Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. . . . Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” . . . There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:1–11)
Fighting Unbelief Together
Chapter 3 ended with the warning that it was unbelief that kept the people of Israel from entering into the promised land and the rest God had promised there. Hebrews 3:19: “And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” The point we drew from this two weeks ago was that we must care enough about each other that every day we get in each other’s lives and exhort each other not to let distrust in God creep in and destroy our lives. We got this from Hebrews 3:12–13: “Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
So one conclusion to draw from the warning of Hebrews 3:19 is that unbelief is such a constant and dangerous temptation that we must help each other fight it off. Persevering in faith to the end is a community project. Small groups at Bethlehem will have a tremendous seriousness about them, if you believe what this says. We meet and form relationships of mutual accountability and love because our faith depends on it. And our entering into God’s rest depends on our faith.
Now at the beginning of chapter 4, the writer draws another conclusion from the warning of Hebrews 3:19. He says, “Therefore, [that’s the sign that he is drawing a conclusion from what he just said in 3:19] let us fear [the NIV irresponsibly weakens this by the translation: “let us be careful”] — let us fear, lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1). So what is his conclusion from the fact Israel was not able to enter God’s rest because of unbelief? His conclusion is that we should fear!
But fear what? “Fear lest . . . any one of you should seem to have come short of God’s rest” — the restful haven of salvation. That is, fear so that you won’t even appear to have missed heaven, because if you go on in this way you will miss it (Hebrews 3:6, 14, 19; 4:2). Yes, yes, that’s the outcome of fearing — not coming short of God’s rest — but what is it that we fear?
“We will not enter into God’s rest — God’s heaven — if we do not trust his promises.”
The connection with Hebrews 3:19 surely tells us the thing we are to fear is unbelief. Verse 19: “They were not able to enter [God’s rest] because of unbelief.” Therefore fear that unbelief, because that’s what will keep you from entering God’s rest — God’s haven of salvation and God’s heaven. Fear unbelief. Fear not trusting God.
You can see this confirmed if we just keep on reading into Hebrews 4:2. Notice that verse 2 begins with “For.” That means that he is giving a reason for verse 1 — a reason for why they should fear. “Fear,” he says in verse 1, “for indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also [had good news preached to them]; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.”
So he continues to compare Israel’s situation in the wilderness to the situation of believers in his day. They had good news preached to them and we have had good news preached to us. What was the good news preached to them? Well, among many other things it was God’s word to Israel from Mount Sinai in Exodus 34:6–7: “Then the Lord . . . proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.’” It was good news of love and mercy and forgiveness of every kind of iniquity and transgression and sin. And it was the good news of God’s promise that God would bring them into the land of milk and honey and be with them if they would trust him and not rebel (Numbers 14:8–9).
So this writer says that the Israelites had heard the gospel just like his readers had — not the foundation of it in the death and resurrection of Christ, which his readers have heard — but still the promise that God is merciful and forgives sins and promises rest and joy for those who trust him. So there is a very similar situation between Israel and the readers of this letter, and the point is: this good news was not believed by Israel and so they did not enter God’s rest, God’s promised joy. Hebrews 4:2: “The word they heard [the good news of forgiveness and promised joy] did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.” In other words, they didn’t believe it. They doubted God. They distrusted him. They did not have faith in his promise to give them a better future than they had in Egypt and so they gave up on God and wanted the old life.
And what was the result of that unbelief? Verse 2 says: the promise “did not profit them.” It was of no value to them. It did not save them. As Hebrews 3:19 said, they did not enter God’s rest. They fell in the wilderness. God swore in his wrath that they would never enter his rest — a picture of missing heaven. So the point of verse 2 is exactly the same as the point of Hebrews 3:19 — it’s a reason for why we should fear unbelief. Verse 19: “They were not able to enter because of unbelief.” Therefore fear unbelief (verse 1), because when the good news to Israel was not united to faith, it profited them nothing and they perished in the wilderness (verse 2). The main point is: fear this happening to you. Fear hearing the promises of God and not trusting them. Because the same thing will happen to us as to them: we will not enter into God’s rest — God’s heaven — if we do not trust his promises.
Be Diligent to Enter God’s Rest
“Normal Christian life is aware of the fearful danger of unbelief, but does not live paralyzed or terrorized by it. It lives in faith.”
That’s the main point of the paragraph: fear unbelief. In the last sentence of the paragraph, he says the same thing in different words. Hebrews 4:11: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience.” In other words, Israel fell from the promised joy of God because of the disobedience of unbelief. And the same thing can happen to any professing Christian. To keep it from happening — and to show that we are more than mere professing Christians — he says, “Be diligent to enter God’s rest” — God’s heaven. Be diligent! Pay close attention to what you’ve heard (Hebrews 2:1); don’t neglect your great salvation (Hebrews 2:3); consider Jesus (Hebrews 3:1); do not harden your hearts (Hebrews 3:8); take care against an unbelieving heart (Hebrews 3:12); exhort one another every day against the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:14); and fear the unbelief that will keep you from your promised rest (Hebrews 4:1).
Do you see the great lesson here? The Christian life is a life of day-by-day, hour-by-hour trust in the promises of God to help us and guide us and take care of us and forgive us and bring us into a future of holiness and joy that will satisfy our hearts infinitely more than if we forsake him and put our trust in ourselves or in the promises of this world. And that day-by-day, hour-by-hour trust in God’s promises is not automatic. It is the result of daily diligence and it’s the result of proper fear.
