Working for Rest
What is the “rest” of God that Hebrews talks about? Right now, with so much shut down over legitimate safety concerns, many are living in a pseudo-rest of some grey unending Monday, where work never entirely comes or goes: you just hang in uncertain limbo. So what is God’s rest? Rest here does not mean inactivity or boredom. The original Greek word for rest that this scripture uses is a word that can mean peace, joy, or harmony. Think back to that Jewish word for peace: shalom, which means everything fitting together as it should, in a peace that is not merely the absence of war but the active working of justice and harmony. That’s what’s going on here. God rested from his work on the seventh day of creation, as Hebrews quotes from Genesis 2. But even in that rest, God still actively wills for creation to continue existing, since God’s active willing is what sustains the existence of all created things. Rest here is that eternal rest, the rest into which we all enter at death when our today finally ends as we enter the eternal tomorrow of paradise. So we see the rest of God is a rest from trouble and strife and for cooperatively caring for and enjoying creation in harmony… forever.
But who can enter this eternal rest of harmonious togetherness? Hebrews 4 warns us of the dangers of what our Bible translation calls “disobedience.” I personally find that translation lacking. The Greek word used here is apatheia. It’s where we get the English word apathy, which means uncaring or unfeeling. Apatheia can mean disobedience, but it better translates as unbelief or obstinacy. And ironically, Hebrews 4 is not pointing this charge of apathy and denial from God’s rest at nonbelievers but at the believers who followed Moses. Consider the story of Exodus again. God’s freely-given grace delivered the Israelites from slavery and death in Egypt, yes. But then the Israelites following Moses spurned God’s grace, displayed apathy towards the one who saved them and whom they claimed to follow but in reality frequently did not. These believers received God’s free grace… and then treated it as a cheap thing to use when they needed something and to apathetically ignore when they did not. This is the charge Hebrews 4 makes towards believers long ago… and therefore also makes towards us believers today. Hebrews 4 is not saying that one disobedient or sinful act will keep you out of heaven. No: God’s grace is still forever. But Hebrews 4 does warn that apatheia… apathy towards God, consistent acceptance of God’s gifts and rejection of God’s calling… is a danger that may keep faithful ones from entering God’s promised rest.
I do not want you to needlessly worry. What Hebrews 4 is telling us here, in such grave and frightening words, is that being a Christian is not a one-time deal. If faith was a one-time, check-the-box moment… then the Israelites who trusted God to deliver them from Egypt would have been allowed to enter that rest Hebrews talks about. But instead, Hebrews 4 reveals that believing in God is a lifelong process of rejecting apathy and choosing faithfulness, that being a Christian isn’t a box you check once but a mindset you must choose by your daily actions, words, and heart. In essence, being a believer here on earth is similar to how things will be in that eternal rest. God’s rest is not an unending sameness but rather an adventure of harmony and mutual compassion. Christian faith is not an over-and-done-with single moment but a lifelong adventure following the Jesus who invites us to gather our cross and follow him.
In the middle section of today’s scripture, Hebrews 4 then declares, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” and goes on in similar fashion. There’s a few things again to clarify here. When Hebrews says “the word of God,” it’s not talking about our modern Bible per se, because the New Testament was obviously still being put together back when Hebrews was written. Here “the word of God” refers to the Old Testament—which the original Jewish-Christians of this letter would know intimately—and the gospel message of Jesus Christ. That’s what Hebrews’ first readers would think here. Now as far as I know, nobody in our congregation owns a two-edged sword… or even a single-edged sword. But we all know how dangerous blades can be. My wife and I love to cook, but we have a small kitchen. It can be dangerous when we’re both chopping during meal prep, as that’s two knives potentially going to and fro. So anytime we move throughout the kitchen with a knife, we call out to each other, “Knife coming through.” We sound stupid doing it, I know. But so far our kitchen stabbings remain zero, and having seen what a well-sharpened kitchen knife can do, I’ll take that win.
So is Hebrews saying the Bible stabs people? Not at all! Nor is Hebrews talking about final judgment at this point. It rather has moved on to highlight how scripture can and must convict and persuade us when we go astray. Reading scripture ought to make us feel so seen and understood that we feel naked and laid bare before the Lord. Scripture ought to cut through our nonsense excuses, self-righteous indignation and bitter pride that it feels like joints have been cut from marrow. Hebrews shifts from stories of the Israelites long ago to talk about the Bible itself because it wants us to understand, when we read those Israelite stories, that those stories are about us too. This ancient letter wrestling with an even more ancient text suggests taht each of us is an Israelite in the desert. Each of us is also Moses. We are the characters of the Bible, every single one, in our own way. So when we puff ourselves up with explanations as to why we’re in the right… scripture calls us to humility. When we put ourselves down with excuses that we are not strong enough, good enough or worthy enough… scripture calls us to courage and empowerment. Scripture is indeed a double-edged sword… but that need not be a bad thing. For it can be a scalpel that removes the gross so that only gold remains… if we let it. Its two-edged blade can convict us of sin, yes, but so that we can turn from evil. We all have times when we read scripture and move on, untouched. But Hebrews reminds us that, in such moments, we ought to return to God’s word a second, third or fourth time until we at last find ourselves in the written word of scripture and so find ourselves standing before Jesus, the true Word.
