“Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1).
Most of us can recall a period of physical exhaustion in our lives. Whether that fatigue was generated by hard work, a grueling athletic competition, a lack of sleep, or some other factor, we naturally look forward to an opportunity to rest whenever we are weary. This familiar illustration establishes a good foundation to begin our journey into Hebrews chapter four.
In this context, “rest” involves a cessation of labor or activity. In light of this, we can say that the promise of entering God’s rest has two aspects. The first represents a future state with God in heaven. Since God reigns in heaven, it possesses the characteristics of His leadership. Those characteristics include love, joy, peace, and righteousness. In addition to these things, there will be no more death, mourning, tears, or pain in heaven, according to Revelation chapter 21. We should also note the message of Psalm 16:11: “In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Heaven is also a place that is being prepared for us by Jesus Himself, for as John 14:2 tells us, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house, and I am going to prepare a place for you. I would not tell you this if it were not so” (GNT). This word translated “rooms” in John 14:2 refers to an abode, a dwelling or a stay in any place. (1) Thus, we can say that Christ is preparing a home for us so we can dwell forever with Him and one another. We have Jesus’ personal assurance on this point: “… if it were not so, I would have told you.”
The Scriptures also associate heaven with the concept of eternal life. We can find one such example in the well-known passage from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV). In this respect, “eternal life” does not simply mean unending life; it also encompasses life in all its fullness without the sinful limitations or restrictions we encounter today.
Finally, we can say that our lives today involve work and labor as we seek to follow God and minister to others (see Hebrews 6:10). But here in the context of Hebrews 4:1, we can associate “rest” with a heavenly dwelling where we will cease from our labor in becoming everything God that created us to be.
(1) G3438 mone Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/mone
“Therefore, since the promise to enter his rest remains, let us beware that none of you be found to have fallen short” (Hebrews 4:1 CSB).
While there is a future aspect to the rest described here in Hebrews 4:1, there is a present aspect to that rest as well. For instance, Hebrews 4:1 tells us, “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands…” The present tense of this passage implies a present-day reality. But since there is work and labor associated with the pursuit of God’s agenda for our lives today, how can this be?
The answer to this question is relatively straightforward: we can enjoy God’s rest today when we cease to relate to God on our terms through our own efforts. For example, there are two ways for human beings to relate to their Creator: self-initiated or God-initiated. A self-initiated relationship with God reflects the following mindset: “God will accept me if I perform a specific work” On the other hand, a God-initiated relationship says, “God will accept me if I approach Him through Jesus’ sacrifice on my behalf.”
These two approaches are mutually incompatible. Those who pursue a self-initiated approach to God do not recognize Jesus’ atoning death on the cross as the only way to establish a relationship with their Creator. If we approach God through faith in Christ alone, we must abandon any attempt to get right with Him based on our own efforts.
The Old Testament Law serves to illustrate this point. It has often been said that the Old Testament Law is similar to the links in a bicycle chain. Even though most of the links in a bicycle chain may be intact, one broken link will immediately render the entire chain useless. This illustration represents the dilemma facing those who wish to establish a “works-based” relationship with God.
You see, a person who fails to keep the Law in its entirety is guilty of violating all of it. As James 2:9 puts it, “…whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (ESV).
In contrast, those who accept a God-initiated relationship through Christ receive the additional benefit of rest from the labor of attempting to get right with God through his or her efforts. It is only through living such a life that we can we find lasting rest and contentment in a constantly changing world. Therefore, as Hebrews 4:1 reminds us, “Let us take care, then, that none of you will be found to have failed to receive that promised rest” (GNT).
“Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1 NASB).
The exhortation “let us,” appears over a dozen times in the book of Hebrews and emphasizes the need to take action based on a point that our author has already established. In this instance, that point was made at the end of Hebrews chapter three: “So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19 NIV).
While the word “fear” encompasses the idea of being afraid in the original language of this passage, the context of this verse suggests a more appropriate definition: “to fear (i.e. hesitate) to do something (for fear of harm)… to reverence, venerate, to treat with deference or reverential obedience.” (1) As one source explains…
“This Christian fear is not the fear which makes a man run away from a task; nor the fear which reduces him to paralysed inaction; it is the fear which makes him put out every ounce of strength he possesses in a great effort not to miss the one thing that is worth while.” (2)
One author ties these ideas together for us with the following observation…
“Why should people fear, especially Christians? Simply because great and eternal rewards are subject to forfeit as long as people are in the flesh, because a powerful and aggressive foe in the person of Satan and his hosts are opposed to us, and because the multitude of distractions, temptations, and necessary labors of life constantly tend to produce that one moment of life in which inattention can lead to everlasting ruin. This fear is reinforced by the thought that many others failed, even after a glorious beginning.” (3)
This same author adds another important word of warning…
“Alas, it must be supposed that the far greater part of Christians falling away from faith in Christ do so unintentionally. Few indeed ever decide boldly against the Lord, and move decisively against him; but, on the contrary, they allow inattention to spiritual things, carelessness in attending worship, neglect of daily prayer and study of the Word, and encroachments upon their time due to worldly and pleasure-loving friends to divert their attention first, and later their whole life and conduct from the path of honor and duty. It is hard to imagine a more urgent and persistent warning than the one given here.” (3)
(1) G5399 Phobeo Thayer’s Greek Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g5399/kjv/tr/0-1/
(2) Barclay, William, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible [Commentary on Hebrews 4:1-16]
(3) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Hebrews 4”. “Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Hebrews 4:2).
There has always been an abundance of those who can tell us how things are, but not why things are. Thankfully, God’s Word does both, and Hebrews 4:1-2 serves as a case in point. This portion of Scripture explains why we sometimes do not receive the rest we seek and points the way to how we may obtain it.
The experience of Old Testament Israel offers some important insight in this regard: “…the teaching they heard did not help them, because they heard it but did not accept it with faith” (NCV). If we are in a consistent state of unrest concerning a particular area of life, we may wish to consider the possibility that we are neglecting to trust God in faith.
We can test that premise with the aid of a few important questions. Some of those questions might include the following…
- What can I learn from the origin of this situation?
- What does the way I’m handling this tell me about myself?
- What lesson may God be seeking to teach me through this circumstance?
The answers to those questions may help explain why we sometimes fail to experience the rest described for us here in Hebrews 4:1-2. If we receive negative responses to some of these questions, we should acknowledge them before God in Christ with an attitude of honesty, respect, humility, and repentance. We can then ask for God’s help in trusting Him as we should in the circumstances and situations we encounter.
The author of Hebrews will encourage us to adopt this approach later in this chapter…
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16)
Another portion of Hebrews emphasizes the importance of faith in the lives of those who follow Christ: “Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him” (Hebrews 10:38)
Therefore, we should remember the following passage from the New Testament epistle of James when facing the trials and difficulties of life…
“Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything” (James 1:2-4 NLT).
“For we have heard the Good News, just as they did. They heard the message, but it did them no good, because when they heard it, they did not accept it with faith” (Hebrews 4:2 GNB).
This passage brings us to the subject of the “gospel,” a word that refers to “glad tidings” or “good news.” In a Scriptural context, the gospel relates to the “good news” regarding Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. That sacrifice atones (or “makes up”) for our sins and enables us to enter a relationship with God by grace through faith in Christ.
