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The Sabbath in Hebrews
May 21, 2016
Today I got an email asking about what I had written about the Sabbath at https://www.christian-history.org/sabbath.html. The question was:
"Can you explain to me why it says in Hebrews chapters 3-4 that we should not be hard-hearted to entering GOD's rest and how it is on the 7th day and that there remains a Sabbath for His people?"
Here is my answer:
All of Hebrews ch. 3 and ch. 4 is the writer expounding upon Psalm 95:8-11, which he quotes in 3:8-11. That passage ends with "They shall not enter my rest."
The rest of chapter 3 does not address our topic. He does mention that it is those who do not obey who will not enter God's rest, but he is not yet giving an explanation of that statement.
In Hebrews 4:1, the writer tells his readers that there is a rest that lies in front of us, and that we should be afraid that we may come short of that rest.
Think about that a moment. How could that be a reference to the weekly Sabbath? Why would we be afraid that we might fall short of the weekly Sabbath? Many Jews who were unrighteous in moral matters, such as sexuality, greed, and other such things, still kept the Sabbath to maintain good standing in the Jewish community (Rom. 2:1-3). Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being largely pretenders in their obedience to God (Matt 23), but they kept the Sabbath so carefully that they kept rules that God did not give to them.
It's not the weekly Sabbath that we must strive to enter. It is another rest, and Hebrews goes on to make that clear.
In 4:3, he says that we who believe enter "that rest," which those who did not believe could not enter. Again, since those who did not believe were the Israelites who were in the wilderness for forty years, how can this be a reference to the weekly Sabbath? Those Israelites kept the weekly Sabbath the entire forty years.
In verses 4-9, the writer is contrasting the seventh-day rest of God with a rest that has not happened yet. He concludes that portion of his exegesis of Psalm 95 by saying, "There remains therefore a rest for the people of God."
In verse 10, he tells us that this rest, which is in front of us rather than behind us, is marked by our ceasing from our works the way God ceased from his.
In verse 11, he tells us to be diligent to enter that rest, and that if we are disobedient we will fall like they did.
None of this can be a reference to the weekly Sabbath. How do we diligently "enter" the weekly Sabbath. We don't need to "enter" that rest at all. It comes upon us every week. No diligence is required. We can just quit working for 24 hours.
So there is a rest that remains to us. We need to be diligent to enter that rest. All of this matches well with what I wrote about the Sabbath. Christians, because their rest is spiritual, not physical, can have a perpetual rest, a perpetual Sabbath. We find that rest by ceasing from our own works and by diligently entering into the works "prepared beforehand for us to do" by God (Eph. 2:10). We live our lives as those dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:3-11), ceasing from our dead works (Heb. 6:1; 9:14) to walk in the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:16), letting the life of God live through us (Gal 2:20). Our job is to diligently set our mind on things above (Col. 3:1-4), being transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:1-2), which happens by setting our minds on spiritual things (Rom. 8:5-8).
This was the teaching of the early churches, who exhorted us to live out a perpectual Sabbath. Jesus taught about the fullness of the Law, as he took the Law of Moses, made for an earthly kingdom and a fleshly people, and he breathed into it, blowing it up like a balloon into its full spiritual meaning. One of those full spiritual meanings was for the Sabbath to be no longer a physical rest that happened once a week, but a spiritual entering into the seventh-day rest of God, where we do not do our own works, but those of the Spirit of God in us.
I think that accords well--perfectly, in fact--with Hebrews 3 and 4, while reading the weekly Sabbath into the rest of Hebrews 3 and 4 is almost impossible.
One last note: I went back and read your email again when I was done with my response. You mentioned that Hebrews 4:8, in the KJV, says that Jesus did not give them another day. The reason that is only in the KJV is because in Greek the name of Joshua the son of Nun, the companion of Moses, is exactly the same as Y'shua, the Hebrew name of God's Son. Modern translations are more careful to clarify that the writer of Hebrews in referring to Joshua, the companion of Moses, not Jesus the Son of God.
Hebrews 4:8, to paraphrase, says, "If Joshua had given the people of Israel rest when he entered the promised land, then David would not have later talked about another rest in Psalm 95."
Verse 9 follows by saying, to paraphrase again, "But David did speak of another rest in Psalm 95, so there is still a rest that remains to the people of God."
The point, then, of the whole chapter, is that we as Christians must diligently enter into that rest that David spoke of, which was not provided to the Israelites when they entered their land of promise with Joshua. We do enter that rest through our Joshua, Jesus Christ.
I hope that helps! Grace to you.
That was my response as I sent it in the email. You can use the link at the top of the page to see passages from the early Christian teachings on the Sabbath.
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