God’s Promise of Rest (v. 1)
It Remains for Us
When our Lord sent out the seventy disciples, he said to them, “I came not to send peace on the earth, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Soon after, he said in a public sermon, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:29). Is it a sword and no peace, or is it rest? Sin rips this world apart every moment. Families are split by divorce; children are abused by violence or neglect; consciences are scalded through sinning; governments gobble up everything by their lawlessness. Scripture proves painfully true – “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isa. 48:22; 57:21). At the same time, there remains the promise of rest – peace with God, sin’s slavery broken, and a clean conscience. It boggles the mind that God would invite rebels to enter into his rest. He found the reasons only in himself, for everything in man screams for justice to strike. Instead, he struck down his Son in our place, crushing him into the dust so that he might raise us up to heaven. Let us love, sing, and wonder, always keeping our lamps lit with the oil of the Holy Spirit of gladness! When we see all the disruption and chaos that sin causes, the only good news is God’s promise of rest in his Son.
It Is Christ and the Blessings of His Meditation
God’s promise remains for us, for the church in the world. Her union with Christ does not free her from having to pass through many tribulations or from being besieged by the same convulsions that are destroying ungodly men and their institutions. God will preserve her, but she must also fight the good fight of faith and learn to take up and use his armor. Persecution is a constant specter. This is all very strange, for did not our Savior promise us rest if we would take his yoke upon us? Why do we feel more like hated strangers on the earth rather than the redeemed favorites of heaven? In this context, God’s rest is not heaven. It is a state and blessing that we enter now by faith (v. 3). God’s rest is not the cessation of external conflict, even bloody persecution. It is the peace we have with him through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). We are no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Because God is reconciled to us and we to him, we have unassailable assurance, regardless of our feelings at a particular moment, that he is working all things for good in his bride (Rom. 8:28). Our Father loves us; our Savior rose to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God. All the barriers to heaven, to fellowship, to his smiling face have been removed. In his great love and abundant mercy, he has removed them. This is our fundamental rest, the peace of our consciences, and foundation for a settled hope in this world: Jesus Christ and all the blessings of salvation he purchased for us by his blood and secures for us by his intercession at the Father’s right hand. Nothing can separate us from God’s love and grace; therefore, nothing in this world can separate us from the rest or peace we have in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:31-37).
It Requires Faith
Many things, however, can assail and disturb our sense of this rest. We often feel that Matthew 10:34 is truer than 11:29. Sin is the disturber of our peace, especially fear of man, unbelief, and the general worldliness that allures our embattled hearts. But remember, the rest to which God invites us is grounded not upon our feelings about our peace but upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. Paul will progressively make this point. The foundations of our rest are immovable – Christ’s perfect and superior sacrifice, intercession, priesthood, and covenant. He has obtained our redemption; he is our peace. In this life, we must walk by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20). The work of peace is not yet completed in us, for it aims at nothing less than the renovation of the entire person, so that we come to live, feel, and understand inwardly and personally the glories of redemption accomplished outwardly and objectively through Christ. Thus, this letter and the present teaching on rest focus upon faith. We must not judge God’s love for us or the wisdom of his dealings with us by carnal sense; we must live trusting him and fighting against carnal security on the one side or fearful withdrawal from him on the other.
The trials endured by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and all the godly through David and the prophets, and supremely in Jesus Christ, unite to teach us this. In the world, we shall have tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22). God tests the righteous. Troubles are unavoidable – in some seasons more than others, in some ages more than in others, in some believers more than in others. God will throw our faith into the fire to remove its impurities and show its incomparable worth to him (1 Pet. 1:7). It is, therefore, as Jesus said, “in me you have peace” (John 16:33). By taking his yoke, we have rest – assurance of forgiveness through his cleansing blood, righteousness through his obedience, free entrance to heaven through his intercession. In these blessings lies our rest – not in circumstances, feelings, or other people – in Christ alone. We must lay hold upon him by faith, close with him, and live in communion with him. He has given us his word, and when we keep it, even if the struggle is long and fierce, he will help and reveal himself to us. The more closely we walk with him, even in the fires of persecution, dungeon, and great poverty, the more his peace will fill our hearts. This is God’s promise of rest.
