John Owen and the rest in Hebrews 4:3
In the following excerpt from his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, John Owen supports his interpretation of the nature of the rest in Hebrews 4, outlined previously in his discussion of verse 1. He claimed the rest in this chapter “is that spiritual rest of God, which believers obtain an entrance into by Jesus Christ, in the faith and worship of the gospel, and is not to be restrained unto their eternal rest in heaven.” He said, “The rest here intended is that whereof the land of Canaan was a type.”
[The works of John Owen, Vol IV, edited by William H. Goold. T. & T. Clark. Edinburgh. 1862. pp. 255-261.]
Ver. 3. For we do enter into rest who have believed; as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.
The assertion laid down in the entrance of the verse is FIRST to be considered; and therein,
First, The causal connection, γὰρ, “for.” Now this, as we have showed, doth not refer precisely to any particular passage foregoing. Only it makes way to the further improvement of the whole design of the apostle; which use of that particle we have before observed: ‘The promise, threatening, example, duty, treated of, belong unto us; and this appears from hence, that we are entered into rest who have believed.’
Secondly, The subject of the proposition, or persons spoken of, are οἱ πιστεύσαντες, “who have believed.” The persons included in the verb εἰσερχόμεθα, regulating also this participle, are transferred over unto it in the translation, “we who have believed.” Believing in general is only mentioned; the object of it, or what we believe, is implied, and it is to be taken from the subject-matter treated of. Now this is the gospel, or Christ in the gospel This is that which he proposeth unto them, and which he encourageth them in from his own example. With respect here unto men in the New Testament are everywhere termed πιστεύσαντες, πίστοἰ, or ἀπἰστοἰ, “believers,” or “unbelievers:” ‘We who have believed in Jesus Christ through the preaching of the gospel.’
Εἰσερχόμεθα. We observed before that one old manuscript reads Εἰσερχώμεθα οὖν, ”Let us therefore enter; making it answer unto φοβηθῶμεν οὖν, verse 1, ”Let us fear, therefore;” and Σπουδάσωμεν οὖν, verse 11, “Let us therefore labour.” But the sense in this place will not admit of this reading, because of the addition of οἱ πιστεύσαντες, “who have believed.” The Vulgar Latin renders it “ingrediemur,” in the future tense; which sense is allowed by most expositors. But that which induced them to embrace it was a mistake of the rest here intended. The word expresseth a present act, as a fruit, effect, or consequent of believing. That it is which in a spiritual way answers unto the Israelites entering into the land of Canaan under the conduct of Joshua. Wherefore this entering, this going in, is an allusion taken both in general from the entrance that a man makes into his land or house to take possession of it, and in particular, unto the entrance of the Israelites which were not rebellious or disobedient into the land of Canaan.
Εἰς τὴν κατάπαυσίν, “into that rest,” the promised rest. What the rest here intended is hath been declared on the first verse of this chapter; but because the right stating hereof is the basis on which the whole ensuing exposition of the apostle’s discourse is founded, and the hinge on which it turns, I shall further confirm the interpretation of it before laid down, principally with such reasons as the present text doth suggest. This rest, then, we say, firstly and principally, is that spiritual rest of God, which believers obtain an entrance into by Jesus Christ, in the faith and worship of the gospel, and is not to be restrained unto their eternal rest in heaven. Supposing, then, what hath been argued on the first verse, I add,
First, That the express words here used do assign a present entrance into rest unto them that do believe, or have believed: χόμεθα, “We do enter in.” It may be said, and it is confessed that the present tense doth sometimes express that which is instantly future; as some think it may be proved from Luke xxii. 20, ” This cup is the new testament in my blood, τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ἐκχυννόμενον “which is shed for you.” So also is the same word used, Matt. xxvi. 28. The Vulgar Latin renders the word in each place “effundetur,” “shall be shed” (or “poured out”) “for you,” with respect unto the death of Christ, which was shortly to ensue. I will not deny, as was said, but that the present tense is sometimes put for the future, when the thing intended is immediately to ensue; but yet it is not proved from this place. For our Saviour speaks of the virtue of his blood, and not of the time of shedding it. It was unto them, in the participation of that ordinance, as if it had been then shed, as to the virtue and efficacy of it. But ἔρχεται seems to be put for ἐλεύσομαι John iv. 21, “is come,” for “shall come” speedily; and ὁ ἐρχόμενος is sometimes “he that is to come.” But whenever there is such an enallage of tenses, the instant accomplishment of the thing supposed future is intended; which cannot be said with respect unto eternal rest in heaven. So this change is not to be supposed or allowed, but where the nature of the thing spoken of doth necessarily require it. This tense is not to be imposed on the places where the proper signification of a word so timed is natural and genuine, as it is in this place. It is here, then, plainly affirmed that believers do here, in this world, enter into rest in their gospel-state.
