Hebrews 4

Overview

  • The author says:
  • Now that you know there is a rest, a Promised Land, still out there, don’t stop short of getting there.
  • We, just like out ancestors of the exodus, have heard the good news that God is delivering us.
  • But they didn’t get any value from hearing that message because they didn’t combine faith and obedience (follow-through).
  • Yet, we have! And we get to enter God’s rest!
  • Remember the scripture where God said, “I swear I won’t let them get to the end of the journey and enter the Promise Land. No restful reward for you!’”
  • But also remember that God has rested (i.e. reigned as king), and has had a restful reward (i.e. a kingdom of his own) available to his people since the last act of creation.
  • In the beginning of the Bible, it says that, “On the seventh day, God rested from all his work.”
  • Yet in the passage above it says, “No restful reward for you!”
  • It turns out God’s rest, his full reign, has been available since the beginning of time and the people back then were unable to get into it because they just couldn’t keep trusting in God.
  • So God picked a day when people could enter his reign, and he called that day “today.”
  • God established that “day” 500 years after the exodus, when King David wrote that poem that said, “If you can hear God’s voice today, don’t ignore it.”
  • Think about it: If Joshua, who lead the Israelites into the Promise Land, had managed to bring the people fully into God’s rest (i.e. under his reign), then why would God still have to establish a “day” when people can enter it?
  • Well, all this means that God’s perpetual-seventh-day-reign-like rest is still available for his people to enter.
  • And anyone who enters God’s rest can quit working to try and be saved. They can chill under God’s care alongside God.
  • So let’s try really hard to join God in his reign, and make sure that none of us miss out because we stop trusting and following God like our ancestors did.
  • God’s promises to his people (to make them his own and bring them into his reign) are still alive and active.
  • His promises are sharp, like a duel-edge knife that can be used to cut even the smallest, most integrated bits of you in two. He can see through your deepest thoughts and attitudes right into your heart.
  • Nothing can be hidden from God, not one thing in all creation. Like a sacrificial animal cut open, we are all laid bare, vulnerable to be inspected by God, the one who will judge if we have a blemish on our hearts.
  • But we have a high priest, a person who makes atonement for us, who didn’t just pass through the curtain of the temple into the Holy of Holies, but actually passed through the curtain of heaven to the real throne of God–and his name is Jesus, the Son of God, the one in whom we have faith.
  • Our high priest, Jesus, can totally empathize with us and our weaknesses because he, too, was tempted in every way, but yet he managed not to go astray.
  • That should give us the confidence to enter into God’s presence any time we want to receive mercy and grace in our time of need.

Historical Context

Sabbath Rest

The term “Sabbath” (Hebrew Shabbath) means “day of rest”. It derives from the Hebrew verb shavath defined as “repose, or to desist from exertion” (often “cease”). Another noun form of this root, shebeth (“cessation”), is identical to the common word “to sit.”4

Sabbath was the seventh day in the Jewish calendar, and it was differentiated and set apart (sanctified) from the other six days based on the seven day creation account in Genesis 1. The seventh day is assigned a special significance (blessing) by God, based on the fact that it was the day on which God rested. All subsequent commands to keep the Sabbath assume that this sanctity of the seventh day has already been established (here, at creation) by God. Thus, the Israelites are not commanded to sanctify the Sabbath, but to conduct themselves in such a way as not to profane it (Exodus 31:14; Isaiah 56:2).3

The Torah portrays the Sabbath concept both in terms of resting on the seventh day and allowing land to lie fallow during each seventh year. The motivation is described as going beyond a sign and remembrance of Yahweh’s original rest during the creation week and extends to a concern that one’s servants, family, and livestock be able to rest and be refreshed from their work.4

The Torah describes disobedience to the command to keep the Sabbath day holy as punishable by death and failing to observe Sabbath years would be made up for during the captivity that would result from breaking covenant.4

The Old Testament describes the Sabbath as having three purposes: 1) To commemorate God’s creation of the universe, on the seventh day of which God rested from (or ceased) his work; 2) To commemorate the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt; and 3) As a “taste” the Messianic Age.4

