‘Striving to Enter Rest’: An Exegesis of Hebrews 4:1-13
by John Drury
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews instructs his readers to strive to enter God’s “rest.” What is this “rest” of which he speaks? And when is it to be had? This paper will try to uncover the nature of this rest, proposing that it is both a present reality and a future goal. Also, we will show how the timing of rest is inextricably linked to the exhortative purpose of the passage.
Setting the Stage
In relationship to the author’s elaborate argumentation of the ascendancy of the new covenant over the old, Hebrews 3:7-4:13 can be regarded as a sort of parenthesis.[i] It is preceded by a brief section on the supremacy of Jesus to Moses and is immediately followed by the opening phrase of the long discussion of Jesus as the new and better High Priest. Despite its status as the longest of the author’s “exhortation side-tracks,” this unit is nevertheless linked to the overall flow of the epistle on both ends by the obvious relation of Moses (3:1-6) to rest and the heavenly aspect of both rest and the heavens which Christ the High Priest passed through (4:14).
Although the unit forms a complete thought from start to finish, it can be easily divided into halves. The shift takes place in 4:1 as the author has finished his exposition of the exodus generation’s failure to enter rest and begins his exhortation to the readers to enter rest. The distinction is also demonstrated in that the rest of which the author is speaking in chapter 4 is different from the one in chapter 3.[ii] However, the author continues to draw implications from the historical situation of the earthly rest as if the same rules apply to both (v. 6). He uses the historical rest typologically, but in a type to anti-type relationship.[iii]
Having established 4:1 as a logical opening to the passage, the difficult task of setting an end-limit on the passage remains. The famous “word of God” section (4:12-13) concludes the whole unit, yet appears to stand alone. Much of the confusion of its relation to the preceding section is wiped away if the “word of God” itself is not regarded as Scripture but rather God’s judgment. We will discuss in greater detail as to why this so later, but for our purposes in setting the limits to the passage something must be said. The judgment language of 4:12-13 constitutes a final and stern warning to strengthen the exhortation. It is an essential part of the passage, for the author chooses not to end with a mere call to enter rest but makes an appeal to the reader’s fear of God’s judgment in order to persuade them unto obedience.
Establishing the Text
Before we speak any longer in regards to the meaning of the passage, there are three key textual variants worthy of discussion. The first is in v. 2, where the manuscripts differ on whether it is the people or faith which were not mixed with the message. In some manuscripts, the participle is in the nominative case (sugkekerasmenos), implying that faith was not mixed with the message, as rendered by the NIV. However, the more reliable manuscripts attest to the accusative case (sugkekerasmenous), and therefore the best understanding of the phrase is that the people were not mixed with faith.[iv]
The next significant variant in found in v. 3. In some manuscripts, the stronger “therefore” (oun) is found. However, the more reliable manuscripts attest to the weaker “for” (gar). This exchange is linked to the rather weakly attested subjunctive form of the verb “to enter” (eisercomeqa). So the best translation is “For we who have come to believe are entering.”[v]
Also in v. 3, a significant amount of manuscripts attest to the definitive article thn. However, it is absent in crucial witnesses. Attridge chooses the first reading, considering the well-supported second to be either a mechanical error or an exegetical alteration in light of the “rest” of chapter 4 being a different one that the one in chapter 3.[vi] Although this is the more difficult reading, it is not the shorter. Also, scribes may just have easily added the definitive article out of respect for the “heavenly” connotations of “rest.” Based on the value of those crucial witnesses, we shall consider the article as having been added. The final reading should therefore be “entering a rest” or “entering rest.”
Getting the Logic
Having established the text as best as possible, it is necessary for us to lay out the author’s basic argument. Unlike so much of the epistle, this passage does not build upon itself point-by-point but rather sets forth a basic thesis and defends it. The basic thesis of the author is found in the first verse: “the promise of entering his rest still stands.” The availability of God’s rest is the only point the author wishes to substantiate. And he does this in order to exhort them: “be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” So the passage is summed up in the opening verse. The following verses only support that rest still stands and encourage the readers to enter it.
The passage contains two primary defenses for the continuation of the rest-offer. The first is that God’s rest has existed since the creation of the world, based on the author’s quoting of Genesis 2:2. This argument starts at the beginning of the passage and carries through to v. 5. The second, based on a quote from Psalm 95:11, is that God spoke of rest through David, yet such an offer would not make sense if rest had already been attained when Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, so therefore there must be another rest of which God spoke. This argument flows from v. 6 (which is a repetition of the main thesis) into the conclusion in v. 9-11.
