Hebrews 4

Hebrews 4  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 8
No WONDER THEN that chapter 4 opens with the words, “Let us therefore fear” (ch. 4:1). This does not for one moment mean that we should always be filled with slavish dread, always doubting whether, enduring to the end, we shall be saved. It does mean that we should accept the warning which Israel’s history affords, that we should remember the deceitfulness of sin and the weakness of our own hearts, and have a wholesome fear of in any way following in their steps.
The beginning of the second verse might more accurately be translated, “For indeed we have had glad tidings presented to us, even as they also” (ch. 4:2). It is not “the gospel” as though both Israel of old and ourselves today had had exactly the same message presented to us. The glad tidings of deliverance from Egypt and entrance into Canaan was preached to them: the glad tidings of deliverance from sin and entrance into heavenly blessing has been preached to us. But in both cases the word preached does not profit apart from its being received in faith. The gospel is wonderful medicine for the broken heart, but it comes to us in a bottle bearing these directions —To be mixed with faith in those that hear. If those directions be not observed no cure is effected, and the rest of God is not reached.
The believer, and the believer only, enters into the rest of God. This is true whether we think of the typical rest of God in Canaan, which only Caleb and Joshua entered, or whether of the true rest of God which will be reached in a future day; and this is the simple meaning of the opening words of the third verse. The point is not that we, believers, are now entering into rest, are now in the enjoyment of peace with God—though that of course is delightfully true, and emphasized elsewhere in Scripture—but that it is believers, always and only believers, who enter into the rest of God; that rest which was purposed from the time of creation, but which has yet to be realized.
Verses 4 to 9 are occupied with an argument designed to prove that in no sense had the promise of God’s rest been realized in connection with Israel’s entrance into Canaan under Joshua. (The Jesus of verse 8 means Joshua, as the margin of a reference Bible shows). This argument was necessary for Hebrew readers since they might readily have taken it for granted that everything in connection with the rest had been realized in connection with their forefathers and that there was nothing more to come.
The argument might be summarized as follows:
1. There is to be a rest, as indicated when God ceased from His works at creation.
2. Israel did not enter into the rest under Joshua, as proved by the fact that God had said, “If they shall enter into My rest” (which is a Hebrew idiom meaning, “They shall not enter”); and also by the fact that so long after Joshua as the time of David an offer was again made them as to entering. Such an offer would not have been made subsequently, if all had been settled under Joshua.
3. But God’s promise is not going to fail of its effect; consequently a rest for the people of God-i.e., for believers-is still awaiting them.
The word used for “rest” in verse 9 means “a keeping of a sabbath.” This connects the thought with what we have earlier in the chapter as to God’s rest in creation, and also with what we have in verse 10. We shall only enter into the rest of God when our days of work and labor here are over forever.
The early part of chapter 4 has established the fact that God’s rest lies at the end of the believer’s pathway. At the present time we are in the position of pilgrims on our way to that rest, just as formerly Israel were pilgrims on their way to the land of promise. When the rest is reached we shall cease our working, but on the way there we should “labor” or rather “be diligent” to enter in, taking warning by the fate which of old overtook so many unbelieving Israelites.
The latter part of the chapter sets before us three great sources of help and guidance which are available for us on our pilgrim way. They are first, the word of God; second, the priesthood of Christ; third, the throne of grace.
The features of the Word of God are brought before us in verses 12 and 13. It is quick (i.e., living) and powerful. Like all living things it possesses amazing energy. Further it has extraordinary powers of penetration, for it can pierce its way between things most intimately connected—whether in things spiritual or things material—in a way impossible to the sharpest two-edged sword. Again, it is a discerner of the deepest thoughts and motives of men.
It is a remarkable fact that the word translated discerner is the one from which we get our word critic. Multitudes there are today who pose as critics of the Word of God, and their foolish criticism only betrays the fact that far from being living they are in spiritual death; that far from being powerful they are very weak, and that their supposed powers of penetration are practically non-existent. They have no real understanding of the Word which they criticize, and the phantom “authors” and “editors” etc., which they conjure up are the result, not of their powers of penetration but of a very undiscerning and disorderly imagination.
It is not man’s business to criticize the Word of God, but to let the Word criticize him. Nothing tests us more than criticism. If we are proud and self-sufficient we bitterly resent it. Only if humble and walking in the fear of the Lord do we welcome the penetrating criticisms of the Word, and they are of the greatest possible help to us in pursuing our pilgrim way. Thereby we are enabled to see ourselves and scrutinize our own motives, and thus avoid a thousand snares.
The Word of God reaches us in the Holy Scriptures. Should someone ask us why we accept the Bible as the Word of God, we might well reply: Is not that word, which lives and is powerful, which penetrates and discerns the hidden and secret things, the Word of God? It is indeed. Is not the Bible marked by exactly those features? Without any question it is. Then what further need of proof have we, that the Bible is the Word of God?
