by Steven Siciliano, 16 November 2017           

“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. 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. 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.

For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,

“They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 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.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:1-10 ESV)


Many Seventh-day Adventists are familiar with the fourth chapter of Hebrews, and with verse nine in particular, which says, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” As a stand-alone quote that phrase has been understood as affirming the ongoing importance of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, but the larger passage in which it is found suggests one of the most life-changing concepts in all the bible. It is a highly enigmatic section, however, and to grasp its cryptic but wonderful import, the flow of the whole book should be kept in mind.

The book of Hebrews is not a theological treatise, but an appeal to remain faithful to the new religious framework of Jesus as Messiah.

The book of Hebrews is not a theological treatise, as casual readers might assume, but an extended appeal to its early Christian audience to remain faithful to the new religious framework they had adopted when they embraced Jesus as Messiah. In fact, the author explicitly calls the composition a “word of exhortation” (13:22). Numerous verses in the book indicate that the recipients were either being pressured or persuaded to return to old the covenant sacrifices, if not the whole law, as the core of religious life. A regressive move like that would have been a big mistake, and could have led to irrevocable condemnation. (6:4-8)

In an effort to convince his readers to resist moving backwards, the writer employs a series of arguments that presents Christ as superior to everything that had come before, including Moses, angels, and the priestly sacrifices. He describes Jesus as the heir of God’s household, in contrast to Moses whom he calls a servant in the house (3:1-6). He portrays Jesus as a heavenly high priest descended not from the tribe of Levi but aligned with the superior “order of Melchizedek” (6:20; 7:11 & 17). He says that the revelation of God brought by the Son surpasses all prior prophetic messages (1:1-2), transporting believers not to the foot of blazing Sinai but to heavenly Jerusalem adorned in festal array (12:18-24). And interspersed with this series of superlatives, the writer sprinkles in pointed statements that alternately warn against apostasy and encourage his readers to keep faith in spite of assaults against them.

The line of argument that employs the Greek words for “rest” (throughout the chapter) and “Sabbath rest” (in 4:9) begins in chapter three and constitutes one of the sections in which the author explicitly exhorts his readers to persevere. In this case, he cites the sorry example of the Israelites who had been miraculously delivered from Pharaoh but then failed to reach Canaan. Just as they had been expected to move confidently onward to the promised land, the writer of Hebrews urges his own readers to remain faithful to Jesus, not turning back to the trappings of law but moving forward in faith towards the kingdom.

With that analogy in mind, chapter four begins with a warning, “Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.”

It would be natural to assume that the promised rest referred to here was the future hope of sharing in kingdom life when Jesus would appear a second time “not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (9:28).” In that case, the word “remains” would carry the connotation, “still available in the offing.” That construal would not only parallel the Israelites’ movement from Egypt to Canaan but would resonate with the hope of the new testament as a whole, in that both groups of pilgrims could be understood as having been brought into God’s fold and then called to move forward towards their respective destinations. Other elements in the passage, however, suggest a more nuanced reading.

For one thing, verse three starts by saying, “we who have believed enter that rest.” And as the English translation indicates, the form of the Greek verb “enter” does not imply a future tense in which believers “will enter that rest” but suggests either that they enter rest now or are in the process of entering. Plus, the phrase “have believed” clearly suggests an accomplished action.

In other words, the original readers were in some sense already experiencing rest in the present, at least in part. Verse ten confirms this idea by saying that those who partake of God’s rest have also rested from their own works, a phrase that almost certainly refers to their acceptance of the atonement that Christ had already achieved (1:3; 9:24-26). In that case, the “works” they had laid down would surely include the old testament sacrifices, and possibly the expectation to live out the covenant of law as a whole.

Perhaps even more surprising than that, the end of verse three points to a past rest too, though the phrasing is tricky. First the author quotes Psalm 95, which says, “as I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest;” an unmistakable warning that those who fail to keep moving in the right direction will miss out on the rest that lay ahead. But then he adds an evocative comment referring not forward to the future but backward to the distant past, even to creation week itself: “although His works were finished from the foundation of the world.”

Finally, the Greek word translated “remain” throughout the chapter, like the related word remnant, conveys the idea of something left over. This facet of the term’s meaning would help explain the unexpected reference to God’s finished work in creation, because it implies that the rest into which the Israelites should have entered is the same rest that Adam and Eve had forfeited in the garden. It points to the original creation rest that God established in the beginning but which had gone unused. That means the promised land was a new installment of Eden. It also means the rest that has been available since the time of Christ is a slice of creation rest too, a reinstatement of the untainted wholeness “left over” from the beginning.

Putting all these hints and allusions together, the author of Hebrews seems to be saying that from the seventh day of creation on, God’s work has been finished. And from the time of Abraham on, the homeland that God had prepared for His people had been finished too. Each of these provisions constituted a kind of rest that was in place the whole time, like a gift prepared for a friend who never arrived to pick it up. The completed rest of God – like that still-wrapped gift – has “remained” there on the shelf, so to speak, ready and waiting for people to come and claim it. Moreover, from a first-century perspective, Jesus had just added another rest, His completed, once-for-all atonement. So, spiritual rest had been provided too, though his readers were on the verge of wasting that gift as well.

In other words, God’s eternal rest has been available all along, “finished from the foundation of the world.” The problem is, His people typically fail to enter in and experience it. And that chronic tendency may help explain another difficult bit of grammar in this same verse.

Most English versions render Hebrews 4:3 & 5 in such a way as to make logical sense: “as I swore in my wrath, they shall never enter my rest.” The Greek construction, however, is not so straightforward as that. The original wording actually says something closer to the way the King James Version renders it: “As I swore in my wrath, if they would enter into my rest.”

This more literal but less transparent translation suggests that God’s lament may not be an outburst of anger so much as a sigh of frustration, as if God is looking down at his harried creatures and saying: “What’s wrong with these people? They’re always worried and bothered, and anxiously striving to save themselves, when my provision for them has been in place all along, ready and waiting.” From that angle, it is not hard to imagine God throwing up his hands and exclaiming, “If they would only enter my rest!”

To sum up, the mind-blowing, mystical lesson encrypted in the fourth chapter of Hebrews is this: in some sense, everything is already done, complete, and finished; and has been from the beginning.

To sum up, the mind-blowing, mystical lesson encrypted in the fourth chapter of Hebrews is this: in some sense, everything is already done, complete, and finished; and has been from the beginning. The chapter thus imparts a vision of how to live fruitfully in the present, not in quietism or passive inaction but in the peace and power of the Spirit. It intimates a life of faith that unfolds organically, in which individuals embrace rest as their starting point and perform their work in a mindset of rest, while progressing towards ultimate rest in the kingdom. And should all that be too much to accept, then, at minimum the chapter invites believers to know relational peace with God now, confident that His work of reconciliation is indeed finished and that they too “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (10:10).”


 

Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Hartsdale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Westchester County, New York. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

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