Old Testament Laws: Does Hebrews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?

Those who believe that Christians are required to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, especially as it applies to resting from work, sometimes cite Hebrews 4:9-11 as a proof-text. In the New International Version these verses say the following:

There remains…a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall.

If this passage requires Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, it would be the only direct post-resurrection scriptural command to do so. If it does not command the Sabbath, then we have no command specifically written to the New Testament church mandating the keeping of the Sabbath. In view of this, it is important that we understand what the verses in question are telling us.

An important principle in understanding a specific passage of Scripture is to see it in context. The context includes the immediate subject at hand in which the verses are found, as well as the overall context of the book itself. Each passage should be understood as much as possible on its own terms. It should not be interpreted on the basis of an assumed premise, in this case, an advance assumption that God commands Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath.

The theme of Hebrews

Articles About the Sabbath

In order to understand Hebrews 4:9-11, we must first ask what the book of Hebrews is about. We recommend that you take the time to read the entire epistle in a modern translation.

We can state the theme of Hebrews in the following brief summary. It is generally believed that Hebrews was written to Jewish believers. At the least, it was written to people who were attracted to Jewish forms of worship, perhaps thinking that old covenant rituals were required. The writer of Hebrews takes issue with this. He indicates that the Jewish rituals were based on an obsolete covenant. Christians, he says, are under the better and greater new covenant. This theme is sounded in many ways throughout Hebrews.

In chapter 8 the writer cites Jeremiah 31:31-34 to show that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves say that the old covenant would become null and void. They also look forward to a time when God would make a new covenant with his people. The writer summarizes: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (8:13).

Moses and Jesus

Throughout the epistle, the Hebrew believers are admonished to look to Jesus as the center of their faith. The writer summarizes this claim by saying:

The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man (8:1).

The writer goes out of his way to show that Jesus is superior to anything offered in the old covenant. Moses — and the law system inaugurated through him — needed to be put into perspective because both were so highly venerated in classical Judaism. William Barclay wrote in the Daily Study Bible Series commentary on Hebrews that:

To the Jew it would have been impossible to conceive that anyone ever stood closer to God than Moses did, and yet that is precisely what the writer of Hebrews sets out to prove. (page 29)

Hebrews tells us: “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself” (3:3). Moses represents the old covenant. To place Christ above Moses, then, is another way of saying that the new covenant supersedes and has better promises than the old covenant.

The entire New Testament attests to this fact. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul expounds this point: “He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).

Hebrews is telling Christians to look to Jesus and the new covenant and not to Moses and the old covenant as the authority for faith and religious practice. The writer insists that Jesus is the true High Priest, rather than the Levitical priests.

He also makes the point that the worship components of the law were only shadows and copies of spiritual truths (8:1-5; 10:1). The old covenant laws given through Moses regarding temple rituals and the priesthood have only metaphorical value for Christians in that they point to the fully delivered faith through Jesus Christ.

Having said this about the theme of Hebrews in general, let us now turn to the specific context of Hebrews 4:9-11.

Wilderness experience

Hebrews 3 and 4 speak of something vital that Christians share—the “heavenly calling” we have in Christ (3:1). In these verses we learn what the “rest” of Genesis 2:2-3 pictures to Christians. The subject at hand in these verses begins to be addressed under the word “today” in Hebrews 3:7, when the writer quotes Psalm 95:7-11:

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared an oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Psalm 95 refers to the wilderness story as told in Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13. This psalm is used liturgically by Jews to inaugurate the Friday evening service of prayer. It may have been sung during the days of the early church as part of the temple service, before the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.

