Sabbath Rest in Christ: Needed for Life’s Journey (Hebrews 3:7–4:16)
As much as the creation is therefore the good work of God in Christ, there is still a stark contrast between the present broken world and the glorious world to come. In Hebrews 2:5, the author describes his main topic as “the coming world, about which we are speaking.” This suggests that the primary focus throughout the book is on creation perfected by God at the consummation of all things. This is borne out by the lengthy discussion of “Sabbath rest” that dominates chapters 3 and 4.
Throughout the book, Hebrews often takes an Old Testament text as its point of departure. In this case, it draws upon the Exodus story to illuminate the idea of Sabbath rest. Like Israel in the Exodus, the people of God are on a pilgrimage toward the promised place of salvation. In Israel’s case, it was Canaan. In our case, it is the perfected creation. The Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4:9–10 is not simply a cessation of activity (Heb. 4:10) but also a Sabbath celebration (Heb. 12:22). Continuing with the Old Testament story, Hebrews takes the conquest of the land under Joshua as a further sign pointing toward our ultimate rest in the world to come. Joshua’s rest is incomplete and needs fulfillment that comes only through Christ. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day” (Heb. 4:8).
At least two crucial things flow from this. First, life in the present world is going to involve difficult work. This is implied by the idea of the journey, which is essential to the Exodus story. All who have ever traveled know that any journey involves an immense amount of labor. Hebrews uses the Sabbath motif to depict not only rest but also the work that surrounds it. You work for six days, and then you rest. Likewise, you work hard in Christ during your life journey, and then you rest in Christ when God’s kingdom is fulfilled. Of course, Hebrews is not implying you do nothing but work—as we will see shortly, there are also times of rest. Nor is it saying that activity ends when Christ’s kingdom comes to completion. The point is that Christians have work to do in the here and now. We are not supposed to plop down in the wilderness, put our feet up, and wait for God to show up and make our lives perfect. God is working through Christ to bring this broken world back to what he intended for it in the beginning. We are privileged to be invited to participate in this grand work.
The second point concerns weekly Sabbath rest and worship. It is important to note that the author of Hebrews does not address the question of the weekly Sabbath, either to affirm it or to condemn it. It is likely that he assumed his readers would observe the Sabbath in some way, but we cannot be sure. In Hebrews the value of weekly rest is governed by its consequences for the coming kingdom. Does resting now connect us more deeply to God’s promise of future rest? Does it sustain us on the journey of life? Is keeping Sabbath now an act of faith in which we celebrate the joy we know will be fulfilled in eternity? It certainly seems that some sort of Sabbath rest (however that might be worked out in any given community) would be an ideal way to remind us that our labor is not an endless cycle of drudgery leading nowhere, but rather purposeful activity punctuated by worship and rest.
Seen in this light, our weekly work routines—the six days, as much as the one—can become exercises in spiritual awareness. When we feel the bite of the curse on work (Gen. 3:16–19) through economic breakdowns, poor management, gossipy co-workers, unappreciative family members, inadequate pay, and the like, we remind ourselves that God’s house has been badly damaged by his human tenants, and we long for its complete restoration. When our work goes well, we remind ourselves that God’s creation, and our work in it, is a good thing, and that in some measure our good work is furthering his purposes for the world. And on our Sabbath, we take time for worship and rest.
J. Laansma, I Will Give You Rest: The Rest Motif in the New Testament with Special Reference to Mt 11 and Heb 3–4, vol. 98, Wissenschalftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997).