A few years ago a mother sent the following note to the attendance secretary of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y.:
Please excuse the absence of my daughter. She has been suffering from a severe head cold. Since she has been home, she has consumed 18 doughnuts, three quart containers of orange juice, a half-gallon of cranberry juice, four two-liter bottles of Diet Coke, about 30 Pop-Tarts and all of the family's Christmas candy canes. MTV has been blasting incessantly. I had to extend my credit with Nynex due to the volume of her telephone calls. The house is knee-deep in used Kleenex. Today, FedEx delivered seven Chia Pets and four boxes containing the Clapper she ordered from the Home Shopping Channel. With the thermostat set at 78 degrees, I need extra fuel delivery, and the wallpaper has peeled off the bathroom wall as a result of her hourly "therapeutic" sauna baths. Our cat is in a state of shock from being repeatedly bombarded with Hall's mentholated cough drops. Although she is not exactly 100 percent yet, she will attend school today. Please do not send her home unless she lapses into a coma. I need a break.
No question: That's a mother who needs some rest. Although we are probably not beleaguered to the same degree, we could probably use some rest as well. Where does rest come from? True rest comes from God. More precisely, it comes from knowing him. The gospel allows us to know God. Believing the gospel allows us to rest in relationship with God.
Hebrews 4:1-13 represents the conclusion of a unit that spans Hebrews 3:1-4:13 and centers on the faithfulness of Jesus, our high priest. The faithfulness of Jesus motivates our faith in the gospel, which allows us to enter God's rest. The emphasis in Hebrews 3:7-19 was faith that gains God's rest, and particularly encouragement that leads to faith; the emphasis in Hebrews 4:1-13 is on God's rest itself, particularly what it means to enter God's rest.
First, is the rest the writer speaks of a present rest, one that we have entered into or can enter into now, or a future rest? The flow of thought up to this point has tended toward the future aspect of God's kingdom (1:14; 2:5, 8), and it continues in this vein (5:9, 6:5, 12, 15). The grammar is somewhat ambiguous. The promise of rest "remains" (4:1), it "remains" for some to enter rest (4:6) and a Sabbath rest "remains" for God's people (4:9), which would seem to place this rest in the future, but it can also be seen as remaining in the present as opposed to being fulfilled in the past. The announcement concerning God's rest comes "today," but that doesn't necessarily imply that it can be entered today (4:7). We are to be diligent in the present to enter God's rest, but it isn't clear whether that rest is present or future (4:11). However, those who have believed "enter" (present tense) God's rest (4:3), which would seem to imply a present aspect.
The concept of rest that the writer of Hebrews advances carries forward the Old Testament theme of rest in Canaan, the land of promise. The Israelites who were camping in the wilderness were to find "rest" in the land of promise. From a New Testament perspective, are believers in Jesus Christ currently in the land or waiting to enter the land? Both! Hebrews 12:22: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels ... " Hebrews 13:14: "For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come." The rest the writer speaks of in Hebrews 4, therefore, has both future and present implications. We who believe in Christ will enter God's rest, but we also have already entered it. Whether we currently enjoy that rest and live lifestyles of rest is another matter - one that Hebrews 4:1-13 addresses.
Means of rest (Hebrews 4:1-3)
(1) Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering his rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. (2) For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. (3) For we who have believed enter that rest, just as he has said,
"As I swore in my wrath,
They shall not enter my rest,"
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.
Beginning with "therefore," verse 1 offers a concluding
exhortation based on the Israelites' failure to enter the land
(3:7-19). Rest is available to us as it was to them, albeit a
different kind of rest, but it is possible for us to come short
of it, as they did. We are to "fear" so that we don't
miss it - or, that someone among us doesn't miss it. Jesus delivered
us from "fear" (2:15), but it is a "terrifying
thing to fall into the hands of the living God" apart from
Christ (10:31). Concern is therefore appropriate in the community
as it relates to acceptance or rejection of the gospel. A communal
concern for the gospel and those who have not embraced it has
a positive effect on individuals within it who may be on the fence
or who may appear to be believers but are in fact on the fence.
The comparison between the Israelites and us continues in verse 2. Both the Israelites and we have had heard good news. We have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, which takes those who believe it into the promised land, so to speak, and the Israelites heard good news from Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who encouraged the people to enter the "good" land (Numbers 13:30, 14:7-9). But this good news was not "united by faith"; it was not believed. It was interpreted to be bad news, for they were convinced that if they entered the land, they would be "devoured" by its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32). Because the good news was not believed, it was of no benefit to them. Similarly, the gospel is of benefit only insofar as it is believed.
