Hebrews: Failure to Enter God’s Rest (3:7-19)

Hebrews 3:7-4:11 talks extensively about God’s rest. The failure of some to enter it. And an encouragement for us to enter into God’s rest. But just what is this ‘rest’ that the author of Hebrews is talking about? This post, and the one to follow, will examine what the author is trying to say to us here.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

God’s Rest

Psalm 95

So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Hebrews 3:7-11 NIV, Psalm 95:7-11

The author of Hebrews here quotes from the 95th Psalm. And he will requote portions of it three times during his discussion of God’s rest. This psalm is dealing with a specific time during Israel’s history. It deals with the time between the Exodus and their entry into Canaan. The majority of this time was spent wandering in the wilderness because of their disobedience and initial refusal to enter into the land. Their wandering continued until all those who were adults when they left Egypt had died, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb.

The Wilderness Wandering

Jacob and his family, a total of 70 people, entered Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. And there they stayed for some 400 years. During that time their population boomed. And their status changed from honored guests to oppressed slaves. According to Exodus the people had become so numerous that the Egyptian government felt that they had become a potential security threat. Consequently, they began to take measures to reduce the Hebrew population in order to keep them under control. And Israel cried out because of the oppression.

God heard their cry and sent Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead Israel out of Egyptian slavery and back to the land promised to Abraham. Moses led them first to Mt. Sinai for a year and then on to the promised land. But once they saw the inhabitants of the land they refused to go in, fearing that they would be destroyed. So God punished their disobedience by consigning them to wandering in the wilderness until that generation had died.

For the better part of 40 years, minus the time spent at Sinai, they lived as nomads with no permanent home. The rebellious generation slowly died. But it seems that throughout this time the people complained about the lack of water; the variety and quantity of food they had; and the leadership they had. God describes this as a time when the people were continually testing him.

The Seventh Day

I believe that the reference to God’s rest in this 95th Psalm points back to the creation week at the beginning of Genesis. In Genesis 2:2-3 we read, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” How should we understand God resting from all of his work? At it’s simplest level it would seem to mean that the creation was complete. He had everything in place the way that he wanted it.

The fourth of the ten commandments looks back at this seventh day. Exodus 20:8-11 tells us to remember the Sabbath, the seventh day. Israel was not to work on that day because the Lord rested on the seventh day. The Sabbath is directly tied to God’s rest on the seventh day.

In the Sabbath observance, Israel is invited to join God in his rest. But the 95th Psalm that the author of Hebrews is using here indicates that entering into God’s rest is more than the Sabbath observance. The Sabbath was only a picture of a much greater reality. One that Israel, through their disobedience, failed to enter.

What is God’s Rest

In the 95th Psalm, God’s rest would seem to equate with Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. This psalm points back to Deuteronomy 1:34-35. Here God said “When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: ‘No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.’” The psalmist replaces “the good land I swore to give your ancestors” with “my rest“. And indeed, the generation that came out of Egypt as adults failed to enter into the land. Apart from Joshua and Caleb.

For Israel, entering into God’s rest related to living in the land of promise. It did not imply sitting back and taking it easy. There were battles to fight to fully conquer the land. And once that was done there was still crops and flocks to tend; houses to build and maintain; and all of the other essentials of daily life. Being in God’s rest meant they were where God wanted them to be and were under his umbrella of protection. But there was still work to do.

But there is another aspect to God’s rest that will be explored in the following chapter. Here we will find that God’s ultimate ‘rest’ is not the physical land of Canaan. But it is what God has promised to all those who believe. It is the kingdom of God. A place where we cease from our own labors, and find our rest in him. There will be much more to say about this in the next post in this series.

Don’t Turn Away

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.

Hebrews 3:12-14 NIV

This is very much a part of the author’s concern and reason for his quotation from Psalm 95. The exodus generation died in the wilderness without ever entering into God’s rest. Why? Because of their disobedience. Because of an unbelieving heart that turned away from the living God. And the author is making every effort to ensure that his audience, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, do not follow their example and fall short of God’s rest.

Encourage One Another

This is the first, but not the last, time that the author tells us to be an encouragement to other believers. And I believe where it is placed here is not coincidental. Turning away from God is an individual activity. Encouraging one another is a group activity. “United we stand, divided we fall” is not just a popular cliché, it is very true. When we unite together as believers, and are an encouragement to each other, we can stand strong. But when we isolate ourselves from other believers, or have only casual relationships with them, we are much weaker. And can fall much easier.

Encourage one another as long as it is called ‘Today’. This is referring back to the beginning of the quotation from Psalm 95, “So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” I believe ‘Today’ is here referring to whenever the Holy Spirit is speaking to our hearts. And that is now. As believers we have the indwelling Holy Spirit who speaks to us and guides us along our walk of faith. So encouraging each other should be a part of our daily walk with Christ.

My sinful nature is very deceptive. Left to myself long enough, I can often convince myself that something is OK to do, even though I know better. It may only be some little minor thing. But as each grain of sand falls, they come easier and easier until I am buried under an avalanche. One of the advantages of mutual encouragement is that we help each other keep the deceitfulness of sin at bay.

Sharing in Christ

As believers in the Lord Jesus, we share together in him. We are a part of the body of Christ and have his life within us. But the author here warns us that this sharing in Christ is not something that comes about because of a profession of faith we made at sometime in the past. Instead, our sharing in Christ is contingent upon remaining faithful to the very end. Holding on to our original conviction until the end of our lives.

Many claim that once a person is saved that they can never lose that salvation. And I believe that to be true. But all too often we are guilty of identifying the entry point of our life with Christ as being all that counts. That I am saved because I committed my life to Jesus. But you will find no support for that position in Hebrews. For the author of Hebrews, what counts is where you are at the end of the journey. Did you hold your conviction firmly to the very end. Then you are saved.

Failing to Enter into God’s Rest

As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”
Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness?
And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed?
So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Hebrews 3:15-19 NIV

The author of Hebrews here continues his discussion of Psalm 95. Specifically looking into just who it was that failed to enter into God’s rest, the promised land.

Those who failed to enter into God’s rest were the same people that Moses led out of Egypt. But they were disobedient and, as a result, experienced God’s anger and judgement. This generation saw all of the plagues that devastated Egypt. They crossed the sea on dry ground and watched it close up on Egypt’s army that was pursuing them. They came to Mt. Sinai and entered into a covenant relationship with God, pledging themselves to worship him only and to keep the terms of the covenant. And God provided for them during all of this time.

Because of Their Unbelief

And yet, in the end, and in spite of all that they had experienced, in their hearts they turned away from God. They were unfaithful to the covenant they had entered into. And, when they came to the promised land, God’s rest, they rebelled against God and his anointed leadership. Because of their lack of faith that God would drive out the current inhabitants and give them the land, they could not enter. And, instead, they ended up wandering in the wilderness until they had died.

They had started the journey. They had experienced God’s deliverance and provision. And they had entered into a covenant relationship with God. But, in the end, they turned away and missed out on the promise of God.

Hebrews Study Post List

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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