The Jarring Command to Fear (v. 1)
Greater Privileges, Greater Carefulness
Behind the strong, personal warnings we find throughout this letter lies a grace-gratitude, divine nearness-fear dynamic. It is admittedly one of the most challenging aspects of our relationship with God. On the one hand, we now have the center promise around which the entire old covenant revelation revolved – Christ and all the blessings of salvation we receive through faith in him because he is the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the covenant itself (Isa. 42:6). Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, has come and brought in everlasting righteousness through his shed blood, the blood of the everlasting covenant. There is no condemnation to those who are in him; by his stripes we are healed – and reconciled, brought near to God, forgiven freely, indwelled by the Spirit, adopted, raised, seated, and reigning with Christ. We cannot fathom the fullness of blessing we have in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20; Eph. 1:3). And because of this, we must not receive God’s grace in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). With greater privileges come greater responsibility, and therefore greater carefulness is required. This does not nullify the riches of God’s grace and longsuffering with us. It does not institute a dynamic of servile fear or restrictive legalism in our relationship with God. It is simply that he is so near to us in Christ, so wonderful and merciful, so rich in love, so singing and so preaching and so loving to us, that the thought of turning from him after he has drawn near to us must be abhorrent in the extreme. It is certainly provoking to him.
Unbelief Deadly, Excludes from Rest
The last three or four of our chapters in this letter are consumed with this idea – that since God has drawn near to us in his Son, whose name is Emanuel (God with us), and has brought us near to himself through redemption and the grace of adoption, we have the corresponding duty to walk humbly, adoringly, and trustingly with him. Nothing strikes at the heart of our friendly, reconciled relationship with the triune God more than unbelief. This is not the unbelief of weak or struggling faith, but the unbelief that will not obey and turns away from God. Again we are brought back to the Jews’ unbelief. They had many of the graces of salvation offered to them, but they did not believe God’s promises. He drew them near, but they pushed him away by their stubborn disobedience. And with our greater privileges and graces, we cannot be cavalier with salvation without suffering severe chastening from the Lord. Thus, we are commanded to fear – not the servile fear associated with the older covenant and its ceremonies and ordinances that were actually intended to remind sinners of their distance from the holy God – but the fear of amazement, love, and carefulness. Always we are encouraged to watch unto prayer (Matt. 26:41), to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), and to fight against presumption (1 Cor. 10:12). These warnings are direct and personal to every believer in Jesus. His grace and nearness do not make such warnings unnecessary but all the more pertinent, for we now love him and have the new heart and power to walk humbly with our God and Savior.
Gospel a Narrow Path
In giving us this warning, the Lord is making clear that he does not want us to fall short of the promise but to persevere in faith until the end. This perseverance distinguishes true from false, permanent from temporary faith. Many begin well, as the Jews did when they left Egypt, but their carcasses littered the desert floor. They did not keep on believing. Their root in the Redeemer was not a true one, planted and nourished by the Holy Spirit. If we have such a root, we shall walk the narrow path of the gospel until the end of our course. This is the great proof that we are joined to Jesus Christ in a saving union (Heb. 3:6,14; 6:11; 13:7). The perseverance quality of true faith assumes several glorious truths – that true faith is a gift of heaven and implanted by our Father; that it will be assailed, purposefully, in order to reveal its heavenly origin, value, and power; that it reveals itself especially in endurance during suffering for Christ’s sake or other gospel and sanctification trials, small and great. Our Savior spoke of the way to life as being narrow and having a “strait” gate. It is not an easy path. Yet, God walks with us on this path, and we have nothing to fear from men. Nothing can separate us from the love of God and of our Savior (Rom. 8:31-37). Even more, we know that our sufferings are light and temporary, but even so, they are working for us an eternal weight of glory – but only as we hold fast to Christ in the midst of them (2 Cor. 4:17).
