A Sabbath-rest remains for God’s people
Who doesn’t look forward to some time of rest? Whether it’s the opportunity to get away on a longer vacation, or just being able to crawl into bed at the end of a long day, or maybe even just a short break in the middle of the day – to sit down and catch your breath, we look forward and even need times of rest. Life often wears us out. Our lives can be busy and hectic. We deal with any number of problems and difficulties. And so sometimes we need a break, some rest. Sometimes, we long for those moments of rest. What good news the writer to the Hebrews has for us – “a Sabbath rest remains for God’s people.”
For Old Testament Israel, every Saturday was a day of rest – a Sabbath day. Sabbath literally means rest. They were not to work. Preparation for the Sabbath was to be made the day before so that even the necessities – such as preparing meals – would not detract from that day of rest. By Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had really taken this command of God too far and had legalistically dictated just what was work – setting down for instance just how many steps a person could take on the Sabbath before it was considered work. But as Jesus pointed out to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This day of rest was not to be a burden for them – God promised his blessing. God told Israel through the prophet Isaiah, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Not only was there the physical rest, but it was also a day for rest spiritually. They were to spend the day in worship, to spend the day studying God’s word and being refreshed by that word. In commanding the Sabbath, the Lord was teaching his people a number of important truths. For one, he was teaching them the importance and priority of their relationship with him. He was emphasizing how important it was for them to spend time in his word. Every week, they had to set aside a day to spend with the Lord.
The Lord was teaching them trust – that he would provide. If they put him first and gave proper time and devotion to him, that wasn’t going to be a problem for their crops and business. God would bless them. God illustrated that already in the desert of Sinai as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. God illustrated that in the way that he provided food for them. Every day, God miraculously provided food for them in the form of manna. They were to gather only enough for that day – if they gather more, it spoiled. But “On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much—two omers for each person—and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. He said to them, “This is what the LORD commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’” So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a Sabbath to the LORD.”
For us, New Testament Christians we are no longer under the Old Testament ceremonial law. We no longer have to obey that Sabbath. As the apostle Paul tells us, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Sunday is not a Sabbath for us.
But those same lessons that God intended to teach Old Testament Israel are also for us. We too are to make regular time to spend with the Lord and his word. He and his word are to be priorities in our lives. Martin Luther in his explanation to the third commandment tells us what our attitude should be. “We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
The writer to the Hebrews, in the verses before our reading, points out that many of those Old Testament Jews didn’t enter God’s rest. They had the Sabbath. In many cases they faithfully followed the requirements of the Sabbath, even adding requirements to those God had given. But they missed the point of the Sabbath. In unbelief, they didn’t enter into God’s eternal Sabbath rest in heaven. They missed the point of the Sabbath – they looked to their own good works, their keeping of the Sabbath requirements as a reason for God’s blessing instead of recognizing the picture of the Savior who alone could give true rest. For those Jews that had been at Mount Sinai, most of them never entered into the promised land of Canaan. Because of their sin and rebellion, they died in the desert.
The danger is there for us as well. We get so busy and lose our focus on the most important spiritual matters. How easily we are distracted by all the things of this world. How easily our focus is not on the Lord and his word, but on the things of this life. Even if outwardly we look good – like the Pharisees of Jesus day, what about our hearts. How easy, even when in church to have our minds wander elsewhere. How often don’t we hurry through our devotion or Bible reading to get on with other things so that we give it little thought?
Notice what the writer tells us about God and his word – “the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” God’s word goes beyond the outward appearance and cuts to the heart. Just going through the motions isn’t what God wants and demands. He is concerned about the attitude. He wants our hearts and minds devoted to him. We can’t hide from God. We can’t hide our sins – even if we can hide it from everyone else.
And God is serious about sin. He is serious about being number one in our lives. God was serious about his people obeying the Sabbath. In Numbers 15 we are told, “While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.”
God is serious about sin. He demands that we as well place him number one and obey his commands perfectly. We fail miserably. If we were to try to carry the burden of our sins and guilt, that would be a load that would crush us. We could never carry our sins or make payment for our guilt. Every day we only add to that burden. How we need rest for our weary souls.
And God gives that rest. The word of God is also living and effective to work faith and give forgiveness and life. The apostle Paul confesses, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” God’s powerful and effective word directs us to our Savior.
The Sabbath day was never intended to be a mere outward day of rest. God was never looking for simply a legalistic observance. The true meaning of the Sabbath is found in the forgiveness, the rest from sin, which Christ Jesus would secure for us and all people. The true meaning of the Sabbath is the rest we have in Christ – now with the peace of sins forgiven, and ultimately in eternal rest in heaven.
So the writer to the Hebrews reminds us we do have a Sabbath-rest – because we have a Great High Priest. In fact, a High Priest far superior to any other priest – the only one who truly can be called GREAT. In the Old Testament, the priests were charged with bringing the many sacrifices which God required. The greatest of those sacrifices were the ones made on the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest passed through the Holy Place in the tabernacle and entered in the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The Ark of the Covenant was the special symbol of God’s presence among his people. Only once a year, only on the Day of Atonement, was anyone allowed to enter the Most Holy Place. And only the high priest was allowed to do that. He entered with the blood of sacrifice and that blood was sprinkled on the cover of the ark to cover the sins of the people.
The writer points out how far superior our Great High Priest is. “We have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens.” Jesus didn’t just enter into the tabernacle or into the temple – he entered heaven itself. He brought the blood of his own sacrifice – the sacrifice of himself on the altar of the cross. That blood covers our sins and the sins of the world. The prophet Isaiah writes concerning the Savior, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The apostle John assures us, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Sin and guilt are gone. Our burden is removed. We have rest. So Jesus invites us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
That rest isn’t just something that we look forward to one day in heaven. We are able to enjoy that rest already here on earth. We don’t have to be burdened by a guilty conscience – Jesus carried that burden. We don’t have to be troubled by the burden of the law, as though we have to earn heaven ourselves – Jesus gives us heaven as a gift of his grace, secured by his life and death. We have a true and lasting Sabbath rest. Not just one day of the week, but every day and for eternity.
In fact, the writer assures us that in every trial and temptation, we have a Great High Priest who is able to help. Jesus himself faced temptation himself. He suffered – greater than we will ever know. He knows what we face – and he is able to help. What’s more he lives to intercede for us. So we can confidently approach our heavenly Father in prayer and be sure that he will hear and that he will answer in a way that is best. We can come to God for help in any time of need or temptation. With such a Great High Priest living to serve us what peace and rest we know.
A Sabbath rest remains for the people of God. We know that rest – our sin, our guilt is gone and so we can look forward with certainty to the perfect rest of heaven.