The original Jewish recipients of this letter would have been quite familiar with the saga of their ancestors. Led by Moses, they were freed from slavery in Egypt and promised a home of their own, a Promised Land. But on the threshold of entering the land (Canaan), they chose fear over faith. They were overwhelmed by the difficulties of possessing their promise, and they refused to believe that God was able to help them. God viewed their refusal as open rebellion. He sent them with their hard hearts to wander in the wilderness for forty years, and only when their hearts were tender and trusting did He give them another opportunity to enter the Promised Land where they could rest from their wandering.
The Jews to whom Hebrews was written needed to remember that story and to relate it to the gospel: in Christ, God has provided “a Sabbath rest” (v.9) for all who believe. For the first generation of Israelites in Moses’ time, this rest was a place called the Promised Land, and they missed it because they failed to trust God and rebelled against His will. For us that rest is peace with God through faith in His Son. It is the soul-rest Jesus offered when He said, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Having heard the gospel, the offer of soul-rest in Jesus, we have a decision to make: to “strive to enter that rest” (v.11) by repenting of our sins and placing our faith in Jesus, or to “harden our hearts” (v.7) by remaining in our sin and spurning His grace. The gospel demands a decision. You are free to choose, but you are not free to choose the consequences of your choice. The Word of God that conveys a message of grace and salvation also contains a message of condemnation. For those who believe, the Word goes to work saving and giving them life. But for those who do not believe, the Word cuts like a knife, piercing them with judgment (v.12).
The Israelites knew what it meant to rely on a priest to approach God for them. Once a year their high priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple to make a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole nation. But they knew that their high priest was himself a sinner who made a temporary atonement for all the other sinners. But Jesus is so much better! As our “great high priest” (v.14), He offered Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, an eternal atonement. When we approach Him with a need or a concern, we can pray confidently, knowing that He sympathizes with our weaknesses and our constant fight against temptation (v.15-16). He’s been there. He understands. And He is ready to give us mercy, grace, and help — right now!