Sabbath also comes with a warning. If we fail to rest, it’s probably because we don’t ultimately trust God’s goodness, and this is a perilous matter for our spiritual lives.
The writer of Hebrews, writing hundreds of years after Deuteronomy and years after Jesus, says, “So there is a Sabbath reststill waiting for the people of God.
For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall.”
The writer of Hebrews uses the Sabbath as a metaphor for spiritual rest. “Resting from our labor” reminds me of leaving The Human Paradigm and entering into The Jesus Paradigm; this is something we must, paradoxically, work hard to do! One translation captures it by saying says we must “labor to rest.”Indeed, what a paradox. It is a labor and a work for us to trust God and thereby to come into a knowledge of His goodness. It’s especially difficult when the things we think areimportant(our comfort, our control, our sense of power) are being stripped away. But it’s this aim—of knowing and trusting God’s goodness despite the suffering of life—that undergirds the practice of Sabbath. When we know God’s goodness, it provides a sort of transcendent rest which no pain or suffering or circumstance can rob from us. Our knowledge gives us eyes to see the eternal all around us, beyond the passing afflictions of our lives.
Israel, the writer of Hebrews is telling us, failed to enter into this rest. He is referring to the grumbling of the nation of Israel in the wilderness, when they refused to trust God and instead lost heart and began complaining.We see the familiar pattern once again: the root of any temptation we’ll ever face is the belief that God is not really good and doesn’t have our best interest at heart—in short, the belief that God cannot be trusted.The grumbling of Israel was rooted in this unbelief, and the writer of Psalm 95 describes this sort of consistent unbelief as “hard-heartedness.”Hard-heartedness, which is a recurring theme of Scripture, is linked to unbelief, which is ultimately at the heart of sin.This hard-heartedness became a recurring reality in the life of Israel, even after entering the Promised Land. The nation may have kept the letter of the Law in terms of keeping the Sabbath, but they missed the greater aim of knowing and trusting God. They “rested,” but they didn’t find real rest. As Scripture makes clear, you can “worship God” with a heart that is actually far from Him.And “worshipping God” with a hard heart misses the point.
But why the grumbling and complaining? Why the failure to trust God, especially when the nation had seen God do such great things?
Because trust is vulnerable. Always. Trust, as the writer of Hebrews point out, takes work. There is a labor to it, what Jesus called “losing your life.”Israel was not willing to walk in this vulnerability and in this labor. It’s easier to turn from God and to worship idols, to prefer the immediacy of something you can touch and see to the ambiguities involved in trusting God. It makes sense to us, and we all do it. Furthermore, life in the desert was hard, and when life is hard, we feel justified in our unbelief. This, too, is a consistent pattern, both for Israel and for us. It’s easy to judge Israel until we see that we are no different.
The warning that accompanies Sabbath, then, is this: a lack of trust will keep us from the rest God desires for us. It’s possible, as the writer of Hebrews makes clear, notto enter into that rest, and this is the heart of the warning. Our whole journey of faith rests on whether we believethat God is good, no matter what; it’s our belief that determines whether we taste that reality or not. Some things have to be seen to be seen, but some things have to be believed to be seen. This is why the walk of faith cuts against the grain. Trusting in the midst of disorientation and when we don’t have all the answers is a soul-transforming choice, especially when grumbling or complaining come so naturally to us. But our souls can be formed through the habit of trust and thanksgiving, and we can thereby taste the reality of rest promised in Scripture. Sabbath is another expression of trust, by which we refuse to enter into grumbling and complaining. By practicing it, we claim—with hope and faith—the reality that God has rest for us.
Hebrews 4:11, KJV.
See Romans 8:18-23.
See Psalm 95, which is heavily referenced in Hebrews 4.
Cf. Matthew 4:1-11.
Psalm 95:8, Hebrews 4:7.
See, for example, Ezekiel 11:19.
Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 15:8.