Joshua, Jesus and the Believer's Rest

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 22, 1998

Hebrews 4:1-10

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If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews  4.  As you’ll remember our study of Hebrews has reminded us that Hebrews 1 and 2 focus on the theme of the superiority of Christ.  Christ is better than the angels.  Jesus is better than the angels.  Chapter 3 sets out Jesus’ superiority to Moses.  The book of Hebrews is addressing a congregation made up of Jewish Christians, some of whom are being tempted to go back to their Judaism, and so a very important and helpful argument to deploy in that case is to point out Jesus’ superiority to Moses, the hero of the Hebrew people.  Chapter 3 points out that though Moses was a servant in the Lord’s house, Jesus is the Son over that house.  And though Moses failed to bring the people into the land, Jesus’ work has completed the bringing of His people into rest.  That argument is made in Hebrews 3, verses 7 through 19.  Chapter 3 also points out that we are God’s house if we do not harden our hearts.  Chapter 3 at the very end focuses on the experience of Israel in the wilderness where they were disobedient and did not trust in the Lord.  And thus forfeited the rest that they would have had.  They wandered for forty years in the wilderness because of that unbelief.  And so it’s a warning against an unbelieving heart in this local congregation and hence for us. 

So, in chapter 3 Jesus and Moses’ faithfulness and honor are highlighted.  It’s not that Moses’ faithfulness is discounted, it’s simply that Jesus’ faithfulness is deemed worthy of more honor.  It’s also pointed out that Moses was a faithful servant.  But after all He was a faithful servant in the Lord’s house, whereas Jesus is the faithful Son in the house.  And in light of all that we were exhorted to fix our thoughts on Jesus.  And you can see again how important and how relevant an argument this would have been for people in this situation; Jewish Christians, some of whom were tempted to go back to their Judaism.  Fix our thoughts on Jesus because He represents God before men.  You know the function of an apostle is to represent God’s words to man, and so in that sense Jesus is an apostle.  Fix our thoughts on Jesus, we are told, who is the Apostle and High Priest of our confession in Hebrews, chapter 3, verse 1.  And He represents men before God.  He’s the High Priest.  So Christ is the Mediator on behalf of God to man, and He is the Mediator on behalf of His people to the Lord.  So we’re to fix our thoughts on Him because only those who live in consistency with their profession, that is, they continue to trust in Him, are part of God’s house. 

And that comparison in Hebrews, chapter 3, between Moses and Christ leads the author to contemplate a little bit the hardheartedness of the people of God in the wilderness.  And He does that at the end of chapter 3.  And that brings Him to the discussion of the rest.  The rest of Canaan, and what the rest of Canaan symbolizes.  So let’s look at God’s word here in Hebrews, chapter 4, beginning in verse 1: 

Hebrews 4:1-10 

Father, we thank You for this passage and as we contemplate it today we ask that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment, that we would see with seeing eyes and hear with hearing ears the truth that you have for us in the Scriptures.  We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.   

Chapter 4 of Hebrews opens up with a discussion of the believer’s rest, and that invites a comparison between the two Joshuas.  The Joshua of the Old Testament and the Joshua of the New Testament.  The Joshua whose job it was to bring the children of Israel out of the wilderness and into the promised land, and the Lord Jesus who indeed brings His children out of the wilderness and into the land of rest.  And here God is calling us to perseverance and to priorities.  He’s not just telling old stories from the Old Testament because they are interesting or because they have interesting theological points.  He is telling this because he is urging us to perseverance and to priorities.  In fact, we might even say He’s calling us here to perseverance in our priorities.  And of course He’s talking about spiritual priorities at this point.   

I. Christians must perservere.

Now I’d like to point to two things in this passage as we look at it.  First of all, if you look at verses 1 through 7 they are basically an exertion to us to persevere.  There is a concern on the part of the author that there are some in his congregation who are not going to persevere if they continue in the course that they are now taking.  And he is calling us to persevere in our faith.  That is, to persevere in our trust of the Lord, and also to persevere in our faithfulness, in our loyalty to the Lord.  And I’d like to look at this passage with you because there are a number of interesting things. 

