April 8, 2018
What comes to mind when I say the word, Sabbath? Probably a lot of different things, depending on your background. If you’re into a certain music genre, you may think of the English rock group, Black Sabbath, with Ozzy Osborne, who is said to have pioneered heavy metal – also known as, when you can’t sing, just play loud and bang your head.
If you are Jewish, you may think of the seventh day of the week, where the Mosaic Law requires that you do no work. In fact, entire commentaries were written on Sabbath observance, telling you what you can and cannot do. Thus, observing the Sabbath became one of the most important laws within Judaism.
Now, if you are a Christian – I suppose it depends on what flavor. If you are Seventh Day Adventist, then your group teaches the seventh day – Saturday – should still be considered the Sabbath – the day for Christians to worship and rest. Many other Christian groups – denominations and churches – believe that Sunday became the Christian Sabbath, that is, on Sunday, in perpetual remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus, Christians should worship and rest on the first day of the week.
So, some of you remember Sunday Blue Laws in your communities when you were growing up. That is, many businesses were closed in observance of the Christian Sabbath – or at the very least, did not open till after Sunday morning church services. And you certainly couldn’t buy alcohol on Sundays. I can remember walking into certain stores and there would be chains and padlocks on the beer and wine cabinets.
And even if your community didn’t have the Blue Laws, some of your homes certainly did. You know what I’m talking about. You didn’t work, you didn’t mow the yard or wash the car, and you didn’t play sports – no baseball, basketball, or even Frisbee – not on Sundays. Many of you grew up thinking of Sunday as a solemn day, a somber day, a holy day – a day when doing anything fun was prohibited. It was a “you can’t do anything day.”
Of course, slowly but surely, those cultural norms changed. Yep, what was once inviolable has been violated – not only do we now play sports on Sunday, but we’ll even schedule games and tournaments on Sunday mornings. And while I personally wish they wouldn’t – I think it communicates to our children sports are more important than corporate worship – but I’m a pastor, of course I think that – some of you wonder if in fact those who participate are breaking the Sabbath.
So, what comes to mind when I say the word, Sabbath? Confusion. Are Christians still bound to Sabbath-keeping – after all, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. Not only that – the Sabbath seems to have predated the Law – God rested on the Seventh Day of creation – so certainly Sabbath-keeping transcends the Law. Further, if we are to observe a Sabbath – as Christians, which day? Saturday? Sunday? Or can it be any day of our choosing if Saturday or Sunday don’t work – no pun intended? And, if so, what does a Sabbath look like? No work? No washing the car or mowing the yard? No sports? Or is there a positive side to Sabbath-keeping? Is it just a list of things we don’t do – or are there things we do, do? It’s kind of like fasting – does fasting just mean, no food, or is there a positive side to the discipline? Some of you say – nope, nothing positive about fasting – I’m just hungry. Well, back to the Sabbath, what is the positive side? Final question: is it possible Christians actually observe a Sabbath rest seven days a week?
Where did the whole Sabbath thing come from? Back in Genesis 1, we read about the creation of the world. In six days, we find God created the heavens and the earth, and everything that was in them. At the end of chapter one, we saw God sit back, as it were, with a big smile and a sigh, as He observed everything He’d made – and He saw that it was all very good. By the time we get to Genesis 2, when God had finished His creative works, we read these words in the first three verses:
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
There you have it – the first seventh-day rest. The first Sabbath. It was a blessed and sanctified day – it was set apart – and supposed to be a happy and holy day. Supposed to be a good day. But now, let me ask you – why did God rest on the seventh day? Was He tired? Needed a day off? Of course not. He was finished. This was an “It is finished” rest. His work was done, He was able to sit back and rest in the completeness and goodness of His creation. I’m going to give you a little preview. When Jesus finished His work, He too said, It is finished. Then He sat down at the right hand of the Father, resting as it were. And He has become our Sabbath rest.
