Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. (v. 1)
Hebrews is written to first century urban people who are so weary of troubles and difficulties that they are in danger of giving up.
Eight times in 11 verses we see the word rest. It’s not just crucial for them. We live in a culture that’s probably more in need of this message than any culture in history. Let’s take a look at what this passage says about rest.
We’re going to see:
The Importance of Rest
The Levels of Rest
The Ordeal of Rest
The Author of Rest
First, The importance of it
In verse 3 we have a quotation from Psalm 95: “As God has said, I have declared an oath in my anger that they shall never enter my rest.” It is recounting a time when the children of Israel were in the wilderness. They had been delivered from Egypt, and were on their way to Canaan and they begin to turn away from God, incredibly ungrateful. What’s the worst possible punishment for that? It’s no rest. Rest is fundamental to our human condition. Fundamental to our human life, joy, fulfillment.
A couple years ago a woman named Judith Schulevitz wrote an article for the New York Times where she recounted that she had a religious Jewish upbringing, but she rebelled against it. Specifically, she rebelled against the detailed Sabbath observance, but then as time went on, she found that there was a problem and she writes this:
My mood would darken every weekend until Saturday by afternoon I would be unresponsive and morose. My normal leisure routines left me nonetheless feeling impossibly restless. Then I began to do something that as a teenager profoundly put off by her religious education I could have never imagined wanting to do. I began dropping in at a nearby synagogue. Finally I developed a theory for my condition. I was suffering from the lack of Sabbath rest. There is ample evidence that our relationship to work is seriously out of whack. So let me argue on behalf of an institution that had kept workaholism in reasonable check for thousands and thousands of years.
Now Sabbath, rest, resting, is one of the ten commandments. Do you realize what that means? A society that encourages overwork is as brutalizing, as depersonalizing, as dehumanizing as a society that encourages stealing, adultery, killing. It’s in the same list! Overwork is in the same list as those things. And Judith Schulevitz found herself sucked into the greatest most workaholic city – living in New York, the capital of workaholics – and found herself struggling.
Now why is it that it is possible that we as a society are the most overworked that we have more workaholics than anyone’s ever produced in history? (whether or not that’s true or not doesn’t matter, we just know we’ve got it BAD). There are two reasons, I think they’re both true.
The first is the technological reason. Our work is more accessible, and we are more accessible to our work. There is no escape. Technology also means the work has shrunk. Whatever product you are producing, you are competing with the rest of the world that produces that product. Technology has made work more domineering and dominant in our lives.
There is also a cultural explanation. In traditional societies you got your identity and value from being a part of a family or a community. In other words, you got your identity and value from being a son or daughter or husband or wife or neighbour or citizen. We, however, live in a culture that is the most individualistic in history. We have “freed” people from assigned social roles so we can be who we want to be. But what this means now is that your value and your identity is now something you must earn, you have to achieve it. Individually. You have to get out there and do it. What that means is our relationship with work is completely changed. At one time, work was what we did to get our family ahead. But now even family is a way for us to have individual achievement. Your work is how you get your value and worth, by how much money you make and the social class your work propels you into, and as a result, we are tired. There has never been a more workaholic culture. Things are even reversed when it comes to family.
Schulevitz in an article on parenting from today’s NYT magazine said this:
Parents no longer set up metal swingsets by themselves in the corner of their backyards. They hire professionals that erect sprawling wooden castles that take up half the lawn. Parents line up at 5 am to get slots in the right neighbourhood preschool and bring their children to specialists upon noticing the slightest delay to maximize their child’s developmental capacity and flash baby einstein cards at their three-month-olds.
In a society that measures status in achievement, in grades, awards, in getting into the right schools, the scramble for advantage is bound to propel us into overparenting. Overparenting, however, is closely linked to overwork. It’s harder to opt out than you think, for now we use our children to jockey for individual status.
Everything is reversed. It used to be I worked to get my family ahead. Now I use my family to get individual status. That is why we are the most weary society, the most workaholic society. Even when we try to stop, we lay down our work for the day, there’s a voice that says, “You’re getting behind…”
We are in trouble. There has never been a society that’s ever been so restless.
