Updated: Sep 15
It turns out that modern translations of Hebrews 4:10 are also interpretations. There's no way around it. In order to translate this verse into contemporary English you have to contemplate how to interpret the verse as well.
Look, for example, at the subject and verb of the opening phrase. The ESV presents the subject as "whoever" ("whoever has entered..."), while the NKJV has "he" ("he who has entered"). As for the verb, the NIV reads "anyone who enters..." (present tense) while the ESV and NKJV use a past tense ("has entered"). The Greek original allows for all of these -- which option is best depends on how you understand the context. Although we can imagine other combinations formed from the options listed above, commentators have narrowed the reasonable options to two. It is either "whoever enters" or "he who entered." And because many commentators can't see how "he who entered" could make any sense in the context, they decide that the verse must be about Christians when they die (the "people of God" from the preceding verse). Hence, they go with the generalizing and timeless translation: "whoever enters his rest."
That last word, "rest," raises another question. When, for example, the Christian Standard Bible reads "the person who has entered his rest..." does "his rest" refer to the rest experienced by the person who died? We often speak that way: "He's gone on to his reward." "She has entered into her rest." But notice verses 1, 3, 4, and 5 where the rest is explicitly said to be God's rest. There's actually no controversy here; most translations express this explicitly. For example, "...entered His rest" (NASB), and "...enters God's rest" (NIV). The deceased do not enter their own rest, but God's rest. As we'll see in this Sunday's sermon, that is a major point of Hebrews 4:1-11.
Okay, but now back to the other option that's still on the table. The option that speaks about a specific person in the past tense. In fact, that's the most straightforward way to translate the Greek of Hebrews 4:10. "For he who did enter into his rest, he also rested from his works, as God from His own" (Young's Literal Translation). So can we think of someone who at some point in the past entered into God's rest? Well, yeah, you might say: any believing person who has already died. Right, but that is the generalizing interpretation. Can we think of one specific individual who died at a specific point in the past and then entered into God's rest?
Since at least the seventeenth century there have been commentators who have contended that Hebrews 4:10 is about Jesus' ascension. In the 1960s this interpretation gained popularity due to Albert Vanhoye's influential commentary, along with a couple of other commentaries written in the following decade. And that date explains a fascinating oddity. Why is it that alone among modern English translations, only the Living Bible explicitly reads the verse as if it is about Jesus? Well, the Living Bible was first published in 1971. Here's how that translation (a paraphrase, really) handles our verse: "Christ has already entered there. He is resting from his work, just as God did after the creation."
Although this "Christological interpretation" of Hebrews 4:10 is not as popular today as it was in the 1960s and 70s, David deSilva's commentary (2000) and Nicholas Moore's article (2014) have revived interest in it. In fact, I think this minority view deserves more attention than it gets. Here are four reasons why I think Hebrews 4:10 is talking about Christ's ascension and session (the technical theological term for his being seated at the right hand of the Father).
Jesus is indirectly introduced in verse 8.
It might seem crazy to suggest that verse 10 is about Jesus when it doesn't even mention his name. But actually Jesus' name is right there in verse 8. In Greek there is no difference -- not even a single letter's difference -- between "Joshua" and "Jesus." The Greek name Iesous appears exactly 14 times in the book of Hebrews, and only in 4:8 does it refer to someone other than Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Son of God. So your average first century reader of the book of Hebrews, coming unsuspectingly upon verse 8, would naturally read, "For if Jesus had given them rest, God would not have spoken...." This would be surprising, even disorienting, because it sounds as if Jesus failed at something. How could Jesus not provide rest? Slowing down and re-reading, our first century friend would figure out that the reference is to Joshua. But the author's purposes have been accomplished. The idea of Jesus providing rest has been planted in our heads. Which is exactly what is needed in order to make sense of verses 10 and 11. This approach to writing is found throughout the book of Hebrews -- the author is always forcing you to think.
The Christological reading makes good sense in the immediate context.
Within verse 10, the parallel between Christ's works and God's works provides a remarkable theological summary of the Bible. What are being referenced here are the two most important sets of works in the history of the world: The Father's works of creation, and the Son's works of redemption. Each of these profound exploits was accomplished in full, and afterwards the Creator and the Redeemer, respectively, were able to enter into repose, signaling that the work in question was complete. "It is finished," one could say.