Verse 11 in many ways repeats verse 1, and so may be regarded as an inclusio. This is misleading, however, because a repetition of the main theme is also found in v. 6. In addition to this, an inclusio implies that the section is completed, which is not the case. Although the argument of the passage is independent from v. 12-13, the overall thrust as an exhortative message is incomplete without this section. The author finishes his defense of and call to rest with a stern reminder of God’s powerful judgment. This part contains its own small inclusio, as it opens and closes with logos.
The Timing of Rest: Now and Not Yet
Understanding the basic logic of the passage, let us attempt to decipher the nature of the rest of which it speaks. First of all, which “rest” are we talking about? It seems as though there are many present in the passage. This may appear true on the surface, but the only one of importance to this particular passage is the eternal rest of God. Although the rest which the Israelites failed to enter is mentioned, it is now only used as an anti-type, as we spoke of earlier. Also, Joshua is said to not have given them rest, and yet he did give them earthly rest. Clearly the historical, earthly rest is no longer a concern for our author. In addition the rest of God at the beginning of creation is not to be thought of as different than the rest offered to His people, for it is pivotal to the author’s argument that they are one and the same.[vii]
As the rest of God can be seen as directly related to His own eternal state of rest, the “heavenly” implications seem unavoidable. Yet the tense of v. 3 is quite clear: we who are entering. This present tense use of the verb stands alone against the ambiguous use of the aorist infinitive in v. 1, 6, and 11. This is the paradox faced when trying to uncover the timing of this rest: is it something to be had in the present or something to push onward toward but not receive until the end of time?
It seems as though we must accept that some sort of tension is at work in the author’s eschatology. He times the “reward” of service to God as both a present reality and a future goal. Much attention has been given to a similar “now and not yet” tension in Pauline eschatology.[viii] Yet Paul never speaks of “rest,” which seems to imply some sort of “place.” The readers are not told to “take part” in rest--that would be easier to grasp in such a “tensional” manner. The readers are rather told to “enter” into rest--implying a sort of locale or place. It seems odd to be in a place yet not fully in it at the same time.
One aspect of the text which begins to marry these two poles of timing is the continuous nature of the Greek present tense. The author says in v. 3 that we “are entering” rest. Such a continuous flavor brings the present and the future a little closer together. This continuous flavor is also found in regards to the preaching of the gospel (v. 2). The author uses a periphrastic perfect, one of strongest forms in Greek which emphasize the continuous nature of a verb. This sort of continuous action paints the gospel offer of rest and the entering into rest as happening both now and on into the future.
Now that we better understand the subtleties of the verbs, what can we learn more about our star noun, katapuasis. It is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 7:4, and literally means “rest.” The verb form katapauw is found elsewhere only in Acts 14:18, wherein people are trying to “calm” or “rest” the crowds. As these seem to add little depth to our understanding of rest, maybe the author’s newly-coined term sabbatismos will light up the dark room. Although it is without any earlier uses, it surely borrows from the Jewish concept of the Sabbath. The Sabbath to the Jews was often a reference to the coming age.[ix] The Jewish structuring of the epochs of time was also thought of in terms of the Sabbath as the last age.[x] So the eschatological character of the use of “rest” is apparent. Yet the Sabbath is still something which comes every week, so the tension remains. As we can see, the Jews had already grasped this two-sided nature of the age to come.
The strong eschatological overtones of “rest” which we have discussed are nearly undercut by the author’s persistent use of “Today.” The author takes it from his Psalm 95 quote and associates it with the call to enter rest (v. 7). It gives a sense of the contemporary and of urgency to the call.[xi] The noun Shmeron is found in Hebrews in 1:5, 5:5 and 13:8. It is used elsewhere to emphasize the “right now” of today (Mk. 14:30; Lk. 4:21; 19:9; Acts 20:26). Although it is used to point to a specific point in time, “Today” is nevertheless is continuous, since Today happens every day.[xii]
As the unavoidable tension of the timing of rest is now clear, it can be seen as falling in line with the “inaugurated eschatology” of the remainder of the epistle. The readers are said to be “receiving” a kingdom (12:28). They are encouraged not just to anticipate but to participate. “Believers can experience a foretaste of the eschatological salvation in their present fellowship with one another and with God.”[xiii] It further shows that the early church truly “conceived of itself as the eschatological congregation.”[xiv]
The Purpose of Rest: Exhortation
Despite the deep theological concepts imbedded in the authors of Hebrews’ discussion of “rest,” the primary purpose of his entire exposition is to exhort the readers to the kind of behavior which leads to rest.[xv] Conveniently, the “now and not yet” timing of rest makes for a most air-tight exhortation. Both of the abuses of a “wait until later” future-thinking and the worry of “I have to be perfect right now” present-thinking can be eliminated. A more balanced ethical outlook can be called for when the object or goal is to be experience both now and later.
