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CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
THIS chapter should not have been separated from the previous one, as it is a continuation of the hortatory passage. There is, however, a break in the treatment of the subject. In the clause Hebrews 4:1-13 the writer has in mind possible objections to his mode of treating Old Testament Scriptures. It might be said
(1) that the “rest” spoken of was merely quiet possession of an earthly inheritance, and had no deeper spiritual applications. Or it might be said
(2) that the exclusion of the Israelites from Canaan was based on their murmuring and rebellion rather than on their unbelief; and so the case did not properly sustain the writer’s exhortation. He therefore dwells more fully on the point. Really, the “rest” that was offered to believers in the olden time is the “rest” proffered to believers now; and they still may lose the rest through unbelief. The rest really offered, then and now, is spiritual; it is the “rest” of trust in and obedience to Jehovah.
Hebrews 4:1. Fear.—Not in the sense of “be afraid of something happening,” but meaning, “let us take care; be on the alert as those who are in the midst of dangers; act watchfully.” Left us.—Or, “since a promise still remains unrealised.” The usual sense of the word is “neglect.” Lest by neglect of the promise made to us. Stuart prefers “left behind,” “is still extant.” Then the idea is, that “the promise which was implicity made to believers among the ancient people of God is still in being, and is made to us, Christians.” His rest.—Said to enlarge our ideas of its character. It is His rest, and, like Him, it is spiritual. Come short of it.—Fail of obtaining it: see Hebrews 12:15; Romans 3:23; 1 Corinthians 1:7. The point here is the Christian share in the deeper meanings of the Old Testament promises of rest. To the writers of the New Testament the Old Testament glowed in the Christian light.
Hebrews 4:2. Gospel preached.—Not the evangelical doctrines, but the goodness of a promised rest. Not profit them.—Because the condition on their side was lacking. That condition was faith, expressed in trust and obedience.
Hebrews 4:3. Do enter into rest.—The clauses of the verse need rearranging. “But yet the works were finished from the foundation of the world, as He said, As I have sworn in My wrath, if they shall enter into My rest”; or, “they shall not enter.” The quotation is made for the sake of the words “My rest,” to indicate that the reference was to God’s own rest. His spiritual heavenly rest, and not merely to a material, physical, or national rest of God’s providing. God’s rest after work is the suggestion and figure of spiritual rest. “The immense stress of meaning laid on incidental Scriptural expressions, such as ‘My rest,’ and ‘to-day,’ was one of the features of Rabbinic as well as Alexandrian exegesis” (Farrar).
Hebrews 4:4-5.—These quotations are introduced to prove that the promise did not merely concern the Canaan rest. The passage in Genesis could not refer to Canaan, nor could the passage taken from Psalms 95:0, seeing that it was penned long after the Canaan rest had been won.
Hebrews 4:6. Some must enter.—The promise is still open. We cannot think that God makes and renews His promises in vain. Evidently a clause is omitted here, either by accident or designedly for rhetorical purposes. We may supply from Hebrews 4:1, “Let us fear lest we also come short.” Unbelief.—Here ἀπείθειαν, the disobedience which is the sign and expression of unbelief.
Hebrews 4:7.—Reference again to the quotation from the psalm, in order to show that the promise was renewed long after Canaan was gained, and that the rest could always be had “to-day.” It must therefore be a spiritual rest. The statement “in David” is equivalent to “in the book of Psalms,” which went under David’s name. But in the LXX. Version Psalms 95:0 is actually ascribed to David.
Hebrews 4:8. Jesus.—The Greek form of the Hebrew יהושע, Joshua. Compare Acts 7:45, in which the Greek reads Ἰησοῦ. The name is an interesting one. At first Hoshea, it became Hoshua, or the Helper; then the Divine name was prefixed, and it became Je-hoshua, contracted Joshua, God the Helper. The R.V. gives the name in this verse as Joshua.
Hebrews 4:9. Remaineth.—Or the promise clearly lies open for us. “Few things are more striking in the epistle than the constant presentation of the thought that Scripture language is permanent, and at all times present. The implied promise, therefore, repeated whenever the to-day’ is heard, must have its fulfilment” (Moulton). People of God.—The spiritual Israel of every age.
Hebrews 4:11.—The point of this exhortation is, that we have One to deal with who will discern, and will surely punish, the most secret disobedience, the most inner apostasy. Labour.—Be zealous; give all diligence; make every due endeavour. See 2 Peter 1:10-11; Philippians 3:14.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 4:14-16 should be regarded as a transition. The Priesthood of Christ had been referred to in chaps. Hebrews 2:17, Hebrews 3:1. In fact, all the points previously made are recalled to mind in Hebrews 4:14-15. The High Priest: His exaltation (chaps. Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 4:13, Hebrews 2:9); His Divine Sonship (chaps. 1, Hebrews 3:6); His compassion (Hebrews 2:11-18).
Hebrews 4:14. Great High Priest.—At the time of the writer the term “high priest” was applied to more than one person. “Great” separates “Priest” from all others. Into the heavens.—Lit. “through the heavens” (διεληλυθότα), as the high priest of the old economy “through the vail.” In the Hebrew idiom, God dwells above the firmament, Christ is represented as passing through it.
Hebrews 4:15. Touched.—With the sympathy of a fellow-experience. Infirmities.—Not sufferings, not sins, but distinctly the frailties which made peril of apostasy. Tempted.—There is no sin in being subject to temptation. If Jesus could not be tempted, He was not a man; if He yielded to temptation, He could not be a Saviour Without sin.—This is not difficult to understand when we recognise that sin is a thing of the will—that is, of ourselves, of our souls.
Hebrews 4:16. Boldly.—Lit. “with freedom of speech.” Time of need.—Stuart, “timely assistance.” Alford, “for help in time, while yet open to us.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 4:1-11
God’s Rest for His People in Every Age.—In this passage there is a looking back to the rest of Canaan, promised to the fathers, but missed by them through unbelief. There is a looking on to the yet unrealised rest of the heavenly, in order to gain an impulse to new zeal in Christian service. But the rest which more especially comes to view, and has present application to the people of God, is that rest of the soul which waits on steadfast faith—the true Sabbatic rest, of which the rest of Canaan was but a poor and imperfect type. That rest of soul is an unexhausted and inexhaustible good. The promise of it lies open and unfulfilled yet.
I. What is God’s rest?—Reference is made in this chapter to the Sabbatic rest of creation, regarded as God ceasing from His active labours. This may serve to illustrate the rest of God; it cannot be the very rest which He promises His people. Reference is also made to the rest which Israel found, as a nation, in the land of Canaan, after long bondage in Egypt, and long wandering in the desert of Arabia. This, too, may serve for illustration; but even for the people of Israel it was not the true rest of God. His promise to them was larger far than any bodily contentments, any easy, prosperous circumstances. Neither the Sabbath nor Canaan are more than symbols of the true rest of God. This may be said about that rest. Since God provides it for His creatures, it must be
(1) like Himself;
(2) adapted to the deepest and the best in them.
1. If God’s rest is like Himself, it must stand related to character, not to conditions, and not to attributes. The war in heaven, of which Milton sings, may not be thought of as disturbing the eternal rest of God. But the infinite peace of God should not be so described as to separate Him from human interests, and produce the impression that the varied states of His creatures never move Him to pity or sympathy or grief. God is ever at rest, because the changes of circumstance never imperil the basis principles of His character. Round about Him are ever-hanging “clouds and darkness”; laving His very footstool may be the ever-restless sea; but “justice and judgment” are the habitation of His throne. We are “restless, unquiet sprites,” as Keble calls us, not because we are in the midst of variable conditions and circumstances, or because these affect our feeling; but because these varying circumstances put in peril the principles of our character. We are not centred, settled, fixed for ever, in our trust and goodness, and so we are driven with every wind and tossed. If a Christian man comes into trouble, he begins at once to question the foundation of his hope. We may think of God as having eternal rest, because even if “the elements melted with fervent heat, and the earth, and all therein,” were burned up, God could never question the righteousness of His being, or the principles of His eternal rule. We must think thus of Him if He is the eternally Good One. Or it may be put in this way: Rest comes from the dominion of one faculty in us; under its rule all the various powers of our nature fall into order, take their place, and keep the peace. War may be a thing of the soul as well as of the circumstances; and the inward war consists in the conflict of motives. Mind and will and judgment and affections, when out of harmony, make war in the soul. Now we can conceive of nothing like that in God. He is at rest because, in His Divine nature, there is the order and harmony that follow the rule of the highest faculty—and that in God can only be love. The law works for us also. We must give the dominion to our highest faculty—and for the creature that is trust.