Now, roll the clock forward a few millenniums after creation. It wasn’t until God gave the Law we see Him commanding that humankind observe a Sabbath. It was in Exodus 20, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. There, we read these words in the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant, or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Now, again, what was the purpose of the Sabbath? Because the Jews needed a day off – they were tired – kind of the first labor law so workers couldn’t be abused and worked seven days a week? Maybe. The purpose was rest – but it was a Sabbath of the Lord your God. On that seventh day, the people were to cease from their work and rest in God. It’s important we understand this. If we see the Sabbath as simply a cessation of labor, then we’ll be like the Pharisees coming up with all kinds of things you can’t do – we’ll focus on the prohibition rather than the command to rest in God. To sit back, to observe all God is and all He has done, smile and sigh, and say, isn’t God good. That was the point. Here’s another sneak preview – it was supposed to be a picture pointing to the glorious rest we would one day have in Christ. Resting in a renewed, right relationship with God.
So again, what does Sabbath-keeping have to do with us, Christians? Well, actually everything, when rightly understood. When Christians say, we should still observe a Sabbath, I want to say, you don’t observe it enough. These are challenging questions with answers all over the place. Godly Christians do not agree. But in our continuing study of Hebrews, the text today, I think, sheds some important light on the topic. So turn to Hebrews 4 as I remind you where we are in the book.
We know well by now the author is encouraging Jewish believers. His primary method of encouragement is to demonstrate that Jesus is infinitely superior to anything the Old Covenant – the OT – had to offer. In fact – and this is important for today – Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant – all the Scripture actually points to Him. The Old Testament Law was fulfilled perfectly by Christ – the Old Testament tabernacle, later the Temple and the sacrifices were types that pointed to Jesus. As such, Jesus is superior – we’ve seen so far superior to angels, superior to Moses.
Further, the author not only encourages them, he warns them. You remember, the readers were facing severe persecution because of their new Christian faith. Loss of freedom through imprisonment, loss of credibility and reputability, loss of homes and property – and soon, they would face loss of life. As a result, many had quit to return to Judaism. Which is why the author demonstrates the superiority of Jesus to the Old Covenant – better said, the fulfillment of Jesus to all those OT types. But, he also warns them, rather severely, five times in Hebrews.
We already looked at the first one, found in 2:1-4. There, he said, we must pay closer attention to what we have heard – namely, the good news about Jesus – so that we do not drift away from it. For, if the word spoken through angels – and by that, he was referring to the OT – if it proved unalterable, and every transgression of it received just penalty – that is punishment – how will we escape if we neglect this great salvation found in the New Covenant? We won’t. So don’t neglect your salvation found in Christ – don’t drift from it.
We find ourselves today at the end of the second warning – a rather long one, stretching from 3:7 though 4:13. The warning is based on Psalm 95, which was a warning to the Israelites – reminding them how their forefathers hardened their hearts, were disobedient to God, wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and died in unbelief. As a result, they did not enter His rest – that’s an interesting way to refer to entering the land of promise.
Well, what was the warning to the readers of Hebrews, and to us? Take care there not be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. Encourage one another, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. In short – don’t harden your hearts. I know it’s tough, but persevere to the end.
In fact, the beginning of chapter 4 gets stronger: let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest – there’s that word again – any one of you may seem to have come short of it – that is, the rest. And he introduces the idea to us, the readers, of entering God’s rest. Oh, you say, I didn’t know that was the goal for Christians – to enter the promised land of rest. I guess I’ll put my house on the market. Not exactly. Perhaps the author has something else in mind. Maybe there’s a different rest found in the New Covenant. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, just like everything else in the Old Covenant. We all get that, and so, why do we cling to this idea of a Saturday or Sunday Sabbath? But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
His point in the first few verses of chapter 4 is this – having heard this good news of Jesus, be sure to combine what you’ve heard with faith. Don’t be like the Israelites, don’t harden your hearts, who heard God’s promises but did not believe, or you will not enter His rest, either. Which begs the important question – what is this rest the author keeps talking about? He’s made clear you enter His rest by believing – verse 3, “For we who have believed enter that rest.” Like now, or in the future? Good question. But, you say, I’ve never even been to Israel. Again, there must be a different rest. It is the rest God entered Himself having completed His creation, and now invites us to enter with Him – in fullness of restored relationship.
