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Is the “rest” for Christians in Hebrews 4 present or future?

The following question was submitted:

“Hebrews 4:3 says that believers ‘do enter that rest’ (present tense).  Please explain how the ‘rest’ in Hebrews 4 is future and not a present-day Christian observance.”

The best way (or maybe better to say “the only way”) to properly understand any passage, specifically Hebrews 4 for this study, is to put the word, the sentence, the verse into its context.  What is the “rest” that is being promised and emphasized in Hebrews 4?

In the context of the entire book of Hebrews, God is drawing a sharp contrast throughout the book (including in chapter 4) between Judaism (which held to and followed the Law of Moses) and Jesus Christ with His new covenant.  In chapter 3, Jesus is better than Moses.  In chapter 5, Jesus is a better High Priest.  Therefore, in its context, chapter 4 must be dealing with a contrast between a “rest” in the Old Testament a better “rest” from Jesus in the New Testament.

The English word “rest” is found 10 times between Hebrews 3:11 and 4:11.  Let’s see what we can learn from these verses:

1. There was a “rest” that God had promised to “give” the Israelites (Heb. 3:7-11; 4:1, 8).

2. The “rest” of God is something into which man must take steps to “enter” (Heb. 3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 5, 10-11).

3. The Israelites failed to enter God’s “rest” due to their hardened hearts, unbelief and disobedience (Heb. 3:7-11, 18-19; 4:6).

4. “The promise of entering his rest still stands” (4:1, ESV) for His people (4:9, 6).

5. It is possible for one of God’s people to “come short of” entering His rest (having “failed to reach it,” 4:1) and “fall according to the same example of disobedience” (4:11), by developing (even as a Christian) “an evil heart of unbelief” (3:12).

6. The “rest” of Hebrews 4 had not yet been enjoyed, for these Christians are urged, “let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall” (4:1, 11).

7. The Christian readers are urged to “exhort one another” (3:13), hold “steadfast to the end” (3:14), “do not harden your hearts” (3:8, 15; 4:7), and “give diligence” (4:11, ASV) in order to enter that rest.

8. Once one enters into God’s rest, he “has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (4:10, 3-4).

Put this together relative to the question of whether this rest is future or present, with an emphasis on the context of this passage and the “rest” of God.  The “rest” that Christians are promised is likened unto the “rest” that God Himself took on the Seventh Day of Creation.  When God rested, He rested “from all His works” (4:4, emp. added.).  The Christian’s rest is likened unto that, “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (4:10).  When will a Christian rest from all His works?  The Spirit said, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors” (Rev. 14:13).

There is no rest on this earth from which Christians cease their work for God.  God’s people, while on this earth, are to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).  There is no authorized day (or days) for Christians to rest from obeying God, for even the Israelites were refused entrance into God’s rest because of their disobedience.  Underline in this passage every time you find the word “today” or “daily” – every day is a day for our faith to be mixed with obedience (4:1-3), so that one day our Lord might give us His rest (cf. 2 Thess. 1:7).

A look at two words in the original Greek of Hebrews 4:9 confirms the “rest” to be yet future.  Two sources on the Greek language that are considered authoritative “standards” are Danker’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG) and the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDOT). The English word “rest” in verse 9 is from a unique Greek word, sabbatismos, which TDOT classifies as “a purely heavenly blessing towards which the pilgrim people of God moves” (Lohse, 7:34-35).  Verse 9 says that rest “remains,” which is translated from a word that means “to be reserved for future appearance or enactment” (BDAG Third Edition, p. 115).  Neither the context nor proper exegesis of Hebrews 4 has anything to do with a “Christian Sabbath” of rest on the seventh day of the week.  The promise is of heaven!