"Diligently Enter His Rest"
(Delivered New Year's Sunday, December 30, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
On the last Sunday of each December, I habitually offer an exhortation to the church family from the Scripture for the coming year. And in seeking this annual word of exhortation, I have felt led this morning to the fourth chapter of the book of Hebrews.
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Hebrews is a very practical New Testament letter. It was originally written to Jewish people who had heard the gospel and had placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. It speaks to people who are already believers. And its primary purpose is to call those believers to move forward to a deeper level of faith and practice in their relationship with the Savior.
It had cost these early Jewish Christians a great deal to become Jesus' followers. They had to make a transition in the fundamental beliefs they had held since childhood. It required that they no longer seek God's favor through their own works of conformity to the laws, rituals and customs of Judaism. Instead, they learned to trust only in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for their standing before God. Their commitment to follow Jesus also involved them in a great deal of persecution and personal loss. Many of them were rejected by their families and friends. Some had suffered at the cost of their jobs and homes. And for some of these Jewish believers, a commitment to trust Jesus as the Messiah even brought threats upon their lives.
Many of these Jewish believers were tempted to abandon their faith. And the writer of this New Testament letter was seeking to encourage them not to give up. Most of his letter involves a clear, logical, scriptural demonstration that they're on the right track—that there is no conflict whatsoever between their Jewish heritage and the call to trust in Jesus; but rather, that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises and instructions of the Old Testament law.
And placed strategically throughout his defense of the faith are appeals to these Jewish believers to not only stay true to their faith in Jesus, but to even go on to greater levels of trust in Him. At the beginning of chapter two, for example, he writes;
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I wish that we had time to study more thoroughly the riches that God has provided for us in the wonderful book of Hebrews. Perhaps some day—God willing—we will. But what I want to particularly point out to you this morning is the exhortation that the writer gives to his Jewish kinsmen in chapter four.
In encouraging these Jewish Christians to stay the course, he had pointed them back to the Old Testament stories of their forefathers whom God had delivered out of bondage in Egypt. God had brought them out of bondage under Pharaoh in order to bring them to their inheritance in the land of Canaan. Everything that they needed had been graciously provided for them by God Himself. God had moved His mighty hand on their behalf to deliver them from their Egyptian slavemasters, so that all they had to do to be free was rise up and leave Egypt. And what's more, He promised to give them every success necessary in order for them to conquer the land of Canaan and take full possession of it. The work had all been done for them by God Himself; and all that they needed to do was to trust Him, faithfully obey His commands, and go forward and take full possession of their inheritance.
But sadly, as we know, their forefathers had disobeyed God's call. They had hardened their hearts toward God, rebelled against Him, and refused to enter the promised land out of sinful fear and unbelief. "There are giants in the land," they cried; and so, they didn't trust God, go forward to conquer the Canaanites, and take possession of the great inheritance that God was giving them. And as a result, God caused that disobedient generation to wander in the wilderness for forty years until they had died out; and so that their children could enter the land in their place under the leadership of Joshua.
Now; back to the people the writer of Hebrews was seeking to encourage. These Jewish Christians had a new day of grace offered to them. It was a new “Today” of opportunity. And so, the writer of Hebrews exhorts them by quoting from Psalm 95;
In speaking in this way to these Jewish Christians, the writer of Hebrews refers to the inheritance that God had provided as His "rest". It was not a rest of leisure and inactivity. Rather, it was called a "rest" because it was a work that God Himself had completed on behalf of His people, and that He called His people to faithfully enter into by faith. And the writer of Hebrews argues that because the appeal was being made, "Today, if you will hear His voice . . .", there remained a "rest" to be entered into by the people of God.
But he warns that these Jewish believers could be in danger of failing to enter into God's "rest" through unbelief—just as their forefathers had done. And this leads us to Hebrews 4:1-13. As I read these words to you, I ask you to think of them as an earnest appeal being made to people who have already placed their faith in Jesus Christ—but who now need to move forward into the deeper levels of their faith in Him. The writer says,
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Now; think carefully about the two stages in the experience of the people of Israel in coming into the full experience of their inheritance from God.1
The first stage was their experience of wandering in the desert as a result of their unbelief. They had already been delivered out of bondage. They had already been declared to be the people of God. But because of their unbelief, they didn't gain the full benefit of their standing before God. They wandered around in circles for forty years—in a area that would ordinarily have only taken them about twelve days to cross. It was a stage in their journey that was characterized by grumbling, murmuring, and futility; and also by a tragic exclusion from the full experience of all that God had wanted to give them.
