The “entering into His rest” of Hebrews 4:1 is paralleled with Jesus’ words in the Gospel for the day: “How difficult it is for those having riches to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Love of riches or material wealth certainly bars us from God’s kingdom and eternal rest. They weigh us down miserably. Israel’s idolatry, however, was not only about the love of money. They not only trusted in the material riches of the world, but they also refused to listen to “the voice” that called them out of Egypt and promised them a resting place in time (Promised Land) and in eternity (the heavenly Jerusalem). Israel’s unbelief and hardness of heart is the example of unbelief (4:11) for us.
In our preaching, we can stretch the unbelief of Israel out as far as is necessary for our people, painting in broad strokes. We ought to remember, however, that the sheep we tend are not goats. C. F. W. Walther reminds us to avoid describing a Christian in a way that does not apply to all Christians. If we tell our people that they don’t listen to God’s voice and they’re just like Israel who’ve hardened their hearts, we’ve described them in a way that is not true of the Christian. You may have a goat in the lot who by all accounts hates God and His word, and who’s hardened his or her heart to “the voice.” You may even have that someone in mind. The description of Israel’s unbelief is condemnation enough, without having to connect all the dots for them, if you’ve described Israel’s unbelief clearly enough.
But mysteriously preachers weren’t sent to the goats; you were sent to feed the sheep. A careful study of the writer’s rhetoric and conformity to the Holy Spirit’s voice in this text, will save us from equating our people with the people of Israel. We will preach the full force of law, the warning against idolatry and the way in which we can and do ignore God’s voice, but we will most especially want to hold the promise of God’s rest before their eyes, knowing that those who have listened and believed the promise have already entered God’s rest in Christ [εἰσερχόμεθα γὰρ εἰς [τὴν] κατάπαυσιν οἱ πιστεύσαντες] (4:3).
This text also adds to the complexity of this Sunday. One could quite narrowly focus on the love of God versus the love of money, as the Gospel and Old Testament readings suggest. But Hebrews adds to this week’s proclamation the scandalizing character of the Gospel: “For we were evangelized just like them” [γάρ ἐσμεν εὐηγγελισμένοι καθάπερ κἀκεῖνοι], and yet “the word of hearing did not help those who heard, because it was not mingled together with faith [my translation].” You will need to do some work on this complicated Greek sentence in 4:2 with your lexicon and in your commentaries. I’m partial to understanding 4:3 within the worshiping community, and as an explanation of Augustana VIII, concerning the church as a corpus permixtum. It refers to Israel, but applies also to the writer’s audience and to us. The church is filled with those who are among the hearing, but who are not themselves believing, and therefore have “fallen short of the rest” (4:1). They are still in their sins and relying on their own works.
However you come out on the translation of 4:2, the text as a whole teaches us that the word of God is powerful in itself, but that it only helps those who believe it. Paul calls the Gospel “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:17). The writer of Hebrews in 4:12-13 does the same, calling ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ “living, energetic, and sharper than any two-edged sword.” But how do we preach the Gospel that is powerful without preaching merely about the Gospel’s power. In other words, we’re given by our Lord to give the gifts, not merely talk about them. A brief warning at this point: I’d avoid going down the rabbit hole of trying to describe why the Gospel is effective in some and not in others, or why some reject it and others don’t. That’s all speculation and theology of glory, as Luther was wont to say.
The power and the real gift is found in the ἐπαγγελία εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν κατάπαυσιν αὐτοῦ (4:1), the promise to enter into His rest, which all who believe have already entered by faith. The preacher should also not miss the rather astounding interpretation of Genesis 2:2, which does a lot more with the seventh day than modern conservatives do with the text, namely, to prove that days in Genesis 1-2 mean 24 hour days. The seventh day itself is interpreted theologically as the eternal rest of God’s people which is now in effect for all those who have Christ, the Word of God. That’s not to deny that day means day, but one should not miss how richly theological each day of creation is. The seventh day proclaims our eternal rest in Christ, even from the very beginning of creation. It’s as if YHWH had always planned to have His people rest in Him eternally, and that the Sabbath Day was merely a picture of that life of worship before the Triune Majesty in which the word of God dwells richly. Surely He did plan it; truly the Sabbath is a picture of that life.
To Jewish hearers, this interpretation would supersede their narrow reading of Genesis 2 and their legalistic observance of the Sabbath Day. It must also supersede our very narrow, scientific reading of the Genesis account. Consider 4:6-10. The Promised Land is now the Kingdom of God. The new Sabbath is “Today” and the rest for God’s people is now. Joshua [Jesus! - Ἰησοῦς] knew of a greater Promised Land, in which God’s people would rest from their works. To the troubled hearts and weary travelers looking for rest, the words “Today!” and “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works” will be life-giving.
Homiletical Helps-Dr. Joel Okamoto of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO offers notes on Hebrews 4:1-13 (14-16).
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN translation work on Hebrews 4: 1-13 (14-16).
Preaching Hebrews-Dr. John Kleinig of Australian Luther College gives advice on preaching Hebrews during the season of Lent, though the lectures will prove helpful late in Pentecost as well!