Digging in Deeper: Hebrews 4:3-9

“For we who have believed enter the rest, in keeping with what he has said, ‘So I swore in my anger, “They will not enter my rest,”‘ even though his works have been finished since the foundation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in this way: ‘And on the seventh day God rested from all his works.’ Again, in that passage he says, ‘They will never enter my rest.’ Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news did not enter because of disobedience, he again specifies a certain day – today. He specified this speaking through David after such a long time: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. Therefore, a Sabbath rest remains for God’s people.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Let me state the obvious right out of the gate here: This is a much bigger block of text than I normally put at the beginning of a post. I had to do it like this. I’ve honestly been sitting with this text for over a week now, trying to find a way I could break it down into smaller sections without losing the argument entirely, and there’s just not a way I could have done it. Maybe you can think of one, and please share it if you do, but every part of this section is all feeding into where the author lands in v. 9. And that point was to completely reorient his audience’s understanding of Sabbath. His words here should probably change yours too. Let’s break this down together.

I want to accomplish just two things with you this morning. First, I want to help you understand what the author is arguing here because, as you just saw, that’s not exactly an easy or obvious task. Second, I want to help you get your mind around what v. 9 has to do with how we should understand the idea of Sabbath. If I can accomplish those two things in something less than the length of a full sermon, I’ll be willing to count this post a success.

The last thing we talked about last week when we were in Hebrews was the fact that some folks missed (and miss) out on God’s rest because they refused (and refuse) to believe in Him. God’s a gentleman. He never forces Himself on anyone. If someone does not want to accept Him as Lord, He won’t make them do it. Now, eventually this world is going to come to an end and the time for revealing His full glory to us will come. At that point, there won’t be any doubting that He is Lord, but if someone has refused to accept it to that point, they aren’t going to accept it then either. That was all talking about the past. Here, he begins talking to his audience in his present.

At first read, though, the first thing he says here doesn’t make much sense. He says that we have entered God’s rest in keeping with what He said…and then quotes God’s declaration that some people will not enter His rest. How is our entering His rest in keeping with His declaring people are not going to enter His rest? This is where you have to start reading pretty carefully. (Well, you should have been reading the whole letter up to this point pretty carefully, but the argument is particularly nuanced here.)

When God declared the people of Israel who refused to accept the faithful report about the Promised Land from Joshua and Caleb could not enter His rest, the natural question we need to ask here is, “To which rest was He referring?” Now, so far, the author has been seemingly operating under the assumption that God was talking about the rest of the Promised Land itself. And we’ve gone with him in that assumption. At the same time, I told you the author was looking beyond that to something bigger. Well, here, he’s not looking beyond it to something bigger, he’s looking before it. And this something before is the statement at the end of the creation narrative that on the seventh day of creation, God rested from all of His works. In other words, God entered into some kind of rest then that wasn’t merely a momentary reprieve from action, but an eternal state of affairs. It was a state of being of wholeness, completion, and peace.

Going back to Psalm 95, the author again notes God’s declaration that a certain group of people would not enter his rest. But then he goes back a little bit earlier in the passage to observe the statement that comes before this. God’s warning to the people through David is for them to not harden their hearts like the Israelites did. He doesn’t just give the warning, though, He specifies a timeline on it. Specifically, He calls them to not harden their hearts “today.” His point in making this observation is that if God had denied people entrance to His rest hundreds of years before David was writing this Psalm, and if David was calling people to not harden their hearts in his own time, then it would seem that God’s rest is something bigger than just the Promised Land. Essentially, he’s making the case about God’s rest now that I made to you last week. (I just jumped the gun a bit!)

To put this another way, if the Promised Land was intended to be the sum total of God’s Sabbath rest, David wouldn’t have warned people about missing it long after they were already settled in it. Instead, by pointing back to the rest after creation was completed (and, significantly, not the Sabbath commanded in the Law), the author is arguing, again, that God’s rest is bigger than any one place or practice. Because it is so much bigger, it remains open for God’s people to enter it even on this side of the cross. In other words, God’s Sabbath rest is still something you can experience if you are willing to trust in Him to enter it.

If that’s all what the author is talking about here, what does this have to do with giving us insight into understanding the idea of Sabbath better? I think where this points us is here: The author of Hebrews here is not making any kind of a reference to a specific day of the week that is the Sabbath. Yes, he notes that God rested on the seventh day, but I think he excludes the next part of that verse about God’s making the seventh day holy on purpose. After all, the believers to whom he was writing did not technically observe the seventh day Sabbath as outlined in the Law since they met for worship on Sundays.

(And, just as a fun side note: Because Sunday was a workday, they had to get up really early to meet before then going to work. Imagine what our church attendance would look like if our standard meeting time was something like 5:30 on Monday mornings. Do you think there would be enough folks who were sufficiently committed to worshiping together with the body to be engaged in that service time? I’m just saying…)

The Sabbath rest to which he is referring was not a specific day at all, but rather a state of being. It was a matter of dwelling under the umbrella of God’s perfect, holy authority. It came from living our lives as if He were Lord at every point in our days. It involved being whole and at peace. It carried strong overtones of loving one another as Jesus loved us. In a sense, it was living as if God’s kingdom were already present and active even though we still slog through this world as it is. If this is all the case, then we need to jettison the idea of the Sabbath’s being a single day of the week from our thoughts and theology. Yes, it is good and appropriate to meet together for worship on Sundays. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there is a great deal of historical precedent for such a thing. But it’s not commanded of us anywhere.

Let that sit on you for just a minute. Nowhere are followers of Jesus commanded to observe a certain day as the Sabbath day. We are called to enter into the Sabbath provided for us in Christ, but that is a state of affairs that should govern our whole lives. That is, in Christ, our whole lives should be marked by Sabbath, not merely a single day out of the week. To argue otherwise is to be guilty of bringing old covenant thinking into the church where such an approach to life has no place. Jesus came to fulfill and replace that old way of thinking that was inevitably dominated by legalism because that’s what the brokenness inside of us invariably did to the Law – we turned it into legalism and self-righteousness.

Again, this does not mean that we shouldn’t still meet for worship on Sunday mornings. That’s a fine thing to do. But there’s nothing external to us that somehow forces us into that position. There’s no law to keep that mandates our doing it. Meeting on Thursdays and treating Sundays as just another day of the week (which is something a growing number of churches are doing) can be just as glorifying of God. This is because the Sabbath isn’t a day. It’s a state of affairs. It’s a state of affairs rooted in creation itself. It’s a state of affairs we should be in if we are in Christ. It’s one that our belief in Him grants us access to by His grace. If you are living a life that is marked by the burdens and woes and worries of this world, then Sabbath is not something that has taken hold in your heart. Yet such a thing remains for you if you are interested. I hope you’ll take Him up on His offer.

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