There are several things we should notice about this passage. The author focuses on the introductory word of the quotation, “today,” and the phrase in which it is found. He repeats the word “today” five times (3:7, 13, 15; twice in 4:7) and the phrase, “Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts” three times (3:7, 15; 4:7). The phrase with its opening word “today” is significant for the writer in that it allows him to apply the promise of “rest” found in the Scripture to his readers. William Lane discusses this point in the Word Biblical Commentary on Hebrews:

“Today” provided the writer with a catchword for bringing the biblical statement before his hearers sharply. “Today” is no longer the today of the past, surveyed by the psalmist in his situation, but the today of the present, which continues to be conditioned by the voice of God that speaks day after day through the Scriptures and in the gospel tradition. (page 87)

Lane makes the point that Psalm 95 “was a prophetic announcement that God was determining a future date for making his rest available” (page 100). The writer of Hebrews insists that the prophecy is being fulfilled in his day, in the church—and his readers need to heed its call. He wants his readers to make a connection between themselves and the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. The author emphasizes a key concept: The Old Testament promise that God’s people would enter into “rest” is being fulfilled in the church and through Christ.

He begins by discussing God’s “rest” in terms of the promise of God to bring the rescued Israelites into the Promised Land. But as we know, and as the Scripture points out, the first generation of freed Israelites did not enter God’s “rest,” but they died in the wilderness (Numbers 14:26-35). The Israelites Moses led out of Egypt did not enter into God’s “rest.” The author wants his Christian readers to focus on the meaning of this tragedy. They are not to turn away from the living God (3:12) or be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13). Rather, they are to “hold firmly till the end” their first confidence (3:14) so that they may enter into God’s “rest.”

The writer summarizes his admonition by saying, “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (4:1). The readers of Hebrews are encouraged to keep up their faith and hope in Christ. Otherwise, as the unbelieving Israelites in Moses’ day lost their opportunity to enter the rest in Canaan, the believers may forfeit the greater blessings of the “rest” in the new era.

From the beginning

The author of Hebrews then turns to a discussion of God’s “rest” from another point of view. He says that this “rest” has been available to humanity since the beginning: “His [God’s] work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: ‘And on the seventh day God rested from all his work’” (4:3-4).

The “somewhere” is Genesis 2:2. When Hebrews was written, the Scriptures were on scrolls. It was difficult to look up specific passages, so writers often quoted passages from memory. But here is our familiar Scripture, and the one we sought to understand in terms of its meaning for Christians. We can understand the “rest” described in Genesis 2:2-3 as the archetype of all later experiences of rest—including the various rest commands given at Sinai, the physical rest Israel received from its enemies under Joshua (a type of Christ), and the promised future rest of the kingdom of God.

The Genesis “rest” of God, applied to God’s creative purpose in Genesis 2:2, can be seen to typify the spiritual salvation of the people of God. That means the weekly Sabbath rest (along with the other rest commands in the Law of Moses) is a lesser expression—a shadow—of the true “rest” symbolically inaugurated at the seventh day of creation. This makes the weekly Sabbath a metaphor of the Genesis “rest” of God, as was the Canaan rest.

The idea of the Genesis rest is that, beginning with the seventh day of creation, God ceased creating. He continues in a state of nonwork in that he is not creating more physical things. However, this doesn’t mean God has been idle. Leon Morris points this out in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Hebrews:

It is worth noticing that in the creation story each of the first six days is marked by the refrain “And there was evening, and there was morning.” However, this is lacking in the account of the seventh day. There we simply read that God rested from all his work. This does not mean that God entered a state of idleness, for there is a sense in which he is continually at work (John 5:17). But the completion of creation marks the end of a magnificent whole…. So we should think of the rest as something like the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment, from the completion of a task, from the exercise of creativity. (page 41)

F.F. Bruce also explained what this means in the volume on Hebrews in The New International Commentary on the New Testament:

When we read that God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Gen. 2:2), we are to understand that he began to rest then; the fact that he is never said to have completed his rest and resumed his work of creation implies that his rest continues still, and may be shared by those who respond to his overtures with faith and obedience. (page 106)

Thus, God’s “rest” has been available from the time the creation was finished—from the foundation of the world. Even though it has been available, few people entered into it before Jesus’ death and resurrection. The offer of entering this “rest” still stands. The writer of Hebrews makes this point by saying: “It still remains that some will enter that rest” (4:6). Whatever this “rest” is, the writer is emphasizing that it is—at the time of writing—a promise his readers can take advantage of. In fact, they must take advantage of it, and not fail to achieve the “rest” because of disobedience (4:11).

