Utterly disheartened by the spies’ evil report, the Children of Israel fell into despair, rebelled against Moses and refused to enter Canaan. Their rebellion and their failure to enter the land is the subject of the midrash in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 which quotes from Psalm 95.
Unfortunately, the Hebrews passage is often pointed to as evidence that the literal seventh day Sabbath rest has been replaced by a ‘spiritual Sabbath’ for the People of God. This interpretation is far a field from the actual intent of the passage.
The writer of Hebrews warns the believers reading his epistle that just as God did not spare the generation of the wilderness, neither would He spare the current generation. He compares entering the land to entering faith in Messiah. Both Messiah and the entrance into the land came as the culmination of the covenant promises. Both Messiah and the entrance into the land require faith and obedience. “Those who disobeyed…were not able to enter because of unbelief,” (Hebrews 3:19) the writer of Hebrews says. “We who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter My rest,’” (Hebrews 4:3 quoting Psalm 95)
But what is the ‘rest’ which they were not able to enter? The writer of Hebrews points out that God’s rest began on the Sabbath following creation, but it has never ceased. He did not go back to work creating on Sunday. Therefore the Sabbath rest of God is an eternal Sabbath rest. It is the rest of the World to Come.
There remains a Sabbath rest for God’s people, and it is something more than merely the seventh-day Sabbath, and it is something more than merely the Promised Land.
The generation in the wilderness is used midrashically as an example. The writer of Hebrews says, “Indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” (Hebrews 4:2) From the perspective of the writer of Hebrews (a First Century Jewish believer writing to other First Century Jewish believers) the situation is analogous to that of the generation about to enter the land.
The entrance into the Promised Land and the message of Messiah are similar because, just like the Promised Land, Messiah is the culmination of the whole Torah. Everything’s been leading up to this point. Just like being poised on the edge of the Promised Land, the believers he was writing to were poised on the edge of the World to Come in Messiah. “[It is] the World to Come of which we speak.” (Hebrews 2:5)