The Epistle to the Hebrews

Hebrews 3‑4  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Before the Apostle enters upon the unfolding of His High Priesthood, there is a digression (the two chapters that follow, I apprehend, linking themselves with the two we have considered). Thus, "Christ as Son over His own house" answers pretty much to the first chapter, as the rest of God by-and-by answers to the second chapter; for I hope to prove it is to be in the scene of future glory. In writings so profound as the Apostle's, one generally hails the least help toward appreciating the structure of an epistle; let the reader consider it.
We need not dwell long on these intervening chapters. It is evident that he opens with our Lord as "Apostle and High Priest of our confession," in contrast with the apostle and high priest of the Jews. Moses was the revealer of the mind of God of old, as Aaron had the title and privilege of access then into the sanctuary of God for the people. Jesus unites both in His own Person.
He came from God and went to God.
The holy brethren then, partakers of a heavenly calling (not earthly like Israel's), are told to consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, even Jesus, who is faithful to Him that appointed Him, as also Moses in all His house. Moses, "as a servant," he takes care particularly to say, in everything shows the superiority of the Messiah. "For He was counted worthy of greater glory than Moses, by how much He that built it hath more honor than the house." He becomes bold now. He can venture, after having brought out such glory to Christ, to use plainness of speech; and they could bear it if they believed their own scriptures. If they honored the man who was God's servant in founding and directing the tabernacle (or house of God in its rudimentary state), how much more did the ancient oracles call attention to a greater than Moses-to Jehovah-Messiah, even Jesus. How plainly this chapter presupposes the proofs of the divine glory of Christ! We shall see also His Sonship presently. "And Moses was faithful in all His house, as a servant, for a testimony of the things to be spoken after; but Christ, as Son over His house, whose house are we." Christ, being God, built the house; Christ built all things. Moses ministered as servant, and was faithful in God's house; Christ as Son is over the house; "whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end."
There were great difficulties, circumstances calculated especially to affect the Jew who, after receiving the truth with joy, might be exposed to great trial, and so in danger of giving up his hope. It was, besides, particularly hard for a Jew at first to put these two facts together: a Messiah come, and entered into glory; and the people who belonged to the Messiah left in sorrow, and shame, and suffering here below. In fact, no person from the Old Testament could, at first sight at least, have combined these two elements. We can understand it now in Christianity. It is partly, indeed, to the shame of Gentiles, that they do not even see the difficulty for a Jew. It shows how naturally, so to speak, they have forgotten the Jew as having a special place in the Word and purposes of God. They consequently cannot enter into the feelings of the Jew; and by such the authority and use of this epistle was grievously slighted. It is the self-conceit of the Gentile (Rom. 11), not their faith, that makes the Jewish difficulty to be so little felt. Faith enables us to look at all difficulties, on the one hand measuring them, on the other raising us above them. This is not at all the case with ordinary Gentile thought. Unbelief, indifferent and unfeeling, does not even see, still less appreciate, the trials of the weak.
The Apostle here enters into everything of value for the way. Although it is perfectly true that the Son is in this place of universal glory and, in relation to us, Son over His house (God's house having an all-comprehending sense and a narrower one), he explains how it is that His people are in actual weakness, trial, exposure, danger, a n d sorrow here below. The people are still traveling through the wilderness, not yet in the land. He immediately appeals to the voice of the Spirit in the Psalms: "Wherefore-(as the Holy Ghost saith, Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, a n d said, They do always err in heart; and they have not known My ways. So I swear in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest.)—take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end; while it is said, Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses."
What is pressed here is this: that the people of God are still in the path of faith, just like their fathers of old before they crossed the Jordan; that now there is that which puts our patience to the proof; that the grand thing for such is to hold fast the beginning of the assurance firm unto the end. They were tempted to stumble at the truth of Christ because of the bitter experiences of the way through which they were going onward. To turn back is but the evil heart of unbelief; to abandon Jesus is to turn away from the living God. To be fellows or companions of the Messiah (Psalm 45) depends on holding fast the beginning of the assurance to the end; for, remember, we are in the wilderness. Following Christ, as of old they followed Moses, we are not arrived at the rest of God. "But with whom was He grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware He that they should not enter into His rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief."
