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What Is Sabbath Rest? (Hebrews 4)

What Is Sabbath Rest? (Hebrews 4)

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What is Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4? What does the bible say about rest in the finished work of the cross? Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way for answers.

Work and Rest God's Way: A Biblical Recipe for Finding Joy and Purpose in All You Do Front cover
Work and Rest Gods Way Family Guide author Scott LaPierre

The text in this post is from my book, Work and Rest God’s Way, and the audio is from the audiobook. I am praying God uses the book and accompanying Family Guide to exalt Christ and encourage you as you serve Him.

Entering the Sabbath Rest

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 4:8–10).

A right is a freedom given to people and protected by a government’s laws. For example, American citizens have the right to express themselves, worship as they wish, and vote in elections for public officials.

A privilege is an opportunity or advantage given to people who meet certain conditions. For example, driving is a privilege for people who have reached an age, passed a test, and agreed to obey the rules of the road.

The author of Hebrews wrote to his readers about a privilege they could be given, and that’s entering “a Sabbath rest.” The condition they had to meet is contained in the words “for the people of God.” If the readers became God’s people, they could experience His rest.

Since Gentiles were coming into the church, the Hebrew readers felt as though they were losing their status. The author of Hebrews explains that the only way they could remain the “people of God” was not by descending from Abraham, but by believing:

  • Unbelieving Jews would lose their privileged status even if they were in the Promised Land and even if they observed the Sabbath.
  • Believing Gentiles became the people of God even if they weren’t in the Promised Land and even if they didn’t observe the Sabbath.

The words, “there remains” reveal the rest is available now, as opposed to only being available in the future when we get to heaven. The Greek word for “rest” in the previous verses is katapausis, but the word for “Sabbath rest” in Hebrews 4:9 is sabbatismos, and this is the only place it occurs in Scripture. The words “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” are similar to Hebrews 4:1 “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest,” but whereas the Promised Land was in view earlier, now the Sabbath is in view. Just as the Promised Land prefigured God’s rest, so too does the Sabbath.

The point the author of Hebrews is making is spiritual rather than physical; he is not primarily referring to physically resting from work. Instead, he is referring to spiritually resting from working for salvation. The Sabbath rest also looks back to creation when “[God] rested from His works.” He rested on the seventh day because His work was finished, and we can rest because the work for our salvation is finished. Just as God didn’t resume working again on the eighth day, we don’t resume working for our salvation on a later day. We enter God’s rest by trusting what Jesus has already and fully accomplished on our behalf.

Notice it doesn’t say those who have entered will cease from their works. It says they “[have already] ceased from [their] works as God did from His.” We don’t enter the rest and then cease working for salvation. We have entered the rest because we have ceased working for salvation.

What Does the Bible Say About Rest in the Finished Work of the Cross?

The priests might have been the hardest workers in the Old Testament. Jesus said, “On the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless” (Matthew 12:5). They didn’t even get to rest on the Sabbath! The tabernacle and temple had many furnishings, but none for resting because the priests’ work was never done:

Every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:11–12).

Priests had to continually offer sacrifices because none of them could “take away sins.” This meant they did not experience permanent rest. In contrast, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). As our High Priest, He “sat down” because His work was done. Jesus rested, and He offers that rest to us:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

Jesus offers rest to “all who labor and are heavy laden,” which is how anyone must feel trying to keep the Mosaic Law to be saved. Peter said it is “a yoke on the neck [that] neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10) and Paul said it is a “yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). But Jesus said His yoke is “easy,” and His “burden is light.”

We can rest in the salvation Jesus provides. We don’t have to wonder if we’ve done enough because it’s not about what we do. It’s about what Jesus has done. It’s not based on our work, but on Christ’s work on our behalf. It’s not about our unrighteousness. It’s about Jesus’ righteousness imputed to our account. I rest because Jesus, my Advocate, sat down at the right hand of His Father in glory.

Work Hard to Rest?

Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience (Hebrews 4:11).

