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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Hebrews 4

 

 

Verse 1

Hebrews 4:1. Let us therefore fear. A stronger expression than the caution of Hebrews 3:12 (‘take heed’), and the fitting preparation for the ‘earnest labour’ of chap. Hebrews 4:12. We are not to doubt the truth of the Divine promise, and the more firmly we believe it the more active shall we be in the fulfilment of every duty; but we are to fear the treachery of our own hearts. Continued unbelief will exclude us from God’s rest, from the peace and blessedness which the Gospel gives both here and hereafter; and even if we finally repent and reach heaven, unbelief will, in proportion as we indulge it, lessen the enjoyment into which we enter by believing, and which we can enter in no other way. This godly fear, instead of debasing the mind, inspires courage and freedom; it preserves us from vain security, checks self-confidence, and makes us vigilant against everything that may endanger our safety.

Lest, somehow, haply. This last phrase, which it is not easy to express, calls attention to the greatness of the danger and emphasizes the caution.

A promise being left us. A promise remaining over unfulfilled.

Any one of you should seem... It should turn out that any one of you has come short of it; literally, lest any one of you should seem (to himself or to others), when the decisive day comes, to have failed, and to have no part in the promise—a warning of a fearful result, given with a delicacy quite usual with the writer; or it may be a statement like that in Matthew 25:40-46, where we are told that many will not know their true character till they hear it described at the bar of God. Their ruin will be as startling to themselves as to others.


Verses 1-11

Hebrews 4:1-11. TO understand the force of the reasoning of these verses, and the naturalness of the different interpretations of the Psalm which the Apostle is explaining, note that ‘My rest’ is primarily the rest which God enjoys (Genesis 2:2; Hebrews 4:4) or which God provides (Deuteronomy 12:9-10). The first is the Sabbath rest which God enjoyed after His work of creation was completed, and which He provided for man when He instituted the day of rest, as He did long before the giving of the law; the second is the rest of Canaan, the rest which God gave Israel, a rest which proved very imperfect, partly because multitudes never entered it, partly because the rest itself was never fully realized even for those who did enter it. Both meanings of the word, therefore, point to such rest as the Gospel gives, of which the rest of the Sabbath and the rest of Canaan were types, and imperfect types. Two other facts need to be kept in mind: the word Sabbath and Sabbath-rest (see Hebrews 4:9) are Hebrew words for what is translated ‘rest’ and (as a verb in Genesis) ‘rested;’ and the word ‘entered in,’ moreover, is a common word in the Old Testament—almost a cant word, like ‘going home to Canaan,’ ‘over the Jordan,’ ‘one more river to cross’—for ‘inheriting the earth,’ taking possession of the land of promise. Hence the naturalness of the interpretation which the Apostle refutes. The rest of which the Psalm speaks, and which the unbelieving miss, is not, as the word may mean, the Sabbath-rest which God instituted at the first, nor is it the rest of Canaan into which the Jews entered under the guidance of Joshua. The rest from which the disobedient Israelites were debarred was neither the one nor the other, for at that time the Israelites had both. It was a rest that stood over in David’s time for future realization—a rest into which those enter, and those only, who believe (see Hebrews 4:3)—the rest of the Gospel, completed in the rest above. How natural this argument is may be gathered from the religious poetry of all Christian sects, and from the language employed even now to describe the Divine life. Every incident of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt into Canaan is spiritualized in our common religious teaching, and so may easily have been regarded as the reality, not as the type. How necessary the argument is also clear. The announcement that the Jews are not as Jews part of the true theocratic kingdom, that Canaan was not heaven, was to them one of the hardest sayings of the Gospel.


Verse 2

Hebrews 4:2. For unto us has the Gospel been preached as well as unto them, i.e we both have our Gospel or glad tidings of a future rest, equally a Divine message, though given with different degrees of fulness.

But the word preached; rather, the word heard (literally, of hearing), was of no use to them, brought no profit, because they were not united (literally ‘mingled’) by (and in) faith with them that heard it, i.e who listened and obeyed—Caleb, Joshua, and the rest. The word ‘not united,’ ‘unmingled,’ is found only here and in 1 Corinthians 12:24, and describes a state that follows from affinity and sympathy.


