Fear and Striving
We typically view fear of failure as a bad thing, but there is a healthy version of it held out to us in this passage: Let a fear of failing to enter God’s rest work in you a striving to enter God’s rest.
Hebrews 1-8 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
What do you fear? Maybe some are so bold as to say, “nothing at all”, but the most common and more honest answers might include things like sickness, death, financial troubles, hardships befalling our loved ones, or violent crime. Digging a little deeper, one of the more common answers I hear is “failure”. The fear of failure is a struggle common to many, and typically one we rightly sense we should fight against. But in this passage, we see that there is a certain fear of failure that, while unpleasant in itself, is reasonable, and can actually work in us something really good. It is introduced in verse 1 as the fear of failing to enter God’s rest. We’ll see in our passage that there is a rest of God that has existed since the creation of the world, and into which we were created to enter. Whether you would identify yourself as a believer in Jesus or not, we do tend to instinctively work toward rest, don’t we? Whether it’s just a hard day’s work, during which we look forward to that time of rest in the evening, or a whole career, during which we look forward to the rest of retirement, even in our fallen state we sense that we were destined for rest. But the ultimate rest for which we were made is not a beach or a golf course; it is described in this passage as God’s rest, and entering it is not automatic. So, let the fear of failing to enter God’s rest work in you a striving to enter God’s rest, and this passage gives us three reasons to do so: First, it is not simply those who hear, but those who believe, who will enter God’s rest. Second, God’s rest still remains for those who believe to enter it. Third, God knows whether you believe.
It is not simply those who hear, but those who believe, who will enter it
In the first verse of our passage, we read this exhortation that while the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, we are to fear, lest any of us should fail to reach it. Here the author continues his exposition of Psalm 95, which he introduced in chapter 3, verse 7, and which ends with God swearing in his wrath that the wilderness generation would not enter his rest. To refresh you on the background on that again: The wilderness generation was the generation that God brought out of slavery in Egypt and who were led by Moses. When God promised to bring them out of slavery, he also promised to bring them into the land that he swore to give to their forefathers, the land of Canaan, the land in the Middle East that the modern nation of Israel and Palestine continue to fight over. And part of the significance of the promise of the land was that the land was to be a place of rest for them. They had been put to harsh, forced labor in Egypt for over 400 years, but with God as their gracious master in the promised land, they were promised rest from such labors. However, when they finally reached the land, they refused to enter because they did not believe God’s promise to give them the land when they saw how powerful the people already in the land appeared. So our author, commenting on that, ended chapter 3 with this summary: So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
What are we to learn from that? First, our author says in verse 1, we are to learn from that to be afraid. Therefore, he says, let us fear. Why? Because if they could fail to enter God’s rest because of unbelief, it could happen to you too. Fear can get a bad rap in some Christian circles today. You can hear slogans that suggest fear is never from God, or that faith is always the opposite of fear. But we probably all would recognize that in the face of real threats, fear can be a good thing. If you’re standing in the middle of the street and see a car speeding at you, fear is a help to you: It alerts you to get out of the way. In a situation like that, you should very much not tell yourself, “Fear isn’t from God. I just need to stand my ground and believe.” No, that fear is from God; he wired it into your nervous system, and he intends for you to use it in that moment to preserve your life. It may be more accurate to say that panic is never from God. Panic tends to be less tied to a real, specific threat, and tends to inhibit your ability to think rationally and act in response to a threat. Our text here doesn’t say, “Let us panic”; it says, “let us fear”.
Because, the fact is, we do face a very real, specific threat: Not entering God’s rest, and here that means heaven, what the Puritan author Richard Baxter called The Saints’ Everlasting Rest in his book by that title. Many today don’t consider that a real threat, and so they don’t feel this fear that our author commends in verse 1. Instead, they assume that if there is a God, he’s probably a nice guy, and you know, I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty nice too, and so I’m sure he’ll be nice to me and let me into heaven. Even among professing Christians, the sentiment can be similar. When you meet a professing Christian, run this experiment: Ask them how they became a Christian. Amazingly, many will simply tell you that they grew up going to church and have been in church their whole lives, as though simply being in church then and now and being a generally nice person guaranteed they would enter God’s rest.
