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Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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Verse 1

Let us fear therefore, lest haply, a promise of being left of entering into his rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it.

Why should people fear, especially Christians? Simply because great and eternal rewards are subject to forfeit as long as people are in the flesh, because a powerful and aggressive foe in the person of Satan and his hosts are opposed to us, and because the multitude of distractions, temptations, and necessary labors of life constantly tend to produce that one moment of life in which inattention can lead to everlasting ruin. This fear is reinforced by the thought that many others failed, even after a glorious beginning.

The first thirteen verses of this chapter conclude the second exhortation, or warning, and the idea of "a rest" for the people of God, already mentioned in Heb. 4:18, is taken up and further elaborated. "Rest" in the usage at this place is a much more varied and extensive thing than merely entering Canaan, for it is a concept that is made to stand for all the spiritual and eternal rewards of faith. The Christian rest includes rest in Christ, as procured by taking his yoke and learning of him (Matthew 11:28-29), rest from the labors of life (Revelation 14:13), and rest with the Lord in heaven throughout all eternity; and although the author of Hebrews might have preached the Christian rest from the standpoint of Christ’s teachings and those of the apostles, he elected to base his appeal upon the Old Testament, equally valid, and better designed to woo his readers back from a reversion to Judaism; hence the statement that "there was a promise LEFT," in the sense of being "left open." How so? Five hundred years, almost, after Israel entered Canaan, David in Psalms 95:7-11 spoke of there being a rest for God’s people, indicating that their final entry into Canaan was not the full attainment of that rest, and that something much more than that was involved.

Again, the word "haply" injects the idea of inadvertence. Alas, it must be supposed that the far greater part of Christians falling away from faith in Christ do so unintentionally. Few indeed ever decide boldly against the Lord, and move decisively against him; but, on the contrary, they allow inattention to spiritual things, carelessness in attending worship, neglect of daily prayer and study of the Word, and encroachments upon their time due to worldly and pleasure-loving friends to divert their attention first, and later their whole life and conduct from the path of honor and duty. It is hard to imagine a more urgent and persistent warning than the one given here.

Verse 2

For indeed we have had good tidings preached unto us, even as also they; but the word of hearing did not profit them, because it was not united by faith with them that heard.

This does not mean that the Jews had the same gospel preached unto them that Christians have received, but that JUST AS they received a good word about the promised rest, so have Christians. There is also here a plain indication of the source of that faith deemed so necessary to salvation, in that it is called a "word of hearing." Faith comes by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:16 ff). It is God’s word itself, then, that has the power to enter the heart and produce faith. The rendition of the last clause here has been the subject of many disputes and disagreements among scholars, but fortunately the meaning is obvious. As Bruce said it, "The sense is plain enough; the good news had to be assimilated or appropriated by faith if it was to bring any benefit to the hearers."(F1)

Verse 3

For we who have believed do enter into that rest; even as he hath said, As I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest; although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

The use of the present tense, "we do enter into that rest," stresses the first and immediate phase of the Christian’s rest and focuses the attention of the believer upon the benefits and joys of that Christian service which are already his and in the process of being enjoyed by him. This verse again strikes at the tragic failure of Israel who, though entering Canaan, did not in fact enter into God’s rest, in the higher and better sense of becoming a holy nation of righteous and devoted worshipers of God, as God had commanded them (Exodus 19:3-6); but on the other hand, they rebelled against God time and again; they rejected the theocracy, demanded a king like the nations around them, worshipped idols, oppressed the poor, and even made their children pass through the fire to Molech! Thus, while entering a type of God’s rest, they failed to attain any reality of it; and furthermore, all this came about in spite of the fact that God was fully prepared to welcome them into such a glorious rest, indeed, had been anticipating it "from the foundation of the world."

What is meant by "the foundation of the world"? The words are used in Hebrews 9:26; Matthew 13:35; Matthew 25:34; Luke 11:50; John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 17:8 and the message these references carry is that God’s plans and purposes for people predate the formation of the world itself. "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). And this coincides with Paul’s word that "We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory" (1 Corinthians 2:7). All efforts to construe "the foundation of the world" as a reference to its reconstruction following the disaster in Eden must be viewed as incorrect, since, by definition, God’s "eternal purpose" (Eph. 8:11) has existed always, and the world has not. Regarding the efforts of some scholars to lessen the force of this, Bruce said, "The attempt to render it `downfall of the world’ and link it with the catastrophic interpretation of Genesis 1:2 cannot be sustained."(F2) Dummelow’s perception of this is also helpful:

The promise of rest applies to us who are Christians, seeing that those to whom the promise was made failed to attain it. And their failure was not due to the fact that the rest had not been prepared, because it existed since the day that God finished his work of creation. This is proved by the words, "And God rested" in one place, and the words "my rest" in another. God’s rest is therefore a fact, and it is clearly his purpose that some shall enter into it.(F3)

Verse 4

For he hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.

