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Hebrews 4

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-16

Chapter 4

THE REST WE DARE NOT MISS ( Hebrews 4:1-10 )

4:1-10 It is true that the promise which offers entry into the rest of God still remains for us; but beware lest any of you be adjudged to have missed it. It is indeed true that we have had the good news preached to us, just as those of old had. But the word which they heard was no good to them, because it did not become woven into the very fibre of their being through faith. It is we who have made the decision of faith who are entering into the rest, for of them God said: "I swore in my anger, 'Very certainly they shall not enter into my rest.'" This he said although his works had been finished after the foundation of the world. For somewhere in scripture it speaks thus about the seventh day: "And God rested on the seventh day from all his labours." And it says in the same place: "Very certainly they shall not enter into my rest." Since then it remains that some people must enter into it and since those who in former times had the gospel preached to them did not enter because of their lack of trust, he again defines a day, when in David, after so long a lapse of time, he says, "Today," just as he had said before, "Today if you will hear my voice do not harden your hearts." If Joshua had actually brought them into rest, God would not then after that be speaking about another day. So a Sabbath rest remains for the people of God. He who has entered into this rest has rest from all his works, just as God rested from his works.

In a complicated passage like this it is better to try to grasp the broad lines of the thought before we look at any of the details. The writer is really using the word rest (katapausis, G2663) in three different senses. (i) He is using it as we would use the peace of God. It is the greatest thing in the world to enter into the peace of God. (ii) He is using it, as he used it in Hebrews 3:12, to mean The Promised Land To the children of Israel who had wandered so long in the desert the Promised Land was indeed the rest of God. (iii) He is using it of the rest of God after the sixth day of creation, when all God's work was completed. This way of using a word in two or three different ways, of teasing at it until the last drop of meaning was extracted from it, was typical of cultured, academic thought in the days when the writer to the Hebrews wrote his letter.

Now let us see the steps of the argument. It will be simpler if we enumerate them one by one.

(i) The promise of the rest of God for his people still abides; the danger is that we fail to reach it.

(ii) The Israelites in the long ago failed to enter into the rest of God. Here the word rest is being used in the sense of the settlement of the Promised Land after the wilderness years. The reference is to Numbers 13:1-33 and Numbers 14:1-45. These chapters tell how the children of Israel came to the borders of the Promised Land, how they sent out scouts to spy out the land, how ten of the twelve scouts came back with the verdict that it was a good land but that the difficulties of entering into it were insuperable, how Caleb and Joshua alone were for going forward in the strength of the Lord, how the people hearkened to the advice of the cowards, and how the result was that that generation of distrusting cowards were debarred for ever from entering into the rest and the peace of the Promised Land. They did not trust God to bring them through the difficulties that lay ahead; and therefore they never enjoyed the rest they could have had.

(iii) Now the writer switches the meaning of the word rest. It is true that these people long ago missed the rest they might have had; but, although they missed it, the rest remained. Behind this argument lies one of the favourite conceptions of the Rabbis. On the seventh day, the day after creation had been completed, God rested from his labours. In the creation story in Genesis 1:1-31; Genesis 2:1-25 there is a strange fact. On the first six days of creation it is said that morning and evening came; that is to say, each day had an end and a beginning. But on the seventh day, the day of God's rest, there is no mention of evening at all. From this the Rabbis argued that, while the other days came to an end, the day of God's rest had no ending; the rest of God was for ever. Therefore although long ago the Israelites may have failed to enter that rest, it still remained.

(iv) Once again the writer goes back to the meaning of rest as the Promised Land. The day came after the forty years wandering in the wilderness when, under Joshua, the people did enter into the Promised Land. Now, the Promised Land was the rest and therefore it could be argued that then the promise was fulfilled.

(v) But no, the promise is not fulfilled, because in Psalms 95:7-11 David hears God's voice saying to the people that if they do not harden their hearts they can enter into his rest. That is to say, hundreds of years after Joshua had led the people into the rest of the Promised Land God is still appealing to them to enter into his rest. There is more to this rest than merely entry into the Promised Land.

