A Sabbath Rest: Understanding Hebrews 4
by Sonja DeWitt | 18 April 2019 |
The Jewish Christians were suffering. The latter half of the first century was not an easy or pleasant time to be a Jewish follower of Jesus. As Christians and as Jews, these people suffered persecution from within and without—from their own people, the Jews, and from the Romans outside. While Judaism, as an ancient religion, was mostly accepted and tolerated in the Roman Empire, Christians were looked upon with suspicion and threatened with persecution.
Jewish Christians also faced relentless pressure from their own Jewish community to abandon the “heretical” beliefs of the Christian faith and return to the fold of Judaism. The pain of being ostracized or even thrown out of the synagogues must have been intense. Even more, torn between the familiar beliefs and rituals they had cherished since childhood, and their staunch conviction regarding newly-discovered truth, the internal conflict must have been agonizing.
It was to these people that Hebrews was written. Paul fashions a bridge connecting the old and the new for them to cross over. He reassures and comforts these believers—demonstrating that their former beliefs as Jews were not mistaken or heretical, but that their ancestors had been led by God as surely as they themselves had been. The fault was not in the doctrines or the rituals, which were ordained by God. But God was leading them forward into a new phase of His work on earth—God’s new thing.
Hebrews 4 is the key to the rest of Hebrews. The book continues on to explain how Christ’s sacrifice supersedes the Jewish system of sacrifice and renders it unnecessary. The sacrificial system on earth is finished, replaced by the perfect Sacrifice in Heaven. But Hebrews 4 assures the Jewish readers that the Sabbath rest remains.
A New Context
In Hebrews 3 and 4, Paul is giving these believers a brand-new context for understanding their beloved Sabbath day. This chapter has often been used by Adventists as a proof text for the continuity of Sabbath-keeping after Christ’s death, but that was not Paul’s intent. Paul and his readers would have been astonished to discover that such a proof text would ever be needed. No Christian even considered the possibility of another day supplanting the true Sabbath until centuries later. The purpose of Hebrews 4 is much broader, more profound than merely maintaining theological orthodoxy. Hebrews 4 delves deep into the rich spiritual significance of the Sabbath, far beyond the first century Jewish obsession with prohibited behavior, surface understandings and rote rituals.
Hebrews 4 looks both backward and forward—backward to Creation and forward to the final Sabbath rest. Paul grounds his argument in the story of creation which the readers had known well since childhood. But while acknowledging the familiar history of God’s Sabbath rest, he simultaneously reaches forward to give that original rest a new depth of meaning.
The question of Hebrews 4 is not, “What day is the Sabbath?” but “What is the Sabbath about?” And the answer is “rest.” But the knee-jerk response of the original Jewish readers would have been, “We already knew that! We’ve known that for millennia. Why do you think we don’t light fires or thresh wheat or walk more than a Sabbath day’s journey?”
“Ah, but after all these millennia you still don’t get it!” sighs Paul, “You don’t understand what rest really means.” To show them, he carries them back to the very beginning—to God and His creation. To the first Sabbath day when God rested and called all creation “very good.” But they’re still confused. Yes, they know God rested on the Sabbath day. That’s why they rest and why their ancestors since ancient times have rested.
But, Paul goes on, something else happened on that day. God’s creation was finished. “God’s works have been finished since the creation of the world.” (Heb. 4:3) Everything that the human race would ever need had been created. Not only water and trees and fruit-bearing plants and animals as companions and helpers, but, even more crucial, a plan to save them from themselves.
God can rest from His works, not only because He has completed his creation of humans and a perfect world for them to live in, but because he has created the perfect Emergency Rescue—the sacrifice of Christ, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). This salvation, prepared in advance, is the true basis for the Christian’s Sabbath rest.
Paul proclaims that this Sabbath rest has always existed—has always been available to anyone who was willing (Heb. 4:2). But, although the ancient Israelites “kept” the Sabbath, he tells us, they did not enter into the Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:6). They did not “rest from their works, as God did from His.” (Heb. 4:11)
Paul reminds his readers, who knew the story well, of God’s extravagant attempts to win the Israelites’ love and trust—the daily food He gave them, the pillar of fire and cloud as warmth and light by night and shade and protection by day, miraculous water from a rock, His own literal presence in the sanctuary. But he sadly reminds them that for many of the Israelites, these extravagant demonstrations were in vain. God finally had to give them up and proclaim they would never enter His rest. (Heb. 3: 8-11)
Unbelief in Fatherly Love
What was the sin of the Israelites which caused God to pronounce this inexorable judgment? There are many shocking moral collapses recorded against the Israelites in the wilderness—from the golden calf, to demanding that God give them meat, to orgies with the Moabites. Which of these does Paul cite as the reason Israel could not enter God’s rest?
