The author continues his line of reasoning begun in chapter three. There is no break of thought at this chapter division.
4:1. Let God’s people today fear and not fall. This is a real possibility now and was then for the Hebrew Christians or there would be no warning. In the midst of the various and passing issues of each generation, God’s people would do well to remember that the fundamental and eternal issue has always been belief versus unbelief and that God (and God alone) will test each individual (as an individual) on that issue. This point should never be forgotten.
The exhortations in Hebrews are rich in edification, and the “let us” admonitions are translated from a verb form called the “hortatory subjunctive” (see 4:11, 14, 16; 6:1; 10:22-24; 12:1, 28; 13:13, 15).
A promise has been left for us, although the Old Testament saints and apostates have died. That promise concerns entering into God’s rest. The same offer was made the Jews, as our writer explains, but because of disbelief they did not receive the promised blessing. The same offer is now given to believers in Christ. Christians are to fear, however, lest any of them should seem to come short of it.
To come short might mean to fall short of attaining the promised rest, and that point is well taken in this context. But it may also mean to come short of being offered the promise of God in the first place, and the next verses, as well as the verb should seem, appear to support this interpretation.
Some of the Hebrew saints appear to have been disappointed in their immediate expectations as Christians. They had given up their ancient religion, they had suffered persecution for their faith, they had endured afflictions for Christ’s sake. It seemed to some that all their sacrifices had been in vain. They had not entered into rest but into distress. It seemed to some that the promise of a rest surely did not apply in their case, for they had not found it. The writer shows that the promise not only does apply to the Christian, but that since it was not fulfilled in the past it must apply to God’s people in Christ.
4:2. God preached a gospel (good news) to the Jews concerning a promised land. Unto us Christians is given good news of present deliverance in Christ and a part in the world to come. The believer is therefore to fear, for the mere fact that he has heard good news does not mean that he will enter into the promise. The Jews also heard good news, yet they died in the wilderness.
The word preached by Moses did not profit them, because it was not mixed with faith in them that heard it. The figure here is taken from the physical body and the digestive system. The Greek word translated mixed was used both of the digestion of food in the stomach and the assimilation of nutrients throughout the body. Regardless of the beauty, taste or value of food, it is of no use to the body unless it is properly digested and assimilated.
The same is true spiritually. Israel heard the word of God but failed to “digest” it through faith and assimilate it to their profit. Food improperly digested will actually do harm. So also the word of God, which is given to save, will be a testimony and assurance of destruction unless it is mixed with faith (II Corinthians 2:15-16). It is not enough to hear God’s word. It must be received in faith and held to in patience.
4:3. We who have believed are the ones who enter into rest. Faith is a necessity, as demonstrated by the experience both of those who fell and those who attained. The rest into which believers enter (in promise now and in actuality if they persevere) is the same rest of which God spoke in Psalm 95:11, as mentioned already in Hebrews 3:11.
Because God swore in His wrath that Israel would not enter into His rest, it is evident that (1) He had a rest Himself, and (2) He had planned from the beginning for man to share in it. The quotation is translated correctly in 3:11, and should be so worded here. God’s works were finished from the foundation of the world. Since then He has been in His own rest, and has sought faithful men who would enjoy it with Him.
4:4-5. This is proved by two quotations from Scripture. God did rest the seventh day from all his works, according to Genesis 2:2. And then He swore in Psalm 95:11 concerning His rest, saying if they shall enter (correctly translated, “they shall surely not enter”) into my (the pronoun is emphatic) rest.
4:6-7. Since it has always been God’s intention that some must enter into His rest, and since the Jews to whom it was first preached did not enter because of unbelief, God offered the rest again to those living in the time of David. They were admonished like the Jews in the wilderness to hear his voice and harden not their hearts (Psalm 95:7-8). God’s saving time is today, whenever that may be. Any day is a day of salvation in which God’s word comes to man and is received in faith.
4:8. The fact that the rest was offered to men in the time of David proves that the rest involved was not that found in the land of Canaan. If Joshua (Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua) had given them rest in the land, God would not afterward have spoken of another day. Yet He did as we have just seen.
