“Until We Rest In Thee”: The Eschatological Nature of New Covenant Rest

This is cross-posted from my old blog, RearViewMirror (whose URL WordPress nicely wrecked). I originally wrote this as a paper for my MDiv at Toronto Baptist Seminary, so I won’t vouch for style or the total drawing of all logical points (!). I’m basically posting it because I wanted to send the link to a friend. The point of the paper was to argue for the ongoing validity of the Sabbath for the Christian church looking at Hebrews 3 & 4.

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The following paper seeks to address the question of rest found in Hebrews 3:7-4:11. The purpose for this evaluation is to understand rest as a present reality that anticipates eschatological fulfillment. The result of this evaluation will have ecclesiastical application for an understanding of Sabbath rest as an indicative and imperative for the church. This essay will first briefly outline the theme of this section in Hebrews as it relates to the topic. An explanation of rest as it fits the structure of the passage will follow accompanied by an application for the New Covenant community.

 

Hebrews 3:7-4:11
Pervading this passage, and the entirety of the epistle, is a theme of exhortation (3:8, 12; 4:1, 11; cf. 13:22). Positively believers are exhorted to enter rest by obedience (4:2, 11); negatively they are warned that lack of obedience will prohibit such entrance (3:18-19; 4:2). Wilderness-Israel’s disobedience is frequently pointed to as the prime example of failure to enter rest (3:7b-11; 15-19; 4:8).
Typologically the comparison between believers and wilderness-Israel is significant. The already/not yet condition of the church is characterized by Israel’s wandering subsequent to their release from Egypt and before entrance into Canaan; theirs was a “between the times” condition. Likewise, the church is comprised of “wanderers” who have been released from sin yet are on the verge of entering into final rest.[1] Richard Gaffin illustrates this well by referring to the church as “the new and final wilderness community.”[2]
Three examples are given to show that true rest had not been attained in the epoch before the advent of Christ. In the case of Moses, Israel did not enter into rest because of disobedience (3:16-19); their “bodies fell in the wilderness” and they did not physically enter the land (v. 17; cf. Num. 14:29). In the case of Joshua, Israel physically entered Canaan although they did not enter true rest. That Joshua had not given them true rest reveals it was yet to come (4:8). David, the final example chronologically speaking, confirms that Israel did not have rest, though his kingdom was established in the promised land (3:7b-11, 15; 4:3, 5 and 7). This does not negate the promise of God to give Israel rest. The land functioned as a type, not the ultimate reality; it foreshadowed the rest to come at both advents of Christ. [3]
Present Rest
That these three Old Testament figures did not provide true rest is significant. Upon reading this, a Jew might have asked, “If Moses, Joshua and David failed to give us rest, who can?” Of course, the answer is found in Christ whom Moses, David and Joshua typified.[4] They could not provide true rest, but the one whom they foreshadowed did.
Verses such as Matthew 11:28, where Jesus claims to provide rest to the weary and heavy-laden, can be cited as evidence of present rest. This is what Robert Murray M’Cheyne, in his sermon Entering Into Rest, called “the gospel rest of a believing soul.”[5] It is a state of being that is the result of the Christian ceasing from his labours to rest in Christ for salvation.
Subtly, Hebrews 3:7-4:11 is Christocentric, as indicated both by its location between Hebrews 3:1-6 and 4:14-5:11, as well as the indicative in 3:14. In 3:1-6, the writer focuses on Jesus as greater than Moses; in 4:14-5:11 Jesus is honoured as the Great High Priest. It is no accident that a discussion of rest is couched between these two great passages. The indicative in 3:14 states that believers currently share in Christ provided that they hold fast their original confidence that same confidence spoken of in 3:6. This is further indication that Christ is the final rest anticipated by Moses, Joshua and David.
As well, the opening of this section explains that believers can obtain true rest at present. In 3:7b-8a the writer quotes Psalm 95, written by David, who says, “today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” The adverb “today” (semeron) points to the current opportunity for rest for the readers of Hebrews, it is the “already” in the “already/not yet” paradigm. Again Gaffin is helpful,

