What is spiritual rest? Hebrews 3 (quoting Psalm 95) discusses a rest for the people of God in the spiritual promised land. Are you looking for a sermon on spiritual rest? Try reading or listening to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way for a better understanding!
Table of contents
- The Promised Land and Spiritual Rest
- Unbelief Is a Heart Issue
- Moving from the Physical Rest to the Spiritual Rest
- A Continual Rest
John Eliot was a Puritan missionary to the American Indians, pastor of the First Church in Roxbury, and founder of the Roxbury Latin School in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He fulfilled his pastoral duties, including preaching biweekly into his eighties, while ministering to the Indians. He took up court cases for their property rights, pleaded for clemency for them, fought against them being sold into slavery, sought to secure lands and streams for their use, and established schools for them. He labored to consolidate Indians so they could enjoy a Christian society, and at one point, there were fourteen towns of “Praying Indians.” Eliot learned their tongue so he could translate sermon transcripts, the Bible, and twenty other books into their language.1
Eliot was busier than most of us can imagine. He seemed as though he lived the lives of many men. Why do many of God’s most faithful servants work the hardest, and yet are rested and at peace? The answer is there’s a rest that’s not physical. The most important rest is spiritual, and they experience it. Conversely, why do some of the laziest people, who do the least, seem overwhelmed and filled with anxiety? They experience physical rest, but they lack spiritual rest.
The Promised Land and Spiritual Rest
The clearest passage explaining spiritual rest is Hebrews 3:7–4:11. Rest is the theme of the verses as the word occurs twelve times. The author of Hebrews also references the Old Testament extensively in these verses. Unfortunately, sometimes people read the Old Testament and think, “What does this have to do with me? How can I learn from people who lived so long ago and whose lives are so different from mine?” These are unfortunate questions because the New Testament states the Old Testament provides us with examples and instruction:
- “For whatever things were written [in the Old Testament] were written for our learning” (Romans 15:4).
- “Now all these things happened to [the Israelites] as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Often, the Old Testament provides a backdrop for New Testament instruction. One such example takes place as the author of Hebrews reveals that the Promised Land is a type and shadow of the spiritual rest God offers His people.
Rebellion with the Twelve Spies
We must be familiar with Israel’s rebellion on the border of the Promised Land. In Numbers 13 and 14, the twelve spies returned after spending forty days examining the land. They shared their report with the nation, that while the land was as wonderful as God said, it was also filled with enemies. Ten of the spies said Israel couldn’t defeat the enemies, but Joshua and Caleb said God would give them victory.
Tragically, the people believed the ten spies, so they didn’t believe God; therefore, God said the nation couldn’t enter. They would’ve received the land the next day, which means what was about to be a wonderful blessing for them, ended up being a moment of historic discipline. Israel was forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years—one year for each day the spies were in the land (Numbers 14:34). The generation of unbelief would die, but their children, whom they accused God of trying to murder, would enter the land (Numbers 14:3 cf. Numbers 14:31).
The author of Hebrews has this rebellion in view as he presents the Promised Land as a picture of spiritual rest. We will consider this passage piece by piece throughout this chapter.
Urgently Enter the Rest
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice” (Hebrews 3:7).
Psalm 95 records the rebellion as God saw it, and the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7–11 in Hebrews 3:7–11. Although Psalm 95 was written by David as a wonderful affirmation of the inspiration of Scripture, it is attributed to the Holy Spirit. David was the human author, but the Holy Spirit is the true and greater Author of all of God’s Word.
To convey urgency, this is the first of four times the author uses the word “Today” (also in Hebrews 3:13, 15, and 4:7). Don’t put off entering God’s rest! Live as though you might not have the same opportunity tomorrow. The Israelites serve as a warning to us. They were to enter the Promised Land, but they rebelled and were told they couldn’t enter (Numbers 14:1-4). They attempted to enter but were chased out by the Canaanites (Numbers 14:39-45).
