Recently close friends have renewed their concern for our family’s lack of rest. In the Spring, we toiled seven days a week. We filled all the waking hours in our day. We even started to reduce our sleep for the sake of productivity.
Alarmed by the toll lack of rest takes we had a cure-all which we thought would solve everything. The potential quick-fix remedy was to take a vacation to England. We left our McHenry house and lived for a month in my mother’s house in Plymouth, England. The question is whether the vacation was actually restful. My children had never been to England and I hadn’t been for six years. The result was that there were lots of extended family and friends who wanted to see Daryl and Amelia. There were expectations to be met at church, too. I was welcomed with open arms at the little Brethren church in which I grew up. On June 4th, they gave me both their Sunday morning service and their evening service in which to preach. They even laid on a tea for our family and another visiting missionary from South Africa.
I have another issue with vacations that I have adopted my father. He would see Paris in a single day, the alps in another, and spend a few days on the French Riviera. Sightseeing with my father could give you whiplash being done in such haste. I am not quite as extreme, but I do have some of the same vacation drive. My mother rented a seven-seater car this summer which we used every day to explore a long list of fishing villages, beaches, old houses, and other attractions. We would leave home in the morning and return home at midnight ready to repeat the whole process the next day.
It was an exciting vacation, but was it restful? At times it was. There was one day in particular where we took a walk across the fields of Dartmoor together as a family. We talked openly and I thanked God for the beautiful creation surrounding us. However, even on a vacation I had difficulty resting.
The Bible teaches a deeper rest than the temporary fixes we cobble together. In Genesis 2:2 God rested from all his work on the seventh day. God ordained a Sabbath rest. Jesus called people to himself saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mtt. 11:28)” Below I will unpack three principles of rest in Hebrews 4:1-13. Hebrews 4 is built on the back of Hebrews 3 which extensively quotes Psalm 95. The writer of Hebrews also has in mind Genesis 2:2. Concerning rest, we should not isolate this passage from the rest of scripture. The biblical theme of rest is an integrated whole, best understood by considering all of the passages side-by-side as an overarching context. Hebrews 4:1-13 reads:
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. 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, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 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. For the word of God 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. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Ellingworth, in his commentary on Hebrews, lays out the line of argument the writer is making in Hebrews 4 when he writes, “The implied sequence of thought is: God made a promise that his people would one day have access to his own place of rest. The place of rest has been available since the seventh day of creation. The promise cannot be repealed; but it was not fulfilled at the time of the exodus; it therefore remains open for some.” We will focus on three principles from the passage rather than doing a rich exegesis of all that it contains. There is too much embedded in this rich passage for us to explore. We will look at three principles dealing with rest. The first principle is that rest is for the faithfully obedient. The second principle is that rest comes to those who cease from their own works. The third principle is that rest is only truly found in Jesus Christ.
Firstly, rest is only for the faithfully obedient. The principles of faith and obedience must both be present if one is to enter God’s rest. In Hebrews 3 and 4, the example of the Israelites complaining at Massah and Meribah is the example of a people who did not enter into God’s rest because of their rebellion. They had a point of decision where they could choose to believe God and enter into The Promised Land, their land of rest, or they could be disobedient and choose to turn back. As we know, from the writings of Moses, the people of Israel vacillated in the wilderness on numerous occasions. They doubted Moses and they doubted God. In these times of doubt the tribes became restless. In times of obedience God blessed the people. However, the people’s experience of true rest was not forthcoming. When David wrote Psalm 95, he was still saying that God’s rest was available to his audience. When the writer of Hebrews writes, he says that true faith and sincere obedience leads to rest in his time.
A faith in God leads to a peaceful assurance that he sustains and manages the world and we do not. There is a healthy fear when confronted by a real and growing perspective of God. When we see his immensity and capacity, we are struck by more than one reaction. While we know he has the whole world in his hands, we also shrink back in the face of such power. While we know that he sustains the universe, we know that he has intimate insight into the internal workings of my soul. The same word of God that brings peace also brings fear. I can rest assured that the God who commands angel armies is on my side, but my heart still beats wildly in my chest if ever I gain a glimpse of his authority and power.
