About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lincoln Hurst at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on Hebrews.
“Rest” is not an easy theme to quickly grasp in Hebrews. There have been many suggestions by scholars and commentators to what the “rest” in Hebrews 3 and 4 might be, such as, but not limited to, present spiritual rest, heaven, cessation from good works, successful Christian living, and peace with God. However, “rest” should be understood as God’s presence, because it best fits the historical and literary contexts. In order to understand the theme of “rest” in Hebrews, we should first seek to understand how David understood rest when he wrote Psalm 95. Second, we should seek to determine what “God’s rest” means. Third, we should briefly examine some other options presented by scholars for understanding this theme. After having surveyed all of these options, we should conclude how we ought to understand “rest” in Hebrews.
David probably thought that “rest” was The Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 12:9, God refers to The Promised Land as his “rest.” Since he would have been familiar with the Torah, it is likely that David thought “rest” was The Promised Land. We ought to note that it is the author of Hebrews and not David who makes the connection between the “rest” in Psalm 95 with the “rest” of the seventh day of Creation. However, since we see an exhortation in Psalm 95 to not take a rebellious position against the word of the Lord today, there is in fact a notion in David’s thinking that the rest was not merely The Promised Land, but it was much more. The author of Hebrews takes the position that “rest” in Psalm 95 is God’s rest from the seventh day of Creation. But what precisely is God’s rest?
God’s rest is two-sided. In Hebrews three and four, God’s rest is the rest from the seventh day of Creation. God rested from his work at the completion of Creation. It is this rest that caused the commandment to keep the seventh or Sabbath day holy in Exodus 20:8-11, thus linking it with Creation. Donald Hagner notes that the Sabbath rest for Judaism involved much more than a cessation from work, that it was also a day of celebration, happiness, feasting, spiritual joy, rejoicing in God’s creation, and an anticipation of final eschatological judgment (2002, 76). At least in part, God’s rest should be understood in terms of the completion of Creation and the Sabbath rest commandment, in which the latter is inseparably linked to the former.
There are three options scholars and commentators have proposed for “rest” in Hebrews that we are going to briefly explore. The first option for “rest” is heaven. Robert Gundry, in describing Christ as better than Joshua, contrasts the location that Joshua brought the Israelites into versus the location that Jesus will bring God’s people into (2003, 464). Gundry writes, “[T]hough Joshua brought Israel into Canaan, Christ will bring believers into the eternal resting place of heaven, where God rests from his work of Creation (4:1-10)” (464). For our first option, Gundry looks at rest in Hebrews as the place where we will rest with God who has been resting since the completion of Creation, that is, in heaven. However, something more than a place is being referred to in Hebrews. To refer to “rest” as heaven does not fit the context as well as one might like and it is therefore unhelpful.
The second option is spiritual rest. Donald Hagner understands rest to be a transcendental spiritual rest involving “security, contentment, satisfaction, and peace for God’s people” (2002, 203). Hagner understands that the believer enters into this kind of rest in the present because it is the sure position and possession of the Christian, yet it will not be completely realized until the end (73). This option is helpful for determining how a believer can have “rest” now, but it does not clearly identify what it is, nor does it explain the connection between God’s rest and the rest of the recipients. This option simply does not help us understand the text as it is, hence it too is unhelpful.
The third option is the presence of God. Lincoln Hurst proposed in a class on Hebrews that “rest” is God’s presence. This line of thought is founded on the basis that religion in Hebrews is total and complete access to God. Indeed, Hebrews is full of access language. Barnabas Lindars takes “rest” to be a new image in Hebrews for the theme of completion of God’s plan, which is “the state of direct access to God” (1991, 49). Lindars demonstrates that the “rest” mentioned in Psalm 95 is future, so it entails an eschatological completion (49). Since God is speaking in Psalm 95 and he makes mention of his rest, Hebrews turns to the seventh day of Creation and applies it to what is in store for believers when they enter God’s presence (49). Similarly, Donald Guthrie points to “rest” as completion. He writes, “What believers can now enter is none other than the same kind of rest which the Creator enjoyed when he had completed his works, which means that the rest idea is of completion and not of inactivity” (1983, 113). This option underscores a present and future rest that runs parallel to God’s rest from the seventh day of Creation. Since believers enter into God’s “rest,” that is, God’s presence, they too share in the cessation of work, which is not for the sake of inactivity but a result of completion. This “rest” points to the eschatological completion, which is the time that God’s plan of salvation will be made complete (Lindars 1981, 49).
“Rest” as the presence of God fits the context of Hebrews three and four quite well. Not only does it align with God’s rest both in reference to the seventh day of Creation and the Sabbath rest, but it also accounts for the warning passage in chapter three. The author of Hebrews points out that the Israelites in the wilderness did not enter God’s rest, that is, His presence, because God’s word was not met with faith; so it should not be for the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. The author exhorts them to press into the living God and encourage each other every day so that none of them might give up their confession prematurely before the end in the face of persecution. To give up prematurely would be tantamount to having the same rebellious heart of unbelief that the Israelites had, which would keep them from entering God’s presence just as it kept the Israelites from entering it. Understanding “rest” as God’s presence best interprets the theme in accord with the historical and literary contexts and therefore it is the best and most helpful option.
God’s rest has a future function with a present impact in light of past events. God’s rest was The Promised Land for the Israelites and perhaps both The Promised Land and the seventh day of Creation for David. However, for the author and the recipients of Hebrews, “rest” is understood to be God’s presence, which could be experienced at least in part in the present but would be completely experienced in the eschatological fulfillment of time. The theme of “rest” in Hebrews must be understood in light of the seventh day of Creation, the Sabbath day, and the historical and literary contexts of Hebrews. Understanding God’s “rest” as His presence best satisfies all of those necessary considerations.
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