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Bible Commentaries

Smith's Writings

Hebrews 4

Verses 1-16

The Rest to Which the Wilderness Leads

( Heb_4:1-11 )

The wilderness journey of the children of Israel, of which the writer has been speaking in Heb_3:7-19 , was in view of the rest of Canaan. Into this rest those who came out of Egypt could not enter because of the hardness of their hearts, their sin and their unbelief ( Heb_3:15 ; Heb_3:17 ; Heb_3:19 ).

Like Israel of old, believers today are passing on their way through a wilderness world to the rest of the coming glory. This rest is the great theme of the first eleven verses of Hebrews 4 : Let us note that it is God's rest of which the writer speaks. It is called “His rest”, and, in the quotations from the Old Testament, “My rest” ( Heb_3:18 ; Heb_4:1 ; Heb_4:3 ; Heb_4:5 ).

This rest - the rest of God - is wholly future. It is not the present rest of conscience that faith in the Person and work of Christ gives the believer, according to the Lord's words, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Nor is it the rest of heart that is the daily portion of the one who walks in obedience to Christ, submitting to His will, again according to His Word, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” ( Mat_11:28 ; Mat_11:29 ). Nor is it the temporary rest of a tired labourer, of which we read in the Gospels, when the Lord said, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place and rest a while ”, words which imply that we must be working again ( Mar_6:31 ).

God can only rest in that which satisfies His love and holiness. God's rest will be reached when God's love has fulfilled all His mind for those He loves. When righteousness is established, and sorrow and sighing flee away, God will “rest in His love” ( Zep_3:17 ). “Holiness cannot rest where sin is; love cannot rest where sorrow is” (J.N.D.).

The Christian is called out of this world of unrest to have part in the rest of heaven. For the moment he is in the wilderness - neither of the world he has left, nor in heaven to which he is going. Faith keeps in view the heavenly rest to which we are going, which Christ has secured for us, and where Christ is, as we read a little later, He has entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” ( Heb_9:24 ).

(Vv. 1, 2). Having this blessed promise, we are warned of seeming to come short of God's rest. The mere professor, who gives up His Christian profession and returns to Judaism, would not only seem to come short; he would actually do so, and perish in the wilderness. But the true believer may appear to come short by turning back to the world and settling down on earth. Of old, Israel heard the good tidings of a land flowing with milk and honey, but alas, they hearkened not to the word. (Compare Heb_3:18 , N.Tn. with Deu_1:22-26 .)

The Christian has still more glorious tidings of yet greater blessedness in heaven's eternal rest. To faith, these coming glories are real. If the Word is not mixed with faith, it can no more profit the hearer now than of old.

(Vv. 3, 4). Nevertheless, though some in old days did not believe the glad tidings of the Canaan rest, and though the vast profession today may not believe in the glad tidings of the heavenly rest, the blessed fact remains that God has a future rest, and believers are to enter into that rest. Every step they take is bringing them nearer to God's rest. The mere professor, without personal faith in Christ, will irretrievably fall in the wilderness. God's oath, “If they shall enter into My rest”, (a quotation from the Septuagint version of Psa_95:11 ) actually means, “They shall not enter into My rest.”

The writer refers to creation to show that from the beginning God has had before Him “rest”, and to manifest the character of God's rest. After the world was formed and man was created in the image and likeness of God, the creation works of God were finished. This led to creation rest with its two distinctive marks: firstly, God's satisfaction in all that He had made, as we read, “God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good”; secondly, the entire cessation from all His creation work, as it is written, “He rested on the seventh day from all his work which He had made.” ( Gen_1:31 ; Gen_2:2 ). Thus we learn the two great truths that mark God's rest: the absolute complacency in the result of the labour; and satisfaction being reached, the absolute end of all toil.