By repeating the word “today” five times in the previous verses, the focus was on the urgency of entering (in Hebrews 3:7, 3:13, 3:15, and twice in 4:7). Now the words “let us therefore be diligent” focus on the effort needed to enter. The word “us” shows the author included himself. He knew he needed to do everything he told his readers to do! Everyone—even the authors of Scripture—must be diligent to enter God’s rest! This brings us full circle. We’ve spoken of the importance of diligence regarding the physical, and now we see the importance of diligence regarding the spiritual.

There is a paradox. We enter by believing, but belief doesn’t require effort. It seems inconsistent to say we must work hard (be diligent) while also saying we must rest. How can this be resolved? John 6:28–29 records:

They said to [Jesus], “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

When we think of work, we don’t think of believing. We think of doing something. Jesus used the word “work” ironically. The people were convinced they should work to earn God’s favor. Jesus said they must abandon confidence in their efforts and trust wholly in Him and the work He would do. Their “work” is to believe that their work will never save them; only Christ’s finished work can do so. That is what true saving faith is, not a thing we do that prompts God to be gracious to us. Faith is the God-given gift, the instrument by which we lay hold of Christ and all his merits.

The Greek word for work is ergon, and it means, “to undertake or become occupied with an enterprise.” As Christians, our enterprise is believing and being occupied with Jesus. It is our belief that pleases God. As the author of Hebrews later says, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is” (Hebrews 11:6). Believing is the work God wants, and when we believe, we can spiritually rest, because we need no longer work.

The Promised Land and the Sabbath foreshadowed our spiritual rest in Christ. To appreciate this beautiful truth, we must understand one of the purposes of the Old Testament.

Are You in the Wilderness, or Have you Entered the Sabbath Rest?

The Old Testament typology found in Joshua, Egypt, and Moses is crucial to understand. Then we can examine ourselves and see where we are in our spiritual journeys.

Joshua Is a Type of Jesus

In Hebrews 4:8, the author said, “For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.” Joshua and Jesus have the same name, but Jesus is Greek, and Joshua is Hebrew. They both mean, “Jehovah is salvation”:

  • Joshua led God’s people in the Old Testament into the physical rest (Promised Land).
  • Jesus leads God’s people in the New Testament into the spiritual rest.

Jesus is better than Joshua because He leads people into the better rest.

Egypt Is a Type of the World

Joseph invited his brothers and their families into Egypt; seventy people total (Exodus 1:5). They “were fruitful and increased abundantly…and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). Exodus 12:37 says Moses delivered six hundred thousand men from Egypt, which means there were probably around two-to-three million people total. Egypt served as a womb for Israel to grow from seventy people to millions of people. Israel’s journey parallels ours:

  • Israel was born in Egypt like we’re born into the world.
  • Israel was delivered from Egypt like we’re delivered from the world.
  • Israel struggled with wanting to return to Egypt (Exodus 14:11-12, 16:3, 17:3, Numbers 14:3, 20:5), like we struggle with wanting to return to the world.
  • Israel turned to Egypt for help instead of turning to God (2 Kings 18:21, Isaiah 36:6, Ezekiel 17:15) as we turn to the world for help instead of turning to God.
  • God brought Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, like He brings us out of the world into His rest.

Moses Is a Type of the Law

The Law was given to Moses, which is why it’s known as “The Law of Moses” and “The Mosaic Law.” Moses delivered Israel from Egypt the way the Law delivers us from the world: “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The Law convicts us of sin, we repent and turn from the world to Jesus.

Consider how this illustrates Galatians 3:23­–25:

  • As Israel was under Moses we were under the law: “We were kept under guard by the law” (Galatians 3:23).
  • As Israel was then under Joshua, we were then under Christ: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).
  • As Israel was no longer under Moses when they were under Joshua, we are no longer under the law when we are under Jesus: “But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:25).

Delivered from Egypt, but Dying in the Wilderness

Israel made it out of Egypt because they were redeemed at Passover. God wanted them to enter the Promised Land versus spend their lives wandering in the wilderness. Two groups developed. The first group entered under Joshua and experienced rest. The second group remained under Moses, and didn’t experience rest.

