And I Will Give You Rest
The hardest thing you and I will ever be called to do is to believe that it is done already, that it really and truly is finished.
Few verses are more recognizable than Hebrews 4:12, where the writer compares God’s written Word to a “two-edged sword.” “For the word of God,” he says, “is living and active sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” By this, he sets forth the self-evident nature of Scripture, which penetrates to the depths of who we are. God’s Word is “living and active,” it is full of energy, and efficiently cuts through all of our biases and pretensions, leaving everyone “naked and exposed” (Heb. 4:13). And if you’re uncomfortable by the writer’s premise, that’s on purpose. The Hebrew writer wants his readers — us included — squirming at the profundity and authority contained in God’s Word. Which is significant considering the manner in which he makes use of Old Testament Scripture.
Beginning in Hebrews 3:7 and continuing through 4:11, the writer quotes from a portion of Psalm 95 in order to demonstrate a critical truth about the faith. It’s important to note that in illustrating this truth, the writer quotes from David, who himself is referencing Moses, all so that the church would understand more about the Lord Jesus. This is always the case when you read the Scriptures. There are always multiple layers of truth and application that are happening all at once. As you read the Old Testament, for example, you are being brought face-to-face with the truth of things that have actually happened. That is, historical truth. Likewise, though, you are also being brought face-to-face with the truth of things as they are being orchestrated and revealed by the One true sovereign Lord of all things. That is, redemptive truth. Flipping through the pages of your Bible is not like flipping through an ancient history textbook. The pages of Scripture relay God’s grand story of how from before the foundation of the world he has made a way for wicked sinners to be saved from eternal death. All of which to say that while the writer’s words in Hebrews 4:12–13 might appear disjointed from the previous section, they serve as an indispensable epilogue which substantiates all of the preceding assertions.
For example, it’s no small thing to take note of how the writer introduces the Old Testament passage on which he is going to elaborate. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’” (Heb. 3:7–8). This, of course, is a direct quote of David from Psalm 95. But rather than say, “as David says,” the writer attests, “as the Holy Spirit say,” which reveals the way in which he understood the authority of the Scriptures. That is, he sees it as a “living and active” thing. It’s not an anthology of loosely related myths that inspire us to greater moral living. Rather, it is the revelation of God’s undisturbed will and determination to redeem his creatures from certain ruin. This Hebrew church, therefore, was to read the words of David as if they were written for them, as if God was speaking directly to them — which, of course, he was through his Word.
The event at the heart of Hebrews 3 and 4 is one of the most monumental turning points in Israel’s history: the awful rebellion of God’s people at Kadesh Barnea (Heb. 3:7–11; cf. Ps. 95:7–11; Num. 13—14). After the miraculous deliverance of Jehovah on behalf of his people in the Exodus and at the Red Sea, they are brought to the borderlands of Canaan, the very land they were promised to inherit. But rather than proceed by faith, the Israelites are convinced at the word of ten spies that this land would be impossible to occupy (Num. 13:31–33). And, what’s more, it became the prevailing belief that it would’ve been better for them if they had never left Egypt. “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” they cry. “Would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Num. 14:1–4). Rather than continue clinging to the words of God’s promise, they’d rather go back into tyranny, into bondage. No wonder God says that he was “provoked with that generation” (Heb. 3:10; Ps. 95:10).
As a result, of course, that generation is forbidden from entering the land of promise and cursed to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Num. 14:20–33). And the only thing that stopped them from entering the very land of God’s covenanted word? Their own unbelief (Heb. 3:19). The people didn’t believe that they would be able to occupy the land God told them he would give them. And it’s not as though they didn’t have an array of reasons to believe God would be good to his word — they most definitely did (e.g., the plagues, the Exodus, the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, the manna, etc.). This is why Caleb and Joshua speak so boldly to all the people in hopes of reassuring them of the Lord’s power and presence for them (Num. 14:8–9). But the people were having none of it. They had been overwhelmed by what the Hebrew writer calls “an evil, unbelieving heart” (Heb. 3:12). Which led an entire generation to “fall away from the living God.”
By abandoning God’s word of promise through sheer disbelief, the people of Israel shut themselves out of God’s land of promise (Heb. 3:11). And the point is, those Hebrew Christians were faced with the same dilemma (Heb. 3:12–15). Their day was one of tension and trepidation and turmoil. The onslaught of hardship and persecution, no doubt, made it easy for them to question God’s power and presence and promise. The writer’s inquiry and purpose, then, is clear: Are you going to let the same debacle of disbelief happen again as it did at Kadesh Barnea? Are you going to repeat the same fiasco of unfaith as your forefathers did? “Our writer,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “does the very thing that David did: he uses the unbelief and the judgment of the Israelites in the wilderness as a warning for the Jewish believers of his time. By using David’s psalm our writer is able to double the warning, for the psalm repeats Moses’ account” (116).
