(Heb 4) Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
The writer compares the promised “rest” of Ps 95 with the rest we are promised. The new heavens and new earth will be our Promised Land (which is how our hope is often expressed in Old Testament prophecy, but that’s for another day). He says we both heard the good news, but hearing the message was of no value to the Israelites as they lacked faith.
One could argue that they never had faith and so were never saved. But, of course, they had enough faith to paint the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts. Ray Vander Laan points out that in Egypt, blood on a doorpost would have meant a death sentence for the Israelites had God not intervened. It was an act of great faith.
But there’s no need to speculate. The author will explain himself plainly.
3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” 6 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience.
The author now says that our “rest” is the same rest that God enjoyed in the seventh day of Creation. His point is that the true rest isn’t in Palestine, but with God.
Notice that the author blames the Israelites’ failure to enter the Promised Land on a lack of faith in v. 2, but in v. 6 he blames it on disobedience. Of course, the disobedience he is referring to didn’t happen until they reached the Promised Land and refused to go in. And this was caused by a lack of faith — faith that God would give them the victory.
(Num 14:6-9) Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes 7 and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 9 Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”
This is faith: “the LORD … will give it to us.” Only Joshua and Caleb were confident enough in God’s promises to act on them.
7 Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
The writer continues to explain that the true rest of God is not found in Palestine but in joining God in his rest. Therefore, we work until we rest with God. This means, of course, that Christians don’t retire. So long as our health holds, as the song goes, “We’ll work till Jesus comes.”
12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
In context, “the word of God is living and active” surely means that the Torah’s account of the Exodus remains alive and active today to judge us. Of course, God’s word comes from God, who knows everything, and so we must remember that we’ll be required to given an account.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
But the writer shifts from a stern warning to a promise of grace and confidence. Our confidence is found in the greatness of Jesus who sympathizes with us and understands what life in the flesh is like. Even though he never succumbed to temptation, he understands. Therefore, we receive grace when we need grace — which is when we sin.
It’s astonishing that so many teach a “grace” that comes only to those who’ve already defeated sin. But the grace we receive through Jesus is for the weak — provided we “hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
The lesson is that Christians should be confident in God’s grace, but that we must “make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” You see, my own efforts will encourage others. We do not live to ourselves alone. The way we make certain that “no one will fall” is by all of us making every effort. Making it to the end is a community effort.
We’ll be judged as individuals, but whether we pass that judgment will depend on the efforts others make on our behalves. After all, nearly every adult Israelite died in the desert — in large part due to their failure to encourage one another. Instead, 10 of their 12 leaders lacked faith, and the great majority followed their lead.
It’s critically important, therefore, that we be part of churches that encourage us to make it to the end and that love us enough to straighten us out when we need it. That’s true love.