“There Remains a Sabbath Rest”

Ted Noel

Hebrews 4

9 There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

This text generates a considerable amount of argument. Is it referring to the final “Sabbath rest” for the saints in heaven? Or does it refer to Sabbaths in the present day? The first place to look, as always, is at the context.

1 Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it.

The writer of Hebrews is making it clear that there is a current promise of entering God’s rest. Unfortunately, we cannot clearly tell if the rest is current (weekly Sabbath) or future (eschatological Sabbath).

3 For we who have believed enter that rest,…
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For He has thus said somewhere concerning the seventh day, “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”;

The focus seems to be clearly settling on the weekly Sabbath, since believers are portrayed as currently entering the rest, and the reference in verse 4 is clearly to creation and the fourth commandment.

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience,

This makes it even more clear that some have entered the rest, indicating a present, not a future rest.

7 He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.”
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For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.

Here it is emphasized that there is a “certain day”, and that Joshua could not give the Hebrews the rest, but God can.

9 There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

This concludes the argument that the Sabbath “remains” available to God’s people. The Greek apoleipeto translated “remains” literally means “left behind.” The Greek sabbatismos translated “Sabbath rest” literally means a “seventh-day Sabbath keeping.” (While this word is not found anywhere else in the Bible, it is found in non-canonical literature, where its meaning is quite clear.) So translated literally, verse 9 would say:

9 So then a Sabbath-keeping is left behind for the people of God.

This cannot be a reference to something in the far future. It must be a present rest. Only the weekly Sabbath qualifies. But we must note that the writer’s focus is NOT on whether the Sabbath exists. Such a polemic would reveal that there was an argument underway about whether to observe the Sabbath. That sort of argument would be inevitable in the apostolic church if Sunday observance were promoted. As we have seen, the apostles gave great respect to Jewish holy days and traditions. Since the Sabbath was probably the most central of the holy days, its abrogation would have raised a furor, and arguments both pro and con would have filled the apostolic literature. There is absolutely no evidence that such an argument ever surfaced, and no such writing exists. Just to illustrate the point, in Acts 15, the Jerusalem council dealt with other issues central to Jewish tradition, but the Sabbath was not discussed, since it was never in question. Continuing in Hebrews 4:

10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.
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Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience.

Once again, the focus is present: “has entered”, and the parallel drawn is straight from the fourth commandment and from the creation story. There can be no doubt that the primary focus is the fact that we have in the present a Sabbath rest, the weekly Sabbath. All that being said, it is not possible to totally exclude an eschatological aspect to the Sabbath rest.

Jesus, in his first recorded public pronouncement, stated that he came to declare the Jubilee “release” (Luke 4:18). It is clear that this ultimate Sabbath comes at the second coming. So the exhortation to “be diligent to enter that rest ” can also be seen as a call to be strong in the faith to win the ultimate victory through Jesus.

How should we see the message of Hebrews on the Sabbath? Christ fulfilled the typological and eschatological Messianic Sabbath rest and release, not by annulling the actual observance of the day but by making it a time to experience and share with others the salvation He makes possible for us. It gives us a new opportunity every week to enter God’s rest, that is, to make oneself free from the cares of work in order to experience freely by faith God’s creation and redemption-rest.

Perhaps the best statement is as, John Calvin said, on Sabbath, believers are “to cease from their work to allow God to work in them.”