Those who believe it, or those who "have believed" it, enter God's rest. The qualification for entering God's rest, then, is straightforward: Believe the good news. If we believe in Jesus Christ, we enter God's rest. It all seems quite simple. But it wasn't so simple for the Israelites, was it? It wasn't so simple because the good news seemed like bad news; it called on them, in their interpretation, to enter a place that would devour them. They thought they would lose their lives. The same fear makes today's good news seem like bad news to many who hear it. It is the fear of being devoured and losing one's life: the fear of losing control, the fear of seeing what one values slip away, the fear of giving up the right to define life. If we lose control, if what we value slips away, if we no longer have the right to define life, we are afraid that who we are will no longer exist. The myriad of intellectual arguments offered against the gospel is simply a smoke screen for the fear of being devoured and losing one's life.
Those who don't believe the gospel, thinking that they are preserving their lives, "shall not enter my rest." It takes a phenomenal amount of effort to stay in control, to attain and maintain what one values, and to ensure that one's definition of life becomes reality. Rejection of the gospel produces a lifestyle of hypervigilance, dissipation and exhaustion. In short, it produces a lifestyle of unrest and ultimate disappointment, for even if the effort expended happens to result in the achievement of one's goals, achievement is never satisfying enough for long enough.
One's life, as it turns out, is not a bad thing to lose. Jesus says "whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25). In losing our lives, in giving our lives to Jesus, we find true life - we find rest.
Faith, then, takes courage. It is not an easy thing to give up one's life. Before I embraced the gospel as a teen-ager, my life revolved around sports. My biggest fear was that I would to give up baseball and basketball. At that point in my life, these things were my life, and I didn't want to lose them. When I finally gave my life to Christ, I was fairly convinced that I wouldn't have to give up baseball and basketball, but how was I to know? As it turned out, I gave them up a lot sooner than I thought I would: My health deteriorated, and my interests changed.
In contrast to the unrest of unbelief, God is at rest, having completed his work in creation. This leads the writer into the next section, where he defines rest.
Nature of rest (Hebrews 4:4-11)
(4) For he has thus said somewhere concerning the seventh day, "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works"; (5) and again in this passage, "They shall not enter my rest." (6) Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, (7) he again fixes a certain day, "Today," saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before,
"Today if you hear his voice,
Do not harden your hearts."
(8) For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken of another day after that. (9) There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (10) For the one who has entered his rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. (11) Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience.
Up until the end of verse 3, when the writer has spoken of
rest, he has spoken of rest in the land. In verse 4, he speaks
of rest on the Sabbath, and in verse 5, he links the two kinds
of rest. For the writer of Hebrews, these two concepts merge.
The Sabbath was holy time - time set aside for God. The writer quotes from Genesis 2:2, which notes that God rested on the seventh day after having completed his work in creation. The fact that God rested on the seventh day became the basis for his gift of the Sabbath to Israel (Exodus 20:11). In resting on the seventh day, the Israelites were to imitate God. The purpose of resting was to recognize God's work in redeeming them from Egypt (Exodus 31:13, Deuteronomy 5:15). So God wanted the Israelites to rest in order to recognize him.
When God rested on the seventh day, what did he do? He may have rested from his works, but he was not completely inactive. He "blessed the seventh day and sanctified it," which means that he made it holy, which further means that he set it apart for some special purpose (Genesis 2:3). He anticipated the gift of the Sabbath to Israel, the day the Israelites were to recognize his work in redemption. The purpose of redemption was to bring the people into relationship with the Lord. He set the seventh day apart in order to have a special day to enjoy his relationship with the people. God, then, in resting, is anticipating relationship, delighting in the prospect of a special day with his special people, much as we might look forward to a special day with a special person.
So when the Israelites rested, they were to rest as God rested, with thoughts of relationship and, in their case, worship. The Sabbath was the special time set apart for relationship with, and worship of, God.
The land was holy space. It was where God dwelled. The temple, specifically the Most Holy Place in the temple, was where God dwelled, but because God dwelled there, in the land, the entire land of promise was seen as a "sanctuary," a holy place (Exodus 15:17). The land was the special place that was set apart for relationship with God and worship of God.