Keep that in mind and look with me at verse 2. This is why we should fear, lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach God’s rest: 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. You see what he’s saying? He’s saying simply hearing the news of the way to enter God’s rest, of God’s promise even to bring his people into his rest, does not benefit you unless you are united by faith with those who listen. Good news came to the wilderness generation: To people who had been enslaved for over 400 hundred years God promised rest in their own land; that’s good news. But the good news did not end up benefiting them in the end because they were not united by faith with those who listened. There the reference to “those who listened” is like a reference to Joshua and Caleb, the two spies out of the twelve who basically said yeah sure the people in the land are strong and numerous, but the LORD will fight for us. Let’s go take the land. They didn’t just hear the good news; they believed it. And, of the wilderness generation, they were the only two people who did end up entering the promised land.
Hearing the good news over and over again is no guarantee that you will enter heaven. Coming to these services and hearing these sermons, even if you did it every week, would be no guarantee that you would enter heaven. If you are here today and you are not a Christian, do you see what that means? It means if you did ever want to become a Christian, the way you would do that would not be to simply resolve to begin attending church and living a better life. The way you become a Christian is rather by believing, choosing to put your trust in Christ as he is offered in the good news as your hope for entry into heaven. And if you are here today and you profess to believe, even if you are a member of this church, let us fear. Don’t panic, but fear: Fear that you would be one of those who hears this good news and yet fails to enter God’s rest because you are not united by faith with those who do believe. And let that fear drive you toward this action of believing the good news you’ve heard. Maybe you grew up in a church that called itself Christian, but you’re now realizing that you never really heard this good news there; that’s my story. The good news is that though we are all guilty of sin and justly deserving God’s wrath, God the Father sent God the Son to become man, die under his wrath in our place, and rise from the dead so that whoever believes in him, the moment they believe, before they fix a single thing in their lives or do a single good work, is declared righteous in God’s sight, receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and begins to live a new, eternal life in communion with God. Others of you have heard that message for as long as you can remember and have professed faith in it, but perhaps are only now realizing that you’ve never sincerely believed it. Whoever you are today, fear lest that be you, and let that fear drive you to believe.
And fear not only for yourself, but for your brothers and sisters. Did you catch that in verse 1? Let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to have reached God’s rest; not just you, but any of you. Of course, we don’t ultimately know who will reach it and who will not, but we can assess, as verse 1 says, who seems to be on the narrow path and who seems not to be. It is right and good if you meet someone who professes to be a Christian but seems to have no idea what that means or is living in a way that is inconsistent with that, that you would be afraid for them. That’s not judgmental; it’s loving. And this kind of fear is a fear we should even have for one another as fellow members of this church. When you look at your members’ directory, consider that any one of the faces you see may be the face of someone who will not enter God’s rest. And again, don’t let that make you panic; let it drive you to pray for them! They need your prayers because they need God’s help if they are to make it to his rest. Come to church so you can sing truth to them. Consider going to a Citygroups so you can exhort some of them. Invest in friendships with a few of them to help them reach God’s rest, because it is not those who merely hear the good news, but those who believe that good news, who enter that rest.
And yet, those who believe do in fact enter that rest, and that’s what we read in verse 3: We who have believed enter that rest. This is why we fear but don’t panic. When the car is speeding at you in the street, you fear but don’t panic because there is a way out: Run to the sidewalk. So here, we fear but don’t panic because there is a way to enter God’s rest, and it’s not actually that complicated. It’s not an elaborate series of rituals that you have to nail just right. It’s not a prayer you have to repeat with just the right words. It’s not a list of good works you must do: Get baptized, go to church, feed the poor, read your Bible. It’s this simple: When you hear the good news, believe it, and we have the assurance in verse 3 that we who have believed enter God’s rest. Alongside the warning, there is assurance, and we will see that pattern continue throughout Hebrews: Fear lest any of you fail to enter God’s rest, but don’t panic, because you who have believed do enter God’s rest. In fact, the entering of verse 3 is present tense, as though we who have believed, past tense, are now in the process, present tense, of entering God’s rest. We are on the path from grace to glory.
In support of this, he again cites the quote from Psalm 95, where God swore to the wilderness generation that they would not enter his rest. The fact that he barred them from entrance because of their unbelief, the fact that he had to take an oath even to prevent them from entering, implies that those who believe do enter his rest. Then our author clarifies for us what this rest of God is. I’ve been telling you it’s heaven this whole time, but here’s where our author begins to make that point. He says that God swore in his wrath they shall not enter his 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.” In other words, that’s the rest God forbid those who did not believe from entering. To get the background on that, we have to go all the way back to the first two chapters of the Bible. In them we read of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in six days, though Christians disagree among themselves on how long the days were. Then, on the seventh day, when he had finished all his work, he rested, Genesis 2 tells us. But the idea of God resting there isn’t merely an image of inactivity; the idea is that he sat down and dwelled somewhere. So later, when the temple was built, we read of the glory of God coming and dwelling or resting in that temple. And we learn that the temple, and even earth itself, including the visible heavens above, were made as shadows of another unseen realm, which we call heaven, the place where God is seated at rest (Isa 6:1-3, 66:1-2). God’s rest, then, is heaven, where he has been seated since creating the heavens and the earth in six days, and where he is seated even now.
