Sabbath in the Book of Hebrews
An unknown author wrote the book of Hebrews to an audience primarily made up of Jewish believers in Jesus who were under persecution for their faith in Yeshua HaMashiach, Jesus the Messiah. Their forefathers, the ancient Israelites, fresh out of four centuries of slavery, had second thoughts about their newfound freedom. As they wandered in the wilderness, they began to wonder if God rescuing them out of Egypt had been a big mistake.
“Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”Numbers 14:3-4
In the same way, the first generation of Jewish believers in Jesus was having second thoughts. Would it not be better to return to the temple, the Levitical priesthood, and the Law that we have known all these centuries? The author of Hebrews wrote this epistle to encourage them to hold fast to their faith in Jesus. And he did so by demonstrating the many ways that Jesus and the New Covenant are far superior to Moses and the Sinai Covenant.1
Along the way, this book has some important things to teach us about the Sabbath and its connection to Jesus. The author points his readers back to the unbelief of their forefathers to make his point. He warns them of the dangers of doubting and encourages them that God’s promise to them still stands. In doing so, we see some crucial dots connected between the Old and New Testaments.
Let’s dig into this Sabbath teaching by first identifying five Scriptural truths that the author of Hebrews presents in his epistle. We might think of them as “pearls of wisdom.” And then, we’ll look at how the author “strings these pearls together”2 to teach us something important about the Sabbath.
In Hebrews chapter 3, the author begins talking about a rest for the people of God by pointing us back to the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. He quotes directly from Psalm 95, where the Lord says of the Israelites:
Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, “They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.” As I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”Hebrews 3:10-11, Psalm 95:10-11
This quote harkens back to Numbers 14, where we read how God refused to let His people enter into the Promised Land for forty years. And in Psalm 95, He refers to that land as “my rest.” The Promised Land is a type of resting in God. We see the same idea in Deuteronomy 12, where God tells the Israelites as they wander in the wilderness,
for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you. But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safetyDeuteronomy 12:9-10 (emphasis added)
Here again we see the equating of the Promised Land to God’s rest. And this is our first pearl: Scripture ties the Promised Land to God’s Rest.
What was it that kept the Israelites from entering into God’s rest, into the Promised Land? Why did He force them to wander around in the wilderness for forty years while an entire generation of His people died off? It wasn’t because they broke the Torah laws. What kept them from entering God’s rest was a lack of faith. It was their unbelief. We see this in God’s response to the Israelites after they grumbled against Moses and wanted to go back to Egypt.
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? . . . Your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness.Numbers 14:11, 33 (emphasis added)
God was angry. But not about a law being broken. His people were not allowed to enter His rest—the Promised Land—because of their faithlessness. Despite all of the signs and miracles He did among them, they did not believe in YHWH, the one true God. And this is the truth that the author of Hebrews picks up on in chapter three.
And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.Hebrews 3:18-19
Just like the passage in Numbers, the author of Hebrews defines disobedience not as violating Torah Law, but as unbelief. And unbelief is why they weren’t allowed to enter into God’s rest.
The idea of maintaining our faith—the phrase the author of Hebrews likes to use is “holding fast to your confession” —is one of the main themes of the book of Hebrews. It’s the author’s overarching message to his Jewish audience who are being persecuted for their faith in Christ. Keep believing. His point is that we have to believe because our faith is the one requirement for entering into God’s rest. This idea is echoed in the thief on the cross next to Jesus who entered God’s rest, not because of anything he did, but because he believed (Luke 23:39-43).
Another way to state it is that salvation comes through faith, not works. And that’s not just a New Testament theology. It applied every bit as much to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. The passages above show that God is most interested in our faith. It’s not about perfect moral behavior or keeping the Torah laws. It’s about believing in God. Without faith, we cannot enter His rest.
So our second pearl is this: Faith is the one requirement for entering into God’s rest.
We are seeing a theme developing here. And that’s what makes biblical theology so exciting. The concepts and truths we find in Scripture are intertwined, interconnected, and interdependent. There is no doctrine or biblical theme that stands on its own in a vacuum. It is all connected in God’s living Word. So let’s look at the connection between the Promised Land and God’s rest. Dr. Mike Heiser offers some great insight here, explaining this concept from the perspective of the ancient Jewish people.
The land was where the temple was. The temple was where God would rest, where God would place his name. For those of you who have read John Walton’s book about Genesis 1, this is the basis of the Sabbath. Genesis 1 is describing 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, for the place where God runs his affairs. It’s tied into creation, and it’s tied into this establishment of the temple—the re-establishment of the place where God will come to Earth and dwell with man.Dr. Michael Hesier, Naked Bible Podcast, Ep. 182: Hebrews 4:1-13
Heiser is taking a cosmic view and referring to Genesis 2:2, which 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” (Gen 2:2). This wasn’t a rest of tiredness or inactivity. God doesn’t get tired. And He doesn’t stop upholding the universe. (If He did so, even for a millisecond, it would all cease to exist!) No, the rest on the seventh day of creation was a rest of completion. God’s creation work was done. And then He dwelled in the Garden with the man and the woman. Eden was His temple, where he dwelled and rested.
