With the opportunity still open for individuals to enter God’s rest, believers should have a wholesome fear of failure to do so. The mere appearance that a believer might somehow be missing out on entering God’s rest should be sufficient to prompt a wholesome fear. (4:1) One should take to heart the warning example of the Israelites who left Egypt in the time of Moses.
The good news about entering God’s rest had been made known to believers, just as it had been to the Israelites. Upon putting faith in the good news about God’s Son and accepting his death for them as the basis for having their sins forgiven, believers came to be members of his Father’s family. As children of God and joint heirs with Christ, they had the hope of life in the sinless state, completely free from all the toil and distress associated with the present life. Accordingly, entering God’s rest proved to be an eagerly awaited future prospect. (4:2)
Similarly, the Israelites heard the divine promise about finding rest in the land of Canaan. But they did not benefit from the “word” or message they heard. Based on which manuscript reading of the Greek text that is followed, the reason for their not benefiting may be understood in two different ways. They did not respond in faith to the things they heard. Or, they did not respond in faith like those who listened (as did Caleb and Joshua). (4:2)
Both meanings are found in modern translations. “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.” (NIV) “For indeed we have had the good news preached to us, just as they had. But the message they heard did them no good, for it was not combined with faith in those who heard it.” (REB) “We received the gospel exactly as they did; but hearing the message did them no good because they did not share the faith of those who did listen.” (NJB) “For indeed the 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.” (NRSV)
Drawing a contrast between believers and the loss the faithless Israelites experienced, the writer of Hebrews continued, “For we enter into the rest [because of] having believed, just as [God] has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, “If they shall enter into my rest,”’ although from the founding of the world [his] works had been completed.” As evident from the context, entrance into God’s rest in the complete sense is a future prospect. Therefore, the positive “we enter into the rest” appears to indicate that the hope is sure and that the faith of believers has the goal of entering God’s rest. The “if” (ei), in the quotation from Psalm 94(95):11 (LXX), serves as an indicator of a solemn assertion, establishing that the faithless Israelites definitely would not enter God’s rest. By means of the quotation, the writer of Hebrews indicated that, although the faithless Israelites failed to enter God’s rest, the opportunity was still open. The fact that God had finished his creative works from the time of the founding of the world, or in the distant past, had no bearing on this opportunity, for entering his rest meant enjoying with him all the good resulting from his completed works. (4:3; see the Notes section.)
The words quoted from Genesis 2:2 (LXX), which are referred to as having been said somewhere “about the seventh day,” confirm that the creative works were completed from the time of the founding of the world. “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” His pronouncing all creation as good indicated that his purpose for it had been attained, with no additional need for the continuance of creative activity. (Genesis 1:3-31) God’s resting signified his looking upon all creation with delight as work that had been finished. (4:4)
The writer of Hebrews repeated the quotation from Psalm 94(95):11 (LXX), “If they shall enter into my rest.” This solemn oath-bound declaration revealed that the faithless Israelites would be unable to do so. The quotation, however, indicated that the opportunity for entering God’s rest had not ended and that one could take advantage of the opportunity by responding in faith to the message about entering it. (4:5)
Based on the quotation from Psalm 94(95):11 (LXX), the writer of Hebrews pointed out that, “for some,” entering God’s rest was still possible and that those (the Israelites in the time of Moses) to whom the good news about doing so was formerly declared had not entered because of their “disobedience.” (4:6; see the Notes section.)
Then, again quoting from Psalm 94(95), the writer refers to God as designating or setting a certain day, with the specific opportunity of entering his rest. Focusing on the word “today” as the fixed day, the writer attributed the quotation to God’s speaking through David a considerable time after decreeing that the faithless Israelites would not enter his rest. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” In keeping with this admonition, all who hear God’s voice should be receptive to it in their hearts or inmost selves, responding to it with faith and obedience. (4:7)
Joshua did lead the younger generation of Israelites into the Promised Land. As the writer of Hebrews indicated, however, this did not mean that Joshua had given them rest, that is, the fullness of rest associated with entering God’s rest. If Joshua had done so, God would not at a much later time (through David in Psalm 94:11) have spoken of “another day,” that is, “another day” as “today.” (4:8)
This means that, “for the people of God” (all who are his people by reason of their faith in him and his Son and their obedient response to his words), a sabbath rest remains. “Today” continues, for none of the Israelite contemporaries of David entered God’s rest in the complete sense. (4:9)
Entrance into God’s rest means resting from one’s own works, “as God did from his own.” God completed his creative activity, pronouncing it as good and so finding joy in work that had fulfilled its purpose. In the case of believers, their earthly toiling is often associated with pain, struggle, and sorrow. Not until they are completely liberated from sin will believers be able to enter God’s rest and come to enjoy life as he meant it to be for them, life without the former toil, distress, and sadness. (4:10)
Considering all the joys and blessings entering God’s rest will mean for them, believers should do their utmost to enter it, so that none among them might be like the Israelites who served as a warning example of what can happen when one falls through disobedience. (4:11) Believers must continue to heed God’s word.