Moving outward to what precedes and follows, the essential point of verses 6-9 is that rest is available to the readers. The author made this case by appealing to Psalm 95 and Genesis 2. Now verse 10 adds information about a forerunner who has already gone into God's rest. Christ's entry into rest serves as the climactic encouragement: his work on the Cross is complete and now we can enter God's rest in Christ's wake! Verse 11 naturally follows: "Therefore let us make every effort to enter into that rest."
The Christological reading makes good sense in the broader context
Jesus' entrance into God's rest is discussed often in Hebrews, but using alternate terminology. Christ's ascension into glory is referenced in 1:6, 2:7, 9; 4:14; 6:20; 7:26; and 9:12, 24. Three of these verses speak of Christ entering the heavenly temple, using the same Greek word for "enter" as in 4:10. Not only Christ's entry, but also his rest after entry is a recurring theme throughout Hebrews. It often shows up in the image of Christ sitting down at the right hand of the Father (Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). The same idea is communicated indirectly when Christ's work is spoken of as being accomplished once for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10, 12). He accomplished redemption, and from then on that work was done, finished, complete.
As noted above, in Heb 4:10-11 Christ leads his people; he entered rest so that we can do likewise. This is an important theme in Hebrews. Jesus is the founder of our salvation who brings many sons to glory (2:10). Jesus is our forerunner, opening the way for us to enter the Holy of Holies (6:19-20; 10:19-20). In our fight against sin we are to look to the example of Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (12:1-4).
The comparison between Joshua who did not provide eternal rest (4:8) and Jesus who did (4:10) fits another pattern we find in Hebrews: Christ is better than the angels, better than Moses, and better than the OT priests. In last year's Tuesday Night Bible Study we observed that Joshua and his leadership position is highlighted in the book of Joshua because he functions as a foreshadowing of the Messiah. Joshua brought faithful Israelites into the promised land, but Jesus will bring his people into the ultimate promised land. The suggestion -- in Heb 4:8 -- of some sort of inadequacy on the part of Joshua should make one expect a reference to the Greater Joshua (or Yeshua, if you prefer). And that is what we find at 4:10.
Grammatically, Hebrews 4:10 stands out in its context
This last point is actually the first thing that grabbed my attention this week. I've saved if for last because it is a bit technical. In Hebrews 3:18 - 4:11 there are more than a dozen references to entering (or failing to enter) into rest. If you set aside (a) those that refer to God entering rest on the seventh day of the creation week and (b) those that refer to a group of people (using a plural noun or verb) entering (or not entering) rest, all you are left with is 4:10. In other words, this verse stands out because only here is an entrant into God's rest spoken of in the singular.
Furthermore, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the author is talking at 4:10 about Christians dying. In that case, the closest parallel to verse 10 is the opening of verse 3: "we enter into rest." This raises the question: if at verse 10 the author was talking about the deaths of Christians, why didn't he use the grammatical forms that he used in verse 3? Had he done so, there would be no controversy. Note the contrast:
Verse 3: we (plural) enter (present) into rest.
Verse 10: he (sing) who entered (aorist) into rest.
Now the difference in meaning between a Greek present tense verb and a Greek aorist tense verb is complicated, but my simple point here is that 4:10 stands out grammatically as distinct from 4:3 even though 4:3 is the verse you'd most expect 4:10 to mirror -- unless 4:10 is talking about something different... say perhaps, Jesus' ascension!
Wasn't the author of Hebrews worried that readers wouldn't pick up on the subtlety of what he was saying? My best guess is that he was intentionally being ambiguous. If a reader thought the verse was merely about Christians -- okay, no problem. After all, it is true that Christians will enter God's rest and that they will rest as He did. Like any piece of great literature, the Bible has multiple layers to it. We often find that we can read and re-read and get more out of it each time. And sometimes that's because the author placed subtle layers of meaning underneath that which seems most obvious on the surface.
In Thomas Schreiner's 2015 commentary on Hebrews he mentions Nicholas Moore's article (which I referenced above). Schreiner calls the article "interesting and fascinating." But then he says "the participle is more likely timeless here, and more contextual evidence is needed to substantiate a reference to Jesus." As to the need for more contextual evidence, I'll let you, dear reader, decide what you make of the evidence I have arrayed above. When Schreiner says that the participle is more likely timeless, his position is that Greek grammar should lead us to prefer "he who enters" over "he who entered." More could be said, but we should at least note that he sees his position as only "more likely." This is one of those cases where Greek grammar will allow for either option -- and which one you choose will depend on how you interpret the context!
Credit: Nicholas J. Moore, "Jesus as 'The One who Entered his Rest': The Christological Reading of Hebrews 4.10." Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36 (2014) pp. 383-400.