This was God’s original intention for humanity. But, of course, Adam’s disobedience got us ejected from Eden. And the rest of the Bible traces God’s work through history to redeem us and reconcile us back into His presence, into His rest. We see this theme repeated throughout Scripture. The garden of Eden, the Promised Land, the Temple, Heaven. These are all where God and his people, his family, dwell together and rest.
This theme of rest is reflected in smaller ways, such as the weekly observance of Shabbat where God invites us to rest in Him one day each week. And in the words of David in his most famous Psalm, where he paints a beautiful picture of resting with God:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.Psalm 23:1-2
We also see this theme repeated in larger ways, such as God leading Israel to the Promised Land, which He called “my rest.” And it is exactly what the book of Revelation tells us will happen in the end. The rest and dwelling with God that 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
So our third pearl is the recurring biblical theme of rest. Throughout history, God has been (and still is) unfolding His plan of redemption and moving humanity toward finding our ultimate rest in Him.
Let’s circle back to the book of Hebrews. In chapter 4 the author builds on what he laid out in Chapter 3.
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.Hebrews 4:1
George Guthrie offers some helpful insight in his commentary on Hebrews:
Although the men of the wilderness failed to obtain the ‘rest’, the promise of it still remained for their children. Indeed the assumption is made that the promise is timeless and is available still to the writer and his readers, hence the further exhortation . . . The writer accepts without question that the promise of entering his rest remains.George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary, Hebrews 4
The author of Hebrews uses the ancient illustration of the Israelites entering the Promised Land to teach his current, living readers that the promise of entering God’s rest still applies to them. He’s urging them to hold fast to their faith in Christ despite the persecution they’re enduring. And he does so by reminding them that their forefathers fell in the desert—they died without entering God’s rest—because of their unbelief. And now his readers have a similar opportunity to enter into God’s rest if they will continue to believe and not turn away from the gospel they’ve received. And that is our fourth pearl: The promise of entering God’s rest still stands. It was still available to the original readers of the book of Hebrews, and it’s still available to us today.
The first two chapters of Hebrews teach that God sent his Son not to redeem the angels or the general masses, but specifically the children of Abraham.
For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.Hebrews 2:16-17
The language of family is used throughout the Bible, and the book of Hebrews is no exception. Here we see that the Father sent the Son who was made like his brothers to help the offspring of Abraham. This whole truth is presented in the language of family. The people of God are considered God’s family, His household. He is our Father. John 1:12 teaches that our faith in Jesus makes us children of God.
Here in Hebrews 2, the phrase “made like his brothers”means that Jesus, as God incarnate, was not only human, He was specifically born into the family line of Abraham. He was Jewish and came to help “the offspring of Abraham”—His brothers and sisters in that same family line. And here’s where things get really interesting. Because the Father sent the Son, and the Son was obedient even to death on the cross, the whole nature of God’s family changed.
Under the Sinai Covenant, the descendants of Abraham were the literal physical offspring of Abraham through Isaac, the Jewish people, the house of Israel. But under the New Covenant, that changed dramatically. Under the New Covenant,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.Galatians 3:38-29 (emphasis added)
The italicized idea in the passage above is a ground-breaking shift in God’s kingdom. Under the New Covenant, the descendants of Abraham include anyone who believes in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile. Membership in God’s family is no longer based on physical ancestry or ethnicity. We are members of God’s family through faith in His Son, Jesus.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”Galatians 4:4-6
Here is the language of family again. By faith, we are adopted as sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. What a mind-blowing truth! We are adopted into God’s household—into His presence, His rest—through faith. And this brings us to our fifth and final pearl. The definition of God’s family has changed.
Stringing the Pearls Together
Let’s take our five pearls and head back to the book of Hebrews to see how they are strung together. We’re already getting a deeper understanding of what the author is teaching. God’s promise to His people of entering His rest still stands, and the only requirement for entering is faith. Notice how 4:3 begins. “For we who have believed enter that rest…” It doesn’t say, “we who have kept the commandments” have entered God’s rest. This isn’t about behavior. Our membership in God’s family is based solely on believing. It’s all about having faith in Jesus who is YHWH, the God of Israel, incarnate as a man, who died on the cross for our sins.
