Hebrews 4:9 And The Sabbath
One of the occupation hazards of biblical studies is that proof texts are inevitably seen for what they are: unconvincing. Throughout 2020 I worked on my Masters dissertation, focusing on Hebrews’ eschatology and the timing of rest in chapters 3 and 4—are you yawning? Anyway, this has meant a careful, lengthy, and often laborious poring over Hebrews 3-4 together with related scholarship. Throughout this process I have become more sensitive to proof texting from Hebrews (for example, 10:24-25). So in this post I want to turn up Hebrews 4:9, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (ESV). This verse is often cited in support of Sabbath observance or continuation—and in extreme cases Sabbatarianism. But is that what it means?
Throughout The New Testament: Sabbath Means Saturday
In a previous post on the Sabbath I raised two initial problems with using Hebrews 4:9 as a proof text for Sabbath observance. The first is built on the rest of the New Testament as well as evidence from the early church. If Jewish Christians were keeping the Sabbath in the 1st century it would have been done on Saturday and not Sunday. There is no transferral of Sabbath to Lord’s Day in the New Testament. Thus whenever we read the word ‘Sabbath’ in our Bibles it refers to Saturday.
Secondly, the word translated “Sabbath rest” in Hebrews 4:9 is not the Greek word found throughout the rest of the New Testament, to refer to Saturday. This has lead many scholars to distinguish it from Sabbath observance, suggesting that it could describe a heavenly and eschatological Sabbath celebration rather than the weekly observance. In my opinion, this fits much better with the literary context as well as the eschatological nature of Hebrews.
Thus there is another far more significant problem with appealing to Hebrews 4:9 as evidence for the ongoing significance of the Sabbath commandment. It is that it completely ignores the literary context and author’s argument. Of course, if one was simply to rip Hebrews 4:9 from its surroundings—something those in my theological tradition are so indignantly critical of—it might appear to support the idea that Sabbath observance still applies to Christians. However, when one reads the verse within the larger argument of 3:7-4:11 it becomes increasingly difficult to see its validity in debates around the Sabbath.
“Remains”: Future Or Continuing?
Read the verse again: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” The Greek verb translated ‘remains’ can indeed have a sense of continuation. For example: in English: even though the surgery was a success, some pain remains. But the verb can also locate something in the future, with the sense that it is still to come. For example: it still remains for me to wash our car this week. That the Sabbath rest, celebration, or worship “remains” can therefore refer to either: (1) its on going, present nature; or (2) an expectation for the future.
What becomes apparent when we look to the broader context, is that the writer seems to use the verb “remains” with the latter sense. In 4:6 he writes, “it remains for some to enter God’s rest.” The meaning in Hebrews 4:6 is not that God’s rest continues for the present, but rather that it will be entered in the future. The writer is exhorting his readers that God’s promise of entrance was not exhausted in Canaan (4:1). Therefore claiming that the Sabbath ‘remains’ (4:9) does not necessarily mean that it has an abiding significance in the present. Instead, the author of Hebrews appears to hold out the promise of entering into an eternal Sabbath, closely related to God’s rest.
Some writers attempt to read two layers into these verses—in fact, into this whole section of the epistle. Usually citing Hebrews 4:3, they claim that God’s rest is partially entered while it will be finally and fully experienced at the consummation. That may be so, in light of what is called realised eschatology, or more popularly the ‘now and not yet.’ However, to claim that this verb means both that entrance into God’s rest “remains” in the future and that the Sabbath “remains” in the present moves well beyond eschatological paradox into semantic overload. It simply cannot mean both.
Literary Context Of Hebrews: An Appeal To Persevere
Before concluding I would like to qualify what I’ve said regarding eschatology. Understanding Hebrews 4:9 as a reference to future entrance fits far better with the author’s rhetoric and purpose. Following the conclusion that the wilderness generation didn’t enter God’s rest (Hebrews 3:11), the author exhorts them to persevere so that they do not fall away from God (3:12-13). This is the sustained exhortation throughout these two chapters of Hebrews, even the entire epistle. Thus the section concludes in 4:11, “let us strive to enter into that rest, so that none may fall into the same pattern of disobedience.” These exhortations suggest that the author is discussing future realities.
The author also repeatedly warns believers using the Old Testament wilderness generation (Numbers 13-14). For they did not enter (3:11, 19; 4:5); they died in the wilderness because of infidelity (3:16-19); and they heard the gospel without faith (4:2). These statements are then turned into urgent pleas by the author, even giving place to fear in the Christian faith—the fear of apostasy. Read Hebrews 4:1, “since the promise to enter God’s rest remains, let us fear that none of you fall.” The language of promise combined with the exhortation to fear falling short indicate that the author is discussing future realities: fidelity will result in future entrance.
Hebrews 4:9 Is Not About Sabbath Observance
For the reasons outlined above, I do not think that Hebrews 4:9 has a place in conversations about the significance of the Sabbath commandment. Firstly, the word translated ‘Sabbath’ is not the typical New Testament word, meaning many take it to refer to an eschatological Sabbath celebration in heaven. Secondly, the verb “remains”does not necessarily provide a continuing or on going sense. It can locate something in the future. Thirdly, to understand this verse as a throwaway statement regarding Sabbath observance is difficult to reconcile with the literary context as well as Hebrews’ broader eschatology. The author’s rhetoric is carefully laid out to stir faithful perseverance. A single verse referring to the abiding significance of the Sabbath therefore seems very out of place.