Faith Theology
R. L. Solberg  

Jesus as Our Sabbath Rest

In a recent episode of our apologetic Bible study series on Hebrews we discussed the idea of Jesus as our Sabbath rest. This episode stirred up a bit of controversy and a lot of questions, so it seemed fitting to take a moment to focus solely on the “Sabbath rest” aspect of Hebrews Chapter 4.

Entering God’s Rest

In a passage that runs from Hebrews 3:7–4:13, the author points to the story of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness as a lesson for the first-century believers he’s addressing. He reminds his readers that God did not allow an entire generation into Canaan (the Promised Land) because of their lack of faith. “They were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). The writer then adds an additional layer to his lesson. He cites Psalm 95, which describes Canaan as God’s rest.

For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
   “They shall not enter my rest.”

Psalm 95:10-11

The author of Hebrews warns his readers: Don’t be like your ancestors who fell in the wilderness because of their lack of faith and failed to enter God’s rest. His message in Hebrews 4 is that, in the same way the ancient Israelites failed to enter God’s rest because of unbelief, our lack of faith can keep us from entering God’s rest today. And what the writer means by “God’s rest” is the key to this passage.

He is obviously not warning first-century Christians they risk failing to enter the land of Canaan. That land had been conquered and lost many centuries before Christ. That rest was no longer available. When the author says, “The promise of entering his rest still stands” (Heb. 4:1), he is speaking of eternal life. That is the rest that remains open to us. It is the rest we won’t be allowed to enter if we don’t have faith. The author further quotes Genesis 2 to describe it as a rest of completion: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works” (Gen. 2:2). This is not a temporary period of inactivity or a breather to refresh our energy. It is a permanent rest of completion because there is no more work to do. And that brings us to the author’s thesis statement for this entire passage. Here are the two verses that can cause such a stir:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Hebrews 4:9–10

What does he mean there is a “Sabbath rest” that remains for the people of God? To understand what he is saying, we need to be aware of the biblical theme of rest that threads its way through Scripture, literally from Genesis to Revelation.

The Biblical Theme of Rest

In the beginning, God spent six days creating. He created the light and the dark, the stars, the sun, the sea and the dry land, and plants, and animals, and finally mankind. And then God rested, he sabbathed. Genesis 2 says,

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:2–3

Contrary to popular internet myths, the weekly Sabbath command is not found in Genesis 2. This passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us about the rest Yahweh took when He was done creating and that He blessed the seventh day of creation and made it holy. Of course, the creation account would later become the source of the seven-day pattern God gave Israel in the weekly Sabbath rest. But His rest on the seventh day of creation wasn’t about a temporary pause. God didn’t return to work the next day and create more things. He made everything, pronounced it all good, and then He rested because He was done. This was a rest of completion. The idea is that of a perfected state. This was the intended state of God’s universe. God gave Adam and Eve dominion over nature, and they rested with God in His rest, in the perfection and completion of His creation. Michael Heiser put it this way,

Genesis 1 describes the creation of the heavens and earth in the same mode as the building and sanctifying of a temple, because that’s what God’s temple is. It’s on Earth; it’s in Eden. This is where the creation episode ends because God has now taken up his residence on Earth in his temple, which is Eden . . . And that became the template idea for rest, for temple, for God’s dwelling.

Michael Heiser

Eden was God’s ideal for His relationship with humanity. And unlike the weekly Sabbath that would be given much later, this wasn’t a rest from labor. Adam and Eve actually had jobs.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Genesis 1:28

God blessed labor and gave mankind a noble job to do. We were to partner with Him in ruling over creation. The “rest” Adam and Eve enjoyed with God wasn’t a weekly rest of idleness. It was a continual rest of peace, shalom, and blessedness in God’s presence. It is the very intimate idea of family, of dwelling with our heavenly Father in His presence as a member of His household. This is “soul rest.” And, of course, it was lost when the great deceiver entered the picture and enticed Adam and Eve into disobedience and unbelief. Did God really say you can’t eat of that tree?

As a result of that sin, paradise was broken. The work of Adam and Eve (and all humanity) would now involve pain, toil, and frustration. There is also a sense in which God “went back to work” after that first sin. In fact, even before Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, God began a new work of redemption (Gen. 3:15). He inaugurated His plan to guide all of creation back into His rest, His vision of Eden, the shalom of His presence in His household. Indeed, that is the overarching message of Scripture: In the end, sin and death will pass away, humanity will be reconciled to God, and He will renew Eden and dwell again with His people, His family.

