Today” God still calls us to trust his promises and experience his redemption. “Today” God still empowers our perseverance. It is a message for us—now.

In terms of application, we can offer “rest” to people in the midst of their “restlessness.” The wilderness disturbs our peace and we are often restless on the journey. We yearn for tranquility, peace, and harmony. The journey of faith, though it goes through the wilderness, offers “rest.” It offers an experience of rest in the midst of the journey, but also the hope of rest at the end of the journey. There is a present rest and a future rest—both enable perseverance. Both strengthen faith for the journey.

The exhortations are: don’t fall short of this rest and make every effort to enter the rest. It is an exhortation to persevere. Discussion can center on some practical concerns about how to keep that “rest” ever before us. How do we encourage each other about the rest? How do we bear witness to the “rest” in the lives of God’s people? How have you experienced “rest” in the present, and how does the hope of future “rest” empower your journey? How does the idea of “rest” enable perseverance?


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