We can identify the foundational elements of the gospel message with a look at the following passage from 1 Corinthians 15:1-4…
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (NIV).
One Biblical scholar helps us understand what this good news meant to the people of Old Testament Israel…
“To understand this verse we must identify the pronouns. ‘Us’ refers to the first-century Jewish readers of this letter, ‘them’ to the generation which came out of Egypt. The words ‘the gospel was preached’ are the translation of a verb which means ‘to announce good news.’ The character of the good news must be defined by the context.
The good news which was announced to the first-century readers of this epistle was that of a spiritual rest in Messiah. The good news given to the generation which came out of Egypt was that of a temporal, physical rest in a land flowing with milk and honey, offered to a people who had been reduced to abject slavery for 400 years and who had lived on a diet of leeks, garlic, and onions during that time.” (1)
For the Israelites who departed ancient Egypt, this good news represented the promise of God’s rest in a land “…in which you will lack nothing” (Deuteronomy 8:9). Today, this good news represents the offer of eternal life and rest through faith in Christ.
Despite these differences, there is one common denominator between them: unbelief was (and is) a disqualifying factor that prevents us from enjoying God’s promised rest, as we’ll see next.
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 4:2) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“We have heard the message, just as they did. But they failed to believe what they heard, and the message did not do them any good” (Hebrews 4:2 CEV).
It is possible to hear a message but fail to listen or act upon it. Hebrews 4:2 tells us that this was the experience of the ancient Israelites. However, this should not be true of our engagement with God’s Word. You see, we have an obligation to listen attentively to the Biblical Scriptures and act upon what we read or hear. This cautionary message is repeated several times within the New Testament…
“While [Jesus] was saying these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you, and the breasts that nursed you!’ But he said ‘On the contrary, blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27-28 Mounce).
“…just because a person hears the law read or recited does not mean he is right before the one True God; it is following the law that makes one right, not just hearing it” (Romans 2:13 Voice).
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
Unfortunately, most of the Israelites who departed from ancient Egypt heard God’s message but failed to act upon it. While the people of Old Testament Israel seemed to be on a journey toward the Promised Land, the Biblical prophet Amos tells us they were actually traveling in an idolatrous direction…
“Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, Israel? No, you served your pagan gods—Sakkuth your king god and Kaiwan your star god—the images you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:25-26 NLT).
This recalls a similar lament from the pen of another Old Testament prophet: “‘…These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…’” (Isaiah 29:13 NIV). Thus, Hebrews 4:2 reminds us of the importance of hearing and acting upon God’s Word…
“A word, however great, is of no avail unless it becomes integrated into the person who hears it. There are many different kinds of hearing in this world. There is indifferent hearing, disinterested hearing, critical hearing, sceptical hearing, cynical hearing. The hearing that matters is the hearing that listens eagerly, believes and acts. The promises of God are not merely beautiful pieces of literature; they are promises on which a man is meant to stake his life and dominate his action.” (1)
(1) Barclay, William, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible [Hebrews 4]
“For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: ‘So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world” (Hebrews 4:3).
The passage quoted above marks the second time in twelve verses that our author has referenced Psalm 95:11. Those twelve verses span Hebrews 3:11-4:3 and serve to remind us that an attitude of unbelief can be very costly. We can illustrate that cost with a look at the fourteenth chapter of the Biblical book of Numbers and the account that is cited for us in Psalm 95:11.
While “unbelief” may seem rather harmless, consider how that internal attitude worked to negatively influence the people of ancient Israel. For instance, it was unbelief that led to…
- Unwarranted criticism (Numbers 14:2).
- The insinuation that God was acting with an inappropriate motive (Numbers 14:3).
- A defeatist attitude (Numbers 14:3).
- A campaign to retreat in disgrace (Numbers 14:4).
- An attack upon those who rejected a similar attitude of unbelief (Numbers 14:10).
- A change of external behavior but no change of internal attitude (Numbers 14:39-44).
So, this attitude of unbelief prevented these individuals from receiving the good things that God had prepared for them “from the foundation of the world.” It also led them to take actions that were self-destructive and harmful to others. Their example differs greatly from the one given to us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, a portion of Scripture that illustrates a far better path: “love… bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
“For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’; and again in this place: ‘They shall not enter My rest’” (Hebrews 4:4-5).
The word “rest” often conveys the idea of sleep, or the opportunity to take a break when we are tired. So why would this passage tell us that God “rested” from His creative work on the seventh day when He is someone who never gets tired or needs to rest?
Well, the idea of “rest” means “to desist from labor” when used in this context. (1) In other words, God rested from His creative labor on the seventh day. This does not mean that God became tired and sought to take a hiatus; instead, He simply ceased from any further creative activity. This pattern offers us a model to follow by separating each week into a seven-day period, with the final day set aside as a time of rest.
(1) H7673 sabat https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h7673/kjv/wlc/0-1/
“Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6).
Hebrews 4:6 adds another consequence of unbelief to the list of negative behaviors cataloged in our previous study: disobedience. While an attitude of disobedience may be permissible in the face of human injustice, that does not apply when speaking of the God of the Scriptures, a Being who is loving, just, and morally perfect.
This passage also helps us understand why human beings may sometimes act in ways that are needlessly self-destructive or difficult to explain. The answer may be related to an attitude of disobedience prompted by unbelief.
For instance, a person who doesn’t believe that he or she will account for his or her life before a righteous and all-knowing God (unbelief), may choose to live in an ungodly manner (disobedience). That was certainly true for the Old Testament nation of Israel as one commentary explains…
“All of Moses’ generation failed to achieve ‘rest’ (Heb_3:16-19), settlement in the land. Indeed, all subsequent generations from Joshua on, with the notable near exceptions of David and Josiah, failed to subdue all the land promised to Abraham. Thus the psalmist (Psa_95:7-8) could warn his own and subsequent generations to obey God’s word or the same thing would happen to them” (1)
Another source adds…
“Thus, while entering a type of God’s rest, they failed to attain any reality of it; and furthermore, all this came about in spite of the fact that God was fully prepared to welcome them into such a glorious rest, indeed, had been anticipating it ‘from the foundation of the world.’” (2)
On the other hand, Hebrews 4:6 also tells us that God’s promise of rest remains for those who accept it. The author of Hebrews will later highlight this idea with a concluding summary in verses nine to eleven. The New Testament book of Revelation echoes this conclusion as well…
“Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them’” (Revelation 14:13).
For many, however, the best-known Biblical promise of rest comes directly from Jesus Himself…
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
(1) Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary [Hebrews 4:6-7]
(2) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Hebrews 4”. “Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“again He designates a certain day, saying in David, ‘Today,’ after such a long time, as it has been said: ‘Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts’” (Hebrews 4:7).
Just as Psalm 95:11 has already appeared several times in the Biblical book of Hebrews, Psalm 95:7-8 is also mentioned again here in Hebrews 4:7. What may be less obvious is the principle that underlies these passages.