Unbelief Is a Heart Issue
Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion (or at Meribah, which means, “tempting or testing”), in the day of trial (or at Massah, which means, “contention or quarreling”) in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways’ (Hebrews 3:8–10).
This is the first of three times the warning, “Do not harden your hearts” occurs (also in Hebrews 3:15 and 4:7). The author holds them responsible for their unbelief because belief and unbelief are not independent of people’s will. This is the first of four times the heart is mentioned because belief and unbelief are heart issues: “For with the heart one believes” (Romans 10:10; see Hebrews 3:10, 3:12, and 3:15). Hence, “They always go astray in their heart.”
“Tested” and “tried” describe Israel’s behavior in the wilderness, and it is always related to their unbelief.
- They didn’t believe God would deliver them from the Egyptian army: “When Pharaoh drew near, [Israel] said to Moses, ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?’” (Exodus 14:10–11).
- They didn’t believe God would provide water for them: “[Israel] complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24) and “[Israel] contended with Moses, ‘Give us water, that we may drink’” (Exodus 17:2).
- They didn’t believe God would provide food for them: “Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness [saying], ‘Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Exodus 16:2–3).
- They didn’t believe God appointed Moses as their leader: “[Israel] said, ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?’” (Numbers 12:2).
When God is “tested and [tried]” by our unbelief, there is a point that His longsuffering comes to an end. We don’t know when that will be, but Israel learned it was when they believed the ten spies instead of God.
Moving from the Physical Rest to the Spiritual Rest
So I swore in My wrath, “They shall not enter My rest” (Hebrews 3:11).
We would expect God to swear Israel could not enter the land, but He said they could not enter “My rest” (also in Hebrews 4:3). The Old Testament described the Promised Land as a place of rest: “Until the Lord has given rest to your brethren as to you, and they also possess the land which the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:20; see also Deuteronomy 12:9–10, Joshua 21:44, and 22:4).
This is the first time the author of Hebrews uses the word “rest,” looking beyond the physical rest in the Old Testament to the spiritual rest in the New Testament. Since the Promised Land prefigured a spiritual reality, it was always about more than a physical piece of land. John MacArthur said, “The application of this picture is to an individual’s spiritual rest in the Lord, which has precedent in the Old Testament.”2 We see the precedent in verses offering God’s people rest:
- “Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7).
- “To whom He said, ‘This is the rest with which You may cause the weary to rest,’ and, ‘This is the refreshing’; yet they would not hear” (Isaiah 28:12).
An Important Warning
Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12–13).
Israel “[departed] so far from [God]” they accused Him of murder: “Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims?” (Numbers 14:3; see also Exodus 14:11–12 and 16:3). The author wants to prevent his readers from doing the same; therefore, he says, “Beware,” which is a word of warning, followed by “lest there be in any of you,” to make it personal.
He exhorts each of us to “exhort one another.” The Greek word for “exhort” is parakaleo, related to our word “parallel,” because exhorting means coming alongside someone else.
The phrase “deceitfulness of sin,” reminds us sin lies. We need brothers and sisters in Christ who exhort us with the truth. Christians outside of fellowship open themselves up to many dangers, including deception.
The Need for Faith
Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it (Hebrews 4:1–2).
The word “Therefore,” causes us to consider what was written previously—in this case, Israel’s failure. The author transitions from talking about Israel to talking to his readers:
- Hebrews 3 contains the negative portion describing Israel’s failure to enter
- Hebrews 4 contains the positive portion encouraging us (the readers) to enter
Since Israel didn’t enter, “a promise remains of entering,” but we should “fear” because of Israel’s example. Knowing what happened to them is a warning to us. The words “come short” reveal how close they were; they came right up to the border of the Promised Land, but they were kept out.
Earlier God said Israel had “evil [hearts] of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:12). Typically, when we hear the word “evil,” we think of actions, such as murder or rape, but not unbelief. Why describe their hearts as evil? Hebrews 3:9 says they “saw [God’s] works forty years,” and now the author says, “the gospel was preached…to them.” They weren’t ignorant. Their accountability was high. Second only to the generation in Jesus’ day, is there another generation that had seen as much as the Israelites in the wilderness? They saw the plagues unleashed on Egypt and the Red Sea parting. They had every reason to believe, but they chose unbelief.