2. God’s rest provided for man must be adapted to man, to the deepest and best that is in him. Man, as man, is ever seeking rest. The Bible presents him to us as striving to win back a lost Paradise. Poetry rings out a melancholy wail over the “Golden Age” that is gone, and bids us gain rest in tender memories, and lofty imaginations, and beautiful thoughts, thus raising ourselves up above the stern, hard, iron age of the present. Man, as a sinner, is ever seeking rest. Who shall roll away the burden? Man, as redeemed, is still seeking rest. Rest for minds, in the great agitation of conflicting theories. Rest for wills amidst the claims of opposing duties. We differ so much from each other that what may be rest for one of us would be no rest for another. Yet for all there is the one law—rest never comes by knowing, always by trusting. God’s rest begins within us, in the faith we set on God. It spreads out through all the forces and expressions of our being, and ensures the rest of settled, established character. It reaches to our circumstances, influencing them, modifying them, bringing them into its obedience; and so it grows from being the rest of the soul to become the eternal rest of heaven.
II. Who may hope to gain this present rest of God?—As the rest of faith it must be for those who believe. But faith is not the merely intellectual acceptance of a sentence embodied in a creed. It is the spirit of trust. It is reliance, dependence. It is the yielding of the self to God. It is the staying of the heart on God. It is the personal confidence of the Father’s love. It is the heart’s grasp of the Divine righteousness and goodness, as revealed in Jesus Christ. But the believing that brings rest is not a single act, or even a state once reached. The Greek language had an advantage over ours. It could express, by the form of the verb, the idea of having begun, and continuing still. It is not “we have believed,” but “we have begun to believe, and we are keeping on the trust.” And because the trust is maintained day by day, the rest of the soul is renewed day by day.
III. How far may this “rest of God” be a present, conscious possession?—It is a mistake to assume that all the facts and processes of the religious life must come into conscious recognition. All the finest things in soul-growth elude observation. The best violets are usually hidden away under the leaves. The most delicate graces cannot bear a look or a touch. So “rest” may be the possession of a soul, and the mind may not be laying the fact before itself for consideration. And rest will never be gained by directly seeking for it. It will be gained by simply doing our duty; by keeping up that trusting which finds its best expression in obedience; by living for Christ; by growing into His likeness; by perfecting our sympathy with the great and beneficent purposes of God; by perseverance in well-doing; by “holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering.” “Be stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” and it will be evident enough that you have reached the soul-rest of God. We must wait for the fulness of our rest; none of us need wait for the beginnings of our rest. If we cannot have the fruition, we can have the foretaste. We can receive now the “end of our faith,” even the “salvation of our souls.”
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 4:1. The Rest of Sonship.—Rest for any man can only come out of finding the Father in heaven. No one can find the Father until he gets the Spirit of the Son into his heart.
I. Rest for man.—There is
(1) rest from the burden of ceremonial rites;
(2) rest from the burden of the sorrows of life;
(3) rest from the burden of the slavery of sin;
(4) rest of body;
(5) rest of mind;
(6) rest of conscience;
(7) rest of death;
(8) rest of heaven. But men want rest from their troubles, and the only worthy rest is rest in our trouble. Rest from a burdened conscience men want; the higher rest of a changed and renewed nature they little value. There is a better rest possible of attainment: rest in trouble; rest in submitting; rest in the sanctified effect of the trouble. The spirit of a son, that is the secret of rest.
II. Rest for Christ and in Christ for man.—Christ had no rest from earthly troubles, but He had heart-rest in the midst of troubles. But for that inward soul-rest the human life of Christ could not have been lived through. Rest came from the willingness with which He bore the burdens that His Father laid upon Him. It was the rest of submission, of cross-bearing, of sacrifice, of meekness and lowliness of heart, of cherished obedient sonship. To find rest we are directed to Christ Himself. In Him we may find the rest of
(1) an all-satisfying love,
(2) an all-sufficient wisdom,
(3) an almighty power. When we ask how this rest of soul in Christ becomes ours amidst the duties and anxieties and sorrows of life, then we are directed to Christ’s yoke and yoke-bearing. We may gain rest by bearing the same yoke, and by bearing it in the same way. Christ bore His yoke in the spirit of a son. Let Him teach you the glory of being a child, a son. If only you were sonlike in spirit, satisfied, at home with God, loving a Father’s will, you would find that sin was gone from its power; and as the yoke of life rested on you, you would feel how true were the Saviour’s words, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
Hebrews 4:2. The Causes of Unprofitable Hearing.—The censure here passed by the apostle upon certain hearers who failed to profit by the preaching of the word refers more immediately to the Israelites under Moses in the desert. The unprofitableness of preaching has throughout Christendom been the subject of complaint to some and of lamentation to others. Hearers say the word preached is unprofitable, not from their want of faith or piety, but want of zeal, ability, discretion, energy, originality of the preacher. It may be, however, through perverseness, inattention, or unbelief in the hearers.
I. Unprofitable hearing is the result of irregular attendance at the house of God.—Frequent absence from the services of the sanctuary can never be compatible with edification. The services are frequent, regular; the invitations to hear audible and intelligible. Health, pleasures, business, study, are the excuses. The grace of God is not to be expected by the irregular worshipper.
II. Another fault in hearers: those who, by being absent in mind and spirit, make their bodily presence of no avail.—It is possible for the mind to be so entirely abstracted from any subject under discussion as scarcely to be sensible that a discourse is preached. Others intend to listen, but their attention is easily diverted to other objects. The light-minded hearers are particularly subject to this tendency; but those professing more solidity of character are often not less guilty of imperfect and wavering attention.
III. Another fault in hearers: those who attend with improper dispositions either with regard to the minister or to their fellow-hearers.—Those who criticise the preacher in an arbitrary and dictatorial manner, and to other hearers, are apt to be censorious in their application of the truth or duty inculcated. They criticise the doctrines delivered, or the arrangement of the subject, or the style of the composition. Whatever variety may be permitted in our discourses must be found only in our application of doctrine, and never in the doctrine itself. We may occasionally venture on new illustrations, but never new discoveries.
IV. Those who aim the shafts of their criticism not so much at the preacher as at their fellow-hearers.—Every practical, edifying discourse holds up vice to shame and reprobation, and commends and enforces virtue; by the threatenings of God it warns sin, unbelief, and spiritual instability, and by His promises it encourages faith, piety, and persevering holiness. The censorious hearer of these praises and denunciations applies the former to himself and the latter to his neighbour. Uncharitableness is an undoubted sign of unbelief. Let us pray for faith, that we may be willing to receive instruction without insisting arbitrarily on favourite methods of our own as indispensable to justification, and that we may be preserved from censoriousness; and that, being desirous of improvement to ourselves as well as of being charitable to others, we may, before presuming to remove the mote out of our brother’s eye, consider the beam that is in our own.—William Sinclair, D.D.
Mixed with Faith.—The attempts which are continually made to gauge the word of God by other standards than that of faith leave men in doubt as to its Divine origin. The conflict of science and revelation, how does this happen? By applying the same test to both. The astronomer and the chemist—observation by the one, laws of combination by the other.
I. Mixed with faith on account of the Divine nature of the word, yea, it might be said the Diviner nature of the word.—A piece of workmanship, when examined, will afford much information respecting the worker—wisdom, power, etc.; but the person is out of sight until you meet him. So with God; His works reveal His attributes, but not Himself—instance Job. “Oh that I knew,” etc. (Job 23:2-9). But a moment’s reflection on the method of revelation will lead to the belief that God has revealed Himself in the dream, the vision, the sacrifice, inspiration, etc. We must take these paths, we must fall into these grooves, become saturated with this spirit in order that the word may profit us. Faith, then, is that sympathy with spiritual things which enables us to distinguish between them. It is our common experience that to be in the spirit of the thing is necessary either to its discharge or enjoyment. How much more so in the higher branches of life—genius, art, æsthetics. John in the Spirit in Patmos, etc.
II. Mixed also with faith, for this is the only entrance into our inner life.—There are three classes of observations. The common, as when one’s attention is drawn to an object to observe it. The second is the looking for that object, in order to a deeper acquaintance with it. The third is the assimilation of the object and ourselves. So there are three classes of hearers—the accidental, the honest, and the earnest. In the case of the latter the dream, the vision, the sacrifice, the inspiration, become our own. See with a prophet’s eye, feel with a priest’s heart, handle with an apostle’s touch. If we take one comparison—the union of the vine and the branches—that union is Divine, mysterious, communicative, complete. The sap travels along the various ducts to every part, even the twig and the leaf. Look at this, and you will perceive that faith is the union of the soul to Christ, whereby all that He is to us as a Saviour flows into our experience. There cannot be an entrance if the door is not opened. There cannot be life unless the food is assimilated. There cannot be salvation unless the heart is in sympathy with Christ. Israelites were buried in the wilderness. Sinners die at the cross.
