Insights on Work and Rest from Hebrews 4

I have to admit.  I had a stressful week at work.  When I came in on Monday, I had over 240 emails from being out of the office for three days last week to attend to a family milestone event (the birth of our fifth grandchild along with taking care of his two-year old big brother for a couple of days).  My team and I are also in an incredibly busy season of planning annual events and preparing for senior leader transitions.  Every day was a non-stop blur of meetings, challenges, and pressing forward.

In the midst of this stressful time, I took a few minutes one morning in the middle of the week to read from the book of Hebrews.  I noticed several things that I had not seen in a while about work and rest. 

A lot is written in Heb. 4:1-11 about “rest”.  However, it is not what you would normally think.  The writer of Hebrews is not exhorting first-century Christians to take time out on Sundays after church service to reflect on spiritual things and do some recreation with their families.  He is not addressing the need for them to keep the Sabbath at all.  He is writing about a completely different kind of rest. 

Let me provide a few observations from my own study, and share what one commentator wrote.

Contextual background

In context, the writer of Hebrews introduces the subject of rest in Heb. 3:7-11, which is a warning to the church against unbelief.  Throughout this theologically deep, yet positive letter to Hebrew (formerly Jewish) Christ-followers, we find several warning passages.  Here, the writer uses several OT quotes (Ps. 95) and allusions to various settings as recorded in the books of Exodus and Numbers where early followers of Yahweh fell away and rebelled in their desert wanderings for forty years.

We are reminded in this section that OT believers were inconsistent in their faith and obedience.  (Later, the writer will explain in detail how the Old Covenant was inadequate to internally transform the hearts of God’s people.)  Despite the advantages that the New Covenant in Jesus Christ provides, such as the indwelling Holy Spirit, even mature Christians can and do fall short.  (See Rom. 7:7-25.)

And so, in Heb. 3:11, the writer points out that the Israelites who went astray would not be able to enter into God’s rest.  In verses 12-13, he then exhorts the church to keep themselves and others from turning away from God by individually turning from sin and collectively encouraging one another.

There is a Sabbath rest for God’s people

The writer reminds his readers in Heb. 4:1 that there remains an enduring promise to Christians, that those who faithfully follow Him can find rest.  He concludes in verse 3 that those who have put our faith in Jesus enter God’s rest, unlike those OT believers who could not enter because of unbelief. 

If you are like me, you may have also heard an echo here alluding to Jesus’s words in Matt. 11:28-30.  He lovingly invites His disciples and invites us also, “Come to me, all 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.  For yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  The rest we find in union with Jesus Christ is a deep rest, which goes way beyond just taking a day off from our labors.

In Heb. 4:9-10, the writer emphasizes the opportunity for all New Covenant believers to enter God’s restful state of peace.  This is a dual peace.  There is peace with God, meaning that there is no longer any strife between us and God since Jesus removed God’s wrath from us.  There is also the peace of God, which is truly incomprehensible, which allows us to trust in Him to work all things for good.

In the Theology of Work Commentary, we read this helpful insight, “The Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4:9-10 is not simply a cessation of activity (Heb. 4:10) but also a Sabbath celebration (Heb. 12:22).”

I observe that this NT Sabbath rest provides so much more than resting from work; we can rest from our working.  We can rest from our work because His work is finished.  We know that we cannot earn our salvation by working.  He already did the work necessary to achieve atonement through His blood. 

With just a little bit of irony, we are told in Heb. 4:11 to work hard (make every effort) to find the rest that God gives to His children.  We can only find true rest when we submit to His authority, by faith in Jesus Christ alone, which is clearly demonstrated by doing good works.  (See the book of James.)

The result of resting in Jesus’s finished work

Because His work matters far more than our own work, we are told in Heb. 4:16 to boldly approach the throne of grace to “receive mercy and find grace”.  Let me contrast the meaning of these two terms.

In Christ, God gives us mercy.  He does not give us what we deserve, which is eternal punishment due to our sinful actions, thoughts, and natures.  Once we receive His mercy, we can then and only then find grace in Jesus Christ.  Then, we discover that He gives us way more that we deserve in terms of peace with Him, complete forgiveness, and eternal life.  We need His mercy to experience His grace.

This passage in Hebrews chapter 4 was eye-opening to me.  It was much more than merely a reminder that God rested after six days of creation and therefore, we should also observe the Sabbath.  This is emphasized throughout the OT, although Jesus certainly had something to say about it in the NT. 