The Day of Atonement was regarded as a “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” It was on this day alone that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved. The presence of YHWH in Holy of Holies required that the High Priest be first purified by the sacrifice of a bull in a prescribed manner. Entering the Most Holy Place on other days or without fulfilling the ritual requirements would subject the priest to death.4

The rabbis often asserted that God’s Sabbath (i.e., “the Day of Rest”) never ceased because the regular formula of Genesis 1, “there was evening and there was morning, day. . .,” is never mentioned in connection with this seventh day of creation in Gen. 2:2,3.1

In Matthew 11:25-30 Jesus offered all “rest” in him, an obvious “Sabbath” illusion, with the added claim that he is the source of the rest. These verses immediately precede the “Sabbath controversy” of chapter 12. In chapter 12 Jesus boldly identified himself with God, and indeed, as God, by claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, and greater than the temple. He claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath, thus having the authority not only to interpret the Sabbath Law, but even to set it aside altogether. Jesus set himself up as the true rest, the true Sabbath, the true peace of God.3

Observations

  • The theological issue involves the faith (salvation) or lack of faith of the Israelite adults (20 years and up) who participated in the exodus. Did their lack of faith in the spies’ report mean that (1) they were not allowed to enter Canaan or (2) they were not allowed to enter heaven?1
  • Psalm 95:7-11 has been quoted several times in the context of chapters 3 and 4. Each time a different part of the OT passage is emphasized (like a sermon). 1) 3:7-11 emphasizes “do not harden your hearts” of Ps. 95:8; 2) 3:15 emphasizes “when they provoked Me” of Ps. 95:9; 3)  4:3,5 emphasizes “they shall not enter My rest” of Ps. 95:11; 4)  4:7 emphasizes “today” of Ps. 95:7.1
  • Israel who, though entering Canaan, did not in fact enter fully into God’s rest, in the higher and better sense of becoming a holy nation of righteous and devoted worshipers of God, as God had commanded them (Exodus 19:3-6). Instead they continued to rebel against God time and again; they rejected the theocracy, demanded a king like the nations around them, worshiped idols, oppressed the poor, and even sacrificed their children to Molech. Thus, while entering a type of God’s rest, they failed to attain any reality of it.2
  • The author wants to assure his readers that the Jews failure to enter God’s rest was not due to the fact that the rest had not been prepared, because it existed since the day that God finished his work of creation. This is proved by the words, “And God rested” in one place, and the words “my rest” in another. God’s rest is therefore a fact, and it is clearly his purpose that some shall enter into it.2
  • The argument is that a rest remains because it was not entered by the Jews. Therefore, it was not entering Canaan nor keeping the sabbath day, for they did that. Thus, the true rest referred to here can be neither of those things but must be understood as a reference back to the rest of God himself which is still in progress, a rest the Jews could have entered but did not, and likewise a rest that many now have the right to enter but may come short of it.2
  • The original audience may have conclude that they had missed entering into their rest (i.e., their spiritual inheritance) because the Lord had not yet returned. They expected Jesus to return soon after he ascended into heaven (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 2:1-12). The writer urged his readers to wait patiently for the Lord to return (10: 36-37). None of the original readers had failed to enter their rest (inheritance) because they had missed the Lord’s return.5
  • The author implies to his audience that there is a rest from the burden of the law of Moses available to them. In Christ they now able to be kept in perfect peace, an ease that was not available to their ancestors.7
  • Some theologians think that the “word of God” used in Hebrews is based on the Egyptian usage of “word” (logos) meaning “reckoning” or “calling into account.” They assert this fits the original author’s overall argument, that there will be a divine reckoning through examination, using the metaphor of a surgeon (p. 227). Therefore, this text is not a description of the revealed word of God, but the discerning judgment of God.1
  • The word “sword” used by the author (Greek, machairan) was originally a small one like a boning knife that was used to cut up meat. In its double-edged form it was a symbol of judges and magistrates in the Roman world. It illustrated the power of those officials to turn both ways to get to the bottom of a case. However it is possible that by the time Hebrews was written machaira (sword) had come to mean a sword of any size, long or short.5
