Hebrews 4

Unbelief 

Chapter 4 continues the conversation that the author began in chapter 3. Using Psalm 95 as the launch pad, he warns his audience not to be like the wilderness generation of Israel who failed to enter God’s rest because of their unbelief. He brought them to the edge of the Promised Land. All they had to do was walk in but they wouldn’t.  

Unbelief is not some small sin. It is the sin underneath all sin. Before we sin in any other way, we stop believing God and start believing something else. And so this good pastor is warning his readers about the real danger of unbelief. They’re on the verge of the Promised Land, too. But this time, it’s eternal realities at stake rather than an earthly dwelling place. He urges them to hold fast to their confession of faith. Don’t let go of Jesus now, not when the rest of God is so close at hand. 

Hebrews 4:1-13 

1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” 

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, 
do not harden your hearts.” 

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  

Once again, the author is using comparison to make his point. But this time, instead of comparing Jesus to someone or something, he’s comparing his audience (us) to the generation of Israel in the wilderness in the years before Joshua’s conquest in the Promised Land.  

Wilderness Generation Audience of Hebrews
Lead by Moses Lead by Jesus
Hardened their hearts and tested God in the desert Warned not to harden their hearts and test God
Saw God’s works in the Exodus Heard God’s final message in the Son
Experienced God’s works in the desert Experienced God’s work in community
Had opportunities to trust God Had opportunities to trust God
Encouraged one another not to trust God when it mattered most Encouraged to exhort one another every day to trust God
Did not believe the good news preached Believed the good news preached
Failed to enter the rest On their way to rest

This passage is about rest. The word “rest” appears 10 times in 4:1-13. So let’s break it down into two questions: 1) What is this rest? 2) How do we get there? 

First, what is this rest? Verse 1 tells us it is his rest. That is, it’s God’s rest. It is the Sabbath rest of God, not merely more of the kind of rest we experience. It is the comprehensive satisfaction of completed work. What kind of work? It can’t be ongoing work because God still works in the world. It is the work that received a “Good” verdict at the end. The work, then, is work that makes us good: justification. We are called to enter our justification. The work of the law has ended. We don’t have to prove ourselves. We don’t need to go back to the Jewish law. The work of grace fulfilled it. Rest. 

It is also future (4:1, 6, 9, 11). This rest an eschatological rest. The book of Hebrews points us to the future for present faith, while at the same time using our present faith as assurance for the future. Therefore, this rest is a promise that still stands. It has not yet come in its fullest form. How do we know? Because the Promised Land wasn’t the final rest (4:8). The Davidic reign and kingdom wasn’t the final rest (4:9). The earthly ministry of Jesus wasn’t even the final rest (4:11). The final rest must then be yet to come.  

God still has his best awaiting his people. We who are here now have not missed out on the rest that he intends. But we could miss out, and that’s the whole point of this passage. If we abandon Jesus, we will be just like those Israelites in the desert who turned their back on the Promised Land in fear. We must hold fast to Jesus. The call of Psalm 95 not to harden our hearts today is vitally important. We must stay soft-hearted toward Jesus. 

Second, how do we get there? Hebrews 4:11 says, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.” How do we strive to enter rest? To understand this, we must return to chapter 3 and consider once again two things: 

  1. Jesus as faithful Son. 
  2. The call of Psalm 95 to listen. 

The faithfulness of Jesus presented in Chapter 3 gives these Christians, and us today, the grounds for trusting God. If Jesus was faithful in his earthly ministry, how will he not be faithful in his heavenly ministry now as high priest? Jesus is the ultimate proof of the faithfulness of God to his people. He entered in. He suffered. He died. He rose. He ascended. He’s done everything but come back. What else are we waiting for to trust him? 

We strive to enter the rest of God by looking faithfully to Jesus all our days. We hold fast to him. We consider him. We compare him to everything and anything else and find him superior in every case. We draw near to him when we’re being tempted. We turn our face to him instead of our back. We listen to his voice above all others. The degree to which we listen to Jesus is the degree to which we strive to enter his rest. He has accomplished the work. Our striving, then, is not work toward salvation but rest in salvation. All we need to do to strive to enter God’s rest is to forsake all else and follow Jesus. He’s leading the way, let’s just walk with him. To do so takes intense diligence. We are drifters by nature. We must fight the drift. 

Perhaps the most famous passage in Hebrews is 4:12-13,  

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” 

Why put these verses here? They seem out of place, but they are brilliantly used by this literary genius. It’s reminding us, once again, of the circumstances embedded in Psalm 95. I think no one says it better than William Lane. 

“The sharp warning in verses 12-13 supplies a supporting reason for diligence. Here the pastor appeals to the character of the word of God as “living and effective.” Once more he draws attention to the experience of Israel at Kadesh, when he describes God’s word as “sharper than any double-edged sword.” God has said to the Israelites, “You shall not enter the land.” But the people, in essence, said to Moses, “We have made a tragic mistake. Let’s take up our weapons and enter the land. We are now prepared to believe God” (Num. 14:39-40). Moses warned them not to go. Entrance into the land now would be an act of presumption, inviting defeat: “You will fall by the sword of the Amalekites and Canaanites” (Num. 14:41-43). But they disregarded his warning and entered the high hill country, unaccompanied by Moses or the ark of the covenant. There they fell by the double-edged sword of the Amalekites and the Canaanites (Num. 14:44-45).” 

“The description of God’s word as “sharper than any two-edged sword” in verse 12 is a sober reminder that these Christians were not dealing with Amalekites and Canaanites, but with God. When we are confronted by God’s word we are confronted by God himself.” 

