Fear and Rest ~ Hebrews 4:1-5
Nick Esch, Cornerstone Baptist Church 3/21/2021
In verse 1 we read, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” This therefore ties us back to all that has gone before, where the author has explained who Jesus is as the Great High Priest sent from heaven to save His people from sin, Satan, death, and hell. Jesus, who always has been and always will be truly God, took on flesh, becoming truly man, and then lived a perfectly righteous life, and then died a wrath-absorbing sacrificial death, and then rose in a death-defeating resurrection. And He did all of this so that all who will trust in Him by faith will be saved and united to Him to be with Him and enjoy Him forever.
There have been faithful men who came before Jesus, but none of them accomplished what Jesus did, because Jesus was not a mere faithful man, but the faithful man and the faithful God of the universe in the flesh. And that’s in part what was just addressed in chapter 3. These Hebrew Christians are going through much persecution and pain, and are seriously considering forsaking Christ and going back to Judaism, going back to Moses, as it were. And the author of Hebrews tells them, and us, that though Moses was a faithful leader for the most part, he simply does not compare to Jesus. Moses himself was looking forward to Jesus, and was only as faithful as he was, and was only made right with God because of Jesus. Jesus is better than Moses. Jesus is better than anyone and everyone. Jesus is better than everything. Christ is supreme. And so, chapter 3 closed out with a plea for us to not be like the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus. Though they saw the works of God, though they heard the Word of God, and though they were led by a faithful man of God, they still harden their hearts towards God and refused to believe, to trust, and to heed His Word.
That’s why the author said in Hebrews 3:12-14, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Israel in the wilderness did not do this. They did not hold fast, because they did not truly believe. But we must do both. This is our calling. And this call to have tender, believing hearts that lead us to link arms together and help each other fight sin and pursue holiness, and help each other hold fast to Jesus until we make it home to Jesus… this is what the author has in mind when he says “therefore” in 4:1.
So, looking at our text, therefore, in view of Jesus and the call to believe in Him and to help one another follow Him, and of the Israelites failure to do so, as verse 1 says, “while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” So here in the beginning of our passage we see this same plural/community/church membership language. “Let us fear… lest any of you…” Us… You, or y’all… The author is addressing a local body of believers, a local church; and he expects them to take responsibility for one another. To hold each other accountable. To encourage, edify, and stir one another on in the faith. He simply assumes they understand that the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone, and that if they are going to live it faithfully, they will need one another. I wonder, does your life reflect this reality? Do you understand that in order for you to faithfully follow Jesus, you need your fellow Christians, and they need you? Are you seeking out help and are you seeking to help in living the Christian life? Friends, this is what church membership is all about: helping one another come to know Jesus, love Jesus, live for Jesus, and grow in all of those areas until we make it home to Jesus… this is what we do… This is what we are to be all about. And we can see how serious he expects the Hebrews, and us for that matter, to take this in what he says here.
He says they should fear lest any of them seem to have failed to reach God’s rest. So not only should they fear not reaching God’s rest, but they should fear even seeming like they haven’t reached God’s rest. In other words, they should not only fear not being Christians, but they should fear not seeming like they are Christians. They should be cautious and carful to make sure their lives, the lives of their whole church, actually reflect the reality of who they are in Christ, of what it means to be a Christian, and the peace and rest that they have now and that is to come. And we should do the same. We should fear, we should tremble, we should care deeply about the genuineness of our faith, and the faithfulness of our witness. And though we should care about these things for our good and the good of those around us, notice in our passage that this fear is tied to God and His rest, not just this world.
He says, while the promise of entering His rest still stands, we should fear… This is tied back to what the author has been quoting from Psalm 95, saying, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” His promise of rest still stands today. As Hebrews 3:13 said, “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’”… Today is all we have. Technically “today” is each day until Jesus comes back, but all we have is today because none of us are promised tomorrow. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come, and Jesus could come back at any moment, so while it is still today we must hear and fear; we must hear God’s Word and rightly fear the Lord. If we are unbelievers, or if we are living like unbelievers, we should especially fear God and fear His judgment. Because as Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” On the day we die or the day Jesus returns we will give an account for our lives, and if we are not in Christ we will be judged for every sin we have ever committed against an infinitely holy God. And so, if that’s where we are we have much cause for fear. Because as Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
But that’s why Jesus came. He fell into the hands of God, and fell under the wrath of God for us, so that we wouldn’t have to. So, I’m pleading with you right now, if you haven’t already, trust in Christ. Repent and believe in the gospel: the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ… All that He is and all that He has done, is doing, and will do to save you. He is your only hope. Trust in Jesus and be reconciled to God. But understand, that even if you do, and even for those of us who already have trusted, it is still good and right to have a proper fear of the Lord. In fact, that’s what’s implied in our passage. If we are not trusting Jesus, or if our claiming to trust in Jesus isn’t bearing any fruit, if we are not joyfully fighting sin and pursuing holiness because of who Jesus is, what He’s done, and how He loves us, then we should most definitely be afraid of God and the judgment to come. But even the true Christian who is no longer under condemnation and has no judgment to fear like the sinner outside of God’s grace, should still fear the Lord. But there’s a difference. We are to have the right fear of God, not just be afraid of Him.