Notice too how almost insensibly we pass from the Word of God in verse 12 to God Himself in verse 13. All is manifest in HIS sight. It is an all-seeing God with whom we have to do.
If the Word of God has full play in our understandings and consciences we shall become very conscious of our own insufficiency, and our weakness in the pilgrim way. How delightful then to turn to the second thing brought before us here—the priesthood of Christ.
In verse 14 we have the greatness of our High Priest emphasized, both as to His position and His Person. He has passed into (or, more accurately, through) the heavens. He did not stop in the first heaven nor in the second heaven when on His upward way, but into the third and highest heaven He went. Indeed, as another Scripture puts it, He “ascended up far above all heavens” (Eph. 4:1010He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:10)). Still, the position of our High Priest is expressed here in this way so that Jewish readers might be reminded of Aaron going into the holiest of all. In the tabernacle the court, in which stood the altar of burnt sacrifice, was typical of the first heaven. The holy place typified the second heaven, and the holiest the third heaven in which God dwells. In entering the holiest Aaron passed through the heavens as far as the type was concerned. Our blessed Saviour and High Priest has passed through the heavens, not in type but in glorious reality. He is now in a place of infinite greatness and glory.
As to His Person our great High Priest is no less than the Son of God. This great fact settles everything in the most decisive way. There is no room for failure here. A mere man like Aaron might fail. He did as a matter of fact fail immediately, and the whole system of things which depended upon him failed likewise. Our High Priest will never fail, and all that hangs upon Him will stand forever. We shall certainly “hold fast our profession” (ch. 4:14) if we really believe this.
Then in verse 15 the graciousness of our High Priest is set before us. Having become truly Man, He passed through all human experiences and temptations, apart from sin. The rendering of our Authorized Version, “without sin.” might mislead us by making us think it merely means that He went through all temptations without sinning. It means more than this. He faced all human temptations “apart from sin.” He was perfectly and intrinsically holy. “In Him is no sin” (1 John 3:55And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. (1 John 3:5)), and hence temptations proceeding from the flesh within were necessarily unknown to Him. He had no flesh within. “Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (James 1:1414But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. (James 1:14)). But this could not be said of Him.
Hence while He is said to be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, He is not said to be touched with the feeling of our sins. Infirmities are not sins but rather those weaknesses which are connected with human condition. In us they may of course lead to sin; in fact they will almost inevitably do so except we seek and obtain help from on high—the help of which verse 16 speaks.
But do not let us leave verse 15 until we have extracted therefrom the sweetness contained in two words. First, that word touched. A man of power and wealth may hand out much help and succor to needy folk, and yet never have time nor inclination to so enter into their sorrowful experiences as to have his heart really touched by them. We in our weakness and need may look to our High Priest in His glory and be sure that His heart is touched on our behalf. Then again that word, feeling. The wealthy man of many charities might go as far as being touched with the knowledge of the needs of the people he helps, but if he has no experimental understanding of their infirmities and struggles he cannot be touched with the feeling of their needs. Now the Lord Jesus has so qualified Himself by all He has passed through that He actually feels. He entered so truly into human life and human conditions, apart from sin, that He now knows from the human standpoint what He always knew from the divine standpoint. He possessed Himself of human feelings about human needs and human sorrows, and though now glorified on high He is still Man in heaven with all the feelings of a Man on behalf of men.
Oh, then, let us come boldly to the throne of grace! That throne is the third of the great helps which our chapter mentions. It is a “throne of grace” (ch. 4:16) because graced by our great High Priest being seated there. Thence is dispensed mercy and grace for seasonable or opportune help, only we must come to the throne in order that we may get it.
What Israelite of old dared approach with any boldness the awful throne of the Almighty God? What Israelite indeed dared approach at all? When Ezekiel saw it in vision there was “the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it” (Ezek. 1:2626And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. (Ezekiel 1:26)), yet he had no boldness but rather fell upon his face. At the best his vision only pointed on to that which was to be realized in our day. Thank God it is now realized, but do we realize it? The Son of God sits on the throne, but it is the Son of God in true and tender and sympathetic Manhood. Realizing this all fear vanishes and we draw near with boldness.
The whole period of our lives down here is the time of need to us, and coming boldly all opportune mercy and grace is ours. We have but to approach in prayer and supplication. It is guaranteed to us by the character of the One to whom we come—His greatness on the one hand and His grace on the other. How rarely do we find these two things united amongst men. Here, for instance, is a very great man, with much power and ability to help others. But he cannot afford to adopt a very kindly attitude and make himself easily accessible lest he be overwhelmed by applicants. So he hedges himself about with secretaries and porters and other officials. He could do much for you if only you could approach him, but you cannot get at him. Here is another, and a kindlier, more accessible, more sympathetic person it would be impossible to imagine, but when you get at him he has no power to do anything for you. Thus it generally is amongst men; but thus it is not with our Lord. Both power and grace are combined in Him.
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