Verse 3-4

Hebrews 4:3. For we who have believed are entering into rest. We only are entering who believe; it is not, therefore, the rest of the Sabbath which the Jews long since possessed (Hebrews 4:4-6), nor is it, as the author goes on to say, the rest of Canaan. To strengthen the statement that it is only believers who enter into God’s rest, he quotes again the ninety-filth Psalm: As he (i.e God) said, As I have sworn in my wrath, they (who did not believe) shall not enter into my rest.—If they shall not enter’ is the same phrase as is translated ‘they shall not enter,’ in chap. Hebrews 3:11; the phrase is part of the Hebrew oath (‘God do so to me and more also, if,’ i.e I swear I will or I will not), and is here a strong negation; so in Hebrews 4:5 : ‘they shall not enter into my rest.’ It was unbelief that excluded them, and so it is faith that brings us in, the appropriate means of producing peace and blessedness, and itself obedience to God’s command.


Verse 5

Hebrews 4:5. In this place again, i.e either to quote again what was said before, or the Sabbath rest which God provides, is, on the other hand, shown not to be the rest spoken of in the Psalm, inasmuch as the men described have not entered it.


Verse 6

Hebrews 4:6 is clearly an unfinished sentence, finding its completion in Hebrews 4:9 or Hebrews 4:11.

Let us therefore labour, etc., seeing it remaineth; rather, it still remaineth, for some to enter in to God’s rest, and those who formerly heard the glad tidings of a rest entered not in because of unbelief. In all these verses where ‘it remains’ is used, the phrase has the same meaning—not that a rest now remains and is still future, but that the promise was not fulfilled in the Sabbath-rest or in the Canaan-rest; and therefore when this Epistle was written, it was still a warning and an invitation. It awaited the faith and the entrance which were to exhaust its meaning.


Verse 7

Hebrews 4:7. Again. To continue the argument and to correct another misconstruction. He has already shown that the rest of God of which he here speaks is not the rest of God after creation; he now proceeds to show, by a further examination of the Psalm, that neither is it the rest of Canaan.

He limiteth (still further defines the day and consequently the rest of which he speaks) a certain day, saying in David (as we say ‘in Daniel’), not ‘by’ David, nor, as Bengel holds, ‘in,’ i.e by the Spirit dwelling in and inspiring him.

A long time (some 500 years) after they had entered Canaan, as it is said in the forequoted passage (Hebrews 3:7; Hebrews 3:15).

Today if ye hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Some think the words ‘Today’ look forward to the time of the Gospel (translating ‘today,’ i.e as it said a long time before the day comes; so Dr. J. Brown and others; but if this be the meaning, it would surely be needless for the writer to prove by argument that the entering into rest had not yet come).

A long time points back to the entrance into Canaan, and ‘as it has been said before’ (the true reading) points simply to the previous quotations.


Verse 8

Hebrews 4:8. Clearly, therefore, the Psalm speaks of a Divine rest into which men are bidden to enter, different from the rest of Canaan, and long subsequent to it.

For if Joshua (here and in Acts 7:45, Jesus, the Greek form of Joshua, quite misleads) had given them rest—had led them into the rest of which we are speaking—He (i.e God, who further defines ‘the day’ in David, and describes the rest as still unentered) would not have gone on speaking after that of another day (or of another day after that, i.e still future).


Verse 9

Hebrews 4:9. Therefore there remains (still unrealized in any rest that Israel then enjoyed) a sacred rest, a Sabbath-rest (the word is now changed), for the people of God. The name here given, ‘the people of God,’ is the usual designation of the covenant people. It occurs again in Hebrews 11:25, and is used in its deepest sense of all who are ‘children of God through faith’ (Galatians 6:16). The use of the word Sabbath in this sense for the rest which God provides under the Gospel was quite familiar to the Jews. The coming kingdom of the Messiah was even called ‘the perpetual Sabbath.’ Into that rest all enter who believe. Some regard this verse as completing the sentence that began in Hebrews 4:6. The better completion is found in Hebrews 4:11.


Verse 10

Hebrews 4:10. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his works, Just as God rested from his; i.e, say some (Owen, Wardlaw, Ebrard), as Christ is entered into His rest, so also are we to be conformed to Him and to share His rest. But Christ is not named in the previous context, and is nowhere designated as ‘He who entered or is entered into His rest,’ nor would the argument have force with those who were questioning His mission. The other view, adopted by Bleek and Delitzsch, is that the words describe the people of God, those who by believing enter that state of peace and blessedness which is begun on earth and perfected in heaven. They have fellowship with God; they rest even as God rests, and have a happiness that is of the same nature, and springs from the same source, as His. The phrase, ‘ceases from his own works as God did from His,’ might then refer to the rest which men sought to no purpose under the Law or in Canaan. The true peace, the sacred rest of the Gospel, frees us from the necessity of seeking a righteousness of our own, and speaks peace to the conscience as the Law never did, making the whole life peaceful and joyous. This ‘is the rest, and this is the refreshing,’ and it is shared by all who believe.