III. Mixed with faith also, as the stage is a preliminary one—one not of actual possession, but of trust and expectancy.—Faith is occupied with foundations, beginnings, preliminaries, plans, and materials. “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended.” The life which God prescribed—the collecting of materials for the new Jerusalem. Prophets, priests, and kings lived that life, expectancy inspiring action to prepare. The same Divine plan exists again in the life of the believer: “For we have no continuing city here, we look for one to come.” The grand time is to come. Let us look at it. Above doubt or fear, free from sin, delivered from the influences of circumstances, raised into close communion with God, and into the fellowship of His Son. In view of that period faith says, “Let us be ready.” More prayer, more trust, more of His word in the heart: “According to your faith be it unto you.”—Anon.
Promises prove larger than Performances through Man’s Weaknesses.—It sometimes seems as if God’s promises were unfulfilled; and we are even tempted to say that they were too large ever to be fulfilled. But we must beware of admitting the idea that God ever leads on His people with promises and hopes which He never intends to fulfil. The promises of God always represent what He would do if He could; but seeing God deals with moral beings, to whom He has committed the trust of effective, but limited, free wills, no promise that God ever makes can be absolute; it must be conditioned, and the condition affects man. The promise cannot be fulfilled unless man is in such a state that the promise can do for him what God intended it to do. Man alone spoils the complete fulfilment of everything God has promised.
Hebrews 4:4. The First Seventh-day Rest.—If God intended us to keep the Sabbath holy, why did He not from the very first give to man a more definite and emphatic command concerning it? It may be answered, that God designed keeping Sabbath to be a moral act of willinghood, loyalty, and holy imitation; it was not to be a matter of mere forced obedience. If our first parents had kept their communion with God, it would have been their joyous endeavour to be like Him in all things. Example is a higher and more universal force than commandment. Commands we give to mere children. Examples are the inspiration of men. At first God dealt with His creatures as moral beings who were made in His own image, and were capable of enjoying His fellowship. When man became deteriorated, God graciously accommodated Himself to his low, ignorant, and childish condition, and gave him commands. The example of God means that His abiding presence with us is apprehended, and is the joy and power of our lives. And all to whom that Divine presence is a reality will feel that nothing can possibly make the Sabbath so sacred to them as the example of Him who rested from His work on the seventh day, sanctified and hallowed it. God put aside His relation to material things as their Creator, and occupied Himself in the world of spirit; and that was His resting. Our putting aside our relation to common life-work, and occupation of thought and heart with spirit-things, unseen and eternal things, would be our human imitation of the Divine example, and our resting. St. Augustine says: “God rested—not as if He were wearied. No, the ‘Creator of the ends of the earth fainteth not neither is weary’; but He saw what He had made was good, and contemplated His own works, and rejoiced in them; and thus commended to us the state of contemplation as higher than that of labour, and as a state to be attained by labour.”
Hebrews 4:7. The Present.—We do well to look back, that by seeing our past blessings we may be grateful for them; by seeing past errors we may be humbled; by observing their consequences we may be warned. We ought to look forwards to measure our own strength, refresh our spirits, and to see the light shining on the distant hills. Our true life—only life we can count upon—is now.
I. Each day has its own gifts.—All good gifts are exactly what we make of them. Pray that God will teach us rightly to use the gifts of every day.
II. Each day has also its immediate opportunities.—Slight it may be, but full of possibility of blessing. Many spend their days in doing unkindnesses, in light criticisms, jealous depreciations—women whose whole lives dwindle into some acrid rivulet of gossip, slander, and spite. How often do better spirits lose precious opportunities of pleasing God by performing nameless acts of kindness. A word spoken in due season, how good it is. “Time is money.” That is the least thing it is—for time is eternity.
III. Also its own stores of pure and innocent happiness.—To those who walk through the world with open eyes every day reveals something beautiful—in nature, in city-life, in home-life. In idle repinings, in discontented selfishness, we lose everything. Our best hopes, our richest treasures, our destiny on earth, yea heaven itself, lie not in the visionary future, but in the here and now.
IV. Every day has its duties.—Riches may fly away, fame may vanish, friends may die, but duty never ceases. Are we happy? Let us work Unhappy? Action is the best of solaces. Bitterly disappointed? If we cannot build upon the foundations, let us build upon the ruins. Is the future uncertain? Whatever it is to be, it will come. There is always something to be done. Each day has its duty. After the Resurrection the apostles found Christ in faithful work.
V. Every day has also its supreme duty—the duty of repentance, of getting nearer to God, and seeing His face.—If this duty be neglected, no other duty can be a substitute for it. There is one thing needful. We “know not what a day or an hour may bring forth.” “Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live.”
VI. Every day has its gracious help.—There is One of infinite help always at hand. God is our help and strength. He loves us, and will not forsake us. He who gave His own Son for our sins, shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Jesus our Intercessor. The Holy Spirit our Helper. The golden ladder between earth and heaven is prayer. Let us ask Jesus to take us by the hand, and then whatever the future may have in store for us we shall be able to face it with man’s inalienable dignity and unconquerable will.—F. W. Farrar, D.D.
Hebrews 4:7. Man’s Power over his Own Heart.—“Harden not your heart.” The counsel is worthless unless it is in the power of man to harden his heart. That he can do so receives its most striking proof and illustration from the Biblical account of Pharaoh Menephthah. Calamities which do not subdue the heart harden it. The hardening itself is judicial and just, when it is a consequence of previously formed habits.
I. Man has power over his heart through his intellect.—He can reject—refuse to receive or believe—the things which would act persuasively on his heart.
II. Man has power over his heart through his will.—He can refuse to let the heart yield to softening and subduing influences.
III. Man has power over his heart through his self-interests.—He can make them crush the tenderest susceptibilities.
IV. Man has power over his heart through his habits.—He can make them effect a life-bondage which the intensest emotions will be powerless to break. So a man can harden his own heart.
Hebrews 4:8. An Outward and Temporary Mission.—Joshua is especially interesting when viewed from one point. His mission was not, in the usually accepted sense, religious. It was national; it concerned external relations and material things. And that was for Joshua religion, his religious mission. We are constantly erring by making unnecessary distinctions between the secular and the sacred, and putting superior honour on life-missions which we class as sacred. But if a man works for God his work ceases to be secular; it becomes sacred. The division is altogether lost. Joshua’s material and outward work of war, settling, organising, dividing, was every whit as sacred as Moses’ work in revelation and religion. What makes a life-mission sacred is the cherished spirit and purpose of the man who carries it out. And the spirit which ennobled and sanctified Joshua’s outward and temporary mission is fully revealed in his declaration, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Hebrews 4:9. Soul-rest for To-day.—The word “therefore” introduces the conclusion and application of an argument. This conclusion throws light on the Old Testament revelation, and gives us the right to use the old promises for our strengthening and comforting. God’s promises are never given as mere accidents; they come on special occasions, but they rest upon Divine reasonings and judgments; they may precisely fit one particular circumstance, but the circumstance is illustrative of other circumstances, and the promise is found to fit the ever-recurring similar need. Human experiences are strangely repeated through the ages; and moral and spiritual experiences are also strangely alike. The promises of God are adapted to the ordinary outworking of natural, social, intellectual, moral laws—laws which are permanently, unchangeably, and irresistibly working. The promises of God translate themselves afresh for application to each new generation, the old words ever taking on a new and living meaning. The promise made to Abraham—“In thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed”—was a special promise to him and to his particular race. But it stands true to-day; for all the families of the earth are blessed in the witness of every man who lives such a life of faith as Abraham lived. The men of faith are to-day the saviours of society. No material promise that God has ever made can be exhausted in any providential circumstances. Each one of them has its spiritual counterpart, which carries its continuous applications. God has promised “rest” to His people. At first it meant the rest of a settled, cultivated land, after long years of weary wilderness-wandering. But it could not exhaust itself with that. The promise is not outworn. God has fulfilled it, in various senses, over and over again. But it keeps still its old freshness and its old fulness, and it is rich with meanings and applications for us all to-day. There “remaineth” a rest. It is still the Divine provision. It is always available, always just before us, the inspiration of all true workers. There is indeed a sense in which that rest may be and is reached even now. “We which have believed do enter into rest.” There is a sense in which that rest is always held just before us, just out of grasp, the cheer and inspiration of every endeavour. God’s promise to His people in every age will go into one word—“rest.” But we must put more and better meaning into the term than mere lying down in weariness and idleness. That is but the rest which frail and feeble bodies may need. For souls attainment is rest, the completion of labour is rest, the contemplation of the results of anxious and arduous endeavour is rest. The schoolboy gains rest when he rises above the anxious strain of dealing with first principles and difficulties. It is rest to be able to do one’s work easily. The man in middle age gains rest as he finds business established, income regular and steady, and a good sum put by against the “rainy day.” The old man finds rest in the Land of Beulah, where he may sit awhile, and gratefully think over a useful, earnest, and devoted life, in all whose scenes the grace of God has been abundantly magnified. Rest—the true rest—it is not sleep; that is but an image of it, and an image of only one feature of it. It is not death; we only call that rest when our sufferer has so intensely suffered, and the strain on the dying and on the watchers has been so great, that death is welcome as a release from well-nigh unbearable agony and distress. It is not heaven, unless we are able to think of heaven as a state rather than a place, and can enter into the spiritual things materially figured for us in pearly gates, and golden streets, and many mansions. Rest is a soul-condition, which makes its own surroundings. Heaven is around us when heavenliness is within us. “Heavenly-mindedness” is the “rest that remaineth for the people of God,” and we can have it and keep it now. To dwell on this more fully in detail, we may see that the fulfilment of God’s promise of rest is—