Tragically, the Hebrew readers were in danger of spiritually being part of the second group:

  • Many of the Israelites only made it partway in their journeys out of Egypt, and the author of Hebrews wrote to readers who only made it partway in their journeys out of the world.
  • The Israelites died in the wilderness under Moses, and the Hebrew readers were in danger of dying in the spiritual wilderness under the Law (Moses).
  • The Israelites didn’t make it into the Promised Land under Joshua, and the Hebrew readers were in danger of not making it into the spiritual Promised Land, or rest, under Jesus (Joshua).

Although, the danger isn’t only for the Hebrew readers in the first century. As believers, we find ourselves in one of the above groups. As Israel was delivered from Egypt by Passover, we’re delivered from the world by “Christ, our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7). After God delivers us from the world, our Egypt, He doesn’t want us spending our lives wandering in the wilderness. He wants us to enter the Promised Land and experience rest.

Just as Moses could only take Israel so far, the Law can only take us so far. Just as Israel couldn’t enter under Moses, we can’t enter under the Law. Why? Because there’s no rest under the Law. Israel had to be under Joshua like we must be under Jesus. Just as Israel turned back and forfeited the Promised Land, if we turn back from Jesus, we forfeit the spiritual rest He offers.

Following the True and Greater Moses and Joshua Into the Sabbath Rest

Hebrews 3:3 says Jesus “has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses,” and Hebrews 4:8 says, “Joshua [has not] given them rest.” Jesus is greater than Moses and Joshua. If Israel was expected to follow Moses and Joshua, how much more are we expected to follow Jesus?

If we don’t follow Jesus, we’re wandering like Israel. Their wilderness was physical and ours is spiritual, but we can perish in ours as much as they perished in theirs. The solution is to press on “since therefore it remains that some must enter it” (Hebrews 4:6). God didn’t create the spiritual rest to sit empty. He wants it occupied for our blessing and His worship: “That we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:12, 14). As we’ll discuss in the next chapter, resting God’s way means trusting Jesus’ finished work on the cross, and experiencing all the accompanying riches.

28 Responses

  1. How can Christ be a prophet like unto Moses if he created a different law…. the bible is full of prophets, each in turn calling the people back to covenant, back to obeying the laws of God… Christ, as a prophet of God (just one of his missions) called people back to covenant and to prepare for renewed covenant in His Blood…. He can not take away from the law or prophets and at the same time create a totally new set of laws…. he can only ratify the laws given, reaffirm them, and create the conditions for a new/renewed covenant… and in that day I will be their God and they will be my people…. a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… if we fail to understand this… we fail to understand what God is doing.

    1. Mr. Moore, Again, I thank you for contributing to this blog. You said many things, but let me start with with stating that I do understand your point that if Jesus commanded us to always wear red and eat twinkies, we would have to do it because he commanded it. That is, even if his command seems silly to us, we should obey it in faith. Not that it earns us a place in heaven but because it conforms to His holy will. I also agree that God is unchanging in a core set of moral dictums. It may seem obvious to you that the Sabbath commandment is required today, but it is equally obvious to me that it is not required of followers of Jesus Christ. You asked the question how keeping the Sabbath could be a work of the flesh and both Pastor Scott and I gave an answer. Both of us in turn asked you if you obey every commandment written in the OT, but you have not answered that question yet. The answer to this question is crucial in coming to an understanding why the author of Hebrews said, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second,” and “In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:7, 13). The line of questioning for you is this: Are there any commands or injunctions of the OT that you categorically do not obey or choose not to obey? That is, do you believe there are any OT commands that have been abrogated (i.e., fulfilled)? If so, how do you explain this in view of your statement that “whatever Moses wrote still applies?”

      1. Robert,
        Along these lines, I hope you will also respond to my thoughts. In particular Hebrews 7:12, which says, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” It seems that you hold there is only one law, which doesn’t seem to reconcile with this verse.

