Hebrews 4:1-11 contains the most blunt statement of the continuing worth of the Sabbath for the people of God, containing a unique Greek word for the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath that appears nowhere else in the Bible in Hebrews 4:9 that is generally translated as Sabbath rest. In tying together the past, present, and future of the Sabbath through a look at the history of Creation and of the nation of Israel, and also looking forward to the rest of eternal life in the kingdom of God, this passage in its entirety is perhaps the most pointed and noteworthy examinations of the Sabbath as a whole that can be found in all scripture. It is therefore worthwhile both to examine this passage in some detail as well as to point out its connections with the rest of the Bible so that we may properly understand the importance of the Sabbath rest to the author of Hebrews in history, for contemporary believers, and for all time.
Hebrews 4:1-11 reads as follows: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them, but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ “ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works;” and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. Therefore remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.”
This is a warning of such soberness that it ought to end any sort of wrangling about the Sabbath being unimportant to Jesus Christ and to salvation. Where present-day Sabbath observance is connected to the positive example of God resting after creation week in Genesis 2:1-3 and also with the negative example of Israel’s rebellious and disobedient conduct in the wilderness grimly detailed in the psalm that is quoted three times in this passage, Psalm 95, and connected to our ability to enter the Millennial rest of those who are blessed with resurrection into eternal life, this is a matter that must command our full attention. The fact that the Sabbath points backwards to history through the commandments given to Israel, and even before that to God’s creation of the entire earth points to its universal importance for all flesh. The fact that the Sabbath points forward to eternal life, and is connected to our judgment based on our obedience or disobedience to this commandment reminds us that this law is still in force, contrary to the teachings of many contemporary antinomians.
Of particular interest is the implicit contrast between Joshua and Jesus Christ. Rather than the Sabbath simply referring to the physical boundaries of the promised land that were given to Israel by right of conquest during the time of Joshua, as is claimed by some who wish to limit its span and application, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95 repeatedly in Hebrews 3 and 4 to point out that the promised rest of God was not merely a physical rest of freedom from oppression, but a rest on a deeper level as well, and that the physical rest we enjoy here and now points to a greater realization of the Sabbath that is yet to come. The first Joshua was a faithful servant who through the help of God gave Israel a temporary rest from their enemies before the rebellious and disobedient Israelites engaged in numerous cycles of disobedience, punishment, contrition, and deliverance. However, the true rest of God in its fullness is given by Jesus Christ to those who obey His commandments in love in this life, and who are able to enjoy that rest for all time as the citizens of the Jerusalem that is above and kings and priests over the heavens and the earth after our resurrection into eternal life. Thus the first Joshua is a type of Jesus Christ, and the Sabbath in this life is a type of the Sabbath that is to come. Far from nullifying or canceling the Sabbath, it instead deepens the obligation by broadening its meaning. He who is faithful in little is faithful in much, and more will be given to him.
For those who believe that the Sabbath is simply an Old Testament matter for Jews, Hebrews 4:1-11, taken in its context, provides a pointed reminder that this is not the case. Written shortly before the destruction of the physical temple in Jerusalem, in a book of the Bible which points out that the glorious implements of worship in that temple were mere copies of the even greater temple in heaven above, the reminder that those who do not obey God’s commandment to rest as God rested in this life will not enter the world to come is something that we all need to pause and pay attention to. It is all too easy for us to give excuses as to why we cannot obey God and take Him at His word, and God is certainly merciful to us despite the fact that we are flawed and imperfect creatures, but this command is plain and obvious enough that we are not to disregard it or treat it as unimportant. When God connects our entrance into eternal life with our obedience of the Sabbath commandment in this life, that is something that commands notice.
Having examined how Hebrews is connected through quotations and citations to Genesis 2 and Psalm 95, let us comment on some of the more implicit connections that this passage contains. The reference to the continuing validity of the Sabbath and its connections to the laws of God rather than the traditions of man forms a connection with Colossians 2 and helps us to interpret this notoriously difficult and lamentably frequently misinterpreted passage of Paul. Likewise, the discussion of the Sabbath day as a continuing observance for followers of Christ, regardless of whether they are Jew or Gentile, as part of the Israel of God, makes sense of the way that the author in Hebrews 10:24-25 commands believers not to forsake the assembly of the brethren as is the habit of some, something that is as true in our day and time as it was in the first century. This reference to commanded assemblies points back to Leviticus 23, where it points to not only the weekly Sabbath but also the annual Holy Days in a similar fashion to the way that the reference in Colossians 2 points to the weekly Sabbath as well as the new moons and annual Holy Days, showing the fact that all are connected with regards to Sabbath observance.
Having said that, let us note that just as the Sabbath remains for the people of God, so too questions remain as to how the Sabbath is to be observed. It is not my purpose, nor the purpose of the author of Hebrews, nor even God’s purpose, to place on believers something analogous to the legalistic interpretations and restrictions of the Pharisees. Even when we concede the importance of resting as God rested, we are faced with the question of service to God often being in tension with our own need for physical and spiritual restoration of energies after our immensely busy schedules. We may additionally face difficulties in the assembly of our brethren as there can be an absence of graciousness and the sort of drama and division for which the congregation of Corinth is particularly well-known. We face situations where people who work busy schedules during the week are still somehow expected to perform the full labor of preparing for the Sabbath and very limited time and means of doing so, and yet we are simultaneously expected to call the Sabbath delight when it involves much labor and often a great deal of personal stress. This does not mean that we are bad believers, or that there is something defective about the Sabbath, but it is a reminder that our understanding of the Sabbath needs to be broadened, so that we live so as to reduce the burdens that we place on others, and that the Sabbath is a weekly reminder of grace and of God’s desire that all flesh should be reconciled to Him and to each other, that all debts should be forgiven, and that we should walk among each other in love. While that is easier said than done, it remains a part of the Sabbath just like the Sabbath remains for the people of God.