Of the exhortative items found in this passage the most significant is the “word of God” section. Contrary to its common usage, logos here does not refer to Holy Scripture.[xvi] This is only one of many meanings of logos, which include literal words, word as a message or speech (Heb. 4:2), and word as reason (Ac. 18:14). A common fourth option is often forgotten for it is seldom translation as “word.” This is the legal and fiscal use, often translated “account” or “sentence.” To give an “account,” usually in a judicial setting, is found in Mt. 12:36, Lk. 16:2, Ac. 19:38, 40, Rom. 14:12, and 1 Pet. 4:5. Such a translation is also found in Heb. 13:17 as well as the last word of the passage in question (4:13). The settling of fiscal accounts by a ruler or master is found in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23) and the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:19). A similar, yet more specific use is found in Rom. 9:28, which refers to the “sentence” which God declares for the world. Such a use of logos in reference to judgment is also found in Rev. 17:17. However, the most poignant use of logos as God’s judgment is found in the wisdom literature (Wisdom 18:15f), as God’s logos leaps from the heavens with a sword to punish the wicked.[xvii]
It is clear that the best translation of logos here would be God’s “judgment” or “settling of accounts.” This is further supported by the presence of logos at the end of the section, which is translated properly by the NIV as “account.” The opening and closing of this section of the passage with logos forms an inclusio and implies some form of relation of the two terms. If logos in v. 13 is regarded as the giving of an account to God, it certainly implies that such an account is given in response to God’s logos in v. 12. The logos in v. 12 is therefore not God’s Scriptures or his Reason, but His “setting of accounts” or His “judgment.” And it is this judgment which pierces to the heart of every intention. And it is to this judgment which everyone must give an account. Such strong words are paralleled by the author’s references to Ps. 95:11, where God judges the exodus generation, barring them from rest.
So the final two verses are meant to strike fear into the readers, as they imagine God’s wrath piercing right down to their true intentions so that any sin will be found out. This sort of emotional appeal is equally if not more effective than the rational argumentation of the preceding eleven verses. The argument itself is also peppered with “scare tactics,” as it speaks of God’s anger (v. 3) and the consequences of the exodus generation’s disobedience (v. 6). An effective exhortation convinces the mind and pulls the heart strings.
In all the talk of eschatology and exhortation, the gem which begins to surface is that the Christian walk to the early church was overwhelmingly process-oriented. The two tenses which constantly resurface are the present and the future. Conspicuously absent is the past tense--the time in which most of us have been taught to think of salvation. Certainly Christ’s work is once and for all, as the epistle to the Hebrews makes ever so clear in chapters 9 and 10. But the duty of the Christian is to live in the present, continuously entering God’s rest, yet waiting to enter it fully at the end of time. It has been said that “salvation in Hebrews has an eschatological character.”[xviii] This is certainly true of Christian salvation in general as well. We may need to set aside the false confidence of the “dated conversion” or “election of God” which turns our eyes away from earthly responsibility. We are called to enter God’s rest--a calling which requires all our efforts ... a calling which will consume all our time ... a calling which will take the remainder of our lives.
And so we are sojourners--pushing onward to win the prize, as Paul would put it. And it is not a mistake that the subject of these sentences are plural, for the pilgrimage is corporate.[xix] The church is to follow the anti-type of the exodus generation: we are to travel as one like them yet not stumble like them. We are responsible for one another, as our central verse pointed out: let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short. Let that be our goal--that not one would fall away but that we all reach God’s rest.
After recalling the story of Judas, St. Basil the Great once remarked, “Learn from this, beloved, that the one who begins well isn’t perfect. It is the one who ends well whom God approves of.”[xx] And such is our calling: to end well in His rest.
[viii] For an excellent study see Ben Witherington, III, “Transcending Imminence: The Gordian Knot of Pauline Eschatology,” Eschatology in Bible and Theology (Eds. Kent E. Brower and Mark W. Elliot; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1997) 171-186.
[xv] A broad discussion of the linkage between exposition and exhortation in Hebrews can be found in Frank J. Matera, “Moral Exhortation: The Relation between Moral Exhortation and Doctrinal Exposition in the Letter to the Hebrews” Toronto Journal of Theology 10:2 (1994) 169-182.
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