My son was born just over a month ago. It is a delight unlike any other to be able to hold my very son in my arms and stare into his eyes. It thrills my heart to gaze upon him, to ponder how he favors his parents, to learn his idiosyncrasies, and to love him more with each passing day. For this joy, I pay the price of sleepless nights. My son loves to eat. He is not ashamed of this fact. Rather, he will gladly share it with all who are in an ever-widening earshot of his bloodcurdling screams.
I’m told by those who’ve walked this path before me that one day soon I will indeed sleep through the night. They assure me that my situation is only temporary, that one day I will wake up refreshed. Typically, when I’m receiving this advice, it’s in the middle of a beautiful day. The sun is shining on their smiling faces as we gaze upon my content son, and we chuckle at my temporal problem. Their promises seem downright believable at times, and I begin to imagine what it’s like to sleep through the night. I go to sleep that night wondering if this will indeed be the night that I will taste satisfying rest. Then 3:00 a.m. arrives. Have I mentioned my son loves to eat? As I sit bleary eyed and confused amidst the piercing shrieks emanating from this tiny child, I am thoroughly convinced that I will not see more than three hours’ sleep until I’m forty. At that moment, I’m quite certain Luke will be shrieking his way through every night until he goes to college. The pleasant promises of my friends are distant memories that hold out no hope for me in the torment of the night.
The author of Hebrews likewise speaks to a people who do not believe God’s promise in the torment of the night. Our God has set His promised rest before us, and it may sound plausible in the daylight. But the brief night of this life often chokes out that promise in our hearts. It is for this reason that we have such passages as Hebrews 4.
We will see as we explore these verses together that the main thrust of this passage is that God calls us to perseverance, and He equips us for that task (2x). The passage can be broken down into three main points under this overarching premise:
1. Persevere with hope, for we are promised rest
2. Persevere in obedience, for we are laid bare by the Word
3. Persevere with confidence, for we have a great High Priest
Now, let us flesh these out.
Persevere with hope, for we are promised rest (4:11)
What does it mean to strive to enter God’s rest? Verse 11 is drawn from the conclusion of the preceding verses in this chapter. The author of Hebrews has been discussing the rest set before Israel in the Promise Land. The Lord heard the cries of His people when they suffered under the slavery of Egypt. He sent Moses to lead His people out from under the yoke of slavery to the glorious freedom of the land of Canaan. But Israel refused to believe God’s promise. As a result, God swore in his wrath that Israel – His chosen people – would not enter His rest. And so Israel, rather than embracing the sweet gifts of our Father, was left to wander the wilderness. The rest they could have tasted was withheld from their generation as a result of their failure to obey. O, let us take heed of the warning set before us in this passage! Let us not fall by the same sort of disobedience.
Some days, when I read Old Testament accounts of Israel’s triumphs and troubles, I feel no connection to the ancient people that followed Moses out of slavery into the wilderness. As I read the accounts of water turning to blood, of plagues ravaging the land and the people, of a pillar of cloud and fire leading the people, of the very sea splitting at the bequest of an outstretched hand – it seems utterly ridiculous that Israel would soon lose faith. They had just witnessed some of the most astounding miracles in all of history, and they disobeyed. And yet we know a miracle that overshadows anything Israel ever knew! We cling to the miracle that one day the Almighty God took on flesh – He knew our pains and our trials and bore them on the cross for us! What’s more, Christ rose from the grave, defeating death! Miracle of miracles! O, how quickly I can go from delighting in this miracle to disobeying as grievously as Israel did. Perhaps I am not so far removed from Israel.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest – let us labor with our minds, hearts and hands for communion with God. We read in James 1:22 that we are to “be doers of the Word, not hearers only.” Peter exhorts us in 1 Peter 1:15,16 to “be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘ You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Paul details his prayer for the church in Colossians 1:10 to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work.” God calls us in these passages and others to strict obedience. As fallen creatures, communing with the Almighty Holy God requires labor. It requires daily work. It requires enduring the torment of the night, holding to the promise of the dawn.
So, we see here that God indeed calls us to perseverance, and He equips us with hope so we may complete that task. Indeed, we are to persevere with hope, for we are promised rest. But in what are we to persevere? To what standard are we held? This brings us to my second point:
Persevere in obedience, for the Word lays us bare before the Lord (4:12-14)
Why would the author of Hebrews insert these verses into the middle of his exhortation to persevere? Verse 11 ends with a warning: we are to guard ourselves from falling by the same sort of disobedience as Israel. But how can we attempt obedience if we have no law to obey? We see in verses 12-13 that the Word of God sets our standard for obedience. It is not a weak standard. This Word we hold is not something that we can shrug off. The picture here is clear. We do not hold a dead book upon which we can build some morals, draw some good conclusions, and then go on largely unaffected. No! The Word of God is living and active – and it is sharper than a sword, actively piercing to the division of soul and spirit. This Word is active, strong and precise. It is not ambivalent. God holds us to this standard, and our lives clearly either obey or disobey – there is no middle ground. And we see in verse 13 that this Word – this active standard – lays us bare before the eyes of God. We cannot escape His gaze or confound His understanding.
