This evening we find ourselves right in the heart of the book of Hebrews. As with any piece of literature, if you are going to jump into the middle of what’s been written, in our case Hebrews 4, it’s important to understand the basic flow of the material, and this is especially true when our passage tonight begins with the word “therefore.”
The majority of scholars have taken note of the structure of the book of Hebrews, viewing it as being carefully crafted in the form of a sermon. It’s a “word of exhortation” (13:22) written down to be read out loud to the author’s intended audience.
He begins by saying that long ago God spoke to our fathers, the patriarchs, the families of Israel, by the prophets—such as Moses, Isaiah, Joel, Jeremiah, and others—but in these last days, God’s word has come to us in his Son, whom John the beloved calls the person of the Son, the Word…the Word of the Father.
The Hebrews author is giving us an overview of redemptive history, and how God has spoken to his people throughout the ages; he is outlining the direction in which all history is moving, right up to God’s consummate goal.
Now, Hebrews has a number of distinct features that are not as clearly seen in much of the New Testament. For example, the faith spoken of in Hebrews 11 is not directly addressing Paul’s particular focus of a faith whereby a believer is justified before God, but rather refers to the persevering faith of the OT saints who are, as Stephen Baugh says, “simultaneously participants in and witnesses to the world to come.” Another emphasis in Hebrews is that of the heavenly high priest in which the author’s intent is to focus the believer’s gaze upon Christ who is now in heaven. As believers, we look not only upon Christ as our crucified and resurrected Lord, but we are to fix our eyes upon the ascended Christ who is our “merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17) who “sat down at the right hand of” God the Father in heaven (1:3).
What is fascinating to note is the literary structure of Hebrews and how it serves the purpose and intent of the author. Throughout Hebrews we find a sustained alternation between exposition and exhortation. The first two divisions of Hebrews, have sections of exhortation—earnest appeal to the church—surrounded by sections of theological exposition, that serve to develop the theological themes of Christ’s high priesthood and unique sacrifice. And it is these sections of exposition that act as a foundation for the word of exhortation that is addressed to the church, that they would enter into the rest of God. One can sense the real pastoral heart and purpose of the author, a shepherd’s heart, urging and encouraging these believers to hold fast to their confession of faith, to strive to enter the promise of God’s rest—a rest that is still future.
This evening, this passage calls for us to look at three things: firstly, the promise of entering God’s rest still stands; secondly, this promise is anchored in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ, our great high priest; and then thirdly, the pastorally-motivated exhortation by the author that extends to each one of us.
The Promise of Entering God’s Rest
What is vital for us to understand Hebrews 4 is to see how the writer of Hebrews views his audience, a new covenant people. They are in an analogous situation to the people of Israel, who under Moses’s leadership were travelling through the wilderness towards Canaan. Israel was a pilgrim people. They had come out of land of Egypt, and as a pilgrim people were on their way to the Promised Land. And so, the author employs an historical analogy, saying that the promised rest that stands before the church today is analogous to the promised land of Canaan which stood before Israel when they were journeying through the wilderness.
He has three geographic regions in mind: Egypt (the people of God are brought out of Egypt, the world), the wilderness (the place of trial, where the testing of one’s faith takes place), and the Promised Land (the land of rest, the future Sabbath rest for the people of God)—this is the movement found across Scripture; a movement from wilderness to land and rest.
The author says that the good news of entering God’s rest came to his hearers, the new covenant people of God, just as it came to the old covenant wilderness community. The promise was held out to them, and it is held out to us—to enter God’s rest, to gain entrance to a better country, a heavenly homeland (11:16).
Illustration: some of you may not understand the contrast before wilderness and rest—it’s the camping-types amongst us. My parents, their ultimate vacation, put their tent into their 4x4 and head for the African bush: no electricity, no toilets…not my idea of fun. We do NOT go to the desert to get rest, that’s biblical! Vacation better.
The overriding thrust and purpose of the book of Hebrews is that as a word of exhortation, the wilderness congregation would enter into God’s promised Sabbath rest. Now, God’s rest is to be viewed in contrast to the wilderness situation. Here believers are at work, they are not yet at rest, which is still future. Their present reality, wilderness, is a place of hardship, temptation, toil, and trials. It’s a place where one’s faith is tested (3:8), and it is also a place where God is at work in and amongst his beloved people (3:9). Wilderness is the place where God’s people have come out of Egypt, out of the world, but have not yet attained God’s perfect rest. Wilderness is the interadvental period for the new covenant people of God, meaning: it’s the period between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.
