Rest is the Gospel

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I just emerged from what was probably my busiest month in recent memory. Papers were coming due, a new influx of students for my tutoring business was clamoring for help, family was coming in town, I was planning a trip out of the country, and I had editing and writing to do for the CFC. Everything combined to create a maelstrom of chaos.

I actually wrote my last article to try to steady the ship as my life was spinning out of control. But even though I knew I needed to rest, I still had to ride out the storm. I began grasping for anything to just get me through the month.

And, as I searched for some respite, I stumbled across Hebrews 4 and the promise of rest. I clung to this passage as it formed my understanding of rest. And, in this article, I want to bring you through the mental shift I’ve been having. I know I’m not the only one who has felt overburdened at work or pulled in too many directions. Many of us are just one bad day away from burning out. I want to show you how we can experience the better rest that Christ brings us into.

The Gospel and the Sabbath

The Sabbath could never bring True Rest. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried taking one day a week to stop my work and rest. But the problem was that Monday’s concerns would invade the tranquility of Sunday, and the fatigue from the workweek would encroach upon the Sabbath’s rest. You wake up on Sunday morning, and Sunday night is upon you before you know it. And while one day a week does help provide a sort of life support to get you through the next week, the inadequacy of the Sabbath to provide True Rest points beyond itself to something greater.

In Hebrews 4, the author takes up the concept of rest. Drawing on Old Testament imagery by citing Psalms 95:11, he urges his readers to enter the rest that God has promised for his people (Hebrews 4:3). He explains that Israel failed to enter that rest, but through faith we must persevere to enter the rest.

The inadequacy of the Sabbath to provide True Rest points beyond itself to something greater.

When the author uses the word “rest,” he’s drawing upon the huge, interconnected web of Old Testament theology. If you look at verse 8, the author explains that Joshua tried and failed to give the people rest. That’s a reference to the fact that Israel would have rest in the land of Canaan that Joshua was supposed to lead them in conquering (Deuteronomy 3:20, 12:9, 25:19). The concept of rest is bigger than just Israel not having to work. It’s God fulfilling his promises to Israel. This rest is the eschatological new age where God would fulfill all his promises of rescuing his people from her enemies, establishing his kingdom, and dwelling among his people.[1]

Then, in verse 9, the author makes an interesting move, calling the rest the “Sabbath rest for the people of God.” This promise of rest isn’t just for ethnic Israel; it’s for all of God’s people. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, but all those in Christ are God’s people and will share in the promises of God! That means, through Christ, God will give his people True Rest. He will vindicate his people, defeat the nations, and rule among his people just as Revelation 19-22 talks about! That’s the Gospel. That’s the Good News that Jesus preached and his crucifixion secured.[2] Rest is the Gospel.[3]

And while this promise of rest still stands to be fully experienced, we can enter that rest now! The author writes, “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” The author reveals that people can enter that rest now because he speaks of “whoever has entered God’s rest.” And the author reveals something else. The concept of God resting from his works alludes back to the first Sabbath where God rested from his works (Genesis 2:2). We experienced the Sabbath (resting just as God rested) every day because we have already entered into God’s rest.

The Sabbath is old news. One day a week could never be a shelter from all of life’s troubles. No, the True Sabbath is the True Rest that we have already entered through faith in Christ.

The Rest of the True Sabbath

And while that sounded great to me, I just couldn’t figure out how my life would all of a sudden get more restful. It’s not like I could believe any of my papers away or magically imbibe all of my Greek paradigms.

The True Sabbath helps not only to transform our labors but also reach out into all areas of our lives.

As I thought about it, I realized that I was thinking about rest in too small of a category. We can have rest from anxious thoughts and stress just as much as we can have relief from day-to-day tasks. The True Sabbath helps not only to transform our labors but also reach out into all areas of our lives.

We can rest now by having our physical labor be partially transformed. Work can be toilsome for a number of reasons, but purposelessness turns the joy of labor into drudgery. When there’s no point to work, why even try? But, if we work as kingdom citizens for our Messiah, our work now has purpose since our work is an opportunity to honor the Lord. And, instead of having to strive unceasingly to serve a hard master, we know that our God is a good and gracious king. He knows our weaknesses and does not burden us beyond what we can bear (Matthew 11:28-29).

And, in the midst of our labors, we can rest now with God. We can now rest by trusting in our Almighty God who is remaking and bringing the world to rights. My anxious toil to get good grades is replaced by confident work that the Lord will use my labors for his service regardless of my failures. The mom who agonizes over whether she was enough for her kids today can go to sleep having faith in God who is working all things together for her good. The pastor who wasn’t able to convince the married couple to not go through with the divorce can trust the Lord’s plan and set aside his guilt.

We can rest by being refreshed in our fellowship with God through praying, singing, and reading the Word. We are God’s people, and God dwells in us through his Spirit. When we pray, he hears us. And when we read his Word, we can hear him speaking to us. And, in our communion with him, we can abound in joy and peace (Romans 15:13).

This rest that we can experience now is only a foretaste of the True Rest we will fully experience when the Lord returns, vindicates his people, crushes his enemies, and remakes the world. And, until then, may we rest in the work of Christ.

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[1] Hebrews 4:2-3 hints at this connection between rest and the new age since the author speaks of people entering this rest by faith. This rest has to be more than just not working. Peter makes this connection between rest and God fulfilling his covenant promises in Acts 3:18-21 where Peter explains that this refreshing time of rest where the Messiah will reign over his people is what was promised by the prophets. Other passages that connect rest and the vindication of God’s people and God’s rule include Jeremiah 6:16 and Ezekiel 36:28-32.

[2] Jesus’ Gospel message was the proclamation of the kingdom of God, which is the establishment of God’s reign over God’s vindicated people after he has crushed the rebellious nations (Mark 1:14-15, Psalm 2).

[3] Note that I am not saying that the Gospel can be summed up as rest since rest does not exhaust all the promises of the Gospel. Rather, the gift of rest is given in the Gospel.

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Jacob Haley

Dancer Fellow

Jacob serves in the Center for Faith and Culture as the Dancer Fellow while pursuing an Advanced M.Div at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. If Jacob isn’t tucked away in the library, you can find him running, rock climbing, or playing chess.

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