Look again at what he says again in verse 1: “Therefore, let us fear if while a promise remains of entering his rest any one of you may seem to have come short of it.  Here we have an admonition for us as Christians to continue to seek the rest that God has prepared for us.  Now the definition of the rest is looking back to Hebrews, chapter 3, verses 7 through 19, where the land of Canaan was the target, was the goal for the children of Israel while they are in the wilderness.  And the author of Hebrews notices immediately that many of the children of Israel, in fact all of the fighting men of an entire generation, did not enter into that rest.  And he is so concerned that there may be some in this congregation that are going to miss the rest that the Lord Jesus has prepared for them.  And so he is urging them to persevere so that they might enter the rest.  Phillip Hughes says this: “True rest is the enjoyment by the preacher of perfect harmony with his Creator, and it can therefore only be rest in God.  As such it is totally incompatible with unbelief and disobedience toward God; hence, the inability of the rebellious Israelites to enter into God’s rest.”  Just as unbelief and disobedience kept an entire generation out of the promised land, the author of Hebrews is concerned that there are some, even some in this Christian congregation who are not persevering in such a way to enter into the rest that God has prepared for his children.  And he’s concerned about that. 

And we face that same struggle today.  There are many friends that we have, even within the bounds of the professing church who do not really seem to really seem to be concerned about that rest.  They are trying to find rest and contentment and satisfaction in all manner of things, whether it be material wealth and prosperity, whether it be health, whether it be beauty, whether it be influence, whatever else.  It may even be their families that they are attempting to find rest and contentment in, but they have stopped seeking to find that rest and contentment which alone God can provide and can only be found by trusting and resting in the Lord Jesus Christ.  And so the author of Hebrews here in verse 1 says: “Be careful that not one of you come short.  Be careful that none of you come short.  Let us be careful that none fall short.  He is concerned about an attitude of complacency and unconcern that might lead to a missing of the destination that God has prepared for His children. 

Now by the way, isn’t it interesting in verse 2 that He explicitly says that the good news was preached to the Old Testament saints.  Look at verse 2: “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.”  Here he says that the good news was preached to the Old Testament saints.  This is something that covenant theologians have stressed for many, many years.  That the gospel was preached in the promises to the Old Testament saints.  So that all believers in all ages are saved in the same way.  They are saved by the gospel.  The Old Testament saints were saved by believing in the gospel as it was set forth in the promises.  New Testament saints like ourselves are saved by believing in the gospel as it was set forth in the fulfillment of the promises in Jesus Christ.  But it’s all the same gospel.  There are not two ways of salvation.  There’s one way of salvation, and it’s been the same in all ages.  And here it is in bold relief in Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 2, that they heard the good news preached to them.  In fact, he doesn’t even say it that way.  Notice how he says it.  For we have had the good news preached to us just like it was preached to them.  That’s how he says it.  Sometimes you will talk with people and they will ask you a question like this.  Were people justified by faith in the Old Testament like they are in the New Testament?  Of course, that’s not how Paul asks that question.  Paul asks the question this way.  Are we justified by faith in the New Testament like they were in the Old Testament.  What’s Paul’s great example of how you prove from the Bible that justification is by faith alone?  Abraham.  It’s Old Testament.  Paul, when he wants to prove to you that justification is by faith, he take you to Abraham in Genesis, chapter 15 and chapter 17.  That’s how he proves justification by faith, okay?  The idea that justification was not by faith in the Old Testament never would have entered into Paul’s mind. 

Now the question might have  entered well is it the same way now as it as then?  But he never would have said well we know that justification by faith is now.  I wonder if they were justified by faith, too, back then?  No.  He goes to the Old Testament to prove justification by faith.  Now, and so also the author of Hebrews, it never enters into his mind that they did not have the gospel preached to them.  He says no, we have had the gospel preached to us just like it was preached to them.  So that’s a very important point for understanding the continuity of salvation. 

Then, the author quickly points out that even though they had heard the gospel in the promises of God in the Old Testament, yet it did not profit them.  Why?  Why did it not profit them?  Because, he says, their hearing was not united by faith in those who heard.  In other words, there was an unbelief, there was a lack of faith.  They failed to continue to trust in God.  And that’s of course one of the central themes of the story of the wilderness wandering.  The people of God who have been brought out of Egypt with mighty miracles did not continue to believe in God.  Frankly, isn’t that one of the things that boggles our mind?  We can’t believe that people who saw water stand up as walls and walk through the Red Sea on dry land could possibly have not trusted in God in the wilderness.  I mean it just boggles your mind.  And yet we do it.  I mean, he raised us from the dead spiritually and made us one with Christ, and yet we find ourselves wondering and not trusting when we find ourselves in hard spots. We struggle with the same kinds of things, and that’s why the author of Hebrews is using this illustration with this congregation, because you see it’s the same things in these Christians.  The Lord has done great things in their lives.  He’s transformed their lives, he’s drawn them to Christ, and yet he sees them wandering.  And so he calls on them to take heed of the story that is found in the story of Israel in the wilderness.  And he reminds that by unbelief and lack of faith and through disobedience. 

