Hebrews 4: What is the “Rest” Mentioned?
Theology and Politics from a Conservative, Biblical Perspective
Hebrews 4 is an interesting passage. There are no less than 5 interpretations of the “rest” mentioned here in this chapter. Dr. Thomas Constable, in his “notes” on Hebrews, summarizes these interpretations concisely (see image).
As can be seen, commentators argue and believe that the “rest” discussed in Hebrews 4 specifically refers to either a) heaven itself b) present rest in this life in Christ c) future inheritance d) some specific blessing in the future, or e) peace in life now as a Christian.
Every serious student of Scripture falls in behind one of these particular interpretations. Let me say at the outset that I am not intending to debate anyone by putting forth my particular viewpoint. I’m simply sharing what I believe to be true. Each person is responsible for their own understanding of Scripture and must make every effort to seek God’s meaning, not what we might think it means based on what we are comfortable with in our understanding.
I think it is relatively easy to discount the first interpretation. Some believe that if Christians are not careful in this life to remain faithful to God, we will lose the prospect of entering heaven. This, in my opinion, is not taught anywhere in Scripture. That said, I am very aware of how some arrive to this conclusion and it has to do with their belief that salvation itself can be lost. Those who have adopted this interpretation then come to a passage like this and use the same template they’ve adopted regarding their belief that salvation can be lost and assume that the writer of Hebrews is essentially teaching that here as well.
I would disagree. I believe that salvation, once granted by God, is eternal. It could not really be said to be eternal if there was a chance that salvation could be rejected once received.
The writer of Hebrews is urging his readers to be sure to enter into God’s “rest.” This would make no sense if he referred to salvation since salvation is totally and completely God’s work on our behalf. Once we receive salvation, we have “entered” into salvation that will never be removed.
So, does this mean then that Christians cannot apostatize? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Having salvation does not negate the possibility of actually rejecting truth, thereby rebelling against God and His will. Consider it for a moment. If you, as a Christian, give into temptation to lie, cheat, steal, judge, or hate, you have effectively broken fellowship with God at that point. That situation remains until you confess your sin to God. If you choose not to confess by digging in your heels, you will continue to be out of fellowship with God.
Does being out of fellowship with God mean that you have lost your salvation? Not at all. In fact, in his letter to the Corinthians, recall when Paul warned the believers there that some had already fallen “asleep” because of their lifestyles (1 Corinthians 11:30). The believers at Corinth had become lazy, churlish, and selfish regarding things like the Lord’s Supper. They were not taking their calling to live lives that glorified God seriously. Because of that, some had grown ill and others had even died (fallen asleep). We know that Paul used the term “asleep” when referring to death of Christians, never the lost.
The BEMA Judgment Seat of Christ will bring all of this out into the open (2 Corinthians 5:10). As Constable notes, God in Christ will use the tool of His Word to show our lives (thoughts, words, and deeds), and the true motivation behind them. Nowhere is it taught that at the BEMA Seat, our salvation is in danger. What is in danger are the rewards we may be eligible to receive. If we spend the latter portion of our lives not concerned about doing God’s work (believing Him; having faith in Him and following His will), then the writer of Hebrews concludes in chapter 4 that we will not fully enter into God’s “rest” that is available to all believers.
Constable also points out that the answer to the question of when we will experience this rest is fairly obvious. The writer of Hebrews is looking way down the road to a point in time after this life is over.
While we live in the here and now, Christians are to be working, just as Jesus worked to fulfill the work given to Him by the Father. While we are living in this life, we are commissioned to be working. Where there is work, there is no prolonged rest. This does not mean that we can not enjoy times of relaxation, vacation, or ease. However, these things will not (should not) characterize our lives while we are alive on earth.
The reason for this? Because God continues to work to bring people to Him for salvation and He has specifically chosen His children who are adopted into His family via salvation to carry that torch to others who are not yet saved. If we do not take this objective seriously, we are guilty of not believing God. If we are not believing God, we are not honoring Him. It is very important that we understand that God has us in this life to fulfill His purposes, not ours.
After this life is over, there will be plenty of time to “rest” because the work will be done. Once we die (or are raptured out of this life), God will surgically remove our sin nature. It will be at that point that the constant struggle (work) against sin and temptation will evaporate. Never again will Christians struggle with attempting to do what God wants us to do. It will simply be automatic from that point forward. In essence, the “work” of salvation (where the rubber meets the road, or as Paul says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; Philippians 2:12), that we labor under here in this life, will no longer exist in the next. Isn’t this good news?!