This church found themselves at a crossroads, which was accompanied by the very real risk of forfeiting Jesus’s rest by stiffening themselves to God’s Word and Spirit. As the writer insists, the same promise, the same good news that was on the table at Kadesh Barnea was still in effect for them. It was the invitation to have a “share in Christ” and enter “the rest of God.” “Therefore,” the writer declares, “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. For we who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:1–3). What does he mean by “rest,” though?
This question has eluded some in the past, but I do not think it should be quite so complicated. The word “rest” appears ten times in a mere eleven verses in Hebrews 4, with each occurrence carrying with it the notion of “being settled.” It is suggestive of a finished work, a job well done. By way of example, the writer quotes Genesis 2:2 to illustrate what he means (Heb. 4:4). After creating the universe and speaking all things into being, God rested. Not because he was weary but in order to establish a pattern of rest for his creatures. The necessity of a “day of rest” was created in you by the Creator himself, as a reminder that we are not independent beings and also as a token of the “eternal rest” that he would one day bring into the world. But, as was previously mentioned, the truth of “God’s rest” has multiple layers to it:
The only thing that ever shuts anyone out from God’s rest is unbelief. Likewise, the only thing that brings us into God’s rest is belief.
For the people of Israel at Sinai, the “rest” of God was the rest of the Sabbath, which put them in the rhythm of their Creator as they were called to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8).
For the people of Israel at Kadesh Barnea, the “rest” of God was the literal rest afforded to them in the land of promise, where they would finally be settled and the Exodus would be “finished.”
For the people of Israel in King David’s day, the “rest” of God was a symbolic rest afforded to them in the promise of the new covenant.
For the Hebrew Christians, the “rest” of God was the assurance and promise of rest gifted to them in Jesus’s passion and resurrection.
And the point is, as the Hebrew writer shows, that the rest of God is fulfilled and culminated and found nowhere else but in Christ. The rest of the Sabbath and the rest of the land of promise were but the echoes of the true and better rest that’s found in the Son (Heb. 4:8–10). Just like God the Father rested after the work of creation was done, so, too, did God the Son rest after the work of crucifixion was done. “It is finished,” was his declaration from the cross, after which he “entered into his rest,” having “tasted death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9) and having finished the work of reconciliation. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus made sure that there was nothing left for us to do in order to “enter into his rest.” All was done. All is finished. It’s only by believing, then, that anyone, at any point in time, enters into God’s rest.
By believing in God’s word of promise, Israel was called to enter into the land of promise.
By believing in God’s word of promise, Israel was called to cling to God’s covenantal blessings.
By believing in God’s word of promise, the church was called to “hold fast” their “original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:13).
Accordingly, the writer demonstrates that the only thing that ever shuts anyone out from God’s rest is unbelief. Likewise, the only thing that brings us into God’s rest is belief.
The only “requirement” to enter into God’s rest, both in the here-and-now and in the hereafter, is to believe in the “it-is-finished-ness” of the cross.
You and I are faced with a similar dilemma. How do we enter into the rest of God? What’s the requirement? What’s the bar? Is there something we have to do? Do we have to work for it? Do we have to labor for it? You might be given to think that way if you take a brief glance at Hebrews 4:11, where the writer confoundingly says, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.” How do you “strive” to “enter into rest”? Doesn’t the striving negate the resting? The writer frames his point this way on purpose, though, because the hardest thing you and I will ever be called to do is to believe that it is done already, that it really and truly is finished. It actually takes striving to believe that all that’s required for entry into the rest of God’s righteousness is simple belief. “To be convinced in our hearts,” Martin Luther attests, “that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.” The good news of God’s everlasting rest is the promise that’s given to us in the person and work of Christ, and the only stipulation for entering that rest is belief. “This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). “This is his commandment,” St. John likewise affirms, “that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23).That news is often greeted with the objection, “Well, that just sounds too good to be true. That sounds too easy!” But by objecting to that news, we not only demonstrate our unbelief and disobedience, we, as the Hebrew writer has shown, rehearse the debacle at Kadesh Barnea all over again. Thinking that the rest of God is unfinished — and that we are required to finish it — is the epitome of unbelief. To believe the lie that you and I must “do something,” must fulfill a condition, in order to secure our entrance into God’s rest is the same thing as believing that Egyptian bondage is preferable to God’s deliverance. In so doing, you’ve “hardened” yourself to the Word of God and fallen away from his promise. “A greater ‘Joshua,’ namely ‘Jesus,’” Lenski writes, “brings us this rest, and he does that by faith alone” (136). Christ really did it all. It really is finished. His promise of rest “still stands,” and it goes something like this: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). The only “requirement” to enter into God’s rest, both in the here-and-now and in the hereafter, is to believe in the “it-is-finished-ness” of the cross.