(There’s never been a preacher – because I live in New York City – that has had to listen more to his own sermon).
Second, There are Two Levels of Rest
The author of our passage today is using the word rest in different ways, that interrelate to one another.
The first way is The Rest of the Promise Land. In v. 3, “I declared an oath in my anger they shall never enter my rest,” that’s God warning the children of Israel that if they keep rebelling they’ll never see the promised land. Why call getting to Canaan “rest”? The children of Israel were slaves. They were being brought out of Egypt, where they were worked into the ground.
Deut. 15: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Therefore, observe the Sabbath day.
God says, when you rest, it’s a declaration of freedom.
Anyone who overworks is a slave.
When you rest, when you put your work down you are saying, I am not a cog in a machine, I am not a slave to the materialistic society in which I live, I am not a slave to the identity system in the society in which I live. I am not a slave to the identity that my society demands of me rather I declare my freedom and my identity in God.
When you rest, when you truly rest, it’s a revolutionary act.
And by bringing the children of Israel out of slavery to the social/wealth system of Egypt to where they can rest, and put limits around their work, we understand rest as a declaration of freedom.
The second way “rest” is used: How God Rested at the Beginning of Time from His Work
God created the world in Gen 1 & 2 and then we’re told God rested from his work.
That is helpful because you realize that God can’t get tired, physically or emotionally weary from his work. You can’t hammer a nail without after a few minutes resting. But God’s not in that condition. So what does it mean that God rested from his work? If you go back to the context, Gen. 2:2, you’ll see that it means God rested because he was satisfied with his work. He said it was good, he said it was finished. He was pleased with what he had done, so he set the hammer down. He had been satisfied with what he had done.
Just as sleep will not really refresh you at night if you don’t have some REM, deep sleep, so external rest, physical, emotional rest from your labour isn’t all you need – there needs to be a deep, inner spiritual rest. No amount of vacations will cure your restlessness unless you get to that.
Schulevitz is good at describing this. This is a quote from her article on the Sabbath:
Most people believe all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood, though, that it was a much more complicated undertaking to rest. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Jewish and Puritan sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. Even our secular leisure activities cannot do for us what sabbath rituals can do, for religious rituals do not exist just to promote togetherness, they are designed to convey to us a certain story about who we are. The story told by the Sabbath is the story of creation, God rested and we rest in order to honour the image of the divine in us, to remind us that there is more to us than our work. The machinery of self-censorship must shut-down, too, in order to rest. Stilling the eternal inner mumur of self-reproach.
She says it’s one thing to stop physically. But deep inner rest, that allows you to put down your work and walk away from it, is about being at rest with who you are. What you have to get rid of is that deep restlessness, “the eternal (spiritual) murmur of self-reproach”. What is that deep unrestfulness? The need to prove ourselves, the deep unhappiness with who we are, the feeling that “I’m not ok, I’m not acceptable,” and so we’re working and working and working to prove ourselves to ourselves, to others, to God. And that’s the deep restlessness that we need a cure for. The work underneath all our work, that all the vacations in the world won’t cure. The restlessness underneath the weariness.
No matter how good the work is, no how much we do, we’re a slave to our social systems, slaves to our own ridiculous expectations and the opinions of others unless we get that deep, inner rest.
So how do we get it?
Now there is a third level of Rest.
In v. 2 & 3 we read this: For we also have had the Gospel preached to us just as they did but the message they heard was of no value to them for those who heard it did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest.
Present tense. Believing the Gospel brings you into that rest.
One of the things that’s so interesting about the argument here (v 8) is that there is a deeper rest that you can only get to through the gospel. Joshua got the children of Israel into a socially just, physical rest in the Promised Land. Yet God continues to warn them in Psalm 95, many years later, that you can still miss the deep, cosmic rest. Therefore, there is a rest beyond the physical and social, it’s deep. And it can only be gotten through believing the gospel.
