The word ‘rest’ has several meanings. The primary one, at least according to Oxford, is “cease work or movement in order to relax or recover strength . . . allow to be inactive in order to regain or save strength or energy.”
It can also mean to “lie buried” or “be placed so as to stay in a specified position” or “conclude the case for the prosecution or defense in a court of law” and “an interval of silence of a specified duration” in music.
The definition that intrigues me is “a motionless state” without any activity. I think that comes closest to what the writer of Hebrews is talking about in chapter 4.
That part of Scripture is about entering into the “rest of God” through faith and obedience. This ‘rest’ was missed by those who heard the gospel “but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.”
This rest is illustrated by the Sabbath. In the beginning when He created the world, “God rested on the seventh day from all His works” to set an example for His people. At the time, they interpreted this as a literal rest from their labors every seventh day. No work was allowed, and they ‘recovered strength’ for the days ahead. By the time of the New Testament, this ‘no work’ included rules about not lighting a fire to cook a meal and not walking any distance farther than a few meters.
However, the writer of Hebrews wants them to understand that the Sabbath regulations pointed to something far greater than just taking a once a week break. While important to us, the Sabbath points to a spiritual reality about a ‘rest’ that goes beyond the physical. It is about resting from their efforts or works to please Almighty God. Hebrews 4 says, “For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.”
Joshua led God’s people into the promised land, but this was only a place of earthly rest. Here they had to fight their enemies and work hard to live. By the time of David, a rest was still being offered (see Psalm 95), but because of their stubborn refusal to obey God, they had not entered it.
The rest promised in Hebrew 4 points to that eternal rest often mentioned at funerals as a euphemism for heaven. It also points to the spiritual rest that happens in the hearts of those who cease from their struggles to earn their salvation and by faith have found rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Verse 10 says, “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.”
This is not like God and creation where He made the world, pronounced it “good” then rested. We cannot work at pleasing God for six days or any number of days and get to the point where we have arrived, God says, “Good job” and we enter our rest. We cannot be saved by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Instead, Hebrews 4:10 is about ceasing from our works, stopping all efforts to earn God’s favor because we realize the truth of the gospel; it cannot be done. Working for eternal life is like swimming from Los Angeles to Hawaii. I might get a few meters, or even kilometers, but the distance is too far. When it comes to pleasing God to get into heaven, the standard is too high; I cannot reach it.
Jesus did it for me. First, He paid my penalty for sin by dying on the Cross. Then He rose from the dead to conquer both sin and death. When I received Him, He came into my life and gave me His life, eternal life. In believing the gospel, I ceased from my own labors and entered into resting on Christ as my Redeemer and Savior. There is nothing more to add to that. My salvation is a done deed.
Every week, I go to church and celebrate with God’s people the fact that we are set free from our own works. This day of rest is a symbol and a reminder of what God has done for me in Jesus Christ. The icing on the cake concerning the good news of salvation is found in Jesus’ words at Calvary: “It is finished!”
Indeed, it is. Because He did all the work for me, I am at rest.