Genesis 2:2 is the text in the author’s mind in these words; and the argument is that God’s resting on the seventh day, unaccompanied by any subsequent declaration that he has left off resting, makes the rest of God still available for them that will receive it, as it has been from the time God finished creation. The rest God promised his people is thus a share of his own rest and pertains to the felicity and serenity that flow from faithful and humble obedience to God’s will. Some interpreters attempt to find millennial implications in the concept of God’s rest; but as Bruce stated,

The identification of the rest of God in the Epistle to the Hebrews with a coming millennium has, indeed, been ably defended; but it involves the importation of a concept which is in fact alien to it.(F4)

It should be noted that the "seventh day" of this verse can be nothing other than the seventh day of creation on which God rested and not the Hebrew sabbath. The rest of God is a far greater and more wonderful thing than any system of merely keeping sabbaths or even entering Canaan, both of which things the Jews certainly did; but in the procurement of that more noble rest, they failed.

One of the most significant revelations of this chapter is that the seventh day of Creation is still in progress. God rested on the seventh day from all his works (of creation). God is still resting, Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:11. People should take pains to enter that rest because it is yet available. The Bishop of Edinburgh stated that, "From this argument, it is mandatory to conclude that the seventh day is still in progress?

Verse 5

And in this place again, They shall not enter into my rest.

This quotation, as in Hebrews 4:3, is again from Psalms 95:11, serving the purpose, alongside of the quotation from Genesis 2:2, of identifying the rest spoken of here as that of God himself, following the six days of creation, and to which heavenly rest God has always invited people to come and share. To make this place any kind of an argument for people’s keeping the sabbath day is to miss the entire argument of the epistle in this portion. The argument is that a rest remains BECAUSE IT WAS NOT ENTERED by the Hebrews! Therefore, it was not entering Canaan nor keeping the sabbath day, for they did that. Thus, the marvelous rest referred to here can be neither of those things but must be understood as a reference back to the rest of God himself which is still in progress, a rest the Jews could have entered but did not, and likewise a rest that many now have the right to enter but may come short of it; hence the warning.

Verse 6

Seeing therefore it remaineth that some should enter thereinto, and they unto whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter in because of disobedience.

This is a summary of the argument. God desires and has purposed from all eternity that some shall enter into his rest; and, seeing that Israel did not, as proved by David’s saying so in Psalms 95, the way is still open for whomsoever will accept the invitation.

Verse 7

He again defineth a certain day, Today, saying in David so long a time afterward (even as hath been said before) Today if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts.

Interrupting his chain of thought, and repeating the scriptural basis of it, he appeals again to Psalms 95:7-11, ascribed to David. The thesis turns on the fact that it was "long afterward" (about 500 years) that David urged the people AT THAT TIME, "today," to hear God’s voice, to refrain from hardening their hearts, and to enter the rest of God. He thus proved that the rest had not been entered by Israel, that it was open 500 years after Canaan was entered, and that it was still available when the author of Hebrews wrote. This rather extensive appeal is a classical example of the use of repetition to drive home a point; hence the oft-repeated reference and the recurrence, as of a refrain, "Today … harden not your hearts."

Verse 8

For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken of another day.