The people of Israel were in the Wilderness forty years. After just three days of being in the Wilderness, they grumbled against Moses because the only water they could find was undrinkable—it was bitter. In the second month they grumbled against Moses and Aaron, which was really grumbling against the Lord for the lack of food, wishing that they had died back in Egypt under the hand of Pharaoh. But in the wilderness, God fought for them against their enemies, rained down manna from the heavens for them to eat, made the bitter water sweet to drink, caused their clothing and sandals never to wear out, and God went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 14:14). God was with them in the wilderness to bring them to the Promised Land, the place of rest.
In Heb. 4:4, we find the author quoting Genesis 2:2 which speaks of the Sabbath, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” Now, the institution of Sabbath functions as an anticipatory sign, a pointer to a future and greater reality, an end time rest, a Sabbath rest, one that is still to be entered into. This is also true of Israel when they entered into the Promised Land, the land of rest. The Promised Land pointed towards the true and greater eternal rest in which all God’s people would enjoy perfect communion with him, free from all trials, sins, sicknesses, and temptations. Heb. 4:8 says, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.” This other day, the day later on, is what Abraham and all the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 were anticipating and looking forward to. Abraham anticipated a land of promise, the land of Israel, but beyond that, he also “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (11:10). The Hebrews author says of all these Hebrews 11 saints that they “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13), anticipating a better country, a heavenly homeland… they desired to enter God’s promised rest—a rest that God had entered into on the seventh day after creating all that was made; an eternal rest to which all of creation pointed.
Yet because of Adam’s sin in the garden he did not enter into God’s rest, but was placed outside of God’s garden-temple, alienated from God’s presence and cut off from the tree of life. Adam was to have entered this rest by obeying God’s word, and in doing he would overcome the temptation and testing that came his way. He failed, and so fell. Yet, the second and last Adam, Christ perfectly obeyed God, triumphing over the serpent in the wilderness by God’s word, and ultimately in his death and resurrection, making a way for his people to enter in to God’s promised rest. The rest that God entered into on the seventh day, is the rest that those united to Christ would one day enter at the consummation of all things; enjoying eternal communion with God.
Jesus, the Son of God, Our Great High Priest
Hebrews 4:14, the final verse in our text, functions to bracket off an extended section of exhortation, one that begins right back in Heb. 3:1 which says, “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Heb. 4:14 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”
Five times, scattered throughout Hebrews the author says that we have a high priest “who is seated at the right hand” of God (1:3, 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2). With this in mind, the author’s intention is that we, a wilderness congregation, might understand that the end of Christ’s ministry was not his death on a cross, but pointed all the way to his redemptive ministry as heavenly high priest.
The Old Covenant earthly tabernacle with its high priest and offerings has been done away with. They were temporary, provisional, earthly copies and shadows of heavenly, enduring realities. They themselves were pointers, signposts to the true and perfect heavenly realities. The true and original heavenly tabernacle was set up by the Lord, not by the hands of man, with the ascended Christ as the great high priest.
From Heb. 3:1 to Heb. 4:14, the writer highlights the faithfulness of Jesus as high priest, and goes on to exhort his hearers, a new covenant wilderness congregation, in the light of the unfaithfulness of the old covenant wilderness congregation, to be faithful to God and his word, and then goes on to stress the compassion of Christ our great high priest, who can sympathize with our weaknesses in a wilderness or desert place, himself experiencing suffering, trial and temptation during his humiliation.
Christ’s saving work as heavenly high priesthood brings two things into focus for us:
The sins of his people
The intercession of Christ for his wilderness people.
John Murray highlights this wonderfully; he says, “The intercessory aspect of the priestly function must never be divorced from the propitiatory” (Vol.1, 56)—to propitiate, not a word used much today, means to turn away the wrath/anger of God by means of a sacrificial offering. John Murray is saying that Christ’s prayers for his people as heavenly high priest cannot be separated from his sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of his people, and by which the wrath of God was appeased, and God and man are reconciled.