Joshua’s “rest”

The author of Hebrews must have realized as he wrote that, on the surface, there had been an apparent large-scale exception to his claim that no people had ever entered a “rest” of God. After all, the second generation of Israelites who were saved from Egypt did enter the Promised Land under Joshua. We read that under Joshua “the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them” (Joshua 23:1). But the writer of Hebrews quickly points out that this is not the kind of “rest” he has in mind, or one that constituted God’s ultimate objective—the “rest” promised to Christians.

Hundreds of years after Joshua led the Israelites into the rest of the Promised Land, the Psalmist urged people to enter a divine rest, and later still, the author of Hebrews was insisting that there is a “rest” its readers must yet enter into. There is more to the “rest” than mere entry into Canaan. Hebrews tells us: “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (4:8-9).

Israel had not secured the true “rest” after all. The writer can therefore exhort his readers to seek, obtain and hold on to this superior “rest” in Christ. This is the true “rest” to which Genesis 2:2-3, the literal Sabbath, the other festival rests, the wilderness experience, the Joshua rest, and the prophecy of Psalm 95 all looked forward to. He is interested in the redemptive and eternal rest in the kingdom of God, of which the weekly Sabbath and Canaan rests were symbols.

William Lane, in the Hebrews commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary, explains why the Joshua rest was but a type of the true “rest”:

The settlement of Canaan did not mark the fulfillment of the divine promise but pointed to another, more fundamental reality. If in fact Joshua had achieved the promised rest, there would have been no need for the renewal of the promise in Ps 95. Accordingly, the experience of rest in Canaan was only a type or symbol of the complete rest that God intended for his people, which was prefigured in the Sabbath rest of God. (page 101)

We have now come from Genesis 2:2-3 to Hebrews 4:9-11, and we see something interesting. The author is not telling his readers to keep a weekly seventh-day Sabbath holy by resting on it. He is not talking about the weekly Sabbath at all. Rather, he is making the point that there is a spiritual “rest” that God’s people should be entering into. It is the heavenly counterpart of the earthly Canaan, and this is the goal of the people of God today—to achieve this present and eternal rest. The epistle of Hebrews makes this point by creating an analogy between the Israelites entering the Promised Land and Christians entering the better promise of a new-covenant spiritual “rest.”

A present “rest”?

The Promised Land was a physical type or foreshadowing of a spiritual “rest” that the Israelites had not yet entered. The weekly Sabbath was a temporal foreshadowing of the spiritual “rest” that God wants his people to enjoy. Christians have entered God’s “rest” by their faith in Jesus Christ. “Now we who have believed enter [or, “are entering”] that rest,” the writer insists (4:3). Christians have the real rest, the spiritual rest, and do not need to observe shadows of it, neither geographical shadows nor temporal shadows.

During his ministry, Jesus had promised a rest for the spirit:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).

Leon Morris points out in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary that the word for “enter” in Hebrews 4:3 is in the present tense. The author of Hebrews was suggesting that his readers were already in the process of entering the “rest” of salvation that Jesus had promised. Some commentators agree that the Hebrews 4:3 “rest” into which Christians have entered begins now, in this life. Leon Morris quotes Hugh Montefiore on this point:

Contrary to some commentators, the Greek means neither that they are certain to enter, nor that they will enter, but that they are already in process of entering. (page 40)

Morris points out that some other commentators feel that the “rest” is something that occurs in the future. The present tense used here, they insist, is meant to be applied only in a generalizing sense. Morris concludes by saying:

Either view is defensible and probably much depends on our idea of the “rest.” If it lies beyond death, then obviously “rest” must be understood in terms of the future. But if it is a present reality, then believers are entering it now. (page 40)

We enter now

The view we take here is that Christians have begun to enter their spiritual “rest” now. We are receiving some of the blessings of salvation, even though we do not yet enjoy them in their fullness. Peter says that Christ “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Paul says God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). The author of Hebrews says that we are “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (12:23).