I. Adapted to conditions.—Look out over life, and see how various are the ideas of rest that are entertained under pressure of the various circumstances of the life. Take a single life, and notice how changeful are the ideas of rest men have at different times, and when overmastered by varying cares. The traveller longs for the rest of home; the student longs for the rest of attainment. The critical-minded man longs for the rest of simple faith. The tempted long for the rest of security. The over-worked worker longs for the rest of limitation. The feeble long for the rest of health. The sufferer longs for the rest of sleep. The old man, left alone in the midst of the graves of his beloved, oftentimes sighs for rest, and finds his soul bursting forth and saying, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! then would I flee away, and be at rest.” It is curious to note how conceptions of heaven match condition. It is carried indeed too far by those who make heaven the spiritual counterpart of the earthly, and then say that whatsoever a man desires most here, and cannot attain here, he shall have fully supplied there. The Old Testament promise of rest was partly fulfilled in the provision of the Sabbath rest—that weekly putting aside of the toils and cares of ordinary life which has been the beatitude of all the generations, the weekly foretaste and suggestion of heaven. For the Jewish people it was fulfilled when Joshua divided among them the fields and cities of the conquered Canaanites, and the weary wilderness wanderers settled down in homes of their own. It was fulfilled for the Jewish nation when they came out of the struggle and strain of a formative time into the rest and peace of the Davidic rule. In a way it was fulfilled for David himself when, with great rejoicings of heart, he succeeded in bringing the sacred Ark to Zion. In a small sense it was fulfilled when that little band of returning exiles entered the city of their fathers, though the city was but a ruin, the Temple destroyed, the walls broken down, and the gates burned. They tried to think it was home and rest—it was poor home and no rest. “There remaineth a rest.” It is for the people of God to-day. But it is dependent on their condition; it varies to them according to their varying condition. Are we carnally-minded? Our heaven will match our condition. Are we spiritually-minded? Our heaven will match our condition. Are we young, and looking out on life with large eyes of hope? Then our heaven, our thought of rest, will match our condition. Are we old, is life almost all behind us, and are our beloved only just over there, on the further shore? Then our heaven will match our condition. Are we poor, struggling almost in vain to keep a place and win daily bread? Then rest and heaven will be fashioned for us by our daily struggles. Are we rich, so that the needs of the hour are fully met? Then our heaven will take shape from our condition, and seem to be a continuity and permanence of present privileges. But is it not full of comfort to be assured, that the promise of God can come into such direct adaptation to each one of us, and be the satisfaction of the deepest and best in every individual? God’s rest is to us as we are to it. Improve our moral and spiritual condition, and the rest grows nobler, fills with richer meaning, and gains more inspiring force. It loses its material envelope, and appears as what it is—the soul’s rest in God, which includes everything. Faber expresses the soul’s eternal rest in God in poetical and mystical language, when he says,—
“Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
And ever gaze on Thee.”
II. The fulfilment of God’s promise of rest depends on our preparations.—Why is the fulfilment often so disappointing? Because the rest has merely been longed for; it has not been prepared for. Many a man leaves business—retires, as it is called—and expects to enjoy a few years of delightful rest, and he is wofully disappointed. He cannot rest: he is bored to death with the dulness of having nothing to do; he frets daily with wishing that he could put the harness on again. The fact is that, though he wanted the rest, he never thought of preparing himself for it. And a man can no more enjoy the time of retirement without preparation for it, than a man can win the power to retire, through efficiency in business, without an apprenticeship of preparation. God did not let Israel enter its land of rest until after long discipline in Egypt and long testings in the wilderness. Think of the heavenly rest remaining for the people of God, and we may be reminded that all life, in the Divine leading, is preparation for it. What we fear concerning ourselves and concerning others is, that the daily life we are living is no fitting or adequate preparation. Not for one moment would we suggest that the preparation for heaven is something different from, or distinct from, the preparation for life, daily life. Heaven is established righteousness; but then it is precisely that righteousness which gets established here—that righteousness which we who bear Christ’s name should be at work to culture every day. Prepare to live—in so doing you prepare to die, and in so doing you prepare for heaven. Heaven is life fruitened. Think of the rest sought by the people of God as heart-rest from care—the rest which comes now, and which a man keeps in the very midst of his troubles and distresses. “We have all heard the experience of long-continued sufferers from bodily pain. They have told us how they chafed and fretted to be free, when first the yoke of life-long helplessness and anguish was laid upon them; they wore their hearts sore against the yoke. But they learned of Christ to submit, not to chafe and fret, to bear—as Keble so exquisitely expresses it, ‘Wishing, no longer struggling to be free.’ And in their calm faces and deep thoughtful eyes you may read their heart-rest—‘the rest that remaineth for the people of God.’ ” But the realisation of that heart-rest depends on culture and preparation—preparation oftentimes in the providential discipline of God, responded to by the heart-culture of him who longs to enter into this present rest. God cannot give some of us present rest, because we have not got ourselves ready for it. God has to keep some of us a long time in the shadows of the earthly, because we do not get on with our preparations for the heavenly.
III. The fulfilment of any one of God’s promises of rest opens the way to new longings for rest.—For no rest God gives must ever be confounded with satisfaction, with the end of enterprise and hope. If so, we may as well cease to be creatures, moral beings which should have a boundless possibility in them. Attainment opens up the prospect of attainment. The mountain-climber reaches one peak only to see the peaks rising high above him. It is thus with “learning,” and it is thus with “art.” Robert Buchanan cries out thus to his poet-friend in heaven, David Gray,—
“Must it last for ever,
The passionate endeavour,
Ay, have you, there in heaven, hearts to throb and still aspire?
In the life you know now,
Render’d white as snow now,
Doth a fresh mountain-range arise, and beckon higher—higher?
Are you dreaming, dreaming,
Is your soul still roaming,
Still gazing upward as we gazed, of old, in the autumn gloaming?”
All earthly resting-places are but arbours in the “Hill Difficulty,” that rises steeply, up and up, to the everlasting gates. Into the arbours God lets us pass for a while; but there is no making tent or tabernacle, and abiding there. Onward, upward; ever onward, ever upward, until the white cloud wraps us round, and we too are away with God. The seeking soul may enter into the rest of the full surrender. And such a soul never forgets the Divine peace that comes when the last self-hold is loosened, the eye is fixed on the crucified and risen One, and the love goes wholly forth in one sublime self-yielding and sacrifice. The sincere and earnest soul longs to gain the arbour of the full and entire trust. He would have the first passionate act of first love pass into the restful habit of reliance, that keeps the soul in peace. The great impulse sometimes comes upon us, and we long for the rest of holiness—the rest of an abiding, easy mastery of sinful inclination. And then the soul is set upon longing for the rest of heaven; which is but this—holiness set in holy surroundings. The rest of heaven is the rest that an earnest, spiritually-minded Christian wants; it is the rest of unhindered goodness, the “crown of righteousness.” Our life goes by stages. Attainment is rest and a stage. The material is ever leading on to the spiritual, and the spiritual is ever opening into the heavenly. Our present limit of conception is the heavenly rest; but that can only be some new kind of toil; and away, in advance of it, must be the inspiration of some yet higher rest for the toilers then, as this heaven is the rest for the toilers now. This we may say for the assuring of our hearts—He who so anxiously provides rest for the weary surely provides grace for the toiler; and life now is the rest of His service. And this we may say—the secret of all rest is rest of heart. And that we may all have now. It is the rest of faith. We—yes, we—the sons of toil and care and fear, who are often so weary of earth’s worries and weaknesses and misunderstandings that we can wail with Marianna of the Moated Grange, and say,—
“I’m aweary, I’m aweary;
Would God that I were dead!”—
we—even we—may enter now, and possess now, the “rest that remaineth for the people of God.”
Two Words for Rest.—In Hebrews 4:8 “rest” signifies rest from weariness. The “rest” in Hebrews 4:9 is another word—nobler, and more exalted. It signifies the rest of a soul made perfect. It is the inward peace of the Sabbath. It is not the rest of insensibility, the rest of the sleeper, unconscious of the presence of good or evil agencies around him. The rest of God is not the rest of inactivity. The things of God come to perfection. Perfection means fruit-bearing, and fruit-bearing means work. There is no idleness even in heaven. God’s rest is perfect, nothing can disturb it. Years ago our fleet was shattered by a violent gale. It was found, however, that some ships were unaffected by its violence. They were in what mariners call “the eye of the storm.” While all around was desolation, they were safe. So Jehovah’s children find that amid the turbulent billows of life’s tempest “there remaineth a rest for the people of God.” Why cannot we have perfect rest on earth? You lack knowledge. There is nothing more terrible than suspense. You are waiting for information—you cannot rest. Not only knowledge is imperfect here, everything is imperfect. Therefore we cannot rest. Selfishness produces restlessness. Fear is a great cause of it. “Perfect love casteth out fear.” When you know, as St. John knew, that you have found the bosom of God, and that He has all power in heaven and earth, you are at rest.—Hawthorn Homilies.