But compare this with the second stage of their journey—that is, the experience of the second generation. They were just as much the people of God as the first generation. But their experience was characterized by the entry into the land by obedient faith in the finished work of God. They went forward in faith to do what the previous generation, in unbelief, failed to do. Their experience was a stage in the journey that was characterized by the conquest of their enemies, the blessings of God's abundance, and the full enjoyment of their inheritance. It was an experience characterized by a full entry into the “rest” that God had already secured for them.
These two stages in Israel's sojourn are pictures that God has given us of two discernible stages in the Christian's life of faith. The first stage is one in which we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior from sin. Jesus Christ is now in our lives, and we belong to Him. We are His people. But if we fail to move forward in obedient faith into the areas of life-transformation that He has called us to, and if we choose instead to remain complacently at that beginning level, we will wander along like the Jewish people of old in the wilderness. We will never seem to get anywhere in our Christian lives. We will end up struggling with the same old problems over and over. We will find ourselves defeated by the same old sinful habits again and again. And we'll end up just go through the motions of “religion”, in a joyless and frustrated manner that has no appeal to the unbelieving world we're called to reach.
God calls us to that initial, basic stage of faith in Jesus' cross. But He doesn't want us to stay in that initial stage. He calls us to move forward by faith into maturity—that is, to enter fully into God's “rest” by a complete faith in which we seize hold, in daily life, of ALL the finished work of Jesus on our behalf. He calls us to make the decision to claim the truth of Galatians 2:20 for ourselves; “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Think of that phrase, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ”. An unbeliever lives on the principle of “I live—not Christ!” He lives without trust in the Savior at all. He lives completely on his own initiative. The merely religious person lives on the principle of “I live—and Christ!” Such a man thinks that he can simply add the Savior to what he himself already does. And yet, he still lives in his own power. He still trusts only in himself. He still keeps himself in the first place. Most Christians, still in the initial stage of faith, live on the principle of “Christ lives—and me too!” They recognizes Jesus as his Savior. They place Him first. But they still seeks to live for Jesus in the power of the flesh. They think that their own efforts are necessary to, somehow, add to the work of Jesus and make His work complete.
But the believer who has moved on to maturity of faith lives by the principle: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ”. He has completely ceased trying to earns God's favor. He ceases trying to live the Christian life in the power of the flesh. He has learned to trust in God's full acceptance through the finished work of Christ alone; and he has taken his stand fully on the grace of God—trusting in the indwelling Spirit of Christ to Himself live the life that pleases God through him!
Such a Christian lives a life of happy victory in Christ; because he has entered by faith into God's “rest”. Such a Christian has entered into God's finished work through Christ on his behalf.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; my exhortation to us as a church family for the coming year is that we move on to that kind of maturity; that we all grow to the point that we can truly say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ"; that we all diligently labor together to enter into God's “rest” through trust in the completed work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
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Let me encourage you in this today by drawing out a few basic principles from this passage.
First, know that . . .
1. THERE IS A 'REST' THAT IS TO BE ENTERED.
That's the key-note in this passage from the book of Hebrews. It is repeated over and over.
It's spoken of in Hebrews 4:4; “For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”. You recognize that, don't you? That's the story of the completion of God's six days of creative work in the first chapter of Genesis. When He finished His work, He “rested”; that is, He looked upon all His work as done, and took enjoyment in it as a completed work that was “very good”.
Now; how does this relate to our daily walk in Christian life? It relates to us when we finally take seriously that word “all”. We take it by faith that He truly has rested from “all” His works; because as far as He is concerned, those works were “all” completed on the day that He took rest from them. He left nothing “unfinished” on the seventh day.
This means that God even rested on that day from His work of your salvation! This is an amazing thought; but it's one that you must grasp in order to fully enter into God's rest. When Jesus died on the cross for you, He died for you—as it says in Revelation 13:8—as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. His death was the finishing touch on a work that had already been completed long before. Jesus' ministry of sacrifice for us was "indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world" (1 Peter 1:20). And Jesus Himself tells us that His redeemed ones will be welcomed by Him to inherit the kingdom prepared for them "from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25:34).
This means that in the course of time, when you came to believe on Him, your faith also was simply a finishing touch on a work already completed. As it says in Revelation 17:8, the names were written in “the Book of Life from the foundation of the world”. As Paul teaches us, we believe on God's Son, not ultimately because we chose Him, but rather because “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).
The point of all of this is that the work of our redemption has already been completed by Him. We don't work to bring any of it to pass. Rather, by faith, we enter into a completed work—into His "rest". The greatest day in your Christian life on earth will be the day that you finally take this truth by faith. It will be the day that you finally cease trying to make yourself "worthy" to God, and enter completely—by faith—into His "rest" as a gift of His grace. As Jesus Himself has said,
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As a flip-side of the same coin, entering fully into God's rest means that . . .