For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”Hebrews 4:3-4
The author of Hebrews links the ideas of God resting on the seventh day of creation and God’s rest in the Promised Land. And, as we’re about to see, he’s going to link those ideas with our rest in Jesus. Let’s look at how closely these ideas are related.
|Creation / Eden||Salvation / Redemption|
|Eden was the culmination of God’s plan for creation.||Jesus is the culmination of God’s plan for redemption, which began in the Garden (Gen 3:15)|
|God completed his creation work and then He rested, never to pick it up again. It was finished.||Jesus completed his saving work and then He rested at the right hand of God, never to pick it up again. He declared from the cross, “It is finished.”|
|God rested in Eden, the place He specifically made for His family||God’s plan of redemption was specifically made for His family|
|We had nothing to do with it. Eden wasn’t our idea, and it wasn’t the result of our efforts.||We had nothing to do with it. Salvation wasn’t our idea, and it isn’t the result of our efforts.|
|Eden was a gift freely given by the Father through His power, love, and sovereignty.||Salvation is a gift freely given by the Father through His power, love and sovereignty|
Guthrie reveals how this passage in Hebrews is connected to the concept of Jesus as our rest:
What believers can now enter is none other than the same kind of rest which the Creator enjoyed when he had completed his works, which means that the rest idea is of completion and not of inactivity . . . It is important to note that the ‘rest’ is not something new which has not been known in experience until Christ came. It has been available throughout the whole of man’s history. This reference back to the creation places the idea on the broadest possible basis and would seem to suggest that it was part of God’s intention for man. ‘Rest’ is a quality which has eluded man’s quest, and in fact cannot be attained except through Christ. Jesus himself invited men to come to him to find rest.George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary, Hebrews 4
The author of Hebrews isn’t teaching that Christians today can gain access to the physical Promised Land that the Israelites entered 3,500 years ago. That’s not our goal, and it’s not what God is calling us to under the New Covenant. So what is the point of his illustration? If the faith of the Israelites determined whether they would enter the Promised Land, what does our faith in Christ allow us to enter? The book of Hebrews points out that the Promised Land was called God’s rest. That was our first pearl. So in what sense is God’s rest available to Christians today? In what sense does His promise still stand?
As Guthrie points out, it is Christ! Jesus is our rest. He said so Himself. Notice again the themes of family and rest in Christ’s words from Matthew 11:
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Matthew 11:27-30
Jesus is our rest. He is our Promised Land. He is our salvation. The author of Hebrews is saying that the promise of rest that God gave to Israel in the Promised Land remains available to us today in Christ. And he continues his illustration.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 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 4:8-10
In this passage, the author of Hebrews introduces another concept. The rest that he’s been talking about is explicitly referred to as a “Sabbath rest.” That certainly would have gotten the attention of his Jewish readers! And he adds that “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” In other words, in the same way that God rested from His creation work on the seventh day because it was completed, we who have entered God’s rest today can rest because Christ has completed our salvation. Here’s how Donald Hagner explains it in his commentary:
Following the pattern of exodus typology, the promised rest in the land of Canaan becomes a figure or foreshadowing of the spiritual rest available to the Christian . . . To interpret this rest in terms of a national-political restoration is to miss the author’s dramatic shift . . . toward an understanding of Christ as the fulfillment of the promises.Donald A. Hagner, New International Biblical Commentary, Hebrews
The rest we have available to us now if we believe —and that we will one day have in its fullness if we continue in our faith—is eternal life. An eternal membership in God’s family, resting in His presence. And there is only one way to enter that rest: through faith in Jesus. The book of Hebrews teaches that God’s promise to enter His Sabbath rest is still available to us through Christ. Our Sabbath rest is in Him. Yeshua is our Shabbat; Jesus is our rest, our Sabbath. The Torah Sabbath is not our Sabbath. That Shabbat pointed us to Christ, to the real Sabbath, to our ultimate rest.
If we are in Christ, we are not under the legal Sabbath observance commanded in the Law of Moses. This may be why, in the New Testament, the Mosaic regulations regarding the Sabbath are nowhere repeated or re-taught even though the rest of the Ten Commandments are. Sabbath-keeping in the Tanakh (Old Testament) wasn’t given because Israel had worked so hard and earned a rest every week. It was an unearned gift of rest from the Father to His people. The same is true under the New Covenant. Our rest in Jesus is an unearned gift from the Father. And keeping the Mosaic Sabbath regulations won’t contribute anything to that rest or our standing before God.
While keeping the Mosaic Sabbath observances is no longer required, it also has not been forbidden. If someone wants to keep Shabbat, they are free in Christ to do so as a matter of personal preference. Some say that it helps connect them to the roots of the faith. And that’s great. Because under the New Covenant, keeping the Mosaic Sabbath regulations is permitted but not required.
Many Torah-observant teachers promote the idea that keeping the Sabbath somehow contributes to the way God sees us or our salvation or our status in His family. But they’re completely missing what the book of Hebrews teaches. Christ is our Sabbath. Jesus is the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you, and I will give you rest.” I will give you Shabbat. And He’s also the one who said, “It is finished.” There’s nothing we could possibly bring to the table—no weekly rest or Torah observances or Jewish traditions—that could add a single thing to what Christ has already accomplished.
1 In fact, I would challenge you to work your way through the book of Hebrews and note all the “better than” and “superior to” comparisons. It’s quite revealing!