God’s Word says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10a). If that’s the case, we have to understand that it is a good thing to fear the Lord. And I don’t just mean to have a healthy reverence and awe, though we should; and I don’t just mean to fear Him in the sense that we know He’s big and strong and could take us out at any moment… though that’s true. It has to be more than that… It has to be deeper and more intimate. It has to be more than simply being afraid of power or punishment. The right fear of the Lord isn’t a fear that repels us, or makes us run away in terror, but it is a fear that compels us, and draws us in with wonder. To be repelled by the Lord, or to run away from Him is sin, it’s rebellion against Him, and rejection of Him. So, that kind of fear cannot be seen as a good thing, or a right response to God. That’s not the fear of the Lord that is wisdom. The right fear of the Lord is not sinful, but righteous. Which is what we see throughout Scripture. I mean, Jesus Himself had and has a right fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11 is a prophecy speaking of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Himself; and there it says that He has the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD, and that His very delight is in the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:2-3).
Though Jesus feared in the garden before the cross, that’s not what this is speaking of… This is a healthy, righteous fear of the Lord that’s on going. This is the fear of the Lord that the Israelites in the wilderness did not have, or at least did not keep. When they saw God’s works in Egypt they feared, but only for a time, and never quite right. We see this later on at Mount Sinai, when God gave them His Law. In Exodus 20:18-20 God’s Word says, “when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.’” Did you catch that? What they need to drive out their wretchedness and to drive out their sinful fear of God is a right fear of God. They should not be afraid of God, but they should have a right fear of the Lord. A right fear of the Lord would act as an antidote to their sinful tendencies and sinful fear… I wonder, is that something you need? Don’t we all struggle with sinful tendencies and sinful fears from time to time? Don’t we all struggle with temptation, doubt, and anxiety? Well, what we need is a right fear of God.
This is actually what we’re promised in the New Covenant. In Jeremiah 32:38-40 God says, “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” You see, a right fear of the Lord and a new heart go hand in hand, because a right fear of the Lord and God’s saving grace go hand in hand.
God’s Word clarifies this a bit more in the next chapter of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 33:8-9 God says, “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.” And there’s the difference. The fear of the Lord is not a fear of power or punishment, it is a fear linked to grace, not wrath. The fear of the Lord is a right response to God’s goodness and grace. A right fear of God is a wondering response to all that He is and all that He does in all of His perfections.
After God, in His amazing grace, delivers the Israelites from Egypt, He gives them the Law. And then Moses tells them in Deuteronomy 6:1-3, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.” So, God has already delivered them, and now He’s promising them life and blessing in the promised land, if they will fear Him rightly… And then in the next verses, Moses goes on to explain what fearing the Lord is and looks like. He says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:4-6).
As I said already, a right fear of the Lord and a new heart go hand in hand, because a right fear of the Lord and God’s saving grace go hand in hand. And the point of having new hearts that are gripped by God’s grace, is so that they would beat in love for the Lord. That’s what Moses is getting at here. Fearing God and loving God are directly linked; and with the exception of a very small minority, this is what the Exodus generation failed to do. Though they saw many miracles, and received grace upon grace, though they had evidence upon evidence of God’s goodness, they did not truly fear God, and they did not truly love God, and they did not truly believe God.
We won’t go through it in depth but look at the rest of our passage. Hebrews 4:2-5 says, “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’’ although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’ And again in this passage he said, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the Exodus generation failed to enter God’s rest. Like us, they heard the gospel. They heard good news of God’s love, grace, and mercy. They heard good news of gospel promise. They heard God’s promises of life and blessing… but they did not listen… they did not hear with faith. Joshua and Caleb did, but the rest of them were not united by faith with these brothers. They did not fear God, and so they did not believe God. And because of their unbelief God swore that they would not enter into His rest.