You see, the author of Hebrews has worked to establish a Scriptural foundation for the teachings and conclusions that appear throughout this book. In this instance, Psalm 95 lays the groundwork that our author builds upon here in Hebrews chapter four. The following sources examine how Hebrews 4:7 draws upon the Biblical foundation of that passage…
“…in Psa 95:7-11 David hears God’s voice saying to the people that if they do not harden their hearts they can enter into his rest. That is to say, hundreds of years after Joshua had led the people into the rest of the Promised Land God is still appealing to them to enter into his rest. There is more to this rest than merely entry into the Promised Land.” (1)
“By dint of repetition our author endeavors to bring home to his readers the fact that the divine warning is as applicable to them as it was in the days of Moses or David. If they treat the saving message lightly, if they ‘tempt’ God by trying to see how far they can presume upon His patience, they in their turn will forfeit His ‘rest’. Therefore to them, as to the psalmist’s contemporaries, the urgent appeal goes forth: ‘While it is called To-day, repent And harden not your heart.’” (2)
Several New Testament authors follow a similar approach, including the Apostle Peter (Acts 2:16), Paul the Apostle (Acts 17:2-3), and James (James 2:10-11). Jesus also appealed to the authority of Scripture as He ejected those who were engaged in business activities at the Temple: “Then he taught them by saying, ‘Scripture says, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a gathering place for thieves” (Mark 11:15 GW).
Notice that Jesus established a Biblical basis for this action by saying, “It is written in the Scriptures…” (GNT). This principle is important to remember whenever we seek to address a perceived wrong, evaluate the actions of others, or justify our personal conduct. Much like the author of Hebrews 4:7, we should also seek to establish a Scriptural basis for our response in such instances.
(1) Barclay, William, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible [Commentary on Hebrews 4]
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 108]
“For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day” (Hebrews 4:8).
While the Biblical Scriptures contain many commands and directives, they also encourage us to think, consider, and meditate upon the meaning and application of God’s Word. Unlike the view held by Karl Marx, the 19th century political theorist who once associated religious belief with opium use, (1) the Scriptures do not compel us to become mind-numbed spiritual automatons. Instead, they encourage us to meditate upon God’s Word and act upon what we read there.
We can find one such example in the message of Psalm 1:1-2: “Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night.” We find another example in the book of the Biblical prophet Isaiah: “I, the Lord, invite you to come and talk it over. Your sins are scarlet red, but they will be whiter than snow or wool” (Isaiah 1:18 CEV).
Hebrews 4:8 encourages us to adopt a similar approach as we follow along with our author’s thought process: “If Joshua had really given the people rest, there would not be any need for God to talk about another day of rest” (CEV).
This passage refers to Moses’ successor Joshua and how he led the ancient Israelites into the Promised Land. That brought an opportunity for the people of Israel to begin life anew in “…a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8).
Thus, Hebrews 4:8 serves as the next stop on a journey that began earlier in verse six and continued into verse seven. That journey will reach its concluding destination in the next verse, but for now, we can pause to consider the following question. If Joshua’s leadership had fully enabled the people of ancient Israel to secure God’s intended rest, why then would Israel’s king David advise others to secure it later in Psalm 95?
Therefore, we can view Hebrews 4:8, Psalm 95:7-8, and the Biblical book of Joshua as data points that direct us towards a reasoned conclusion: the rest that came as a result of Joshua’s leadership was only a foreshadowing of the rest that God intends for us.
Image Credit: John Jabez Edwin Mayal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karl_Marx_crop.jpg
(1) Marx. Karl Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Retrieved 23 February, 2022 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
“There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
A look at the original language of this passage reveals an important nuance behind the word “rest”…
“The writer uses here a different Greek word for ‘rest.’ In his previous references to the idea of rest, he has used katapausis, meaning ‘a cessation from activity,’ thus ‘a rest,’ a general word for the idea of rest. Now, he uses sabbatismos, the word used of the Sabbath rest. The word points back to God’s original rest, and speaks of the ideal rest.
It is a Sabbath rest because the believer reaches a definite stage of attainment and has satisfactorily accomplished a purpose, as God did when He finished the work of creation. It is not the believer’s rest into which he enters and in which he participates, but in God’s unique, personal rest in which the believer shares.” (1)
To this, another Pastoral author adds…
“To all of us Christ offers rest, not in the other life only, but in this. See Heb_4:3; Heb_4:11. Rest from the weight of sin, from care and worry, from the load of daily anxiety and foreboding. The rest that arrives from handing all worries over to Christ, and receiving from Christ all we need. Have we entered into that experience?” (2)
So Hebrews 4:9 represents a promise of rest both now and in the future. This message offers genuine comfort and encouragement as we face the difficult and wearisome demands of life. This rest is part of the inheritance that awaits God’s people and should motivate us to fulfill the charge given to us in the Biblical book of Colossians…
“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).
We can find rest and fulfillment today whenever we seek to view our duties and obligations as responsibilities that God has given to us. And unlike the temporary respite offered by a vacation or a holiday, we can find renewed strength and encouragement when we consider the future (and permanent) rest that God offers us in Christ. Thus, as we are told in the New Testament book of Galatians…
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:9-10 NIV).
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 4:9) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(2) Meyer, Frederick Brotherton. “Commentary on Hebrews 4”. “F. B. Meyer’s ‘Through the Bible’ Commentary”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbm/hebrews-4.html. 1914.
“For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:10).
If we consider the framework that our author has established in Hebrews chapter two, we find that the concept of “rest” encompasses the past, present, and future. Let’s consider how the author of Hebrews has built that premise in chapter four.
We began with a reference to the seventh day of creation in Hebrews 4:4: “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2-3).
We can harmonize this Old Testament account with the New Testament message of Hebrews 4:10 in the following manner…
“On the seventh day, the day after creation had been completed, God rested from his labours. In the creation story in Gen 1:1-31; Gen 2:1-25 there is a strange fact. On the first six days of creation it is said that morning and evening came; that is to say, each day had an end and a beginning. But on the seventh day, the day of God’s rest, there is no mention of evening at all.
From this the Rabbis argued that, while the other days came to an end, the day of God’s rest had no ending; the rest of God was for ever. Therefore although long ago the Israelites may have failed to enter that rest, it still remained.” (1)
Our author next moved to the conquest of Canaan, led by Joshua in Hebrews 4:8 (see Deuteronomy 12:8-11). Yet, even though Israel took possession of God’s Promised Land, they only experienced a foreshadow of the rest He intended.
That brings us to our modern-day opportunity to enter God’s rest. As another source observes, “[This is not] a cessation from doing good works, but a cessation from works as a basis for righteousness. This fulfills our ‘Sabbath rest,’ even as God rested from His works on the very first ‘Sabbath.’” (2)
Hebrews 4:9 then concludes by saying, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.” We can summarize the future aspect of that rest in the words of 1 Peter 1:3-4…
“Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (HCSB).
(1) Barclay, William, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible [Commentary on Hebrews 4]
(2) Guzik, Dave, Hebrews 4 – Entering Into His Rest https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/hebrews-4/
“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).
As we close this portion of Hebrews chapter four, we should note that verses one to eleven form a parenthetical thought. While the following (and well-known) passage from Hebrews 4:12 begins a new emphasis, we should not overlook the importance of the verse quoted above.