It refers to the time, any time, in which “good news,” “the
word of hearing” is being proclaimed (4:2), in which “the promise of entering
his rest remains” (4:1). It is the time of summons to faith and obedience, when,
correlatively, unbelief and apostasy are present and very real threats (3:12,
13, 15; 4:6-7).[6] 

The point here is to show that rest is a current possibility and requires faith in Christ to be obtained.
The Christ-centred nature of this passage, coupled with the already indicative of the “between the times” tension, reveals that true rest is presently to be found in Christ. Does this mean that the rest believers now have in Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of rest?[7] The answer, found distinctly in this passage, is negative. To quote Hebrews 4:9, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.”

 

Future Rest
As essential as it is that believers have current “gospel rest” in Christ, the here-and-now is not the only facet of rest. Thus far we have argued that rest has an “already” component that is found soteriologically in Christ. Correspondingly, there is a “not yet” component that is found eschatologically in the return of Christ — the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth (2 Pet. 3:13). Therefore, there is still an ultimate and final rest to be looked forward to.
This “eschatological Sabbath” is rooted in two future perspectives in Hebrews 3:7-4:11. The first is the phrase “my rest” (katapausin mou) that indicates that rest is potential and future (3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 5).[8] The second is the unique word used for rest (sabbatismos) in 4:9 that indicates an ongoing form of celebration.
First, in Psalm 95:11, quoted in Hebrews 3:11; 4:3 and 5, God calls the land of Canaan “my rest.” John Murray struggles with this characterization, arguing that it can’t merely refer to the provision of rest by God. Rather, as Murray argues, it is called God’s rest because Canaan is patterned after God’s own resting at creation, “it partook of the character of God’s rest.”[9]
One of the arguments proffered by challengers of a New Covenant Sabbath-keeping is that the Sabbath is not a “creation ordinance.”[10] Meaning, that unlike marriage or labour, Sabbath resting was not instituted at creation.[11]They argue that the Sabbath institution first appeared when Moses delivered the Law at Sinai. Yet the author of Hebrews has drawn a connection between God’s rest at creation and the rest yet to be entered into by believers (Heb. 4:4, 6 and 9; cf. Gen. 2:2). The Genesis account of creation that finds its only quotation in the New Testament in this passage is both prescriptive and descriptive. It is the support for 4:6 that says, “it remains for some to enter it.” Gaffin argues, “as the writer sees it, the fulfillment of the church’s hope…represents nothing less than the fulfillment of the original purpose of God in creation.”[12] Commenting on the eschatological character of the Sabbath found in the Decalogue, Geerhardus Vos says,

Man is reminded in this way that life is not an aimless
existence, that a goal lies beyond. This was true before, and apart from,
redemption. The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the
soteric.[13] 

The fact that “my rest” is intrinsically linked to creation speaks of its eschatological nature.[14] The intended aim of Adam’s test in Eden was to usher in the new heavens and new earth. Because he disobeyed, the adverse course of human history played out as it did. The new heavens and the new earth are now looked forward to by Christians, and will be ushered in by the Second Adam. Therefore, when thinking of “my rest” as creation rest, Christians are also to think in terms of the new creation that is entirely forthcoming.
As Richard Gaffin explains, “‘My rest,’ as rest, stands in pointed contrast to the believer’s present circumstances.”[15] Christians do not have complete rest from sin and will not until they enter the new heavens and new earth.
Secondly, The word for rest that has been used in this section is katapausin(3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 5, 10 and 11). Yet in 4:9 the word used for rest is sabbatismosthat can be defined as “Sabbath keeping”;[16] it is the only New Testament occurrence of this word. The sudden use of sabbatismos has deliberate authorial intent.[17] It may be that a nuance was missing from katapausin thatsabbatismos better expressed.[18] That nuance is likely the difference between a state of being and a form of action.[19] Lane argues that “it appears to have been coined from the cognate verb sabbatizein, ‘to observe/to celebrate the Sabbath.’” As well, its usage in subsequent ancient literature contains the notion of active observance.[20]
The use of sabbatismos points not only to the coming new creation, but also to the current practice of weekly Sabbath observance. But in what sense?