This explanation of the argument of this part of the Epistle throws light on the meaning of the rest, the Sabbath-rest, of which the writer speaks. Some (Owen, Wardlaw, etc.) hold that the three rests here spoken of are the Sabbath-rest of Paradise, the Jewish rest of Canaan, and the Christian Sabbath rest that commemorates the completion of the new creation and the deliverance of the people of God from a worse bondage than that of Egypt. Important as these rests are, it surely falls far below the dignity of the theme to suppose that the writer refers to any positive institution merely, however useful or blessed. Others think that the ‘rest which remains’ must be heaven: we who believe enter it, all who enter it rest from their toils and work as God rested; and the conclusion seems sustained by the fact that the rest is ever spoken of as ‘still remaining.’ But this interpretation mistakes the meaning of ‘remaining,’ which is simply that it was not realized either in the Sabbath rest or in Canaan; while it is realized, is being realized, under the Gospel, as men believe. It includes, no doubt, the rest of heaven, which is the completion of our blessedness on earth; but the primary idea still is the rest which Christ gives to all who take His yoke upon them. and to whom, on their believing, old things are passed away,—sins, character, burdens, unrest,—and all things have become new. The words of C. Wesley are not even an adaptation of the sentiment—they are an exposition of it:

‘Lord, I believe a rest remains

To all Thy people known—

A rest where pure enjoyment reigns,

And Thou art loved alone.


‘Oh! that I now the rest might know,

Believe and enter in;

Now, Saviour, now the power bestow.

And let me cease from sin.


‘Remove the hardness from my heart,

This unbelief remove;

To me the rest of faith impart,

The Sabbath of Thy love.’


Verse 11

Hebrews 4:11. Let us therefore begins the practical exhortation based on Hebrews 4:6, of which it is the completion.

Labour, give diligence (as in 2 Peter 1:10), seek earnestly, strive to enter into that rest, lest any man fall and form part of the same example of disobedience or unbelief; lest through unbelief like theirs we like them come short of the promise. The earnest striving, the eager seeking of which the writer speaks, is well described by St. Paul in Philippians 3:7-14, and in 2 Peter 1:5-12. In one sense faith is ceasing to work and beginning to trust; in another sense it is the most difficult of all works, requiring the energy of the whole nature, and the help of the blessed God besides. It is at once a gift and a duty, the easiest and the hardest ‘way of life.’

Lest they fall into and so become another example of unbelief—a pregnant construction. Whether fall has its lighter meaning, as Luther and Delitzsch hold, or is used absolutely,—fall away and perish (as Calvin, Bengel, and Bleek hold),—we need not discuss here. The word is probably suggested by the doom of the Israelites who fell in the wilderness and perished (Hebrews 3:17); and it is used in the same deep sense in Romans 11:11. The fact that the Hebrews are cautioned lest they should fall through a disbelief that proved ruinous to those who yielded to it before, shows that the word has probably its deeper meaning; it is the opposite state of entering into rest. Of course it is true also that in proportion as they fall, whether in degree or duration, they miss peace and swell the number of those who are warnings to all who witness them. But here the warning seems permanent, and the fall, therefore, complete.


Verse 12-13

Hebrews 4:12-13 give a fresh reason for this warning.

For the word of God is quick (i.e living) and powerful. But what is ‘the word of God’? The common Patristic interpretation refers it to the Word incarnate, the personal ‘Word’ of the writings of St. John: so also Owen and many others. But that use of the term is peculiar in the New Testament to St. John, unless this be an instance. And the interpretation seems hardly appropriate to the description that is here given of it; nor is Christ ever so named in the Epistle itself, where ‘the Son of God’ is His common title. Had the author been familiar with ‘the Word’ in that personal sense, he would certainly have used it (as he did not) in Hebrews 11:3. The ordinary meaning, therefore, is to be preferred—the word of which he has been speaking—the word especially which excludes the unbeliever from the promised rest, and denounces against him the Divine indignation. The description is true of all Scripture, but emphatically true of the passages which condemn disobedience. This word is a living word—not, as we sometimes say of a law, ‘a dead letter,’ having its place in our statute book, but never executed—having living power, and so something of the attributes of Him who is ‘the living God;’ and powerful, energic, operative, not inefficient, as if God never meant to execute it, or as if He had no means of carrying it into execution. The sentence that the unbeliever shall not enter into God’s rest is the utterance of a living force, not a dead law, which is mighty enough to execute the Divine purpose in relation to transgression, and is sure to execute it. Nor only so: and sharper far (a double comparative) than any two-edged sword (literally two-mouthed), i.e a sword sharpened on both edge and back, cutting both ways, and peculiarly trenchant (Isaiah 49:2; Revelation 1:16, etc.; see also Ephesians 6:17).