For instance, the people of Old Testament Israel refused to listen and act upon God’s direction, thus forfeiting their opportunity to enter His rest. Therefore, we must take note of their example and avoid traveling along a similar path of disobedience if we wish to experience God’s rest in our lives. Those who fail to do so are in danger of replicating the experience of the Israelites who wandered in a desert wilderness for decades and missed God’s best for their lives.
We should also consider how our author included himself among those who might profit from the warning of Hebrews 4:12. Notice that this passage says, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest…” Thus, no one is excluded from this cautionary message, including the author himself.
With that, we will leave this portion of Scripture with some final thoughts from the following commentator. These observations serve to remind us that the challenge of adopting a God-honoring faith pales in comparison to the regret we are sure to experience if we fail to do so…
“The Israelites in the long ago failed to enter into the rest of God. Here the word rest is being used in the sense of the settlement of the Promised Land after the wilderness years. The reference is to Num 13:1-33 and Num 14:1-45 .
These chapters tell how the children of Israel came to the borders of the Promised Land, how they sent out scouts to spy out the land, how ten of the twelve scouts came back with the verdict that it was a good land but that the difficulties of entering into it were insuperable, how Caleb and Joshua alone were for going forward in the strength of the Lord, how the people hearkened to the advice of the cowards, and how the result was that that generation of distrusting cowards were debarred for ever from entering into the rest and the peace of the Promised Land.
They did not trust God to bring them through the difficulties that lay ahead; and therefore they never enjoyed the rest they could have had.” (1)
(1) Barclay, William, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible [Commentary on Hebrews 4]
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
In the sport of American Football, a selection of teams with the best regular-season records meet in an annual post-season playoff. The final winners in these conference tournaments then go on to play one another in the Super Bowl championship game.
Following the 2007 season, the New York Giants football team entered this post-season contest with the fifth-best record in the National Conference. Their second opponent was the top-ranked Dallas Cowboys, a team that was heavily favored to win.
Prior to the game, several media outlets reported that the owner of the Cowboys expected his team to secure a victory over the Giants. In fact, the team’s owner was so certain of a win that he left tickets to the following game for his player’s family members before they ever took the field. Unfortunately for the over-confident owner, the Giants defeated his team to advance to the next playoff round and ultimately went on to defeat a previously unbeaten opponent in the Super Bowl championship game.
So what became of those tickets that the presumptuous owner distributed in advance? Well, in a sense, those tickets “died” as soon as his team suffered defeat. In other words, those tickets had been deprived of their power to admit that ticket-holder to the next game. That brings us to Hebrews 4:12 and the “living and powerful” nature of God’s Word.
Unlike a powerless and ineffectual ticket to a game that will never be played, the word of God is living and active in the sense that it always fulfills God’s intent. The book of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah offers one of the clearest references to the potent and dynamic nature of God’s Word…
“So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
In light of this, we can say a person who takes the time to prayerfully read the Word of God daily is someone who is well-positioned to follow the counsel of Psalm 119:11: “Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.”
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).
A sword is an offensive weapon that may be used for defensive purposes as well. For instance, a fencer might attack an opponent with a lunge or defend against an offensive maneuver with a parry. In a similar manner, God’s Word may be employed offensively and defensively as the need arises.
For example, the Scriptures occasionally use the word “sword” to symbolize judgment, power, or enforcement (see Psalm 22:20 and Romans 13:3-4 for some other examples). Jesus demonstrated the active nature of a sword in this context in His letter to the church at Pergamum…
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Pergamum. This is the message from the one who has a sharp two-edged sword… Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:12,16 NLT).
The Biblical book of Revelation also contains five separate references that link Jesus with a sword that is often described as sharp and/or double-edged (see Revelation 1:16, 2:12, 2:16, 19:15, and 19:21). Four of those references also tell us that this sword emanates from His mouth. Since a sword is almost always worn at the hip or slung over one’s shoulder, this description should alert us to the fact that a deeper meaning exists behind these references.
Much like the symbolic use of the word “sword,” the Bible sometimes makes use of the word “mouth” in referring to the words we speak (see Isaiah 53:9 and Job 15:6). Therefore, we can make good sense of these references by associating Jesus’ teachings with a powerful, double-edged sword. Hebrews 4:12 expands upon this idea in the passage quoted above.
From a defensive standpoint, Jesus identified the importance of holding firm to the truth of God’s Word as He applied it in the face of temptation (see Luke 4:1-13). Thus, in the words of one commentator…
“…this ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17), cannot do its piercing, sanctifying, healing work if it remains simply on display in our homes rather than dwelling at home in our hearts. If we take God’s Word with us, if we meditate on it day and night, we will always have our weapon in battle no matter where we are.” (1)
(1) Justin Taylor, “Doubt-Killing Promises” Tabletalk Magazine, January, 2012 [pg. 75]
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NET).
Much like a sharp, double-edged sword, God’s Word can penetrate the justifications, excuses, and/or rationalizations we sometimes use to insulate ourselves from Biblical truths. As we’re reminded here in Hebrews 4:12, nothing can isolate the human heart from the incisive effect of God’s Word. And unlike a blade that has been forged by a mere human being, the sword of God’s Word never becomes dull.
In this respect, the Word of God is much like a surgical knife that brings life and health to those who yield to it. For instance, the Word of God may discern “…the thoughts and intents of the heart” (KJV) so accurately that faithful teachers of God’s Word sometimes learn that a teaching or sermon addressed various issues of concern in the lives of their audience without their knowledge.
Other sources add the following insights…
“Vincent says, ‘The form of the expression is poetical, and signifies that the word penetrates to the inmost recesses of our spiritual being as a sword cuts through the joints and marrow of the body. Thus, the Word of God is able to penetrate into the furthermost recesses of a person’s spiritual being, sifting out and analyzing the thoughts and intents of the heart.’” (1)
“These phrases suggest that there is no part of man which God’s Word cannot penetrate—immaterial or physical. In fact, it reaches into the inner secrets of man’s mind to discern his thoughts and intents. Likewise, God’s eye sees man as though he were naked, unable to hide behind any excuse or pretense. Let us be careful not to reject His Word through unbelief.” (2)
Thus, the penetrating nature of the Biblical Scriptures should prompt us to consider Jesus’ message from the New Testament Gospel of John with a greater sense of urgency…
“I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:46-48).
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament [note on Hebrews 4:12] Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(2) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M., eds. (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2544). Thomas Nelson.
“For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Hebrews 4:12 offers an opportunity to consider the words “soul” and “spirit” as they apply to the human person. We can begin with a look at the word “spirit” as mentioned in the passage quoted above.
When used in a Biblical context, the word “spirit” finds its origin in the Old Testament Hebrew word “ruach” and the New Testament Greek word “pneuma.” In fact, a remnant of the word “pneuma” remains today in the form of the word “pneumatic” as it relates to an automotive tire, air tool, or gas. In a larger sense, this word is used to express the idea of a breeze, a gust of wind, an air current, or the act of breathing.
Much like the movement of air through various places, the human spirit is also invisible and immaterial. Thus, the word “spirit” is used to represent the intangible part of every human being that remains following the death of his or her physical body. Once that physical separation occurs, the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “…your spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8 NCV).
The New Testament word for soul is the Greek word psuche, a word survives today as the root of such modern-day words as psychology or psychoanalysis. In this context, the soul refers to the human being as an individual personality. It also conveys an emotional component that encompasses the things we love, hate, or feel indifferent about.