This leads us to the very important, but often misunderstood, chapter 4. What is the meaning of the "rest of God"? Not rest of soul, nor rest of conscience, any more than of heart. It is none of these things, but simply what the Apostle says, God's rest. His rest is not merely your rest. It is not our faith seizing the rest that Christ gives to him that trusts Himself, as when He says, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He did not say, "I will give you God's rest." It was not the time, nor is it of that nature. God's rest is the rest of His own satisfaction. His rest is a change of all the present scene of trial and toil, the consequences of sin. Of course the people of God must be formed for the scene, as well as it for them. They are incomparably more to God than that which they are going to fill. But the scene has its importance too.
It would not suit God, if it would suit us, to be ever so blessed in such a world as this. He means to have a rest as worthy of Himself as the righteousness we are made in Christ is worthy of Himself now. As it is His righteousness, so will it be His rest. Therefore it is not merely, as Gentiles are apt to suppose, the bringing of comfort into the heart, and the spirit filled with the consciousness of blessings from God and of His grace to us. The Jew too had, in another direction, a miserably inadequate conception of it; for it was earthly, if not sensual. Still, what a Jewish believer often staggered at, what he felt to be a serious riddle for his mind, was the contrast between t h e circumstances through which he was passing, and the Christ of which the prophets had spoken to him. Now the Apostle does not in any way make light of the grief by the way, nor forget that the pilgrimage in the desert is the type of our earthly circumstances. He takes the scriptures that speak of Israel journeying toward, but not yet in, the pleasant land, applying them to the present facts, and at the same time he sets before them in hope the rest of God.
"Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us were glad tidings preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we who have believed do enter into rest." That is, we are on the road. He does not say that we have entered, nor does he mean anything of the sort, which is clean contrary to the argument and aim. It is altogether a mistake, therefore, to so interpret the passage. The very reverse is meant; namely, that we have not entered into the rest but, as the hymn says, we are on our way, I will not say to God, but assuredly to His rest. We are entering into the rest, having got it before us, and on to that rest we move; but we are not yet there. "We who have believed do enter into rest, as He said, As I have sworn in My wrath, if they shall enter into My rest."
It is quite true that it is the Holy Ghost's object to bring the rest close to us, so as to make us always conscious of the little interval that separates us from the rest of God; but still, let the interval be ever so short, we are not there yet; we are only going toward it. For the present, our place, beyond controversy, is viewed as in fact in the wilderness. According to the doctrine of this epistle (as of the Romans, the Corinthians, and the Philippians), to present us as in heavenly places would be altogether out of place and season. To the Ephesians he does develop our blessing as in and with Christ in the heavenlies. There it was exactly consonant to the character of the truth; for it is truth, and of the highest order. But as far as the epistle to the Hebrews goes, we should never have learned this side of the truth of God, or its appropriation to us, for we are only regarded in our actual place; that is, marching through the desert.
Here objections, which might be founded on the scriptures of the Old Testament, are met. There were two, and only two, occasions of old whence it might be argued that there had been an entrance into God's rest.
The first was when God made the creation; but was there any entering of man into that rest? God, doubtless, rested from His works; but even God is never said then to have rested in His works. Was there anything that satisfied God, or blessed man permanently? All was good; yes, very good; but could God rest in His love? Surely not till all could be founded on the basis of redemption. Before all worlds were, God meant to have this. Nothing but redemption could bring into His own rest. Consequently, a rest capable of being spoiled, and all requiring to be begun over again in a new and more blessed way, never could meet the heart or mind of God. This, accordingly, is not His rest; it served as a sign and witness of it, but nothing more.
Then we come down lower to the second instance of deep and special interest to Israel. When Joshua brought the people triumphantly into the possession of Canaan, was this the rest of God? Not so. How is it disproved? By the selfsame Psalm—"If they shall enter into My rest," written afterward. So wrote David, "Today, after so long a time." Not only after the creation, but after Joshua had planted the people in the land, a certain day is determined in the future. For if Jesus (Joshua) had brought them into rest, He would not have spoken afterward about another day. They had not entered into it vet.