2. THERE IS A 'WORK' THAT IS TO CEASE.
In verse 10, the writer of Hebrews says, "For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from His works as God did from His." I don't believe we should take this, as some Bible teachers do, to be a reference to heaven. Certainly, its true that, when we get to heaven, we will cease from all our works. But that would make the next verse a call for us to hurry up an die so we can go to heaven; "Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest . . ."
Rather, I believe that this is simply saying that when we truly come to rest confidently in the full work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, we cease trying to earn God's favor. Instead of laboring to make ourselves worthy of His grace, we rest joyfully and confidently in the favor we already have in Him. As Paul says in Romans 8:1-4;
This doesn't mean, of course, that it now no longer matters what I do. Rather, it means that I no longer live the Christian life under the compulsion of trying to please God and earn His favor. In that sense, I cease from my works; I rest instead in the finished work of Jesus Christ—knowing that I am already 100% in God's favor; and I live the Christian life joyfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit, as an expression of a grateful heart.
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Also notice a very practical point in all of this; that . . .
3. THERE IS A 'DILIGENCE' THAT IS TO BE EXERCISED.
"Let us therefore be diligent", the writer of Hebrews says, "to enter that rest, lest" (v. 11).
It takes diligence to enter God's rest. It took diligence for the people of Israel to enter into their rest too!
When they entered the promised land, they didn't find a bunch of comfortable beds waiting for them. Instead, they found Canaanites occupying the land that God was giving them. As soon as the people of God set foot into the land, they had to pull out their swords and begin doing battle in order to take possession of what God had given them. But so long as they trusted in the God who had delivered them from Egypt, and who had promised this land to them, they were victorious. They fought the battles God called them to fight; and they won every one of them because it was God who was fighting for them.
And the same is true for you and me. Entering into God's "rest"—that is, trusting fully and completely in the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf—will mean that we battle the things in our lives that God is calling us to conquer. But we will be victorious in it so long as we trust in Him; because He is the one who does the work!
But it's up to you and me to take this by faith and move forward. We have to make the decision that we will "diligently" enter His rest. We have to decide that we will not seek to conquer the "Canaans" in our lives by our own fleshly efforts. He will show us what those "Canaans" are that need yet to be conquered in our lives; and He'll invite us to rise up and conquer them in His power.
But we'd better be diligent to do so—diligently entering into His rest.
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And as a flip-side to that same principle, please finally note that . . .
4. THERE IS A 'FALLING-SHORT' THAT IS TO BE AVOIDED.
The writer of Hebrews looks back to the story of the Jewish forefathers who wandered in the wilderness; and writes;
When we hear God's invitation to move forward into a deeper walk of faith in the work of Jesus and truly enter His rest; but when hearing that invitation, we refuse to do so; we are acting out of an unbelieving and hard heart. We're not mixing the good news He gives us with faith. And that is a very dangerous condition to be in! When we do that, we're basically despising God's rest; and telling Him that we'd rather wander about in the desert! We cannot do that without suffering loss.
Look back in chapter 3 at verses 16-19. There, the writer of Hebrews says;
He calls us to learn the lessons of these Old Testament Jewish forefathers; and not lose the opportunities God is giving us through unbelief—that is, through a failure to take seriously the full spectrum of all the finished work of Christ on our behalf. I believe this backward look at the scriptural record of the failure of the Jewish forefathers is why the writer of Hebrews says what he says in 4:12-13;
The word of God reveals certain problems and challenges in our lives—certain “Canaans” that are yet unconquered. And we also have certain promises in the Scriptures concerning the Lord Jesus Christ that have direct bearing on our conquest of those problems and challenges. "For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him . . ." (Colossians 2:9-10a). "Now unto Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us" (Ephesians 3:20). “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). ". . . His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue" (2 Peter 1:3).
I'm not for a minute suggesting that we won't encounter trials and temptations and problems in the Christian life. In fact, the closer we seek to draw to the God who has saved us, the more we'll encounter them. But our good God permits these challenges to come into our lives so that we'll learn to draw upon our infinite resources in Christ and conquer them by His power. He helps us to learn that there is no problem in our lives that Jesus Christ cannot solve if we will let Him!
But if we choose instead to avoid the hard work of entering His rest; if we choose instead to remain in the same old defeated condition over—\never overcoming our sins, never gaining victory over them, never growing to prove in our lives that Jesus Christ is sufficient for our every need—then the problem is not with Him. He has not failed. Rather, it is unbelief that causes us to seem to “fall short”.
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So then, dear brothers and sisters; this is my exhortation to our church family. In the coming year, let's move on to a mature faith. Through trust in the completed work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, let's go forward to conquer the “Canaans” in our lives. Let's grab hold fully of the inheritance God is giving us in Christ.
Let's strive diligently to enter into God's "rest".
1This summarization is adapted from Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All: An Exposition of The Epistle to The Hebrews (New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1929), pp. 143-4.
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