You remember the children of Israel were disobedient in the wilderness as well.  They functionally denied God’s work ship, his sovereignty by their disobedience.  And that combination of unbelief and disobedience led to what?  If you look at verse 7 you will see it led to a hardening of hearts.  And so he says to these Christians, he says okay, so today don’t you harden your hearts like they did in the wilderness.  Don’t you reject the Lord.  Don’t you harden your heart deserting the Lord, even if it’s gradually and indiscernibly.  Don’t allow your heart to become hardened to the Lord.  He’s calling us to persevere and he’s calling us to persevere particularly against three enemies. 

First of all the enemy of temptation.  You remember its the circumstances of Israel that keeps undermining their faith.  By the way that shows you the weakness of the faith, because saving faith is ultimately not supposed to be circumstantial.  In other words, saving faith is not supposed to be strong when things are going well, and fall apart when things go bad.  Faith is supposed to be in the object of the Lord.  The Lord doesn’t change and that means even if your circumstances do, your faith shouldn’t change if you’re faith is anchored in the Lord.  But temptation in circumstances is, of course, a test of faith.  And you find our in those circumstances how - it’s not so much how strong your faith is, it’s how focused your faith is in the Lord.  If your faith is focused on what’s around you, just like Peter, you sink. If your faith is focused on the Lord, you stay afloat even among those circumstances.  So that’s their first enemy in perseverance or the temptations that they face and circumstances. 

But also there are those remaining sinful, corrupting patterns that you have a challenge with in perseverance.  Just like the children of Israel brought all sorts of sinful habits out of Egypt with them into the wilderness and those habits were hard to break, like idolatry.  Okay?  They’ve been in Egypt for 400 years in the midst of a land if idolaters and unfortunately they brought that idolatry out of Egypt with them.  And Moses didn’t have to be gone but a few days before they were ready to make a golden calf and worship it.  Okay.  And they brought that kind of remaining sinful corruption into the wilderness with them, and we as Christians have to fight that same kind of remaining corruption.  But the author here is also concerned that they be on guard against the enemy of complacency for neglect.  The Christian life is not a passive life.  Growing in grace is not a passive thing.  It is true that God must do His work in us.  But it’s interesting that this book, Hebrews, ends with the benediction which stresses that in the Christian life we grow both as God is at work in us, and when we are doing that which God has called us to do.  Let me turn you to that benediction.  If you have your Bibles, you’ll see it in Hebrews 13, verse 20: “Now the God of peace.”  Skip the next clause because I want you to see where he’s going.  Skip down to verse 21.  “Now the God of peace equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ.”  Now isn’t that interesting?  “The God of peace equip you to do His will.”  So the blessing he’s pronouncing on you is that the God of peace would equip you to do His will, and then he even more stresses God’s part in that, working in us that which is well pleasing in His sight.  So on the one hand He blesses you by saying may God help you to do His will and may He work in you that which is well pleasing in His sight. 

Now do you see the two sides of our sanctification there?  We are to do His will.  God has created us, Paul says in Ephesians 2, to do good works.  But God is at work in us in order that we might do those good works.  So the Christian life is both active and passive.  That is, God is working in us - passive.  But we are working to do God’s will - active.  So growth in grace involves us exerting some energy and that means if we are neglectful, if we are unconcerned about that we’re not just going to be sucked along in a vortex towards holiness.  We’ve got to apply some energy there, and the author of Hebrews is concerned that these people don’t seem to realize that.  And that neglect can really land them in a dangerous place.  So he exhorts us to faith and faithfulness here in verses 1 through 7.   

II. Christians desire the eternal rest to come.

Then in verses 8 through 10, in comparing the two Joshuas, the Joshua of the Old Testament and the Joshua of the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ he reminds us that Christians ask for and desire after the rest to come.  Look at verse 8.  If Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken of another day after that.  So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  For the one who has entered His rest, has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.  And so in verse 8, what He’s stressing is that Joshua’s rest was not the ultimate rest.  Even though Joshua brought the children of Israel into the land of Canaan, that was not the ultimate rest which God had prepared for His people.  He says explicitly there remains a Sabbath rest.  Israel had a tendency toward satisfaction once they were in the land.  They were satisfied with the land, and they took it in some cases as the ultimate expression of God’s rest.  And the author of Hebrews quote of Psalm 95 and especially his emphasis on the word “today” is an indication that there was more to come and that even spiritual Israelites understood that there was more to come, that the land of Canaan was not the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises for Israel. 

Now obviously our dispensational friends get a little uncomfortable when you say that.  But look, the Psalmist said that.  I didn’t say it, Calvin didn’t say it, the Psalmist said that.  Today.  I mean the author of Hebrews, under divine inspiration, quotes Psalm 95 saying “today” as indicating that Canaan was not the ultimate rest for the people of God.  Canaan, the land of conquest, was a type.  It was a foreshadowing, it was an anticipation of a future, a greater, a new covenant rest that the people of God were going to experience. 

