Just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world . . .
I suspect most of us have heard the 1981 song, by the band Journey, called “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It came into a second life around 2007, and for the last fifteen years it has reached a level of popularity it didn’t first have.
The song has a memorable tune, which makes the main line, “Don’t stop believin’” (which doesn’t come till the last minute), seem so powerful. Yet if you analyze the words — as a pastor who likes classic rock might be prone to do — you find out how disappointing and thin the lyrics are. For one, “Don’t stop believing” in what? What’s the object of belief?
The story behind the song is that one band member “went to the band with the iconic line ‘Don’t stop believin’; hold on to that feeling’ with the vague idea that Steve Perry [the voice] would want to sing it. Perry loved it,” reports one site, “and the band went on to improvise and jam until they had dialed in a workable version of the song.”
A sidenote about the line “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit”: If you look at a map, you can see that “South Detroit” is what the Canadians call Ontario. Perry thought “South Detroit” sounded good, and he didn’t realize until years later that it didn’t exist.
Four Truths about True Faith
I mention “Don’t Stop Believin’” because that would be a fair summary of the exhortation sections of Hebrews — except that Hebrews makes the object of faith very clear. We’ve talked about how Hebrews alternates between exposition and exhortation. A summary of the expositions, we’ve said, would be “Jesus is better.” A summary of the exhortations, cast negatively, might be “Don’t stop believing in Jesus.” Or to put it positively (as in 3:1 and 12:1–3): “Look to Jesus; fix your attention on him; hold fast to him.”
“You aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, but you have today. Turn to Jesus today.”
Hebrews likes to quote from the end of Psalm 95. First, he immediately applies it to his Christian audience (3:12–19), admonishing them to this effect: “Today if you still hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts, but renew your faith in Jesus.” Some are drifting and in spiritual danger. You aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, but you have today. Turn to Jesus today. And as a church, be God’s means of grace in the lives of each other.
But Hebrews sees more in Psalm 95 than just the immediate exhortation. This morning we’ll see that Psalm 95 opens up a whole panorama of God’s heart and plan for his people, giving new reasons from across the Old Testament as to why it is so critical that God’s people today press afresh into Jesus.
The focus in Hebrews 4:1–11 is faith: what it is and is not, what it does, and what its object is. So we’ll look at this passage through the lens of four truths about genuine faith.
1. Faith welcomes the goodness of God, through his word.
Faith is the instrument of receiving God’s promises and benefits and entering his rest. Look at verses 2–3:
Good news came to us [Christians] just as to them [the wilderness generation that came out of Egypt], but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
We saw in 3:19 last week that “they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” That is, they did not welcome God’s promise.
Hebrews 4:2 says that “good news came to us just as to them,” which does not mean that the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, came to them a millennium and a half before Jesus came. It means that good news came to them in the form of God’s promise to rescue them from Egypt and to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, and they believed (Exodus 3:17; 4:31). And God brought them out of Egypt.
But when they came to the edge of the promised land, and ten spies came back with fear about the strength of the inhabitants of the land, God’s people, by and large, did not believe his promise.
Hebrews sees a parallel with us: God’s people once heard his promise (or good news), believed, and were brought out of Egypt, but later they lost faith and did not enter into his rest. So we too have heard good news — the good news about God’s divine Son coming to live among us, die for us, and rise in triumph, sitting down in the seat of honor at God’s right hand. We have heard good news and believed, but we too have not yet entered into God’s promised rest. And if we lose faith, we will not, just like them.
Which raises two questions about the nature of saving faith. First, how does faith receive God’s goodness, his good promises, his good news? Does faith receive his goodness with disgust — as in, “I think that’s true, but I don’t like it”? Of course not. Or, more telling, does faith receive his goodness with apathy? With indifference? No.
Rather, true faith, saving faith, welcomes God’s goodness as communicated in the good news. Faith receives with joy the promises of God for our good. Faith is not mere intellectual assent. It is not emotionally neutral. Faith is a function of the whole soul, including the heart.
A second question then about the nature of saving faith is the particular emphasis of this passage. What does Hebrews 4 emphasize about saving faith? Answer: genuine faith perseveres. Which leads to our second truth about genuine faith.
2. The world and the devil oppose and threaten our faith.
First, look at verse 1:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
The most common command in all the Bible might be “do not fear.” So we might think that fear, all fear, is bad. But Hebrews 4:1 says, “Let us fear,” which literally means, “May we be made to fear.” There is an important place for fear in the Christian life: the fear of facing omnipotence in our sin, without the covering of Christ through faith. We indeed should have a holy fear of God and of what it would be like if we were to give ourselves over to unbelief.
“Once saved, always saved” is easily distorted. Genuine faith does indeed persevere, and we come to know our faith to be genuine as it perseveres. Faith that fades and dies shows itself to have been false faith, and those who once seemed to have faith, but in the end no longer believe, will not enter God’s rest. Genuine faith perseveres.
“Faith that fades and dies shows itself to have been false faith.”
