STUDIES IN HEBREWS

© Rosemary Bardsley, 2002

STUDY FIVE: A SABBATH REST FOR THE PEOPLE OF GOD

TWO KEY VERSES:

Colossians 2:16, 17: 'Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.'

Hebrews 10:1 : 'The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves.'

SOME POINTS TO CONSIDER:

[1] All things in the ceremonial or ritual law, as we shall see more clearly as we study Hebrews, find their reality and fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

[2] Even in the Old Testament the Sabbath law had spiritual significance: in other words Sabbath keeping was not an arbitrary or meaningless ritual, not a law for the sake of law. It was given by God to the Israelites as a pointer to an extremely important truth:

'Say to the Israelites: 'You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy' (Exodus 31:13).

'Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the LORD made them holy' (Ezekiel 20:12).

This teaches us that the Sabbath pointed the Israelites to the fact that it was not they themselves, but the Lord, who made them his people. All day long as they literally did nothing they were to be forcibly reminded that they did nothing to make themselves God's people.

[3] Long before the time when Jesus lived on earth, Sabbath-keeping had been turned into a meritorious act, an act by which one sought to earn or gain God's favour, something one had to do to be one of God's people. The symbolic nature of the Sabbath had been completely reversed.

[4] In Hebrews 3:7-4:16 we learn about the connection between believing/obeying the Gospel and rest/confidence. We are not presented here with something that will be ours only when we 'get to heaven'. Nor are we are not presented here with a concept of the Christian life in which there are two levels of Christians: one level where we struggle and strive with sin and temptation and a second, advanced level where there is rest from such struggles. Rather we are being taught here of a rest which is the gift of God to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider:

A. HEBREWS 3:7-19:

In this passage the writer refers to the unbelief of the Israelites recorded in Numbers 13 and 14 and uses that unbelief and its consequences to stir his readers to genuine faith.

[1] The quote from Psalm 95:7-11 (Hebrews 3:7-11).

In these few verses we can identify the sin of the Israelites:

  • They had heard God's voice (7)
  • They hardened their hearts against God's voice (8).
  • They provoked God beyond the limit of his endurance (9).
  • Their hearts were always going astray (10).
  • They did not know God's ways (10).
  • God's anger was against them (11).
  • They did not ever enter God's rest (11).

Had these people ever believed? No. They had heard God's message, but they had hardened their hearts against him.

[2] Further descriptions of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12-19)

It is clear from the Bible that sin, in its essence, is the rejection of God, of seeing God and turning away from him, of hearing his word and refusing to believe it. Here the unbelief of the Israelites, and the unbelief against which the writer is warning his readers, is described as:

  • 'A sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God' (12).
  • Being 'hardened by sin's deceitfulness' (13).
  • Not holding 'firmly till the end the confidence we had at first' (14).
  • 'Hardening your hearts' (15).
  • 'Rebellion' (15).
  • 'Heard and rebelled' (16).
  • 'Sinned' (17).
  • 'Disobeyed' (18).
  • 'Unbelief' (19).

The disobedience which caused the Israelites to incur the wrath of God, the sin which prevented their entry into the 'rest' - the promised land - was the sin of unbelief. It was not the disobedience of theft, or adultery or dishonesty, or any thing like that. It was disobedience of the one foundational command to believe God. It is failure to believe God that produces all other sins.

Study: Consider the implications of this sin of unbelief in the record of Adam and Eve's rebellion (Genesis 3) and in relation to disobedience to the commands of Scripture that we must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

B. HEBREWS 4:1-11

What the writer says in these verses is based on what he has just established: that the sin of unbelief prevented the Israelites from entering into God's rest. His argument is as follows:

[1] the promise of God's rest is still there (1). This statement immediately lifts the writer's meaning out of the physical plane and into the spiritual plane. The opportunity to historically enter into the physical 'rest' of the promised land has long since gone. However, the true rest, the real spiritual rest, which was foreshadowed by that physical promised land, and which is anticipated in Sabbath regulations, 'still stands'. God's rest which he provides for his people is still available. The opportunity to enter this rest is still open.

[2] the readers of the letter should be careful that none of them miss out on it (1). As the writer points out in the verses that follow, the way the Israelites fell short of God's rest was by their failure to believe. The presence or absence of faith is the critical thing. So he says that ...

[3] we have heard the gospel, just like the Israelites did, but it didn't do them any good because they did not believe it (2). The point is made that though they heard it, it 'was of no value to them because they did not combine it with faith'. In this is both a warning and a challenge. Hearing the message does not save a person. Only believing God, demonstrated by believing his message, can do that. Conversely, to fail to believe the message, to disobey its command to repent and believe, is to fail to believe God, and to miss out on the spiritual rest promised by his Gospel, his good message.

