“There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.” Hebrews 4:9
A common cliché is that Christians need to go “beyond the letter of the law.” Scripture itself sometimes takes us beyond the letter of the law to an understanding of its meaning. Jesus often gave commentaries on laws that were only observed externally by the religious leaders of His day. Beyond the avoidance of the act of adultery, for instance, we are told to understand lust itself as a form of adultery (Matt. 5:28). The cliché is often misused, however. Suggesting we should go beyond the letter of the law is an evil suggestion if it looks to a spiritualized, mystical meaning that depreciates actual obedience to the letter of the law itself. Too often “going beyond the letter of the law” is used as a euphemism for leaving obedience behind.
I intend for these comments on Sabbath observance to be taken as expanding on the significance of our observation of Sabbath rest; they should not be taken as suggesting we should abandon it. There are several types of Sabbath rest in Scripture, but I will focus on the weekly Sabbath and its meaning. Too often discussions about Sabbath rest focus on the rules one should observe so as not to violate the day by our actions. I think Paul was clear that we should not judge one another in such things (Col. 2:16), so I leave those issues to the reader’s conscience. I believe what is too often lost in discussions of the Sabbath day is why we rest and what ought to be our self-conscious understanding of the meaning and implication of our rest.
The most neglected Sabbath rest is that referenced in the third and fourth chapters of Hebrews. That passage speaks of the failure of the Israelites in the days of Moses to enter into their place of rest, which was Canaan. This failure was caused by a lack of faith (Heb. 4:6), but their destination was a very real place, not a spiritual state. Their failure was an act of omission rather than commission, a refusal to move forwards in terms of the future God promised them. We are specifically warned against similarly failing to enter our rest (Heb. 4:1). There is far more here than observance of Sabbath-day rules or a “spiritual” failure.
God judged an entire generation to die without seeing His future blessings. Their sin was a failure to act in terms of the certainty of the future God had revealed to them. They feared the dangers of entering Canaan so God’s judgment was for that generation to stagnate. Their sin was not a violation of one of the Ten Commandments or any case law given to Moses, but a refusal to act in the expectation of God’s every promise being true.
That punishment was to that generation in the wilderness and was over and done with some 1400 years before Hebrews was written. How can Christians then be liable to a similar fate in the first century, not to mention today? Hebrews 4, however, very clearly connects all Christians to that wilderness generation and warns us of repeating their sin.
What Does Sabbath Rest Represent?
Sabbath rest means more than not working; that is how we are told to observe the weekly holy day. The “rest” of entrance into Canaan actually began generations of work, but the rest that Canaan represented was a realization of something, an eschatological point. Hebrews 4:10 does reference God’s rest, but it is important that the cessation of God’s creating (Gen. 2) was given in the context of His completion of the Creation. God had finished that which He called “very good.” This is the historical basis of the Sabbath rest most referenced by Christians, but there are three historical events given as a basis for Sabbath rest in Scripture. Some refer to these as three Sabbaths, but they are all one, with three reasons attached. Each of the three are completed works of God, with our observance of rest being a self-conscious awareness that all we do depends on what God has already done for us.
The first mention of Sabbath is that of Genesis 2:1–3, repeated in Exodus 20:8–11. A rest was commanded to remember the historical fact that God created all things and presented it to man as his home and the place of his work.
The second reason for Sabbath rest referenced the exodus from Egypt, the salvation of God from slavery. After Moses broke the first tablets of stone, God gave another set, but this time gave (Duet. 5:12–15) a second reason for rest. This rest was in terms of God’s salvation from slavery to the blessings of a land flowing with milk and honey. Again the observance was based on an historical event of God’s hand and its implications for the future.
The third historic event referenced in Scripture as the basis for Sabbath rest is the victory of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4). His entrance into rest (v. 10) is associated with that of God’s creation rest (v. 10, cf. Gen. 2:1–3) and the rest into which Joshua led the Israelites when they entered the land (v. 8, note that the KJV reads “Jesus” but that is the Greek form of “Joshua” and the reference of vv. 7–8 is clearly to Joshua’s day).