And I smiled to think God’s greatness flowed around our incompleteness,
Round our restlessness His rest.
E. B. Browning.
Hebrews 4:9-10. Entrance into God’s Rest.—The truth taught here is that Faith, and not Death, is the gate to participation in Christ’s rest—that the rest remained over after Moses and Judaism, but came into possession under and by Christ. The old system had in it, for its very heart, a promise of rest; but it had only a promise. It could not give the thing that it held forth. It could not, by the nature of the system. The psalmist represents the entrance into that rest as a privilege not yet realised, but waiting to be grasped by the men of his day whose hearts were softened to hear God’s voice. That rest was only a fair vision, and this writer says it remains unpossessed as yet, but to be possessed. God’s word has been pledged. The Divine mercy will not be baulked of its purposes by the unbelief of the Jews: the rest remains for all who believe to partake of. The position that the rest promised to the Jew remains to be inherited by the Christian is established on a second ground. Christ our Lord has entered into His rest—parallel with the Divine tranquillity after creation. And seeing that He possesses it, certainly we shall possess It if only we hold fast by Him.
I. This Divine rest, God’s and Christ’s.—The writer is drawing a parallel between God’s ceasing from His creative work and entering into that Sabbath rest when He “saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good,” and Christ’s ceasing from the work of redemption and passing into the skies to the Sabbath of His everlasting repose. The “rest of God” is difficult to understand. It belongs necessarily to the Divine nature. It is the deep tranquillity of a nature self-sufficing in its infinite beauty, calm in its everlasting strength, placid in its deepest joy, still in its mightiest energy; loving without passion, willing without decision or change, acting without effort; quiet, and moving everything; making all things new, and itself everlasting; creating, and knowing no diminution by the act; annihilating, and knowing no loss though the universe were barren and unpeopled. God is, God is everywhere, God is everywhere the same, God is everywhere the same infinite love, and the same infinite self-sufficiency; therefore His very being is rest. The rest of Christ is like the rest of God, even in respect of this Divine and infinite nature. Besides this repose that belongs to the Divine nature, there is the rest which is God’s tranquil ceasing from His work, because God has perfected His work. God does not rest as weary, but as having done what He meant to do. The rest of God is the expression of the perfect Divine complacency in the perfect Divine work. And so Christ is said to rest when His redemption work was completed. Further, the Divine tranquillity is a rest that is full of work. “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” And Christ’s work of redemption, finished upon the cross, is perpetually going on. Christ’s glorious repose is full of energy for His people. He intercedes above. He works on them; He works through them; He works for them. The rest of God, the Divine tranquillity, is full of work.
II. The rest of God and of Christ is the pattern of what our earthly life may become.—We can come to be like Him—like Him in the substance of our souls; like Him—copy of His perfections; like Him—shadow and resemblance of some of His attributes. And here lies the foundation for the belief that we can “enter into His rest.” Faith, which is the means of entering into rest, will make life no unworthy resemblance of His who, triumphant above, works for us, and, working for us, rests from all His toil. Trust Christ! and a great benediction of tranquil repose comes down upon the calm mind and settled heart.
III. This Divine rest is a prophecy of what our heavenly life shall surely be.—Heaven is the earthly life of a believer glorified and perfected. If here we by faith enter into the beginning of rest yonder, through death with faith we shall enter into the perfection of it.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Hebrews 4:11. The Heavenly Rest.—These words illustrate the truth that the whole history of the Jewish Church was one long prophecy and type of the Christian Church in every age. The rest of Canaan typified the higher and nobler “rest of heaven,” and we are warned in the text that unbelief will surely exclude from that rest.
I. The gospel revelation meets all the deepest needs of man.—It holds out to him, weary with the conflict of life, the hope of an eternal life. In the fulness of early vigour the promise of rest may be passed by as a thing little cared for; but as the years go by we welcome the thought of perfect rest, as the weary traveller welcomes the sight of home.
II. The gospel revelation promises a “rest” compatible with the noblest and highest activity of all the powers man possesses.—After a time of perfect rest, our natures would begin to yearn for a “renewal of youth,” for fresh endeavours and attainments. The hope is held out to us of exchanging a frail body for one “raised in glory” and “in power,” with capacities of exertion and endurance unimaginable here; and the soul, for ever freed from its limitations of knowledge and from its sin, shall rise to unknown heights of intellectual and spiritual elevation. To be possessors of “eternal life,” when all the powers of our nature are being exerted to their full capacity of energy in achievement and service, and yet to have all the peace and repose that “rest” means, this is a heaven which alone fully satisfies man, and this is the future the gospel reveals. Heaven is often carnalised into a place of sensuous ease and selfish enjoyment; but the gospel is not responsible for our perversions of its revelation.
III. Faith is the necessary condition of this spiritual life.—Life in God on this side of the grave is the condition of life in God on the other. That life is “hid with Christ in God,” and we can only live it as we live “by faith, not by sight.” The warning from the exclusion of Israel from the land of promise through unbelief comes to us: “Let us labour to enter into rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.”—G. S. Barrett, B.A., D.D.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Hebrews 4:1. Spiritual Shipwreck.—A few years since a noble ship left the shores of England for a distant colony. She had a valuable freight of emigrants, forced from their fatherland by the decrees of a bitter fate—brides whose bosoms glowed with the glorious enthusiasm of youthful love—children also returning to the bosom of fond parents, whom long years had separated. The ship sailed majestically along, and methinks I hear now the music and the dancing on the decks during the calm moonlit evenings. At length, “Land ahead!” is shouted from a hundred lips. Their adopted country looms in the distance. They hasten to prepare for the landing. Only another night need be passed on the sea, but it is their last in this world. The thick darkness gathers around them like a funeral pall, the winds rise as if to sing their dying requiem, and in one fatal moment that noble vessel splits on the rocks! And now wild shrieks of despair struggle with the howl of the tempest, and soon all is over, as the whole of that ship’s company, save one, sink into a watery grave. The ship becomes a wreck in sight of port! A man may go very far towards religion and yet be lost.—Henry Gill.
Hebrews 4:3. The Rest of Trusting the Living Christ.—An aged Christian, when spoken to about his hope, was accustomed at once to advert to the date of his conversion, and only showed anxiety to be sure that his first act of faith was a saving one. He went to visit a young Christian woman who lay dying of consumption. Her faculties were all clear, and her heart was full of the “rest of God,” the rest of simple trust. That aged Christian feared for her, because she showed no anxiety about her first act of faith. In answer to him she said, “Why should I trouble about such things? Does it not say, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin’? It is not only ‘has cleansed’; it is this, ‘is cleansing’ me every day. I am in the hands of the Lord Jesus, and surely I may leave that altogether with Him.”
Rest is not quitting the busy career;
Rest is the fitting of self to the sphere;
’Tis the brook’s motion, clear without strife.
Fleeing to ocean, after its life.
Deeper devotion nowhere hath knelt,
Fuller emotion heart never felt;
’Tis loving and serving the highest and best,
’Tis onwards, unswerving, and that is true rest.
T. Sullivan Dwight.
Rest after Toil.—
Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please.—Spenser’s “Faerie Queen.”
