An Invitation Into Christ's Rest
Jesus, famously, said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). Millions, since he said it, have craved that rest. We seek him for it.
But what is God's rest? What image does the word "rest" conjure up in your mind? I think of hammocks, beaches, books, and lazy summer days. I think of Netflix and play and sport. But what does God envision? What is God's rest?
The passage before us, Hebrews 4:1-13 is all about the rest God offers to his people. The two most repeated words in the section are the words "rest" and "enter." God's preeminent desire for his children, in this passage, is for our lives to enter his rest. But, again, what is this rest?
What Is God's Rest?
First, to discover what God's rest is, we must look at what came before Hebrews 4. Early Jewish Christians (thus the title, Hebrews) were tempted to engage in the Old Testament rituals once again. God offered them a relationship through Christ, not a ritualistic, religious observance of him. In Hebrews 3, these folks were invited to come into the rest of God. So at least part of God's rest was to cease from the Old Testament religious observances.
Second, to define God's rest, we must also look at what comes in Hebrews 4. The author will point us to the seventh day of creation, or Eden, the Promised Land after Joshua's conquest, and the Sabbath system instituted by God. So another facet to God's rest is found in all three, for they are at least emblematic of what Christ offers his people.
Thirdly, and finally, to define God's rest, we must look at what comes after Hebrews 4. The author will conclude his book with a crescendo of phrases to describe the new life to come. He wrote of the city that has foundations, our homeland, which is our heavenly country and city (Hebrews 11:10, 14, 16). He talked of the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). He said it was the kingdom that cannot be shaken, the lasting city that is to come (Hebrews 12:28, Hebrews 13:14). So another facet of God's rest is found in the eternal city and the destiny of God's people.
So, God's rest is a place, but also a state of being. It is yet future, but we can enter it right now. It is as if the heavenly throne room is trying to reach down into our current experience, our modern lives, and alter our experience. Our tomorrow should influence our today. Our eschatological hope should impact our daily grind.
Or, to put it another way, our Father in heaven speaks from his throne with the hope that his children would allow his word and promises and truth to bring them into rest today. I was a little stress-ball when I was a boy. One day, after a baseball game in which I performed poorly, my father said, "Nathan, there are a billion people in China who don't even know you played that game today." For me, it was a revelation! My father's voice went with me into the batter's box in future games. His words shaped my experience and helped me rest. That is a little glimpse of the rest Father God offers his people in Hebrews 4 -- the word of heaven shaping life today.
The rest of God brings us past a slave-like relationship with God and into one that responds to his grace. It brings us past dead religion and into life and joy with him. It brings us past dreadful fear and worries, and into a simple trust which is free in his love. It takes us past self-effort and self-righteousness into running in the imputed righteousness of Christ. It takes us past mere words into congruity between our words and actions.
I crave this rest. I want to enter into it every day. Hebrews, as we'll read in a moment, tells us to strive to enter this rest.
Entering God's Rest Should Be a Major Priority for God's Children (Hebrews 4:1)
"Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it." (Hebrews 4:1)
So, this rest is out there, available, somehow accessible to believers. Here we are told, "let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it." Later, in this same passage, we are exhorted, "Let us, therefore, strive to enter that rest."
The author envisioned a fear of failing to enter God's rest. However, what is this fear? He does not mean paranoia, a vague worry we might not get into his rest, today or ever. Neither does he allude to the fear of the Lord, a reverence which is good and the beginning of wisdom. No, what he means is a desire and concern that we get everything Christ has for us.
Christ saves his people eschatologically, meaning he seals them for future glory, but he also wants to save you today. The believer who says, "I'm saved, sealed, and need nothing from the Lord today," will not experience the fullness of what Christ has for them. The rest Jesus wants to bring them into will not be theirs. Though Moses couldn't, Joshua eventually brought the people of Israel into Promised Land rest. Our Joshua, Jesus, came to bring us into our own Promised Land of sorts, for he longs to bring us into Christlikeness today.