While we resist or ignorantly walk my own way, we find ourselves at war with heaven. We find ourselves at odds with the sustainer of vast worlds. Because of his great love, we are not consumed, but the expanse of his wisdom and his dominion should cause us to surrender. It is only in true surrender that the battle ceases. We can then rest captive. Only then do we find that our former adversary was not the cruel tyrant that we might have thought him to be. We find that we are captivated by his love. We rest in his shalom.
What kind of God do we believe in? Faith is central to rest. Is the object of our core belief able to deliver freedom from stress and worry? Although many have had faith in Jesus at conversion, they have faith in themselves to keep God at bay. Faith is a matter of appeasement rather than dependency. The focus of the passage is not on the faithlessness of those who failed when tested. The focus of the passage is on a positive, faithful response to God’s offer of rest. As Ellingwoth states, “The emphasis is on faith as the essential condition for access to God’s place of rest; contrast with the wilderness generation is secondary.”
I met a Bible teacher this week from a Christian school, not local to my home, who has struggled with rest. His time in recent years was heavily invested in computer and video games. He most recently played Borderlands and Borderlands II. He said that with all the ‘looting and grinding’ that he had to do in the game, he would spend five hours a day playing, easily. The most frightening statistic was, when he added up all of his game-play hours, he calculated that he had spent between 9 and 12 months of his life living in a virtual world and leveling up a character who didn’t exist. He was aghast at the lack of development he had done on himself in the real world. He suddenly realized the physical fitness and spiritual maturity he could have achieved and the only fitting response seemed to rid himself of his gaming systems in complete obedience to the call of God on his life. It is strange how gaming addiction in our generation is dealt with differently than other addictions. For example, we do not give the alcoholic a little less alcohol, or the smoker a few less cigarettes. The wisdom of Jesus is to cut off anything that detracts from our pursuit of God. This Bible teacher had the courage to completely unplug, and the result of his courageous obedience is rest.
Each of us has to ask ourselves whether we are being obedient to both the scripture and the conscience that God gives us. We cannot expect to find rest if we live in direct contradiction to the will of God. We must expect turbulence if we decide to fly in the face of The Holy Spirit. If we examine what we know God has told us, how are we receiving it? Are we surrendered or resistant? For example, the Bible says not to commit adultery. Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time we may obey the letter of the law by not divorcing our spouse. However, we may deceive ourselves about how incompatibly, or lack of respect absolves us from any obligation to love unconditionally. Deep down, we know that we should do better, but our tiredness and our disappointment leads us to disobey God’s commands to love others unconditionally. Or, say you have a neighbor God has prompted you to talk to. Each time you see them you feel awkward and doubt whether God wants you to speak. You rationalize and excuse yourself. You will not experience the peace or the rest of God while you persist in disobedience.
The first principle was that rest comes to the faithfully obedient. The second principle is that faith comes to those who cease from their own work. God created the universe in six days and then he ceased from his work. Now God’s work is one of sustaining what has been created. To work independently of God, to seek our own occupation apart from the Creator, is the biblical definition of sin and evil. The writer of Hebrews calls his readers to a biblical theology of rest. This is illustrated well in the book of Ecclesiastes. Rest cannot be achieved, Ecclesiastes tells us, by pursuing gain. Creation has sustainable rhythms. There are cyclical patterns to life. Seek to get ahead and live a life that is self-serving and you break the system. Drink all the water and everyone dies of thirst. Eat all the food and everyone dies of hunger. Ecclesiastes warns about amassing wealth, pleasures, education, and even religious fervor. The anxiety and greed that comes from amassing possessions or status strips us of our ability to rest. The truth is most people have enough. Jewish wisdom and Jewish festivals lead us to reflection on the God who provides. Because of God’s great provision we can rest. We have enough for the day. That is what we need. The restful man in Ecclesiastes enjoys the drink at hand. He takes time over his meal. He enjoys his family. He rests by being in the moment.
The rhythms of life, as God designed them, are sustainable. We see them in the patterns of life in Scripture. People rose with the sun and did a full day of work. Then, in the evening, the family gathered around the meal table. The evening was the beginning of the next day, not the end of the present one. In the creation narrative, we read repeatedly, “there was evening and there was morning…” to describe the order of each day. The evening was filled with restful expectation. It was not seen as a reward for a hard day’s work – it was the beginning of one. God encouraged his people to work from a place of rested stillness, not toward an exhausted emptiness.