(vi) So the final appeal comes. God still appeals to men not to harden their hearts but to enter into his rest. God's "today" still exists and the promise is still open; but "today" does not last for ever; life comes to an end; the promise can be missed; therefore, says the writer to the Hebrews: "Here and now through faith enter into the very rest of God."

There is a very interesting question of meaning in Hebrews 4:1. We have taken the translation: "Beware lest any of you be adjudged to have missed the rest of God." That is to say: "Beware lest your disobedience and your lack of faith may mean that you have shut yourselves out from the rest and the peace that God offers you."

That may very well be the correct translation. But there is another and most interesting possibility. The phrase may mean: "Beware lest you think that you have arrived too late in history ever to enjoy the rest of God."

In that second translation there is a warning. It is very easy to think that the great days of religion are past. It is told that a child, on being told some of the great Old Testament stories, said wistfully: "God was much more exciting then." There is a continual tendency in the Church to look back, to believe that God's power is grown less and that the golden days lie behind. The writer to the Hebrews sounds forth a trumpet call. "Never think," he says, "that you have arrived too late in history; never think that the days of great promise and great achievement lie behind. This is still God's 'today.' There is a blessedness for you as great as the blessedness of the saints; there is an adventure for you as great as the adventure of the martyrs. God is as great today as ever he was."

There are two great permanent truths in this passage.

(i) A word, however great, is of no avail unless it becomes integrated into the person who hears it. There are many different kinds of hearing in this world. There is indifferent hearing, disinterested hearing, critical hearing, sceptical hearing, cynical hearing. The hearing that matters is the hearing that listens eagerly, believes and acts. The promises of God are not merely beautiful pieces of literature; they are promises on which a man is meant to stake his life and dominate his action.

(ii) In Hebrews 4:1 the writer to the Hebrews bids his people beware lest they miss the promise. The word we have translated beware literally means to fear (phobeisthai, G5399) . This Christian fear is not the fear which makes a man run away from a task; nor the fear which reduces him to paralysed inaction; it is the fear which makes him put out every ounce of strength he possesses in a great effort not to miss the one thing that is worth while.

THE TERROR OF THE WORD ( Hebrews 4:11-13 )

4:11-13 Let us then be eager to enter into that rest, lest we follow the example of the Israelites and fall into the same kind of disobedience. For the word of God is instinct with life; it is effective; it is sharper than a two-edged sword; it pierces right through to the very division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it scrutinizes the desires and intentions of the heart. No created thing can ever remain hidden from his sight; everything is naked to him and is compelled to meet the eyes of him with whom we have to reckon.

The point of this passage is that the word of God has come to men and is such that it cannot be disregarded. The Jews always had a very special idea about words. Once a word was spoken, it had an independent existence. It was not only a sound with a certain meaning; it was a power which went forth and did things. Isaiah heard God say that the word which went out of his mouth would never be ineffective; it would always do that which he designed it to do.

We can understand something of this if we think of the tremendous effect of words in history. A leader coins a phrase and it becomes a trumpet-call which kindles men to crusades or to crimes. Some great man sends forth a manifesto and it produces action which can make or destroy nations. Over and over again in history the spoken word of some leader or thinker has gone out and done things. If that be so of the words of men, how much more is it so of the word of God.

The writer to the Hebrews describes the word of God in a series of great phrases. The word of God is instinct with life. Certain issues are as dead as the dodo; certain books and words have no living interest whatever. Plato was one of the world's supreme thinkers but it is unlikely that there would be any public for Daily Studies in Plato. The great fact about the word of God is that it is a living issue for all men of all times. Other things may pass quietly into oblivion; other things may acquire an academic or antiquarian interest; but the word of God is something that every man must face, its offer something he must accept or reject.

