Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Guarding the Entrance to the Place of RestHebrews 4:12-13
by Robert Van Kooten
Hebrews 4:12-13 is a passage which raises questions in the minds of many commentators and those involved in biblical interpretation. Most people, when they talk about these verses, isolate them from the rest of the passage. I am sure that most of us have heard sermons, or participated in bible studies, in which these two verses were detached from the rest of the book of Hebrews and were used to teach something about the power and judgment of the word of God.
There is certainly nothing wrong with using these verses in that particular way. Yet did you ever ask yourself, "Why did God put these two verses at this point in the book of Hebrews?" When we read the surrounding verses about the sabbath rest of God and about Jesus our great high priest, these two verses about the word of God seem to be out of place. However, when we look at the text more closely, we can see that God has placed these verses very carefully in the text. In fact, he has a very important reason for placing them right where he did.
In chapter 3 of the book of Hebrews, the author compares his recipients to the Israelite generation in the wilderness. He warns them not to grumble as the former generation did when God put difficult circumstances into their lives. In chapter 4, he gives the people hope despite the difficult circumstances. He tells them that even though the previous generation is no longer with us, there is still a promised rest ahead for God's people (4:1).
The author better explains all of this by directing our attention to two other places of rest in scripture. The first place of rest he mentions is in the second part of verse 3 and all of verse 4. Here the author focuses our attention on God's finished work of creation, and he mentions the rest that God enjoyed after he had finished his work of creation. He even quotes Genesis 2:2 when he writes, "And on the seventh day God rested from all his work." The "rest" which the author refers to looks backward and forward. It looks backward by referring to the Sabbath rest that God's people (Adam and Eve) once enjoyed after the creation in the book of Genesis. It looks forward because this Sabbath rest once enjoyed in the Garden is a picture of the sabbath rest that God's people will someday enjoy when they are with him in heaven.
Yet when we read verses 5-6, the author makes it clear that some people in the past never entered that rest. Even though they had the gospel preached to them they did not enter because of their disobedience. The mention of disobedience directs us back again to the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve enjoyed the Sabbath rest of God in the Garden that he created. Yet because of their disobedience they could not continue to enjoy that rest. In Genesis 3:24, we read that Adam was driven out of the place of rest and that a flaming sword was placed at the entrance of the place of rest, preventing him from entering. If Adam the sinner had tried to reenter, he would have been destroyed. Adam needed a savior to reenter God's place of rest.
The second place of rest mentioned in Hebrews 4 is in verse 8. Here the author reminds us that Joshua did not give God's people rest. In drawing our attention to Joshua, the author reminds us again of the picture of God's final rest that he gave to his people in the Old Testament. The Old Testament Israel referred to in Hebrews 3:7-11 wandered through the wilderness in long anticipation of entering God's rest. They were promised a land of milk and honey in which they could live in peace from their enemies and glorify God and enjoy him forever. Yet, says the author of Hebrews, that was not the final rest because God was still speaking of another day (4:8). The land of Canaan was only a shadow of God's final rest that he has for his people in heaven. It was a sketch so that God's people could see what God's final rest would someday be like when it was completely fulfilled.
In the Hebrew language Joshua's name means "savior." Joshua, Israel's savior, tried to lead the people into God's rest. In Joshua 5, we read that Israel was ready to enter the land of Canaan, but in verse 13 Joshua runs into a problem. Joshua meets a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua asks him, "Are you for us or against us?" The man answers, "Neither, but as commander of the Lord's army I have now come." Joshua knows that because of his own disobedience, he cannot pass through the sword. Just as Adam needed a savior, Joshua needed a savior. Joshua then falls on his knees and worships the commander of the Lord's army. Only after he worships the leader of God's army is he allowed to pass through.
Later in the book of Joshua, we read that Joshua leads the people into the promised land. Yet Hebrews 4:9 reminds us that this was not the final resting place for the people of God. Joshua could lead them into God's rest, but he could not lead them into God's final rest. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us that there still remains a sabbath rest for the people of God.
Clearly the author is driving us to a greater rest. He first reminded us of the sabbath rest that God's people enjoyed before the fall of man in verse 4. He then reminds us of the earthly rest that Joshua gave to God's people in verse 8. Now he is driving us to the greater rest that God has for all his people when they someday will go to live with him forever. And how do God's people enter that rest? What stands in the door blocking the entrance to the land of rest?
In the first land of rest mentioned, a flaming sword guards the entrance. In the second land of rest mentioned, a man with a sword blocks the entrance. And what about the sabbath rest that still remains? What must God's people face before they pass through the entrance into the land of heaven?
The author makes it clear in verse 12. "The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword." Blocking our entrance into the land of rest is the written word of God. The written word of God that we carry under our arm into church on Sundays. The written word of God that we read daily for our devotions. The written word of God blocks our entrance into the land of rest. According to verse 12, we will be judged by this word. We will be required to keep every jot and tittle of the word before we can enter.
There is no hiding from this judge. The verse goes on to tell us that this judge penetrates to know our deepest thoughts and the attitudes of our hearts. It does more damage than any earthly sword could ever do, because it not only divides flesh, it also divides our soul, our joints, and our marrow. No earthly sword can judge like this sword.
There is no part of us that can hide from this judgment. The author emphasizes his point in verse 13, "Everything is uncovered before the eyes of him to which everything is laid to account."
With this kind of judge, what hope do we have of ever enjoying God's promised Sabbath rest? How could we ever withstand such a judgment so that we could enter into God's holiness? The author of Hebrews tells us in verse 14. "Therefore we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens." We have a high priest who has passed through the sword of judgment for us and has gone into the land of rest. Jesus has already passed through the sword by dying on the cross. Adam could not enter the rest because he needed a savior. Joshua could not give the people final rest because he needed a savior. We cannot enter the rest because we need a savior! Jesus is that savior! He has gone through the judgment of the word and has taken the punishment for us! He has done that so that we can pass through!
How could Jesus pass through that kind of judgment? None of us by our works could pass through such a sword. Yet, in the second part of verse 15, the author tells us how Jesus did: "We have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin."
Jesus is there because he was righteous to pass through. Jesus was obedient to every part of the written word of God. He obeyed every jot and tittle. He alone is worthy to pass through the sword and enter the land of heaven. Because Jesus has passed through, we can pass through.
In these verses, the author of Hebrews has driven us to our savior. Jesus is the savior that Adam was waiting for and to whom Joshua bowed. Jesus is the savior that enables us to rest from our work (4:10). Jesus as our high priest has done the work for us. We are now at rest from our works and resting in his righteousness. He has passed through the sword and has already spiritually brought us into the land of rest without blemish and without stain. We now eagerly wait to go completely home to the rest that is forever.
Rev. Robert Van Kooten is Pastor of the Sovereign Grace Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Oak Harbor, Washington, and is on the board of Doirectors of Northwest Theological Seminary.