The writer, in verses 4 through 11, links the concepts of Sabbath and land - holy time and holy space, the time for relationship and the place for relationship. The distinction between time and place for relationship breaks down because what's important in both aspects is relationship. Moreover, the time is no longer important (Colossians 2:16), nor is the place (John 4:21-24). We who have believed enter that time and place of rest, which is relationship with God, which happens any time and any place.
Verse 6 is a precursor to verse 7 and provides the reason God "fixes a certain day" for the gospel and provides an example of what not to do on that day. The reason God fixes a day for the gospel is because "it remains for some" to enter God's rest. God's rest is still available, though it is no longer bound by time and space. The negative example is the Israelites of the wilderness, "who formerly had good news preached to them" but didn't believe it, resulting in disobedience to God's command to enter the land.
So God fixes a certain day, called "today." Again, time is of no consequence. The fixed day is "today." It is always today. The day is fixed for hearing and receiving the gospel, not hardening one's heart against it. The words quoted in verse 7 originally appeared in the Psalms, most of which were written by David to the extent that they were connected with his name. Psalm 95 was written "after so long a time," about 400 years after Israel's wilderness experience. But those words, and the promise of God's rest, were still applicable "today," when the original readers of Hebrews received them more than 1,000 years later.
Of course, they are still relevant in our day: "Today if your hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." His voice, in this context, is the gospel. It begins with hearing. If we hear the gospel, we have a chance to believe it. But it is also possible to harden our hearts - to not listen and believe because we suspect it isn't good news. We should therefore open our ears and hearts as wide as possible for as long as possible so that the truth of the gospel settles in our souls. As we shall see, hearing the gospel is not only for those who have never embraced it but for those who have embraced it as well, because those who have embraced it benefit as they discover it afresh.
Verse 8, beginning with the word "for," further explains that rest is a current concept, not just an ancient one. Joshua, the man who eventually led the Israelites into the land of promise, did not give them rest. Even under David and Solomon, pockets of resistance in the land were never stable for long. Because the people refused to follow the Lord, they were exiled from the land, and when they were finally allowed to return, it was under foreign rule. Even rest in the land, though, was designed to point to "another day," as Psalm 95 points out. In verse 9 the writer further emphasizes that rest is available to God's current people, not just his former people. The Sabbath and the land are linked once again here, for in verse 8, the writer spoke of Joshua, whose work concerned the land, but verse 9 is linked to verse 8 by used of the word "therefore" and speaks of the Sabbath, not the land.
In verse 10, the writer explains the contemporary meaning of Sabbath rest. Entering into this rest, God's rest, means resting from one's works. What works does one rest from? One rests from his works as God rested from his. How did God rest? God rested by blessing the seventh day and setting it apart for relationship with humanity. Rest doesn't mean absence of activity, then; it means enjoyment of the relationship. Again, this has both future and present implications. There will come a time when we will cease from earthly works entirely and perfectly know and worship the Lord, as John reports in Revelation 14:13: "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on."' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.'" But certainly, if rest concerns knowing God, we can know him now.
The writer calls us to be "diligent" to enter this rest. The wording is similar to that of verse 1. In both verses, some kind of collective care is called for to prevent individual failure. When many are zealous to enter God's rest, the one who is questioning the value of this rest is encouraged to seek it and not "fall" by disobeying God, which means not believing him. The Israelites "fell" in the wilderness and failed to enter God's rest (3:17). How are we to be diligent? God's rest is entered through faith (4:2-3, 6:11-12). Faith comes by hearing (3:7, 15, 4:2, 4:7). Hearing what? The gospel (4:2, 6). We, therefore, are diligent to enter God's rest by being diligent to hear the gospel, which leads to believing the gospel.
Jesus spoke of rest: "All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him. Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my load is light" (Matthew 11:27-30).
Jesus gives rest. He is the new and better Joshua, giving complete rest, and a better kind of rest at that. How does Jesus define rest? He connects it with knowing the Father, who is revealed by the Son to individuals. Therefore, Jesus says, "Come to me ... " Come to Jesus. Embrace him. In other words, believe the gospel. Believe the gospel and know God - experience rest. As Joshua brought the people into the earthly land where God would dwell, Jesus brings us to the heavenly land where God dwells, and we are there even now, in God's presence (Ephesians 2:6).