The words “to us as well,” reveal another reason we should fear. We’ve heard the gospel too! We’re not ignorant. Our accountability is high. We have every reason to believe, and failure to do so reveals that our hearts are evil.
The Gospel in the Old Testament
We tend to think the Gospel is a New Testament invention, as though the Apostle Paul came up with it for the church. But the author of Hebrews said, “the gospel was preached to [Israel in the wilderness].” People have always been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The New Testament explains the gospel by quoting the Old Testament:
- Genesis 15:6 says, “[Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness,” and this is quoted in Romans 4:3, 9, 22, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23.
- Habakkuk 2:4 says, “The just shall live by faith,” and this is quoted in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38.
God Preached the Gospel to Abraham
We can go back further than Israel in the wilderness for more biblical evidence. Galatians 3:8 says God “preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’” This might not sound like a clear gospel presentation because it doesn’t seem to mention Jesus, but He is the way “all the nations shall be blessed.” If people believed this prophecy that God would bless the nations of the earth through one of Abraham’s descendants, they were justified by faith. In the Old Testament, people looked forward in faith to Jesus coming, just as we look back in faith, believing He came.
God Preached the Gospel to Adam and Eve
We can go further back than Abraham to the moment sin entered the world. In Genesis 3:15, God told the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” The words “Seed,” “He,” and “His” are capitalized because they refer to Jesus. Genesis 3:15 is known as the protoevangelium or “first gospel” by many scholars as far back as the earliest church fathers, such as Justin Martyr in 160 AD and Irenaeus in 180 AD.3
If people believed God would provide a Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the serpent, then they were justified by faith. When sin was introduced into the world, the gospel was introduced as a way for man to be delivered from the consequence of sin, which is eternal punishment in hell.
Combining the Gospel with Faith
The reason the gospel profited Adam, Eve, and Abraham is they believed, but it “did not profit [Israel because it was not] mixed (or combined) with faith.” We’re saved by grace through faith. Without grace, there’s no faith. It’s not just head knowledge of the gospel that profits. It’s believing the gospel that profits.
Imagine people who know the Bible inside and out. It means nothing if they don’t have faith. Jesus told the religious leaders:
You do not have [the Father’s] word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life (John 5:38–40).
They didn’t just read the Scriptures, they even “searched” it, but it profited them nothing because they didn’t believe. On the other hand, the Thessalonians heard and believed:
For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Paul was blessed by the Thessalonians because they combined the gospel with faith. Now the author of Hebrews describes others who believe.
A Continual Rest
For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works” (Hebrews 4:3–4).
The corollary is: those who didn’t believe couldn’t enter, so those who do believe have entered. The failure of those unable to enter can’t be attributed to the rest being incomplete or unavailable, because it’s been “finished from the foundation of the world.” God’s rest existed well before Israel approached Canaan in 1400 BC. The words “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works,” are from Genesis 2:2. This quote reveals the rest was established “from the foundation of the world,” when He Himself rested. The rest was available then because even in Adam and Eve’s day, it was possible to do the one thing necessary to enter the rest: believe.
Genesis 2:2 was written by Moses, but it’s attributed to God (“For He has spoken”), giving more authority. This isn’t what Moses says. This is what God has to say.4
After each day of creation, Scripture says, “So the evening and the morning were the first/second/third/fourth/fifth/sixth day. (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31). Then regarding the seventh day, Genesis 2:2–3 records:
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.
Although the evening is mentioned after the first six days, there’s no mention of the evening after the seventh day because God’s rest didn’t come to an end. He didn’t resume working the eighth day. He began a rest that continued indefinitely. Hebrews 4:1 says, it is “His rest,” because it is associated with the rest He Himself entered; it is patterned after the rest He took. Three times God calls the rest “My rest,” because it belongs to Him, can only be found in Him, and is given by Him (Hebrews 3:11, 4:3, and 4:5).