So the believer benefits when they make entering into God's rest, getting all Christ has for them, a significant priority. When we crave the rest, fear missing out on that rest, our lives come into balance.
God's Rest Is Accessed by Faith (Hebrews 4:2-3a)
"For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, 'As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest.''" (Hebrews 4:2-3a)
Here, the author takes us back to the generation which was kept out of the Promised Land. They were the Exodus generation, delivered from Egypt by plagues and miracles and judgment, brought through the Red Sea and to the border of the Promised Land by the power of God. On the verge of conquest, they sent in twelve spies, two of which trusted God to give them the victory, but ten of which feared the giants in the land. The multitude believed the ten, not God, and was therefore "not united by faith with those who listened," the two spies. So that generation did not enter into God's rest.
Here, we learn how to access God's rest. It is not through labor, performance, or effort, but faith. Simple trust in God is the key to a life of God's rest. When thinking of faith, however, it is vital to remember the comparison the author used. He pointed, relentlessly, to the Exodus generation. Once on the edge of Canaan, the promised land, they balked at God's power and did not obey his voice. They refused to go in. Their lack of faith was manifested in very literal disobedience. They would not budge. They would not move into the land. They would not take a step. They would not go. Lack of faith showed up in a refusal to budge.
The reason we must recall their story is that today we have an opportunity to enter into God's rest, but inaction fueled by unbelief is scarily typical. We might know what God asks and promises, and we might even believe his will to be the best imaginable life, but a lack of trust in him often keeps us from moving out into his purposes for our lives.
Take, for instance, Jesus' command, we often called it the Golden Rule, from Matthew 7:12. "Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12 NLT). So, Jesus taught the entire law and prophets are summed up in treating others the way you would like to be treated. Now, imagine for a moment being at odds with another human being. It shouldn't be that hard. The voice of Christ calls out to you, "Do to them as you would like them to do to you." There is no promise their behavior will change. It is not a secret spell you cast to get them to begin treating you well. Not at all. It is merely the sum of the law and the prophets. Christ is calling you into it.
At that precise moment, you are on the edge of your own little promised land, territory within you Christ wants to conquer. Christlikeness is the goal of the Spirit, the formation of God's children into the image of their forerunner, Christ, the one who brings many sons to glory. With that goal in mind, the Spirit beckons you, "Come on into your promised land. Treat that person as you'd like to be treated. I will aid you. I will help you. Take the step."
If faith and trust in God fill our hearts, a belief he will stand with us through the stuff of life and make it all worth it, then we might step out in obedience and treat the other as we'd like to be treated. However, if we do not believe God at that moment, disobedience is our destiny, and we are thus kept out of God's best for our lives.
Faith is how it works. We aren't individuals trying to self-perfect, but people put to the test regularly. Do we trust God and believe his word for our lives? When worried, will we cast our anxiety on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)? When fruitless, will we meditate and delight on the word of God until that changes (Psalm 1:1-3)? When joyless, will we abide in Christ so that his transformation can occur (John 15)? Time and time again, we are confronted with the word from God about his desire for our lives. We enter into his desires, his best, his rest for us, by faith.
God’s Rest Takes Us Back to – and Beyond – the Original (4:3b-5)
"Although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: 'And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.' And again in this passage he said, 'They shall not enter my rest.'" (Hebrews 4:3b-5)
The author's next move is to get his audience to remember something else, something further back. Up to this point, his exposition of Psalm 95 caused him to go back to the books of Exodus and Numbers, but now he goes back to the beginning, to Genesis. Rather than recall the refusal to go into the Promised Land, he directs his readers to the seventh day of creation, which was not at all a creation day, but a rest day. Quoting from Genesis 2:2, he wrote, "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works."
In a sense, he is announcing that this rest he's been writing about is not a recent invention, just now introduced to humanity. Instead, he recounts, it began on the seventh day, was instituted by God, and has been available throughout the whole of man's history, by faith.