What I find here gives me motivation to do the work necessary to pursue my faith in Jesus Christ and live a life of demonstrating that faith through good works.  Not as a legal requirement, but in response to the work that Jesus did on the cross to obtain my redemption.  In Him, and Him alone, I find rest.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 60 articles posted on this blog have been published 120 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Further Reflections on Psalm 139

On a recent Sunday morning, I went to one of my favorite psalms to remind myself of some truths about God’s presence.  I discovered some valuable insights that I had not previously addressed.

This topic is an important one for me personally.  I have been striving to experience God’s presence as a normal part of my Christian walk for the past 45 years.  As a freshman in college, I read Brother Lawrence’s classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.  This book opened my eyes to the concept that I could remain close to God by His grace every day – not just in church, but everywhere I went.

Some previous reflections

In my book, Immanuel Labor: God’s Presence in our Profession, I laid a biblical and theological foundation of what God’s word teaches about work and presented how to apply these eternal truths.  My focus throughout the book was to highlight the link between God’s presence and human work. 

As I unpacked the idea of God’s presence in general, this is what I stated:

The Bible passage that most believers think of with respect to this concept is Psalm 139:7-10, which says: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

Although these verses highlight God’s supernatural ability to be everywhere and anywhere, David wants us to see this aspect of God’s personality as not merely an objective reality but as something he personally feels. He says things like “you are there” (twice in verse 8), “your hand will guide me,” and “your right hand will hold me fast.” These words describe that God is there in David’s midst, which gives him (and us) peace, security, and hope. Not only that, but God has been, is now, and will continue to actively lead him every step of the way.

Later, in a section on regaining a sense of God’s presence when we have fallen from it, I wrote: “The most important thing I can say to a Christian is that God will never leave us, condemn us, or give up on us.  This is crystal clear in Scripture.  Psalm 139:7–10 says that He is always present with us.”

New observations about this passage

David, the author of this psalm, begins by declaring that God has “searched” him and knows him (v. 1).  I have often begun my own confessions of sin with the same words David uses, “You know me.”  David right away acknowledges that there is nothing that God does not know about us (about Russ).

He continues.  God perceives David’s thoughts (v. 2).  Yahweh knows his whereabouts (v. 3) and is familiar with all his ways.  God even knows what David is about to say before he utters a word (v. 4).

David concludes that knowing all this is completely overwhelming to him.  It is too wonderful (v. 6).

I find it interesting that there is no admission of guilt and shame by David, despite the fact that God knows everything about David’s thoughts and activities, both good and bad.  He is focused on God’s marvelous attributes.  It seems to give him peace to know that God has revealed Himself in this way.

David then shifts his focus to describing the length, breadth, and depth of God’s presence.  He knows that the Spirit of God is anywhere that David could possibly imagine he could go (v. 7).  He mentions the heavens and the depths (v. 8).  God is at both ends of the vertical dimension, both high and low.  In verse 9, he writes of rising on “the wings of the dawn” and settling on the “far side of the sea” – the horizontal dimension, in all directions.  Even there, God’s hand will guide him and hold him (v. 10).

Due to time and space constraints, I am going to stop there with my summary.  However, I do want to highlight one thing.  This psalm is about God’s presence.  It is also about God’s grace.  Despite David’s often sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, he can speak from the depths of his faith and his own personal experiences that God has continued to lay His hand of protection, guidance, and protection on him.  He concludes in verse 17, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!”  This is a man after God’s own heart whose heart has been changed by the grace of Yahweh, even in Old Testament times.

New Testament implications

This OT passage helps us understand how David personally understood and experienced the attribute of God’s omnipresence.  This divine characteristic is something that is always true about God the Father.  It gives Christ-followers great comfort as they focus on this aspect of God’s being.  However, we need to be reminded that the other two members of the Trinity also possess this same attribute.

The last thing that Jesus said to His disciples was this: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).  This is a promise that every disciple of Jesus Christ holds dear.

However, He had already given His disciples an idea of how His presence would be manifested.  As Jesus was preparing to go to the cross, He taught them about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and how He would counsel, teach, and remind them of His words.  He would bring the power of God’s presence to them and in them after Jesus departed to the right hand of the Father.  (See John 14:16-17, and 26.)

How can we apply these truths?

My own conclusion about this passage is two-fold.  First, God’s presence gives us much-needed comfort when we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place.  Second, it also gives us much-need discomfort when we find ourselves in a comfortable place that we know is outside of God’s will.

I encourage you to experience for yourself a life of consistently practicing the presence of God.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 60 articles posted on this blog have been published 120 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.