In this context, the soul embodies our talents, skills, and abilities, including those we inherently possess and others we have developed. In addition, the human soul incorporates our will, intellect, and everything that serves to distinguish an individual human being from every other human who has lived or ever will live. Therefore, we can associate the soul with the “you” inside your body.
This helps explain why human beings are more than simply human machines. Unlike a piece of software that is written and programmed to respond in a certain manner, the soul represents the element that uniquely identifies every individual human person. Thus, it also enables every individual human being to enjoy a unique relationship with his or her Creator that differs from that of every other human being.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NIV).
While there are clear differences between the soul and the spirit in a Biblical context, it is also true that these terms are closely related. In fact, they are sometimes used almost interchangeably. That distinction is shared with the other paired qualities from this passage: “joints and marrow” and “thoughts and attitudes.” While it is often difficult for human beings to discern between these closely related qualities, the Word of God can easily distinguish one from the other.
Much like an audio restoration expert who possesses the ability to read a musical waveform and remove an offensive bit of noise, God’s Word possesses a similar ability to identify and remove the sinful or inappropriate behaviors that may be hiding within the “waveform” of our lives. This idea has important implications for our spiritual lives today.
For instance, we may tend to associate a sense of God’s presence with the ritual or ceremonial aspects of a religious service. But if that religious service does not feature a clear exposition of God’s Word, there may be little opportunity for the Scriptures to penetrate our lives and promote genuine spiritual growth.
On the other hand, let’s consider an emotionally intense church service where God’s presence is linked to an exuberant experience. While such services are highly appealing to anyone seeking the emotional association of God’s presence, we may never grow into spiritual maturity in a church that does not focus upon the expository teaching of God’s Word.
The following insights and observations are highly instructive in this regard…
“The preacher must present, not book reviews, not politics, not economics, not current topics of the day, not a philosophy of life denying the Bible and based upon unproven theories of science, but the Word… If he will not proclaim that, let him step down from his exalted position.” (1)
“Many preachers today simply use a Bible text as a launching pad, and then get on to say what they want to say – what the people want to hear. Others throw in Bible quotations to illustrate their points, or to illustrate their stories! But who will simply let the Bible speak for itself and let it declare its own power? …We also must demand that we are being taught the whole counsel of God; not just interesting topics, not just what we want to hear, not just the things that will grab people, but what God says to all of our lives.” (2)
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament [note on 2 Timothy 4:2] Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(2) Guzik, Dave, Acts 20 – Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/archives/guzik_david/StudyGuide_Act/Act_20.cfm
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12 NLT).
Of the three hundred and three verses that comprise the Biblical book of Hebrews, the passage quoted above is undoubtedly one of the most important. Much like a small steering wheel that influences the direction of a large vehicle, this verse carries implications that far outweigh its brevity. Consider the implications that flow from this passage…
“…God will do a spiritual postmortem on us at the judgment seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10). He will examine our innermost attitudes (‘thoughts’) and motives (‘intentions’). The ‘scalpel’ He will use is His Word.” (1)
So, this spiritual review will encompass our deeds as well as the thoughts, attitudes, and motivations behind them- and Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that God views such things with absolute clarity no matter how well-hidden they may seem. For example, most of us are probably familiar with the concept of an “ulterior motive” or a hidden agenda as it relates to others. These phrases describe an internal objective that differs from the way our external choices and decisions appear.
Nearly everyone knows what it’s like to interact with someone who seems to be sincere but really isn’t. Perhaps we have engaged with those who were polite and respectful in face-to-face conversations but were very different in other environments. Or maybe we’ve had the unfortunate experience of discovering that someone who claimed to represent God actually held a different agenda.
While we can rest assured that God will evaluate such individuals in complete righteousness, we should be more concerned with this passage as it applies to ourselves. For instance, we may use these examples as an excuse to absolve ourselves from the pursuit of God’s work in our lives. That sentiment is commonly reflected in the oft-quoted objection, “I’m not interested in Christianity – there are too many hypocrites in the church.”
While there may be many who hold that view today, a far more important question is this: “What are we doing to change that perception?” A God-honoring person will prayerfully seek to uncover and address such areas of hidden insincerity in his or her life. As we’re told in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians…
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD, Notes on Hebrews 2021 Edition “C. The Possibility of Rest for God’s People 4:1-14” [4:12] https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/hebrews/hebrews.htm
“God’s word is living and active. It is sharper than any two-edged sword and cuts as deep as the place where soul and spirit meet, the place where joints and marrow meet. God’s word judges a person’s thoughts and intentions” (Hebrews 4:12 GW).
Our inner motives and intentions seem to be a subject of great interest to God. Of course, knowing that God will judge the unseen motives behind our actions might be an unsettling thought, and may explain why many choose to avoid this subject entirely. But even though there are some who are quite sophisticated in masking their intentions, nothing is hidden from God.
Therefore, we would be wise to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in examining our motives under the illumination of God’s Word. For example…
- Do we seek to honor ourselves or do we seek to honor God in our thoughts and actions? As we’re told in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, “…We didn’t speak to please people, but to please God who knows our motives” (CEV).
- Are there ulterior motives that lurk behind a facade of spirituality in our lives?
- What is our basis for decision-making? Do we routinely choose whatever seems easiest or best for us, or do we consider God’s Word first in our decision-making process?
- Are we acting selfishly or unselfishly?
- Do we consider the needs of others, or are we primarily concerned with ourselves?
- What motivates our good works? Do they spring from a desire to honor God with the time, talent, and opportunities He provides, or do we do such things to elicit praise from others?
So, this portion of Scripture reminds us that God is concerned with our internal motives as well as our external actions. To borrow a phrase from Hebrews 4:12, this represents something of a two-edged sword. For example, the New Testament Gospel of John tells us, “…whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:21 NIV). If our thoughts and intentions are good, then we should welcome God’s scrutiny in those areas.
On the other hand, the fact that we will be held accountable for such things should provoke a sense of dread or apprehension in those who are unprepared to meet a holy, righteous, and morally perfect Creator. Therefore…
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God, and keep His commandments. For this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good, or whether evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 MKJV).
“And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
The word-picture behind the phrase “…uncovered and laid bare” (NIV) conveys the image of a wrestler who has placed an opponent in a vulnerable position. As one source explains, “Naked and open suggests complete exposure and defenselessness before God. All believers must give account to the all-seeing, all-knowing God…” (1)
The author of Hebrews will go on to underscore this point later in Hebrews 9:27 in another notable portion of this book: “….it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” These verses represent a few of the many Biblical passages that serve to caution us regarding the account we will render to God for the way we have conducted our lives.
Jesus delivered a candid and straightforward preview of that future judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. However, the Bible also offers several other cautionary messages in addition to that portion of Scripture and the others we have already discussed…
“Don’t excuse yourself by saying, ‘Look, we didn’t know.’ For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve” (Proverbs 24:12 NLT).
“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3 NIV).
“…For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10).