The one who laid down his life for his sheep now intercedes for them; the one who suffered unto death for his people, now prays for his people who experience suffering, trial, and temptation in the wilderness until they are brought to glory. Paul says of Christ in Rom. 8:34, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Friends, the one who was put forward as a substitutionary and perfect sacrifice for the sins of his people, to turn away the very wrath of God by his own blood, now “lives to make intercession” (7:25) for his own that they may enter into God’s Sabbath rest.
Christ as heavenly High Priest is what grounds this exhortation to hold fast. For, “since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heaven, Jesus, the Son of God,” in other words, because this is the case, “let us hold fast our confession.” The author of Hebrews is driving home the point that the ministry of Christ as our great high priest before God in heaven should give us much hope in our wilderness pilgrimage.
All that we need for traversing the wilderness are found in Christ alone. The high priestly ministry of Christ is not only to purify this people from sin, but to bring them through the place of wilderness into God’s promised enduring rest.
This leads us to my third point:
Let Us Strive To Enter God’s Rest, Holding Fast Our Confession of Faith.
Heb. 4:1 begins with the word, “therefore,” reminding the church of the unfaithfulness of old covenant wilderness community who died in the desert, and so failed to enter into Canaan, the Promised Land. They did not enter because they hardened their hearts, they were a stubborn people, having been deceived by deceitfulness of sin, and they put God to the test amidst their own unbelief and disobedience. The author now turns to his hearers, and urges him to enter into God’s rest.
My mother enjoys photography, and uses a number of different lens determined by the kind of photo that she’s attempting to catch. What we have in our text, is it’s as if the author has used a wide-angle lens to capture the big picture of Scripture, overview all of redemption history, and now uses a portrait lens which is great for group shots or individual portraits, and he has overviewed the entire narrative of Scripture to exhort them, all with the goal of convincing these pilgrims to press on with faithful perseverance by lifting their gaze heavenward to the Son of God seated at the right hand of God; urging them to hold onto the truthfulness and surety of God’s word, rather than being like the Israelite wilderness community under Moses who heard Gods’ word, yet put God to the test, and little by little hardened their hearts through unbelief and disobedience.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts this new covenant wilderness congregation, and in turn us today, with two images: 1) the unfaithfulness of Israel under Moses in the wilderness—we see that Jesus, Stephen, and Paul also all point to their poor example; 2) and then secondly, and the primary image, the faithfulness of our merciful and compassionate high priest who has gone before us. He lives to make intercession for his wilderness people, sympathizing with our weaknesses, bear us up before his Father in heaven.
While it is today, hold on to your confession that Jesus is the Son of God; while the promise of rest is still stands, let us strive to enter into God’s rest, for one day he will return and this wilderness period of putting off sin, of facing hardship, suffering, and trial will be no more. In the words of Paul, let us “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12b-13), let us “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
Hebrews is not merely rich exposition about our heavenly high priest, but it is doctrine for life, a pastorally-oriented sermon given to strengthen and exhort the church amidst weakness and trial. Those who have been united to Christ are being conformed to the image of Christ, the Suffering Servant. Becoming like Christ involves sharing in his pattern of life: the patterning of suffering unto glory (Phil 2:5–11; Rom 8:14–17).
Peter speaks about Christ who suffered for you, leaving us an example, so that we might follow in his steps (1 Pe. 2:21). The life of the believer is not a life devoid of trials and suffering. But, the one who made the founder of our “salvation perfect through suffering” is “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).
Let us heed the encouraging words of the author of Hebrews to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of [us]
you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:23-25), “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1b-3). “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (12:28)
The word of God that has come to each one of us is a word to hear and it’s a word to heed. God has climactically spoken in his son, Christ Jesus. God humbled his people in the desert teaching them that “man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3).
Friends, there is a soberness about the wilderness, as we pilgrim by faith towards God’s rest. Yet there is a great sight for our eyes, Christ our heavenly high priest. We serve a great God who gives what he requires and supplies what he demands. Grace and mercy are there to assist you in your walk towards rest.
If you are experiencing trial at work, or great difficulty in a relationship, persecution because of the gospel, sickness, temptation, deep loneliness or abandonment, or you may have been unjustly sinned against… may you find grace from your heavenly high priest who has gone ahead and lives to intercedes for you. You may be grumbling in a wilderness environment, tempted to love money and the world, or even to turn your back on Christ, may your hold to your confession, finding grace and mercy to enter into God’s rest. Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
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