In my early years pastoring I was constantly sick. When I became a pastor, I had preached only one sermon in front of a congregation, and while I had served as a missionary, I’d never worked within a church. I had no idea what I was doing.
So, I compensated for my lack of knowledge with hard work. I worked so hard my body couldn’t keep up. I remember hoping the never-ending colds would turn into something more serious. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital, I just wanted a week sick in bed so I could stop working.
I needed rest, and I didn’t know where to find it. I was failing to apply to myself what one of my mentors had so often told me: physical brokenness is often rooted in spiritual brokenness. My inability to find physical rest was connected to my inability to spiritually rest in God. In my brokenness, Hebrews 4:11 had an exhortation for me, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.”
In referring to a rest for the people of God, the author of Hebrews is picking up a long biblical tradition. The direct reference is to Psalm 95, which in turn refers back to the wilderness generation that failed to enter the rest of the promised land when they refused to trust and take what God had given them.
Hebrews 4:11 shows the road to rest for God’s people is laid in the rebar and cement of trust and response. Consider some of the Old Testament laws related to rest in their original context. In Deuteronomy 5 the Israelites are commanded to take a weekly Sabbath in an absurd about of detail – God knew that, though Sabbath rest was good, we would choose to trust our work instead of him. After ignoring Sabbath, he warns Israel through the prophet Jeremiah that if they do not dwell in his spiritual rest, he will remove them from their physical place of rest (Jeremiah 17:27).
God called his people to rest; his Law showed them what way was best, but it took serious trust in a subsistence agrarian society to stop working. The connection between work and eating would have been self-evident. If you stop working, you are trusting God to feed you. Keeping the Sabbath was not simply self-care, it was a radical act of trust.
In his Word, God shows us what way is best, but that is not the only purpose it serves. As the Holy Spirit examines our lives through the Word, he reveals where we need to grow and change. The author of Hebrews continues:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:12-13)
God first gives his Word to bring us to his rest, but when we don’t respond, his Word takes on a second function. It cuts us. It convicts us. It shows us where we fall short of God’s judgments.
When God’s Word cuts us, it is meant to break our self-trust and rejection of God. It’s meant to hurt. The language of Hebrews 4 is bone-shatteringly violent. However, God does not leave us broken and hurt. It points us in turn to our great Healer. Hebrews continues:
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb. 4:14-16)
Notice the “Therefore” connecting these ideas. We go to Jesus because God’s Word shows our need for him. The revelation of our brokenness should lead us to a great high priest who can make us whole again. He lived a perfect life in a sin-saturated world so he can empathize with our weaknesses and advocate for our imputed righteousness before our heavenly Father.
God’s Word shows us what is best in life. When we fail to live up to it, it highlights the depth of our sin, bringing despair. At the point of despair, it shows us Jesus, and invites us to return to God’s rest. In him we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence. In Jesus we come before a holy God and find the grace and help we need.
The Sword and the Son give us hope to find rest in God’s presence tomorrow, but it is not simply a future-oriented hope. Think back with me to my first few years of pastoring; overwhelmed and under-qualified, what did I need? I needed to know that I wasn’t enough for the church, and I was never meant to be. I needed to know I was limited, insufficient, beset by sin and weakness. All of these truths are revealed in God’s Word, but I was not living them out.
When my response to my shortcomings was to work harder rather than leaning more desperately on Jesus, I needed God’s Word to cut me so I could stop looking to myself and begin looking to him. I needed Jesus. I needed to know he is the Good Shepherd, he sustains, he convicts, he builds his church. He is sufficient, so I don’t have to be.
I needed to stop trying to make it on my own and start resting in Jesus. I needed to take a Sabbath instead of waiting for my body to break. I needed to cease working and begin trusting God to work. I needed the same rest the wilderness generation had rejected. So do you.
Cease your striving apart from him. God is good. He will provide for your needs. God is powerful. He can keep the world spinning without you. Enter into his rest today, start your day with him, practice a Sabbath, take a vacation. By your life proclaim your trust in the Son’s goodness today and your hope in his eternal rest tomorrow.