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.
Table of contents
- Entering the Sabbath Rest
- Are You in the Wilderness, or Have you Entered the Sabbath Rest?
- Following the True and Greater Moses and Joshua Into the Sabbath Rest
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.