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Teaching series from Hebrews

Entering God's Rest

Hebrews 4:1-16

Teaching t04997


It's been four weeks since we studied Hebrews.  Some of you weren't here then, and the rest of you probably need a reminder of what's going on in this letter.

The author is writing to a group of Jewish Christians who are being tempted to go back to observing ritual Judaism to avoid persecution.  His point is that ritual Judaism was just a prophetic picture of Jesus and his death on the cross.  Jesus has fulfilled and superseded Judaism.  So instead of going back to Judaism, they need to keep going forward with Jesus.

To make his point, he refers to an incident in Israel's history which parallels their situation.  Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Sinai to the border of Canaan.  God promised them he would give them this land, and he had them send in 12 spies to verify how good it was.  But when they returned, 10 of them were so freaked out by the size and strength of the people that they warned the people not to go in.  When the people agreed, God called this refusal to believe him a "hardened heart" and he disqualified that generation from living in the land.  Because of their unbelief, they forfeited God's rest (read 3:16-19).

Last time we saw that we can contract a hardened heart, and we learned how to avoid this.   This was a negative lesson, but an important one.  This week, we will study the positive side of this lesson - the prospect of entering God's rest.

Read vs 1-9.  The argument is summed up in vs 9: "There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God."  It cannot refer only to the conquest of Canaan, because the author of Ps.95 says it is still available to God's people "today" - 400 years after the conquest of the land had been completed.

This claim naturally raises two questions: What is this rest?  How can we enter into it?

What Is This Rest?

>> Some think it refers to the next life - heaven.  But it is actually for this life and it is an active life.  There are several good reasons for understanding God's rest in this way:

God had a rest for the Israelites that they could enter into in this life.  Therefore, it follows that God has a rest for us in this life.  Now, this rest was not a siesta - it was a life of victorious battle.  It follows then that our rest will also be a life of battle, but battling with God's leadership and power which are more than adequate to win.

Jesus issued an invitation to a life of rest in this life in Mt.11:28-30 (read).  This is not a picture of inactivity or passivity, but of fruitful labor because of his instruction and leadership.  Like a young and inexperienced ox yoked with a strong and gentle ox, I can learn to work with him and under his leadership.  This is a picture of the kind of life each of us can experience with Jesus in the midst of this life's battles and struggles - if we come to him and learn from him and open ourselves to his gentleness and humility.

This is amazingly similar to what the author describes in vs 15,16 (read).  Again, this is not a picture of total ease and relaxation.  It is a life of effective struggle against temptation because of God's mercy and help.

>> It's hard to imagine why anyone wouldn't want to experience this kind of rest - I know I sure want it.  Yet clearly, not very many people - and not even very many Christians - seem to experience this kind of life.  Why is this?  It is because, like the Israelites, we don't fulfill the condition for it...

How Do We Enter Into This Rest?

>> Clearly, 3:19-4:3a tell us that the key to entering God's rest is faith/belief in God's promise.  But this requires further explanation or it remains abstract and impractical.  Beginning in vs 10, we are given three specific ways we are to express faith to enter into this rest.

"Cease from your works" (vs 10)

This is a theme that the author will develop later on in the letter.  It means to stop trusting in your own good works to earn God's acceptance.  Elsewhere, the author calls these "dead works" because they are powerless to accomplish this goal.  Instead, trust Christ's finished work to make you acceptable to God.

The good news is that we need to do this only once to receive permanent acceptance from God (Gal.2:16).  This is what it means to become a Christian...

Many of us have experienced a tremendous sense of relief and exhilaration when we did this.  The heavy burden of always wondering if you're falling short was replaced by relaxing in the confidence that Christ's work has made the grade for you.  What is this?  This is entering God's rest!

But this rest can fade in the Christian life.  Obstacles loom up which seem to block his provision from our view, and unless we deliberately choose to put our trust in what Christ has done for us, we will lose the rest that God has promised to us.  That's why the author says vs 11 (read).  At first glance, it sounds like he's contradicting what he said in vs10.  If I am supposed to cease from my works, why do I need to be diligent to enter his rest?  This diligence is not the diligence to start trying to earn God's acceptance again, but rather the diligence to keep trusting in Christ's provision even when it is difficult to do this.  In vs12-16, he identifies some of the key obstacles to God's rest and explains how we are to express our trust in Christ in the face of those obstacles so that we can retain that rest.