It’s a question of how we understand when the kingdom of God comes—now or in the future? The answer is both. The kingdom is already, but not yet. There is a sense that the kingdom is both present, and yet future in its full reality. Christians live in the tension between promise and fulfillment, between the already and the not yet, between the glimmer and the reality. (For more on this, see The Present and Future Kingdom of God.) Christians have entered the “rest,” even if only in an imperfect and qualified way. The spiritual realities we already enjoy, although incomplete, are enough that we do not need to observe the physical symbols and rituals of the old covenant.

We have already been invited to enter God’s end-of-creation, the Genesis 2:2-3 “rest,” by believing in the Son of God. By faith, we have joined with him in his “rest.” By faith, we have become new creations—created anew. Our re-creation is not yet complete, but we already have been given entrance, through Christ, into God’s kingdom “rest.”

The writer of Hebrews does not state how he views the time in which the “rest” takes place. His concern is with the spiritual reality, not the physical shadow. His concern seems to be with the present time—with today. He no doubt understands that the fullness of rest comes only with a future resurrection (10:37-38; 12:26). But his point of view in Hebrews 3 and 4 is the present time, the time for which he is writing. The writer is thinking of the salvation “rest” as beginning in the present.

No matter how the writer of Hebrews conceives of the future “rest” in the future, he is not concerned to discuss it in chapters 3 and 4. He is interested in his readers who are alive when he writes—and who need to take hold of the promise of spiritual “rest” in this age. F.F. Bruce agreed that the future rest is not in view here. He stated the following in his commentary on Hebrews:

The identification of the rest of God in the Epistle to the Hebrews with a coming millennium on earth has, indeed, been ably defended; but it involves the importation into the epistle of a concept which in fact is alien to it. (pages 106-107)

The writer of Hebrews is not so much concerned with the future as with the present spiritual state of his readers. In this passage, “tomorrow” is not in his view. That’s why he stresses the word “today.” It was the privilege of the readers to enter God’s “rest” then—and it is our privilege to do so now. We are in “today,” not some future time. The promise of entering God’s “rest” remains valid for each generation—and is repeated to each successive generation—in the church age.

We enter God’s “rest”

Hebrews 4:9-11 is telling us we have entered into God’s promised “rest,” the one he inaugurated on the seventh day of creation. This is the writer’s main theme. The epistle has already noted that God’s “work has been finished since the creation of the world” (4:3). That is, the “rest” of salvation has been offered and promised to humanity since the foundation of the world. It was a work of creation, inaugurated with humanity and for humanity. Donald Guthrie writes the following on this point:

What believers can now enter is none other than the same kind of rest which the Creator enjoyed when he had completed his works, which means that the rest idea is of completion and not of inactivity…. It is important to note that the “rest” is not something new which has not been known in experience until Christ came. It has been available throughout the whole of man’s history. This reference back to the creation places the idea on the broadest possible basis and would seem to suggest that it was part of God’s intention for man. “Rest” is a quality which has eluded man’s quest, and in fact cannot be attained except through Christ. (Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, page 113)

As long as we have faith in Christ—which is the main point of Hebrews—no matter what day of the week it is, we have entered God’s “rest” and we are resting from our own work. “We who have believed enter that rest…. Anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (4:3, 10).

What does the author mean by “work”? He is not discussing the question of employment or labor. That is not his interest. (He has been encouraging his readers to enter the spiritual “rest” of salvation throughout Hebrews 3 and 4.) The writer of Hebrews wants his readers to stop putting their faith in the things that humans do, such as the works of the old covenant—and to place their faith in Christ as Savior. He wants them to look to the work of Christ, which gives forgiveness and empowerment through the Holy Spirit, allowing us to enter the true spiritual “rest.”

In comparison to Christ, the writer has a lower view of the “works” of the Law of Moses. He says of the Law in general and the Levitical priesthood as a whole:

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God (7:18-19).

Hebrews seems to be suggesting that the readers should rest from the ceremonial “work” required under the Mosaic Law. Their “work” in such things as offering sacrifices could not save nor endear them to God. They were saved by grace through faith in Christ, and were endeared to God by that same grace.