Which brings us to our text – Hebrews 4:8-13. Let’s read beginning back in verse 6.
That’s all a bit confusing. You see, for the Israelites, the land was both a place and position of rest. But, what it just on the seventh day? So when they entered the land, did God give them rest every seven days, every Saturday? Or, did He give them rest in the land? It’s seems certain it is the latter. After the generation of unbelieving Israelites had died in the wilderness, Joshua led them in. And we read in Joshua 21:44, “And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers…”
So, Joshua led them in, they largely conquered the land, and God gave them rest. Why then, does the author say, “For if Joshua had given them rest, He – that is God – would not have spoken of another day after that.” In other words, I am suggesting, the rest in the land of promise – and indeed, the seventh-day Sabbath rest is a type pointing to another rest – a rest we experience now in Jesus – but not yet in its fullness – the best is yet to come. So don’t fail to enter.
There is something else here as well. The Greek name for Joshua is the same Greek name for Jesus. In fact, verse 8 could read, For if Jesus had given them rest…” Of course, context decides the translation, and it is right to translate it, Joshua. If the OT Joshua had given them rest, there would not have been need for another. So, the NT Joshua named Jesus did give them another day of final, ultimate, better rest. And now we find that not only is Jesus better than the angels and Moses, He’s better than Joshua. And we remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 11, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, 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.” Let me give the outline of the text:
- Another Rest Remains (8-10)
- So, Be Diligent to Enter the Rest (11)
- The Examination to Enter the Rest (12-13)
This is a good example of the already-not-yet nature of the Christian life. Yes, we are now children of God, having experienced the forgiveness of sin. And as such, verse 3, having believed, we enter that rest. The one to which the author refers in verse 8 – for if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another rest for the people of God. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
That’s interesting. The author has been talking about entering God’s rest. He introduced the idea of the seventh-day Sabbath rest in verse 4 when he said God had entered His rest on the seventh day after He finished His work of creation. But through the first 8 verses, the author used one word to speak of rest, which refers to the activity of rest or a place of rest. For the Israelites – it was both – the land of promise as the place, and rest from their enemies. Further, I would add this element of rest: enjoyment in the land as their own, in the presence of their God.
But now, in verse 9, the author uses a different word – it is indeed Sabbath rest. There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. The people of God are those – OT and NT – who believe God and trust Him for His promises. For us, those promises are found in Jesus and His gospel. We get that. But to what does this Sabbath rest refer? Are we just to see it as a place – the land of promise? Certainly not – the people of God had that in verse 8 – but something different obviously remains.
The seventh day rest? Most agree not. Rather, he’s talking about rest in the presence of God – actually, much more than that – to enter His rest to which He invited His people way back after the six days of creation. For us that means a restored relationship with God. And so, Sabbath rest refers to much more than just no work – no fun. Oh no, it refers to a celebration of joy in the presence of our Creator God. This is spelled out in Deuteronomy 12:10-12 – look at it:
10 “When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security,
11 then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD.
12 “And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.”
This is a type of the ultimate rest that rest remains for the people of God. Rejoicing in the presence of God. Here’s a question: do we experience it now? You bet we do – not just on Saturday or Sunday – but because of the finished work of Christ, we enjoy a restored, celebrated relationship with God in His presence – every day of the week, you see. In its fullness? Not yet – the fullness of both place and position of rest remain to be entered. The already entered rest, but not yet in its fullness rest.