"Hold fast your confession (vs 14)

Read vs 12,13.  This is a terrifying passage!  It tells us that God sees everything there is to see about us.  Others don't perceive many of our inner thoughts and motives, and we're glad they don't because so much of it is really rotten.  But God does see all of this.  Nothing is hidden from his sight; he evaluates every thought and intention of our hearts.  And as we begin to expose ourselves to his Word (especially his moral imperatives - the Law may be primarily in view here) as Christians, one thing that happens is that God's righteousness begins to reveal to us just how sinful we really are.  When this happens, it can really rock us!  Like Isaiah in Isa.6:5, we can feel undone.  When this happens, it is much easier to believe that God has rejected us, or that he will reject us unless we come up with some way to appease him.

This is what the audience was doing.  They were evidently beginning to go back to the Temple and have Jewish priests offer animal sacrifices for their sins.  Why?  Just to make sure God would continue to accept them.

Since our sin keeps on getting exposed to us by God, it is easy to believe we have to keep on doing something like this to stay accepted.  That's why things like MASS, PENANCE, RECEIVING CHRIST AGAIN, SELF-RECRIMINATION, VOWS, etc. are so popular.  This is also why RATIONALIZATION is so popular - because if I don't acknowledge that I was wrong, I don't have to deal with the terrible feeling of exposure to God.

Instead, we need to diligently do the difficult thing.  We need to deliberately choose to "hold fast our confession."  This means to consciously apply Jesus' complete forgiveness to your present sins instead of resorting to other means (above).

This is what the author is referring to when he says "we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens."   In the Old Testament, the high priest passed through the curtain into the Holy of Holies to offer up a sacrifice for the people's sins.  He did this every year.  But whereas this was just a symbolic enactment repeated every year to teach the people about God's coming sacrifice, Jesus did the real thing once for all (read 9:24-26).

You can choose to remember this and put your trust in it in spite of how much you may feel that God has rejected you.  You can say "Even though I feel like I need to do something to pay off my sins, I choose to thank you for having already forgiven me."   And if you do this, you can experience the same sense of relief and cleansing that you did when you first received Christ.  You can enter God's rest again as often as you need to!

"Draw near with confidence to the throne of grace" (vs 16)

Have you ever asked someone for help with a difficult task and had them respond with exasperation and disgust?  Sometimes children get this kind of response regularly from their parents or their teachers (EXAMPLE: ME WITH ABBY LEARNING TO RIDE HER BIKE - "WHY DID YOU DO THAT?  WHY CAN'T YOU DO IT THE WAY I SHOWED YOU?  DIDN'T YOU LISTEN TO ME?).  How does this affect you?  It makes me want to shrink away from asking for help - I'll either figure it out myself or I'll just quietly fail, but I'm not going to risk getting embarrassed or turned down by someone who doesn't understand how difficult it is for me.

Unfortunately, this is the easiest thing to believe about how God will respond to you when you need help in following him.  The truth is that it can be very difficult to follow God.  Sometimes I experience powerful temptations to compromise my faithfulness.  Sometimes I realize I'm swimming upstream against some deeply ingrained bad habits.  When this is the case, what is the easiest thing to believe?  That God is exasperated and disgusted with me.  And what happens when I believe this?  I avoid relating to him, the very One whose help I so desperately need, and therefore things just keep getting worse.  Can you relate?

What we need in a situation like this is someone who both understands our difficulty and knows how to help me overcome it.  Being understanding makes it easier to ask for help, and being competent makes it worth our while.

This is exactly what is available to us.  Read vs 15,16.  Because Jesus has been tempted in all the ways we get tempted (MAJOR AVENUES), he understands how hard it is and how overwhelming it feels (GETHSEMANE) and he feels it with us (sympathos - to feel with).  Therefore, we can count on him to be merciful to us.  And because he learned how to conquer every temptation, I can be confident that he has the competence to help me learn how to win.

But you must be diligent to draw near to God in spite of your feelings which often tell you it won't do any good, you won't be welcome, etc.  You have to make the decision to openly share your moral struggles with Jesus because he understands, and boldly ask for help because he is willing and able.  The more you do this, the more you will experience his empathy and his help, and the easier it gets to do this next time.  As this becomes a more habitual way of dealing with your difficulties, you are entering into God's rest.


One of our deepest longings is to relate to someone who knows us fully (warts and all), but who still accepts us fully and is completely and actively committed to our good.  To relate to someone like this is to experience the kind of rest Jesus spoke of in Mt.11:28-30.  This is exactly what God offers us because of Jesus' finished work - if we are willing to diligently trust him in the ways described here!