The word of God is effective. It is one of the facts of history that wherever men have taken God's word seriously things have begun to happen. When the English Bible was laid bare and the word of God came to the common people, the tremendous event of the Reformation inevitably followed. When people take God seriously they immediately realize that his word is not only something to be studied, not only something to be read, not only something to be written about; it is something to be done.

The word of God is penetrating. The writer piles up phrases to show how penetrating it is. It penetrates to the division of soul and spirit. In Greek the psuche ( G5590) , the soul, is the life principle. All living things possess psuche ( G5590) , it is physical life. In Greek the pneuma ( G4151) , the spirit, is that which is characteristic of man. It is by spirit that man thinks and reasons and looks beyond the earth to God. It is as if the writer to the Hebrews were saying that the word of God tests a man's earthly life and his spiritual existence. He says that the word of God scrutinizes a man's desires and intentions. Desire (enthumesis, G1761) is the emotional part of man, intention (ennoia, G1771) is the intellectual part of man. It is as if he said: "Your emotional and intellectual life must alike be submitted to the scrutiny of God."

Finally the writer to the Hebrews sums things up. He says that everything is naked to God and compelled to meet his eyes. He uses two interesting words. The word for naked is the literal word (gumnos, G1131) . What he is saying is that as far as men are concerned we may be able to wear our outward trappings and disguises; but in the presence of God these things are stripped away and we have to meet him as we are. The other word is even more vivid (tetrachelismenos, G5136) . This is not a common word and its meaning is not quite certain. It seems to have been used in three different ways.

(i) It was a wrestler's word and was used for seizing an opponent by the throat in such a way that he could not move. We may escape God for long enough but in the end he grips us in such a way that we cannot help meeting him face to face. God is one issue that no man can finally evade.

(ii) It was the word that was used for flaying animals. Animals were hung up and the hide was taken off them. Men may judge us by our outer conduct and appearance but God sees into the inmost secrets of our hearts.

(iii) Sometimes when a criminal was being led to judgment or to execution, a dagger, with point upwards, was so fixed below his chin that he could not bow his head in concealment but had to keep it up so that all could see his face and know his dishonour. When that was done, a man was said to be tetrachelismenos ( G5136) . In the end we have to meet the eyes of God. We may avert our gaze from people we are ashamed to meet; but we are compelled to look God in the face. Kermit Eby writes in The God in You: "At some time or other, a man must stop running from himself and his God--possibly because there is just no other place to run to." There comes a time to every man when he has to meet that God from whose eyes nothing ever can be concealed.

THE PERFECT HIGH PRIEST ( Hebrews 4:14-16 )

4:14-16 Since, then, we have a high priest, great in his nature, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our creed. For we have not a high priest who is such that he cannot feel with us in our weaknesses; but one who has gone through every temptation, just in the same way as we have, and who is without sin. Let us then confidently approach his throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help as need demands.

Here we are coming to closer grips with the great characteristic conception of Hebrews--that of Jesus as the perfect high priest. His task is to bring the voice of God to man and to usher men into the presence of God. The high priest at one and the same time must perfectly know man and God. That is what this epistle claims for Jesus.

(i) This passage begins by stressing the sheer greatness and absolute deity of Jesus. He is great in his nature, not by honours conferred by men or by any external trappings but, in his own essential being. He has passed through the heavens. That may mean one of two things. In the New Testament we can discern differing uses of heaven. It can mean the heaven of the sky and it can mean the heaven of the presence of God. This may mean that Jesus has passed through every heaven that may be and is in the very presence of God. It can mean what Christina Rossetti meant when she said: "Heaven cannot hold him." Jesus is so great that even heaven is too small a place for him. No one ever stressed the sheer greatness of Jesus like the writer to the Hebrews.