Secondly, The apostle is not primarily in this place exhorting sincere believers unto perseverance, that so at last they may be saved, or enter into eternal rest; but professors, and all to whom the word did come, that they would be sincere and sound in believing. He considers them in the same state with the people in the wilderness when the promise was proposed unto them. Their faith then in it, when they were tried, would have given them an immediate entrance into the land of Canaan. Together with the promise, there was a rest to be instantly enjoyed on their believing. Accordingly, considering the Hebrews in the like condition, he exhorts them to close with the promise, whereby they may enter into the rest that it proposed unto them. And unto perseverance he exhorts them, as an evidence of that faith which will give them an assured entrance into this rest of God; as chap. iii. 14, “We are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.”
Thirdly, The rest here intended is that whereof the land of Canaan was a type. But there were no types of heaven absolutely as a future state of glory. But both the land and all the institutions to be observed in it were types of Christ, with the rest and worship of believers in and by him. They were “shadows of things to come, the body whereof was Christ,” Col. ii. 17. The whole substance of what was intended in them and represented by them was in Christ mystical, and that in this world, before his giving up the kingdom unto the Father at the end, that God may be all in all. Our apostle, indeed, declares that the most holy place in the tabernacle and temple did represent and figure out heaven itself, or the “holy place not made with hands;” as we shall see at large afterwards, Heb. ix. 6-12. But there heaven is not considered as the place of eternal rest and glory to them that die in the Lord, but as the place wherein the gospel-worship of believers is celebrated and accepted, under the conduct and ministration of our high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ; which office ceaseth when his saints are brought into glory. The rest, therefore, here intended being that which was typed out and represented by the land of Canaan, is not the rest of heaven, but of that gospel-state whereinto we are admitted by Jesus Christ. Hereof, and not of heaven itself, was the whole Mosaical economy typical, as shall elsewhere be at large demonstrated.
This, therefore, is the sense and importance of the apostle’s assertion in this verse, ‘We who have believed in Jesus Christ, through the gospel, have thereby an admittance and entrance given unto us into that blessed state of rest in the worship of God which of old was promised,’ Luke i. 69-73. It remains only that we inquire into the nature of this rest, what it is and wherein it doth consist. Now this we have done also already on the first verse ; but the whole matter may be further explained, especially with respect unto the principal consideration of it. And this is, on what account this gospel-state is called God s rest, for so it is in this verse, “If they shall enter into my rest.”
First, It is the rest of God upon the account of the author of it, in whom his soul doth rest. This is Jesus Christ, his Son. Isa.xlii. 1,”Behold,” saith God the Father of him, “my servant, whom I uphold;” בְּחִירִ֖י נַפְשִׁ֑י רָצְתָ֣ה “mine elect; my soul delighteth (resteth) in him.” Matt. iii. 17, “This is my beloved Son, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα.” … Both the words contain more than we can well express in our language. The full satisfaction of the mind of God, with that delight and rest which answer the propensity of the affections towards a most suitable object, is intended in them. The same with that of Prov. viii. 30, “I was by him, as one brought up with him, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.” In which words the infinite, intimate affection and mutual satisfaction between the Father and the Son are expressed. Now God is said to rest in Christ on a two fold account.
1. Because in him, in the glorious mystery of his person as God and man, he hath satisfied and glorified all the holy properties of his nature, in the exercise and manifestation of them. For all the effects of his wisdom, righteousness, holiness, grace, and goodness, do centre in him, and are in him fully expressed. This is termed by our apostle, δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν προσώπῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, 2 Cor. iv. 6; “The glory of God, in the face” (or “person”) “of Jesus Christ;” that is, a glorious representation of the holy properties of the nature of God is made in him unto angels and men. For so “it pleased the Father that in him all fulness should dwell,” Col. i. 19; that he might have “the pre-eminence in all things,” verse 18, especially in the perfect representation of God unto the creation. Yea, the “fulness of the Godhead dwelt in him bodily,” Col. ii. 9, in the union of his person, the highest and most mysterious effect of divine wisdom and grace, 1 Tim. iii. 16; 1 Pet. i. 11, 12. In this sense is he said to be “the image of the invisible God,” Col. 1. 