The sin in Genesis 3 sent everything into chaos. From that chapter forward, the Bible records God’s cosmic plan of redemption as it unfolds. Here is what I find fascinating: After that first sin, God could have hit the reset button and reestablished Eden without taking all the time and trouble He has. But that’s not how He chose to do it. And I believe a big part of the reason God is playing the long game is because He wants to partner with us, with fallible human beings who were made in His image and who He loves. He doesn’t need us in order to redeem creation, of course. But He wants us to participate. That speaks volumes about the heart of the living God.

It’s taking a long time to reestablish His ultimate rest because He is committed to doing so with the participation of flawed, finite human beings like you and me. God didn’t cancel our free will or force us to sit on the sideline. We’re His children, and He wants to give us the blessing of working with Him. And because that’s the way He chose to do things, it’s taking a long time (at least from a human perspective) to reach His ultimate final rest in the fully renewed Eden.

The Bible is full of foreshadows and images of this perfect future rest. The Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, and the temple are symbols of it. These are all places where God and His family dwell together and rest. And all the way at the other end of the Book, Revelation tells us that the rest and dwelling with God we were originally given in Eden will ultimately be restored in God’s final Kingdom on earth.  

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:3-4

This theme of rest is God’s story of redemption from beginning to end. And the weekly Sabbath is part of that story.

The Weekly Sabbath

The weekly Sabbath God commanded under the Old Covenant is another foretaste or picture of God’s ultimate rest. But it wasn’t intended as God’s final state of rest for mankind. The Sabbath commands in the Law of Moses offer a temporary rest from work that is to be continually repeated every week. In exactly the same way, the Old Covenant sin sacrifices for atonement were temporary and had to be repeated every year. And following the death and resurrection of Christ, the book of Hebrews reveals:

Those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Hebrews 10:3–4

The revelation of Jesus disclosed that the Old Covenant’s sin sacrifices for atonement were a bloody reminder of sins, not God’s ultimate solution. They were always intended as a temporary ritual that ultimately pointed to Jesus, our ultimate atonement for sin (Rom. 3:23-25). This is why the author of Hebrews can declare, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10), and therefore, “There is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:18). The apostle Paul wrote, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all” (Rom. 6:10). Jesus fulfilled God’s requirement for sin atonement once and for all. The continual reminder of sin under the Old Covenant through animal sacrifice was fulfilled by Jesus and is no longer required.

The same is true of the weekly Sabbath rest. That repeated rest commanded under the Old Covenant was not God’s ultimate plan for His people. It was based on the rhythm of creation (Exod. 20:11-12) and given to Israel alone as a historical reminder of God rescuing them out of slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15). That Sabbath also served as a picture of our ultimate future rest in Christ. It was a shadow. Jesus is the reality.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.   

Colossians 2:16-17

Although God’s full Edenic vision in which we dwell in His household in perfect shalom has not yet been fully restored, it has begun. It began with Jesus, who said,

Come to me, all 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.

Matthew 11:28-29

Jesus tells us to leave our work and labor behind and rest in Him. When we place our faith in Christ, He provides rest for our souls. This is what the author of Hebrews is getting at with his thesis statement.

The Sabbath Rest That Remains

In light of the biblical theme of rest, let’s return to our passage and try to understand what the author is saying.

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Hebrews 4:9–10

The author begins with “So then.” He’s introducing the conclusion of an argument he’s been building since Hebrews 3:7. He concludes, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” This is an important text because it introduces the Greek word σαββατισμός (sabbatismos), which isn’t found anywhere else in the Bible. In fact, this is the first occurrence of that word in all of Greek literature. This is why some scholars believe the author of Hebrews coined that term himself.

How are we to understand this “Sabbath rest” that remains? We can glean a lot from the context in which it is used. Throughout this larger passage (Heb. 3:7–4:13), the author has been laboring the idea of entering God’s rest. He has described it as a rest that is in God and a possession of God. It’s God’s rest, and he reminds his readers several times that we enter it by faith. This is the sabbatismos that remains for the people of God.

The weekly Sabbath is not God’s rest; it is man’s rest. Jesus said the weekly Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). And we don’t enter into that weekly Sabbath by faith. The author of Hebrews is not talking about a repeated weekly Shabbat, or even a physical rest from labor and activity. The sabbatismos that remains is a spiritual rest from works. It is the soul rest of salvation and eternal life that can only be found in Jesus.

This text isn’t speaking of an “end times” rest or something we won’t enter until our natural life ends. Twice in this passage the author says the day for entering this rest is today. The sabbatismos is a rest that remains open and can be entered today. He is talking about the eternal life that begins the moment we put our faith in Jesus. Jesus calls entering this rest being “born again” (John 3:1–15). The apostle Paul refers to it as being “in Christ.” “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). To be “in Christ” is to enter God’s rest.

