Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Rest that Remains

      When a person is entrenched in work mode, he finds it very difficult to relax. A preoccupied mind prevents slumber, and rest is disrupted by lingering thoughts of unfinished tasks (Eccles. 2:23). The habit of work is not easily set aside by one who just has to stay busy.
     As a result of their exile in Egypt, unrelenting toil had become a way of life for the Israelites. Even after their emancipation it took a divine injunction just to get them to take a day off! (Exod. 1:11-14; 16:23-30). The concept of meaningful rest had become foreign to them, but God had heard their cries and purposed to provide a better life in “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8; cf. Gen. 12:7; 15:18-21). This was an environment where they could finally rest. 
     Yet before their respite could be enjoyed, the Israelites had to trust God to do what He said He would do when they did what He asked them to do. “Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:1-2, NKJV).
     Unfortunately the majority of the people proved unwilling to take God at His word and thus forfeited this promised rest. “For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’” (Ps. 95:10-11). Nevertheless, after four decades of restless sojourning, Israel was graciously given another opportunity to enter the land of promise. And once again the promise was conditional. It was theirs to possess as a gift from God, but they had to march ahead in faithful obedience. With the Lord’s help they were to drive out the pagan inhabitants, destroy the vestiges of idolatry, build houses, plant crops, mine ores, and establish herds and flocks as they settled into their new home (Num. 33:51-54; Deut. 1–8). In other words, this was not to be a leisurely period of inactivity—their “rest” would entail a great deal of hard work! The promised rest was intended to be an escape from oppressive toil, insecurity, homelessness, uncertainty, struggle, and fear. It was to be an active yet peaceful and prosperous existence, saturated with the manifold blessings of God.
     The chosen leader and great “rest provider” was an Ephraimite named Hoshea (Num. 13:8, 16; Deut. 1:38), perhaps better remembered as Joshua (meaning “Jehovah is salvation”). Under his capable and divinely-directed leadership, the long-anticipated rest finally became a reality. “So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it. The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers . . . Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass” (Josh. 21:43-45).
     Then about fifteen centuries after Joshua’s conquests and the turbulent history that followed, the document known as Hebrews was penned. Apparently a first-century community of Jewish Christians had become disheartened in their faith—their enthusiasm had waned, their spirits were weak, and they were in danger of slipping away from Christ. In order to encourage them to persevere, the writer of Hebrews adopts this theme of God’s “rest.” The theme is introduced in the third chapter and expounded upon in the fourth, where Jesus is shown to be superior to Joshua as God’s rest provider. Interestingly, the name Iesous (“Jesus”) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Jehoshua (“Joshua”).
     Four different “rests” may be considered here. First, there is God’s rest following His six days of creative activity, which simply refers to His work of fashioning the cosmos being discontinued (Gen. 2:2). Second, the Jews were commanded to rest every seventh day of the week (the Sabbath) as a reminder of their liberation from Egyptian bondage (Deut. 5:15). Third, the Israelite inheritance of Canaan was to be a kind of rest, viz. a life free of oppression and turmoil (Deut. 12:9-11). While each of these is alluded to in Hebrews for illustrative purposes, another rest is spoken of that is yet in the future—something promised that remains to be fully realized. Specific terminology is used to describe this rest. The inspired writer does not employ the word anapausis (“cessation of labor”), which is the regular term for the seventh-day Sabbath rest in the LXX (the version used exclusively in Hebrews for copious scripture quotations). Neither are the words anesis (“relief”) or koimesis (“slumber”) utilized. Eleven times in Hebrews 3–4 the noun katapausis and its verbal form katapauō appear, referring to “a state of settled or final rest.” And once, in 4:9, the term sabbatismos emerges (its only occurrence in the NT), meaning “a state of rest, a sabbath-state,” which is a reference to the type of rest rather than the day of rest. 
     There is a sense in which this restful state may be considered a current reality. Of believers it is acknowledged in 4:3, “we are entering [present tense] the rest” (author’s own translation). This simply affirms the absolute assurance of this rest for those who are faithful (cf. 1 John 2:25; 5:13). However, that the fulfillment of this promise is still in the future is clearly shown by statements like the following: “a promise remains of entering His rest” (4:1); “it remains that some must enter it” (4:6); “There remains therefore a [sabbath] rest for the people of God” (4:9); “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest” (4:11).