Hebrews 4:7. Procrastination.—Few examples can be found in history which more strikingly illustrate the danger of procrastination than that of the “tragedy of Glencoe”; and though at this day nearly two centuries have elapsed since the dreadful tale first struck terror upon the minds of those who heard it, even yet it speaks to us with a voice of warning. The early part of the reign of King William III. was much disturbed by discontent and rebellion among the turbulent tribes in the north of Scotland. Proud and fierce they were by nature, and their habits of life, which were not unlike those of some of the Bedouin tribes of Arabia (for their chief subsistence was by plunder and theft), made them peculiarly untractable when King William attempted to place them under the wholesome laws to which their more peaceable neighbours in the south were already subject. Various means were tried to conciliate them, and large sums of money offered as compensation for any loss which they might sustain by the new rule, but without effect, and it was found necessary to appeal to the strong arm of the law. William, therefore, issued a proclamation, which he had duly circulated amongst the rebel chiefs, that all were to repair to a given spot on or before December 31st, and there sign a declaration, and take oath of allegiance to the king. All who neglected to comply with this command by the time given were to be treated as outlaws, and be liable to death as traitors to the Crown. It was, of course, useless for any of these rebel chiefs, with their handful of followers, or, indeed, for them all combined, to have attempted resistance to William’s well-trained and powerful army. So that one might have reasonably supposed that all the chiefs would have immediately hastened to comply with the command; but it was a severe blow to their pride, and for a long time many of them refused to sign. At length, as the time drew near, one by one they gave way, and by December 31st all had affixed their names to the paper, and had taken the oaths, excepting one chief. Mac Ian was the leader of the smallest but haughtiest of the tribes, and it was no light source of gratification to him to see one and another of his more powerful neighbours submit to the king, while he alone held aloof. Not that he intended, for a moment, to finally resist; he knew that with the small force at his command (not above two hundred souls in all) this was impossible, but he did hope to be the last of the Scottish chiefs to submit, and thus be accounted most brave of them all. A day or two before the 31st he set out for Dunbar, but a heavy fall of snow had rendered the roads almost impassable, and so impeded his progress that though he made most desperate efforts he did not arrive till nearly a week after the time, when he found the king’s messenger had left for London, and without his signature. It happened that the three men in whose hands it lay to execute the king’s threat of vengeance on those who neglected to comply with his command were deadly enemies of Mac Ian’s, and only rejoiced to see that his foolish delay had placed him in a position where he was liable to be treated as a traitor, and on the arrival of the messenger in London hastened to execute judgment on the offender. A band of soldiers was at once raised and commissioned to hasten to Glencoe, the little valley where Mac Ian and his followers dwelt, to surround every outlet by which they might escape, and put all to the sword. On a given night the onslaught was made, and Mac Ian and many of his followers fell victims to the soldiery, who spared neither old man nor maiden, but slaughtered all who came in the way. Many, indeed, escaped by hiding in the rocks, though of these not a few perished with cold, and exposure to the frost, and by hunger. There was doubtless much cruelty in so rigorously carrying out the king’s command, especially as the chief had been willing to submit; but the lesson most forcibly taught is, “Put not off till to-morrow what should be done to-day.” How many a foolish one throughout this land now hazards his soul as Mac Ian hazarded his life, by delaying to make his peace with the great King of kings! who now proffers mercy to all who will repent, and submit to His gracious rule, but who will one day close the book, and then all whose names are not inscribed within its blessed pages will be for ever exposed to His just wrath and indignation.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 4:12. Word of God.—Either
(1) the personal Word, the Λόγος; or
(2) the revealed word, to which the writer has been appealing; or
(3) the spoken word of God, which may come to men through human agents now. Probably the second is the more preferable explanation, because to this writer Scripture is constantly thought of as a direct Divine utterance. It is not simply the written word, but that word as the voice for every age of the living God. Quick.—Alive, active. Soul.—ψυχή, the animal soul, spirit; πνεῦμα, that part of our nature in which the Divine Spirit works. Not a separating of these things from one another, but a dividing so as to lay them both bare to view. “The awakening and alarming of the conscience, the felt opening up, the dissection of the ultimate principles of the moral and spiritual life, is the effect of the word here intended” (Webster and Wilkinson). For the sword-figure see Isaiah 49:2; Ephesians 6:17; Revelation 1:16; and Wis. 18:15-16. Joints and marrow.—A very strong figure. Dividing the joints or limbs from the body, and piercing through the very bone to the marrow. “The divine commination is of the most deadly punitive efficacy.”
Hebrews 4:13. Naked.—Or laid bare; as the throat of a victim is bared for sacrifice; Greek, “to take by the neck,” as do wrestlers. Perhaps the better meaning is “fully exposed to view.” No self-deceptions can hide the truth from God. Farrar suggests that the figure may be taken from the anatomic examination of victims by the priests, which was called momoskopia, since it was necessary that every victim should be “without blemish.” But he prefers the usage of Philo, which decides the meaning to be “laid prostrate” for examination. R.V. “naked and laid open.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 4:12-13
The Searching Power of the Living Word.—This passage asserts the searching, testing power of the Word of God. Observe the connection in which it stands. Beware of falling from the Christian profession. Beware of unbelief and presumption. Your dangers are many and great. The Divine observations and testings are most exact and searching. “Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising; Thou understandest my thought afar off.” “Quick,” with either the idea of enduring or of activity. The Word is in actual operation; it is not a thing of mere possibilities. “Sharper than two-edged sword”; the Bible idea of keenness—perfect discrimination. “Soul and spirit”; material and spiritual life. “Joints and marrow,” or bone and marrow; metaphor from the bodily frame. “Thoughts and intents”; mere ideas, and ideas when formed into resolves; metaphor from the intellectual life. Notice the impression of present, perfect, subtle searching which is produced by the terms of the text. No language could have been more effective.
I. What is this Word of God.—Divest the mind of the idea that the Scriptures are chiefly or only referred to. That is the common use of the text as quoted in extempore Christian prayers. At one time the term Word was a much more important expression than it is now. To the early Christians, and in early Church philosophy, the term Word, or Logos, had its own special significance. We know how much St. John makes of it in the prologue of his gospel; and he wrote at a time when a half-Jewish and half-pagan philosophy was getting influence in the Church. As it is used in Scripture the term includes:
1. The conditions under which our first parents had their rights to Paradise. The Word of God given to Adam. The mode of communication we cannot now know. Somehow the thought and will of God were intelligently conveyed to their minds.
2. The manifestations of God and His will to men in the patriarchal age. The modes of communication being visions, dreams, angelic appearances, living voices—all being Words of God. Illustrate by the Jewish idea of the Memra, as the Second Person of the Trinity.
3. The special disclosure of the Divine mind concerning a particular people. The modes of communication being by a mediator, Moses, and by a ceremonial worship.
4. The human life on earth of the Son of God, whom we call the Incarnate Word. This is, in the very highest sense, the Word of God.
5. The active energy of the Divine Spirit working in the hearts of men. So far as it is revealing and teaching it becomes the Word of God.
6. The Written Word, as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Through printing and education this has come to be the most effective form of the Word. From this sketch of the forms of the Word, it may be shown that it is essentially this: the manifestation of God to men; the communication of the thought and will of God to men; the translation of the mind of God into some form of language that men can understand. It is affirmed of nature, “There is no speech nor language, (yet) their line is gone out into all the earth.” There are more or less perfect degrees in which words utter thoughts. They serve both to convey and to conceal our meaning. So in God’s Word there are different degrees of clearness. We find it given under a variety of conditions, and in forms appropriate to each condition. The Word in Christ, and taught by His Spirit, represents the highest form of Divine communication.
II. How does the Word of God search and try men?—The Word, we have seen, is God bringing Himself into such relations with men as men can realise. The Word is God. It is essential to God that He must be a searching power wherever He comes. This is affirmed in Scripture, and by the experience of believers. “All things are naked and open unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” What is true of God Himself is true of all modes of His Word.
1. The Written Word. It searches by the force of its commands, examples, counsels, warnings—wonderfully fitting into all the circumstances of life. Sinning man dreads the Scriptures.
2. The Incarnate Word. Searches by the contact of His purity and perfection. No man can fail to admit the moral perfection of Christ. A man feels it. All the power is exerted which attends on putting the standard, the model, beside the copy. Jesus is the one and only model of a man who reached heaven by His own goodness.
3. The Living Word, or Holy Spirit. This is declared to be the effect of His inworking—He “convinces of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment”; and this is His constant operation in the Christian soul. This searching quality ought to attach to the preached Word: it does whenever it is really the Word of God.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 4:12-13. The Divine Thought-reader.—“All things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Much is now made of the skill in thought-reading which seems to be the special endowment of particular persons. The assertion is made that God is, in an absolute and unqualified sense, the “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” If we can explain man’s thought-reading power, the explanation will help us to understand the perfect thought-reading power of God.
I. If thought-reading be an unusual gift or endowment, a particular form of human genius, it is a Divine bestowment, or rather trust; and God cannot give what He does not possess: what God possesses constitutes Him what He is. He has this genius of thought-reading in a perfection of which man’s limited power can give no adequate idea. Man’s power is in body limitations.
II. If thought-reading be dependent on sympathy, it must be a Divine attribute. Familiar to men long before “thought-reading” was heard of was the power of persons in close sympathy—as friends, or husbands and wives—to understand each other without the use of words. Sympathetic friends constantly know what friends are thinking. With God we associate the revelations of a perfect sympathy.
III. If thought-reading be a result of knowledge of mental laws, God has the perfect knowledge. Thinking is entirely in the control of laws. And every man’s thoughts are the strict operation of laws, which always work as they do in any one case. God knows what we think, for He knows all the working of the thought-laws.