When we open the Bible, we are confronted not just with words on a page but a person speaking through a page. We are confronted by God himself. To read the Bible is a risky thing. We cannot read it, put it down, and claim ignorance. We have been enlightened through the Scriptures to the reality of God. To open the Bible is to expose ourselves. 

This sounds terrifying. And, in many ways, it is. But it’s also terrifying in a wonderful way. We need to be exposed. We need to stand naked before God. We cannot hide there. He knows all. It’s what he does with that knowledge that surprises us. We think, like the Israelites who were afraid of the Amalekites and Canaanites, that God will slay us quickly and mercilessly. But that’s not what he does. He does wound but only to bind. He does hurt but only to heal. To be exposed before God is not to lose face with God but to gain peace with God. He saves through exposure, like a surgeon who must cut to get the tumor out. 

So how does this help us with unbelief and striving toward rest? The more we are exposed to God the more assurance we will have of both his reality and the hope of rest. We tend to think our lives will be best if we don’t think too much about the future. But the Bible says we need to think about the future far more often. It is there, in the hope of glory, that we find the hope we need for today’s difficulties.  

We’ve talked about hearing God, but what are we to hear? Look at verse 2, “good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” What is the good news? It is the gospel! The Israelites heard the gospel – the grace of God coming to them – but did not believe it. The message they heard did not benefit them. They didn’t listen. So the question for us: are we listening? 

Today we have an opportunity to enter God’s rest. So hold fast. Strive to enter his rest. Keep listening. Keep believing. Keep pressing on. When we get there, we will find not only rest for our weary bodies but God himself, Rest personified. 

Hebrews 4:14-16 

We now have a problem. We must enter God’s rest but we feel so unrestful. How do we take the eschatological rest and dump that great hope like a bucket all over our present experience and soak ourselves in it? In other words, how do we have the peace of God today? We know we have peace with God through our justification. But how does that translate into the peace of God?  

We saw in 2:17 that Jesus became for us a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God through his life of suffering and experience. What the author does next is take up each one of these two features of the high priest in reverse order. First, he focuses on the faithful high priest in 3:1-4:15, which we just saw. Second, he focuses on the merciful high priest in 4:15-5:10. 

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 

The author presents the mercy of Jesus as further reason why we can trust him. Whereas 3:6-4:13 calls us to stick with Jesus, 4:14-5:10 shows us how Jesus sticks with us. Ultimately, our salvation rests in Christ alone. He’s done all the work. We must believe in him who has accomplished that work. We are like the Israelites following Joshua into the Promised Land, doing what he commands as he faithfully leads 

These three verses hold some of the richest descriptions of the priesthood of Jesus in all the Bible. He is a great high priest in heaven (v. 14) who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses (v. 15). He has been tempted as we are in every respect yet without sin (v. 15). Through him we can draw near to God’s throne of grace where we can receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need (v. 16). 

Because of this, we have something unheard of in the Old Testament. We have a sinless priest who is able to make the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Though he was tempted, he never sinned. Therefore, he is able to help us whenever we need him. He’s ready at all times. He has no need to cleanse himself first. 

This raises an important question that we must answer. If Jesus never sinned, is it possible that he can actually sympathize with us? Doesn’t it take someone who has “been there” to sympathize with those who are there? How does a sinless Christ help us in our temptation? 

C.S. Lewis helps us here in this passage from Mere Christianity.  

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” 

Because Jesus has entered the Most Holy Place (Heaven), we now have unprecedented access to God. The Levitical priest entered the Most Holy Place, but alone and with a rope tied to his leg in case he was to die. No one else could enter. It was exclusive and costly. But in Christ’s priesthood, the curtain separating us from God has been torn. We didn’t tear it, God tore it (Matthew 27:51). We are now invited to draw near to God’s throne whenever we need help, that is, at all times! “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (v. 16). We can go with confidence – no fear of rejection because Christ has given us ultimate acceptance through the imputation of his righteousness.  

The throne of God is not a throne of punishment or judgment or condemnation for those in Christ. It is a throne of grace. We approach God’s throne, where he rules and reigns and where we can find help for our various needs. The Greek text indicates “bold frankness” in this drawing near to God. We can come to him, exactly as we are with all our need. We can say what we really need to say to the one who can really help. He is not afraid of our deep need. Jesus made himself like us. He “partook of the same things” (2:14). Jesus feels the pain you feel. He has made himself co-sufferer with you, for you.  

So here’s what that means in real time. You know those moments when you’re giving into temptation? Those moments when you’re in the midst of sin and you surprise even yourself? What do you do at that moment? Here’s what we tend to do. We tend to put off repentance. We feel too guilty. We think Jesus will cleanse us afterward but not during. And we beat ourselves up, and we work ourselves into guilt. We might go and confess our sin to a brother in Christ. Then, at some point, we get around to asking God’s forgiveness. But that’s not the kind of help Jesus is offering here. It’s more instant than that. 

Those moments of awareness in the midst of our sin – those moments where we are surprised by our actions or thoughts – are moments of grace from the throne. Here’s what we can do at that moment. We can cry out to Jesus to save us! Notice the words of verse 16, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” When is our time of need? Is it not when we’re in the midst of need? Doesn’t that include sin?  

Think of a soldier at war. He needs help not at the point of recovery from the battle only, but also in the midst of battle. He needs another gunner to take out the enemy that he can’t see. He needs a friend that sticks close. He needs an ally to fight for him. When a soldier cries out in war, he is not ignored. When you cry out in sin, you are not ignored. Jesus is there with in your need, not only before or after the need. Help is help only when it comes on time. Jesus is never late.