Warnings & Exhortations in Hebrews: Our Spiritual Rest

God’s Purpose in Israel’s Redemption

There can be no mistaking God’s intention for Israel’s deliverance: to “deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” and to bring them “up out of the affliction of Egypt” (Exo 3:8,17).1  But as far as God’s ultimate purpose for Israel’s redemption was concerned, deliverance from bondage was not an end in itself. His purpose also included His will to bring them “unto the land,” “unto a land flowing with milk and honey,” which He swore to give to “Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (3:8; 6:8). Effectively, this was the gospel preached to them (Heb 4:2,6).

As sons of Abraham, the land was already theirs (Gen 13:15; 17:8); every Israelite had a right to enter. All they had to do was possess it by faith and obedience to His Word. God’s intention was that they would trust Him and thereby enter into the privileges of the inheritance – which the Spirit calls “my rest” (Psa 95:11; Heb 3:11; 4:3,5) or “his rest” (3:18). But as we have noted, “they could not enter in because of unbelief” (v19). Consequently, they forfeited the privileges associated with entering Canaan, despite being redeemed by blood and set apart to God. In this section of the warning, Canaan is set forth as a type of the promised spiritual rest the Hebrews were to possess by faith and obedience, the purpose being to ensure that “no one may fall after the same example of not hearkening to the word” (4:11 JND).

 Incidentally, it is instructive to note that despite the nation’s failure to believe, God’s wrath and judgement upon them, and their death in the wilderness without ever seeing the promised land, God never permitted them to return to Egypt. Nothing could be more clear from the type as to the sufficiency of the blood in redemption and the security of a believer’s salvation, now and for eternity.

The Promise of Spiritual Rest

To rightly understand the warning, it is helpful to appreciate the Spirit’s application of rest. Canaan’s rest is figurative of the inheritance we have been called to enjoy upon obtaining “so great salvation.” There are two aspects. First, it is the present spiritual realm named in Ephesians as “heavenly places” (lit. “heavenlies,” Eph 1:3,20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12) that we are to possess by faith “today.” Possession involves spiritual exercise in conflict and conquest, cultivation and growth, self-discipline and endurance. The rest enjoyed is marked by spiritual victory, prosperity, and peace of mind, soul and spirit. Its realisation is secured by the diligent exercise of faith in and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, Canaan’s rest prefigures the Millennial kingdom. This is implied by the terms “the seventh day” and “another day” (Heb 4:4,8; see 2:5). Space forbids elaboration, but the Hebrew believers would have been cognisant of this application. Despite what some beautiful hymns suggest, Canaan is not a figure of heaven. There are several reasons for this: there was work to do, there was perpetual sin, the enemy was always in the land, possession of it involved conflict and conquest, and dispossession resulted from disobedience and departure. Both the present spiritual realm and the Millennium bear these marks.

God’s rest on the “seventh day” after His work in creation also pictures the rest a believer enters through salvation by faith and “not of works” (4:3,4; Eph 2:9). The enjoyment of “his rest” is realised when one ceases “from his own works” (4:10; see Mat 11:28). For the Hebrews, this didn’t mean the release from legal burdens, but repose or putting down the works of the law (Rom 9:32; Gal 2:16).

Another aspect of His rest is that which remains for “the people of God” (Heb 4:9). It is the future Sabbath rest we will enjoy with God in eternity.

The Possession of Present Rest

The promise of entering spiritual rest here and now stands for all (4:1). But, sadly, not every believer possesses it. This is clear from the possibility that some might “have failed to reach it” (4:1 ESV). For this reason, the writer solemnly warns his readers to “fear” missing out (4:1), and exhorts them to “labour” (lit. “give diligence”) to “enter into that rest” (v11). The Hebrews were to heed the warning through simple faith and obedience to the Word of God (vv6,11), and abandon any thought of returning to the works of Judaism. We, too, are to depend on the same principles of faith and obedience, else we may forfeit the spiritual rest God promises every believer redeemed and separated to Himself in Christ.

Faith is inextricably linked with hearing God’s Word (Rom 10:17). Today, God speaks to us by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, which is living, effectual and sharper than any other means of discernment (Heb 4:12). The Spirit’s ministry in applying the Word of God is a voice that can discern between soulish and spiritual things, and which of the two is behind the thoughts and intents of the heart. He is able to discern when the heart becomes hardened, and when the deceitfulness of sin might influence our thinking. He can point out that which is spiritual and what is carnal; He can cut between reality and falsity and can distinguish between the leading of the Spirit and natural instinct or impulse. If we “shall hear his voice,” it will mean coming to the Word of God with a tender heart, and allowing the Holy Spirit to point out the areas in our life that are either glorifying or wanting before “the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (v13). His purpose in this process is to conform believers to the image of His Son.

The application of God’s Word to our own lives is so essential if we are to possess and enjoy “his rest.” Obedience is evidence of one’s application of the Word in faith, and a lack of faith will be manifested in disobedience and departure. At Kadesh-Barnea, there were only two who were willing to hear, trust and obey. How is it with us? Are we numbered among the faithful? Are we giving the Spirit time to speak to us and teach us, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” so that “we might know the things … given to us of God” (1Co 2:12)? Are we prepared “today” to “hear his voice” and be doers of what we hear (Jas 1:22)? May the Lord Jesus encourage us to hear His voice through the Holy Spirit. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13).

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.