The Testing-power of the Logos.—Show how the discerning of the thoughts and intents of the heart is ascribed to God. That such discerning is characteristic of the Incarnate Word, or Gospel; of the Written Word, or Scriptures; and of the Living Word, or Spirit. It ought to be a marked characteristic of the preached Word, or ministry.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Hebrews 4:12. The Double-edged Knife.—The Jewish priest required a strong and skilful hand to do the ordinary work of his holy calling. It needed both strength and skill to lay the victim on the altar, to guide the sharp two-edged sacrificial knife straight through the carcass, till the very backbone was severed, the whole laid bare, and the very joints and marrow exposed and separated. For this reason (as well as because he was a type of Him who is perfect), because such persons ordinarily are deficient in bodily strength, no deformed person could be high priest, he could not do the work required of him. There is a knife sharper than that two-edged sword, and a hand to guide its blade and apply its edges and point stronger and surer than the Jewish priest’s. That knife is the word of God: it is a “living” word; it has a power to lay open hearts far greater than that sacrificial knife had to lay bare the bodies of the sacrifice; its edge is sharper than that of the two-edged sword; and when driven home and directed by the hand of the Almighty Spirit, “it pierces even to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow, the soul and spirit,” and lays bare “the thoughts and intents of the heart.”—W. W. Champneys, M.A.
The Force of Conscience.—A man who was remarkable for his ignorance and wickedness was visiting some of his relations on the last day that our mission-tent was used. They tried to persuade him to come to our closing meeting; but finding their entreaties prevailed nothing, one of them asked if he would go, provided some one would give him a sum of money. He answered, “Yes, he would do anything for money.” “Would he go for a shilling?” “Would he go for a meal’s victuals?” “Yes.” “Then I will give you one.” A loaf was then broken in two, and one half of it, with some butter and cheese, was deposited at a cottage near the tent, it being understood that the man was to have it immediately the service was over. This being done, the man came to the tent. My sermon, being founded upon “The end of all things is at hand,” etc., turned a good deal upon the future judgment, and made way for some remarks from Mr. Pocock, in the course of which he described the Judge descending, the judgment set, and the books opened; and then remarking that every word, and every work, and every secret thing would then be exposed, he exclaimed, “Who was it at such a time opened his neighbour’s potato-pit, and deprived a poor family of their stock of winter provisions? There he is; bring him forward—what! is that he?” etc. Conscience now smote this man; he had been guilty of this very crime, and, filled with alarm, went home without his victuals. The next morning he went to the woman whose potato-pit he had robbed, and confessed his crime, adding, “Mr. Pocock wouldn’t ha’ knawed I, but my hankercher weren’t tied like anybody else’s!” What is specially remarkable in this case is, that Mr. Pocock knew nothing of the man, nor had he ever heard of such a circumstance as a potato-pit being opened and robbed in the neighbourhood; but he simply hit upon the observation as involving a general thing, without the slightest idea of any individual case. Surely there was something more than chance in all this. Who can tell but this very occurrence saved this poor fellow from the gallows?—Memoirs of the Rev. John Pyer.
Hebrews 4:13. Examining the Entrails.—The Greek word here is taken from the practices that accompanied the offering of animals in sacrifices. It is said that, in ancient nations, when the animal that was to be sacrificed had been killed, the priest examined microscopically all the entrails and bowels, and watched certain spots or symptoms, from which he argued success or misfortune in the enterprise in which the offerer was embarked; and therefore the apostle says, that all things are as clearly noted by God as the entrails of the victim were laid bare and examined by the priest.—Dr. Cumming.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 4:14-16
The Divine-human High Priest.—This passage introduces the consideration of the priesthood of Christ, to which brief reference is made in Hebrews 3:1. Three things are argued:
1. His extraordinary dignity.
2. His perfect character.
3. His glorious work. The high priest was the prominent man, the example, of the Old Testament dispensation. There is an important distinction between a model and an example, which needs to be kept in view. F. W. Robertson skilfully explains that distinction. “You copy the outline of a model; you imitate the spirit of an example. Christ is our Example, not our Model. You might copy the life of Christ, make Him a model in every act, and yet you might not be one whit more of a Christian than before. You might wash the feet of poor fishermen as He did, and live a wandering life, with nowhere to lay your head. You might go about teaching, and never use any words but His words, never express religious truth except in Bible language; have no home, and mix with publicans and sinners. Then Christ would be your Model; you would have copied His life like a picture, line for line, and shadow for shadow, and yet you may not be Christ-like. On the other hand, you might imitate Christ, get His Spirit, breathe the atmosphere of thought that He breathed, do not one single act which He did, but every act in His Spirit; you might be rich, whereas He was poor; never teach, whereas He was teaching always; lead a life in all outward particulars the very contrast and opposite of His; and yet the spirit of His self-devotion might have saturated your whole being, and penetrated into the life of every act, and the essence of every thought. Then Christ would have become your Example; for we can only imitate that of which we have caught the spirit.” But if we make Christ our Example two things need to be carefully explained.
1. He must be in our plane, or we cannot hope to follow Him or to be like Him.
2. He must be out of our plane, He must belong to a higher plane, or we cannot be satisfied with Him. Fixing thought on Him figured as our High Priest, observe—
I. Christ was one with men.—In the records left us of His life there is a more evident effort to convince us of His veritable humanity than of His Divinity. It is as though men were sure to light on the idea of His being extraordinary, and it needed to be proved that He was really man. In his first epistle St. John does not argue or assert that Christ was God. That seems to have been believed. St. John demands belief in Christ as having “come in the flesh.” Illustrate:
1. The significancy of our Lord’s living so long a time as thirty years of common and ordinary human life, fully recognised during that time as a man among men.
2. The distinct apprehension of His ordinary manhood by His brethren, and by the people of Nazareth.
3. The perfect humanness of the habits and exhibited feelings of Christ’s life. Sensitiveness to suffering, bodily and mental. He was humanly affected towards the character and conduct of others. He was weary, hungry, sleepy.
4. The simple human character of our Lord’s death. One might expect such a Being to die in some sublime way. But, physically, our Lord’s was just a common and usual man’s death; and, morally, it was remarkable as a good man’s innocent death. With the idea of the humanness of Christ’ before us, we cannot but feel that His character is the expression, the outliving, of our ideal of humanity; it is the realised perfect character for a man.
II. Christ was distinct from sinners.—It is important to estimate clearly the distinction between a man and a sinner. The condition of our world would be hopeless if the two terms were convertible. All that belongs to man was in Christ, but nothing that belongs to the sinner. But Christ was not distinct from sinners because His nature was imperfect, incomplete, on any side. It was a whole. Some may only be separate from sinners in some points, because they have no capacities for certain particular sins. There is no virtue in their sinlessness, any more than there is honesty in a thief whose hands have been cut off. This sense of our Lord’s distinctness was produced on all who came in contact with Him. Illustrate: The disciples—as in the call of Matthew. People—“speaks with authority, and not as the scribes.” Enemies and indifferent—see money-changers in Temple-courts. “Never man spake like this man.” His judge and the Roman soldiers—see the awe of Pilate, and the exclamation of the centurion. The same truth is borne in on us by the record. As we study the man we feel that He is more than man, other than man. There are two aspects in which His distinctness from sinners is impressively shown.
1. His acts are never doubtful. There has never been a merely human life without some incidents of questionable truth and virtue. In Christ’s life there is no record of any, but a distinct impression is left on us that there were none to record. This is a coin that you need not ring twice.
2. His acts were never selfish. This is largely characteristic of human acts; it is too constantly the “fly” in the best pots of ointment. Christ’s acts were all done under a profound sense of duty, and under a sublime impulse of love. The acts were right in form, and the life and feeling that inspired them were right also.
III. The Divine-human High Priest exerts the most ennobling and sanctifying power upon us.—Precisely what man needed was salvation by God through man, through manhood; what he needed was a moral redemption. The Saviour of the world must be a Divine man. Only such a Saviour—
1. Could demonstrate the distinction between man and sin.
2. Could bring to light the higher possibilities that are in human nature as God designed it.
3. Could exhibit the ennobling influence of the two great principles of our nature—dependence, and the sense of duty. Ever near to God, ever doing the will of God, these are the essentials of true manhood.