The “Christian Sabbath” was immediately transferred to the first day of the week. This was not an arbitrary or unwarranted change, but represents exactly what Hebrews 4 later laid out, that “there remaineth therefore a rest [a keeping of the Sabbath] to the people of God” (v. 9). The disciples recognized Jesus as the greater Joshua and understood their rest was now in terms of His finished work. The freedom from sin that He gave was far greater than the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The type was replaced by the reality.
The creation represented a promise of God’s provision for man. The exodus was His setting of the stage for a future under His law. The disciples knew Jesus had firmly established His Kingdom of Heaven.
The Meaning of Sabbath Rest
Each historical basis for Sabbath rest references a finished work of God that established His provision for man. Man’s cessation of activities on one day that is commanded apart from the other six means that his context of life and work is in God’s provision for him.
The rest of creation was a cessation from the activity of creating. In that accomplished divine work of God man has such security in God’s providence that he, too, can rest. My father often repeated a phrase in his prayers that expresses this: “Thou carest for us better than we care for ourselves.” Sabbath observance represents a present confidence and a future security in terms of God’s providential care of His creation and us, His creatures.
Likewise, the rest based on the exodus was a view of salvation that recounted a miracle of God. He brought Israel out of slavery to a place of rest in Canaan. The weekly rest was then also to be seen in terms of that accomplished divine act as well, yet it also referenced their future in Canaan in terms of God’s promises.
In addition to the weekly Sabbath’s specified tie to the exodus, the Feast of Tabernacles (tents) also commemorated that time by the erection of tents or huts during a week-long annual celebration. It was not entirely past-bound, however. The daily temple ritual was a festive procession where priests gathered water outside Jerusalem and brought it to the altar where both water (representing God’s provision for life) and wine (representing prosperity) were poured at the base of the altar. The water referenced several prophetic passages still obviously future-oriented including the promise of “living waters” that will go out from Jerusalem (Zech. 14:8) and Ezekiel’s vision of water that flowed from the altar and became a river “that could not be passed over” (Ezek. 47:1–10, note v. 5). Jesus appeared at the temple on the last day of the feast (John 7:37–53) probably as this ceremony concluded, and offered all “living water,” thus connecting the blessing of His Kingdom with the hopes of Israel. The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, while based on the historical exodus, represented a present expectation and the future certainty of God’s blessing.
The Christian Sabbath includes a third historical event as the basis for resting in God’s accomplished work—the accomplished victory of Jesus Christ. His atonement represents a reason why we can rest from our labors and why our future is certain.
In all three historical contexts the Sabbath represents man’s security in terms of the finished work of God. Our work can pause on God’s orders, because it is a response to our salvation not its cause. The activity of Sabbath observance is not an arbitrary compliance with rules but our cessation of work in a self-conscious awareness that God’s saving work is determinative, not ours. Our future is certain and our labors matter because God does truly care for us better than we care for ourselves.
The work of man does not save, but it is commanded as an act of obedience. The generation “whose carcasses fell in the wilderness” (Heb. 3:17) failed to obey, to move forward in confidence that God would fulfill His promises. They thought they were being practical, but Scripture tells us they acted in “unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). The question in Hebrews 4 is essentially, “Will you do the same? Will you fail to act in terms of what God has done and has promised to yet do?”
The Jewish Christians to whom Hebrews was written were looking backward, not forward. They did not see the implications of who Jesus was and what that meant for serving His Kingdom. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, they were not ready to move forward. This text is usually limited to a warning against apostasy. It is that, but it is more or the reference to the generation in the wilderness would be a poor one. Their specific sin is inactivity, failure to move forward in reliance on God’s promise. It applies to us because we are also called to move forward, to act in terms of what Christ has done.
Even when that wilderness generation failed their test, the promise of God remained for their children. The promise was there, but it did them no good (Heb. 4:2). God’s promises were certain from creation (Heb. 4:3), but they would not see their realization.
The Sabbath must not be reduced to its outward observances. It must be understood in a worldview that recognizes the accomplished work of God. We rest in that work; we celebrate it, and arise another day refreshed to move into the Canaans of this world, to spread the living water from the altar of Christ’s atonement until the influence of His Kingdom is a river that no man can pass over. Because our ultimate rest still remains, we rise from our weekly Sabbath rest to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.