I can hear it now; “Christians should never fear anything.” Normally I would agree with that completely. Well, almost completely. Most passages dealing with the subject of fear in conjunction with those who are followers of God and Christ teach that we should never fear earthly, natural circumstances (Is. 35:4; 41:10; Matt. 10:26; 1 John 4:18). However, there are passages that teach that there are appropriate fears that we should have – see Prov. 1:7; Eccl. 5:7; Matt. 10:28 all of which deal with fearing God. However, the New Testament contains one passage that teaches that there is a real fear that followers of Christ should have but very few know of it much less actually have the fear prescribed.
Hebrews 4:1 is where we find a legitimate fear that believers should have:
“Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it” (NASB)
Before we move into the meaning of the text let’s get the context. First of all it should be noted that from my study of the book of Hebrews I am absolutely convinced that the target audience is made up of Hebrew believers who, because of the strain of hostility and persecution by non-believing Hebrews, were on the verge of returning to the First Covenant sacrificial system. In doing so they believe that they can escape the pressure. There are many reasons that I believe this to be true including the following: the repetitious use of terms of relationship, i.e., “holy brethren” (3:1), “brothers” (3:12). The writer also speaks of the readers of being “partakers of Christ” (3:14), “enlightened…tasted the heavenly gift…partakers of the Holy Spirit…tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (6:4-5). The writer also expresses his belief that he is convinced that they are not those who will not endure in faith in God (6:9). Having said all that, I also believe that regardless of one’s view concerning the recipients of the letter, the history lesson presented by the writer prior to 4:1 is enough to cement the intended meaning directed at the audience. This meaning will enable us to understand what it is that Christians are to fear.
The previous chapter is devoted to reminding the audience of the history of their forefathers, in particular, the generation that God led out of Egypt in the Exodus account. The Exodus generation (wilderness generation) were “saved” – rescued, both physically and spiritually (Passover lamb) – and baptized (Red Sea crossing) – just like the audience. The fatal flaw of the wilderness generation was that after witnessing “the salvation of the LORD” (Ex. 14:13) was that they continually failed to exercise faith in God’s provision while traveling to the Promised Land. Because of this continued rebellion (sin of unbelief, 3:18-19) they were refused entrance into the promised rest, i.e., the Promised Land and its corresponding blessings.
Moving from the backdrop of the wilderness generation, the writer turns to his audience and gives them this warning: “Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.” It may be clearer to read it using another translation of the Greek word here translated as “if,” that preferred translation being either “that…not” or “lest”. Therefore, it would read: “Therefore, let us fear lest, . . .any one of you may seem to have come short of it.” What is it that the writer is attempting to explain to the readers? The writer used the history of the wilderness generation to exhort this new generation of Hebrew believers to not repeat the fateful mistake of their forefathers, the sin of unbelief.
The writer also continues from the historical account with the idea of a promised rest. To what does this refer? Nowhere in the letter to the Hebrews does the writer ever mention an earthly place of rest or Promised Land. The rest that he has in view is the exercising of faith in the promises of God. It is the rest of faith. It is the result that is promised elsewhere in Philippians 4:6-7; “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This is the message that the audience needed in their time of wilderness testing. Trust in God regardless of your visible circumstances. Have an enduring faith in Jesus Christ the One who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). Solidly fix your focus on Jesus Messiah as the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession” and as the One who is ultimate example of enduring faith (12:2). The message conveyed should have acted as a great encouragement to a group whose faith was wavering on the verge of collapse.
So what is it that we as Christians are to truly fear? There is a promise that remains for every believer and it is that despite any seemingly negative circumstance that may come into his or her life there is a “peace of God that surpasses all comprehension” available. The fear is that we “come short of it.” That is, to not attain to the rest of faith that is promised. That rest is attained by knowing the promises of God, believing them, and choosing to utilize those promises in our everyday circumstances (4:2). The fact is that all who know God’s promises and live by faith in them “enter that rest” (4:3). The fear is that we will fail to do so.
The fact is that most Christians fall short of the promised rest because due to a lack of the knowledge of the word of God they don’t know the promises of God and thus can’t live by faith in them. The most miserable and easily misled people in the world are Christians who don’t know and/or don’t live by faith in the promised blessings and provisions of God to His children.
“Therefore, let us fear if (lest), while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you (us) may seem to have come short of it.”
I pray this helps.