The opportunity to enter God’s rest has been there since the seventh day began. Adam and Eve, the first humans, could have entered it, but they failed to do so because of unbelief. So also the wilderness generation failed to enter because of unbelief. Let us fear, therefore, lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. Though we who believe do enter that rest, both fear and striving are still appropriate for we who believe, because though we who believer enter that rest, we have not yet entered it! We are on the path from grace to glory, but we have not yet arrived at glory! So the second reason our passage gives us to let the fear of failing to enter God’s rest work in us a striving to enter God’s rest is because it still remains for those who believe to enter it.
It remains for those who believe to enter it
Look at verse 6: Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “today,” and we see that again in Psalm 95: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. The author’s point is that if the wilderness generation blew the one shot anyone had to enter God’s rest, why would God come to his people generations later and say to them through David, today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as they did? The fact that God does that implies that there is hope for us today to not share the fate of the wilderness generation, because, in fact, God’s rest still remains. It’s been there since the seventh day.
And, even the rest of the promised land wasn’t the ultimate rest! Perhaps this question has come up for you as we’ve been going through this if you are more familiar with the Bible; we can safely assume it would have come up for the majority-Jewish original audience of this letter. Everyone grants that the wilderness generation did not enter God’s rest in the land. But what about the next generation? Joshua and Caleb did enter the land after all, and they took the next generation of Israel with them! And again, I understand that may not be a pressing question for you, but remember the original audience: Their temptation was to stop believing in Jesus and to return instead to living by the law of Moses, the same law as the wilderness generation and the generation that entered the promised land. So if they’re thinking: “Hey, sure the wilderness generation messed that up, but we’ll just do better than they and then we can have rest in the promised land like Joshua and his generation,” the author wants to disabuse them of that by helping them see that even Joshua didn’t really give them rest! Though there was a kind of rest in the promised land, even it was not the ultimate rest of God, because if it was, God would not have had to speak of another day generations later through David, saying, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” because in David’s day, they were in the promised land! Yet there was still held out to them the promise of entering into a rest they weren’t yet enjoying.
And, the conclusion then, verse 9: There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. That word Sabbath was the name God gave to the seventh day, the day of his rest; it comes from the Hebrew word for rest or dwelling. That Sabbath rest still remains. God’s been in it since the seventh day, Adam failed to enter it, the wilderness generation failed to enter it, even Joshua, though he led a generation into the promised land, did lead them into it, and as long as you are still on earth, you have not yet entered it, though you are on the path toward it if you believe. And the reason we who believe can enter it, the reason it still remains for the people of God is because there is one who has entered it.
In the ESV translation, which we use here, verse 10 says, “for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” A more literal translation, though, and represented in many other English translations of the Bible, sounds like this: “for the one who has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Now, that could mean “anyone” who has entered God’s rest rests from their works, and that’s theologically true. But the more likely meaning in this context is that there is one who has entered God’s rest and has so rested from his works: Jesus Christ. Remember in chapter 1, after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high (1:4). What’s that sound like? Resting from your work, entering God’s rest in heaven. Later in chapter 10 this becomes even more explicit, when the author says, “Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (10:11-12). God finished the work of creation, and sat down in his heavenly rest. Jesus Christ finished the work of redemption, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat down at the Father’s right hand, and so entered God’s rest, taking our humanity with him. God rested from his works on the seventh day; Jesus Christ, the God-man, rested from his works on the day he ascended into heaven.
So here we come across another reason to fear, and another reason not to panic. Fear, because you aren’t there yet. Maybe someone once presented Christianity to you as though faith in Christ were a one-time thing. Say these words, pray this prayer, come to the front, come get baptized, come “get saved”, and bam, it doesn’t matter what you do or believe from here; you have entered God’s rest. That is false. We who have believed do enter that rest, but it still remains to be entered! That means you must not believe once, but continue believing, and that belief will show itself in a lifestyle of obedience. I’m not saying it will result in a lifestyle of perfection; it won’t. But sincere faith does produce a sincere desire and power to obey God’s commands as they are written down in scripture. That’s why the author can interchange unbelief and disobedience so easily. In 3:19 he says the wilderness generation was unable to enter because of unbelief. In 4:6 he says they failed to enter because of disobedience. They disobeyed God’s command to enter the land because they disbelieved God’s promise to give them the land. And if you notice in yourself a pattern of willingness to disobey God’s commandments, that should scare you. If you notice yourself making a habit out of anger, deception, sexual activity outside of marriage, keeping all your money for yourself, and so on, that should scare you. By that evidence, you seem to be failing to reach God’s rest. That kind of disobedience suggests a heart of unbelief, and those who do not believe will not enter God’s rest.