15; which though it principally respects his divine nature, yet doth not so absolutely, but as he was incarnate. For an image must be in a sort aspectable, and represent that which in itself is not seen, which the divine nature of the Son, essentially the same with the Father s, doth not do. God doth, maketh, worketh all things for himself, Prov. xvi. 4; that is, for the satisfaction of the holy perfections of his nature in acts suitable unto them, and the manifestation of his glory thereon. Hence in them all God in some sense doth rest. So when he had finished his works in the creation of the world, he saw that they were “good,” that is, that they answered his greatness, wisdom, and power; and he rested from them, Gen. ii. 2. Which rest, as it doth not include an antecedent lassitude or weariness, as it doth in poor finite creatures, so it doth more than a mere cessation from operation, namely, complacency and satisfaction in the works themselves. So it is said, Exod. xxxi 17, that “on the seventh day God rested, and was refreshed;” which expresseth the complacency he had in his works. But this rest was but partial, not absolute and complete; for God in the works of nature had but partially acted and manifested his divine properties, and some of them, as his grace, patience, and love, not at all. But now, in the person of Christ, the author of the gospel, who is ” the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person,” God doth absolutely and ultimately rest, and that in the manifestation of all his glorious properties, as hath been declared. Hence, in the sacrifices that were typical of him it is said, וַיָּ֣רַח אֶת־רֵ֣יחַהַנִּיחֹח, Gen. viii. 21, “God smelled a savour of rest,” as prefiguring that and foregoing it, wherein he would always rest; for,
2. As in the person, so also in the work of Christ, doth God perfectly rest, namely, in the work of his mediation. He so rests in it, that as it needeth not, so he will never admit of any addition to be made unto it, any help or assistance to be joined with it, for any ends of his glory. This is the design of our apostle to prove, Heb. x. 57. God designed the sacrifices of the law for the great ends of his glory in the typical expiation of sin; but he manifested by various means that he did never absolutely rest in them. Ofttimes he preferred his moral worship before them; ofttimes he rebuked the people for their carnal trust in them, and declared that he had appointed a time when he would utterly take them away, Heb. ix. 10. But as to the mediation and sacrifice of Christ things are absolutely otherwise. Nothing is once named in competition with it; nay, the adding of any thing unto it, the using of any thing with it to the same end and purpose, is, or would be, ruinous to the souls of men. And as for those who will not take up their rest herein, that accept not of the work that he hath wrought, and the atonement that he hath made, by faith, there remains no more sacrifice for their sin, but perish they must, and that for ever. Two ways there are whereby God manifesteth his absolute rest in the person and mediation of Christ:
(1.) By giving unto him “all power in heaven and in earth” upon his exaltation. This power, and the collation of it, we have discoursed of on the first chapter. It was as if God had said unto him, My work is done, my will perfectly accomplished, my name fully manifested, I have no more to do in the world: take now, then, possession of all my glory, sit at my right hand; for in thee is my soul well pleased.
(2.) In the command that he hath given unto angels and men, to worship, honour, and adore him, even as they honour the Father; whereof we have elsewhere treated. By these ways, I say, doth God declare his plenary rest and soul-satisfaction in Jesus Christ, the author of this gospel rest, and as he is so.
Secondly, It is God’s rest, because he will never institute any new kind or sort of worship amongst men, but only what is already ordained and appointed by him in the gospel. God dwells among men in and by his solemn worship: Exod. xxv. 8, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” God dwells in the place of his worship, by it. Hence, when he fixed his worship amongst the people for a season in the land of Canaan, he called it his rest. Thence was that prayer on the motions of the ark, “Arise, LORD, into thy rest, thou, and the ark of thy strength” Ps. cxxxii. 8; 2 Chron. vi. 41: which was the principal thing aimed at in all God’s dealings with that people, the end of all his mighty works, Exod. xv. 17. And in this worship of the gospel, the tabernacle which he hath made for himself to dwell in, the sanctuary which his hands have established, is again with men, Rev. xxi. 3. He hath in it set up again the tabernacle of David, so that it shall fall no more, Acts xv. 16. This worship he will neither add to, nor alter, nor take from; but this is his rest and his habitation amongst men for ever. He is pleased and satisfied with it by Christ.
Thirdly, God also is at peace with the worshippers, and rests in them. He sets up his tabernacle amongst men, that he may “dwell amongst them, and be their God, and that they may be his people,” Rev. xxi. 3; and herein “he rejoiceth over them with joy, and resteth in his love,” Zeph. iii. 17. Thus the whole work of God’s grace in Christ being accomplished, he ceaseth from his labour, and entereth into his rest.
I have added these things to show that it is God’s rest which believers do enter into, as it is here declared. For the nature of the rest itself, as it is by them enjoyed, it hath fully been opened on the first verse, and need not here be again insisted on. And this is that rest which is principally intended both here and in the whole chapter. It is not, indeed, absolutely intended, or exclusively unto all other spiritual rests, or to an increase and progress in the same kind; but it is principally so: for this rest itself is not absolute, ultimate, and complete, but it is initial, and suited to the state of believers in this world. And because it hath its fulness and perfection in eternal rest, in the immediate enjoyment of God, that also may seem to be included therein, but consequentially only.