The Resting of Christ

by Brian Carpenter

(This is Part Fifteen of a series. Click here to read Part One.)

Picking up where we left off last week, we were in the midst of arguing that the change from a Saturday to a Sunday Sabbath is indicated by a careful exegesis of Hebrews 3 4.  I remind you that these arguments are not original with me.  I found them more fulsomely made in Walter S Chantry’s Call the Sabbath a Delight.

We have established that the writer to the Hebrews is drawing from Psalm 95, which itself hearkens back to the wilderness experiences of the Exodus.  The ancient Jews failed to enter God’s rest because they did not believingly persevere.  Those who take the name “Christian” must also persevere to prove that they have not stolen that name.

Now, there is an important point which has not yet been mentioned.  The rest that the writer to the Hebrews refers to is specifically God’s rest.  We see this in Psalm 95:11 and Hebrews 3:11 (“They shall never enter into my rest.”)  We see this in Hebrews 3:18, 4:1, 4:3, 4:5, and 4:6.  In the final exhortation in 4:11 God’s rest is referred to as “that rest.”  The apostolic author insists that the gospel is concerned with men and women entering God’s rest.  As Chantry says, “That rest (one and only) is God’s rest.  It is not achieving their own rest, but entering his.”

It is this fact that leads the writer to the Hebrews to say something interesting in 4:3b-4: “…although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’”

If those who believe the present day gospel are entering God’s rest, as 4:3a claims, then it is important to identify what that rest is.  This the writer does in 4:3b-4.  On the seventh day of creation God entered his rest.  All his works were finished.  Therefore the Lord ceased working on the seventh day.  The chief issue is not inactivity.  If God were totally inactive on that day, there would be no creation to enjoy, for it is he who upholds it in its existence moment by moment, as the Bible teaches.  Rather it was in order to enjoy and receive glory from the work of his hands.  However, he did not intend that he would rest in solitude.  From the seventh day of creation man has also been called to enter into God’s rest.  Man is to share in pleasure and satisfaction of all God’s work.  Man is to glorify God, not for some future personal blessing but for God’s finished work.  Man is to be God’s special companion in the enjoyment of God’s finished work and in giving God glory for his finished work.  It is also important to note in passing that we see in this argument that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, not something instituted at the time of the Mosaic covenant.

The really interesting thing is that Hebrews 4:3 tells us that we who believe the gospel are entering God’s rest which existed from the creation week.  The other really interesting thing is that as soon as the writer notes the existence of God’s rest from creation and calls his readers to enter into it with him, he reminds us of the other words, “They shall never enter my rest.”  In other words, God’s rest was complete from the beginning of the world.  Man was called to enter that rest with God from the seventh day of creation.  Yet because  of sin and unbelief, men did not enter in.  Human beings have come short of God’s rest because of the Fall.

But the writer is not finished with this idea of God’s rest and man entering into it.  4:6 tells us that in spite of human sin, and the resultant failure to enter God’s rest (as illustrated by the perishing of the Jews in the desert) it still remains that some men will enter the rest of God.  “Therefore” (v 7) says the author, in David’s day God calls again to men, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  God has not given up on his purpose that men should enter his rest.

His original Jewish readers would probably have said to themselves, “Of course.  The Jews in Moses’ day did not enter into God’s rest.  They also did not enter into the Promised Land.  The next generation went into Canaan with Joshua.  Therefore they entered into God’s rest.”

“Not so!” says the writer to the Hebrews in verse 8.  If Joshua had given them rest and thus fulfilled the promise that some must enter God’s rest, then God would not have spoken later on, in the days of David, about another day.  It was David, after all, who lived long after Joshua who wrote “Today…. Do not harden your hearts.”  God’s rest was not entered into by following Joshua into Canaan.  But we who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are entering into the rest of God.  It is only faith in Jesus Christ that leads the fallen men of the Old Testament and the New Testament into God’s rest.

The reason for this is clear.  There was never anything lacking in God’s rest.  His works were finished from the creation week.  He entered his perfect rest.  At the time of the seventh day he called men and women to enter that rest with him.  But they could not do so because fallen man’s heart was hard and he was disobedient and rebellious.  The gospel of Jesus Christ provides what man lacks to enable him to enter into God’s perfect rest.  In Christ the invitation to enter God’s rest comes to us today.

All of this prepares us for the statements the writer makes in verses 9 and 10, and the specific statement about the Christian Sabbath.  The translations of this verse are many and varied, and some are misleading.  A closer translation might read: “There remains, then, a keeping of a Sabbath for the people of God; for he who did enter his rest did rest from all his works, even as God did from his.”

This is the first time in the whole discussion about rest that the writer mentions a Sabbath Day.  There remains a “sabbatismos,” literally, a “Sabbath keeping” or a Sabbath observance for the people of God.  Unfortunately, many versions translate this verse “rest.”  Twelve times from 3:11 to 4:11 the writer has used the word “rest” and he has used the Greek word “katapauo.”  Now he uses a totally different word, “sabbatismos.”  The word refers obviously to a Sabbath-keeping, or a Sabbath Day.  There is a New Covenant Sabbath Day.

Verse 10 explains why, and once again at this point many translations butcher it.  A fairly literal translation of the Greek would be: “for he who did enter his rest did rest from all of his works, even as God did from his.”

Many modern translations translate it in such a way as to suggest that the pronoun “he” refers to every Christian.  So for instance the NIV translates it as, “…for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.”

But this cannot be for two reasons.  Never in the context of this passage does the author refer to the believer entering his own rest.  It is always God’s rest that he enters.  Never does a man cease from his own works with satisfaction in them.  Rather he enters God’s rest with God in order to glorify God and enjoy God for His works.    Secondly, the verb translated as “did rest” is in the aorist tense, which indicates a once-for-all compeleteness.  Believers are those who “are entering” God’s rest (4:3) not those who have already perfectly entered God’s rest.  The Christian is one who is in the process of entering the rest of God.  We are in the process of entering the works of Another.  And it is this Person’s activity which is the reason why all of God’s people in the New Covenant still have a Sabbath to observe.

Hebrews 4:10 does not refer to every Christian.  It refers to Christ.  It is Christ who has once and for all entered his rest when he rose victorious from the grave.  It is Christ who has ceased from all his works of redemption as God did from his own works in creation.   There remains a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God, and it has to do with the resting of Christ.   And Christ’s ceasing from his works occurred on the first day of the week, with his resurrection, just as God’s ceasing from his works was on the seventh day.  Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant has become the Lord of the Sabbath.  Sabbath keeping is under his reign and is a part of the life of those who are in his kingdom.  His finished work allows men to enter God’s creation rest.  Therefore Sabbath keeping is on the first day of the week, not the seventh.

Recommended further reading:

Morton Smith: Harmony of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms
R. Scott Clark: Recovering the Reformed Confession
Jon Payne: In the Splendor of Holiness

More articles related to this topic:

  1. Entering God’s Rest
  2. Saturday or Sunday?
  3. To Keep it Holy…
  4. Call the Sabbath a Delight
  5. Peering into the Ark