  • The author implies that the word of God can express and distinguish what is “soulish” (natural) and what is spiritual in our motivation and actions. It can do so even when those elements are as close to each other as our joints and marrow. It is even able to expose our thoughts and attitudes (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5). God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being. We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God.5
  • Many Christians think this verse shows that God will judge unbelievers with his piercing word, but in the context it refers to God judging believers to determine their rewards.5
  • In Hebrew thought the “heart” represents the entire person and their inner motivation.1
  • “Everything is uncovered” in the text is a metaphor that literally means “to expose the neck by lifting the chin.” This OT metaphor was a warning to judges; here it refers to meeting God face-to-face on judgment day, who has full knowledge of our motives.1
  • The author, in telling the readers they will be cut by the word of God, may have been making an allusion to to the state in which the sacrifices called burnt offerings were laid on the altar. The animals were stripped of their skins, their breasts were ripped open, their bowels were taken out, and their backbone was cleft. Then they were divided into quarters; so that outwardly and inwardly they were fully exposed to the eye of the priest, in order to a thorough examination (Leviticus 1:5,6); and, being found without blemish, they were laid in their natural order upon the altar and burnt.2
  • The “word of God” is most plainly “what God speaks.” The idea here is, that what “God had said” is suited to detect hypocrisy and to lay open the true nature of the feelings of the soul, so that there can be no escape for the guilty.6
  • Isaiah 49 uses the sharp sword analogy as well. Here Isaiah uses it to describe himself as the tool/weapon God will use to reconcile Israel (his people) back to himself. In Hebrews, the author argues that Jesus is the ideal representative of God (greater than the greatest prophet, Moses), whose words can reconcile all his people.
  • To separate the soul from spirit implies the taking of a life. The idea here is that the word of God is like a sharp sword that inflicts deadly wounds. The sinner “dies” as if an actual sword had pierced his heart.6
  • Jesus’ “ascending into heaven,” or literally passing “through the heavens” contrasts with the first High Priest, Aaron’s merely passing beyond certain enclosures in the tabernacle.2
  • “Let us approach God’s throne” is a phrase that emphasizes the subject’s continual involvement with this activity (such as, “let us continually be approaching”). This is a technical term in the Septuagint (LXX) for a priest approaching God. In Hebrews this term is used of fallen mankind’s ability to approach God as if they too were priests because of Jesus’ sacrifice (cf. 4:16; 7:25; 10:1,22; 11:6). Jesus has truly made his followers a “kingdom of priests” (cf. Exod. 19:5,6; I Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6).1
  • The high priests of Judaism could only approach God at his earthly throne (the ark of the covenant), in the holy of holies in the temple, once a year. God’s throne of judgment has now become a throne of grace (undeserved help) for us to approach at any time.5

Discussion

  • Do you think Jesus could have sinned? Why or why not?
  • How does the word of God divide the soul and spirit? What does that mean to you? Why would the author say “soul” and “spirit”? What are the differences? Why would they need to be divided? How have you experienced this in your own life?
  • What does the author mean that the word of God is alive and active? What word is he talking about? What implications does that have? How should that effect the way we live?
  • What “rest” do you think is promised to you? What does it look like? Feel like? When is it reached?
  • We often try to please God by trying to do the right thing, or feel guilty that we are not living up to his standards when we inevitably fail. How does the concept of “rest” play into this thinking? How does it make you think differently about your relationship with God and what he expects of you?
  • The author says we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence… in our time of need.” Do you feel you can do this freely? What hesitations do you have? How does Jesus give us confidence?

References

  1. Utley’s commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  4. Biblical Sabbath
  5. Constables’ commentary
  6. Barnes’ commentary
  7. Gill’s commentary
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Creation narrative – Infographic

While we’re on a break from studying Mark to read through the Old Testament as a church (#OT40), I thought I’d produce a few infographics based on what we’re reading. Below is a look at the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3.

Genesis_creation_infographic