  2. Mr. Moore,
    I just found out about your insightful question. I like that you referenced the fact that God rested the seventh day and since he is a spirit-being his rest could not be a work of the flesh. I hope I understood that correctly. I would add that because he is omnipotent, his “rest” was not a necessity or a physico-spiritual recourse for having “labored” for six days. Also, because he is holy, his rest was not tainted by sin on his part. But we humans are of flesh—sinful flesh—so we are capable of making even obedience to the law a work of the flesh. Is it possible that avoiding works of the flesh can become its own work of the flesh? Now, before I can give you a thoughtful answer, I would like to know more about the theological context for your objection to what I wrote. What is your religious affiliation? How do you define “a work of the flesh”? Is the Sabbath the only day you aspire to give up the works of the flesh? Is keeping the Sabbath merely or literally “not doing anything”? What is required of you to keep the Sabbath? Do you keep every law in the OT that defines proper Sabbath keeping? Are there any laws of the OT that you believe are abrogated? If so, how do you determine which ones are abrogated?
    I realize I’m asking a lot of questions. If you prefer to communicate with me personally by email, I would be happy to engage in a dialogue with you. Let me know if this interests you.

    1. Terry,
      Thanks for responding to Mr. Moore and in such a gracious and educated way. I wanted to respond to a few things you said…

      I like that you referenced the fact that God rested the seventh day and since he is a spirit-being his rest could not be a work of the flesh. I hope I understood that correctly. I would add that because he is omnipotent, his “rest” was not a necessity or a physico-spiritual recourse for having “labored” for six days.

      Here’s an excerpt from my book, Work and Rest God’s Way, on this topic: “Genesis 2:2–3 says, ‘And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.’ God is omnipotent. He wasn’t tired. He didn’t need to rest. Instead, He was establishing a pattern for His people to follow.”

      Also, because he is holy, his rest was not tainted by sin on his part. But we humans are of flesh—sinful flesh—so we are capable of making even obedience to the law a work of the flesh.

      My mind went to the bronze serpent as an example of our potential to ruin even good things. The object that brought miraculous healing became an idol. The bronze serpent, which the people turned into an idol and called Nehushtan, is a reminder that we must be on guard against taking any of God’s blessings—such as marriage, children, homes, relationships, money, jobs, or even rest—and letting our relationships to them become sinful.

      Is it possible that avoiding works of the flesh can become its own work of the flesh?

      Doesn’t it seem like this was the case in Christ’s day? The religious leaders worked so hard to rest and added so much to the Sabbath that they worked harder than people not observing the Sabbath.

      I realize I’m asking a lot of questions. If you prefer to communicate with me personally by email, I would be happy to engage in a dialogue with you. Let me know if this interests you.

      Personally, I hope the conversation continues between the two of you on the post so others, like myself, can benefit from it.

  3. Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
    There’s still time to change the road you’re on 🙂

  4. That is very true my brother. Good to know that you have the same spirit of knowledge as I have. Amen.

  5. I could read your posts all night.
    Here’s a sentence from a forthcoming blog of my own.
    “As difficult as it might be for some to understand, literal Sabbath-keeping is a work of the flesh, but it symbolizes that salvation cannot be achieved by works.”

    1. Thanks Terry. Being such an expert on the Sabbath, your comment really blesses me.

      That sounds fantastic. Following your site now. Looking forward to the post. If you remember, please come back to this post and put a link to the post in the comments section when it’s published!

    2. How on Earth is sabbath a work of the flesh…. when it is a day of rest? For goodness sake, God rested on the seventh day and HE certainly is not flesh. To appreciate sabbath, one must give up the works of the flesh, and the more successful we are at that the more rewarding is the sabbath…. the closer we get to walking correctly the more comfortable does walking become…. keep the sabbath because you don’t have to do anything.

      1. Robert,
        I hope Terry responds, but I can see how keeping the Sabbath would be a work of the flesh if it is a work done for salvation. If we don’t see the Sabbath as a type and shadow of the rest we have in Christ, then we would be working for our salvation. This would include striving to keep the Sabbath.

        1. On the contrary, we should strive to keep the sabbath, not for salvation, but to continue to fulfill the commandments…. why should one of the 10 be written off? When Jesus says he has not come to abolish… he meant it!! The law/torah still applies – you just need to understand how it applies in light of Messiah. It is a pleasure to keep the Sabbath. The rest in Christ is yet to come – he kept sabbath and so must we. Oh how so many have dropped their bangles that had the inscription WWJD? why,,,,, because they want to do what Jesus did not do…. they want to eat pork and they want to keep any day as sabbath.

