Enter God’s Rest (Hebrews 4:1-13)
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost (October 17, 2021)
This text from Hebrews before us this morning is by every standard a truly difficult text. It has complicated sentence structure. It also contains so many unusual expressions that it has not been very easy to translate. In fact, our English translations are all over the map. This 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 only 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 of the year.
In spite of these difficulties, however, one message clearly stands out in this text even to a casual hearer. That is the call to enter God’s rest. Hear once again verses 9 through 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 a topic that resonates with all of us! Who of us would not like more rest! In our fast paced world, it seems like the only thing that is in real short supply in our lives is rest. Even when we do take time for vacations and holidays, so often our schedules on those holidays are so full of activities that usually we need some rest and relaxation from our rest and relaxation!
But here we need to differentiate between what we, or at least our world, would consider rest and what the holy writer is speaking about in our text. Here rest does not refer to sleep, or even a break from busyness. 6- 8 hours of sleep a day is certainly something our bodies require. If we don’t get quality sleep, we are not only drowsy and out of sorts all day at our jobs and daily tasks but we can develop some very serious health problems also.
There is, however, a marked difference between physical exhaustion and the need we all have for some real rest; that is, 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 know only too well. How many nights have we spent tossing and turning simply because we could not stop thinking about something that was bugging us, or worrying us?
There is only one place where our minds and spirits can receive true rest and that is in God Himself. After all, much of what we worry about, what prevents us from getting a good night’s sleep, is well beyond our control anyway. It is always about what we have done, should do, 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 span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:25,26) The real rest we need is to be found only in us doing nothing and God doing everything for us!
As the Holy Writer directs us, the real secret and good news to our needed rest was already laid down at the creation of the world; “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works.” It was not mankind that brought itself into this world. No human being had anything to do with the construction of this world, nor set its physical laws in motion. It was God who did it all. It was not you or 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. God is the true doer… giver… provider. You and I are merely the receivers of His work… His goodness… His giving… His providence.
The basis of this rest, as the Hebrew word itself implies, is the cessation of our working… our doing… our striving to do what we are totally incapable of adequately doing anyway. When we are at rest, then God can do the work He wants to do for us. And it is His working that gives us life… provides for all our needs…even saves us to eternal life.
To teach us this, God even built into His whole order for the world and our lives the Sabbath Day, from the root word from which also comes the word for seventh, the Lord’s Day of Rest. He did this for us not for Himself. God needs no rest, but we do. We need the rest He alone can provide us with 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 opportunity to obtain true rest in the LORD (Ex. 35:2).
The sad truth is, however, many fail to enter this rest, even when they have been 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. A most grievous example of those who failed to enter God’s rest are the people of Israel. They didn’t have to search out and find God. He found them already in the loins of Abraham. Abraham and his descendants didn’t have to make a decision 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 them He would be their God. He promised to give them land, homes, and His doting love. The only thing necessary for them to benefit from and enjoy what God wanted to give and do for them was simply cling to His promises in faith.
Oh, they heard God’s promises to them, but as our text could be translated, they failed to unite faith with God’s Good Words to them. (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 Circumcision into a work they performed then boasted that it earned them salvation. Instead of looking to the LORD alone as their God, their help, their strength, they bowed down to other gods, even ones they made by their own hands, proving they preferred their own work to that of God’s. As a result, they died never entering the LORD’s true rest. 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 wants us to have eternal rest, enjoying for all of eternity the fruits of His labors, not suffering from the inabilities of ours. 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 cannot keep up and so falls behind and never gets 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 think losing a good night’s sleep is bad. What about losing our eternal rest in God! This ought rightly be our greatest fear. Oh, I know we are fearful of many things in this world; 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 a 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, our Helper in every need.
If we truly do fear such a fate, then shouldn’t that fear cause us to take more seriously God’s work for us and turn us from looking to our own works and deeds for our comfort, help and hope? You can bet that man overboard with a hungry shark nipping at his feet is not going to be afraid to ask for help… to look to someone, 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, does not mean you and I can not still enter God’s rest. In fact, 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).
It was always God’s plan to give all the fallen children of Adam His true 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 true rest, is the real Joshua, of whom the first Joshua was a type. Joshua is His Hebrew name (lit. Yeshua), but you and I know Him better by His Greek name, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary and Joseph, yet also true God 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 mankind, but also because in His flesh He had come to work on our behalf and establish, entirely without any of our assistance, the true rest for our souls. It is this Jesus Who calls out to us: “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” (Matt. 11:28,29)
How did He do this, and bring us true rest? The culprit that has robbed of us of God’s rest and filled our hearts and lives with anxieties and the unending strivings to be right with God, is our sin. But the Good News is 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 and me asking Him to. He did it all without our support and encouragement. Without any assistance what so ever 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, rest in peace in all our days, having the full assurance that there is nothing left for us to do. He did it all for us. He worked and we are enabled to rest. All on account of God’s grace and Jesus’ loving, sacrificial, work for us, we stand justified before God apart from any of our works (Romans 4:1-6). As 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 so often weary yourself with whether or not you have lived a good enough life to go to heaven or continue to stress out over whether or not 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 has brought you His forgiveness… your justification before God…and God’s complete assuredness of your eternal life with Him (Ro. 6:1ff). As His baptized child nothing, not even your gravest worries, fears, and anxieties can keep you from resting comfortably in the arms of Your Redeemer and Savior (Rom. 8). After all, He has washed the sordidness of your past in His blood-bought forgiveness and given you ongoing futureassurance 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 continuously handles your challenging present with His ongoing presence with you in His Word spoken and proclaimed to you through His called servants and in the ongoing meal He serves you of 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, through repentance and faith, stop working to save ourselves and simply through our faithful attendance to His Word and Sacrament let God do what He graciously wants to do for us; that is, save us…give us rest! Amen!