To understand this point, we must go back to pre-sin conditions in our mind's eye. See that world, void of sin, hurt, conflict, death, and strife. The Triune God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- sought to bring his creation, humanity, into his perfect love and community. In a state of perfection, Adam could enjoy and experience God. Access was real for him. He and God could walk together in the garden during the cool of the day. Relationship and friendship and ownership flowed.
In recalling the Edenic conditions, Christians celebrate that Christ's blood has made way for all generations, by faith, to come back into that close fellowship and connection to God. We aren't held back from God by our sin any longer, for the perfect Son substituted himself for us, and now we are partakers of his righteousness before the Father. We are seen as he sees his only begotten Son. The position we possess before God is staggering, and it is as if, in a way, we've been brought back to what Adam had in the garden.
However, we must also confess we have something far greater than Adam had on that seventh day. Adam and Eve were righteous and able to enjoy God completely, but when they enjoyed God it was without, before the fall, the disappointments and pains of modern life. They had no anxieties to cast on him. They had no pressures weighing them down. Their prayers were not filled with pleas for help with cancer, bills, and student debt. No, they weren't living in a broken creation. Additionally, they never had to, in that first state, ask God for forgiveness, comfort, or encouragement, for they had not sinned, were joyful, and already encouraged by the life God had given them.
So, the rest God offers his people today takes us back to our original access to God, but beyond it, for we are now able to bring to God our shame, embarrassment, and need for mercy. We can come to him for encouragement, direction, and help. This is a new and radical facet to God's love, and by the blood of Christ, we have access to this beautiful love and grace.
We Should Enter God’s Rest Daily (Hebrews 4:6-7)
"Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, 'Today,' saying through David so long afterward, in the word already quoted, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.'" (Hebrews 4:6-7)
The word "today" in this next movement is a word of grace. His rest is available right now. This is unlike the original Exodus generation who, when they disobeyed through unbelief, were kept out of the promised land for forty years. For them, the rest of God was in the future for future generations. But for us, believers, the rest of God is accessible today. Today, afresh, we can get back to the throne and promise and joy of God.
Believers ought to enter into God's rest daily. The struggle for the rest is a continual experience, after all. We do not have a guarantee of it for today, but a guarantee that we could have it today. We must make the decision to enter his rest daily.
I, for one, have never met a believer who has walked with God, really walked with God, not some nominal type of Christianity, and has said they wished they'd come to Christ later in life. There is often a desire, when looking back at the sum total of their lives, that they'd have surrendered to Jesus sooner. "Today" is our opportunity to surrender, but it is also our chance to enter into the rest God has for us. Daily, he invites you to sit before him, to run to him, to learn of him. Every...single...day...the rest of God is available for God's people.
God’s Rest Is Pictured in the Promised Land, the Sabbath System, and Creation (Hebrews 4:8-10)
"For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his." (Hebrews 4:8-10)
So this rest of God ought to be prioritized, is entered by faith, takes us beyond the original rest God created for humanity and is available every day. Still, this rest seems subjective. What exactly is this rest of God?
The author attempts to color his description of God's rest with three pictures from the Old Testament. We have seen them, in one way or another, previously, but now he clusters them together. God's rest is pictured in the Promised Land victory of Joshua, the Sabbath system instituted and observed in Moses' day, and the seventh day of creation. Let's look at all three.
First, this rest was foreshadowed by the rest Joshua gave to Israel. After Moses and the unbelieving generation he led, Joshua took the people into the land of Canaan. Victories mounted, and soon they had general rest. There was still land to conquer, but they were successful, and future victories were promised. But Psalm 95, which the author of Hebrews meticulously applied to his audience, spoke of future rest. Joshua had not fulfilled God's promised rest. Though victorious, they still had battles and wars in the promised land.
Interestingly, the name "Jesus" is the Greek way of saying the Hebrew name "Joshua." Jesus is our Joshua, the one who will bring us into the real rest of God. In a sense, Joshua from the Old Testament points forward to the rest of God that is found when he victoriously conquers our inner person.