There are three big ideas in what this thesis statement tells us about the “Sabbath rest that remains.” First, our ability to enter into this sabbatismos and be part of God’s family is based on the work of Jesus, not our own work. The ancient Israelites “were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Likewise, we cannot enter the “Sabbath rest that remains” without faith. We enter God’s rest by faith in the work of Jesus, which the author links to a rest from our works. “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10). We enter by faith, not works.

Second, the fact that we enter God’s rest through faith in Jesus means we are connected to Jesus. Believers are united with Christ in a profound way. Paul writes,

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Romans 6:4–5

We weren’t physically buried and resurrected with Jesus, of course, and we aren’t literally “born again.” This is a spiritual and relational connection, and it’s every bit as real. This is a profound truth. We are united to Jesus in His rest every bit as much as we’re united to Him in His death and resurrection. That means that Jesus is our ultimate Sabbath, our sabbatismos. We are joined to Him in His rest.

The third implication of the author’s thesis statement is that if our rest is in Jesus and He is our Sabbath, then Christians aren’t required to keep the weekly Sabbath commands given to Israel. That Sabbath was a shadow, but Christ is the reality (Col. 2:16-17). We are certainly free to observe the Old Covenant Sabbath rest if we want. (Except the death penalty part, of course!) And I certainly believe the moral principles behind those Sabbath commands are still in effect. Namely, the necessity of setting aside a regular time for God both personally and communally, of remembering what He’s done in our lives, of acknowledging that God is the source of our salvation and our ultimate provider and sustainer, that we are to tend to the needs of those around us—and not just our family, but our neighbors, and those who work for us, and foreigners, and even animals. These are all Sabbath principles. But they no longer need to be lived out in the context of a mandated seventh-day rest. Jesus is our true and real Sabbath.

So, if we want to voluntarily choose to keep a seventh-day Sabbath, that’s great! I have many friends who do. But we need to be careful not to slip into the unbiblical lie that keeping that Sabbath contributes anything to our righteousness, our standing before God, or our salvation. These things have already been 100% covered by faith in Jesus. He didn’t cover 99.99% of these things and leave the last bit up to us. No! His work was perfect and comprehensive and has covered it all. No amount of Sabbath keeping can add even an ounce to what He has done on our behalf.

In fact, to believe that Sabbath-keeping defines us as children of God or is how we show Him we love Him is to fail to recognize the work and staggering significance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, Messiah, and Lord. He is what all those Mosaic rituals and ceremonies pointed to. Jesus is the whole point of the Torah. We don’t need to add “Torah stuff” to our walk with Him. Jesus never commanded us to keep the Sabbath, eat kosher, be circumcised, or keep the feasts. Again, we are free in Christ to do those things if we choose. But to think that they somehow add anything to what Jesus has already done for us is to fall into the trap of works-righteousness, of merit-based thinking, of believing we have to earn something that God, in His abundant grace, has given us as a gift through faith. Indeed, Romans 5:17 calls it the “free gift of righteousness.” 

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

Wrap it up, Professor.

When the author of Hebrews talks about God’s rest, which is still available to us, he’s not talking about the temporary rest of inactivity Israel took on the weekly Sabbath. He’s talking about a rest of completion like God took on the seventh day of creation, like the resurrected Jesus took when He sat down at the right hand of God because His saving work was finished. This is the pattern for the believer’s rest. The NT says, “In Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Col. 2:10). Some translations say we are “complete in Him.” Believers have become complete in Jesus. He is our sabbatismos, our Sabbath rest. When we place our faith in him, we rest from our works. His beautiful invitation is worth repeating.

Come to me, all 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. 

Matthew 11:28-29


[1] Michael Heiser, “Episode 182: Hebrews 4:1–13,” Naked Bible Podcast, October 22, 2017.

2 thoughts on “Jesus as Our Sabbath Rest

  1. Anonymous

    The Sabbath is a day and not a person. The Sabbath remains the only day of the 7 created that was blessed, sanctified (Gen 2:3), to remember [NOT TO FORGET TO REMEMBER] and keep holy (Ex 20:8) as well as the sign of the (marriage) covenant (Ex 31:16-17). You are confusing the two separate and distinct Hebrew and Greek words using philosophical eisegeses AND NOT hermeneutical exegesis. The actual Hebrew word rendered as rest in English is מְנוּחָתִי (Psalm 95:11) translated into Greek as κατάπαυσίν in Hebrews 3:11 REMAINS not the 7th day which is שָׁבַת

    1. R. L. Solberg

      Thanks, Anonymous. The author of Hebrews cites from the LXX translation of Psalm 95. Also, in Gen. 2:2-3, God blessed and sanctified the seventh day of creation, not the seventh day of the week. We are nowhere commanded to “remember [NOT TO FORGET TO REMEMBER] and keep holy” the seventh day of creation.
      Shalom, RLS

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