Constant Fear of Being Lost
Now ponder this fear with me for a moment. You may be asking, “You mean the ideal Christian life is lived in constant fear of being lost?” Now be careful here, lest you ask that question to me as though it were my theology you doubt. It is Hebrews 4:1, written to “holy brethren” (Hebrews 3:1), that commands, “Therefore, let us fear.” And Hebrews 4:1 is not unique in the New Testament. Jesus said in Luke 12:5, “Fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell.” Paul said in Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He says in Romans 11:20, “You stand fast only through faith; so do not become conceited but fear.”
So be careful how you query this truth. It is God’s word, not my word, that says the Christian is to fear. So with all humility and openness we ask God, are we supposed to live our lives in fear of missing heaven? First of all, remember Hebrews 2:15, “[Christ died to] deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Loud and clear, Christ died to deliver us from slavish fear; Christ wants a fearless people. Christ wants a people who live in the most dangerous neighborhoods without fear, who go to the unreached peoples behind closed doors without fear, who speak to neighbors about Christ without fear. How? By faith in his promises. Faith in the promises of God makes you fearless before the threats of men (Hebrews 10:34).
So there is only one thing to fear: faithlessness. Fear unbelief in the promises of God. Because as long as you are trusting in the promises of God you can be utterly fearless in the face of anything, even death, even God (see Hebrews 4:16).
Now what is this like? Your children know what it is like. When you were really little, your mother and father said, very firmly, “Don’t ever run out in the street. Always hold my hand.” Why? It is dangerous in the street. You could be killed by a car. In other words, fear running out in the street. But did that mean that you could not have fun in the backyard and on the sidewalk and in the parks? No. In fact, most of the time you never even thought about how fearful the street was. Only when you got near the street and maybe when your ball rolled out in the street, or maybe somebody tempted you to run across the street when you weren’t supposed to. Only then did you feel the fear of the street. The rest of the time the fear kept you playing in places where you didn’t have to feel any fear at all.
That’s the way it is with the fear of unbelief. You don’t live with a constant bad feeling. You only experience the bad feeling when there are temptations to distrust God’s promises. And even then, you use the bad feeling of fear to send you running into the safe yard of God’s goodness and promises. So normal Christian life is aware of the fearful danger of unbelief, but does not live paralyzed or terrorized by it. It lives in faith. Fear only rises where faith starts to weaken. And it only rises long enough to get us back into the peaceful fearlessness of faith.
A Place of Rest
Now there is one more thing I want to do with this text. Verses 3–10 of Hebrews 4 are written to support the main point which we have looked at in verses 1 and 11, namely, be diligent to enter God’s rest and fear lest you fail to enter it because of unbelief. The way verses 3–10 support this main point is by showing from the Old Testament that there is a rest to enter into — that is, that God has a plan for his people to join him in the wonderful restfulness of heaven where all weariness and burdensomeness will be lifted. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” Jesus said (Matthew 11:28). Verses 3–10 are written to show that this promise is really there in the Old Testament.
The text is very complicated, so let me just sketch a very brief outline for you. The writer focuses on five points in history to show how God keeps opening his rest for believing people.
First, he starts at creation (Genesis 2:2) and says in Hebrews 4:4: “He has thus said somewhere concerning the seventh day, ‘God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’” So he sees in this a restful, peaceful, sovereign God who has a rest and a peace and a place of joy where his people can enjoy fellowship with him. He will call it a “Sabbath rest” because on the seventh day, God rested. But in reality, it lasts forever.
Second, he focuses on the period when Israel was wandering in the wilderness and rebelling against God. Hebrews 4:5 (quoting Psalm 95:11): “And again in this passage, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” The promised land is a picture of God’s ultimate rest, and their unbelieving rebellion excludes them from it. Which raises the question whether there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
The third focus is on the time of Joshua, who took the people into the promised land. Is that the final, ultimate rest God had in mind for his people? Hebrews 4:8 answers, “no”: “For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.” In other words, even though Joshua gave some relief to the people of God in the promised land, that was not the final rest God has planned for them. How do we know that? God spoke of another day — another rest to come centuries later.
Still a Resting Place
Which brings us to the fourth period of time the writer focuses on, the time of David writing Psalm 95. Hebrews 4:7: “He again fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’” In other words, long after the people enjoyed the rest of the promised land, David says that God is still holding out to his people an offer of salvation rest: Don’t harden your hearts, and you will enjoy God’s rest (referred to at the end of the Psalm 95:11) (Hebrews 3:11; 4:3).
“There is a rest open to you today. God offers rest. The door is not shut. The time is not past.”
From this, the writer draws the all-important conclusion about God’s Sabbath rest of salvation — and this is his fifth period of history, namely, today — verse 9: “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” In other words, today, the rest is still open.
And that is the foundation of God’s message to you today: There is a rest open to you today. God offers rest. The door is not shut. The time is not past. You have not missed your last opportunity. Hear the words of verse 9: “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” The door is open. The time is now.
Ah, but someone says, “Yes, a rest remains for the people of God — but not for me.” But I answer, do not rule yourself out. Look at Hebrews 4:3 — our last word — “We who have believed enter that rest.” There is one door to the safe, peaceful, happy rest of God — the door of faith. Anyone who puts faith in God’s promises bought for us by the blood of Jesus, and is diligent not to throw that faith away, is a part of the people of God. So on behalf of God, I call you this morning, put your trust in the promise of God’s rest.