In light of this, we should be diligent to heed these important messages. As another source observes…
“We may conceal our inner being from our neighbors, and we can even deceive ourselves; but nothing escapes the scrutiny of God; before Him everything lies exposed and powerless. And it is with Him, not with our fellow-men or with our own conscience, that our final reckoning has to be made. Stripped of all disguise and protection we are utterly at the mercy of God, the Judge of all. Therefore, ‘let us give diligence … !’” (2)
We can demonstrate the extent of our vulnerability in this area with a look at an event in the life of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. We’ll consider Ezekiel’s experience (and what it means for us) beginning next.
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1641). T. Nelson Publishers.
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 83]
“And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13 ESV).
The first seven chapters of the Biblical book of Ezekiel record God’s message through Ezekiel concerning His pending judgment upon the people of Israel. While some aspects of that message seem highly unusual, they provided a clear warning regarding the sentence that God was about to impose upon them at the hands of the Babylonians.
In Ezekiel chapter eight, the prophet was taken “behind the scenes” where he discovered the supporting evidence for that judgment in a manner that illustrates our passage from Hebrews 4:13…
“…on September 17, during the sixth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity, while the leaders of Judah were in my home, the Sovereign Lord took hold of me…
Then the Lord said to me, ‘Son of man, look toward the north.’ So I looked, and there to the north, beside the entrance to the gate near the altar, stood the idol that had made the Lord so jealous. ‘Son of man,’ he said, ‘do you see what they are doing? Do you see the detestable sins the people of Israel are committing to drive me from my Temple?’” (Ezekiel 8:1, 5-6 NLT).
So God showed the prophet a visible example of the idolatry that characterized the people of that time- but things were about to get worse…
“‘…But come, and you will see even more detestable sins than these!’ Then he brought me to the door of the Temple courtyard, where I could see a hole in the wall. He said to me, ‘Now, son of man, dig into the wall.’ So I dug into the wall and found a hidden doorway.
‘Go in,’ he said, ‘and see the wicked and detestable sins they are committing in there!’ So I went in and saw the walls covered with engravings of all kinds of crawling animals and detestable creatures. I also saw the various idols worshiped by the people of Israel. Seventy leaders of Israel were standing there with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan in the center. Each of them held an incense burner, from which a cloud of incense rose above their heads.
Then the Lord said to me, ‘Son of man, have you seen what the leaders of Israel are doing with their idols in dark rooms? They are saying, ‘The Lord doesn’t see us; he has deserted our land!’” (Ezekiel 8:6-12 NLT).
We’ll continue with our look at Ezekiel’s experience in the context of Hebrews 4:13 next.
“And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13 NET).
The Biblical book of Ezekiel offers a true-to-life illustration of Hebrews 4:13 as God exposed the “thoughts and intents” (Hebrews 4:12) that defined the people of Ezekiel’s day…
“He brought me to the north gate of the Lord’s Temple, and some women were sitting there, weeping for the god Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14 NLT).
Tammuz was an ancient pagan deity who allegedly underwent an annual death and rebirth. These women were presumably weeping over his passing, but there was more to come…
“‘Have you seen this?’ he asked. ‘But I will show you even more detestable sins than these!’
Then he brought me into the inner courtyard of the Lord’s Temple. At the entrance to the sanctuary, between the entry room and the bronze altar, there were about twenty-five men with their backs to the sanctuary of the Lord. They were facing east, bowing low to the ground, worshiping the sun!” (Ezekiel 8:15-16 NLT).
The “inner courtyard of the Temple” suggests that this meeting comprised a group of spiritual leaders who had turned their backs on God. However, these things had not escaped God’s notice…
“‘Have you seen this, son of man?’ he asked. ‘Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at me, and provoking my anger? Therefore, I will respond in fury. I will neither pity nor spare them. And though they cry for mercy, I will not listen’” (Ezekiel 8:16-18 NLT).
This illustrates what God is capable of observing as He looks into the hearts and minds of individual human beings. While an outside observer may not have detected such issues, God saw the truth concerning these behaviors with absolute clarity. Perhaps this is why 1 Corinthians 3:13 offers an important reminder for those who self-identify with Christ…
“…the quality of each person’s work will be seen when the Day of Christ exposes it. For on that Day fire will reveal everyone’s work; the fire will test it and show its real quality” (GNT).
Finally, there is an ancient maxim that tells us, “Honesty is the best policy.” In light of these passages, we would be wise to adopt that policy regarding ourselves for, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13 NIV).
In addition to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s experience, we can illustrate this passage with an excerpt from the New Testament epistle of James…
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:23-25).
The centerpiece of this passage is a word-picture that should be familiar to virtually everyone. For instance, this portion of Scripture tells us that God’s Word can be compared to the effect of a standard mirror upon those who gaze into it. You see, a mirror reflects what already exists; the question is, what will we do with the image we see?
Much like those who have an opportunity to observe their image in a mirror, God’s Word presents us with similar options. For instance, there are some who feel their image is already good enough and never seek to check it in a mirror. There are others who deliberately avoid mirrors because they don’t want to act upon what the mirror reveals. Then there are those who are careless, indifferent, or unconcerned about what they see. On the other hand, a conscientious person looks into his or her mirror image and acts upon that reflection.
While an ordinary mirror and the Scriptures each carry their own reflective qualities, there is one significant difference between the two. Just as a mirror confirms the reality of our external image, we can say the same for the Word of God in regard to our character, internal attitude, and spiritual life. While a standard mirror displays the truth regarding our external appearance, the Scriptures capture our internal reflection with perfect clarity.
Because of this, we can benefit from continuously looking into the Word of God just as intently as we might look into a mirror to check our personal appearance. As we read the Scriptures and prayerfully seek to apply them in our lives, we help confirm if we are truly reflecting the image of Christ or if we are reflecting something else.
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).
A perceptive reader will note that the author of Hebrews previewed the subject of this passage (and primary theme of this epistle) earlier within this letter. That theme involves Jesus as our High Priest, a subject that our author touched upon previously in the following verses…
“Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1).
Much of the next six chapters of Hebrews will be devoted to an extensive discussion of this important subject. While it may be difficult to understand why the author has periodically returned to this subject in advance of that discussion, there are several contributing factors that may help to explain why the book of Hebrews is structured in this manner.
First, we should note the emphasis upon our accountability before God in the previous verses. This is important because a person who is accountable to God is someone who needs an intermediary whenever he or she fails in that regard. This serves to focus our attention upon our need for a priest who can intervene on our behalf and deliver us from our failure to live up to God’s standard for humanity.
The following chapter will also alert us to the fact that the original audience for this epistle had become lazy and sluggish in their attention to spiritual things. This was especially true in regard to Jesus’ priestly ministry. As our author will regrettably observe later in Hebrews chapter five, “There is a great deal that we should like to say about this high priesthood, but it is not easy to explain to you since you seem so slow to grasp spiritual truth” (Hebrews 5:11 Phillips).
This may help explain why our author didn’t simply “get to the point” regarding this topic under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Now that the foundation has been established for the primary theme of this epistle, we should be well prepared to follow along as the author of Hebrews discusses these important spiritual truths related to Jesus’ role as our High Priest before God.
“We have a great high priest who has gone to live with God in heaven. He is Jesus the Son of God. So let us continue to express our faith in him” (Hebrews 4:14 ESV).
