The book of Hebrews uses creative comparisons to emphasize to its largely Jewish audience that the weekly Sabbath is a reminder of more than the fact that God was the Israelites’ Creator and the One who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
The faithfulness of Moses and Jesus Christ is spoken of in the first six verses of the third chapter of Hebrews. Beginning in verse 7, Psalm 95 is quoted to document the failure of the first generation of Israel as a lesson to God’s people today. Disobedience because of unbelief was the main cause of their failure to enter the rest promised to them (verses 18-19).
The fourth chapter begins with an admonition to faith and obedience as a prerequisite for receiving the rest that is still available to God’s people. No one has yet entered that rest, and not because God hadn’t prepared it—for in fact, it was finished from the foundation of the world (Hebrews 4:3). That God rested on the seventh day from all His works indicates as much (verse 4).
David (in Psalm 95) spoke of a promise of rest long after Joshua led the second generation of Israel to rest in the Promised Land. This demonstrates that the rest fulfilled at the time of Joshua was only a type of a greater rest to come (Hebrews 4:6-8).
Rest for the people of God
Now we come to a controversial statement: “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (verse 9).
The Greek word translated “rest” in every other verse throughout Hebrews 3 and 4 is katapausis. But the word translated “rest” in Hebrews 4:9 is sabbatismos. This is the only New Testament occurrence of this word, and its meaning is fundamental to understanding this pivotal verse, which is the conclusion of everything previously said about “rest” beginning in Hebrews 3:7.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary states regarding the meaning of sabbatismos: “The words ‘sabbath rest’ translate the [Greek] noun sabbatismos, a unique word in the NT. This term appears also in Plutarch . . . for sabbath observance, and in four post-canonical Christian writings . . . for seventh day ‘sabbath celebration'” (p. 855, emphasis added).
The same resource continues with an explanation of the context: “The author of Hebrews affirms in Heb[rews] 4:3-11, through the joining of quotations from Gen[esis] 2:2 and Ps[alm] 95:7, that the promised ‘sabbath rest’ still anticipates a complete realization ‘for the people of God’ in the . . . end-time which had been inaugurated with the appearance of Jesus [Hebrews] 1:1-3 . . .
“The experience of ‘sabbath rest’ points to a present ‘rest’ (katapausis) reality in which those ‘who have believed are entering’ (4:3) and it points to a future ‘rest’ reality (4:11). Physical sabbath-keeping on the part of the new covenant believer as affirmed by ‘sabbath rest’ epitomizes cessation from ‘works’ (4:10) in commemoration of God’s rest at creation (4:4 = Gen[esis] 2:2) and manifests faith in the salvation provided by Christ.
“Heb[rews] 4:3-11 affirms that physical ‘sabbath rest’ (sabbatismos) is the weekly outward manifestation of the inner experience of spiritual rest (katapausis) in which the final . . . rest is . . . experienced already ‘today’ (4:7). Thus ‘sabbath rest’ combines in itself creation-commemoration, salvation-experience, and eschaton [end-time]-anticipation as the community of faith moves forward toward the final consummation of total restoration and rest” (pp. 855-856).
In summary, The Anchor Bible Dictionary decisively and correctly concludes that sabbatismos means keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. Therefore, Hebrews 4:9 stresses the need to continue to keep the Sabbath in a New Covenant context, even though the day also embodies all it meant under the Old Covenant.
Added meaning for the Sabbath
The book of Hebrews is addressed to Jewish Christians to explain the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. The Sabbath and circumcision have long been considered two of the cardinal tenets of Judaism, identifying the Jews as “the people of God.” However, by the time of Christ, the meaning of the Sabbath had become buried under a mountain of dos and don’ts.
The Sabbath had become a heavy burden as Sabbath-keeping degenerated into the bondage of legalism, perpetuated by the narrow-minded scribes and Pharisees. Jesus Christ condemned these human traditions and set the example of how to keep the Sabbath as God’s gift to mankind (Mark 2:27-28).
Elevation of the Sabbath
What could be more appropriate to the book of Hebrews than the elevation of the Sabbath to its full meaning and intent in the plan of God?
So the Sabbath retains its Old Covenant meanings that identify God’s specially sanctified people (“the people of God”) and point them back to God as Creator. Added to that is the New Covenant meaning of entering into another rest through Jesus Christ, fulfilled in type by the rest given to Israel during Joshua’s time (Hebrews 4:8).
This spiritual rest begins now in this life and reaches its consummation in the resurrection to eternal life at the return of Christ (Revelation 20:6). His return also signals the beginning of the millennial rest prophesied in the Old Testament.
The book of Hebrews cleverly weaves together three themes of rest—the rest promised to Israel from enemies, the physical rest of the weekly Sabbath, and the spiritual rest through Christ. The conclusion is that Sabbath-keeping is still necessary for the people of God, the New Testament Church.
As Hebrews 4:10 affirms, we must all labor to enter the spiritual rest and continue to keep the weekly Sabbath out of obedience to God and because of what it portrays in His great master plan.
A SIGN OF GOD’S PEOPLE
God reveals several important points about the Sabbath day in Exodus 31:13- 17: “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death . . .
“Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”
Note first the duration of the Sabbath as an identifying sign of God’s people: “Therefore the children of Israel shall . . . observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign . . . forever.”
How could God state that the Sabbath is to be kept forever if He planned to later abolish it? And how could He waive that requirement for the early Church—which, after all, was overwhelmingly Jewish? Obviously, either God is inconsistent or theologians’ claims about Him are inconsistent. Scripture assures us the problem isn’t with God (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17).
Notice also the purpose God gave for keeping the Sabbath: “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” God says keeping the Sabbath holy is a reminder to those He calls that He is the One who has sanctified them, setting them apart and establishing a special relationship with them as His people.
This passage also tells us that the Sabbath is a two-way sign. To those keeping the Sabbath, it identifies the true God—”the Lord [who] made the heavens and the earth”— as the One they worship. His people rest on that day, as He did, in acknowledgment that He is their Creator.
To God, His Sabbath distinguishes those who believe in keeping His commandments from those who rely on their own reasoning for determining how they should live and relate to Him. Those who keep holy His Sabbath day—the only day of the week God has ever set apart—proclaim, by their actions, their acceptance of Him as the supreme authority over how they should live, think and worship.