If you keep a scheduler, or day timer, you will have a sense of how many tasks you complete in a week. Often we have an agenda and it is over-full. God cannot be calling us to a multitude of tasks that corrupt his own created order or rhythm. There must be a sustainable ebb and flow to life. We know that God does not call us to work seven days a week. If all seven days are filled, we have at least a day-full of our own work. Also, God calls us to contemplative reflection of himself. If we have no time for the task of reflection, we must have inserted one of our own tasks. Ultimately we must jettison all of our own tasks and replace them with his. In this way we cease to strive and toil. We are like a captain of a boat that ceases to row and raises the boat’s sails. When its sails catch the wind it moves rapidly. The boat doesn’t do the work, the wind does. The boat aligns its sails with the wind and then moves. Phil Vischer has had to learn this secret the hard way. He stressed and fretted as the creator of Veggietales because he was trying to save every child for God. It almost broke him down. After therapy and a significant appraisal of his life, he got back into the child entertainment industry. This time he called his company Jellyfish because a jellyfish is taken where the tide leads. Like a jellyfish, Phil Visher learned to rest by ceasing from his own work and let himself be taken along by God.
People often do their own work because they believe they have to take care of their own lives. The question arises, ‘What causes people to work so hard to do their own work?’ Though there are many causes, a few of the most common motivations that thrust us into busyness are to be accepted, to preserve an image, to feel safe, to control, to accumulate, and to win. Acceptance is a foundational desire for all of us. We forget that God has accepted us unconditionally while we were still sinners and so, subsequent to being saved, we often work to show God that we were worth the sacrifice after all. Many people received conditional acceptance from parents or friends based on their performance. They develop deep patterns of frenetic activity to fend off rejection. The God they serve is modeled in their minds after the taskmasters they have served. Receiving God’s loving embrace and resting in that can be the cure for craving acceptance.
Some people have a false ideal in their mind of who they are meant to be. This can be connected to acceptance, but it can also be escapist or rooted in false information. The Bible provides identity guidelines for the believer, but all of our true identity is in Christ. We are gifted an identity rather than tasked with working hard to create it. Our work creates a myth and it hides the true self. When we give up the image we can rest.
Some people do not accept that God protects them and has destined them for heaven. The Bible reminds us that people can kill the body, but they can’t destroy the soul. People who forget this build up literal and figurative walls of protection around themselves. This takes work, but freedom from fear of harm brings rest.
Some people desire the sense that they are in control. Their perspective of self-importance distorts the enormity of creation and the Creator. It is hard to accept that forces are at work which determine the fate of the world which are beyond our ultimate control. God gives us mastery of all that he wishes us to steward. Complete mastery and control of our world is an illusion. Accepting that God is ultimately in control and we are not helps us to let go of tension. In letting Jesus take the wheel we can rest.
Some people have a desire for more. The prosperity gospel of health and wealth even provides a Christian blessing to a life of materialism. We study in school to get good qualifications. Good qualifications get us a good job. A good job earns us more money. With more money we can buy more things. With more material possessions comes more happiness. Those who have walked this path to its conclusion know this isn’t true. Those with wisdom see the clutter of an overfull life, caring for more and more possessions, and they strip down to the simplicity of what is needed. They put a rein on their desires and in the space that is created they find rest.
Some people have to be first. It can often be an issue with identity. However, to them, ‘no-one remembers second.’ Winning is the only option. They work hard to crush the opponents with no thought that the opposition is created by God. They rejoice in winning without realizing that competitive living creates one winner and multiple losers. There is no rest for the person driven to be first. However, in using their abilities as God directs – in causing others to succeed – the driven personality surrenders first place and finds rest.
Having looked at two principles of rest from Hebrews 4, we now move to the third and most significant. Rest is for the faithfully obedient, rest is for those who cease from their own work and most significantly rest is found in the person of Christ. Rest is most powerfully a relationship with Jesus. When we find Jesus he does his work through us, to the glory of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Seamands teaches us that the ministry and work of life is the outworking of a Trinity that reaches out to the world in love through us.