You aren’t there yet, so fear. But there is still a way to it, so don’t panic. The reason we who have believed enter God’s rest is not because of anything inherent in our faith. After the Eagles won the Super Bowl years ago there was an event in Philly that was supposed to highlight the “faith” of the team. Throughout the night the word faith was used ad nauseum without much, if any, explicit mention of the object of such faith. While I have no doubt that for at least some of the players and staff, the object of their faith was Jesus, I still wonder today about many more who could have left there that night identifying themselves as a “person of faith”, thinking in some way that made them acceptable to God, when in fact our only hope for entrance into God’s rest is faith in Christ, the one who has entered God’s rest! Fear, but don’t panic: Instead, believe, not just in some general notion of a positive future, but believe in Christ, the one who has entered God’s rest on behalf of sinners, so that whoever believes in him could be assured that they too will enter God’s rest.
And, in order to continue believing until we enter that rest, we learn next that we must strive, for in the end, God will know whether we believe.
God knows whether you believe
So we come to verse 11, which gives us another “therefore”. In verse 4 the “therefore” was fear, but here the “therefore” is “let us strive to enter that rest”. We should fear (verse 1), lest any of us should seem to have failed to enter God’s rest. And what are we to do with that fear? I’ve been saying believe throughout, because it is we who have believed who enter God’s rest, but here the command is to strive, because holding fast our faith in Christ to the end is a struggle. One mistaken way of reading verse 11 would be to read it as though striving is something separate from believing, as though it means: “Yes, you have believed in Jesus, but now you must also strive to do good works for Jesus so you can become righteous enough to enter God’s rest.” If that were what the author intended to say, he would have said, “Let us therefore strive to merit God’s rest.” Instead, he says, “Let us therefore strive to enter God’s rest.”
All the merit we need to enter God’s rest is found in Christ. He has the perfect righteousness we need to be declared righteous in God’s sight. He has made a full propitiation for sin on the cross. He has now entered God’s rest. That’s why the author can say in verse 3 that we who believe enter that rest. So we don’t strive to merit God’s rest; we strive to keep believing, so that we enter God’s rest, rather than falling through the same sort of disobedience as the wilderness generation, as verse 11 says, who disobeyed because of unbelief. Protestants have always rightly held against the Roman Catholic church that out strivings do not merit eternal life. However, sometimes this has been misunderstood to mean that Protestants believe good works are entirely unnecessary for our entrance into God’s rest, and that is false. Francis Turretin, the great Reformed Protestant theologian of the 1600s, when considering the question of whether good works are necessary for salvation, says yes, though not as the meritorious cause of our salvation, but as the path from grace to glory, as they proceed from a faith receiving and resting upon Christ’s merits alone for salvation.
So there is a kind of rest you enter into by believing in Christ that isn’t the focus of this passage, but is worth mentioning anyway to help us better understand the kind of rest and striving of which the passage does speak. Before you believe in Christ, you are actually striving to justify yourself. If you’re irreligious, you’ll look to justify yourself in the eyes of people or some group of people; they are really your god. So you’ll strive to succeed in your career, you’ll strive to find love, you’ll strive for some cause people label as virtuous, or maybe you’ll even strive to be so different from everyone else that the outcasts of society declare you “righteous” as one of their own. If you’re religious, you’ll strive to perform the rituals and avoid the sins your religion says you ought to in order to be accepted by your god. But the moment you believe in Christ, you rest from all that. You don’t need people to justify you anymore, and you don’t need to even strive with God for that declaration of righteousness anymore, because God declares you righteous in Christ the moment you believe. The striving for justification ends the moment you believe. So the song we sing here, “In Christ Alone”, describes conversion as the time when fears are stilled, and strivings cease.
And yet, the moment you believe, a new striving begins, because the moment you believe, you enter into a new battle you were not fighting before. I often heard Tim Keller say that before you believe, you’re an ally to the world, your flesh, and the devil, against God. But God is the greatest enemy you could ever ask for, because he loves his enemies. When you believe, though, you join God’s team, and the world, the flesh, and the devil begin conspiring against you. They already failed to keep you from believing; they failed to block your entry to the path from grace to glory. So now they conspire to knock you off the path, to try to get you to stop believing. And if you think you can just coast from grace to glory, they will succeed. You must strive against them to enter God’s rest.