4:9. The conclusion must be that a rest remains, even today, for the people of God who will trust in Christ.
4:10. He has not been speaking concerning an ordinary human rest, which is brief and is followed by more labor. The man who is entered into God’s rest has ceased from his works forever, just as God did from his at the end of creation week. This is a rest of accomplished purpose, of fulfilled action, of completed labor. It is another way of describing the salvation of 1:14 and 2:3, or the world to come of 2:5. Because this is the nature of the promised rest, it is also apparent that the Sabbath rest of the Jews is not meant, for that was followed by six days of more labor and had to be repeated every week. In addition, the Sabbath rest was commanded but this rest of God was always promised (see also Matthew 11:28-30; Revelation 14:13).
4:11. This being the case, all effort is in order to enter into that rest. Diligence is necessary, because Christians can fall after the same example of unbelief seen in the Jews under Moses.
4:12. Diligence is necessary also because of the nature of the word of God. It is living or quick and energetic or powerful. It is sharper than any two-edged sword. The figure continues in saying that the word’s fine edge can cut between soul and spirit, or to the dividing of joints and marrow. The author is not intending to give a scientific or spiritual analysis of the nature and composition of man. He is stressing the power and piercing energy of the word of God. God’s word is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Therefore all unbelief will be apparent to God. It is of the utmost importance that His word be received in faith — it is an instrument too dangerous for trifling (see verse two).
4:13. He who knows the heart will not be misled by duplicity or hypocrisy. Nor will He overlook the good and honest heart, though sometimes men do (see John 2:24-25). All things are naked and opened before God’s eyes. These words may come from either of two sources.
The priest would inspect a sacrifice with care, lest it be blemished; God’s scrutiny of the heart is no less meticulous. It is said also that criminals of the first century would sometimes have their head pulled backward on public display, exposing the face to the contempt of general gaze. Nothing in man’s heart or life can escape the certain gaze of God — a gaze of disapproval and severity if what He sees is not holy and faithful. But for some there is also a gaze of sympathy and tenderness, as the next verse will show.
4:14. The writer changes his tone from severe warning to gentle appeal. Our high priest carefully searches the heart in total justice, but He is sympathetic to the human condition of His faithful ones when they stumble. We have a great high priest, not on earth, but passed into the heavens. He is Jesus the Son of God — that same Son exalted in chapter one. Because He is our high priest, we are to hold fast our profession (see notes at 3:1).
4:15. Christ can be touched or, literally, can sympathize, with our weaknesses or the feeling of our infirmities. He ho been tempted or put to the test, in all points like as we are yet without sin. Because He was without sin, Christ both saves and judges man. He judges man in presenting Mg perfect life when man’s is so sinful. At the same time He saves man by that perfect life, because He gave R for man’s Am, presenting ft to the Father in the place of man’s. Christ appeared once before God and presented His perfect life as atonement for our sins and as justification for our forgiveness. He will appear a second time to men, without sin, bringing salvation to those who look for Him (9:26, 28; 10:4-18).
4:16. Because we have a sympathetic high priest, one who measures His feelings on the basis of Ms own experiences as a man, we are exhorted and tenderly encouraged to come boldly unto His throne of grace. There we may obtain mercy, and there we mayfind grace to help in the time of our need.
Mercy in this verse stands for a Greek word which in the Greek Old Testament represented the Hebrew word for Jehovah’s “covenant mercy” or “lovingkindness.” Throughout the Old Testament, God demonstrated this lovingkindness in acts of deliverance and grace. The same word described the mercy the people of the covenant were to show each other as joint recipients of Jehovah’s covenant-mercy.
Psalm 136 is a psalm of praise for God’s covenant-mercy, and it illustrates the many forms it might take. A complete concordance or book of word studies will give many wonderful insights into this concept from the Old Testament. Christians receive the same kind of covenant kindness, mercy, and steadfast love through their union with Jesus Christ.
Next: Chapter Five