     What exactly is this impending state of rest? When Jesus journeyed ahead to prepare a place for His disciples (John 14:2-3), He went beyond the “veil” and penetrated the Holiest Place to dwell in the presence of God (Heb. 6:19-20; 9:12). This is none other than “heaven itself” (Heb. 9:24). Accordingly, we now have the confident expectation of entering the very same place (Heb. 6:18-19; 10:19-20, 34). It is heaven wherein our names are registered (Heb. 12:23) and in which we have citizenship (Phil. 3:20), reward (Matt. 5:12), hope (Col. 1:5), and an inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3-4). And unlike Israel’s inheritance of a temporal rest, ours is everlasting (Heb. 9:15). This does not mean, however, that the heavenly rest will be an eternity of idleness and boredom. God’s rest was merely a cessation of His creative work, but He has continued to be active throughout history. While Israel’s rest was simply the freedom from tyranny and dispossession, their lives certainly did not consist of lazy days napping in hammocks! Our future heavenly home will be a place of active service (Rev. 7:9-15; 22:3), but also a rest from the labors and toils of this sinful world, free from death, sorrow, crying, pain, hunger, thirst, darkness, and iniquity (Rev. 7:16-17; 21:4–22:17).
     Divine promises have almost always been conditional. As already noted, Israel had to remain faithful and work hard to enter the rest that was provided. But the first generation forfeited their inheritance because of obstinate hearts (Heb. 3:8, 10, 15). Their ignorance of the divine will (Heb. 3:10) was surely not due to the Lord’s failure to communicate. “Good news” had been proclaimed to them, but it was profitless without the accompaniment of faith (Heb. 4:2). They did not trust in God’s promise to give them the land, thus neglecting to do what was required in order for this restful state to be enjoyed. Their refusal to listen and constructively respond to God’s word occasioned “unbelief” displayed in “disobedience” (Heb. 3:18-19; 4:6, 11).
     Alternatively, there is a rest that is assured to hoi pisteusantes (Heb. 4:3a), “the believing ones” (author’s own translation). This participle is not a statement of what we have done (i.e. merely believed) but is descriptive of who we are. It stands in contrast to those characterized by “unbelief” and “disobedience.” Having retired into heaven after completing His magnificent handiwork, the Creator calls it “My rest” and promises the faithful ones a share in it (Heb. 4:3-10). Once we have received the “good news” with open hearts and responded in obedient faith, we are “partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb. 3:14; cf. 4:2, 6-7). With the lesson of rebellious Israel before us, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). Four things stand out in Hebrews as prerequisites of entering God’s rest: (a) a receptive heart (kardia appears eleven times in the epistle—six times in chaps. 3–4); (b) faithful obedience (4:6-11; 6:18; 10:19-22); (c) steadfast perseverance to the end (3:6, 14; 4:11, 14; 6:9-12; 10:23; 12:1); and (d) mutual encouragement (3:13; 6:10; 10:24-25).
     Perhaps more than any other writing in the New Testament, Hebrews affirms and warns against the possibility of apostasy (cf. 2:1-3; 3:12-13; 4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-38; 12:15, 25). Consequently, one might be intimidated by this prospect and feel somewhat apprehensive about his/her eternal destiny, anxiously living in fear of losing the heavenly rest. However, these warnings are directed to those who are in the process of drifting away from Christ and are heading toward complete severance from God. They are the ones who ought to fear (Heb. 4:1). Conversely, for those who are sincerely doing their imperfect best to live in accordance with the Lord’s directives, perhaps more than any other New Testament document Hebrews offers great reassurance (cf. 3:6, 14; 4:16; 6:11, 17-20; 7:19; 10:19-22, 39; 11:1; 12:1-3; 13:5-6).
     The Hebrews epistle assures its readers that the future heavenly rest is divinely promised (4:1) and reserved for the people of God (4:9). The fact that “God is faithful” means that He categorically and irrefutably keeps His word (10:23). Moreover, this rest is so sure that believers are spoken of as already entering it (4:3). All who are serious about their allegiance to Christ readily accept the Lord’s conditions and possess a willing determination to enter that rest with diligence (4:11). The balance between nagging uncertainty on one hand, and misdirected impudence on the other, is an uncompromising faithfulness to God coupled with absolute confidence in His promises.
     “Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on,”’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them’” (Rev. 14:13).
–Kevin L. Moore

First appearing in the 2006 FHU Lectureship Book (388-92); republished in The Summit Chronicle 2:1 (April 2007): 9-11.

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