If you are here today and you are not a Christian, Christianity holds out to you a better life on this earth, and holds out to you the best possible life in the life to come. But it does not offer you an easier life on this earth. When you become a Christian, you sign up for a life of striving, all the way from grace to glory. So if your Christian life feels difficult, there is a good chance you are on the right path. It is those who feel like following Jesus is as effortless as boarding a train and taking a nap until it reaches your destination who have reason to fear. Sam Allberry, in his book Is God Anti-Gay?, in which he shares about his experience as a same-sex attracted man who because of his faith in Christ nonetheless abstains from homosexual activity, writes this: “Ever since I have been open about my own experiences of homosexuality, a number of Christians have said something like this: ‘the gospel must be harder for you than it is for me’, as though I have more to give up than they do. But the fact is that the gospel demands everything of all of us. If someone thinks the gospel has somehow slotted into their life quite easily, without causing any major adjustments to their lifestyle or aspirations, it is likely that they have not really started following Jesus at all.”
You see what he’s saying? He’s saying if you profess to be a Christian, but find following Jesus easy, you’re the weird one! And yet, how often is it the case, that when we find our lives are difficult as Christians, we panic, look for something or someone to blame, and grumble, in our hearts or with our lips against God, as though something strange were happening to us? That’s what the wilderness generation did. They found life in the wilderness to be a struggle, and instead of striving against unbelief to enter God’s rest, they gave into it, refused to enter the land, and grumbled against God, only since you can’t see God, they expressed that by grumbling against the leader God gave them, who they could see: Moses. That’s what evoked God’s wrath, in which he swore they would not enter his rest. When you notice a similar attitude developing in your own heart, do not take that lightly. Instead, let the fear of failing to enter God’s rest work in you a striving to enter God’s rest. Consider Jesus again, and strive to believe what is true of him. Strive to believe he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him. Strive to believe that because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Strive to keep believing and so enter God’s rest because, finally, God knows whether you believe. That’s what verses 12-13 show us. There we read that God’s word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. God’s Word spoken of there is God’s Word in scripture; that’s what this whole section has been about. Our author has been quoting from Psalm 95, and saying that through it, the Holy Spirit is still saying the same thing: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. And now he’s saying that word is living and active, though unchanging, and what that word does is it not only tells us to not harden our hearts; it exposes whether we have hardened our hearts.
Sometimes it exposes our hearts in ways that are visible to other humans, as when someone hears the word and simply announces that they do not agree with it. But that’s not actually how people normally respond to God’s Word. After a service here, I rarely have any of you come up to me and tell me that you reject something from the sermon. Instead, everyone nods their heads for the most part, and I can’t tell who actually believed any of it. But there is one who can tell, because while the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are often hid from one another, no creature is hidden from his sight verse 13 tells us, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Every thought and intention of your heart: Naked and exposed before the eyes of God, and he is the one to whom you must ultimately give account. In the end, you will not ultimately give account to me, Michael, or Mark. You will not ultimately give account to your Citygroup leader, your Citygroup, or your Discipleship group. You will ultimately give account to your boss, your parents, your kids, or your friends. Ultimately, on the day you die, you will give account to God. Are you ready for that day? Be honest with yourself: You have no idea when that will be. It could be today. Maybe you’ve been able to convince others that you are a good person. Maybe you’ve even been able to convince others that you believe. But consider how every thought and intention of your heart, the things you don’t let anyone else see, are visible right now to the one to whom you must give account. What hope could you possibly have to enter his rest in that day?
If you are simply pretending to believe, that affords you no hope on that day. The one to whom you must give account knows. The only real hope you could possibly have is in the one who has already entered God’s rest. Believe in him, strive to keep believing in him, and we who have believed do enter God’s rest. Your striving is not in vain. Though it will last long as you live, it will not last forever. The world offers you rest now: No more striving against sin, no more feeling like an outcast at work, in your neighborhood, or in your family, heck if you strive hard enough at your job you can even make enough money to enjoy a nice, long retirement on earth, during which you can rest from your works and indulge yourself. The world, the flesh, and the devil are arrayed against you to sell you that lie, but what they don’t tell you is that all the while, the thoughts and intentions of your heart will lie naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom you must give account, and what good will that counterfeit earthly rest be to you in that day? Brothers and sisters, don’t believe the lie. Strive with all the power God gives you against it, that every one of us might enter God’s rest.