The Horrible Ordeal
There is a horrible ordeal if we’re ever going to get to this rest. V. 12 & 13 are somewhat famous verses. I had never realized until I studied them how horrible threatening they are. They don’t seem to fit at all with the rest of the passage. The rest of the passage is about peace. Then suddenly v. 12 & 13 says:
The word of God (Scripture) is like a sharp sword that cuts through everything, penetrates through everything, and it’ll get to the place where it will show you your real motivations, the real reason you do everything. And when you get to that level, v. 13 you will feel naked before God. Defenseless. Stripped. Then it says that everything has been uncovered and laid bare.
What an awful statement. What is this doing here connected to this whole idea about rest?
It’s talking about how you will never get into that deep rest unless you come to grips with spiritual nakedness. It’s harkening back to Genesis. In Gen. 2&3 we’re told Adam and Eve were originally naked and it wasn’t a problem. They were naked and unashamed. They were absolutely at rest, absolutely satisfied with who they were. They saw who they were and it was good. They had the rest. But the minute (Gen. 3) we turn from God, and decided to be our own saviours and lords, they knew at the deepest level that they are radically unfit to be saviours and lords. We are radically incapable of that, unfit for the job. As a result, we experience (like Adam and Eve did) a sense of inadequacy, a sense of not being right, not being acceptable, a deep sense of spiritual nakedness and they begin to cover up from each other with fig leaves and hide from God in the brush.
Unless you have the experience of spiritual nakedness and realize that you’re not ok, you won’t understand your drivenness, you won’t understand your restlessness. It has to be revealed to you, you have to see it. It’s a horrible ordeal to see it.
Franz Kafka, The Trial. A book than an awful lot of people have to read in college. It’s about Joseph K who one day realize he’s been arrested. Never told what for. At first he thinks, there must be a rational explanation, but the more he tries to extricate himself, the more he gets in trouble, and in the end he is killed.
The Cliff Notes say this is a parable of our contemporary situation. We think there is a rational explanation for what’s wrong with the world. We don’t believe in God or sin or guilt, and yet there is a voice inside us telling us there’s something wrong. There’s a voice inside all of us calling us fools, cowards, there’s something wrong with us, we’re not unacceptable.
We used to call it complexes. Or we blame our parent’s raising. But we can’t get of it There must be a rational explanation, and we are driven, and we’re covering.
Why do some of you never even imagine dating someone who isn’t really good looking? Or work so hard because “everything will be alright” if we just get that promotion? Or strive for perfectionism? These are fig leaves. Until you recognize what the deep restlessness is, you’re covering something, that’s why you’re working so hard, and not until you see that, will you understand verse 10.
It remains therefore rest for the people of God. …he also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.
Wait a minute? What’s wrong with good work? Why should we need rest from that kind of work? If you work hard at your job that’s good! If you work hard to love that’s good! If you work hard to be a good person, that’s good!
St. Paul’s answer is that there’s nothing wrong with work, what’s wrong is our motivation. When the reason we’re being kind is to get a feeling like, “I’m alright,” that’s self-justifying work and that will kill you. When the reason you’re doing good so that God will bless you, you will never ever ever be satisfied. When the reason you’re doing good things is to feel good about yourself and to see other people respect you and to get God to bless you, then your work is self-justifying, then you’ll never be able to lay it down and say, “It is good, it is finished.” There will always be flaws. And at some deep subliminal level everyone who does good not because you already know who you are but because you want to construct a self-image of being a good person, you know that all your unselfishness, is selfish. All your loving others is really loving yourself.
And this is the reason why John Gerston used to say,
The thing that’s really separating you from God and rest is not so much your sins but your damnable good works. He’s saying of course you should repent for the things that are wrong, but pharisees repent for things they do wrong but they’re still pharisees, still anxious, still insecure, still looking down on others, still cutting others down so that they can feel better about themselves. The way to rest and the way to God is not basically repenting for what you’re doing wrong as it is repenting for the reasons you’re doing everything right. It means you utterly change why you do them.
A lot of people say, I’m going to be a Christian and repent of my sins.
