Formations 02.11.2018: Old School

Hebrews 4:1-3, 11-16

RU Law Camden student center

Today’s passage lies at the intersection of rest and discipleship. Ironically, rest is something that disciples have to strive for. It isn’t automatic, anymore than it was automatic for the wilderness generation that refused to listen to God’s voice.

As you may know, a disciple is a student or a learner. What you may not know is that the words “school” and “scholar” come from a Greek word that means—get this—leisure time. If you had told me this at any point during my years of formal education, I’d have probably laughed in your face. When I was a student, the last thing I thought I had was leisure time!

There are two possible rejoinders to this. The first and most obvious is that it is much harder to go to college if you’re working a full-time job and keeping up with other adult responsibilities. This was even truer in earlier generations with their longer workdays. The ability to devote large amounts of time to pursuing one’s education is pretty much mandatory if you want to succeed.

But at a deeper level, the ancient philosophers understood that leisure time—rest—was in fact an essential part of education. For them, learning wasn’t just a matter of memorizing textbooks or working math problems; it was also a matter of rest. Or more to the point, it was a matter of restful contemplation. Scholars are people who take in their lessons, sift them their minds, and talk about and debate them in a relaxed atmosphere with their peers simply because they love to learn.

Biblical interpreters agree that the author of Hebrews was highly educated. If anybody understood the classical model of education and how it might be a fitting analogy for Christian discipleship, it was he. And maybe that sheds a little light on what he is saying in today’s passage. Having explored the theme of the “rest” that God provides for God’s people, he encourages his readers to strive to enter that rest. Let us make every effort to press on, he says, listening to and obeying God’s word. If he could explain it to us in person, perhaps he would add, “So you’re going to have to slow down and make some time in your busy schedules to let this powerful word take root.” Otherwise, we might miss everything God is trying to tell us.

Rest is the goal. How might it also be part of the journey?


• What do you like to do with your leisure time? How do these things enhance the quality of your life?
• Did you enjoy school or did you find it to be drudgery? Explain.
• What are some of the lessons disciples need to learn? How can we learn them best?

Reference Shelf

The Word of God

The term [word of God] appears frequently in the prophetic formulas: “The word of the Lord came” (Ezek 21:1; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1), and “Hear the word of the Lord (Isa 1:10; Hos 4:1). A prophetic oracle generally follows this introduction. The word from God did not always come to the prophet through speech, however, but was at times “seen” by the prophet (Isa 2:1; Amos 1:1). Either way, the prophet was responsible for relaying the word of God to the people (Amos 3:8). The Law, particularly the Ten Commandments, is also called the word of God (Exod 24:4; 34:21-27; Ps 119:10-11). The word of God conveys God’s unfailing plan or design for the world, God’s people or the course of events (1 Sam 3:7; Isa 39:8; 55:11).

The word of God, therefore, represents God in action. It is dynamic and has a real impact upon the people toward whom it is directed. For example, the word of God can heal and rescue people in trouble (Ps 107:20); it can melt ice (Ps 147:17-19); it is like fire and like a hammer that breaks rock into pieces (Jer 23:29). By means of the word, God created the world (Gen 1:3ff.; Ps 33:6) and saved people (Ps 119:81). God’s word lasts forever (Isa 40:8).

Niels-Erik A. Andreasen, “Word of God,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 970.

Sabbath Rest

The first paragraph not only stresses the entering of God’s rest but clarifies the distinctive character of that rest. Verse 1 is a warning: “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” But this warning is predicated upon the openness of the promise to enter God’s rest. The readers would have understood that fact from the biblical account stating the verdict that none of the rebellious generation will enter Canaan, but “my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it” (Num 14:24). The rest in mind, however, exceeds the geographical and temporal limits of entering into Canaan. The author will later show that the rest in mind is prefigured in the Sabbath rest of God. Experience of rest in Caanan is a symbol of the complete rest God intends for God’s people. The eschatological understanding of “my rest” in Psalm 95:11 is presupposed in 4:1 (to be developed later) and adds force to the exhortation “Let us take care that none of you would seem to have failed to reach it” (4:1). The NRSV translation, “Take care,” parallels the “take care” of 3:12. The Greek word used in 4:1 (phobethomen), however, is stronger than that in 3:12 (blepete). It could be translated “Let us fear . . . lest anyone of you might be deemed to have failed to reach it.” The fear is that of being found or judged to have fallen short.

Verse 2 extends the exhortation by explaining
 what results in failing to reach the rest of God.
 In this explanation, the exodus generation is contrasted with the present generation. Both generations received the good news; “indeed the good news came to us just as to them.” The message heard by the exodus generation, however, “did not benefit them, because the members of the exodus generation were not united by faith with those who listened.” Who are “those who listened” with whom the exodus generation was not united by faith? At this point in the text, the readers doubtless have Joshua and Caleb in mind. Numbers 14:24 speaks of Caleb as one who followed “wholeheartedly,” and Numbers 14:30 adds Joshua to the list. But more than the historical figures of Caleb and Joshua may be involved. A hint is given in the next verse: “For we who have believed enter that rest.” Later, readers will be given a clearer insight into the relation- ship of past generations to the present generation. The writer declares that the faithful heroes of the old covenant are perfected only by their union with Christians (11:40; see also 9:15). So those who listened include not only Joshua and Caleb but believers in Jesus Christ.

In the statement “we who have believed enter that rest” (v. 3), the present tense “enter” is used, indicating that believers enter rest at the present time—not just at death or in the eschaton. The significance of this present entry into rest is related to the meaning of “rest.” The Christian’s entry into rest is made possible by Christ’s entry into the divine presence; and the Christian’s experience parallels the experience of Christ. The concept of “rest,” then, is rich. Personal and corporate dimensions are involved. Concern for individuals is prominent at 3:12 and 4:1 (see also 4:10). The rest, however, is also for the whole people of God (4:9). “Realized” and future elements are involved (see 10:25, 37-38; 12:26-29). All that is involved is not stated in Hebrews. Different understandings of salvation engender different understandings of the “rest” involved. These different understandings of salvation and rest are also related to the views of Christ developed in Hebrews.

Edgar V. McKnight, “Hebrews,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 104–106.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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