“Entering His Rest” (Hebrews 4:1-13)
If you’ve ever had to work and work and work, if you’ve ever been worn out and exhausted, when you feel like you can’t go on but you have to, when you’re drained and tired and spent–at times like those, you know how refreshing it is, and what a relief it is, to finally get a rest.
Rest: It can be such a welcome word. To be able to just kick back and relax. The pressure is off, the burden is lifted. Take a load off and chillax, bro! A little R & R is so welcome after an arduous ordeal.
And so our Epistle reading for today, from Hebrews 4, is about being able to get that kind of a rest. In fact, it’s about an even greater kind of rest. God’s rest. The rest that he has for us, in Christ. And so our theme this morning: “Entering His Rest.”
Now being from the Book of Hebrews, it should be no surprise that our text today has plenty of Old Testament references. And it does. It presumes the readers would be able to pick up on the Old Testament imagery it employs. But maybe we’re not as conversant with that background as we might be. So I think first it would be helpful to explain some of that Old Testament background.
And really, it’s talking about several things here. One is the institution of the Sabbath as a day of rest for the people of Israel. Another is the rest that the people would have when they came into the Promised Land. But, still another, there was a problem, because not all the people would enter that rest. And so the writer to the Hebrews is recalling these points to make application to us Christians. So let’s consider what he’s saying.
First is the matter of the Sabbath rest. Our text says that God’s “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.’” This reference goes back to the beginning, to God’s creation of the heavens and the earth in six days. And on the seventh day he rested. God set aside a day to rest, and with that, he established a time for Sabbath rest for mankind, that man should take time periodically to rest from his work. This was according to the order of creation. There is built into the created order, into our creatureliness, a rhythm of rest. This is a gift from God, a blessing, that we would not wear ourselves out and burn ourselves out.
But when we come to the Exodus and the Ten Commandments, the Lord adds another dimension to the Sabbath rest. And that is according to the order of redemption. Redemption: how the Lord acted in history to deliver his people. The Israelites were in bondage as slaves down in Egypt. This was hard labor. But the Lord heard the cries of his people and remembered his covenant, and he came down to deliver his people through his servant Moses. And when he did, that deliverance was brought into the keeping of the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” was one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses. And the Lord said about it: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
So now there was this aspect of remembrance and peoplehood that became part of the Sabbath rest. Israel was to come together on the Sabbath and remember how the Lord had set them free from their slavery. The Sabbath became a day for the Israelites to rest from their labors, not just because their bodies needed rest, but even more importantly, the people of God need to take time precisely to be his people and to rest in the salvation the Lord has won for them.
Friends, this still holds true for us today. We take time to come together as church to reflect on and rest in the salvation God has won for us. We come here to hear God’s word. We come here to be the people of God, the church. To be refreshed in our Christian walk. To rejoice in the salvation that is ours in Christ. To be recharged and renewed as church, for the mission we carry out in the world. To receive God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. This day of rest and gladness, this is divine, heavenly R & R–rest and relaxation, to be refreshed, recharged, and renewed, rejoicing and receiving–how many “R’s” is that, anyway?
But you’ll notice, we’re here on Sunday, not Saturday. The Sabbath, as one particular day of the week, was on the seventh day, which is Saturday. But that requirement, which was binding on Old Testament Israel, has been fulfilled now in Christ, and so no longer is binding. But we still have a need to come together as God’s people, to hear his word and to receive his gifts. And to do that, it does help to have a certain day set aside. And from the very first Easter Day, that day when Christ rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, when he met with them and opened the Scriptures to them and ate with them in his presence–ever since that day, the church has come together on the first day of the week, Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Yes, on this day, Jesus is here, present with us, giving us his gifts in Word and Sacrament. This truly is our day of rest and gladness, gathered in our Lord’s gracious presence.
We come together on this day of rest to reflect on and rejoice in the salvation Christ has won for us. This is the greater rest we have in Christ. More than just rest from physical labors, this is rest from trying to reach God by way of our works. This is rest from the burden of our guilt, time to lay that burden down. This is rest from our slavery to sin and death, that dreadful bondage that is ours by nature. Our text in Hebrews says, “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” You see, your works will never be enough. You cannot do enough to overcome your sin.
But Christ has. He has done enough, more than enough, to accomplish your salvation. It is his works, not yours, that will save you. His works, his fulfilling of the law’s demands on our behalf. His works, his taking the punishment for sin that the law requires in our place. God has brought us out of our slavery to sin and death with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Two outstretched arms, actually: the arms of our Savior Jesus, stretched out on the cross.
“The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this, and everything is already done.’” Everything necessary for our eternal salvation has already been done. As Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.” Job done. Work complete. Christ’s resurrection then shows that that was enough, more than enough. With sins forgiven, life is the result. Now this salvation comes to you as a gift. The gift is received by faith. Trust in Jesus, believe in him and what he has done for you. It is all by grace, a free gift. Faith humbly receives what God offers and says “Thank you.”
And so we enter this rest, his rest, by faith. But that is what many of the people of Israel did not do. They did not enter into God’s rest. Why? Because of unbelief. They grumbled and complained on the way to the Promised Land. Over and over again, they groused and grumbled and griped–against Moses, and against the Lord, really. Instead of trusting in the Lord, that he would provide for them and see them through on their journey, the people of Israel complained and disbelieved. And so many of them fell in the wilderness and did not make it into the Promised Land.
And their example serves as a warning to us. That’s the point our text emphasizes so strongly: “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. 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. . . . Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” As the psalmist says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
There is danger, dear friends, if we harden our hearts to the voice of the Lord. That is the way of disobedience and unrepentance and unbelief. That is the way of death. We shall not enter the promised rest if we harden our hearts as those Israelites did.
So the Lord today is calling us to repentance and faith. Repent, let the Holy Spirit soften your heart to acknowledge your sin and seek God’s forgiveness. And then believe in Christ for that forgiveness. Jesus is ready to take your burden today. Our Lord is saying to us today, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Israel of old did at last enter the Promised Land, that land flowing with milk and honey. They did so under the leadership of Joshua. But that was not the end of the story. As Hebrews says, “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.” And so the entrance into that Promised Land pointed ahead to its fulfillment in Christ.
Yes, Jesus is our Joshua. He will lead us into the Promised Land of heaven. He has already paved the way for us, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. And one day he will come from there to take us home. Yes, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” It is the rest of everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven. That day is coming, dear friends, that day is coming. A joyful rest, refreshed in the presence of our Lord. An active, invigorating rest, with neither boredom nor burden. And this rest that remains–it will last for the rest of eternity. Brothers and sisters, with Jesus as our Joshua, we can be sure that we will be entering his rest.