The "rest" was still beyond. Is it not future still? What has there been to bring people into the rest of God since then? What is there to be compared with creation, or with His people settled in Canaan by the destruction of their foes? That which Gentile theology has brought into the matter; namely, the work of the Lord on the cross, or the application of it to meet the needs of the soul -precious as it was to the Apostle, as it must be to faith -has no place whatever in the Apostle's argument. If so, where does he bring it into the context? The idea that this is the point debated is so perfectly foreign and futile that to my mind it demonstrates exceeding prepossession, if not looseness, of mind as well as a lack of subjection to scripture in those who allow their theories to override the plain Word of God, which is here conspicuous for the absence of that infinite truth.
The Apostle, therefore, at once draws the conclusion that neither at creation, nor in Canaan, was the rest of God really come. The latter part of the Old Testament shows us how Israel got unsettled and finally driven from their land, though it also predicts their future ingathering. The New Testament shows us the rejection of the Messiah, the ruin of Israel, the salvation of believers, the Church formed of such in one body (whether Jews or Gentiles), but in the stronger contrast with the rest of God. Consequently, the rest is but coming, not come; it is future. This is the application: "There remaineth therefore a rest" (or sabbatism) "to the people of God. For he that hath entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his works, as God did from His own." I must ask you thus to alter the passage, the Authorized Version giving it wrongly. The emphasis is taken out of one place and put into another without the slightest reason.
What he deduces is, "Let us use diligence therefore to enter into that rest." The meaning is, you cannot be laboring and resting in the same sense and time. All must confess that when you rest, you cease from labor. His statement is that now is the time not for rest, but for diligence; and the moral reason why we labor is that love-whether looked at in God Himself, in His Son, or in His children-never can rest where there is either sin or wretchedness. In the world there is both. No doubt for the believer; his sins are blotted out and forgiven, and hope anticipates with joy the final deliverance of the Lord. But as to the course of this age and all things here below, it is impossible to think or speak of rest as these are, not even for our bodies, as part of the fallen creation. There ought not to be rest, therefore, beyond what we have by faith in our souls. It would be mere sentimentalizing; it is not the truth of God. I ought to feel the misery and the estrangement of the earth from God; I ought to go—however joyful in the Lord-with a heart sad, and knowing how to weep, in a world where there is so much sin, and suffering, and sorrow. But the time is coming when God will wipe away tears from all eyes; yes, every tear. And this will be the rest of God. To this rest we are journeying, but we are only journeying. At the same time we should labor; love cannot but toil in such a world as this. If there be the spirit that feels the pressure of sin, there is the love that rises up in the power of God's grace, bringing in that which lifts out of sin, and delivers from it. So he says, "Let us be diligent therefore to enter into that rest."
Allow me to say a word to any person who may be a little confused by old thoughts on this subject. Look again a little more exactly into the two chief calls of the chapter (verses 1 and 11), and let me ask you if it be safe and sound to apply them to rest for the conscience now? Are souls who have never yet tasted that the Lord is gracious to be summoned to fear? And how does the call to labor or diligence square with the Apostle's word in Rom. 4:4, 54Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Romans 4:4‑5), where justification by faith, apart from works, is beyond cavil the point of teaching? What can be the effect of such prejudices of interpretation (no matter who may have endorsed them) but to muddle the gospel of God's grace? Thus it seems to me clearly and certainly such a notion is proved to be false. The test of a wrong notion is that it always dislocates the truth of God; often, indeed, like this, running counter to the plainest and most elementary forms of the gospel itself. Thus, take the text already referred to- "To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly"-the popular misinterpretation sets people working to enter into rest for their conscience. But the doctrine is as false as the written Word is true; and the meaning of that which is before us is not rest now for the soul by faith, but the rest of God, when He has made a scene in the day of glory as worthy of Himself as it will be suited for those whom He loves.
Accordingly, we are next shown the provision of grace, not for the rest of glory, but for those who are only journeying on toward it here below. And what is that provision? The Word of God which comes and searches, tries and deals with us, judging the thoughts and intents of the heart; and the priesthood of Christ which converts and strengthens, and applies all that is needed here -the grace and mercy of our God. "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need."