21st Sunday after Pentecost – 10/17/2021
This text from Hebrews before us this morning is, by any standard, challenging. It has a complicated sentence structure. It also contains so many unusual expressions that translating has been difficult. Our English translations are all over the map. That has led to no end of head-scratching for those who try to interpret it. Perhaps this is why this text is rarely seen in our regular lectionary series in the church. It appears this year because we have so many extra Sundays following Pentecost that all the customarily used texts are already used up by this time.
Despite these difficulties, one message stands out in this text, even to a casual hearer. That is the call to enter God's rest. Hear verses 9–11: "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his." "Let us, therefore, strive to enter that rest so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience."
Rest! Now, this is a topic that resonates with all of us! Who of us would not like more rest? In our fast-paced world, rest is the only thing in short supply in our lives. Even when we take vacations and holidays, our schedules are usually so packed with activities that we need some relaxation from our relaxation!
But here, we need to differentiate between what we, or at least our world, would consider rest and what the holy writer discusses in our text. "rest " does not refer to sleep or even a break from busyness. Six to eight hours of sleep a day is certainly something our bodies require. We are not only exhausted and out of sorts at our jobs and daily tasks if we need more quality sleep, but we can also develop serious health problems.
However, there is a marked difference between physical exhaustion and the need for real rest—some rest in God. When our bodies get exhausted, they will either fall asleep or collapse. But our minds and hearts don't necessarily benefit from physical rest and sleep. Our minds never shut off, as we all too well know. How many nights have we spent tossing and turning simply because we could not stop thinking about something bugging or worrying us?
There is only one place where our minds and spirits can receive proper rest: God himself. After all, what we worry about—what keeps us from getting a good night's sleep in the first place—is out of our hands. It is always about what we have done, should, or need to do as if our doing will solve anything. As Jesus has said, "And which of you, by being anxious, can add a single hour to his life span?" "If you can't do something as simple as that, why are you worried about the rest?"(Luke 12:25,26) The rest we need is found only in us doing nothing and God doing everything for us!
As the Holy Writer directs us, the real secret and good news of our needed rest were already laid down at the world's creation: "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works." It was not humankind that brought itself into this world. No human being had anything to do with the construction of this world, nor did they set its physical laws in motion. It was God who did it all. It was not you, me, or any other member of our human family, past or present, who made us living souls or who put into this world the means and mechanisms for you and me to sustain ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. The actual doer, giver, and provider are God. You and I are merely the receivers of His work, goodness, giving, and providence.
As the Hebrew word implies, the basis of this rest is the cessation of our working, doing, and striving to do what we are incapable of adequately doing anyway. When we rest, God can do the work He wants for us. And His work gives us life, meets our needs, and even saves us for eternity.
To teach us this, God built the Sabbath Day into His entire order for the world and our lives, from which comes the word for the seventh, the Lord's Day of Rest. He did this for us, not for himself. God needs no rest, but we do. We require the rest that only He can provide through His work. So He gave us the Sabbath Day, which we now observe on Sunday because it is the day of God's working: the day He began creating the world; the day Jesus conquered death with His resurrection; the day the Holy Spirit was poured out to bring people to the light and knowledge of the truth of Christ. As the LORD already testified to His people Israel, the Sabbath was created as a gift to us so that we might have the opportunity to obtain proper rest in the LORD (Ex. 35:2).
The sad truth is that many fail to enter this rest, even when brought to the truth about it. In one way or another, they prefer to try to do the work themselves instead of letting God do what He wants to do for them. The people of Israel are a most grievous example of those who failed to enter God's rest. They didn't have to go looking for God. He found them already in the loins of Abraham. Abraham and his descendants didn't have to decide for God. Instead, the LORD (Yahweh) (the Great I AM), the one and only true God, the Creator of the universe, chose them to be His people and promised He would be their God. He promised to give them land, homes, and his doting love. The only thing they needed to benefit from and enjoy what God wanted to share and do for them was to cling to His promises in faith.
They heard God's promises to them, but as our text could be translated, they failed to unite faith with God's good words. (Lenski, pp. 127–129). Instead of seeing the rite of circumcision as God's sign in their flesh that He was going to keep His promises to them and through which He was bringing them into His family and kingdom, they turned it into a work they performed then boasted that it earned them salvation. Instead of looking to the LORD alone as their God, their help, and their strength, they bowed down to other gods, even ones they made with their hands, proving they preferred their work to God's. As a result, they died without ever entering the proper rest of the LORD. Now they only know eternal toil and torment far away from the presence of God.