21st century readers who are unfamiliar with the Old Testament sacrificial system may find it difficult to grasp the position held by Jesus as our High Priest. The following excerpt offers a valuable summary of the High Priest’s role in the Old Testament sacrificial system and how it relates to our passage from Hebrews 4:14…
“Leviticus 16 describes the most important work of the high priest, which he accomplished on the annual Day of Atonement. On that day, after elaborate purification rituals, he was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place, the throne room of God. On that day blood was put on the ark and mercy seat to atone for all the sins of the nation.
There were two aspects to the atonement. Two goats were set apart as sin offerings. The first was slain and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat. Aaron then took the other goat and laid his hands on it. He confessed over it ‘all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head’ (Lev. 16:21). Then this second goat would be sent into the wilderness carrying the sins of Israel away.
Before Aaron could offer these two goats for the sins of the people, however, he had to offer a bull for his own sins. The Great High Priest, by way of contrast, did not need to offer a preliminary sacrifice for his sins (Heb. 7:27). He was sinless. Moreover, the Great High Priest was not only the priest offering sacrifices to God, but he was the sacrifice himself. He was both the slain goat whose blood atoned for sin, and the scapegoat who carried away our sins forever.
An additional contrast is most important. Leviticus 16:34 states that on the Day of Atonement sacrifices had to be performed once a year. The blood of bulls and goats were only ceremonial, incapable of permanently removing the sins of the people. The atonement of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was not ceremonial. This perfect sacrifice literally was made once for all time.” (1)
So, unlike a high priest who could only approach God once a year at a specified time, we have a great High Priest in Christ “…who has gone to live with God in heaven” and thus “…is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34 HCSB).
(1) Sproul, R. C. (1994). Before the face of God: Book 3: A daily guide for living from the Old Testament (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries. Page 48.
“Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession” (Hebrews 4:14 NET).
In comparing the priestly class that descended through the lineage of Aaron, the Old Testament patriarch, and Jesus, our great High Priest, Hebrews 4:14 makes a critical distinction: Christ has “ascended into heaven” (NIV).
“Heaven” is a concept that holds several different Biblical meanings. Depending on the context, heaven might refer to the sky above or the domain of anything that travels through the air. This word is also used to refer to the celestial realm, the universal expanse where the sun, moon, stars, and other stellar objects reside. Psalm 19:1 touches upon this definition when it tells us, “The heavens tell of the glory of God; And their expanse declares the work of His hands” (NASB).
Finally, the word “heaven” is used to identify the dwelling place of God (Matthew 6:9) along with the angels (Mark 13:32). This is an area that exists outside the physical universe, a place that Paul the Apostle identified as the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2. It was there that Paul heard things so astonishing that any attempt to express them in a human language would have been criminal.
One commentator ties these definitions together for us in the context of Hebrews 4:14: “Just as the High-Priest under the Old Covenant passed through 3 areas (the outer court, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies) to make the atoning sacrifice, Jesus passed through 3 heavens (the atmospheric heaven, the stellar heaven, and God’s abode; cf. 2Co 12:2–4) after making the perfect, final sacrifice.” (1)
In view of this, Hebrews 4:14 presents us with an important action item: “let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (NIV) or, “let us continue to express our faith in him” (ERV). The knowledge that Jesus has ascended through the physical realm to serve as our High Priest is something that should comfort us and reinforce our faith in Him. In the words of one Biblical scholar…
”’Jesus the Son of God’ is not disqualified by His divine origin from sharing in His people’s troubles and sympathizing with their weakness. He Himself endured every trial that they are likely to undergo, but remained steadfast throughout, and has now ‘passed through the heavens’ to the very throne of God. In Him, then, His people have a powerful incentive to perseverance in faith and obedience.” (2)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Heb 4:14). Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 84]
“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
For some, it may be easy to view God as a Being who is largely indifferent toward the difficulties we experience. But contrary to that belief, Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that Jesus is not distant and removed from us as we navigate the challenges of daily life.
The following excerpt from the Biblical prophet Isaiah’s description of the Messiah offers some valuable insight into our passage from Hebrews 4:15: “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:3-4). Thus, in the words of one source…
“there is no part of human experience of which God cannot say: ‘I have been there.’ When we have a sad and sorry tale to tell, when life has drenched us with tears, we do not go to a God who is incapable of understanding what has happened; we go to a God who has been there. That is why–if we may put it so–God finds it easy to forgive.” (1)
Nevertheless, the knowledge that Jesus sympathizes with us in our weaknesses does not make those struggles any less real. Thus, we would be well-advised to adopt the eternal perspective advocated by Paul the Apostle in his Biblical letters to the churches at Corinth and Rome…
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
If we were to place our current struggles on the scale of eternity and weigh them against the future that God has prepared for us, it would surely change our perspective. For Paul the Apostle, the sufferings, persecutions, indignities, and hardships he endured were relatively insignificant compared to the eternal glory to follow.
Therefore, we can view the troubles and difficulties of life as light and momentary if we assess them from an eternal point of view. In addition, the knowledge that Jesus identifies with our afflictions helps make them easier to bear. As Jesus Himself once reminded us…
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
(1) Barclay, William, “William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible“. “The Perfect High Priest (Heb_4:14-16)”.
“For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NET).
While the thought of studying Biblical doctrine may seem daunting, there is a practical benefit to doing so. For instance, this passage should prompt us to consider an important aspect of Jesus’ life: His divine nature and His human nature. Scholars refer to this doctrine as the hypostatic union, and it helps clear up certain misconceptions regarding the Person and work of Christ.
The word “hypostatic” is derived from the word hupostasis in the original language of the New Testament. (1) This word appeared earlier in Hebrews 1:3 where we are told that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (ESV). Other Biblical translations of Hebrews 1:3 render the word “nature” as essence (NET), substance (ASV) or being (GW).
Thus, we can say that Jesus is one Person with two natures, one fully divine and one fully human. The hypostatic union offers a quick way to describe the unification of these natures into one Person: Jesus, the God-man.
Since Hebrews chapter one addressed Jesus’ divine nature at length, this portion of Scripture provides us with an opportunity to examine Jesus’ human nature. Consider the following characteristics that demonstrate Jesus’ capacity to sympathize with us in our weaknesses…
- Jesus became physically fatigued: “…Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well” (John 4:6).
- Jesus experienced physical hunger: “being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry” (Luke 4:2).
- Jesus knows what it feels like to become thirsty: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst!” (John 19:28 see also John 4:7).
- Jesus experienced deep emotional pain and sorrow: Jesus expressed His emotional pain, sorrow, and anguish as He wept on several occasions (John 11:32-35, Luke 19:41-44, and Hebrews 5:7).
- Jesus endured great physical pain: “My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth…They have pierced my hands and feet. I can count all my bones” (Psalm 22:14-17 NLT).
These examples can help us appreciate this passage from a human perspective: “…we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize and understand our weaknesses and temptations” (AMP).
(1) G5287 hupostasis https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g5287/kjv/tr/0-1/
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15 HCSB).
