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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What is the rest mentioned in Hebrews 4:1-11, and how is it related to the seventh-day Sabbath?
Hebrews 4:1-11 has been used, on one hand, to support the observance of the Sabbath commandment by Christians; and on the other hand, as evidence for the rejection of a literal obedience to the commandment. Others have concluded that the passage addresses neither observance nor nonobservance of the Sabbath. These contradictory positions show that the meaning of the text is not that obvious.
1. Purpose of the Passage: Hebrews 3:7–4:11 emphasizes the need for perseverance and faithfulness in the Christian community. The discussion about God’s rest is subordinate to that more specific goal and is used to motivate believers to be faithful. That’s why there is not a detailed discussion on the nature of the rest God offered His people in the past but is still available “today.” It also clarifies the emphasis found throughout Hebrews 4 on the problem of unbelief and disobedience and the need for diligence in the Christian life. The passage is not a theological exposition of the typological fulfillment of the Sabbath, or of the nature of the Sabbath, or of the eschatological rest.It is simply an exhortation to faithfulness.
2. God’s Rest: The Old Testament contains a theology of God’s rest in addition to the theology of the Sabbath that deals with God’s promise of rest to His people in the land and to His own resting in the temple. Psalm 95:11 demonstrates that the promise of God’s rest found in the Old Testament was not fulfilled because of the unbelief of His people. Therefore, Hebrews does not identify the “rest” with the entrance into the land of Canaan. Consequently, the rest remains to be fulfilled (Heb. 4:1, 9) and believers are exhorted to make every effort to enter this rest (verse 11). Yet the rest also seems to be a present experience (verse 3). Although that rest is not clearly defined in the text, it probably designates the blessing of salvation we enjoy now as we wait for its consummation.
3. Role of the Sabbath in the Passage: Hebrews is not equating the Sabbath rest with the eschatological rest. It states that God’s eschatological rest, like the Sabbath, has been available since He finished His work of creation. The Sabbath rest also illustrates the nature of the rest that is still available as a cessation from one’s works. Hebrews 4:10 uses the Sabbath of Genesis 2:2 as a model for its understanding of the eschatological rest. The enjoyment of both the eschatological rest and the Sabbath require ceasing from work. The works Hebrews refers to are not specifically identified, but it could be suggested that contextually they are not the works of the law. The Pauline discussion of justification by faith versus the works of the law is foreign to the argument of Hebrews. One could suggest that the works mentioned are works of rebellion and unfaithfulness (cf. Heb. 4:6).
4. A Rest Remains: The rest that remains (sabbatismos, “Sabbath observance, sabbath rest” [verse 9]) is the rest that was left unfulfilled in the Old Testament (the katapausis, “rest, resting place” [verses 1, 6]). But the word sabbatismos(sabbath rest) makes its own contribution to the discussion in that it clearly defines the eschatological rest (katapausis) as God’s Sabbathlike rest. That is to say, the seventh-day Sabbath rest illustrates the nature of the eschatological rest. This suggests that for the author of Hebrews the theology of the Sabbath was so meaningful that he utilized it to interpret God’s eschatological rest. The context does not support the suggestion that the Sabbath commandment had been fulfilled in the rest of salvation that Christ brought, making it unnecessary for Christians to obey it.
The offer of the Sabbathlike rest in the Old Testament did not set aside the literal observance of the Sabbath commandment (Isa. 56; 66:23); likewise, the eschatological rest is like the Sabbath but does not replace it. Besides, entering God’s rest in Hebrews 4 does not mean that the Sabbath is superseded. To enter God’s rest requires only perseverance and faithfulness, ceasing from our works, not the rejection of obedience to the Sabbath commandment. There is nothing in the text concerning a new type of Sabbath observance that replaces the literal observance of the fourth commandment.