23. The ‘Rest’ God has for us

Meditations in Hebrews 4:    23.  The ‘Rest’ God has for us

Heb 4:1   Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.

In chapters 3 and 4 the word ‘rest’ comes up ten times, twice in chapter 3 and 8 times in chapter 4. We need to understand what it means. However, the explanation is spread out over the next eleven verses so we are going to have to do a large passage study, which unravels as the writer goes on. But be warned, this is, in our opinion, one of the most complex arguments in this book and it will take some thinking through. We will, however, do all we can to work through it to explain it clearly and then at the end, produce a summary of our findings.  Now as we come to these verses, I know I usually use the NIV but in this instance that version is, I believe, confusing and commentators and interpreters have struggled with it, so I am going to use the ESV which I think is more straight forward.

The ‘Therefore’ links us with the previous chapter that he ended with this reminder of what had gone on after the Exodus from Egypt. The ‘rest’ referred to in 3:11 and 3:18 was clearly the Promised Land which, through lack of faith, that earlier generation failed to take.

So now our writer starts with a warning which he assumes at the outset we will understand: “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.”  (v.1) Now I warned just now that this is a difficult argument to follow so let’s put out front what the writer is going to prove from the Old Testament Scriptures, that “entering his rest” has its origins at the end of the days of Creation, but was a term used to apply to Israel entering the Promised Land, BUT ALSO at any other subsequent time when God challenges and calls us.

Let’s just assume to start with that this ‘rest’ is in general terms ‘God’s goal for each one of us’. When ‘rest’ is used as ‘the goal of our salvation’, he tells us that the promise is still there, that it IS possible to enter a similar state that God entered when He finished Creation, so, says our writer, don’t miss the goal.

In case we haven’t understood the jump between the OT and NT goals, he links that Goal with the Gospel:  “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.” (v.2) The ‘us’ is us who are now Christians and the ‘they’ refers to the Israelites under Moses. The implication is that they were told there was a land that God had for them, but it needed taking by faith. The only trouble was that they didn’t have that faith. There is a subtle indirect warning behind this, for us not to be casual about the Gospel. Be careful that you haven’t fully received it, is what he is saying.

Now in verse 3 he first reassures us because we have believed, and reminds us (by way of warning) what happened to those in the OT who didn’t believe: “For we who have believed enter that rest, (so we’re OK, in contrast with them) as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath,  ‘They shall not enter my rest’”, (even though that ‘rest’ existed from after the Creation) although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” i.e. God’s rest – His own goal achieved, Creation and rest – existed thereafter and He is telling us that we too can enter into that experience of rest if we come to Him by faith.

The words, “my rest” he referred to in the quote back in 3:11 and now here in 4:3 suggest that it is as if the Promised Land isn’t the only thing God means when he speaks about us not entering HIS rest. When he writes, “And yet,” it’s as if the writer means, “But don’t forget the Creation story where God finished His work and then rested,”  and so he goes on to speak of that, “For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  (citing Gen 2:2)  That was God’s rest, the completion of Creation. God had done His part. When he now refers back to that warning of Psa 95: “And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” (v.5) it was simply to remind us that although God has a rest (a position of having achieved His goal of Creation and thus now being able to relax, so to speak) that particular group of unbelieving people did not enter into it. That’s what the prophetic warning was in that Psalm.

The ESV arrangement  of verses 6 and 7 show us a “this-then argument” i.e. IF one group of people failed to enter THEN God sets up a new way of thinking about it: “Since therefore (IF) it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, (THEN) again he appoints a certain day, “Today”, saying through David so long afterwards, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

The Message Version explains it well: “God keeps renewing the promise and setting the date as today, just as he did in David’s psalm, centuries later than the original invitation: Today, please listen,  don’t turn a deaf ear . . .”  or as the Easy to Read Version puts it, “So God planned another special day. It is called “today.” He spoke about that day through David a long time later using the words we quoted before: “If you hear God’s voice today, don’t be stubborn.” i.e. merely because that one group of people failed to enter into the ‘rest’ God had for them, that was not the end of the story. God applies the word again and again in history so it can apply numerous times, just as he did in that Psalm of David’s.

Do you see what the writer is saying? It seems complicated but is, in reality, very simple. The warning came first of all to those Israelites to enter the ‘rest’ God had planned for them, the Promised Land, but when they failed to do that, it didn’t annul the fact that after the Creation God rested and used that ‘rest’ as an illustration of what everyone who came to Him by faith could experience – rest, in a completed world, with all of God’s provision! The goal of God’s plans from before the beginning of time, is a ‘rest’ that means being at peace with God and at rest in His will, with all that He now has available for us.

There is more to come but we’ll leave it until the next one. There has been a lot to take in and you may need to reread the whole of the study to catch it. (We will do a recap in the next study) The outworking of all this?  God has an experience that He wants for all of His children, all those who will come to Him by faith, an experience whereby we can be at complete rest in the knowledge that we have received the end goal of God’s plans – His salvation through Jesus Christ that reconciles us to Him, so no more striving, no more worry, no more wondering, ‘Am I good enough for God?’  As Jesus said on the Cross, “It is finished!”  Hallelujah!

24. Sabbath Laws

Lessons from the Law: No.24 : Sabbath Laws

Ex 23:10-13 “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed.

Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.

Within the Ten Commandments we have already seen, as the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.” (Ex 20:8-10) The use of the “Sabbath” brings together reverence for God, with His very practical caring for man. The fourth commandment was to make the seventh day holy, or different, by not working on it. As a command immediately following three about God, and coming before the practical commands about man, it seems to be a caring for man while at the same time thinking of God.

In these further laws, mostly about life in society, first of all here in our verses today, the law is about having a year off work. This would have been a real act of faith because it would mean waiting two years for harvest supply. Several points are worth noting here. It is suggested that leaving the land for a year increases its fertility, .i.e. wise use of land. Some have suggested it was calculated from when a person received the land, which meant staggered Sabbaths across the land. Care for the poor and for the environment generally (animals in particular) are also seen as purposes in God’s mind.

Then we come to the more usual aspect of the Sabbath, a rest on the seventh day. Again the emphasis here is on the workers (including animals) having a much needed rest and being refreshed.  Resting up from work would have meant it was a great communal day, as people had opportunity to get together in relaxation, as well as to specifically remember the Lord together. Societies that do not do this have lost much. This is God’s wisdom and we reject it at our peril.

The strength of these injunctions is in the fact that they occur again and again in Scripture, for example, Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, `You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.” (Ex 31:12-17) There again we have all the ingredients of the Sabbath: the activity – no work; the reason – it is a holy day; the background – on the Seventh day of Creation God stopped work;  the penalty for disobedience – death.  But there is something additional here: it is to act as a sign to show the special relationship that Israel had with God. Adhering to it would be a sign to the Lord of their obedient hearts; following it would be a sign to Israel of their relationship with the Lord; following it would be a sign to the rest of the world of their relationship with Him. The Sabbath would thus become almost a signpost pointing to the Lord.

Following this injunction in this part of the Law, we find:Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips. It is first a call to obedience and then a call to uniqueness of relationship and the two things are inextricably linked together. If they turned to other gods then that would mean that they relationship with the Lord was disappearing and when that happened they would no longer bother with the Law. The reality was that keeping the Law was completely tied in with their having a relationship with the Lord. One went with the other. No relationship = no law keeping. No law keeping = sign of absence of real relationship. It is also true of Christians. A sign of a real relationship with God through Christ is a godly spirit-led life. Absence of godliness and spirit life suggests an absence of a real and genuine relationship.