Verse 10, “For the one who has entered His rest [notice, past tense again] has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.” Now, what does that mean? It could refer to resting from working to produce salvation for ourselves – we cease to work to produce salvation, because God in the person of Jesus has done it for us. Or, it could be referring to the fullness to come – when we have entered that rest, we no longer do the works of perseverance to prove our salvation – we rest in the fullness of the presence of God in the city yet to come. Lots of discussion about that – perhaps we should not narrow it too much. We simply cease work in general, to rest in the celebratory fullness of God’s presence. Look at Revelation 14:12-13:
12 Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.
13 And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.”
They die in the Lord, their deeds of perseverance following. Now, don’t think that resting from work means we just sit around doing nothing. Remember, God assigned work in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, while Adam and Eve enjoyed the fullness of God’s presence. Work is not the result of the curse – it’s the difficulty of work. But God gave us work for our enjoyment, Ecclesiastes 5 says. So also, in the new city to come, when we have entered the joy of our master – we who have been faithful over a few things will be made ruler over many things. Work will continue – in celebratory fullness of the age to come in the presence of God. But again, I am suggesting we enjoy that in part now.
So notice, nothing is said of the seventh-day Sabbath, or the first-day so-called Christian Sabbath. In fact, my argument would be that Paul goes out of his way in the book of Colossians to make sure we understand we don’t observe certain days, or months or years, or Sabbaths any longer. No, we enjoy a restored relationship with Christ, and He becomes our Sabbath rest – seven days a week. Does that mean we don’t enjoy a day of rest – of no work? Go ahead – but don’t forget the positive side of Sabbath rest – and that is enjoying the presence of God through worshipping and celebrating Him.
Bringing us to our second point. We are nearing the end of the warning passage – but he’s still warning us. Therefore, since entrance into the fullness of His Sabbath rest remains, let us be diligent – the ESV has is, let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. Whose example? That of the Israelites. That’s the context. They had been promised rest, as a type of the rest to come in Christ. But because of the disobedience of their unbelief, they didn’t even enter the type of the rest. So, strive to enter that rest so that you do not fall. Again, we are not working to produce our salvation, we are persevering to prove it. We are being diligent to not commit apostasy, falling away from the living God. We’re keeping our eyes on the prize, not falling into unbelief.
For, point three, there is a judgment coming – verses 12 and 13. Now, we normally hear this verse – verse 12 – quoted to speak of the power and value of the Word of God. Most appropriately, because it addresses some great truths about the Bible. But, in its context, it’s the conclusion of the warning passage. Perhaps here the author thinks of the swords of the Amalekites and Canaanites, who cut down the Israelites in Numbers 14. Remember, after they had listened to the ten spies rather than Joshua and Caleb – rather than God – after God had said they would wander for forty years and die in the wilderness, they decided to try to take the land by themselves, and fell by the sword. So also for us, the Word of God can penetrate even the innermost recesses of our lives to expose the reality of our belief – our faith.
The Word of God is living and active – which means it is effective, and accomplishes His purposes. It is not dead – it is as powerful and meaningful today as it was to the Israelites, to the first of readers of Hebrews, and to us. It is sharper than any sword. We remember Paul refers to the Word of God as the Sword of the Spirit. John speaks of his vision of Jesus in Revelation 1 having a sword coming out of His mouth. The picture means God’s Word is Jesus’ word – and it is two-edged – meaning it will penetrate and prove faith on one side, and judge unbelief on the other.
It has the ability to pierce soul and spirit, joints and marrow – all that means is it penetrates the deepest recesses or our lives – spiritual and physical. And having done so, it judges the reality of faith – the thoughts and intentions of the heart – where emotions and will reside.
Such that, the truth of God’s Word will judge us – no one will be hidden from its sight – we will all be laid bare before the eyes of the One with whom we have to do. Notice how the author switches for the Word of God to God Himself – because it is His Word. This is glorious truth for those who truly know Him as Lord and Savior, and fearful for those who do not.