In addition to what we read here in Hebrews 4:15, the Scriptures emphasize Jesus’ sinlessness in other passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:21-22, and 1 John 3:5. One commentator explains how this reality should influence our view of Christ…
“The fact that Jesus was without sin means that he knew depths and tensions and assaults of temptation which we never can know. So far from his battle being easier it was immeasurably harder. Why? For this reason–we fall to temptation long before the tempter has put out the whole of his power. We never know temptation at its fiercest because we fall long before that stage is reached.
But Jesus was tempted far beyond what we are; for in his case the tempter put everything he possessed into the assault. Think of this in terms of pain. There is a degree of pain which the human frame can stand–and when that degree is passed a person loses consciousness so that there are agonies of pain he can not know. It is so with temptation. We collapse in face of temptation; but Jesus went to our limit of temptation and far beyond it and still did not collapse.
It is true to say that he was tempted in all things as we are; but it is also true to say that no one was tempted as he was.” (1)
Another source explains the relationship between 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…”) and the fact that Jesus was “yet without sin“…
“How could Jesus be made sin when He was sinless?
PROBLEM: Paul asserts here that Jesus was ‘made to be sin.’ However, many other Scriptures insist that Jesus was ‘without sin’ (Heb. 4:15; cf. 1 Peter 3:18). But how could Jesus be without sin if He was made sin for us?
SOLUTION: Jesus was always without sin actually, but He was made to be sin for us judicially. That is, by His death on the Cross, He paid the penalty for our sins and thereby cancelled the debt of sin against us. So, while Jesus never committed a sin personally, He was made to be sin for us substitutionally. The issue can be summarized as follows:
CHRIST WAS NOT SINFUL
CHRIST WAS MADE TO BE SIN
(1) Barclay, William. William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, “Hebrews 4, The Perfect High Priest (Heb_4:14-16)”
(2) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When critics ask : a popular handbook on Bible difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books. Page 54.
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
As we consider this portion of Scripture. we should remember the context of our author’s discussion: Jesus is our High Priest. While a Jewish High Priest could only enter the inner chamber of God’s presence once a year, we can approach God through Christ with confidence at any time.
The following commentary links these Old and New Testament concepts…
“The ark of the covenant symbolized God’s throne in the Old Testament (e.g., 2Sa_6:2; Psa_80:1; Psa_99:1; Isa_37:16; cf. Psa_22:3) and in the ancient Near East (where kings or deities were often portrayed as enthroned on winged figures). But the ark was unapproachable, secluded in the most holy part of the temple, which even the high priest could approach only once a year. Christ has opened full access to God to all his followers (Heb_10:19-20).” (1)
Another source adds…
“Most ancient rulers were unapproachable by anyone but their highest advisers (cf. Est 4:11). In contrast, the Holy Spirit calls for all to come confidently before God’s throne to receive mercy and grace through Jesus Christ” (cf. 7:25; 10:22; Mt 27:51)… It was at the throne of God that Christ made atonement for sins, and it is there that grace is dispensed to believers for all the issues of life (cf. 2Co 4:15; 9:8; 12:9; Eph 1:7; 2:7). (2)
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that just because we are permitted to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, it does not mean that we can do so in a casual, nonchalant, or indifferent manner. Instead, our interaction with our heavenly Father should reflect an attitude of respect, reverence, and appreciation for His willingness to hear and answer our prayers. It is in this manner that our relationship with God can mirror the characteristics of Galatians 4:6-7…
“Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore, you are no longer a slave but a son or daughter, and if you are his child, then you are also an heir through God” (CEB).
So, our confidence in approaching God is based upon what He has done for us in Christ. This should prompt us to draw near to Him with boldness and confidence along with a corresponding sense of respect and humility. Unfortunately, there were some Biblical personalities who did not approach God in such a manner. We’ll see what their examples teach us next.
(1) Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary “Hebrews 4:14-5:10 Christ the High Priest”
(2) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Heb 4:16). Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 RV).
While Hebrews 4:16 encourages us to approach God with boldness, we should never equate boldness with the qualities of presumption, arrogance, or disrespect. Instead, this passage tells us that the characteristics of freedom, confidence, and assurance should mark our interaction with God in Christ. To illustrate these differences, let’s consider the example of two Old Testament leaders named Nadab and Abihu.
Although Nadab and Abihu served as spiritual leaders, Leviticus 10:1-5 tells us that these men chose to approach God in an inappropriate manner. A closer look at that incident yields an insight that helps explain their underlying attitude and the reason behind God’s subsequent response…
“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified…’’” (Leviticus 10:3).
This indicates that Nadab and Abihu did not respect God’s holiness. That element of disrespect led them to approach God in an inappropriate manner at the cost of their lives.
Therefore, we should take advantage of the access that God has given us in Christ with an attitude of love and respect. Since Jesus understands from personal experience how the world can often be a cruel, painful, and dangerous place, we can be secure in knowing that He perfectly understands us and is ready with a supply of grace to help in our time of need.
In the encouraging words of one source…
“That grace will empower us to rest in God and stand firm in the face of whatever suffering or temptation the world can muster, in the face of whatever fear that has come true (1 Cor. 10:13). His presence assures us that we will ‘receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4:16). All we have to do is ask.
Promised grace renders our fearful forecasts obsolete. Even if we are right in our predictions, which we usually are not, we cannot predict the grace that will be poured out on us on that future day. Instead, we envision the future with the grace we have for today’s hardships, and that grace is sufficient only for today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow will show up with a new stockpile of grace.” (1)
(1) Edward T. Welch, “Fear Of The Future” Tabletalk magazine, October, 2013 [pg. 23]
“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 ESV).
While virtually everyone is familiar with the image of a throne, a throne is really nothing more than an elaborate piece of furniture. With this in mind, we can say that there are two things that distinguish a throne from a highly embellished chair…
- To whom it belongs.
- What it represents.
The throne referenced here in Hebrews 4:16 belongs to the all-powerful Creator of everything and represents His place of sovereign authority. Yet unlike many earthly kings, His throne is not one of ruthless control over His subjects. Instead, His throne is a throne of grace.
“Grace” involves God’s unmerited favor towards undeserving members of the human family. There are over one hundred instances of this word in the New Testament and it is often associated with God’s mercy, love, and compassion. Since grace involves God’s unmerited favor, we cannot earn it by doing good things or adhering to a set of standards.
Thus, grace represents God’s favor towards us without regard to our talents, skills, capabilities, possessions, and/or social standing- and it is freely available to those who come to Him through Christ. Those who do so, enjoy peace with God and free access to Him in prayer, especially in our times of need. This leads us to a familiar and encouraging portion of Scripture…
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Thus. the assurance of God’s grace allows us to approach His throne with confidence, secure in the knowledge that He will graciously accept us in Christ and offer “…mercy for our failures and grace to help in the hour of need” (Phillips).
This brings us to the end of our look at Hebrews chapter four and allows us to close with the encouraging message offered by the following author…
“As believers, we must also make sure that we continue to take advantage of our access. The writer to the Hebrews tells us to ‘come boldly unto the throne of grace’ (Heb. 4:16, KJV), because God knows we doubt, get discouraged, and are often fainthearted. Be bold. Go to Him in prayer. You have not because you ask not. Ask, seek, and knock (Matt. 7:7–11).” (1)
(1) Daniel R. Hyde, God in Our Midst: The Tabernacle and Our Relationship with God Reformation Trust Publishing [pg. 121]