Church, I hope you feel the weight of that… It’s so easy to come and hear God’s Word read and preached; but that is worthless if you do not listen… if you do not hear with faith. If you don’t receive God’s Word with faith God’s Word is leading you to wrath, not grace. Every parent knows the frustration that comes from speaking to a child, giving them instructions, and then watching the child walk away and not do anything you ask. And then when you go and call them on it, they act like they have no idea what you’re talking about… Why? Because they weren’t listening.! They heard, but they didn’t listen. Church, please don’t do this. You must truly listen to God’s Word. In the end you will find that you are only frustrating and hurting yourself if you will not hear with faith. Though the Israelites heard, they didn’t listen with faith, and they suffered greatly for it… and they will continue to do so for eternity.
Their lack of faith was a key problem, but their lack of faith was linked to a lack of fear. And their lack of fear was linked to a lack of love. They did not fear the Lord properly, and so they did not love the Lord properly; and they did not fear or love properly because they lacked the proper faith. They didn’t believe God. They didn’t believe He was as good as He truly is; for if they did, they not only would have believed Him, but they would truly love Him. And you see, both of these, faith and love, get at the heart of what a right fear of the Lord is.
The Hebrew word for fear carries with it the idea of trembling… But it isn’t simply a trembling in terror, but a trembling in love, joy, and anticipation, like a groom trembles as his bride walks down the aisle, overwhelmed with his love for her and her love for him, and the hope of all that is to come. Friends, that’s the fear of the Lord that the Exodus generation lacked, and that’s the fear of the Lord that we need if we are going to enter into God’s rest. A right fear of the Lord that so believes in the Lord that we delight in Him, treasure Him, love Him, and hope in Him above all else. We are to be overwhelmed with all that God is for us in Christ, with God’s love for us in Christ, our love for Him, and the hope of all that is to come in Him and with Him… And you see, that’s what’s behind the idea of God’s rest here as well.
Notice in verses three and four of our passage the rest of God that God’s people enter is the very rest that God entered on the seventh day of creation. He created all things good and then rested from His work of creation. Now God is still actively at work in providence and salvation, among other things; God is actively involved in His creation, giving life and breath and everything, sustaining all things, and working His will in and through all things. The idea of God’s rest here is not one of passive indifference, or separation and disinterest, but of perfect goodness, love, joy, and peace that is found in God and with God. The rest of God that God’s people are promised is perfect communion and fellowship with God in Christ forevermore. It’s a rest that starts now by faith and is perfected in eternity.
The author of Hebrews uses the Exodus story and the rest that most of the Exodus generation did not enter to help us understand the rest that all Christians enter into now by faith, and have coming in glory. Entering into Canaan, into the promised land, was a type, or a picture of the rest that is promised to all of God’s people. By faith, Joshua and Caleb were at peace and rest with God long before they entered the land, because they feared God, and they were ready and willing to enter the land whenever God saw fit. So, they got a taste of God’s rest even in the harsh conditions of the wilderness. And even after entering into the promised land they still had many trials and tribulations… There were many battles to be fought, and wars to be won. Entering God’s rest did not and does not mean the absence of work or conflict here and now. But, because they feared God, loved God, and believed God, they made it through this life by faith, and then entered into heavenly rest with God. A rest of soul now, and a rest in resurrected glory to come. A rest, a joy, a communion, a fellowship that will only get better and better with every passing day.
As that verse in Amazing Grace goes, “When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun. We’ll have no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” Why? Because He’s that good and that glorious. We will tremble with joy and love and hope forevermore in the presence of our resurrected Lord. There will be no more tears, no more pain, no more death, and no more sin… Only love, joy, and glory. That’s what’s to come, and that’s what we are given in part now, if we look to the Lord in faith, and fear God. If we rightly fear God now, and are ready and willing to enter the promised land whenever God sees fit, because we know, we believe, and we treasure the fact that to live is Christ and to die is gain. And you see, that’s how the fear of the Lord drives out sinful tendencies and sinful fears. It over powers them with love, joy, peace, and rest; rest now, and the great hope of God’s glorious rest to come.
Beloved, if we would avoid the mistake of the Israelites in the Exodus, and truly believe and persevere in faith, than we must fear God. Yes, we must fear sin and judgment, we must have a right sense of awe and reverence of God, but even more so, we must have a right view of God and His goodness and grace, and be stirred to love and wonder that causes us to tremble with joy and hope. For that is how we will day by day continue to die to self, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus. We must remember who He is, how good He is, what He’s done, is doing, and will do, and how much He loves us… Then we will see how short sin, Satan, self, and the world fall in their false promises of pleasure and satisfaction. Then we’ll see that Jesus is better than anything life could give us or death could take from us. Then we’ll hold fast to Christ come what may.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Let’s give ourselves to making sure that each one of us have entered that rest, are staying in that rest, and will one day enter into the fullness of that rest, by helping one another fear the Lord rightly, and love Him and believe Him come what may. For that is our calling today… And if we will hold fast today, eternal rest will come tomorrow.