This means that if Joshua had given the people the rest spoken of here, in that he led them into Canaan, then David would not have held it up as something yet unattained such a long time after that. The words "Jesus" and "Joshua" are one word, just as the names "Juan" and "John" are the same; and this clears up the translation of this name as "Jesus" in the KJV in this verse. However, it is plain enough that not our Lord, but the ancient Hebrew captain who succeeded Moses and led the children of Israel into Canaan, is the person meant by the author of Hebrews in this verse. The English Revised Version (1885) is therefore correct. Joshua, due to his name, and the fact that he led Israel into the promised land, is viewed as one of the lesser types of the Master. However, there are more contrasts than similarities between them, as witness the following: (1) Joshua in the conquest of Canaan benefited himself and his posterity (Josh. 18:49,50): Christ’s ministry benefited not himself but his followers only. The rest that Jesus made available to his disciples was already his own. (2) Joshua did not ALONE conquer Canaan but was aided extensively by all the Israelites; Christ trod the winepress alone (Isaiah 63:3). (3) The conquest of Canaan did not cost Joshua either wounds or death; but Jesus won the eternal land of promise at the cost of suffering and death (1 Peter 1:18-19). (4) Joshua could not totally expel the old inhabitants of Canaan; but the victory of Christ was complete over death, sin, Satan and the grave.

Verse 9

There remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God.

Barmby’s brief comment on this verse is concise and interesting.

The conclusion is now drawn: the true nature of the rest intended being beautifully denoted by the word "sabbath rest," which refers to the divine rest from "the foundation of the world," while the offer of it to true belivers always, and not to Israelites only, is intimated by the phrase, "the people of God."(F5)

Verse 10

For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his.

The effort to make the person who has entered into his rest to be the Saviour appears forced, although some able scholars defend that meaning of it. The view here is that it pertains to the rest which any true follower of the Lamb enters upon his becoming a Christian. Rest is a universal human longing; and, although in youth the desire for rest might not be so urgently felt, its need and urgency, with increasing rigor, appear more and more as life unfolds. The promise of it, like a fleeting mirage, beckons beyond each pressing complex of frustrations, problems, duties, and sorrows; and for countless travelers from time to eternity, there must be frequent emotion, if expressed or not, which contains the cry of the Psalmist, "O that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away and be at rest" (Psalms 55:6); or the hope of Job to be where "the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary be at rest" (Job 3:17). The thought of ceasing from his own works, on the part of the Christian, is also intriguing. If God is resting from his works, what is there that man can do? Does he propose to move everything alone? Surely the works of righteousness, that is, human righteousness, cannot avail unto salvation.

This verse also has its application to Christ. He did indeed finish the work of his earthly ministry and enter into that eternal rest to which his followers are invited to come. All who will receive it are invited; and Christ, as representative man, has already entered upon the rest, or into it. The recurring and overwhelming thought of that "rest" so much discussed here is the eternal nature and purity of it, utterly distinguishing it from Canaan, or earthly sabbaths, which even at best were dim and imperfect symbols of a genuine reality, the rest of God. That rest is inherent in the very nature of God, who himself rested on the seventh day of creation, and who surely purposed that his people should share in it, that sharing being made possible only through the sacrifice of Christ.

Verse 11

Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience.

Do people actually enter that rest during the present life? The answer appears to be affirmative, but only in a sense of receiving earnest of it, or in the sense of receiving it as an inheritance to be possessed now but actually entered only in the eternal world. Bruce outlined a similar opinion thus: "It is evidently an experience they do not enjoy in their present mortal state, although it belongs to them as a heritage, and by faith they may live in the good of it here and now."(F6) Disobedience, as in Hebrews 3:18 (which see), is the great enemy of that final possession of the rest of God; and the ever-present possibility of disobedience and temptations that woo people to disobedience are factors that contravene the complete enjoyment of that rest in this life.

That no man fall prompted this comment by Clark:

(It means) lest he fall off from the grace of God, from the gospel and its blessings, and perish everlastingly. This is the meaning of the apostle, who never supposed that a man might not make final shipwreck of faith and of good conscience, as long as he was in a state of probation.(F7)

Note the injunction to "give diligence" as in the English Revised Version (1885), or to "labor" as in the KJV, which stresses the work to be done by the believer. Without in any sense attributing to one’s own efforts any eternal merit, and without supposing such labors to place God under any obligation whatsoever, it is nevertheless one of the conditions of salvation that men labor, work, and strive to enter the narrow way. Many New Testament passages support this thought, such as Luke 13:34; Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:12; Revelation 20:12, etc.

Verse 12

For the word of God is living, and active and sharper than any two edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.