Good. Sins are bad. Stop.
But just repenting things that are wrong does not get at the self-justifying work that’s really destroying you.
A lot of secular people working like crazy feel they need spiritual rest and they say, “I’m going to repent of my sins and go to church and read my Bible,” but you’re going to more tired.
It’s just the same thing. It’s religious justification but it’s the same thing.
In Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrams says, when I run the hundred mile dash because when that gun goes off I have ten seconds to justify myself.
He says I’m working hard so that I can feel good about who I am.
Eric Liddle says, God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.
One man in order to be sure of who he is. One man running because he knows who he is. Two men working hard, one man always weary, and another man always resting even when he’s working.
Which do you want to be?
How do I get there?
The last point. The Author of Rest.
V. 13 “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him who we must give account.”
“laid bare” in the greek, trachelisoame, had a very specific meaning, meant to stretch the neck back so that you could cut it and kill. Because v. 12 has the image of the sword in it, that’s definitely the grisly metaphor the author had in mind. It’s always used in reference to the sacrifice of animals – it’s how you held the animal’s head back to kill them for sacrifice.
(Francis Schaffer allegory) If you were held only to your OWN standards, on judgement day, you were only held accountable for the things you said people should do, not a single person would pass that test.
If every person with a heart looks at the injustice of the world hopes for a world that will put everything right, then we’re all going to be cut off.
The next verse, v. 14, starts another section, but it says, “He is a high priest, go to him, and he will give you grace and mercy in time of need.”
v. 12 & 13 say according to simple justice we’re going to be cut off, but v. 14 says the merciful high priest will give mercy…
that’s the answer. We are not going to be sacrificed, because he was the sacrifice. Jesus was cut off from the land of the living, so that we could live. Jesus was stripped naked so that we could be clothed with the glory of God. Jesus experienced radical restlessness, “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” He was cut off from the source of eternal rest, he was thrown into hell, so that we could have rest. And when he died, he said, “It is finished.” What’s finished? the work that every human heart is trying to do. The self-justifying work. He’s said, “I’ve done it.”
How can you lay down your work and walk away from it? Because you’re absolutely sure about who you are. And you know you’re delighted in by the only set of eyes in the universe before which you have to give account.
Matt 11: Jesus says, Come to me and I will give you rest.
I don’t know if you believe in Jesus, I don’t know if you believe that he’s done this for you, but I urge you do to everything you possibly can to find out a way to do it, because how else will you find this deep rest? How else will you be able to walk away from your work, lay it down, unless in the deepest recesses of your heart you’ve laid your deadly doing down, down at Jesus feet, and you stand in him and Him alone, gloriously complete? How else are you going to know you’re loved and so valuable that you don’t have to earn it through all this restless work?
I don’t know if you believe this yet, but I urge you to try because this is the way to rest.
To those who do believe, to the Christians:
V. 11, is that it indicates there’s something in the future:
let us therefore to make every effort to enter that rest,
In v. 3 – I believe the Gospel and get rest, present tense, yet here is future rest in v. 11. And on one hand, the full rest is the new heavens and new earth. But I think it’s also saying, you never get all the rest, you have to keep going back to it, keep going back to the gospel to get rest. The gospel is like a fire in my life, and the natural condition of the human heart is to forget the gospel and turn to self-justification. You can mask that when things are going well, but failure, criticism, something goes wrong, and what I do is I start making longer lists, I start working longer hours. I start jumping around trying to generate heat, but what I need is to do is return to the fire.
If we start each day with our personal security not resting on the accepting love of God and the sacrifice of Christ, but on our present achievements, such arguments will not quiet the human conscience and we are inevitably moved either to discouragement and apathy, or to a self-righteousness or some form of idolatry that tries to falsify the record to achieve a sense of peace. But the Gospel faith that is able to warm itself at the fire of God’s love and what Jesus has done for us, instead of having to steal love and self-acceptance from all these other places, is the very root of peace.
Warm yourself at the fire, and you can face anything. You can lay your work down.