(ii) Then he turns to the other side. No one was ever surer of Jesus' complete identity with men. He went through everything that a man has to go through and is like us in all things--except that he emerged from it all completely sinless. Before we turn to examine more closely the meaning of this, there is one thing we must note. The fact that Jesus was without sin means that he knew depths and tensions and assaults of temptation which we never can know. So far from his battle being easier it was immeasurably harder. Why? For this reason--we fall to temptation long before the tempter has put out the whole of his power. We never know temptation at its fiercest because we fall long before that stage is reached. But Jesus was tempted far beyond what we are; for in his case the tempter put everything he possessed into the assault. Think of this in terms of pain. There is a degree of pain which the human frame can stand--and when that degree is passed a person loses consciousness so that there are agonies of pain he can not know. It is so with temptation. We collapse in face of temptation; but Jesus went to our limit of temptation and far beyond it and still did not collapse. It is true to say that he was tempted in all things as we are; but it is also true to say that no one was tempted as he was.

(iii) This experience of Jesus had three effects.

(a) It gave him the gift of sympathy. Here is something which we must understand but which we find very difficult. The Christian idea of God as a loving Father is interwoven into the very fabric of our mind and heart; but it was a new idea. To the Jew the basic idea of God was that he was holy in the sense of being different. In no sense did he share our human experience and was in fact incapable of sharing it just because he was God.

It was even more so with the Greeks. The Stoics, the highest Greek thinkers, said the primary attribute of God was apatheia, by which they meant essential inability to feel anything at all. They argued that if a person could feel sorrow or joy it means that some other person was able to influence him. If so, that other person must, at least for that moment, be greater than he. No one, therefore, must be able in any sense to affect God for that would be to make him greater than God; and so God had to be completely beyond all feeling. The other Greek school was the Epicureans. They held that the gods lived in perfect happiness and blessedness. They lived in what they called the intermundia, the spaces between the worlds; and they were not even aware of the world.

The Jews had their different God; the Stoics, their feelingless gods; the Epicureans, their completely detached gods. Into that world of thought came the Christian religion with its incredible conception of a God who had deliberately undergone every human experience. Plutarch, one of the most religious of the Greeks, declared that it was blasphemous to involve God in the affairs of this world. Christianity depicted God not so much involved as identified with the suffering of this world. It is almost impossible for us to realize the revolution that Christianity brought about in men's relationship to God. For century after century they had been confronted with the idea of the untouchable God; and now they discovered one who had gone through all that man must go through.

(b) That had two results. It gave God the quality of mercy. It is easy to see why. It was because God understands. Some people have lived a sheltered life; they have been protected from the temptations that come to those for whom life is not easy. Some people have a nature which is easy to control; others have hot passions that make life a perilous thing. The person who has lived the sheltered life and has the noninflammable nature finds it hard to understand why the other person falls. He is faintly disgusted and cannot help condemning what he cannot understand. But God knows. "To know all is to forgive all"--of no one is that truer than he.

John Foster in one of his books tells how he came into his home in this country one day in the thirties to find his daughter in tears before the radio set. He asked her why and found that the news bulletin had contained the sentence--"Japanese tanks entered Canton today." Most people would hear that with at the most a faint feeling of regret. Statesmen may have heard it with grim foreboding; but to most people it did not make so very much difference. Why then was John Foster's daughter in tears? Because she had been born in Canton. To her Canton meant a home, a nurse, a school, friends.

The difference was that she had been there. When you have been there it makes all the difference. And there is no part of human experience of which God cannot say: "I have been there." When we have a sad and sorry tale to tell, when life has drenched us with tears, we do not go to a God who is incapable of understanding what has happened; we go to a God who has been there. That is why--if we may put it so--God finds it easy to forgive.

(c) It makes God able to help. He knows our problems because he has come through them. The best person to give you advice and help on a journey is someone who has travelled the road before you. God can help because he knows it all.

Jesus is the perfect high priest because he is perfectly God, and perfectly man. Because he has known our life he can give us sympathy, mercy and power. He brought God to men and he can bring men to God.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.