Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683) understood the apostle’s meaning in Hebrews 4:1 to be, ‘There is yet on the part of God a promise left unto believers of entering into his rest.’
In the excerpt below, from his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Owen discusses whether entering God’s rest in Hebrews 4:1 means heaven, and this is followed by a discussion of the nature of the promised rest. [The works of John Owen, Vol IV, edited by William H. Goold. T. & T. Clark. Edinburgh. 1862. p. 215-220.]
Expositors generally grant that it is the rest of glory which is here intended. This is the ultimate rest which is promised unto believers under the gospel. So they who are in glory are said to “rest from their labours,” Rev. xiv. 13, and to have “rest,” 2 Thess. i. 7, the rest of believers in heaven, after they have passed through their course of trials, sufferings, faith, and obedience, in this world. This rest they take it for granted that the apostle insists on throughout this chapter, and they make a supposition thereof the ground of their exposition of the several parts of it, regulating the whole thereby. But I must take the liberty to dissent from this supposition, and that upon the reasons following:–
First, The “rest” here proposed is peculiar to the gospel and the times thereof, and contradistinct unto that which was proposed unto the people under the economy of Moses; for whereas it is said that the people in the wilderness failed and came short of entering into rest, the rest promised unto them, the apostle proves from the psalmist that there is another rest, contradistinct unto that, proposed under the gospel. And this cannot be the eternal rest of glory, because those under the old testament had the promise there of no less than we have under the gospel; for with respect there unto doth our apostle in the next verse affirm that “the gospel was preached unto them, as it is unto us,”–no less truly, though less clearly and evidently. And this rest multitudes of them entered into. For they were both “justified by faith,” Rom. iv. 3, 7, 8, and had the “adoption of children,” Rom. ix. 4; and when they died they entered into eternal rest with God. They did, I say, enter into the rest of God; that is, at their death they went unto a place of refreshment under the favour of God: for whatever may be thought of any circumstances of their condition,–as that their souls were only in “loco refrigerii,” in a place of refreshment, and not of the enjoyment of the immediate presence of God,–yet it cannot be denied but that they entered into peace, and rested, Isa. lvii. 2. This, therefore, cannot be that other rest which is provided under the gospel, in opposition to that proposed under the law, or to the people in the wilderness.
Secondly, The apostle plainly carrieth on in his whole discourse an antithesis consisting of many parts. The principal subject of it is the two people, that in the wilderness, and those Hebrews to whom the gospel was now preached. Concerning them he manageth his opposition as to the promises made unto them, the things promised, and the means or persons whereby they were to be made partakers of them, namely, Moses and Joshua on the one hand, and Jesus Christ on the other. Look, then, what was the rest of God which they of old entered not into, and that which is now proposed must bear its part in the antithesis against it, and hold proportion with it. Now that rest, as we have proved, whereinto they entered not, was the quiet, settled state of God’s solemn worship in the land of Canaan, or a peaceable church-state for the worship of God in the land and place chosen out for that purpose.
Now, it is not the rest of heaven that, in this antithesis between the law and the gospel, is opposed hereunto, but the rest that believers have in Christ, with that church-state and worship which by him, as the great prophet of the church, in answer unto Moses, was erected, and into the possession whereof he powerfully leads them, as did Joshua the people of old into the rest of Canaan.
Thirdly, The apostle plainly affirms this to be his intention, for, verse 3, he saith, “For we which have believed do enter into rest.” It is such a rest, it is that rest which true believers do enter into in this world; and this is the rest which we have by Christ in the grace and worship of the gospel, and no other. And thus the rest which was proposed of old for the people to enter into, which some obtained, and others came short of by unbelief, was a rest in this world, wherein the effects of their faith and unbelief were visible; and therefore so also must that be wherewith it is compared. And this consideration we shall strengthen from sundry other passages in the context, as we go through with them in our way.
Fourthly, Christ and the gospel were promised of old to the people as a means and state of rest; and in answer unto those promises they are here actually proposed unto their enjoyment. See Isa. xi. 1-10, xxviii. 12; Ps. lxxii. 7, 8, etc.; Isa. ix. 6, 7, ii. 2-4; Gen. v. 29; Matt. xi 28; Isa. lxvi.; Luke i. 70-75. This was the principal notion which the church had from the foundation of the world concerning the kingdom of the Messiah, or the state of the gospel, namely, that it was a state of spiritual rest and deliverance from every thing that was grievous or burdensome unto the souls and consciences of believers. This is that which the people of God in all ages looked for, and which in the preaching of the gospel was proposed unto them.