God rested and now offers that rest to us. Our rest can go on as continually for us as it went on for God. We can press into His rest and experience it every day, because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29) and “His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136; see also Psalm 118:1–4, 29, and 2 Chronicles 20:21).
A Spiritual Rest That Is Still Available
And again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:5–7).
Hebrews 4:5 quotes Psalm 95:11, which was also quoted in Hebrews 3:11 and 4:3. Even though God’s rest has been finished since creation, the three-fold quote of Psalm 95:11 (“They shall not enter My rest”) emphasizes its emptiness. David wrote Psalm 95 in approximately 1000 BC, which was four hundred years after Israel failed to enter. The rest was still unfulfilled in David’s day.
God doesn’t make mistakes. He didn’t create the rest so it would sit empty. Thus, the words “therefore it remains that some must enter.” God wants it occupied. Those in Moses’ day and David’s day didn’t enter, therefore, “again [God] designates a certain day.” Since nobody entered, it’s still available.
God’s Spiritual Rest Is Not about a Physical Location
David wrote Psalm 95, which is to say God spoke “in David,” when he was in the Promised Land. By that time, Israel had been in the land for four hundred years. If David and Israel’s presence in the land meant it was occupied, it would not make sense for God to say “some must enter it” centuries later. The physical land couldn’t provide the spiritual rest. Those who didn’t believe experienced the land, but not the rest.
Ronald Sauer writes, “Divine rest, then, is more than life in Canaan; that literal rest is but a type of its spiritual counterpart.”5 Since the rest is spiritual instead of physical, it is available regardless of physical location or circumstances:
- If we believe, we can experience God’s rest, wherever we are and regardless of what’s going on in our lives.
- If we don’t believe, we can’t experience God’s rest, no matter where we are and regardless of what’s going on in our lives.
The author used the word “today” in Hebrews 3:7, 13, 15, and again in 4:7. How much more could he emphasize urgency and the present to his readers? Although we are justified in a moment, once-for-all-time, there’s a need to daily enter God’s promised rest. When we wake up each morning and say, “I believe God. I trust Him. Today I will enter His rest,” we are left with a “now and not yet reality.” In this life we enjoy God’s rest, but we look forward to heaven, where we will be able to experience the true and greater reality of eternal rest.
The words “Do not harden your hearts” are also repeated in Hebrews 4:7 for the fourth and final time, because there’s no guarantee the rest will be available tomorrow. Just as Israel missed the physical rest (the Promised Land) in Moses’ day, we can miss the spiritual rest in our day.
Hebrews 3:19 says, “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.” Just as Israel was prevented from entering because of unbelieving hearts, we can also be prevented from entering because of unbelieving hearts.
Resting God’s way means resting both physically and spiritually. For some people, they might rest physically, but they neglect the spiritual rest they need. They nourish their bodies, but not their souls. We must find the right balance, not just between work and rest, but between physical rest and spiritual rest. In the following chapter, we’ll consider the Sabbath and why we can rest—because of the finished work of Christ.
- Cogley, Richard W. John Eliot’s Mission to the Indians Before King Philip’s War. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999).
- John F. MacArthur, Hebrews: Christ: Perfect Sacrifice, Perfect Priest (Thomas Nelson, June 28, 2016), 20.
- Gordon J. Wenham, World Biblical Commentary, Genesis 1-15 (Thomas Nelson, 1987), 80–81.
- Hebrews 4:4 reads, “He has spoken in a certain place,” versus “He has spoken in Genesis 2:2,” because the chapter divisions weren’t added until 1227, and the verses in 1551 as G.F Moore shows in The Vulgate Chapters and Numbered Verses in the Hebrew Bible, pages 73–78.
- Michael Rydelink, The Moody Bible Commentary New edition (Moody Bible Publishers, February 2014), 1927.