The writer of Hebrews spent the second chapter saying “Because we see the superiority and preeminence of Christ, let us believe right doctrine,” and warned his readers to guard against their faith drifting.
In chapter 3, the writer had a second “therefore” followed by five directives for our response to right doctrine. The first three are in chapter three:
- Follow Jesus as Preeminent Apostle and High Priest
- Resist the Pull of the Past
- Help Each Other Remain Faithful
Chapter 4 begins with the fourth directive
Directive Four: Enter Into God’s Rest
1. Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses?
2. But with whom was [God] angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?
3. And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter [God’s] rest? If not to those who were disobedient.
So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.Hebrews 3:16-19 (NRSV)
They were still God’s people, and they would remain forever redeemed from enslavement in Egypt. However, because of their hard hearts, their unbelief, their lack of confidence in God’s goodness, love for them, and ability to both empower them and intercede on their behalf, God would not permit them to enter the Promised Land.
The Promised Land represented the life of growth—as a nation and as a people of God—they were unfit, unable, to embark on. Without faith, they would not prevail in what God had in mind. They would quail at every step, fearful of the inhabitants, fearful of their own weakness, and weaknesses, rather than be confident in God. Every step would be taken hesitantly rather than in courageous hope.
For their own sake, God brought them back into the relative safety of the desert.
- They would live out their days in miraculous provision of manna from heaven, water from God’s intervention, sandals and cloaks that would remain miraculously intact.
- During this time, their children would be raised up in an insular world where they would come to know what it meant to be cared for and provided for by God.
- Worship of God would go unhindered, the sacrifices, rituals, and festivals would follow each other, year after year, in an orderly way, becoming cultural habits.
They had proven they were simply not ready to enter into the next phase of their development. That first generation of freed Hebrews would remain permanently arrested, in the wilderness.
Therefore, while the promise of entering God’s rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.Hebrews 4:1 (NRSV)
If we continue with the reassurance that “God’s rest” means the next part of God’s agenda—having already been delivered—then the writer was exhorting his audience as well as you and me today, not to miss out on the course of growth and harvest God has in mind for us in this life.
Promised Land as Salvation?
Here is where many people reading Hebrews can find themselves in a dilemma. If by “rest” the writer meant “eternal salvation,” then the example of the rebellious Israelites who could not enter the Promised Land becomes gravely problematical. Because it means that all three of the leaders God specifically chose to lead the people would, ultimately, not be saved, for all three died in the wilderness.
We have to sit with that for a moment. Miriam, Aaron, and Moses all died in the wilderness. By particular divine fiat, God even denied Moses (and Aaron) the privilege of entering Canaan.
On that very day [the day Moses recited the words of his song to the people] the Lord addressed Moses as follows:
“Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites for a possession;
you shall die there on the mountain that you ascend and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin;
because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to maintain my holiness among the Israelites.
“Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it—the land that I am giving to the Israelites.”God to Moses, Deuteronomy 32:48-52 (NRSV)
Perhaps someone might be willing to acquiesce to the (preposterous) notion that even Moses was denied eternal salvation, until we read about Jesus’ transfiguration.
And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.Mark 9:2-4 (NRSV)
How could Moses be there with Elijah, speaking with Jesus in the heavenlies, if Moses had not been granted eternal salvation?
The error comes in misunderstanding the full, apostolic teaching on salvation.
Salvation as Past, Present, and Future
Salvation as past tense, from the penalty of sin, is often referred to as justification. “Justification,” sometimes spelled out as “just as if I died,” means a person is “made right” or “just” before God on the basis of Jesus’ achievements, the cross, the resurrection. It can also mean redemption, though redemption has the double meaning as well of being delivered from slavery to freedom.
Salvation as present tense, from the power of sin, is often referred to as sanctification. Whereas justification happens in the moment a person puts their faith in Christ, sanctification is a process lasting one’s whole lifetime. It is a life of continuous confession, cleansing, repentance, and growth. It is a life of surrender, abiding every more fully in Jesus, being empowered by Jesus to “bear much fruit.”
Salvation as future tense, from the presence of sin, is often referred to as glorification. All Christians worldwide look forward to that great and glorious day when Jesus returns to inaugurate the resurrection. It will be a time of endings and beginnings, when God completely cleanses the entire cosmos of all evil and its ancillaries of sin, decay, corruption, and death, then brings forth the new heavens and earth.
Seen this way, we can understand the writer better. God’s act of redemption included two parts—deliverance from Egypt and deliverance to Canaan. Later, the prophets would speak of the future final fulfillment of all the earth brought up to maturity under God.
|Deliverance from Egypt||Deliverance to the Promised Land||World Peace and Prosperity|
|Justification | Redemption||Sanctification||Glorification|
|Exodus – Deuteronomy||Joshua||The Prophets (namely Isaiah and Zechariah)|
|Rescued from enslavement, harsh living conditions, crushing despair||Empowered to conquer Canaan, rebuild, flourish and prosper as a people under God||The entire earth brought under the direct governance of God as Lord and King|
|Supernaturally powerful liberation, supernaturally powerful provision in the wilderness, giving of the Law, the tabernacle, and the Covenant||Supernatural empowering to conquer, build, plant and reap, fill the land, organize from twelve tribes to one nation, establish Mount Zion, kings, a temple||God’s supernatural presence on earth as king, Mount Zion’s destiny fulfilled as world center of government and worship|