4. Could show the charm which character, moral excellence, can put on all the relations of life.
5. And could reveal a sublime future for the race: as High Priest, working until all whom He represents have become like Him in fact. Then we are to be the people belonging to this great High Priest, the Son of God. What made men disciples of Christ while He was on earth? That makes men disciples now.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 4:14-16. Safety through the Great High Priest.—The epistle to the Hebrews is an argument against apostasy. Everywhere, throughout this epistle, the signal-lights of danger are swung out along the Christian track. The fear which sometimes startled the steadfast and heroic heart of Paul—lest, having preached to others, he himself should be a castaway—is declared to be, in this epistle, for every Christian a reasonable and substantial fear (Hebrews 6:4-6). Against the too common tendency of putting the main stress of the Christian life upon its beginning, of reckoning upon heaven because one imagines himself once to have been in Christian mood and spirit, though he certainly is not now, this epistle is a prolonged Divine warning. “Let us hold fast our profession,” or, as the original has it, “let us be strong in holding fast to it”—that is the solemn and strenuous exhortation of this epistle. And in order to make its warning real and sure, the epistle falls back upon the ancient Scripture, and brings forward a clear instance of a good beginning and a bad ending (Hebrews 4:11). The Hebrews started well. But the experiences of the wilderness were too much for them. They never enjoyed the Canaan rest. They were unworthy and apostate. Their carcasses mouldered in the wilderness. Now these later Hebrews to whom this epistle was addressed had begun well. They had acknowledged Jesus as their spiritual Moses—the Messiah of promise and of prophecy. Under His leading they had begun their march out of the spiritual Egypt, through this worldly wilderness, to the spiritual Canaan—to heaven, the home and rest of those who believe in and follow Christ. But the worldly wilderness was full of difficulties, and these Hebrew Christians showed signs of faltering. The Hebrew nation was against them; the resplendent and still standing Temple was against them; worldly success and the chance for livelihood were against them; bitter scorn and contumely were against them. Yet this epistle assures them there is no safety in apostasy; there is safety only in steadfastness. Apostasy is destruction. Still must they hold fast their profession (Hebrews 4:1; also Hebrews 4:11).—Homiletic Review.
Holding fast our Profession.—Now the question comes, “Can we hold fast our profession?” Yes, and our great High Priest is the reason and the power. We are not left on a lonely pilgrimage. We are not left to a single-handed conflict.
1. Since He is High Priest, He has made atonement for us.
2. Since He is High Priest, He now makes intercession for us.
3. His atonement is accepted, and His intercession is worthy, for His resurrection has set triumphant seal upon them. “He has passed into the heavens.”
4. He has Himself been tried, “tempted in all points like as we are.” So He is athrill with sympathy.
5. He knows temptation, yet He has vanquished it; He is without sin. Herein is help peculiar—the help of a victorious strength.
Hebrews 4:15. Christ’s Sympathy with the Infirm.—How many are burdened with a sense of deficiency, with their unlikeness to others—their inability to do what others can, or perhaps what they could once; how many see others come to the house of God, and are distressed that through weakness they cannot; how many feel themselves a burden to others, who would rather that others should burden them; how many mourn that their lives are useless and inactive! They want one who will take their part, comfort them by his tenderness, sustain them with his arm. In the text is such an one.
I. Consider the fact of the sympathy of the Lord Jesus. It is assured by—
1. His personal human experience.
2. His perfect knowledge and love.
3. His vital union with His people.
II. Consider this sympathy in its connection with His high-priestly work.
1. As High Priest He has direct intercourse with us.
2. He prays for the supply of our need.
3. He brings us to the Father.
III. Consider that this sympathy with infirmity is the pattern for His people.
1. It rebukes our hardness.
2. It shows one of the great needs of the world.
3. It suggests a recompense for suffering. He suffered that He might sympathise with sufferers; that is why we suffer.—Charles New.
Tempted, not overcome by Temptation.—“In all points tempted” must not be taken as meaning in all points sharing our experience in dealing with the temptation. Christ did not share anybody’s experience of yielding to temptation. He was never overcome by temptation. But that was not essential to human experience. That was fallen man’s experience. And Christ was man, not fallen man. Find what is essential to man. Christ experienced that.
Hebrews 4:15-16. The Sympathy of Christ.—According to these verses the Priesthood of Jesus Christ is based upon the perfection of His humanity; and that implies that He was possessed of a human soul as well as a human body.
1. Accordingly in the life of Christ we find two distinct classes of feeling. When He hungered in the wilderness, etc., He experienced sensations which belong to the bodily department of human nature. But His grief, friendship, fear, etc., were the affections of an acutely sensitive human soul, alive to all the tenderness and hopes and anguish with which human life is filled, qualifying Him to be “tempted in all points like as we are.”
2. The Redeemer not only was but is man. It is imagined that in the history of Jesus’ existence, once, for a limited period and for definite purposes, He took part in frail humanity; but that when these purposes were accomplished the man for ever perished, and the spirit reascended, to unite again with pure, unmixed Deity. But our Lord’s resurrection life should be the corrective of this notion. And this suggests the truth of the human heart of God. Man resembles God. Love does not mean one thing to man and another thing to God. The present manhood of Christ conveys this deeply important truth, that the Divine heart is human in its sympathies.
3. There is a connection between what Jesus was and what Jesus is. He can be touched now because He was tempted then. His past experience has left certain effects durable in His nature as it is now. It has endued Him with certain qualifications and certain susceptibilities which He would not have had but for that experience.
I. The Redeemer’s preparations for His Priesthood.—The preparation consisted in being tempted. But temptation as applied to a Being perfectly free from tendencies to evil is not easy to understand. Temptation has two senses: it means test or probation; it means also trial, involving the idea of pain or danger. Trial placed before a sinless Being is intelligible enough in a sense of probation; it is a test of excellence. And Scripture plainly asserts this as the character of Christ’s temptation. Not only test, but trial. There was not merely test in the temptation, but there was also painfulness in the victory. How could this be without any tendency to evil? Analyse sin. In every act of sin there are two distinct steps: there is a rising of a desire which is natural, and, being natural, is not wrong; and there is the indulgence of that desire in forbidden circumstances, and that is sin. Sin does not consist in having strong desires or passions: in the strongest and highest natures, all, including the desires, is strong. Sin is not a real thing. It is rather the absence of something, the will to do right. Sin is not in the appetites, but in the absence of a controlling will. There were in Christ all the natural appetites of mind and body. Conceive then a case in which the gratification of any one of these inclinations was inconsistent with His Father’s will. At one moment it was unlawful to eat, though hungry: and without one tendency to disobey, did fasting cease to be severe? Christ suffered from the force of desire. Though there was no hesitation whether to obey or not, no strife in the will, in the act of mastery there was pain. There was self-denial; there was obedience at the expense of tortured feeling. Not by the reluctancy of a sinful sensation, but by the quivering and the anguish of natural feeling when it is trampled upon by lofty will, Jesus suffered, being tempted. His soul was tempted.
II. The Redeemer’s Priesthood.—By Priesthood is meant that office by which He is the medium of union between man and God. The capacity for this has been indelibly engraven on His nature by His experience here. All this capacity is based on His sympathy. We are scarcely aware how much the sum of human happiness in the world is indebted to this one feeling—sympathy. Of this sympathy Christ, in its fulness, was susceptible. The sympathy of Christ was not merely love of men in masses; He had also discriminating, special sympathy with individuals. The priestly powers conveyed by this faculty of sympathising are two:
1. The power of mercy.
2. The power of having grace to help. There are two who are unfit for showing mercy: he who has never been tried; and he who, having been tempted, has fallen under temptation. The qualification in the text, “without sin,” is very remarkable; for it is the one we least should think of. Unthinkingly we should say that to have erred would make a man lenient; but it is not so. He alone is fit for showing manly mercy who has, like His Master, felt the power of temptation in its might, and come scathless through the trial. We must not make too much of sympathy as mere feeling. Feeling with Christ led to this, “He went about doing good.” Sympathy with Him was this, “Grace to help in time of need.” The sympathy of the Divine-human! He knows what strength is needed.
In conclusion, draw two inferences:
1. He who would sympathise must be content to be tried and tempted; he must be content to pay the price of the costly education. But it is being tempted in all points, yet without sin, that makes sympathy real, manly, perfect, instead of a mere sentimental tenderness.
2. It is this same human sympathy which qualifies Christ for judgment. The Father hath committed all judgment to Him, because He is the Son of man. The sympathy of Christ extends to the frailties of human nature, not to its hardened guilt; He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”—F. W. Robertson.
Hebrews 4:16. Boldness at the Throne of Grace.—The throne of grace is the reality figured in the mercy-seat, or propitiatory, or cover of the Ark, that was in the Holy of Holies. As the high priest in the old dispensation went in once a year with the incense and the blood, and brought blessings for the people from that throne of grace, so Jesus, as the great High Priest of the race, went into the spiritual Holy of Holies, and gained blessings for us from the “throne of grace.” Only there is this distinction: the old priest came out; Christ, our Priest, stays in,—the veil is never closed behind Him, and we can go in; the way is open for us to go and ask for blessings, and we can go boldly because He is there, to be the ground of our acceptance, and to plead for us.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Hebrews 4:15. The Help of our Lord’s Human Experiences.—They tell us that in some trackless lands, when one friend passes through the pathless forests, he breaks a twig ever and anon as he goes, that those who come after may see the traces of his having been there, and may know that they are not out of the road. Oh, when we are journeying through the murky night, and the dark woods of affliction and sorrow, it is something to find here and there a spray broken, or a leafy stem bent down with the tread of His foot and the brush of His hand as He passed, and to remember that the path He trod He has hallowed, and that there are lingering fragrances and hidden strengths in the remembrance, “in all points tempted as we are,” bearing grief for us, bearing grief with us, bearing grief like us.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Hebrews 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28