The weekly Sabbath?

The Christians to whom Hebrews was written were already attracted to Judaistic practices. This epistle was written to show the church why Judaistic practices were not necessary for Christians. The readers were already attracted to the Sabbath day and would not need any admonishment to rest on this day.1 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary understands this:

Certainly, in writing to Jews, the author of Hebrews would not consider it necessary to prove to them that Sabbathkeeping “remaineth.” If the conclusion of the extended argument beginning with ch. 3:7 is that Sabbathkeeping remains for the people of God, it would seem that the writer of Hebrews is guilty of a non sequitur, for the conclusion does not follow logically from the argument. There would have been no point in so labored an effort to persuade the Jews to do what they were already doing—observing the seventh-day Sabbath…. What relationship a protracted argument designed to prove that Sabbath observance remains an obligation to the Christian church might have to the declared theme of chs. 3 and 4—the ministry of Christ as our great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary—is obscure indeed. (page 423)

The writer of Hebrews is interested in the spiritual or heavenly meaning of such things as the Sabbath and animal sacrifices, not their literal observances, which are shadows of the true “rest” and sacrifice for sin. The Israelites who had been given the Sabbath (the generation that left Egypt) failed to enter God’s “rest.” So did the Jews who strictly kept the Sabbath day when Hebrews was written. Keeping the Sabbath does not automatically bring someone to God. Why, then, would the writer of Hebrews insist on it? The literal seventh-day Sabbath is not in his view at all.

The book of Hebrews, considered as a whole, tells us that the practices of the Mosaic Law are obsolete (7:11-12, 18-19). This would refer to the works or observances of the Law (of which the Sabbath is one example), as opposed to its great moral principles. These are eternal principles that define our relationship with God and fellow human beings. They existed before the old covenant, were imbedded into that covenant, and even after the new covenant brought the old one to an end, remain as fundamental principles.

The new covenant theme of Hebrews suggests—though it doesn’t directly make an issue of this—that the weekly Sabbath day as described in the old covenant has been superseded by a better promise. In particular, Hebrews 4:9-11 tells us that the various allusions of “rest” in the Old Testament, including Genesis 2:2-3 and the weekly Sabbath, picture a spiritual reality to Christians—the eternal rest of God. But that is all Hebrews tells us. It does not address the issue of whether the weekly Sabbath should be kept. This is not the author’s interest.

In conclusion

Let us now survey the biblical motif of “rest.” God had given Israel physical rest in the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, just as Adam and Eve would have had physical “rest” in the Garden of Eden. But the first humans, like all others after them, sinned. Adam and Eve and their descendants were cursed because of sin and lost their “rest.” When Christ brought the solution for sin, he also brought spiritual “rest.”

As part of its covenantal law, God gave Israel various rest days and years to commemorate their having achieved physical blessings (the “rest”) in the Lord (Deuteronomy 5:15). The rest days (especially the weekly Sabbath) commemorated this, and the writer saw it as a representation of God’s original purpose at the creation. The writer included the statement about the symbolic meaning of the Sabbath (that is, about God’s “rest”—Exodus 20:11) in his description of the creation in Genesis 2:2-3. This was a prophetical statement of God’s purpose of providing physical bounty to his human creatures, now fulfilled in Israel.

What the writer of Genesis did not clearly see, since he lived under the old covenant, is that God’s real purpose was to provide humanity with another “rest”—a true eternal rest—God’s purpose in creating humanity in the first place. This more fundamental purpose was fulfilled in Christ, and could be understood only after he had completed his redemptive work. Christ is the true Sabbath rest of Genesis 2:2-3—promised to us from the beginning (Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 1:4-6; Hebrews 4:3; Revelation 13:8). This is how the author of Hebrews understands that “rest.”

Thanks be to God that through his love he gave us his Son, allowing us in his mercy to begin to enter into his eternal rest.