God’s Invitation to Rest (vv. 2-5)
Gospel Profitless to Jews
In this light, we can better appreciate God’s preaching of the gospel to the Jews. Through faithfulness to his covenant and delivering them from Egypt, he revealed his love and mercy to them; in his word, he revealed the way to live in peace with him; he pointed them to the coming Savior, who alone would make them righteous. This was the same gospel that is preached to us. He preaches to us more clearly, for Christ has come, but he was truly preached to the Jews under the types and shadows of sacrifices, ceremonies, even the land of promise, which was a picture of the rest God gives to us, as well as a real inheritance and promise that the coming Savior would rule all the world by his great power. With all this preaching, and Moses was truly the greatest preacher the world had ever known, the word of God did them little good. This is not to lower our estimation of the value and power of God’s word. It is rather to warn us that even if an angel from heaven, like Moses, comes and preaches to us, even if the preacher does mighty signs, it will do us no good unless we receive God’s word in ready and sincere faith, with the desire to hear and obey, hearty repentance, and steadfastness against all obstacles.
God’s Word Gives Rest Only through Faith
Therefore, three things are necessary in order to obtain rest – the gospel – the gospel preached – and faith to receive God’s preached gospel. It is not enough to sit at home and read the Bible. God has appointed the foolishness of preaching to save those that believe (1 Cor. 1:18,21). There must be faith in the heart for the outwardly preached word to profit. That faith is God’s gift. We must ask him for it. The fact that we do not immediately yield all reverence and obedience to God’s word as soon as the text is announced to us and the preacher begins, testifies to our rebellion against God. We must repent of this and ask the Lord to bless us with believing hearts so that his word preached and obeyed is the most precious thing to us, so that with the prophet we eat his word and find it to be the delight of our souls. Then, rather than asking, “When is the preacher going to be finished?” even if he is a poor preacher, we shall instead exclaim, “For the sake of God’s glory and my own soul, please do not stop!” If the preaching of God’s word is his power unto salvation, holy Father, bring your power to bear through this word, so that the power of sin more and more is broken in me through union with Christ, heaven more delightful to me so that my affections are set on things above, and my life is devoted to your praise and obedience.
God Renews the Invitation to Enter His Rest
This is rest – when we receive God’s word with meekness, worship him as all our good, and look to his Son, Jesus Christ, as all our righteousness. Then, by faith we enter that rest (v. 3) – faith makes this a present reality so that we rejoice in God’s grace and feel ourselves to be one with him through faith in Christ – forgiven, reconciled, cleansed, and adopted! This is the rest God prepared from the foundation of the world – peace and fellowship with him (v. 3). Sin marred it all and excluded us from rest. The works were finished. The Sabbath evening was never intended to end, not because the days of the creation week were figurative but because the rest God enjoyed was intended for us to enjoy with him, now and forever. God rested from his works on the seventh or Sabbath day (v. 4), and he intended for us to rest with him. He offered that very rest to the Jews in the wilderness (v. 5), but their unbelief excluded them from rest and from the hope of salvation. They provoked God and were destroyed.
This warning was very pertinent for the first century believers facing persecution – should we draw back to have external peace or should we hold fast to Christ and be hated of all men and scattered through persecution? Christ’s yoke did not look too restful to them. I dare say that it does not look so restful to our weak eyes. The world is growing no friendlier to Christ. The old man of sin has not grown any more tolerant of the new man of righteousness. Satan ever nurses his old hatred for God, his Christ, and for his Bride. Throw on the disturbances of sin that we foolishly allow to disrupt our peace – the little “polite” sins, the spiritual carelessness, and the outright worldliness, and we can see that we need this warning. Wake up, God says to us. Be on guard against the pestilences of carelessness and presumption that stalk you. I offer you rest and peace. I invite you to worship me in Spirit and truth, to draw near to me as your life and joy. I crucified my Son for you. There are no barriers of entry blocking your way to my fellowship. Believe my word and hold fast to my Son. Through him, you enter my rest.