Believe Jesus: Resting in God
‘Rest’ is a somewhat ambivalent word. If you are tired, the prospect of a rest can be very attractive, but to many of us the idea of rest might seem more negative, smacking of a lack of action and productivity. Yet rest is one of the great promises of the gospel, which means it is something we need to understand properly.
The author of Hebrews is here contrasting the wilful disobedience of the wilderness generation with the faithful obedience that followers of Jesus are to display. Obedience leads God’s people into God’s rest. The wilderness generation failed to enter this rest, even though the word of God was with them. In their case the word exposed rather than helped them: They didn’t listen, and they failed to enter rest. And that was a tragedy.
The kind of rest that Hebrews is describing here is not the rest of laziness, but the rest of completion. It is the kind of rest that God himself entered into on the seventh day of creation – a rest that signified the work was done, not that God was now disengaged from the fruit of his work. It is this kind of rest that God’s people are also invited to enter and the Israelites were meant to enter something of it in Canaan. The failure of the wilderness generation to take possession of the promised land and enter rest was evidence of God’s judgment over them. Israel ‘resting’ in the promised land was meant to be a prophetic demonstration of what entering God’s rest means.
God’s rest is freedom from enemies
God had promised the people that in Canaan he would, ‘give you rest from your enemies’ (Dt 12:10). We all face enemies, whether it be hostile people, sickness, depression, ugliness, poverty or whatever. The hope of the gospel is that in defeating our biggest enemy, sin and death, Jesus has defeated all our enemies, so we can rest easy, not having to check nervously over our shoulder all the time.
God’s rest is being in his presence
The ark of the covenant found its eventual resting place on Mt Zion (1 Kng 8:56; Ps 132:8, 13-14) and when the people came to worship there they were in some way entering divine rest. It was in this place of worship that they shared all the benefits of YHWH being their king. Now that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on God’s people, we all enter his presence regardless of where we are physically and know the benefits of being ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Pet 2:9).
God’s rest is freedom from slavery
There was a direct link between the command not to work on the Sabbath and Israel’s experience of slavery in Egypt (Dt 5:12-15). To enter rest is to live in freedom. Christ has now purchased us eternal freedom, so that we do not need to be at the exhausting beck and call of any other god.
God’s rest is freedom from sin
For Israel the Day of Atonement was a Sabbath day – a day of rest and celebration. The declaration of God’s mercy and forgiveness brought them into liberation. Now that Christ has made complete atonement for sin, his people are permanently at rest from the penalty for their sin.
God’s rest is ‘Cosmic’
When God rested on the seventh day it was evidence of the completeness of his creation. This completion speaks of perfection and harmony – a perfection and harmony that were marred by the entry of sin. Because of sin all creation groans, but the victory of God in Jesus Christ means that the creation will once more be restored to a condition of restful harmony. The gospel is green!
God’s rest is a party!
‘Sabbath rest’ means ‘Sabbath celebration’. Praise and rest go together and the rest we are called to enter is not passive, but joyful celebration!
God’s rest still involves work
Jesus once said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (Jn 5:17) – which means there is a paradox of God having entered rest on the seventh day, yet being perpetually engaged in his work. This apparent paradox is resolved when we understand work in rest to be like the work of Adam and Eve in the garden. This was work as ‘leisure’, not survival. It is an ideal rest, which involves joy-filled, satisfying, working. The new creation will not be boring!
All these expressions of rest were to be experienced in part in the land of Canaan, which is why the people’s refusal to enter it was such a tragedy. What about us? We Christians are already entering this rest, through Christ! He has overcome our enemies. He has delivered us from the slavery of sin. He brings us into God’s presence by the Holy Spirit. He brings us into harmony with God. He gives us reason to celebrate. He gives us work to do.
Our rest will be complete on the day of Christ’s return and the renewal of all things. Then we will experience complete rest, in the world we have always wanted. This is a rest it is worth striving to enter – which means that unlike the Israelites, we must not put ourselves in opposition to the word of God, but respond to it with faith and joy.