The Rest – Hebrews 4

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The concept of “rest” in Hebrews 4 has often been seriously misconstrued in Evangelicalism. We may ask how this could have happened for so many years. One reason is our desire for dominance over our neighbours. This has caused us to read Hebrews in the sense of our supremacy over the Jews, or over the Catholics. Another reason is that until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, translated and examined, we had lost sight of many of the key ideas of the generation in which Hebrews was written.

We have seen the discussion of “rest” in the sense of faith verses works, especially the Jewish works associated with the temple. We thought the discussion was about our justification by faith, rather than works, in the sense of our personal salvation. This view is contrary to the text of Hebrews in many ways.

First, our personal salvation isn’t the main subject, but the cosmos Christ is Lord over and renewing. It is about how this cosmos is transformed, as we become Christ’s followers, bringing a new kind of restoring/ caring life to our communities. We are saved personally, or the hearts needed for love and community flourishing wouldn’t be possible. But our personal salvation isn’t privatism.

The Jews in Jesus’ time knew that they weren’t justified by works. “Justification” meant how one became part of the family of God. The Jews knew their election as a nation in Egypt was by faith/ grace and not by works.

We have viewed the conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees by a similar distortion of the texts. A typical example is Jesus’s rebuke to the Pharisees for not eating with strangers because of their unwashed hands. We have thought this was a discussion about justification by faith verses works, about how we are made right with God and fit to depart earth and go to heaven. This is a gospel of individualism, a gospel that the text doesn’t mention.

They were not discussing how to go to heaven. That wasn’t how the people in that day were thinking. They were thinking about how God would fulfil his promises through Israel to renew the world. The Pharisees claimed it was by rejecting all those who didn’t keep their view of Torah, to “cleanse the world of wrong,” through a harsh treatment of others.

The conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees wasn’t faith verses works, but faithfulness verses selfishness. They weren’t being faithful to the stranger and the needy, by inviting them to their table of care. If faithfulness was to be shown by the cross of Christ, where he suffered for and received the outcast, then this shows that the Pharisees weren’t fulfilling the intent of Torah, as far as faithfulness was concerned.

The Pharisees believed that their private holiness, their being “sanctified” by refraining from this or that unclean practice, licenced them to stand aloof from the sinners and from those suffering in the world. It dismissed any sense of solidarity they may otherwise have had with those in need. Religious people can have the hardest hearts when it comes to human care for sinners. Today, we can say we are sanctified by our rites of faith, in our lives of separation. We have misconstrued the gospel, thinking it is about our individual passage to heaven, rather than about us renewing the world, the poor and suffering, as God’s children, who look like Jesus in this world.

When the scriptures speak of “rest” they are hearkening back to Genesis 1-2, where the “rest” was God’s government of shalom over a good creation. This was what Adam and Eve’s image bearing rule was related to. We saw this subsequently in the Torah, where God’s government was restored through his new image bearers, Israel. Sabbath there was care for the downtrodden, the man and women servant, the land, the debtor and the slave in a jubilee of sabbaths. It was God’s government on how the cosmos is renewed, from a Pharaonic rule, to restoration.

To view the “rest” as a personalized doctrine about how to be made right with God, to go to heaven by faith rather than through works, is to miss what the subject is about. This wrong view causes us to deny the works that are part and parcel with our image bearing in the new cosmos. These works of love identify us as the children of God.

The scriptures were not speaking on our Westernised individualistic level. They were speaking about a community that would restore creation. Many Jews thought they would restore creation and re-establish God’s sabbath rule over the world through the sword. This was the context in which Jesus said, “He who labours, let him come to me and I will give him rest.” This was referring to the restoration of God’s rule Israel was then expecting. Jesus was speaking about their lives of selfish conflict and saying that it is only in Christ’s sacrificial cross-bearing that we can find rest, not only in our own hearts, but also as a renewed community. He was speaking about how God’s sabbath rule comes into our lives, through ceasing from works of exclusion and taking up our cross to serve.

Jesus wasn’t speaking of rest in the way we do in our Western cultures, of rest from our sense of personal guilt, by finding it in a personal faith. He was speaking about their divided communities which brought unrest, in the sense of the waters of chaos in the Old Testament, gentile destruction, selfish centred inhumanity. By yoking ourselves to Christ’s discipleship, we will learn love for one another, and will find rest together. This is the kind of rest Paul spoke of in all his letters, at one table, between Jew and gentile, with the walls between us demolished by acceptance and service.

Now, we can finally come to what the subject of Hebrews 4 is about. Entering God’s rest means to be part of fulfilling his promises in the world as God’s image bearing community. His rest is his rule, so to enter that rest is to rule with God, as the new Adam and Eve’s, in the likeness of Christ, who suffered for us and rose again. This is how new creation is launched in our lives and relationships. Those who refuse this way of faithfulness, forsaking works that separate us from our neighbour, and adopting works that renew our enemies, cannot enter God’s rest, which is his eternal kingdom, which even now is bringing God’s promises of newness to the world.

The works we rest from are the works of selfishness, which destroy others either actively and passively. The rest we labour to enter is the life of faithfulness that Christ showed towards his enemies. We are not to let our heart be hardened, to forsake the needy and find self-gratification in the enclaves of indulgence of that day.

The faith that we are to have is that God will sustain our new lives of care for one another, that he won’t forsake us as we lay down our own interest for others. This is the faith Jesus showed on the cross. He didn’t save himself, but he entrusted himself into God’s hands, to bring God’s love to us. And God was faithful to him, raising him from the dead. This is how we leave our lives of self-centeredness and enter God’s love for others by faith.

So, Hebrews 4 concludes, let us not be discouraged in our weaknesses, but know God accepts us and will give us an abundance of grace, freely and with great joy on his part. Here the author introduces the idea of drawing back from God, which he picks up later in the letter. It is not God who draws away from us, saying a sacrifice must be found to appease him. So, we shouldn’t draw away from others, but instead love and serve.

Joshua’s and David’s sword, the sword the people of that day trusted in, did not give Israel rest. The passion of Christ is the rest for the people of God, the passion we take up and mimic in our relationships with one another. This way of life is our rest, which renews us and the world around us.