The Book of Hebrews and the Sabbath Rest
Because the section of scripture we about to study is so larger you should get your Bibles out and follow our study along in your own Bible. This section of scripture if not written by the apostle Paul can surely be traced to his thinking and is therefore, like many of his writings can be hard to understand and is subject to misunderstand. One of the things that will help us to avoid an erroneous interpretation is to keep the immediate context of this section in view, which is the book in which is found and the overall context of the Bible.
The book of Hebrew was a lengthy letter sent to a group of Hebrew Christians who were contemplating going back to Judaism or at the very least bring Judaism into the Christian Faith. In the letter, the writer warns them that to do so would mean the loss of their salvation which salvation he refers to in chapters 3 and 4 as the Sabbath-rest. This problem of bring the law or Judaism into the church was no new problem. The apostle Paul addresses it in many of his writings. For example, we see it in the book of Galatians when he says to that church “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4-5). In the book of Ephesians, he calls the law the dividing wall of hostility, which separates believers. ” For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations (Eph 2:14-15). From this, we can gather that the overall context of the book is a warning against apostasy and arguments demonstrating that Christ and the gospel are superior to Judaism and the law. Keep this in mind as we study together.
First let me point out that this section of Scripture is not talking about the Sabbath day per say[i]. Its focus is on the consequence of disobedience and reward of obedience. It is about what the writer calls “Today.” The expression “Today is used in 3:7, 3:13, 3:15, and twice in 4:7. It seems to be an expression that the writer uses to denote the Christian dispensation, i.e. the time between the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. He refers to this dispensation in verse 3: 8 as a time of testing and compares it to the 40 years that the Israelites were tested in the wilderness. He continuously admonishes these Hebrew Christians not to follow the example of their forefathers in unbelief and disobedience.
His line of thought runs like this, the Israelites were tested for 40 years on their journey from the land of Egypt to the promise land, which was the land of rest from their trials and temptations. However, the major did not enter the land of rest[ii], because their faith failed the test and they were found to be unbelievers, who did not trust God. Christian are to take heed to their example and persist in faith, or they too will miss the eternal rest of God.
In this section of Scripture, the writer uses the Old Testament story of the wilderness wanderings of the Jews as an allegory that points to the last day or the Christian dispensation and lays down a basic rule for interpreting the Old Testament. He says in 10:1 “The law[iii] is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves.” We can gather from this that much of the Old Testament is a preview of what is going to happen in “Today” or the Christian dispensation. To take the old as the reality is to miss the wholly point of the narrative in the Old Testament.
With this rule of interpretation, we can look at text and see how the writer speaks of two separate rest and uses them both to point to the eternal salvation that we have in Christ. He speaks of the rest that God entered into at the end of creating the earth 4: 4. He also talks about the Canaan land rest, which was promised to the Hebrews that obeyed God in the wilderness; that number was two Caleb and Joshua. All the rest fell in the wilderness and never entered the land of rest.
In verse 4:8, we find a key verse, which confirms our interpretation. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day” Here the writer is saying that Joshua leading the Israelites into the promised land did not fulfill the promise of a rest for the people of God. It would take a different leader, Jesus the Christ, and would have to be a different rest, which he calls the Sabbath-rest. The expression Sabbath-rest is the author’s way and the Holy Spirit way of pointing out that the new rest is the ultimate and final rest. In this, we have a better Leader, a better covenant and a better rest. I can hear the writer saying to these Hebrews who were contemplating going back Judaism, why in the world would you what to go back to Moses and the law, and to observing the shadows when the reality is here in Christ ” Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col 2:16-17). LD
[i] The word Sabbath means rest. The Hebrews were command by God under the Old covenant to rest on the seventh day and to do no work. The Sabbath day was a memorial of God delivering them from the land of Egypt (Deut 5:12-15). It was a day of rest and not worship in the tradition sense of worship. The lack of working was the worship. The Hebrews worshipped in the tradition sense in the tabernacle and Temple, and then later in the synagogue. That is, if they were within a Sabbath day’s journey from these place of worship.
[ii] Deut 12:9 “For ye are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance, which the LORD your God giveth you.KJV
[iii] What is the law referred to here? The Jews in the first century view the entire Old Testament scripture as the Law. The law was the covenant made exclusively with the nation of Israel and was never given to the whole world (Deut 5:1-5, Rom 7:4-8, 1Cor 14:21).