For the past week and a half, we have studied the Sabbath rest that Hebrews 4 promises to the people of God. This rest, as we have seen, is the same rest as God’s own rest in which He enjoys Himself and His work. We will also enjoy God and His work when we enter His rest.
Chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews are filled with warnings about coming into God’s rest. The author tells us that the rest of Canaan was only a type of the full rest to come (4:8). He also warns us that, like the first generation that left Egypt, the new covenant people of God includes unbelievers who disobey the Lord, who will be cut off from His rest (v. 2). With this background, verse 11 tells us to strive to enter God’s rest lest we fall away like earlier generations of God’s people did.
The word translated as “strive” in verse 11 means to concentrate one’s energies on the achievement of a goal. This kind of diligence is the opposite of the attitude that characterized the first generation of Israelites. The church must not follow the example of old covenant Israel and disobey the Word of God. Rather, we must diligently believe on Christ, or we will fall as the first generation of Israelites fell.
Concerning this verse, John Owen writes that the circumstances surrounding our entry into God’s rest are similar to those of the first generation that left Egypt. Just like the Hebrews, we will encounter difficulties such as fear, exhaustion, human enemies, demonic opposition, and various other kinds of persecution that test our faith. Diligent faith and obedience are necessary in order to withstand such difficulties and enter God’s rest.
One final question remains: Does Hebrews 4:11, in commanding us to strive to enter God’s rest, contradict Hebrews 4:3, which says that “we who have believed enter that rest”? The answer is no. First of all, the rest we have now in Christ is only the firstfruits of the rest to come. The fullness of God’s rest includes, but will be greater than, the rest we experience now on earth. Secondly, the grammar of 4:3 shows that it does not contradict 4:11. The present tense verb in 4:3 can also be translated, “We who have believed are entering God’s rest.” The Christian life is a journey; our initial confession of faith sets us on our way toward God’s rest but only genuine faith guarantees entry. Trials necessitate that we strive in faith (4:11) so that the authenticity of our faith may be proven.
It is easy to trust God when everything is going our way. Difficult times and difficult people make it harder to maintain this same trust. God brings trials into our lives to wean us from trust in ourselves and make us cling to Him alone. The next time you experience a trial, ask God to show you how to trust Him and how to trust Him alone.