This is interesting language – piercing the division of soul and spirit, of joint and marrow. We sometimes refer to a discerning man as having a piercing gaze, but the author of Hebrews does not stop there in his description of the all-discerning Word. It does not simply pierce the soul but divides it from the spirit. Which one of us can even distinguish soul from spirit, let alone divide them? Granted, you maybe be able to discern my joints from my marrow, but no one in this room can see them – my skin hides them from sight. Yet the word of God readily exposes our innermost selves. Every sin is laid bare before it.
All too often, I fool myself into thinking I hide my sin. If you don’t see my selfishness or arrogance, then I feel no need to fight them. If my wife does not see my greed or envy, then I believe I can nurture those sins without damaging my reputation. And yet no creature is hidden from God’s sight. When I sin in the darkest corner and mask it from everyone I know, I am naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom I must give account. And it is in the latter part of this verse that we see again this standard. We must give account for our ways.
Why did some fall by disobedience? Why did the Lord swear in His wrath that His people would not enter His rest? It is because God held them responsible for obedience. In their disobedience, Israel failed to measure up to the standard, and God punished them. We see our standard in the Word. That standard is perfection.
Indeed, God has called us to persevere. And we are to persevere with hope, for He has promised rest. How are we to persevere? We are to persevere in obedience, for His Word lays us bare. But if this is true – if our every sin is continually before the eyes of a holy God, one who pours out His wrath on all who disobey him – how can we still persevere with hope?
This brings us to the third and final point of this passage:
Persevere with confidence, for we have a Great High Priest (4:14,15)
Here, the author of Hebrews gives us another challenge act out our obedience. Up to this point, the challenge set before us to strive to enter into communion with God has been because of the high standard to which we are held by the Word. But here we see a delightful turn in the exhortation. We have a great high priest! He has passed through the heavens for us and sits at the right hand of the Father who holds the standard. We are not alone in our labors.
Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest. In Him, we have an advocate who has met the standard. He was naked and exposed by the word and was found sufficient – there was no disobedience in him. By Christ, we can have confidence in the account we must give. The high priests of Israel’s day were able to show compassion on the people for their sins because they themselves sinned. The priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sin in order to pass through the curtain to the Holy of Holies where God’s presence resided. And now we serve a great high priest who offers what no priest before or after could – absolute perfection.
Christ is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, for he has been tempted in every respect as we have been. Every time we see such frightening passages as this in which we are laid bare before the eyes of the Lord; every time we see the burden the Word places upon us that we simply cannot bear; every time we fail; every misery we endure in this life; Christ sympathizes with us! He has been tempted in every way that we have been tempted. He has endured more than we will ever endure. Our High Priest stands before God on our behalf and sympathizes with our failings!
What is even more astounding is that he in every respect was tempted as we are, yet he is without sin! This is an astounding reality that can perhaps be better understood through an analogy borrowed from Bruce Ware.
Suppose a swimmer wanted to break the world record for the longest continuous swim – which is over 70 miles. He trained for months, adding five miles here and ten miles there. Eventually, as he began swimming 30 and 40 miles at a time, he noticed that he began to struggle with severe cramps. As he approached the day he would attempt the record, he decided for safety to have a boat follow him as he swam, ready to pull him out of the water if he began to drown. The crowds gathered, the anticipation rose, and finally, the man began his swim, the boat following at a safe distance behind. It was the most grueling endeavor of his life, and the threat of drowning grew tremendous as the miles wore on. But in the end, the boat was not needed. In due time, the swimmer accomplished his goal.
So why was it that this swimmer could not drown? Because the boat was there with each stroke, ready to save him if he stopped swimming. But why was it that the swimmer did not drown? It was because he kept swimming.
In the same way, why was it that Christ, though He was tempted, could not sin? Because, as God, His divine perfection prevented the possibility of his sinning. But why was it that he did not sin? Because Christ our High Priest, as a man, He used everything given to Him by the Father and remained obedient.
Our High Priest is the Priest of priests who need not offer sacrifices for his own shortcomings. Our High Priest may commune with God freely, for He has been held to the same standard of perfection as we – and He has met it! Yet we do not have a High Priest who lords His perfection over us, flaunting His communion – His entry into God’s rest – as something we’ll never know. Make no mistake: God continues to swear in His wrath that some shall not enter His rest. As He held out wrath in response to disobedience in the days of Israel, so he continues to hate and to punish disobedience today. By our own merits, by our own standing, by our own efforts to give account to this all-discerning Word – we earn the wrath of the Almighty God. Our High Priest alone has merited favor. As God looks at men through His Word and discerns every thought and intention of the heart, no man in all of history has striven to enter God’s rest and accomplished that goal – no man save one.