Second, this rest was foreshadowed in the Sabbath system. Every week the people of Israel practiced 24 hours of rest before the Lord, a time to refrain from work and celebrate Yahweh. Additionally, they practiced various feasts and festivals and years of renewal, all of which were part of the overall Sabbath system. If Joshua's rest foreshadowed the victories Christ will bring us into, the Sabbath system seems to speak of real and vital experience with God. To enjoy him, to partake of him, to celebrate him was the Sabbath ideal, and believers today have an opportunity to enjoy and encounter the living God. In a sense, the Sabbath system points forward to the rest of God we find when we enjoy and experience God's presence.
Third, this rest was foreshadowed by the way God rested from his works on the seventh day of creation. We learn in Genesis 2:2 that a point came where the creation was complete, and God rested from his works. He made the seventh day holy. Here, Hebrews says, "Whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his." This seems indicative of the rest believers find when justified by God, for they no longer work for righteousness, but have received it by faith. God continued working on that seventh day, but his creative work was finished, accomplished. In a sense, that seventh day points forward to the rest of God in that believers also continue to do good works, but the work of justification is complete, and now they rest in God knowing they have the righteousness of Christ deposited into their account.
(Revisited) -- Entering God's Rest Should Be a Major Priority
"Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience." (Hebrews 4:11)
Again, the author declares his main exhortation. Believers should prioritize entrance into God's rest. It ought to be a major priority in their lives. Previously, he had written, "Let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it" (4:1). Now, he says, "Strive to enter that rest."
The exhortation must be received. Strive. Be diligent. The rest of God is worth it. Open your heart. Examine your soul. Cease trusting in yourself to get the rest of God and begin to trust God. He must take you in.
God's Rest Is Offered in God's Word
"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account." (Hebrews 4:12-13)
So here we are, following the author's argument and exhortation about God's rest. I hope you want all the rest he has to offer at this point. I hope you want to go into his rest for your life. I hope you want to enter into it by faith.
However, it might feel odd to us when, suddenly, the author shifts his focus from the rest of God to the word of God. His description is beautiful. God's word is alive and active. It is sharp, cutting between soul and spirit. It can discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It leaves us naked and exposed before God, for it reveals us. The word of God illuminates the soul.
But, honestly now, doesn't this statement regarding the word of God feel a little out of place at this point? The author has written over and over again about God's rest, and that we should enter it, and we are likely primed and ready for a big exhortation on how to go into it, and instead the author focuses on a description of Scripture. It seems like an abrupt shift, and it likely feels more unexpected to those who are overly familiar with this description of the Bible. Preachers and believers often quote Hebrews 4:12, but without quoting from Hebrews 4:1-11, so many times we don't think it has any connection at all to what came before. But it does.
How does the rest of God connect with the word of God?
Well, think of it. As the author made his case to enter the rest of God by faith, he used many Old Testament Scriptures. Hebrews 3-4 is his teaching on Psalm 95, for instance. In addition to Psalms, he referred to the book of Joshua, Numbers, Exodus, and Genesis. He wrote of Moses, and his replacement, Joshua, the angels, and the prophets. At this point in his book, he has quoted from Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, and more. He seems to have expected the word of God to intermix with human hearts. He thought the word would create a movement in the hearts of his hearers.
How does this happen? Simple. It is the word of God which continually holds out the possibility of an entirely different kind of life. The author expected the word to hold that life out to his readers, over and over again, and as its life and message cut and divided within their hearts, they would be left exposed before God, craving the deeper experience of rest it offered. Indeed, God's word, if you open yourself up to it, will cut and divide and show you who you are. Mess with it, and it will mess with you. It will detail for you the life of rest. It will prod you along so that you get it. The word of God is alive.
All this means believers cannot fake God's rest. We should not pretend we have God's rest when we do not. We must become willing to express our need to God, not only God but also others. We must honestly and transparently ask for help from God to enter entirely into God's rest. His rest is available, and it is by faith we come into it, so let us daily pursue him and the life he has in store for us.