None of them. Instead, the Psalm he quotes refers to Massah and Meribah, where Israel demanded water from God (Ps. 95; Ex. 17; Heb. 3:8-11).
There was no shocking moral failing there, no orgies, no blasphemy or idolatry. Instead, there was something far more deadly. The Israelites refused to believe in the fatherly love that had surrounded and shielded them, clothed them and fed them, for long weary years in the desert. They refused to trust the God who had, again and again, worked miracles to save them. They demanded in bitter, resentful tones, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17).
Their greatest sin was not sexual immorality or idolatry or overt rebellion against God. It was unbelief—a refusal to trust God’s love and His plan for them. And because they refused to trust, they could not enter God’s rest.
The Last Battle
The sin of the Israelites is vividly illustrated in C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Last Battle. Throughout the book, the dwarfs have been the pawns of the forces of evil trying to destroy Narnia. They are eventually captured, and are set free by the forces of the good king.
But they cannot recognize they are free. They believe they are still captive in a dark and filthy stable. The children try to convince them they are surrounded by flowers in a green, sunlit meadow—even hand them violets to prove it, but they believe the violets are foul-smelling refuse.
Finally, Aslan the Lion (Christ) arrives.
“‘Aslan,’ said Lucy through her tears, ‘could you—will you—do something for these poor dwarfs?’
“‘Dearest,’ said Aslan, ‘I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.’ He came close to the dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, ‘Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us.They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!’
“Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but…[t]hey thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ But very soon every dwarf began suspecting that every other dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot.
“But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: ‘Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.’“
“‘You see,’ said Aslan. ‘They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.'”
The Sabbath Rest Remains
Like the dwarfs, the Israelites failed to enter God’s Sabbath rest because of their unbelief. The prison in their minds—a prison of distrust of the One trying to help them and refusal to depend on anyone outside themselves—was so strong they could not break free. As Paul puts it, they “hardened their hearts” against God’s love (Heb. 3:8). And, tragically, because they would not allow God to free them from themselves, they could not enter the Sabbath rest.
And now, Paul says, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). A day to “rest from our works, as God did from His.” (Heb. 4:10) We, like the Israelites, are invited—are urged—to enter into God’s rest—the rest of the Sabbath. We are urged not to be like Israel—or like the dwarfs.
Paul explains that God’s rest means ceasing from “our works”—our own righteousness—and trusting God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God’s rest means unquestioning trust in God’s love. It means quiet, soul-deep serenity—completely releasing our restless striving, our futile attempts to control our own destiny, our constant obsessive labor to take care of ourselves—to save ourselves. That’s what it means to “rest from our own works.” The Sabbath day is both a symbol and a sampling of this rest.
God’s rest is righteousness “by grace, though faith.” It means throwing ourselves into the arms of God with complete abandon, like a weary child into his father’s arms, trusting implicitly that He will hold us up. That is the true Sabbath rest.
And that is why the Sabbath day will never be replaced—will never become outdated or obsolete. It is a weekly “sign between me and you, that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13). As a never-ending reminder, not only of God’s works of love in Creation, but of His ultimate loving sacrifice to save us from the prison of ourselves and to give us eternal rest—the Sabbath rest remains.
- Although most scholars do not believe Hebrews was actually written by Paul, for convenience I refer to Paul as the author. The arguments the author makes are consistent with Paul’s arguments in the Epistles. And it’s less awkward than continually referring to “the author.” ↑
- Lewis, C.S., The Last Battle, New York, HarperCollins ebooks, 2010, pp. 81-83. ↑
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney with over 20 years of experience handling Equal Employment Opportunity cases. She has a strong interest in religious liberty and has worked with the North American Religious Liberty Association, for which she received an award. She blogs about religion, politics and government, and social justice at www.voicesfromthewilderness.net,