The concept of entering into God’s rest comes from Hebrews 3–4. What is this rest the Hebrew writer is talking about? How do we enter it? And how do we fail to enter it? The writer to the Hebrews begins his discussion of God’s rest in chapter 3 where he references the Israelites wandering in the desert. In giving them the land of Canaan, God had promised them that He would go before them and defeat all their enemies in order that they could live securely (Deuteronomy 12:9-10). All that was required of them was to fully trust in Him and His promises. However, they refused to obey Him. Instead, they murmured against Him, even yearning to go back to their bondage under the Egyptians (Exodus 16:3, 17:1-7; Numbers 20:3-13).
The particular “rest” referred to here was that of the land of Canaan. Into that rest God solemnly said the Israelites who disobeyed Him would never enter (Hebrews 3:11). They had been rebellious. All the means of reclaiming them had failed. God had warned and entreated them; He had caused His mercies to pass before them, and had visited them with judgments in vain; and He now declares that for all their rebellion they should be excluded from the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:16-19). But eventually, the next generation did place their faith in God, and by following the leadership of Joshua they, some forty years later, entered into God’s rest, the land of Canaan (Joshua 3:14-17).
Using the Israelites as an example of those who were not resting in God’s promises, the writer goes on in chapter 4 to make the application personal, both to the Hebrew Christians and to us: “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” (Hebrews 4:1). The promise that still stands is the promise of salvation through God’s provision—Jesus Christ. He alone can provide the eternal rest of salvation through His blood shed on the cross for the remission of sins. God’s rest, then, is in the spiritual realm, the rest of salvation. Faith, he goes on to assert, is the key to entering God’s rest. The Hebrews had had the gospel preached to them, just as the Israelites knew the truth about God, but the messages were of “no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (Hebrews 4:2). Some of those Paul was addressing had heard the good news of Christ, but they rejected it for lack of faith.
Hebrews 4:10-13 explains the nature of this faith. The kind of faith that enables us to enter into God’s rest is a faith that first demands that we rest from relying on our own works. Then the writer seemingly contradicts himself by telling us to make every effort: “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 by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:10-11). What this apparent paradox means is that such biblical faith involves our submissiveness to God, and our efforts in that area.
Though we desist in our self-efforts to earn salvation and the promised eternal rest, we also “make every effort to enter that rest” by choosing to depend solely on God, to trust Him implicitly, to yield totally to the promises of God through the free grace of His salvation. Why? So “that no one will fall by following their [the Israelites] example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). We either trust ourselves to save ourselves, or we trust God to do that for us through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By failing to trust God fully in His promises, we become disobedient and fail to enter the rest that is eternal life, just as the children of Israel did when they failed to enter the Promised Land.
So how do we stop trusting ourselves? How do we place our full trust in God and His promises? We enter into God’s rest by first understanding our total inability to enter God’s rest on our own. Next, we enter God’s rest by our total faith in the sacrifice of Christ and complete obedience to God and His will. “And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Hebrews 3:18-19). Unlike the Israelites whose unbelief prevented them from entering the Promised Land, we are to enter God’s rest by faith in Him, faith which is a gift from Him by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).