John Koessler, my colleague at Moody Bible Institute, says it well, “Rest is not an inner state that can be produced by thinking a certain way or placing ourselves in the right conditions. It is obtained only by entering into a relationship. When we find Christ, we find rest.” Unpacking this we can see that people think that they can manage rest by their own actions. However, the actions are futile if we are not one with Jesus. Koessler puts it succinctly when he says that, ‘Christ offers us rest by offering himself.’
The writer of Hebrews, throughout the book of Hebrews, is establishing the supremacy of Christ in every area. He is greater than the angels, greater than the patriarchs. Now the writer calls us into relationship with this Jesus. While it is still ‘Today’ we may enter into God’s call to intimacy through Christ. We may come home to his embrace. It is the rest of the heavenly hearth. It is the rest of home.
The best way I can illustrate the connection between relationship and rest is to take you with me back to Dartmoor. Dartmoor is a barren, rolling landscape with marshes, rocks, rivers and few trees. It has a rugged beauty, but it is hard walking. Walking on the moor is always hard work with no paved pathways. Out on the moorland by yourself, as the mist comes down and you can’t see far enough to navigate, you may find the walking more than mere drudgery. However, some of my earliest memories are walking across the moorland in violent storms or in intense sunshine with Grandma. My Grandma was a constant fountain of conversation. I would find her in a walking party and we would talk. Because I had her with me I would forget about the hard work of walking. I would focus on her and the weather and rough ground would cease to be my focus.
This is a pale reflection of how life in Christ operates. As we walk with him, he gazes at us with love. As we seek him he empowers us with his presence. As we struggle, he lifts us with care. All the work that we do is his work and we wonder at all that we have achieved. Our capacity to serve and our capacity for relationship both grow.
We have many false gods which promise us rest. Financial security, romance, vacations and entertainment are a few. The economy and its health is seen as the barometer of the health of the nation. As people are educated and indoctrinated into systems of production and consumption, rest is equated with an early retirement coupled with days spent on a yacht or on the golf course.
Romantic relationships are presented as a place of rest in romantic comedies and pop songs. If we find the love of our life, he or she will accept us unconditionally. In their arms we will be complete. Our search is over and we find our rest. However, the love of our life becomes a source of conflict and worry in real relationships. They cannot personally fulfill us. So, those who doggedly hold to this ideal jump from one romance to another believing that ultimately it will satisfy. However, in God’s kingdom healthy romance is meant to point beyond itself to the divine romance. It is Jesus who most completely woos us. It is Christ who most completely pursues us.
Vacations vacate. They create an emptiness where healing can take place. However, emptying one space to move into another fails to deliver. The deepest problems in our lives cannot be solved by a mere change in scenery. They must be solved by a change of heart. We are not ultimately fulfilled by an emptying. We must find something or someone who truly satisfies.
The most common way to find rest is in distraction. If we cease to think too hard we can get through life in some way refreshed. However, this refreshment is rather like an induced coma. It does not intentionally build up. It does not replenish or refresh the soul. It anaesthetizes so that we are just unaware of the fatigue in our bones. The body, soul and spirit are not renewed, they are just remembered no more. This is a shallow sleep, even with our eyes still open. We dull our senses to the values we are ingesting. Rather than fill ourselves with nourishment we veg out – we become couch potatoes. True rest empowers and fulfills. Entertainment amuses us. ‘To muse’ is to think. To ‘amuse’ is to cease from contemplation – from thought. As Neil Postman would argue, many in America are ‘amusing themselves to death.’ This is light years away from entering into God’s rest.
In England we do not have ‘vacations.’ We tend to call all of our days off from work ‘holidays.’ This creates a different mindset if we go back to the original meaning. Holy days are the source of our holidays. We were originally given time off to be with family and think more deeply about God. The church had feast days where communities would gather together. The Sabbath used to be more strictly observed. People ceased from their weekly routines to think more deeply about God and connect in community. Not every day should be a vacation, but Christ makes available to us a state of mind where every day is a holiday. Our union with God through Jesus creates opportunity for rest as never before.
St. Augustine, one of the early church fathers had a prayer which draws us to where we should be. It functions as a great summary of all that has been said. Let us finish by praying this prayer together:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.