And finally… Hebrews 4:14 through 5:10 give a side-by-side comparison between the priests descended from Aaron then-presiding over the Jerusalem Temple… against Jesus’ claim to be our eternal high priest. Priests in every religion act as a kind of spiritual intermediary between ordinary humans and sacred divinity, pleading humanity’s case to heaven and sharing heaven’s will to humanity. You can think of priests as spiritual electricians handling a live wire: we all benefit from electricity but leave the dangerous bits to trained people. It was similar with priests in ancient times, for back then nobody could approach God directly. Moses in Exodus could not look at God directly. Isaiah’s first words upon having a vision of heaven are, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I have seen the Lord!” Ancient Jewish priests who were to enter the room where the ark of the covenant was held… first had to undergo even more elaborate purification rituals as a spiritual defense before approaching the holiest of holies.
So in the case of ancient Judaism here in Hebrews 4 and 5, priests would make sacrifices at the Temple on behalf of all Israel. Yet because the priests were ordinary, sinful humans, they had to sacrifice for their own sins as well as for others’ sins. But Hebrews notes that Jesus our high priest “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet is without sin.” So Jesus is a better high priest than those at the Temple, because he doesn’t need his own sins forgiven at all. Second, Hebrews says priests do not choose themselves but are chosen by God. Jesus very much fulfills this case, as Hebrews explains. Yet ironically, human high priests at when Hebrews was written did not, as the high priested had been corrupted and co-opted by foreign empires who made the priests into puppet leaders. So while a priest is only called by God, only Jesus truly meets that criteria today according to Hebrews. Finally, ancient Jewish priests sacrificed animals to mitigate the people’s sins. But Hebrews reveals that Christ sacrificed himself for the sins of many. So yet again, Jesus shows himself to be a great high priest, one far above every mortal priest who ever lived. This means that in Jesus we Christians have the best spiritual mediator between us and God, that we have the best go-between for earth and heaven, that we need not fear nearness to the Lord anymore… because Christ works on our behalf as our new high priest.
If the three segments we’re talking about seem disjointed, that’s because they kind of are. The first section talks about God’s rest, the second about God’s word convicting our hearts, the third about Jesus being the best high priest ever. What’s the connection? Truthfully, it’s hard to find one at first. All three pieces are separate ideas that could each merit their own sermon. And all three ideas do converge much later in Hebrews. But I do see one relevant, convicting, and inspiring point from right here in today’s scripture reading: the costly nature of God’s grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor in 1930s Germany who saw how many fellow Christians were going astray, wrote the following in what is perhaps the greatest modern book on Christian discipleship: The Cost of Discipleship. “The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance. And because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? [And thus] cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ… [But] costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.”
Today’s scripture reading in its three parts is a reminder that grace is freely given but dearly purchased. Grace is free because God freely invites us into his eternal rest… but it is costly because the road leading towards that rest is one of repentance and humble faith. Grace is free because the Lord freely gives us truth through scripture… but it is costly because scripture’s truth—if true—will necessarily cut through to our hearts, revealing the secrets we hide even from ourselves. Grace is free because Jesus our high priest intercedes to God on our behalf for us… but it is costly because Jesus is also the sacrifice. Grace is free… but it is not cheap. That is what I see Hebrews 4:1 through 5:10 reminding us today.
What does that mean for us Christians today in America amid COVID-19? Costly grace means we cannot settle for easy answers that make us feel good: we must pick up our cross and ask the difficult questions… not of our enemies but of our own selves. Costly grace means must remember that our prayer is for the Lord to forgive us… as we forgive others. Costly grace means worrying less about whether we have been wronged and more about whether we have wronged others. Costly grace means putting the well-being of others before the convenience of ourselves, the dignity of others before the pride of ourselves, the blessing of others before the hoarding for ourselves. Costly grace means following Jesus down the path of life… but picking up our cross, our execution and torture device, as we follow him. Grace is grace because it gives us life when we were dead, hope when we were lost, because it draws us into God’s rest, because we have in Jesus our high priest. But grace is not cheap. May we Christians in repentance, faith, hope, and discipleship rise to that calling from Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.