Piercing through, even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow. This quality of the Word has been regarded by some as a mere description of the power of the Word of God to produce conviction, to show the sinner the falsehood and the wickedness of even his inmost thoughts; but this explanation anticipates what follows, and is hardly consistent with the context. It is better to regard the words as a completion of the previous thought. The soul was regarded by the Greeks as the principle of animal life and action; the spirit, as the principle of rational life and action. To separate them is to destroy the life of the man, the description being taken from the inner nature. Similarly the joints or limbs, of which the bones are the framework, and marrow are also closely connected; to separate them is to produce great pain and death itself, the description being taken from the physical life. The threatening of God against disbelief is a threatening that will certainly be executed, and when executed intensest suffering, destruction, and misery will ensue. Suffering with the possibility of destruction—not necessarily destruction—may be the idea, as in similar passages (Luke 2:35; Jeremiah 4:10, LXX.); but this interpretation does no justice to the strong word—the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. On either interpretation the lesson is solemn and instructive. What occurred in the case of the Israelites who fell by hundreds of thousands in the wilderness will occur under the Gospel with aggravated suffering if men will not believe. . . . Nor does this word take cognizance of outward acts only,—open apostasy,—it is a discerner and judge of the thoughts and intents (or rather of the inclinations and thoughts) of the heart. Feelings and thoughts, desires and ideas (opinions as we call them), are equally under its jurisdiction; backslidings of heart, as well as of life, it marks and condemns. The religion of Christ is eminently spiritual. Not the outer life only; the inmost nature, mental and emotional, must be subject to the Divine authority, and conformed to the Divine will.


Verse 13

Hebrews 4:13. The power of this word comes really from Him whose it is. More accurately, the Word of God is God Himself speaking. The writer, therefore, naturally turns from the instrument to the author.

Neither is there any creature—any created thing visible or invisible (Colossians 1:16; even, perhaps, thought, the creature of the mind: Michaelis).

that is not manifest in his, i.e God’s, sight (a Hebraism common in St. Luke, in St. Paul, and in Alexandrian writers).

But all things are naked and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. These phrases, though their general meaning is clear, have been variously explained. ‘Laid bare’ may refer to the victims which were hung up by the neck, opened, and the backbone cleft from the neck downwards, so that the priest might see any blemish which made the victim unfit for sacrifice (so the ancient Greek Fathers explained it); but there are no known instances of this meaning of the word: others say the reference is to the athlete caught by the neck and thrown prostrate on his back for all to see his defeat. The first of these interpretations is on the whole the more probable, the words being addressed to Jews who were more familiar with sacrifices than with the games. Anyhow, the general meaning is clear, that before God we are all manifest, stripped of every covering and concealment, our very thoughts, our ‘secret faults,’ revealed to the eyes of him with whom we have to do, i.e with whom our business is (a sense that may be seen in 8:7; 8:28). The Greek Fathers give the words a narrower meaning.

to whom our account is to be given; but the English Version is at once idiomatic and accurate. All this description applies, of course, to our relation to Christ, and many commentators regard the words as applied to Him in this passage; but unless we accept the explanation that the Word of God is the personal Logos—Christ Himself (not a natural interpretation)—it is more grammatical and more accurate to regard the verse as applicable primarily to God who is Judge of all, though at the last He gives all judgment to the Son.


Verse 14

Hebrews 4:14. The following verses (Hebrews 4:14-16) might begin a new paragraph, and are closely connected with the fifth chapter; but on the other hand, Hebrews 4:14 looks back to the brief statement in chap. Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 2:17, and Hebrews 3:1, and its hortatory form naturally makes it rather a completion of what precedes. It is, moreover, the author’s manner to blend with admonitions, based on previous teaching, assertions of what he is about to prove.

It is a peculiarity of the Gospel that it seems now without a sacrifice and without a priest. The unbelieving Jews would naturally say, ‘Your new religion is without the first requisite of a Divine system; you have no sacrifice and no high priest—how can sin be forgiven? who can intercede for you?’ The objection is answered in this passage: We have a High Priest, a great High Priest, transcending in personal and official dignity all that ever bore the name, for He is Jesus, the Son of God, each title implying His superiority. No doubt His sacrifice has ceased, and He Himself has passed through the heavens beyond clouds and stars, even into the heaven of heavens, to the very throne of God itself; just as the Jewish high priest on the day of Atonement offered sacrifices of expiation, entered into the holy place, and then through the second veil into the holiest of all, to sprinkle the blood of atonement and to burn incense, an odour of a sweet smell, a symbol of acceptance to Him who dwells between the cherubim. The objection that we have no sacrifice or priest is met by the Tact that our High Priest has completed His work on earth, and has gone, not into an earthly tabernacle, the image of the true, but into heaven to the throne of God itself—an evidence of the efficacy of His mediation and the means of perpetuating it. His entrance and His intercession there are really ‘a perpetual oblation’ with the intimation of His ‘will’ that the blessings He has gained be bestowed on them for whom He pleads. The exhortation is, therefore, that we hold fast our confession—what we have acknowledged as true and Christian faith, the word being used in a wider sense than in Hebrews 3:1.