[4] 'We who have believed enter God's rest' (3a). Leaving aside the terrible possibility that some of his readers lack genuine faith, the writer makes this confident affirmation. It is just as sure, just as certain, that those who have believed do enter God's rest, as it was sure and certain, confirmed by God's oath, that those who did not believe would not enter his rest (3b).

[5] the reality of God's rest is confirmed (3b-5). In these verses the real existence of God's rest is affirmed by (a) the fact that God has been 'resting' since his completion of his work of creation (Genesis 2:2), and (b) the fact that God makes reference to 'my rest'. The writer he grounds the certainty of the existence and reality of 'rest' on the foundation of God's action and God's word.

[6] there is still opportunity for people to enter God's rest (6a,9), even though some missed out on it by disobedience (=unbelief) (6b). Because God's rest is a continuing and present reality (3c) it is still possible to enter God's rest. The fact that some missed out does not mean that the availability of that rest has ceased; rather it points to their 'disobedience' that is, their refusal to believe the word of God. Therefore, God, speaking through David many years later, said 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts' (4:7; Psalm 95:7,8). Whenever God speaks, that day is 'today' and that day we are challenged to believe. Thus the opportunity to enter God's rest persists wherever his message is proclaimed.

[7] 'there remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God' (9). The eventual entry of the Israelites into the promised land under Joshua is not to be considered the real rest of God's people (8), but only a prophetic physical shadow of the real Sabbath rest which is still available for the people of God (9). When we consider the two verses quoted at the beginning of this study (Colossians 2:16,17 and Hebrews 10:1) we begin to understand that Jesus Christ is this Sabbath rest. He is the reality to which the weekly Sabbaths pointed. In him the believer lives in a perpetual spiritual rest.

[8] anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work (10). Here is the key to understanding this passage. What does God mean when he holds before us the promise of entering his rest?

(a)The mindset of the Israelites in Numbers 13 &14 is instructive. They looked at the size of the task; they looked at their own ability; and they saw the impossibility of their ever going into the land and winning it from its inhabitants. Their mindset was the mindset of the flesh: the mindset which looks at its own performance or ability to perform, and acts on the basis of what it sees. In this focus on themselves, though they had heard the word of God, they did not believe it. They made their choice on the basis of their own 'work'.

(b) Consider the two texts quoted earlier from Exodus 31:13 and Ezekiel 20:12. Here God specifically states that his Sabbaths were given to remind the Israelites that it was he who sanctified them. In other words it was not because of their works, but because of his action that they were his people, set apart by him to be his own special possession. It was gift, not reward. It had nothing to do with human work/activity.

(c) The promise of Jesus is 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls' (Matthew 11:28,29).

(d) This rest, of which the Sabbath rest is prophetic symbol and shadow, consists in a relationship with God which is the result of his sheer grace, and is in no way caused by our human work (Romans 3:20-24; Ephesians 2:7-9). Here in the mindset of grace we have ceased to give saving significance to our own works; we have ceased to credit our performance with the ability to gain or maintain for us the legal right to live in the presence of God, and we have also ceased to credit our performance with the ability to disqualify us from the legal right to live in the presence of God.

Thus the writer makes this bold and liberating affirmation: 'anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.'

[9] therefore we should 'make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.' (11). The Gospel of Jesus Christ has told us to believe in Christ and to put no confidence in the flesh. The automatic tendency of the human heart is to trust to its own performance; to believe that we have to gain and/or maintain our own salvation by our own efforts. This is the way of the world; this is the way of the flesh. All world religions, all cults, all nominal Christianity relate to 'god' and expect salvation on this basis. We humans do not like to have to depend on anyone else. We humans like to think that we have the necessary ability to save ourselves or to keep ourselves saved. It goes against our inclination, it cuts right through our pride and self-conceit, to receive salvation as sheer gift from God's hand. It is hard for us to do that. It is hard for us simply to believe it and receive it from God's hand. But this is exactly what we have to do. This pure faith, this pure obedience to the command to believe the good news, is what we are here challenged to make every effort to do.

We must be careful to remember that the 'disobedience' that the writer is referring to here is the refusal to believe/trust God: the refusal to believe his promise. (All other shapes and sizes of sins issue from this, but it is this sin of unbelief which is at the centre of concern here.)

For your study: Consider parallel situations in the letters to the Galatians and Colossians, where false teachers were deceiving the church into putting their trust in their ritual performance and/or their obedience to certain commands. Note particularly Paul's strong words in Galatians 3:1-14; 5:1-12. Consider also Paul's command in 2 Corinthians 6:1 'not to receive God's grace in vain'. Discuss why it is so important not to disobey the command to believe.

C. HEBREWS 4:12-13:

Here the writer seems to digress into a eulogy about God's word. It is however closely connected to what has just been said and what is about to be said. God's word is able to penetrate the heart and discern if what is there is faith or unbelief. The outside of a person may look like that person is obeying the Lord - while all the time the heart can be empty of faith.