Fifthly, The true nature of this rest may be discovered from the promise of it; for a promise is said to remain of entering into this rest. Now, this promise is no other but the gospel itself as preached unto us. This the apostle expressly declares in the next verse. The want of a due consideration hereof is that which hath led expositors into their mistake in this matter; for they eye only the promise of eternal life given in the gospel, which is but a part of it, and that consequential unto sundry other promises. That promise concerns only them who do actually believe; but the apostle principally intends them which are proposed unto men as the prime object of their faith, and encouragement unto believing. And of these the principal are the promise of Christ himself, and of the benefits of his mediation. These sinners must be interested in before they can lay claim to the promise of eternal life and salvation.
Sixthly, The whole design of the apostle is not to prefer heaven, immortality, and glory, above the law and that rest in God’s worship which the people had in the land of Canaan, for none ever doubted thereof, no, not of the Hebrews themselves; nay, this is far more excellent than the gospel state itself: but it is to set out the excellency of the gospel, with the worship of it and the church-state whereunto therein we are called by Jesus Christ, above all those privileges and advantages which the people of old were made partakers of by the law of Moses. This we have already abundantly demonstrated; and if it be not always duly considered, no part of the epistle can be rightly understood. The rest, therefore, here in tended is that rest which believers have an entrance into by Jesus Christ in this world.
This being the rest here proposed, as promised in the gospel, our next inquiry is into the nature of it, or wherein it doth consist. And we shall find the concernments of it reduced into these five heads:
First, In peace with God, in the free and full justification of the persons of believers from all their sins by the blood of Christ: Rom. v. 1, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God;” Eph. i. 7, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” This is fully expressed, Acts xiii. 32, 33, 38, 39, “We declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again. … Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” The whole of what we contend for is expressed in these words. The promise given unto the fathers, but not accomplished unto them, is no other but the promise of rest insisted on. This now is enjoyed by believers, and it consists in that justification from sin which by the law of Moses could not be attained. This, with its proper evangelical consequents, is the foundation of this rest. Nor is it of force to except, that this was enjoyed also under the old testament; for although it was so in the substance of it, yet it was not so as a complete rest. Neither was it at all attained by virtue of their present promises, their worship, their sacrifices, or whatever other advantage they had by the law of Moses; but by that respect which those things had to the gospel. Justification, and peace with God thereon, are properly and directly ours; they were theirs by a participation in our privileges, “God having ordained some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect,” Heb. xi. ult. Neither had they it clearly or fully, as an absolutely satisfactory spiritual rest. God revealed it unto them in and by such means as never made them perfect in this matter, but left them under a renewed sense of sin, Heb. x. 1-4; but under the gospel, life and immortality being brought to light, 2 Tim. i. 10, and the eternal life which was with the Father being manifested unto us, 1 John i. 2, the veil being removed both from the face of Moses and the hearts of believers by the Spirit, 2 Cor. iii. 13-18, they have now a plerophory, a full assured persuasion of it, at least in its causes and concomitants.
Secondly, In our freedom from a servile, bondage frame of spirit in the worship of God. This they had under the old testament; they had the spirits of servants, though they were sons. “For the heir as long as he is νήπιός,” “an infant,” unable to guide himself, “differeth nothing from a servant, but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.” So were these children in their legal state in bondage, ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ χρόνον, under the very first rudiments of instruction which God was pleased to make use of towards his children in this world, Gal. iv. 1-3. And this had particular respect unto that “spirit of bondage unto fear,” Rom. viii. 15, which they were under in the worship of God; for it is opposed unto that liberty, freedom, and filial boldness, which under the gospel believers are made partakers of, by the “Spirit of adoption” enabling them to cry, “Abba, Father,” Gal. iv. 6, Rom. viii. 15, 16. And this kept them from that full and complete rest which now is to be entered into. For this cannot be, namely, a rest in the worship of God, but where there is liberty; and this is only where is the Spirit of Christ and the gospel, as our apostle discourseth at large, 2 Cor. iii. 14-18. The Son making of us free, we are free indeed; and do, by the Spirit of that Son, receive spiritual liberty, boldness, enlargedness of mind, and plainness of speech, in crying, “Abba, Father.”