Two Greek words for “rest”

We should also take up the issue of the Greek words for “rest” used in Hebrews 4:9-10. We quote here the verses in question and show the two Greek words being used: “There remains…a Sabbath-rest [sabbatismos] for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest [katapausin] also rests from his own work” (4:9-10).

The Greek word katapausin is used to denote “rest” throughout Hebrews 3:7-4:11. There is one exception, in 4:9, as shown above. Here, sabbatismos is used, and it is translated “Sabbath-rest” in the New International Version. The word is formed from the verb sabbatizo, which means to “keep/observe/celebrate the Sabbath.”2

The only time that sabbatismos is used in the Bible is in Hebrews 4:9. The word is not found in ancient Greek literature until well after the time when Hebrews was written. Some decades later, sabbatismos is found in Plutarch as part of a list of superstitious practices. In his work, the word signifies weekly Sabbath observance. In later Christian documents, sabbatismos sometimes indicates the celebration or festivity associated with the Sabbath day.

With this in mind, William Lane translates Hebrews 4:9 as: “There remains a Sabbath celebration for the people of God.” He points out that the use of sabbatismos is meant to “define more precisely the character of the future rest promised to the people of God” (Hebrews, Word Biblical Commentary, volume 47A, page 101). The word conveyed something about the promised spiritual rest that katapausin would not have done—“the special aspect of festivity and joy, expressed in the adoration and praise of God” for his wonderful grace (page 102).

On one level, the writer of Hebrews seems to have used the two Greek words interchangeably. In 4:9, he says that a promised Sabbath-rest (sabbatismos) remains for the people of God to enter into, and this same rest is called God’s katapausin “rest.” Some scholars suggest that the writer of Hebrews coined the word. He wanted to differentiate between the ultimate spiritual “rest” and the Promised Land rest into which Israel went. If so, the author may also have been making the same difference between the true spiritual “rest” and the weekly Sabbath rest. That is, the Sabbath day is a metaphor of the true rest in the same way that the Israelites entering the Promised Land under Joshua was also a metaphor for spiritual rest. One was a time-based metaphor; the other a geographical one.

Since the seventh-day Sabbath is simply a symbol of the true spiritual rest, the writer would have no logical reason to stress the keeping of the weekly Sabbath. Like the Promised Land, the Sabbath day was a shadow that prefigured the coming reality—the spiritual “rest” of the Christian in Christ.

To summarize: The spiritual rest of salvation into which God’s people are entering is a sabbatismos—a “sabbath keeping”—in the sense that it is a participation in God’s own “rest,” which we enter by faith (4:3). “Anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (4:10). That is to say, the sabbatismos rest of God described in Hebrews 4:9 refers to the salvation “rest” into which all Christians have entered. As mentioned earlier, the culmination of this rest does not occur until the resurrection. But, upon conversion, we have begun the journey.

The weekly Old Testament Sabbath points to the blessing and joy of the spiritual “rest” Christians have in Christ. This may be why the author of Hebrews coined the word sabbatismos—making a play off the word for the Sabbath day (sabbaton). That is, sabbatismos stressed the joy, the celebration, the peace, the jubilation of the spiritual “rest” Christians enjoy. (We’ve put “rest” in quotes here because it does not mean inactivity.)

Hebrews is not clear as to the writer’s attitude toward the weekly Sabbath day. Perhaps he wanted his readers, who were attracted to old covenant customs, to understand the Sabbath’s true meaning in the light of the Christ event, but without making an issue of whether it needs to be kept. This would be in line with the spirit of Romans 14, in which the apostle Paul avoided making one’s view of “sacred days” a test or issue of faith or fellowship.

The Sabbath is meaningful on its own terms, just as the Festival of Tabernacles or the Passover sacrifice is. The Sabbath stands as a metaphor of the whole purpose and meaning of redemption, as do the sacrifices and other old covenant, Mosaic institutions. They foreshadowed the true spiritual “rest” we have in Christ, which includes a “resting” in forgiveness of sin and “resting” from sin itself through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

But Hebrews 4:9 issues no command about keeping or not keeping the Sabbath. The book as a whole makes the point that all the old covenant institutions are obsolete now that the reality has come in Christ. The verse in question cannot be used as a proof-text to insist that Christians keep a weekly seventh-day Sabbath rest. The passage does not exhort us to keep an old covenant Sabbath, but it admonishes us to enter the spiritual “rest” of God by having faith in Christ.


