“We who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest” ’ ” (v. 3).
Building on his comparison of Christians in the current era as in a situation analogous to the Israelites who were waiting to enter the promised land, the author of Hebrews draws a parallel to entering Canaan and entering “his rest” (Heb. 4:1–2). He refers here to God’s rest, as we see more clearly in today’s passage (vv. 3–5).
In comparison to what the Israelites had to endure in the wilderness—wandering as nomads, encountering and fighting many enemies (Deut. 1–3)—the promised land was indeed a place of rest. There the Israelites could build houses, raise their families, and enjoy a measure of peace in the security of their own territory. But was it the place of God’s rest? The author anticipates this question in Hebrews 4:3–5, citing the creation story and how God rested on the seventh day “from all his works” (see Gen. 2:1–3). Yet, if God rested, how could the promised land be His rest? First, note that while God’s Sabbath-day rest at the conclusion of creation is a true rest, it is not God’s only rest. Genesis 2:3 tells us specifically that “God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” The kind of rest provided in the seventh day of creation—which has no end because there is no mention of a seventh evening and morning as in the other six days of creation (see Gen. 1)—is the Lord’s rest only from the initial act of creation. The Lord has not stopped working, for He continues to sustain creation (Heb. 1:3). More importantly for our study of Hebrews 4, He is still working to redeem His people (Rom. 13:11; 2 Cor. 4:14). He cannot rest from that work until all the elect have been glorified (1 Cor. 15:12–28).
God’s Sabbath-day rest from His original work of creation—His “already” rest—is a true rest, but it is not His full rest. It anticipates His greater rest to come—His “not yet” rest—when He will have finished re-creating us in the image of His Son, and He will have ultimate victory over all His and our enemies (see Rom. 16:20; Eph. 4:17–24). In a similar way, the promised land of the old covenant also anticipated that greater rest to come, as Hebrews 4:8–10 states more clearly.
The good news is that all those who trust in Christ alone enter that rest now even as the fullness of that greater rest is still ahead (Heb. 4:3). But the way that we know we have entered into the already of God’s final rest is that we continue to strive to enter the not-yet of God’s rest—that is, we press on in faith, trusting in Christ.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
John Owen comments that “faith alone, without the assistance of any other grace, makes entry possible. Works of the law and any other kind of works will not open this way for us. It is faith alone that opens the way to us.” Striving to enter the final rest of God—the new creation—does not entail our doing works to earn final salvation. It is continuing to rest in Christ alone, trusting in His merit only for salvation.