Thirdly, Evangelical rest consists in a delivery from the yoke and bondage of Mosaical institutions. For as the people of old had a spirit of bondage within them, so they had without upon them ζυγὸν, “a yoke;” and that not only in itself δυσβάστακτα, “heavy and grievous to be borne,” but such as eventually they could not bear, Acts xv. 10. They could never so bear or carry it as to make comfortable work under it. ‘ο νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν ἐν δόγμασιν, “the law of commands,” that principally consisted in commandments, and those greatly multiplied, as we have showed elsewhere, being also positive, absolute, severe, or dogmatical, was burdensome unto them, Eph. ii. 15. This yoke is now taken away, this law is abrogated, and peace, with rest in Christ, in whom we are “complete,” Col. ii. 10, and who “is the end of the law for righteousness,” are come in the room of them. And this rest in the consciences of men from an obligation unto an anxious, scrupulous observation of a multitude of carnal ordinances, and that under most severe revenging penal ties, is no small part of that rest which our Saviour makes that great encouragement unto sinners to come unto him, Matt. xi. 28-30.
Fourthly, This rest consists in that gospel-worship whereunto we are called. This is a blessed rest on manifold accounts: 1. Of that freedom and liberty of spirit which believers have in the obedience of it. They obey God therein, not in the “oldness of the letter,” ἐν παλαιότητι γράμματος, in that old condition of bondage wherein we were when the law was our husband, that rigorously ruled over us, but ἐν καινότητιπνεύματος, in the “newness of the Spirit,” or the strength of that renewing Spirit which we have received in Christ Jesus, Rom. vii. 6, as was before declared. 2. Of the strength and assistance which the worshippers have for the performance of the worship itself in a due and acceptable manner. The law prescribed many duties, but it gave no strength to perform them spiritually. Constant supplies of the Spirit accompany the administration of the gospel in them that believe. There is an ἐπιχορηγίας τοῦ πνεύματος Phil. i. 19, “a supply of the Spirit,” continually given out to believers from Christ, their head, Eph. iv. 15, 16. χορηγία, or χορήγημα, is a sufficient provision administered unto a person for his work or business; and ἐπιχορηγία is is a continual addition unto that provision, for every particular act or duty of that work or business; “prioris suppeditationis corollarium,” a complemental addition unto a former supply or provision. This believers have in their observance of gospel-worship. They do not only receive the Spirit of Christ, fitting and enabling their persons for this work in general, but they have continual additions of spiritual strength, or supplies of the Spirit, for and unto every special duty. Hence have they great peace, ease, and rest, in the whole course of it. 3. The worship itself, and the obedience required therein, is not grievous, but easy, gentle, rational, suited unto the principles of the new nature of the worshippers. Hence they never more fully partake of spiritual rest, nor have clearer evidences of their interest and entrance into eternal rest, than in and by the performance of the duties of it.
Fifthly, This is also God’s rest; and by entering into it believers enter into the rest of God. For, 1. God resteth ultimately and absolutely, as to all the ends of his glory, in Christ, as exhibited in the gospel, that is, he in whom his “soul delighteth,” Isa. xlii. 1, and “in whom he is well pleased,” Matt. xvii. 5. In him his wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and grace, do rest, as being exalted and glorified according to his purpose. 2. Through him he rests in his love towards believers also. As of old, in the sacrifices which were types of him, it is said that he “smelled a savour of rest,” Gen. viii. 21, so that on his account he would not destroy men, though sinners; so in him he is expressly said to “rest in his love” towards them, Zeph. iii. 17. 3. This is that worship which he ultimately and unchangeably requires in this world. He always gave out rules and commands for his outward worship, from the foundation of the world; but he still did so with a declaration of this reserve, to add what he pleased unto former institutions, and did accordingly, as we have declared on the first verse of this epistle. Moreover, he gave intimation that a time of reformation was to come, when all those institutions should expire and be changed. Wherefore in them the rest of God could not absolutely consist, and which on all occasions he did declare. But now things are quite otherwise with respect unto gospel-worship; for neither will God ever make any additions unto what is already instituted and appointed by Christ, nor is it liable unto any alteration or change unto the consummation of all things. This, therefore, is God’s rest and ours.