How does knowing the Father produce rest? As we know the Father, as we draw near to him, as we see his attributes more clearly, we understand that all is well, all will be well and all manner of things will be well. We are weary and heavy-laden - full of guilt and fear and anxiety. We carry God-like burdens because we don't know him, or don't know him well. We are therefore not at rest, and don't feel that we can ever rest. But as we move toward the Father, it all melts away, because we realize that he will take care of everything. But we only understand that as we move toward him. And we can't move toward him unless we have access to him. Jesus, by dying for us, has given us access to him. Take a good, hard, long look into the face of the Father, and you shall find rest for your soul. And look forward to the day when you will know nothing of guilt, fear and anxiety, when you enter into God's eternal rest.
I have lately noticed an interesting trend in the answers I hear to the question, "How are you?" In our day, this is the equivalent of "hello." It's simply a way of greeting one another, and unless your an interpersonal literalist, "How are you?" doesn't mean, "How are you?" The usual answer is something along the lines of "fine." Despite cultural forms, many of us seem to want to go just a little beyond this answer and be somewhat more revealing. The answer that keeps popping up these days? One word: "Busy." We're not at rest; we're busy. And it's a good bet that this "busyness" is not being driven by our relationship with God but by something within us that is running from God. For if we were moving toward God, we'd be realize that that he will take care of things.
One day, Philipp Malanchton told his friend Martin Luther, "Martin, this day we will discuss the governance of the universe." Luther answered, "This day, you and I will go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God." What allowed Luther to respond in this way? His knowledge and belief that God could take care of things. As we move close to God, we realize that he will take care of things, and we can rest.
Do we want rest? When rest is defined as relationship with God, perhaps not. The gospel is God's diagnostic tool that shows us whether we want him.
Attitude toward rest (Hebrews 4:12-13)
(12) For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (13) And there is no creature hidden from his sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
These two verses about the word of God begin with the word
"for," which means they are related to the preceding
text. The word of God, in this case, somehow concerns our diligence
to enter God's rest. As we saw earlier, we are to be diligent
by hearing and believing the gospel. The word, in verse 12, is
not the general word, but the specific word of the gospel, as
it was in verse 2. We might think: "OK, I'm supposed to hear
the gospel. What's that going to do for me?" Answer: The
word (ergo, the gospel) is "living and active" - it's
effective. Listen to it, and it will change you.
Before it changes you, however, it diagnoses your condition. The gospel, in a spiritual sense, is even more effective than a two-edged sword, which was a large, heavy weapon that a soldier could use to slice through the bones of an enemy and sever his limbs. As the sword would expose the previously unseen internal workings of the body, the gospel exposes the previously unseen internal workings of the heart - one's thoughts and intentions. The problem of humanity is an "evil, unbelieving heart," or, more literally, an "evil heart of unbelief" (3:12). The problem is a heart that is fundamentally opposed to God and all he stands for. But that problem is hidden in the inner workings of the heart, in one's thoughts and intentions. The gospel, then, diagnoses the heart. One's response to it demonstrates whether one wants God's rest or not. It exposes one's heart and judges it, as either desirous of God or hateful of God.
It opens and lays one's heart bear before God, "with whom we have to do," which would be literally translated, "to whom of us the word." It's difficult to know what is meant by this last phrase, but the key thing to note, which is obscured by most translations, is that "the word" appears again. It probably means that God's word to us in the gospel, which exposes our hearts, calls for our word to him. In other words, what is our response to the gospel?
This sounds like a frightening process, being sliced open and having one's heart exposed. Yet it is a good one. How many of us truly know our own hearts? If the gospel exposes one's heart as hateful toward God, at least he's aware of reality. Now he knows the former pretense that his heart was in good shape was, in fact, a giant hoax he played on himself. If he further listens to the gospel, he can embrace it. He can embrace Jesus, and God will begin to change his heart into one that is soft toward him, one that wants rest in God's presence. As the gospel comes to us again and again, it continues to diagnose our hearts so that we might be aware of our distance from God and move closer to him.
When a man came to Jesus an asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all he had and follow him. "But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property" (Mark 10:17-22). The words of Jesus, which called for the man to commit his life to Jesus, demonstrated the condition of the man's heart, which was desirous of property, not God. There is some speculation, however, that that man was John Mark himself, the author of the gospel of Mark. If this is the case, the words of Jesus, which concerned the gospel, not only exposed his heart but eventually changed it. The gospel does the same thing today: It exposes hearts and changes hearts.
Believe the gospel
So, are you weary and heavy-laden, burdened by guilt and fear and anxiety? Are you exhausted, trying to carry God-like burdens, because you don't believe God can bear them? Believe the gospel. Come to Jesus. Move toward the Father. Rest with God.
- SCG, 7-29-97
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