The world has been restless ever since the Fall. Is true rest, then, attainable for the Christian? If so, where and how can it be found?
Hebrews chapters three and four are devoted to the topic of rest. The writer uses a word for rest which is different from that used in Matthew 11:28. In the latter scripture, the Lord is concerned with the lifting up of burdens from others’ weary shoulders; in Hebrews, with the laying down of the legal works of Judaism.
The Hebrews were engaged in a great struggle: the law tended to pull them down; Christ sought to draw them up to Himself. Which would they allow to have the mastery? Christ is superior to angels, Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and all others. There should be no doubt as to Who is entitled to the mastery, but two other forces were at work which made the issue uncertain.
These forces are named in Hebrews chapters three and four; one is “unbelief” (3:12, 19); the other is “disobedience” (Revised Version, 3:18; 4:6), meaning “unpersuasableness.” Unbelief has to do with distrust of a person; unpersuasableness, with unbelief of promises, and consequent failure to act on them.
Israel was assured that the promised land would certainly be theirs. Notwithstanding the evidence, they remained unconvinced; they could not trust God to empower them to possess the land, nor to redeem His promise and give it to them. God was not trusted nor were His Promises believed. No wonder they fell in the wilderness and failed to enter the land.
Are we totally immune to the same dangers of distrust and unpersuasableness ? Do they spoil our rest? Do we too ask, “Can God? … Can He furnish a table in the wilderness?” “Can He bring us right through our long journey to the ultimate goal?” Do we, by asking such questions, limit the Holy One with Whom we have to do, thus becoming inwardly perturbed?
The Holy Spirit speaks to us in no uncertain tone; He calls upon us “today” to listen and to exhort each other before it is too late. We must pull ourselves up immediately and not defer the issue. To “harden the heart” is a very easy thing to do; we have our MASSAHS AND MERIBAHS (Exod. 17:7) too frequently, despite the evidence in our past experience of the faithfulness of God. Why then tempt Him now?
If the heart is not right, we will not likely understand God’s ways (Heb. 3:10). We may see His acts, and find it impossible to attribute them to anything but His power, but do we know His “ways”? His acts have to do with that which is manifest; His ways relate to the principles involved, and the latter is of greater importance.
The rest spoken of in Hebrews chapters three and four is a present spiritual experience. Of course, it does not terminate at death or at the coming of the Lord, but it will be enjoyed all the more fully then. On the other hand, there are cogent reasons for rejecting the thought that the rest relates only to the future in our case, when life is past. Certainly, in Israel’s case, the rest lay at the end of the wilderness journey, but it is not so in ours. Some of the reasons for making this statement are as follows:
1. The Christian today is both a pilgrim in the wilderness and a warrior in the land. From one point of view, he has really entered his inheritance already: hence, the rest is something to be enjoyed here and now. (Pilgrimage is prominent in Peter’s epistles, and in that to the Hebrews; inheritance and warfare are prominent in Ephesians.)
2. In scripture Canaan never represents heaven, for sin and conflict were both found in Canaan.
3. Faith and rest are united in Hebrews, and what God has joined, we must not separate. As soon as there is faith, rest is enjoyed. “We which have believed do enter into that rest.” Note the tense: it is present, not future.
4. Rest is a cessation from works (Heb. 4:4). The Hebrews were liable to persist in legal works and to forfeit their spiritual rest. The two cannot go together. If it is “of faith,” it is “not of works.” God entered into His creation rest when He ceased from His works.
5. The rest, in Hebrews, is harmony with God. “He that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works as God did from His. Let us labour, therefore, to enter into that rest.” The thought is complementary to that of Matthew 11:28; in Hebrews, it is the abandonment of the burdens of Judaistic ritualism. This rest is the enjoyment of all that has been procured for us by our Lord Jesus, who, through death and resurrection, brought to an end the Levitical ceremonial system.
Futhermore, note the emphasis laid upon the heart in this section of Hebrews. We must “keep our heart with all diligence” lest it should go astray. There is a constant propensity to wander, but we must take care lest “we alway err in heart.” It is a grievous thing to lapse at all, but altogether a more grievous thing always to do so. Backslidings do occur, although they should not; but how tragic if they should become “perpetual” (Jer. 8:5).
These chapters in Hebrews have often caused difficulties to believers; but the writer is quite consistent with the clearly and indubitably stated doctrine of the eternal security of the child of God, when he warns us against possible failure. We must distinguish things that differ. Relationship, the result of life imparted, is not here in view; rather, the pilgrim character of the Christian. These chapters have to do with a position which we have voluntarily taken by confession (Revised Version, Heb. 3:1), as separated from the world and having started on the pilgrim journey to better things. Having thus confessed ourselves to be among the many sons who are being brought through the wilderness on the way to glory, “let us, therefore, fear lest” under the pressure of circumstances or persecution we should “seem to have come short of” God’s intended rest. In reading these two chapters,—as indeed in reading the whole epistle to the Hebrews—we must remember that the writer is taking his addressees on the ground of their profession. He does not assume that it is genuine necessarily; he would fain hope so, but they must examine themselves and “take heed.” This explains his use of the word “if” in such passages as Heb. 3:14 and elsewhere. Continuance is the proof of genuineness; apostacy is the evidence of unreality.
The argument of the writer appears to be as follows: God’s rest existed from the foundation of the world; that is, the completion of the restorative work as detailed in Genesis 1. God rested on the seventh day, and, if we would be in communion with Him, we too must share His rest. True rest is the product of harmony with given laws; when these laws are broken, discord ensues and rest is forfeited.
Creation’s rest was followed by the offer of Cannaan’s rest but Israel, as a whole, failed to attain to it. They fell in the wilderness. Nor did Joshua bring them into it; enemies still remained in the land.
Later on, therefore, David is able to speak of that rest as still “remaining” available for the people of God. It still remains available for us to obtain; whether we do so depends on the condition of our heart, and on our response to His voice.
The writer speaks of the “word of God” in Heb. 4:12, referring to Ps. 95:7-11. That word is “living and operative.” While Heb. 4:12 is true of the whole volume of Holy Scripture, it has special reference to the immediate context. These four verses cited from the Jewish Psalter have life and power in them; their sharp edge is surely felt by those whose hearts are not hardened; they pierce us and reveal what we are; these verses lay us bare and naked before the eyes of God. What failure and weakness they reveal! How sorely we need the help of our Great High Priest! How gracious that He is at once introduced in verse 14!
Leviticus 23 shows that rest is the goal which God has in view for HIS PEOPLE. The numeral seven speaks of it. We read there of the seventh day, the seventh week, the seventh year, and the Jubilee year at the expiry of seven sevens of years. Seven speaks of completion, attainment, and rest. On the seventh day God rested. There is, therefore, a “sabbatismos” available for us (Heb. 4:9). This rest “remains” for the people of God, who, like Israel, have been redeemed from worse bondage and by more precious blood. We “enter” it by faith, now; only to discover that it is but the beginning of an eternal rest in fellowship with God Himself.
Assuredly it is possible for God’s pilgrims to have peace in the storm, songs in the night, joy in the prison, light in the cell. “We which believe do enter into rest.” Faith is not a blind resignation to events but a simple intelligent trust in God and His word. Faith dispels doubts and refuses to judge things by appearance. Faith rests on God, and in the Him the soul rests also.