The Sabbath Now and Not Yet
It is common for theologians to speak of the Christian life as a pilgrimage. Struggling saints make their way through this life with its joys and tears, knowing that the heavenly city awaits them at the end. A life of toil and labor will be followed by an eternity of rest.
The sabbatical pattern of six days of work, followed by a day of rest from our labors, is found in the creation account (Gen. 2:1–3). Observation of the Sabbath (resting from labor on the seventh day of the week) is also commanded of Israel in the law given them at Mount Sinai (see Ex. 20:8–11). Entrance into the Promised Land (in Canaan) is also tied to this sabbatical pattern of working and resting, as the Israelites would enter a land flowing with milk and honey, which, in turn, was a type of a heavenly city (Heb. 11:10). Fruitful vines, deep wells, large families, and deliverance from Israel’s neighboring enemies were promised to Israel upon the condition of obedience to the law of Moses, including the observation of the Sabbath. But these earthly blessings were not an end in themselves — they pointed to a heavenly city with blessings beyond human comprehension
(see Rev. 21).
Through the observation of the Jewish Sabbath, and through the hope of dwelling in the Land of Promise where there would be great blessings, the people of God were pointed to heaven, to those eternal blessings and endless rest from all the labors of life, as God had promised them. It was not until the coming of Jesus Christ that the full meaning of this was made plain.
The author of Hebrews unpacks this for us in Hebrews 3:7–4:13, quoting that portion of Psalm 95 (vv. 7–11) in which God warns the people of Israel not to harden their hearts and be barred entrance into Canaan. But Israel did not believe God’s promise, and when the people hardened their hearts, they were forced to wander for forty years through the wilderness of the Sinai before entering the Promised Land.
Beginning in Hebrews 3:14, the author sets out the contrast that enables us to make sense of this tragic episode in redemptive history: “For we have come to share in Christ.” From the vantage point of the coming of the Messiah, we see that it was Israel’s unbelief that brought judgment upon the generation that left Egypt under Moses. They died in the desert without entering the Land of Promise, because they did not believe that God could (or would) give them what He promised. But with the coming of Jesus, we see how Israel’s unbelief does not alter the Christian’s hope of entering the Sabbath rest.
As we read Hebrews 4:1: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands,” and although people may fear they have disqualified themselves through disobedience, the fact remains that “good news came to us just as to them” (v. 2). If we have believed the good news, “we who have believed enter that rest” (v. 3). It is through faith in Christ, and not through our own good works, that we receive what God has promised. Because of the doing and dying of Jesus, He has won for us what the Israelites could not accomplish for themselves. As Jesus Himself promises us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
And yet, even though we entered God’s promised rest when we ceased from trusting in our own good works, we observe the Lord’s Day (the Christian Sabbath) as a festive day of rest that foreshadows the glories of an eternal Sabbath yet to come. We cease from our labors on the Lord’s Day not only to give thanks for what Jesus has already done for us but also in anticipation of that which remains to be fulfilled. We read in verse 10: “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”
Even though many Israelites of that next generation after Moses believed the promise and entered Canaan, this was not the end of the story. “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” (vv. 8–9). While we have already entered our rest in Christ as we cease from striving to enter heaven on the basis of our good works, there still remains the consummation of the Sabbath promise — eternal rest in the heavenly city in the presence of the blessed Trinity.
And so the author of Hebrews can exhort his reader: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (v. 11) through trusting in Jesus Christ. In doing this, we will not be like the unbelieving Israelites, who were disobedient to God and who perished in the desert under the hand of God’s judgment. When we believe God’s promise, even now we enter that rest. But one day our earthly pilgrimage will have come to an end, and we will enter that heavenly city and enjoy the eternal Sabbath rest that God has promised us.