        2. Robert,
          Do you keep the other commands that are part of the Old Covenant? Your answer to this question will help me respond further.

          You pointed out that Jesus kept the Sabbath so we must as well. Jesus perfectly kept every command that was part of the Old Covenant, so does that mean we must keep all of them as well? Including those related to food, fabric, and gardening?

    3. I think that is ludicrous, keeping sabbath a work of the flesh…. that is the anti-thesis of the commandment…
      Don’t lust after your neighbours wife… what if I said that is a work of the flesh….
      In fact that is more flesh than the keeping of sabbath…

      Keeping the sabbath is more spiritual than most of the other ‘commandments’ given within the old testament….

      As far as I see, the church and christians are twisting the word to fit their own image of God (lineness)… they are creating a false idol…. please, feel free to worship god as you see fit… as for me and my house (Joshua 24:15)

      1. Robert,
        It is not ludicrous. You only need to read the Gospels to see that the religious leaders had so perverted the Sabbath in Jesus’s day that they had made the Sabbath a work of the flesh. People did have to work hard – in terms of keeping all of the unbiblical commands – to ensure they didn’t work.

    1. Hi Nadia,
      Good question!

      Yes, even if we don’t keep the Sabbath in terms of resting on the seventh day of the week, we make sure to take one day off per week for rest.

      Back in 2013, before we hired our associate pastor, I was under terrible stress/anxiety, including going months without a day off. I lost a lot of weight and it took a serious toll on me mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, on my marriage, family, you name it. Was probably the darkest season of my life, and easily the worst time in our marriage. Much of it had to do with the absence of rest.

      Even if believers are not under the Mosaic Law, there are principles in it that contain great wisdom for us. Discussing that further would make this comment very lengthy, but to simply answer your question: yes, we think it’s important to rest and God has revealed that in His Word.

        1. Scott uses the term Mosaic Law because that suits the narrative…. Moses is dead so is the law he gave… but Mosaic law is God’s law…. and God is not dead… and Jesus said the law will not pass away until heaven and earth do so…. and we are still in/on that same earth… whatever Moses wrote still applies – you must take any new writing or revelation in the light of that fact and reconcile any differences you may see.

        2. Robert,
          If you do not like term Mosaic law I am happy to say Old Covenant. Would that be better?

          Please let me know your thoughts on the following

          1 Corinthians 9:20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law (referring to the Old Covenant) I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.

          Paul said to win Jews to Christ, he would put himself back under the [Old Covenant] law, but he quickly pointed out that he wasn’t under the law, because he didn’t want anyone to think he felt bound to keep it.

          1 Corinthians 9:21 To those outside the law (referring to Gentiles) I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.

          When Paul tried to win Gentiles – those outside [the Old Covenant] law – he ensured he wasn’t under the Old Covenant law. But to prevent readers from thinking he had been without any law, he said he remained under the law of Christ.

          The point is that there’s a clear distinction between two laws:
          the Old Covenant law, which is associated with its mediator, Moses
          the law of Christ, which is associated with the New Covenant, and its mediator, Jesus

          When Jesus became our great high priest, this produced a change. Hebrews 7:12 when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. When Christ became our high priest, there was a change in the law: we moved from being under the Mosaic law to being under the law of Christ.

      1. Sabbath is not just about you not working, but about you not causing others (including your donkey) to work either. So basically you believe the 4th commandment has been abolished, regardless of what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17.

        1. Robert,
          I think this is a larger conversation about our relationship to the Mosaic law, versus the law of Christ. Would you read this post I wrote on the law of Christ and let me know your thoughts? You can respond here or on that post. As you will be able to tell, I do not believe Christians are still under the Old Covenant or Mosaic Law. That affects my view of the Sabbath. If you believe we are still under the Mosaic Law, and I’m sure that has affected your view of the Sabbath as well.

          Regarding Matthew 5:17 I take this to mean exactly what it says, that Jesus fulfilled the law for us versus getting rid of it. But this doesn’t mean that we are bound to keep ourselves. Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

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