In this context, the “word of God” relates to the promise of entering his rest. The passage of time has not reduced the divine promise to a dead word, with no assurance of its ever being fulfilled. Rather, it is alive and active, absolutely certain of not failing in being brought to full realization and continuing to exert a powerful influence on all who hear it. In its effect, this word of promise is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” penetrating to the point of dividing “soul” from “spirit,” and “joints” from “marrow.” It is able to judge or discern the “thoughts and purposes of the heart.” (4:12)
In the way individuals respond to the word, they reveal their real nature. Like a sword that pierces the flesh and the bones, penetrating to the marrow, the word exposes what individuals appear to be (the “soul” or outer person) and what they actually are (the “spirit” or the inner person, including the disposition and motivation for thought and action). (4:12)
While in Egypt, the Israelites suffered and proved to be objects of pity. In their response to God’s word after their liberation from Egypt, however, many were shown up to be rebellious, faithless, and stubborn. The word revealed them to be very different from what they had appeared to be as a suffering and oppressed people. It made the thoughts and intentions of their hearts or their inmost selves apparent as if they had been submitted to careful judicial examination. (4:12)
The word exerts this kind of power because God is its source. Before him, no creation is hidden, “but all things [are] naked and laid bare to the eyes of him to whom we are accountable.” Humans must render an account to God for their words and actions, and they will be unable to conceal anything from him in an effort to alter his just judgment. Everything is fully exposed to his sight, and his word serves as a means to effect the exposure. (4:13)
Earlier, the writer of Hebrews called attention to Jesus’ role as high priest. (3:1) After having discussed the necessity of maintaining faith in God’s promise about entering his rest, he again directed attention to Christ and how believers should be affected by his functioning as their high priest. Unlike the high priests of the house of Aaron who could only enter the Most Holy of the temple (the representative place of the divine presence), Jesus Christ, as high priest, entered heaven itself (literally, “passed through the heavens”), appearing in the very presence of his Father. Therefore, believers should keep fast hold on their “confession,” continuing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their high priest who made it possible for them to be forgiven of their sins and reconciled to his Father as beloved children. (4:14)
Although Jesus Christ is far greater than any of Israel’s high priests ever were, he is able to sympathize with humans in their “weaknesses.” This is because he was tested in all respects “according to [our] likeness [but] without sin.” On earth, Jesus Christ was fully human and so understands the human condition intimately. He knows the kind of pressures to which humans are subjected and understands human weaknesses or frailties. (4:15)
Jesus Christ was tested in every way, for he maintained his faithfulness to his Father to the very end. At no time did he fail in letting a distressing development run its full course, giving up as humans often do when the trial becomes too intense. He endured to the limit as a human, as a man in our likeness, but always maintained his sinless state. (4:15)
With Jesus Christ as the compassionate high priest, believers can approach the “throne” of gracious favor “with boldness” or confidence, to be granted mercy and needed help at the right time. The “throne” is representative of God’s royal dignity. He extends his favor or kindness to those who approach him in faith, and the “throne” is one of gracious favor (as if kindness is dispensed from there). Believers can approach the Father with boldness, having no reason to fear. This is because their high priest, Jesus Christ, intercedes for them. So they can be confident that their petitions will be heard and that they will be recipients of God’s compassionate response and needed aid. (4:16)
In verse 3, a number of manuscripts do not include the definite article “the” before “rest.”
Instead of “disobedience” (in verse 6), P46 (c. 200 CE) reads “unbelief” (as in 3:19).