In Hebrews 4:1-11, the author of Hebrews discusses God’s rest. In particular, our ability, or inability, to enter into that rest. This article will look at what the Scripture says about God’s rest as well as what it means for us to enter into it.
Why Did God Rest on the Seventh Day?
The first chapter of Genesis records God’s creative activity during the six days of creation. Then chapter two starts with a note about the seventh day.
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:2-3)
As a Westerner, it is tempting to read this passage and visualize God kicking back in his La-Z-Boy and taking a nap. But John H. Walton, in his book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, provides a different perspective. Walton says that:
“The concept of divine rest can, in turn, be elucidated by ancient Near Eastern literature, which demonstrates that deity’s rest is achieved in a temple, generally as a result of order having been established. The rest, while it represents disengagement from the process of establishing order, is more importantly, an expression of engagement as the deity takes his place at the helm to maintain an ordered, secure, and stable cosmos.”
Walton is very clear that the Hebrews’ understanding of God and his creative work was uniquely distinct from that of the people around them. But they would have had the same cultural background and ways of thinking.
So it is likely that for the Hebrews, this passage represents God concluding his work in creation, and taking up management of the ordered cosmos that he had created. With the chaos of Genesis 1:2 overcome, the cosmos is now very good. And God entered into his rest.
God’s Rest Was Disturbed by the Fall of Man
In the second chapter of Genesis, God established a garden in Eden, an ordered paradise. Within the garden he put a caretaker, Adam, to care for the garden. God himself is in the garden, walking and talking with Adam. This garden represents God’s rest. And humanity, at our beginning, is at rest with God.
That rest is not relaxation. Adam has a job to do in the garden. But he is in God’s presence, in the garden, where all is ordered and at peace. He is experiencing God’s rest.
But in the third chapter of Genesis Adam rebelled against God and was cast from the garden. His rest was over. Now his labor will be hard. The orderliness of the garden was replaced with a world that will require much effort to survive. A world of disorder. God’s rest is now only a memory.
The Sabbath Is God Restoring Rest
Starting with Genesis 12 we find God beginning the work of restoring humanity. He calls Abraham to follow him. Later he delivers Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt and calls them into a covenant relationship. As a part of the covenant, the Ten Commandments are given, including the 4th, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
This admonition to remember the seventh day was not arbitrary. Rather, God gives them a very specific reason to remember this day. In Exodus 20:11 we read, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This Sabbath day was tied back to the creation. Specifically the seventh day. The day when God rested from all his work of creation.
At one level the Sabbath is a time to cease from our own work; to rest. But it would also seem to be an invitation from God to participate in his own rest. To harken back to the garden. To be in fellowship with God, leaving the chaos of this world behind for a time. And to look forward to a time when we can once again reside in the garden, free from the labors of this world, and reveling in God’s presence.
The Promised Land: A Picture of God’s Rest
In Genesis 12:7 God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, a promise repeated several times. In Exodus 3:8 God tells Moses that he is going to bring Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey.
But the generation that came out of Egypt failed to enter into this land of promise because of their disobedience and their lack of faith. They came up to the border and then turned around and died in the wilderness.
In Deuteronomy 1:35 the Lord swore that none of those who had come out of Egypt, other than Caleb and Joshua, would see the good land promised to their fathers. In Psalm 95:11, the psalmist, looking back at this passage, rewords it to say, “They shall never enter my rest.” The Promised Land represented God’s rest; a return to the garden; a land flowing with milk and honey; free from the slavery and oppression they had experienced. But they failed to enter for the same reason Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden; for disobedience.
How Can We Enter into God’s Rest?
And that brings us back to the passage in Hebrews. Hebrews seems to have been written by a pastor to his congregation. And in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 he is warning them against falling away. His warning against apostasy is beyond the scope of this article. But he does make extensive use of the passages mentioned above in both Genesis and the 95th Psalm to make his point.
Psalm 95:7-11 is central to the point the pastor is making. The generation coming out of Egypt repeatedly tried and tested God with their disobedience. And because of that God swore they would never enter into his rest.
In Hebrews 4:1, he comments that the promise of entering into God’s rest still stands. The generation leaving Egypt failed to enter. And even though Joshua took them into Canaan, they failed to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4:78). So there are still those who will enter into that rest (Hebrews 4:6).
So who will enter that rest? The author of Hebrews understands that those who believe will enter God’s rest (Hebrews 4:3), the people of God (Hebrews 4:9). God’s rest first expressed in Genesis, and promised to Abraham and Israel, is still available to all who will believe and cease from their own labors.
What Is God’s Rest?
God’s rest is not a time of relaxation. It is still a time of activity and work. It is a state, or place, where God rules and manages his creation, free from the chaos and disorder brought about by sin and rebellion. It is God’s kingdom.
All who will rest from their own work, the work of bringing your own life and world under control, can enter into God’s rest. We would generally call this salvation. And God’s rest would equate to the Kingdom of God.
While this world is fallen and outside of God’s rest, that rest remains. And the promise of entering into his rest remains as well. So make every effort to enter into it (Hebrews 4:11). Don’t be found to have fallen short.