(V. 5). The creation rest is a foreshadowing of the eternal rest. The creation rest was broken into by sin. Nevertheless, God does not give up the settled purpose of His heart to have a rest - an eternal rest - which no sin will ever mar. Thus again, in the days of Joshua, God's rest is kept before us, for once more there is the good news of rest, even though the unbelief of Israel hindered the enjoyment of the Canaan rest, so that God has to say, “They [shall] not enter into My rest” ( Psa_95:11 ).

(V. 6). In spite of the fact that sin had broken the creation rest and unbelief marred the Canaan rest, God assures us that He still has a rest before Him, which He calls “My rest”, and that there are some who will enter into God's rest, even though those to whom it was first preached missed the rest through their unbelief. God's purpose to secure a rest according to His own heart is not to be thwarted by the sin and unbelief of man.

(Vv. 7, 8). If the creation rest is marred and the Canaan rest is lost, what is the rest of God which those who believe are to enter? Joshua had failed to bring the people into the Canaan rest, therefore David, long years after, speaks of another rest in “another day”. To set forth this rest, the writer quotes Psa_95:7 ; Psa_95:8 . This Psalm is a call to Israel to turn to Jehovah with thanksgiving in view of the future coming of Christ to earth to bring the nation into rest. In view of the glad tidings of this fresh day of grace, Israel is warned not to harden their hearts as in Joshua's day. To refuse this fresh appeal would be to miss the earthly rest under the reign of Christ.

(Vv. 9, 10). The writer concludes his argument by saying, “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God”, and the great characteristic of this rest will be cessation from toil, for “he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works.” Thus the great truth is established that whether it be God's heavenly rest for a heavenly people, or God's earthly rest for an earthly people, the rest is still future. It is a rest to which faith is pressing on. Moreover, it is not rest from sin, but rest from labour, and not rest from labour because the labourer is tired, but rest because his work is finished. As one has said, “No present rest is the rest of God; and the futurity of that rest is a grand safeguard against the snare for any Christian, most of all for a Jewish one, to seek it now here below. As God cannot rest in sin or misery, neither ought we to allow it even in our desires, still less to make it our life. Now is the time for the labour of love if we know His love, now to seek true worshippers of the Father as He is seeking Himself” (W.K.).

(V. 11). As the rest is future, and the blessedness of the rest, we are exhorted to labour, or to use diligence to enter into the rest that lies before us. Later in the Epistle we are again exhorted to “work and labour”, to “diligence”, to “be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” ( Heb_6:10-12 ).

There is the danger that we may despise the rest of God that lies at the end of the journey, or grow weary of the labour of love on the way. Israel did both. Let us then beware lest any of us fall after the same example of unbelief. The two great exhortations are, “Let us fear” lest we despise the promise of the rest (verse 1) and “Let us labour” on the way to the rest (verse 11).

God's Provision to Maintain Us in Our Wilderness Journey

( Heb_4:12-16 )

The concluding verses of the chapter bring before us the two great means by which believers are preserved as they journey through the wilderness to the rest of God: firstly, the Word of God (verses 12, 13); secondly, the priestly service of Christ (verses 14-16).

(Vv. 12, 13). We are reminded that the Word of God is not a dead letter; it lives and acts by penetrating the heart of man. The result for the one whose conscience and heart come under its influence is twofold: firstly, it reveals the thoughts and intents of the heart; secondly, it brings the soul into the presence of God with whom we have to do.

The Word exposes to us the hidden lusts of the “soul” and the reasonings and unbelief of the “spirit”, so revealing to us the true character of the flesh by searching the secret thoughts and intents of the heart. Here it is not a question of outward sins, but rather the hidden motives and spring of evil. The Word discovers to us the hidden depths of the heart, making manifest how much of “self” is the secret motive of the life. Moreover, being the Word of God, it brings us into the presence of God. It is God speaking to me, laying bare my heart in His presence, there to confess all that the Word detects. How was it that Israel fell in the wilderness? Was it not because “the word preached did not profit them”? Had they by faith let that Word have its place in their hearts, it would have led them to discover and judge the secret roots of unbelief that hindered them from entering into rest.