The word of God is to be understood as the Bible, God’s revelation of His truth to people, especially in the sense of his commandments; and, although the passage suggests John 1:1, it would not appear that any such personalization of the word is intended here. That the word of God is "living" is corroborated by other New Testament writers such as Luke (Acts 7:38), Peter (1 Peter 1:23), and others. The word "active" shows that the word does not lie inert and dead but at all times carries within itself the mighty power of its divine author. Rather than trying to find subtle differences in the meaning of such words as "soul" and "spirit," it is perhaps just as well to view this verse as a heaping together of powerful terms for the purpose of showing the utmost ability of the word of God to penetrate the complex inward nature of man, to convict him of sin, to expose his hidden motives, and to judge the very nature of life itself. Davidson, as quoted by Bruce, said that this verse is a "rhetorical accumulation of terms to express the whole mental nature of man on all sides."(F8) The passage presents God’s word as totally different from the word of men, making it infinite in power, all-seeing in discernment, and able to pierce or penetrate any human subterfuge.

Verse 13

And there is no creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

Macknight sees in the words here a reference:

to the state in which the sacrifices called burnt offerings were laid on the altar. They were stripped of their skins, their breasts were ripped open, their bowels were taken out, and their backbone was cleft. This is the import of the original word. Then they were divided into quarters; so that outwardly and inwardly they were fully exposed to the eye of the priest, in order to a thorough examination (Leviticus 1:5-6); and, being found without blemish, they were laid in their natural order upon the altar and burnt.(F9)

Here then is the explanation of the image in the author’s mind that caused him to mention such things as joints and marrow, the significant warning to Christians lying in the fact that the word of God is able to discover blemishes or taints of character by means of the most thorough and accurate discernment of the entire man, such being the spiritual equivalent of the priest’s minute examination of the ancient sacrifices. Not one little sin shall ever be able to crawl by the eyes of the Eternal God without receiving its just condemnation and punishment; and that is the overwhelming reason why every man should fly to Christ for refuge and forgiveness. These words of Hebrews 4:13 conclude the second great admonition of the Book of Hebrews.

Verse 14

Having then a great high priest who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. (Hebrews 4:14)



The author introduces in this verse the theme of Jesus as the great high priest and proceeds to elaborate the reasons of great superiority over any other. Jesus’ passing "through the heavens" contrasts with Aaron’s merely passing beyond certain enclosures in the tabernacle; nor should people be careful to determine just how many heavens Jesus passed through, if three or seven, according to the Hebrew speculations about such things; because, as a matter of fact, Jesus Christ has ascended far above "all heavens" (Ephesians 4:10), as Paul said; and a little later in this epistle it is said that Christ is made "higher than the heavens" (Hebrews 7:26). On the plurality of heavens, Bruce wrote that "the plural `heavens’ as regularly used in the New Testament and the Septuagint, reflects the Hebrew word use in the Old Testament, which is always plural. What is emphasized here is his transcendence."(F10) The holding fast of the believer’s confidence corresponds with what was written earlier in Hebrews 3:6; Hebrews 3:14. Throughout Hebrews, the weight of responsibility for faithfulness is made to rest upon the diligence and alertness of the believer himself; and he is repeatedly admonished to hold it fast, to glory in it, and to exhort others constantly to the same effect. He is not to be passive at all, but active in claiming the promised redemption. This verse, with the ones preceding and following it, reveals the Christian’s great high priest as doing three things that Aaron could not do. He entered God’s rest, ascended far above the heavens, and came to the very throne of grace itself.

Verse 15

For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are and yet without sin.

Far from feeling that our great high priest, so far removed above the heavens, is, from so vast a separation, incapable of proper sympathy for suffering and tempted Christians, the believer is invited to see that Jesus the Son of God knows all about human problems, even temptation, and that he is thereby qualified to provide the utmost sympathy and understanding for human weakness.


Regarding the temptation of Christ, the question inevitably appears as to the possibility, even, that Jesus could have sinned; but there seems to be no satisfactory explanation of how any person, even the Son of God, could be tempted to do anything impossible for him to do. Without the possibility of yielding to sin, how can there, in fact, be any such thing as temptation? To be sure, this is an old theological battleground. Irving was expelled from the Presbyterian communion as heretical, because he held to the theoretic peccability of Christ.(F11) Barmby’s learned defense of the position that it was impossible for Jesus to have sinned is as follows:

That Christ in his original human nature, partook of all the affections of humanity — hope, fear, desire, joy, grief, indignation, shrinking from suffering, and the like — is apparent, not only from his life, but also from the fact that his assumption of our humanity would otherwise have been incomplete. Such affections are not in themselves sinful; they only are so, when, under temptation, any of them become inordinate, and serve as motives for transgression of duty. He, in virtue of his divine personality, could not through them be seduced into sin; but it does not follow that he could not, in his human nature, feel their power to seduce, or rather the power of the tempter to seduce through them, and thus have personal experience of man’s temptation. St. John says of one "born of God" that he "doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1 John 3:9). What is thus said of one "born of God" may be said much more, and without any qualification, of the Son of God, without denying that he too experienced the power of temptation, though altogether proof against it.(F12)

Interesting and convincing as Barmby’s view is, there is much to be said on the other side of the issue; but, in advocating the view that Jesus could have sinned, there is no intention to reflect in any way against the purity and holiness of the Master, so beautifully mentioned by Milligan thus:

No inclination to evil ever defiled his pure spirit. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life had not place in his affections. And hence, though tempted by the devil through all the avenues and natural desires of the human heart, he was still "without" sin.(F13)

However, it should be remembered that Christ had taken upon himself the handicap of human flesh, even the blood of harlots and Gentiles; and, as a man, Christ certainly had the capability of doing wrong if he had elected to do so; and absolutely no logical refutation appears in any of the writings seen on this subject that can explain how any person can be tempted to do that which it is impossible for him to do. If one may hazard a conjecture as to the greatest temptation of Christ, it was likely an impulse to call the whole thing off, abort his mission of redemption, call for the legions of angels, overwhelm his enemies with destruction, and consign the human race to oblivion, a fate fully deserved; and that just such a temptation did occur is seen in Christ’s mention of the twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). Only his great eternal love for people enabled our Lord to forego such a termination of his heavenly mission. This whole field of thought is clouded with the veil through which we see "darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12); dogmatism is certainly out of place, and none is intended here.

People may exclaim, "How could Christ be tempted in all points, since he had no child, did not grow old, never married, was not in business, etc., and therefore did not pass through every situation that produces temptation in men?" Such a question overlooks the fact that the basic elements of temptation are actually very few in number; and, just as all of the melodies ever written can be broken down into a few notes of the musical scales, all human temptation resolves into three basic principles, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16), Christ, of course, being thoroughly tempted and tested in all of these areas and yet without sin.

Verse 16

Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help us in time of need.

The throne of grace is the throne of God; and certain reflections on that subject are appropriate: (1) the existence of such a thing as God’s throne reveals that the universe is a controlled and governed entity and that there is a center of power and authority, called here "the throne of grace." The universe is, therefore, not like a clock left to run down. God is upon the throne. (2) The government of all things is personal. Not a computer, but a throne; not blind senseless matter, but a person; not merely law, but the will of One on the throne — that is the concept of universal government explicit in this mention of the throne. (3) Such a throne, with its undergirdings of righteousness and justice, already mentioned in Hebrews 1:8-9, reveals the antagonism between God and evil, showing that eternal justice will prevail infinitely throughout the whole universe. (4) That throne’s being called here a "throne of grace" makes the control center appear as a source of mercy for fallen and sinful man, being called also "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Revelation 22:3). How wonderful, from this vale of sorrow and death and sin and shame, to lift the thoughts of the spirit toward that throne where the Lamb, or sacrifice, is seated and clothed with the mantle of total authority!

Boldly people are commanded to approach the throne of grace. Why? Man’s very nature, in the person of Christ, is seated there. He has tasted every temptation, passed through every sorrow. He knows! Out of his loving heart there flows an eternal tide of love, sympathy, and understanding of humankind, suffering the dreadful trials of their probation; and he eagerly anticipates the entry of his beloved children into the joy of their Lord (Matthew 25:23), demanding only that they love him (John 14:15), and able to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him (Hebrews 7:25).

Westcott provided an excellent summary of the thought of this text, thus:

The minds of the writer and readers are full of the imagery of the Levitical system, and of the ceremonial of the high-priestly atonement; and the form of the exhortation suggests the grandeur of the position in which the Christian is placed, as compared with that of the Jew; "let us therefore," trusting the divine power and human sympathy of Jesus the Son of God, "draw near," as priests ourselves in fellowship with our High Priest — and not remain standing afar off as the congregation of Israel — "to the throne of grace," no symbolic mercy seat, but the very center of divine sovereignty and love.(F14)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Hebrews 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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