Which means that “losing faith” is a real threat. But it’s not a threat that happens all at once. Typically, it comes at the end of a process, often a long one. And the reason I say that “the world and the devil oppose and threaten our faith” is because of Jesus’s parable of the sower in Luke 8, where he warns of Satan, times of trial, and the cares of this life.
We’ve talked before about the general background noise in Hebrews, pushing the church to return to Judaism and just abandon the Jesus piece, which was producing trials. And chapter 4 adds an important detail about how the listeners came into this dangerous position: they had become spiritually sluggish. Their hearts had cooled and begun to harden. Their faith in Jesus was fading, not just from trials, but from the cares and riches and pleasures of life.
And when your heart is hardening and your faith is dull, threats multiply. Hebrews 13 shows us his concern for them: for failures of love, whether for the brothers, strangers, or others in need; for sexual immorality and adultery; for love for money; for their forgetting once-beloved leaders and entertaining strange and diverse teachings, different from what they had known and once firmly believed; for their beginning to see the here and now as the lasting city. The main threat in Hebrews 13 is not Jewishness but worldliness.
What makes the background noise and other temptations of Hebrew 13 live threats is waning faith, an increasingly casual attitude about Jesus, and a lack of striving to persevere. The main problem for Hebrews’s audience is not persecution from the outside but their own sin and unbelief within. Same for us today. Persecution, whether physical or just verbal, is not the greatest threat. Unbelief is the great threat. Do not fear those who only can kill the body, but let us fear lest any of us should have our hearts hardened and our faith fail.
So, how is your faith in Jesus? Is it strong, steady, thriving? Stronger today than, say, three years ago? Or is your faith embattled? Is it thin and weak? Are you just surviving and spiritually sluggish? You are not promised tomorrow, but you have today. And as verse 1 says, “The promise of entering his rest still stands.” But how is that? How does Hebrews say that the promise of rest, offered a thousand years before Jesus in Psalm 95, still stands? That leads to number 3.
3. Genuine faith strives to persevere.
First let’s look at verse 11, then we’ll come back to verses 4–8. Verse 11 says,
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
“That rest” that Hebrews focuses on in this chapter is, in some sense, already present for those with genuine faith, but the main referent here is future and “not yet.” Initial faith coordinates with leaving Egypt, and the rest, with entering the promised land. So then, for Christians today, the rest is “the world to come,” which we’ve already seen in Hebrews 2:5, and “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15), and the heavenly country (11:16), and “the city that is to come” (13:14; 11:10), and the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28).
And Hebrews says, “Let us . . . strive to enter” this coming rest. “Strive” — that is, “work hard,” make every effort, apply yourself diligently. George Guthrie comments, “It speaks of focused attention toward the accomplishment of a given task” (NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 155). Saving faith perseveres.
But how? Very practically, if I want to keep on believing, how do I strive? How do I make every effort to persevere? Hebrews may be as clear as any single book in the Bible about three particular means of God’s ongoing grace in the Christian life for our faith surviving and thriving: God’s word, prayer, and fellowship. In other words: hearing God’s voice in his word, having his ear in prayer, and belonging to his body in the fellowship of the local church — three glorious channels of his ongoing grace around which to build habits for our striving to enter God’s rest.
But what’s in 4:1–11, leading to verses 12–16, is the particular, central place of God’s word. Look at verse 2. The phrase “the message they heard” in the ESV is literally “the word of hearing” or “the heard word.” Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17).
So one very practical reality for cultivating habits for striving to feed faith and enter God’s rest is, Are you hearing God’s word? Reading his word, studying his word, meditating on his word, conversing with others about his word, hearing it read and preached and discussed? Are your ears hearing, and eyes reading, enough of God’s word to feed the flame of faith in your heart?
Big Story of God’s Rest
Now, what about verses 4–8? The author makes a stunning move at the end of verse 3. After saying, “We who have believed enter that rest,” he quotes the end of Psalm 95 again: “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” And then, almost as if out of left field, he adds this phrase: “although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” And on a first reading, or twentieth perhaps, we say, “What?” Where did that come from?
Immediately following, Hebrews goes on to say “for” or “because,” which is like saying, “Let me explain.” Look at verses 4–5:
For he [God] has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage [that’s Psalm 95] he said, “They shall not enter my rest.”
Now, when Hebrews says God has spoken of the seventh day somewhere, he’s not saying he doesn’t remember where. He’s communicating, in an endearing way, that he and his readers know full well where God rests. We already saw Hebrews do this in 2:6, when he introduced Psalm 8. He said, “It has been testified somewhere” — not because he didn’t know where but because he knew his audience knew. There’s some holy confidence here in how strong the argument is. These are not stretches. These are well-traveled texts of Scripture.
Famously, Genesis 2:2 tells us God “rested on the seventh day from all his work.” But how does Hebrews get there? Answer: the last two words in Psalm 95, “my rest.” Which is a pretty ominous way to end a psalm: “They shall not enter my rest.” And Hebrews asks, Wait a minute, did you say God has a rest? God says, “My rest.” Where does God have a rest? Of course. So a pillar goes in place: God’s rest, day seven, at the creation of the world.