Thus everything that would hinder us pressing on to the rest of God, everything that would tempt us to settle down in this world, is detected and judged by the Word, in the presence of God, so that the soul may be set free to pursue the pilgrim path, and labour of love, having the rest of God in view.

(V. 14). Moreover, the Word of God, by leading us to judge the secret working of our wills, prepares us to profit by the priestly help and sympathy of Christ. We have not only to contend with the hidden roots of evil in our hearts, but we are encompassed with infirmities and faced with temptations. To deal with the secret evil of our hearts we need the Word; to support us in the presence of infirmities and temptations we need a living Person, One who represents us, One who at every moment knows and interests Himself in all our difficulties and weakness, and One who can sympathise with us, inasmuch as He has experienced the temptations and difficulties that we have to meet.

Such an High Priest we have, “Jesus the Son of God”, who has been before us in the path that leads to the rest of God. He has travelled every step of the way; He has passed through the heavens; He has reached the rest of God. In all our weakness He can support us as we tread the wilderness path until we rest where He rests, above and beyond every trial and temptation, where toil has for ever ceased.

Having such an High Priest, we are exhorted to hold fast our confession. This is not simply holding fast to the confession that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, blessed and important as this is, but rather the confession that we are partakers of the heavenly calling. Our confession is that, as partakers of the heavenly calling, we are to enter God's rest. The danger is that in the presence of temptation we may, by reason of our infirmities, give up our confession of the heavenly calling and settle down in a round of busy service, if not in the world itself.

(V. 15). We need the succour and sympathy of our great High Priest, firstly because of our infirmities, and secondly because of temptations we have to meet. Infirmities are the weaknesses that belong to us as being in the body with its varied needs and liability to sickness and accident. Infirmity is not sin, though it may lead to sin. Hunger is an infirmity; to grumble because of hunger would be sin. Paul., learning the sufficiency of the grace of Christ in the presence of his infirmities, can even say, “I rather glory in my infirmities”, and again, “I take pleasure in infirmities” ( 2Co_12:9 ; 2Co_12:10 ). He would not have gloried in sins, or taken pleasure in sinning.

As to temptations, we have to remember that the believer has to meet two forms of temptation, the temptations from the trials without and the temptations from sin within. Both forms of temptation are brought before us by the apostle James. Firstly, he says, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations”. There are various external trials by which the enemy seeks to turn us aside from the heavenly calling and hinder us from pressing on to the rest of God. Then the apostle speaks of a very different character of temptation when he says, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed”. This is temptation from sin within ( Jam_1:2 ; Jam_1:14 ).

It is the first form of temptation that comes before us in this passage in Hebrews - the temptation to turn from the path of obedience to the Word of God that leads to the rest of God. Further, the devil would seek to use the infirmities of the body to turn us aside by his temptations, even as he sought to use hunger to tempt the Lord from the path of obedience to God. In this form of temptation we have the sympathy of the Lord, as He Himself has been “in all points tempted like as we are.” Of the second form of temptation He knew nothing, for, while it is said that He was “in all points tempted like as we”, it is added, “sin apart”.

(V. 16). In the presence of these infirmities and temptations we have a resource. Whatever the difficulties we may have to meet, however much we may be tried and tested, whatever emergency may arise, there is grace available to enable us to meet the trial. - the throne of grace is open to us. We are exhorted therefore to draw near to the throne of grace, that is to God Himself. We are not told to draw near to the High Priest, but to God, and we can do so boldly because the High Priest represents us at the throne of grace. Drawing near we obtain mercy, not because we have failed, but in order that in the trial we may not fail. The time of need is not here the time of failure, but the time when we are faced with trials and temptations which may lead to failure.

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on Hebrews 4". "Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/hebrews-4.html. 1832.