But what of those Christians who come to a point of ceasing to work for God; who join in with aspects of the world? You may be able to think of examples in your own life as I can of people I knew who appeared at some point to remove themselves from church and other Christians, and began hanging out with people of the world, ultimately adopting their ways and rejecting God’s ways.
If they were actually, truly Christians, they will suffer tremendous loss at the BEMA Seat and in eternity, they will not enter into the fullness of God’s rest. If they were not true believers and never become true believers, but were part of the church and did the things that Christians do, but then walk away, they will never appear before the BEMA Seat, but instead will face judgment at the Great White Throne Judgment, which in essence, judges their works (thoughts, words, deeds), apart from Jesus and on their own merit. They will come up woefully short and because of it, experience an eternity of separation from God. I do not believe the Bible teaches “annihilation” of lost souls. I believe the Bible is extremely clear that all who die out of this life into eternity without Christ, face eternal torment because our souls are eternal and will live forever.
Years ago, I tended to think that this Hebrews 4 passage spoke of the “faith rest” life that is available to all Christians for the taking. This meant that our souls and minds have the chance to be at full peace in this life as we remain in the perfection of His will. This requires faith and strength on our part to maintain that outlook.
For instance, if something goes “wrong” in our life, instead of becoming anxious about it, we should strive to give it to the Lord and wait patiently for His outcome. Certainly, this should be the outlook anyway as is taught in Scripture, but it appears that this is not what the writer of Hebrews is actually talking about because of the examples he uses of the ancient Israelites who did not enter into God’s rest because of their faithlessness.
In the Old Testament, it is always interesting to note that even though one generation of Israelites might have gained physical peace in the Land (i.e. under Joshua), but it wasn’t long before the next generation failed to keep physical peace in the Land because of their rebellious nature and refusal to believe God.
The writer of Hebrews seems to point to the future noting that there is a rest that is coming for the true child of God and it will occur after this life of faithfulness is over.
Ancient Israel finally went in and began taking control of the Land under Joshua. Eventually, there was rest and their work was “done.” However, it was never for long because in this life, resting is never an ongoing proposition. We are to be about God’s work in this life. There will be plenty of time to fully rest in the next life.
Throughout portions of the Old Testament and certainly here in Hebrews, writers pointed to a coming day when Israel would experience true peace and rest from her labors. This would be finally fulfilled under the rule of King Jesus during the coming Millennial Kingdom. Christians who were faithful in this life will also partner with Christ during this time. But the large picture is that Israel will finally experience the rest and peace that God promised they would receive. When will this occur? After the coming Tribulation and during the Millennial Kingdom rule of Jesus.
In reality, it appears that we authentic Christians must persevere in continuing to do God’s work on this earth while we are alive. We do not persevere to maintain our salvation. We persevere to continue fulfilling God’s will for our lives in the here and now. True “rest” follows that lifetime in eternity.
This is the most difficult aspect of being a Christian. Continuing and persevering in God’s work even though we get tired, feel out of sorts, want to quit and essentially, want to give up. Imagine what Paul and many Christians in the first century went through under the likes of Nero and other godless rulers. At one point, Paul said nearly everyone had deserted him (2 Timothy 4). He must have been at a low point, yet persevered.
Imagine being a missionary for most of your adult life and not seeing the real fruits of your labor yet you continue on because you believe God called you to minister and witness to the people you live and work among. Imagine if that missionary gave up based on what they could not see?
We’re all tempted to be discouraged and to throw in the towel. We seem to fight ourselves and our desires to continue serving God or doing what we really want to do. I’ve been there. You’ve probably been there too. This is why the NT writers emphasized persevering so much. It’s not that we can lose salvation. It’s that we have to work against our sin nature, which tries desperately to continue to control us. We must persevere in ignoring the dictates of that sin nature. It is not easy continuing to live the Christian life. It is made more difficult because we are constantly fighting against our sin nature’s desire to stop serving God.
However, God has promised that one day, after this life is over, we will have true rest for our souls. Yes, we have actual peace with God now if we are in Christ, but often the “rest” we seek is so elusive and fleeting. It is so because we are still in this life with sin natures in tact.
The writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to “…strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience,” (Hebrews 4:11 ESV).
This is accomplished after we finish faithful service in this life. We will then enter into the “rest” that God has preordained for us.
Theology and Politics from a Conservative, Biblical Perspective
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