It can be a helpful exercise for understanding Scripture when we do our best to put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience. This is often particularly true when it comes to the New Testament, which frequently includes responses to objections that are never explicitly stated. The author will anticipate questions that he then answers before the audience can actually ask them. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the original audience can help us identify those questions and why they might be asked.
Continuing our study of Hebrews 4, we will gain much by introducing the original audience’s background and beliefs. Remember that these are Christians from a Jewish background who know the Old Testament well. The author has been likening the original audience’s position to that of the wilderness generation of Israelites who had been rescued from Egypt but who had not yet entered the rest of the promised land. If they were to abandon Christ and go back to the old covenant, they would be like those Israelites who rebelled in the wilderness and were not allowed to go into Canaan. Moreover, that rest in Canaan was not the ultimate rest that God has prepared for His people (3:7–4:5; see Num. 13:1–14:38).
Those who know the Old Testament well, such as the original audience of Hebrews, might find this strange given that Joshua did lead the people into the rest of Canaan (Josh. 11:23). They would naturally think, as John Owen comments: “The next generation, under the leadership of Joshua, went into and enjoyed the rest that the others had been excluded from. This, therefore, was the intended rest, which we now enjoy. So, how can you propose another rest?”
That is why the author of Hebrews says what he does in today’s passage. Quoting again from Psalm 95, written to the Israelites long after Joshua’s day, the author of Hebrews points out that the psalmist speaks of hearing and obeying God’s voice “today”—the latter day of the psalmist—in order to enjoy God’s rest. The entry into Canaan under Joshua could not have been the ultimate rest promised by the Lord to His people; otherwise, the prospect of failing to enter it would not have been held out to a later generation of Israel (Heb. 4:6–8).
The final Sabbath rest for God’s people in His presence in the promised land was held out to the later Israelites, for this rest is brought by Jesus, the greater Joshua. It is held out to us as well, and we will enjoy it only if we continue clinging to Christ (vv. 9–10).