And then there’s a second pillar. This whole time, we’ve been talking about the wilderness generation that came out of Egypt with faith, and then they disobeyed on the brink of the promised land and wandered in the wilderness for forty years until that whole unbelieving generation died out. Then, after the death of Moses, Joshua led the next generation into the promised rest. That’s pillar two. These are chronological.
But then what Hebrews sees, because he’s reading his Bible very carefully, is a third pillar. Psalm 95 is the third pillar in the story, with its mention of God’s rest. And what tips him off is the word today. Four centuries after Joshua, David says in Psalm 95, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Look at verse 7:
Again [God] appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted [Psalm 95], “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.
Note the time words. These are very important in Hebrews: verse 7 with “so long afterward” and verse 8 with “another day later on.” So, pillar one: God rested on the seventh day from his works. He entered into his rest. Pillar two: after the unbelieving generation died, the next generation, under Joshua, entered into the promised land. However, that’s not the end. Pillar three: Psalm 95, which is “later on” and “so long afterward,” still offers entrance into God’s rest during the time of David. And so we ask, What is that rest?
Reading Big and Small
But first, let’s just pause for a minute and consider how Hebrews reads his Bible. Learn from this. Imitate this. We might call it “reading big and small.”
Reading small: The words my rest at the end of Psalm 95 open up this whole panorama, across time, of God’s rest from creation to Joshua to David in Psalm 95, to bring his people with him into his rest. Brothers and sisters, learn to read small like this. Slow down. Linger over particular words and phrases. Read without hurry, even leisurely. Read at a pace that is conducive to understanding and meditating and enjoying — not at the pace you’ve learned to read a screen. Read slow enough to ask questions like, Where does God have a rest?
And in doing so, you’ll give your brain the precious milliseconds it takes to make connections across the sweep of Scripture. That’s reading big. Consider how concepts, captured in particular words and phrases in one place, as well as sequences and structures of thought, connect and relate to other times and places in God’s word. Reading big is seen in Hebrews’s use of chronological terms like so long afterward and another day later on.
Let’s learn to read Scripture like Hebrews does: big and small — slowly, unhurriedly, meditatively, and all the while, over time, putting together the pieces, in order, in God’s big story from beginning to end.
Now, back to the question, What is that rest for us? God’s seventh day rest, then rest in the promised land, then “the promise of entering his rest still stands” four centuries later in Psalm 95. Now what? What’s the fourth pillar for us?
A thousand years after David, one of his own descendants, and the forgotten heir to his throne, would say in the backwater streets of Galilee,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29)
4. Saving faith rests in the person and work of Jesus.
This gives us a peek of what’s coming in Hebrews: Jesus, who is our great high priest (as we’ll see in chapters 5–7), who offers himself as the better sacrifice (chapters 9–10), is the one who gives us entrance, by faith, into God’s final rest. So, after verses 3–8 piece together the sequence from God’s rest at creation, to Moses and Joshua, to the invitation still remaining under David, he concludes in verses 9–10:
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
Why does he call it a “Sabbath rest”?
This is not a reference to Jews or Christians observing a weekly Sabbath. This is upstream from that. The Jewish Sabbath was grounded in God’s creation rest and, from the beginning, anticipated the ultimate and final rest to come in Christ.
In fact, Jesus himself, seated on heaven’s throne, has finished his work and entered into God’s rest. Verse 10 might be specifically about Jesus, or perhaps carefully worded to be true of both him and us. The ESV says, “Whoever has entered God’s rest,” but a literal translation would be, “The one who has entered into his rest — even he himself rested from his works.” I can’t help but wonder.
But either way, verse 10 surely is true, at present, of Jesus and will be true, in the future, of us who persevere in faith to the end. “Sabbath rest” is Hebrews’s way of saying the true Rest, or the final Rest, or the better Rest.
“The object of our faith is not our faith. The object of our faith is Jesus.”
Finally, what does this mean for assurance? If genuine faith perseveres, and we come to know our faith to be genuine as it perseveres, and we have not yet finished our course and “rested from our works” in this life, can we have real assurance? Can we enjoy some solid measure of confidence that our faith is real, and that Jesus will hold us fast and be at work in us to endure and keep us? The answer is yes. And it relates very much to this Table, which is, among other things, a weekly corporate means of grace and assurance.
He Will Hold You Fast
How would Hebrews give us assurance? He would say, “Look to Jesus. Consider Jesus. Have faith in Jesus. Hold fast to Jesus.” In other words, what do you do with Jesus? Do you believe in him, trust him, treasure him, cling to him? Do you have faith in Jesus?
To the degree your soul leans on him, rests in him — and that your life confirms it, rather than calls it into question — you can have real, meaningful, substantial assurance. He’s working in and through you, and you can believe, “He will hold me fast, as I strive, enabled by his grace, to persevere in faith.”
The object of our faith is not our faith. The object of our faith is Jesus. And this meal keeps feeding faith, which is why we share it each Sunday. We want to persevere, and this Table gives us, again and again, the one to believe in: his body and blood given for us.