God, in His grace, does not want this to be the same path you and I follow. He desires for us to have eternal rest, to enjoy the fruits of His labors for all eternity, rather than to suffer as a result of our limitations. Accordingly, we hear God's spokesman exhort us: "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" (Heb. 4:1).
The wording in the Greek here pictures someone in a line marching. He needs to catch up and stay caught up, never getting to the destination. God does not want you and me, like Israel of old, to fall behind and never know of His rest.
You and I both think losing a good night's sleep is terrible. What about losing our eternal rest in God? That should be our most significant concern. Oh, I know we fear many things: losing our job, not having enough money to see us through our retirement, losing our health to disease and sickness, or even being ridiculed by our friends for being too religious or being goodie-two-shoes. But these are nothing to compare with losing our rest in God! Without that rest, we will know only an eternity without rest, without God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Helper in every need.
If we genuinely fear such a fate, shouldn't that fear cause us to take God's work for us more seriously and turn us away from looking to our works and deeds for comfort, help, and hope? You can bet that a man overboard with a hungry shark nipping at his feet will not be afraid to ask for help—to look to anyone besides himself to save him!
Here is the real hope of our text: just because the Jews failed to enter God's rest through their unbelief and disobedience to the Word of God, that does not mean you and I cannot still enter God's rest. God, in His grace, has left the way to His Sabbath rest for all who believe. God, through His servant David, long ago sent this cry to us all: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." As long as this world still stands and God has not yet brought it to an end to face judgment, every day is a day of grace, a day still open to us all to enter God's rest. If God had always only meant for the Children of Israel to obtain that rest when Joshua led them into the promised land of Canaan, then "God would never have spoken of another day later on" (v. 8).
God's plan was always to give all Adam's fallen children His proper rest. He had not only promised that to Adam and Eve when He promised that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, but He reiterated it when He called Abraham and said to him, "In your seed, all the nations shall be blessed."
That promised seed, the one to give proper rest, is the honest Joshua, of whom the first Joshua was a type. Joshua is His Hebrew name (lit., "Jesus"), but you and I know Him better by His Greek name, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary and Joseph, yet also the true God was begotten of the Father from all eternity.
Jesus referred to Himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8) because, as God, He not only created the Sabbath for humankind but also because, in His flesh, He had come to work on our behalf and establish, entirely without any of our assistance, the proper rest for our souls. This Jesus is the one who says to us, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavily 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" (Matt. 11:28, 29).
How did He do this and bring us proper rest? Our sin is the culprit who has robbed us of God's rest and filled our hearts and lives with anxieties and the never-ending striving to be right with God. But the good news is that Jesus overcame sin and its consequences of death and hell by suffering God's wrath against our sin in our place. He did it all without you or me asking him to. He did it all without our support and encouragement. Without any assistance whatsoever from us, he reconciled us back to God. As a result, we are free through faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us; we rest in peace in all our days, having the full assurance that nothing is left for us to do. He did it all for us. He worked, and we are enabled to rest. Because of God's grace and Jesus' loving, sacrificial work for us, we stand justified before God apart from any of our works (Romans 4:16–19). Our text states, "For whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his."
So dear, weary friends, why the anxiety? Why the uncertainty? Why the fear? Why the restlessness in your life? Why do you often tire yourself whether you have lived a good enough energy to go to heaven or continue stressing over whether God will forgive your grievous sins? Why are you losing sleep over what your future may hold for you?
The Lord of the Sabbath has, in the waters of your baptism, plunged you into Jesus' death and resurrection, which have brought you His forgiveness, your justification before God, and God's complete assurance of your eternal life with Him (Ro. 6:1ff). Nothing, not even your most serious worries, fears, or anxieties, can keep you from resting comfortably in the arms of Your Redeemer and Savior (Rom. 8). After all, He has washed away the filth of your past with His blood-bought forgiveness and has given you the ongoing future assurance that You are His holy child whom He will never abandon.
On top of this, The LORD of the Sabbath has left you an ongoing Sabbath Day in which He enables you to regularly rest in His ever-present grace, love, and peace. He handles your challenging present with His continuous presence in His Word spoken and proclaimed to you through His called servants. In the regular meal, He serves you His body given for you and His blood shed for you. That same word and holy meal further assure you of the certainty of your future peace and glory with promises made secure with His resurrection from the dead.
As the Holy Writer says, "Let us, therefore, strive to enter that rest." Let us stop working to save ourselves and let God do what He graciously wants to do for us: save us. Give us rest through repentance and faith. Amen!