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.
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:
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.