There are a number of questions raised in studying this passage:
QUESTION #1: Isn’t the author of Hebrews just picking and choosing passages on “rest” to support his point?
The author of Hebrews cites multiple passages throughout the Bible that refer to rest, and then he claims that this applies to the finished work of Christ. Is he picking out these words randomly, or was this intentional? Let’s consider each closely:
The “rest” of Adam’s time (Gen. 2:2): The author references the fact that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, and therefore, they were born into God’s “rest” from creation (4:4). Like the people of the Exodus at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 13-14), Adam and Eve failed to enter God’s rest—being banished from the Garden. Gleason writes, “The second synonym for ‘rest’ in Genesis 2 is… used of God causing Adam ‘to rest’ (Hiphil) in the garden (Gen. 2:15).” Therefore, God created Adam to rest in his rest. However, the Septuagint and even English translations obscure this grammatical insight. Therefore, the author of Hebrews quoted from Genesis 2:2, instead of 2:15, to be clear with his audience.
The “rest” of Moses’ time (Num. 13-14): The author of Hebrews mentions the rest that the people of the Exodus forfeited at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 13-14). Even though God promised the people the “rest” of the Promised Land (v.11), the people didn’t get it because of their unbelief (3:12).
The “rest” of David’s time (Ps. 95): David lived roughly one thousand years before Christ, but he cites the rest of God as still current to his day. The author repeatedly takes note of the fact that David says that “Today” the rest is still available (3:15). The author uses this passage to show that the “rest” of the Promised Land was the end of God’s rest: if David could speak of God’s “rest” 500 years after the people took over the land (in Psalm 95), then there must be a rest for us today.
The “rest” of believers in the Church Age: Since the rest of God occurred at the time of Adam, Moses, and David, the author of Hebrews states that it must apply to believers “Today” as well (Heb. 3:13, 15; 4:7). His conclusion is that we are to “[rest] from [our] works, as God did from His” (4:10). He also points out that believers throughout history have failed to gain God’s rest because of their “unbelief” (4:11). Following God under works is the definition of unbelief. By going under works, we are hardening our heart, according to the author.
QUESTION #2: Was the author warning them not to lose their salvation here?
We have already argued that true believers cannot lose their salvation (see “Eternal Security”). However, in addition to this systematic evidence, we feel that this interpretation of “losing our salvation” is false on exegetical grounds. Consider a number of reasons:
First, the people of the Exodus were true believers. The people “believed” God and “worshiped” God (Ex. 4:30-31; 12:27; Ps. 106:12). Gleason writes, “The word translated ‘believed,’ means in the Hiphil form ‘to have faith, to trust (in)’ and was used in the Old Testament to express full confidence and genuine faith in Yahweh… This form is also used of Abraham, in Genesis 15:6, who ‘believed in the LORD, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness’ (Gen. 15:6).” Moses tells us that the people passed the test of the Passover, and they did “just as the Lord had commanded” (Ex. 12:28).
In addition, God promised the people “salvation” (Ex. 14:13), and Moses described their rescue as “salvation” (Ex. 15:2). He said that the people were “redeemed” (15:13) and “purchased” (15:16) by God. Even though the people sinned, rebelled, and forgot about God’s kindness (Ps. 106:6-7), God still “redeemed” them (Ps. 106:10) and “saved” them (Ps. 106:8). In the midst of the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea, Moses writes that the people were “pardoned” from the guilt of their sin (Num. 14:20); this was due to the love and grace of God (v.19). Even in the book of Hebrews, the author commended their faith in passing through the Red Sea (Heb. 11:29).
Second, while the author refers to them “falling away,” this could refer to falling away from God’s blessings—not his salvation. Gleason writes, “Since άποστηναι (“to fall away”) is not a technical term for absolute apostasy but simply denotes movement away from a point of reference, it is best to determine the meaning of this warning in light of the events of Numbers 14 alluded to throughout the passage.” Remember, even when they were excluded from the land, they still were never taken back to Pharaoh. Instead, God carried them through the wilderness “just as a man carries his son” (Deut. 1:31). This doesn’t fit with the notion that these Israelites were non-believers. Instead, they were believers who were excluded from the great blessings of God.
Third, if the people went to hell, then so did Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The death of Miriam (Num. 20:1) and Moses and Aaron (Num. 20:12, 24) are identical to the deaths of those who hardened their hearts against going to the Promised Land. In fact, the author of Hebrews lumps the people together with Moses (Heb. 3:16). But if the author of Hebrews sees the Promised Land as symbolic for heaven, then this would mean that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam went to hell! How is this possible, when Moses appears before Christ at the Mount of Transfiguration, talking about his work on the Cross (Lk. 9:31)?
The rest described does not refer to the rest of heaven. Instead, this is the rest of faith on Earth. As Reformed author Andrew Murray aptly notes, “This is the rest into which [one] enters, not through death, but through faith.”
QUESTION #3: What is the lesson of this section?
The author of Hebrews is taking his audience back to the OT to demonstrate how easily it is to fall into unbelief—even after seeing God working so powerfully. The major sin of the Israelites in Moses’ time was their lack of trust in God’s ability to provide for their needs (Ex. 17:7; Num. 11:4-6, 18-23; 14:7-9). Likewise, as believers in Christ, we face this same difficulty.
Comparison of Believers
Israelites after the Exodus
|God had just saved them from Pharaoh||
God had just saved them from sin, Satan, and death (Heb. 2:14-15)
God wanted to take them into the Promised Land where they could rest from their slavery
|God wanted them to understand their position in Christ, so that they could rest from their works|
|The Israelites forfeited God’s blessings because of their unbelief||
The believers forfeited God’s rest in Christ because of their unbelief in the work of the Cross
Gleason argues that the context for Psalm 95 is worship and enjoying the “presence” of God (Ps. 95:2, 6). In Moses’ day, God said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14). Here God connects his presence with his rest. This would fit with Hebrews 3-4, where the author encourages the believers to “hold fast” to their hope (3:6) and assurance (3:14), so that they can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). When we fall under a works-based approach, we lack the confidence of approaching God boldly in Christ through faith.
Gleason, Randall. “The Old Testament Background of Rest in Hebrews 3:7-4:11.” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000) 281-303.
Richard Longenecker, “Hebrews and the Old Testament,” in Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1975).
 Gleason, Randall. “The Old Testament Background of Rest in Hebrews 3:7-4:11.” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000). 299.
 Gleason, Randall. “The Old Testament Background of Rest in Hebrews 3:7-4:11.” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000). 288.
 Gleason, Randall. “The Old Testament Background of Rest in Hebrews 3:7-4:11.” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000). 291.
 Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All, 144.
 Gleason, Randall. “The Old Testament Background of Rest in Hebrews 3:7-4:11.” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000). 297.