1 One old commentary, the Critical, Experimental and Practical Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown (published in 1864), became confused on this issue and came (we feel) to a wrong conclusion:

It is Jesus, the antitype of Joshua, who leads us into the heavenly rest. This verse [4:9] indirectly establishes the obligation of the Sabbath; for the type continues until the antitype supersedes it: so legal sacrifices continued till the great antitypical sacrifice superseded it. As then the antitypical Sabbath rest will not be till Christ comes to usher us into it, the typical earthly Sabbath must continue till then. (page 537)

The authors, influenced by the Puritans, were thinking of a Sunday Sabbath, and reading their own opinions into the text. The principle they enunciate is erroneous. The type does not continue until the antitype supersedes it. Various Old Testament rituals pictured purity and holiness, and even though we do not yet see complete purity and holiness in the church, the rituals are obsolete. More correctly, types continue only as long as God says they do, and God has declared the old covenant obsolete. It has served its purpose, even though God’s plan is not yet complete.

Moreover, true spiritual rest is found through faith in Christ, and Christ has already come. The antitype has arrived. Christ has already led us into the heavenly rest, just as he is already our sacrifice for sin. We have come to Christ and he has given us rest—seated us in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). This argues against the commentary’s claim that the literal Sabbath is in force. The antitypical salvation rest has already been ushered in, even though incompletely. The shadow (the literal Sabbath) is no longer required.

2 The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 3, page 219, edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, gives the following explanation of sabbatismos:

1. The NT offers in Hebrews 4:9 the oldest documentation of the noun sabbatismos, which occurs several times in post-NT early Christian writings independently of Hebrews 4:9 (e.g., Justin Dial. 23:3; Origen Orat. 27:16; Epiphanius Haer. xxx.2.2; lxvi 85:9; Acts (Martyrdom) of Peter and Paul 1; Apostolic Constitutions ii.36.2; pseudo-Macarius (Symeon) Homily 12.2.4…. At present, sabbatismos has been documented in non-Christian writings only in Plutarch Superst. 3 (Moralia 166a).

The noun is derived from the verb sabbatizo, which in the LXX [Septuagint] appears as the translation of Hebrew sabbat. The vb. means: a) “celebrate/observe the sabbath” (Exod 16:30; Lev 23:32; 2 Macc 6:6; so also Ign. Magn. 9:1; Pap. Oxy. 1,1.2; Justin Dial. 10:1 and passim), b) “observe (sabbath) rest” (Lev 26:34f.; 2 Chr 36:21; 1 Esdr 1:55).

Accordingly, the substantive means sabbath observance (thus in the non-NT passages mentioned) and sabbath rest (thus the understanding of sabbatismos in Heb 4:9 by Origen Cels. v.59; Selecta in Exod on 16:23 [PG XII, 289b]).

2. In Heb 4:9 sabbatismos encompasses both sabbath rest and (cultic) sabbath observance. The word is neither identical in meaning nor interchangeable with katapausis (3:11, 19; 4:1, 3, 5, 10f); it designates more closely what the people of God should expect when they enter the katapausis of God (cf. 4:9 with v.6a). Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation from all his works, so also will believers find the eternal sabbath rest on the day of the completion of salvation in God’s “place of rest” (see 4:10). Quietistic or mystic elements have nothing to do with this expectation. The statement in Heb 4:9f. remains dependent on a Jewish sabbath theology that associates the idea of sabbath rest with ideas of worship and praise of God (Jub. 2:21; 50:9; Bib. Ant. 11:8; 2 Macc 8:27; cf. also 1 Enoch 41:7). Accordingly, the author of Hebrews understands by sabbatismos the eternal sabbath celebration of salvation, i.e., the perfected community’s worship before God’s throne.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2014


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