Verse 15

Hebrews 4:15. For. Whatever the difficulties of our Christian life, whatever the dangers that tempt us to turn aside, whatever the dignity of our Priest, whatever the awful power of the Word of God, we have not a High Priest unable to sympathize with us in our infirmities, but on the contrary one tempted in all things like as we are (or rather in accordance with the likeness there is between us), sin apart. The infirmities of which the writer speaks are not strictly sufferings or afflictions, but the weaknesses—physical, spiritual, moral—whereby sin is likely to find entrance, and misery is produced—hunger, poverty, reproach, the dread of sufferings, the love of rest, of friends, the difficulty of living by faith, the tendency to judge things by present results, to snatch victory in the easiest way; whatever, in short, is natural to man, and yet not itself sinful. The temptations of Christ in the wilderness, which are described as representing most of the forms in which temptation assails us; all He endured when the ‘season’ came in which the tempter renewed his work, and especially in the hour and power of darkness, illustrate the meaning. All He bore and all He remembers, and so in a sense bears still (note the present perfect tense), fits Him to sympathize with like weaknesses in us. In all these temptations of His there was no sin in the origin of them in the struggle, in the results; but that fact only increases His fitness for His office and our confidence. He bore all, and yet was undefiled; and so His pity, while most tender, is in no danger of becoming weakness, which would itself create distrust even if it did not end in sin. ‘Sin apart,’ therefore, is added, as much in our interest as to the honour of our Lord. The perfect sympathy of a sinful man would have given very imperfect consolation.


Verse 16

Hebrews 4:16. Let us therefore come nigh—a common word in this Epistle for drawing nigh to God by sacrifice, or under the Gospel through Christ (Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 10:1, Hebrews 11:6). St. Paul’s word for a similar idea is generally different (see Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:18; Ephesians 3:12, we have boldness and access by faith) with the added idea when addressing Gentiles that they are brought nigh.

With boldness, rather with confidence (see chap. Hebrews 3:6), not as the Israelites trembled when they approached, not to the mercy-seat, but at most towards it—the priest alone entering the holiest of all, but with the trust that tells all its wants—to the throne of grace (not Christ as if He were the mercy-seat, as some have held, nor the throne of Christ, but), the throne of God Himself; not of His justice, however, nor of His providence, but of His grace made such in fact by the propitiation which Christ has offered, and in part by our assurance that the priest himself feels for us.

That we may obtain mercy—pity—partly, as His sympathy implies, but chiefly the means of forgiveness for the sins which still cleave to us as children (see 2 Timothy 1:18, Jude 1:21, where the idea is that the mercy we receive from day to day is confirmed and perfected in the day of God): we need continual forgiveness for continual sin (1 John 1:10; 1 John 2:1).

And grace. Whatever we need to perfect our holiness and happiness—those gifts of free favour which prove God to be our friend, and will help us to persevere in the faith and obedience of the truth till we are partakers of the perfected grace which is glory—the grace that is to be brought unto us at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13).

For seasonable help is the literal rendering of the last clause, i.e help convenient, suitable to the occasion; ‘in time of need’ is very good if that mean, as it may, ‘as we need it,’ and so is appropriate to each emergency as it arises.

These exhortations were eminently suited to the condition of the Hebrew Christians. With such a High Priest, who has expiated our sins, has passed into the presence of God, thus proving the acceptance and the continuance of His work, whose Divine Sonship gives virtue to His sacrifice, whose perfect sympathy with us in all our weaknesses is made complete through His endurance of the same trials, let us persevere in the confession we have made—seek from God with the boldness of children the mercy and the grace we need for emergencies and opportunities alike till our victory is complete. Nor less suited is the exhortation to ourselves. In every age the same temptations assail us, though they assume different forms; and in every age the maintenance of the truth as it is in Jesus, and habitual (mark the present tense, ‘continue coming’) intercourse with God as the God of Peace and blessing under the influence of this truth, these are the true sources of our stedfastness.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Hebrews 4:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/hebrews-4.html. 1879-90.

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