When we find ourselves weak, we have the ear of God through Christ and are instructed to wield this power in prayer (4:16)
The only fitting response in light of these truths is to come before the throne of God in prayer. Through Christ, we have access to rest in God the Father. But the rest for which we are striving is not simply a longing and laboring for heaven. There is a rest that we can have now! The sun will shine one day when Christ returns and draws His people together to worship Him – but there is a shadow of rest that we may know now amidst our strivings. We may have communion with God Almighty this day! And we are here commanded to with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.
From what do we derive this confidence? From our own strength? Are we to be more confident on the day we have delighted in and lived out the Word with excellence, and are we to be timid on the day we have neglected the Word and lived for ourselves? No: we are called to an unstaggering confidence in an unwavering High Priest. This command to draw near with confidence before the throne of grace is because Christ was without sin. He can come before the throne! And for the believer, He takes our every petition before the Holy God Almighty. God the Father welcomes Christ to the throne and gladly hears our pleas on His lips. Through Christ, we have the access to the infinite storehouses of our Father. We have earned naught but wrath and condemnation, yet we can come before the throne of the living God with confidence!
Charles Spurgeon has illustrated this eloquently:
Inasmuch as it is a throne of grace, the faults of the petitioner himself shall not prevent the success of his prayer. Oh, what faults there are in us! To come before a divine throne with our imperfections—how unfit we are! Dare you think of praying were it not that Gods’ throne is a throne of grace? If you could, I confess I could not. An absolute God, infinitely holy and just, could not in consistency with His divine nature answer any prayer from such a sinner as I am, were it not that He has arranged a plan by which my prayer comes up no longer to a throne of absolute justice. I come to a throne that is also the mercy seat, the propitiation, the place where God meets sinners through Jesus Christ.
Our confidence is in our High Priest, not in ourselves. Our confidence ought not waver, because its foundation does not waver. Yet I am all too often the fool that thinks either that I have earned God’s ear without Christ or that my failures are too great for Christ. Rubbish!
Several years ago, I spent some time in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, and the tenets of Buddhism mold and shape every aspect of their society. I was particularly fascinated with the spectacle of faithful Buddhists as they entered their temple. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is a dark, evil place. It is adorned as a palace, gilded with gold, wrought with precious stones, and designed to declare to the heavens that their god is inside. I once joined some Buddhist friends at this temple, following their lead as I carefully removed my shoes, stepped over the threshold, and witnessed the spectacle of a cavernous room filled with all manner of Thai citizens: some wearing tattered jeans and some tailored suits, some sporting more piercings than I could count and some more diamonds than I could buy in a lifetime. Yet all were kneeling in solemn reverence. Before them were two enormous statues on either side of a tall pillar. On this pillar sat a Buddha wrought of jade. The entire room was even more ornate inside than out, yet my eyes were riveted to those two identical statues on either side of Buddha. Both of them were solid gold and must have been worth a hundred fortunes, but that was not what held my fascination. Each statue was formed with both arms outstretched, but instead of beckoning the faithful to come, as I would have expected, they held out their hands: the Buddhists could go no further. They could not approach the throne. They were relegated to worship in fear and trembling from a distance.
We also serve a God who sits on a high throne. He is holy and set apart from us. His throneroom is the heavens, and He too has an intermediary whose arms are outstretched. But we do not serve a god of stone! And our Intermediary stretches out His arms to bid us come before Him. He gladly hears our prayers, for His is a throne of grace!
And if this were not reason enough to come before the throne in prayer, the author of Hebrews gives us further reason: that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. We look at this passage and see that we are a needy race. Before this God who calls us to strive to enter His rest, who lays even the intentions of our hearts bare before His Word and calls us to utter obedience, to hold fast to our confession, before this God we most certainly have need. The beauty of our need is that we come before a God who gladly bestows mercy and grace upon His children.
And so we see from Hebrews 4 that God calls us to perseverance, and He equips us for that task. Then what are we to do?
1. Persevere with hope, for we are promised rest
2. Persevere in obedience, for we are laid bare by the Word
3. Persevere with confidence, for we have a great High Priest
As we strive to persevere in this life, not a thought or even an intention is hidden from God’s sight. Again, I ask, what are we to do? We most certainly fall by the same sort of disobedience as Israel. Our strivings are at best worthy of damnation. We are called to meet a standard that we cannot and will not meet. That is why we cling to the throne of grace. The throne of grace freely dispenses it through Christ. Christ bore the wrath we have earned in all our strivings, and though He earned a place at the throne by His own merit, indeed, though it is His throne in the first place, as we see in Philippians, that Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is our great High Priest! Today we may freely enjoy the throne of grace as we look forward to the day when He will return and we will truly see Grace enthroned in all His glory. O, that we might strive to enter into His rest that day!
____________________________________________  Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life, CHS, p 22,23