In the Scriptures in fact there are many pictures of the rest which God has created for His people.  In creation, the Garden is the picture of that rest.  In the Old Testament war of redemption Canaan is a picture of that rest.  In the new covenant the resurrection and ascension of Christ points forward to the establishment of that rest and in the consummation in the book of Revelation the heavenly Jerusalem and the new heavens and the new earth show us the ultimate fulfillment of that rest.  Phillip Hughes again says this: “The promise of entering into God’s rest extends far beyond the historical event of the entry of the Israelites into Canaan under Joshua’s leadership.  The possession of the land of Canaan was indeed a fulfillment of the promise.”  And of course that’s the promise to Abraham.  Okay?  But only in a proximate this worldly sense the perspective of faith discerns its ultimate fulfillment in the entry into a heavenly country.  And of course the author of Hebrews will talk about this in Hebrews, chapter 11, when he said that Abraham was looking for a city which had foundations whose architect and builder was God, not just an earthly country, but a heavenly country.  And he will talk about the heavenly Jerusalem in Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 22. 

And so the author says there is remaining a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  And again what he is saying is that our very celebration of the Lord’s Day reminds us that there is an ultimate day of rest that we have not yet entered into.  And so he’s asking us, is that our focus?  Are we still desirous of entering into that rest?  Do our priorities show that our ultimate goal is earthly rest, or do we want the heavenly rest?  Christ’s rest is the final spiritual rest.  That is our motivation to persevere because we want to enter into that rest.  That is the land of Canaan that we want to experience. 

And it is only, of course, he says in verse 9 for the people of God.  There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  It’s only for those united to Christ.  It’s only for those who trust in Christ.  What’s the application of all this?  What’s he getting at?  Well, he’s getting at this.  Press towards the rest.  Don’t be satisfied with something short of the rest.  Don’t give up on the rest.  That’s our goal.  That’s where we’re headed.  Malcolm Muggeridge once said, and this is such a poignant phrase: “The only ultimate tragedy is that a man makes this earth his home.”  The only ultimate tragedy is that a man makes this earth his home. 

Have you all been watching as some of the snippets of Madeline Murray O’Hare’s diaries have been released?  This is the woman who launched all the attacks on prayer in school, the President of the American Atheists Society.  She’s been involved in every insidious attack on religion since the 1960's.  Her marriage failed.  Her son became a Christian and goes around  witnessing for Christ.  I mean, she just felt that in every area of life she had failed what she wanted to accomplish.  And her diaries have come out, and they are poignant.  One of the things that she mentions over and over is that she did not feel loved.  And six times in her diary she says “someone, somewhere out there love me please.”  It is heartbreaking.  She had rejected God, but she desperately felt the need for love, and she never did feel like she got it.  Apparently in her marital relations, her family relations or even in her relations with her colleagues.  In fact, throughout this book of her diaries, it’s clear that she didn’t trust any of her colleagues in the association of atheists that she was working with.  It is absolutely heartbreaking.  The only ultimate tragedy is that a man can make this earth his home.  Reject that rest, there is no ultimate rest.  Is fellowship with God, is enjoyment of God our ultimate goal?  Is that the rest that we want. 

The shorter Catechism begins with this question.  What is the chief end of man?  And it answers the chief end of man is to glorify and enjoy God forever.  With that perspective we’re pressing towards the ultimate goal of fellowship with God forever.  Is that still our goal?  Are we pressing towards that rest?  Martin Luther once said , speaking about the way people will want peace in this life rather than the righteousness of God in this life, and thus they never actually find real peace, “It is due to the perversity of men that they seek first peace and then righteousness and consequently they find no peace.”  What Luther was saying is that you’ll pursue the righteousness of God — just like Jesus said.  Seek first the kingdom and its righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.  Luther said if you’ll pursue the righteousness of God, you’ll find the rest of God.  You’ll find the peace of God, you’ll find that peace which passes all understanding.  But if you seek for something else, you’ll miss it. 

You see the problem is not that we want too much.  It’s that we’re satisfied with too little.  We’re satisfied with the token rest and satisfaction and temporal contentments of this world, which always have diminishing returns and always disappoint, instead of pressing towards that ultimate rest that God has prepared for us.  The author of Hebrews wants this congregation to stop and reflect for a minute and say are we really pressing towards that rest?  And then He urges us, press towards that rest to come.  Don’t fall short of that rest.  And that’s important for us even today. Let’s pray. 

Heavenly Father, we all lose sight of the ultimate target.  Remind us again today that our rest is yet to come and help us to press towards it.  We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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