 

Eschatological Sign
The relationship between the current character of “my rest,” the appeal to creation and the ongoing nature of Sabbath-keeping points to a connection between Sabbath observance and the anticipated Sabbath of the new heavens and new earth.[21] Gaffin has called it “a sign of hope.”[22] Robert Martin explains it as a pledge or promise of the final rest that Christians are currently awaiting.[23] Functioning eschatologically, it is anticipatory of the second coming of Christ. “The weekly Sabbath is the promise, token, and foretaste of the consummated rest; it is also the earnest.”[24]
Throughout the course of redemptive history, beginning at creation, the Sabbath functioned as a weekly sign. As a remembrance, it looked back to creation and redemption from Egypt. But it was also forward looking, anticipating the coming Messiah. The church, in similar existence to wilderness-Israel, still has a Sabbath to keep in anticipation of the rest that they await.
It is curious that the writer to the Hebrews does not mention the abrogation of the Sabbath if it had in fact been abrogated. Sabbath abrogation would deeply impact his argument that rest is eschatological. If Sabbath observance were no longer necessary under the New Covenant, it would be necessary for the author to provide a redemptive-historical reason for this. Rather, the Sabbath functioning as an eschatological sign fits nicely into the flow of the writer’s argument that links the Sabbath to creation and the new creation.
Conclusion
The great North African church father Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “O, Lord, thou has made us, and our spirits are restless until we rest in thee.” This is true regarding both the already and the not yet of Sabbath rest. As Christ is true rest, the tumult of a sinful soul will remain until the burden of sin is set before him. Yet, as Christians who are resting in Christ, there is still the destination of their sojourn to arrive at, like wilderness-Israel before Canaan. Until that great Day when Christ returns, final rest will not be found.
As a sign of both the rest currently possessed in Christ and the rest still looked forward to at his coming, the Christian has the weekly, one in seven Sabbath. However it may be celebrated, may it be done with Christ as the focus so that he might receive all the glory. Amen.

[1] Richard B. Gaffin Jr, “A Sabbath Rest Still Awaits the People of God,” in eds. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, Pressing Toward The Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church(Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 37-39. William Lane explains that the church, like Israel, experiences “the tensions of an interim existence between redemption and rest, between promise and fulfillment,” in William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, WBC 47a (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 89.
[2] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Westminster and the Sabbath” in ed. Ligon Duncan,The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 133.
[3] Philip Hughes argued, “[t]his land…was a visible and tangible token which, like a sacrament, pointed beyond itself to a far more wonderful reality…the eternal rest of God himself,” in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1990), 143.
[4] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 104.
[5] Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Sermons on Hebrews ed. Michael D. McMullen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004), 20.
[6] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 38; cf., his “Westminster and the Sabbath,” 133.
[7] Various critics of the so-called “Christian Sabbath” argue persuasively for the “already” indicative, yet fail to do justice to the “not yet.” For instance, see Andrew T. Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament,” in ed. D.A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 177-201. Also, Tom Wells and Fred C. Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, Maryland: New Covenant Media, 2002), 232-233.
[8] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 38. See also his “Westminster and the Sabbath”, 133.
[9] John Murray, “The Pattern of the Lord’s Day,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 223. Fred Zaspel agrees, “This is in every sense God’s rest (Ps. 95:11), his delighted rest in his finished work. The creation narrative climaxes in God’s contentment,” in Zaspel and Wells, New Covenant Theology, 212.
[10] For an argument in favour of the Sabbath as a “creation ordinance,” see John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 30-35.
[11] Zaspel and Wells, New Covenant Theology, 214 n. 292.
[12] Gaffin, “Westminster and the Sabbath,” 136.
[13] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 156-157.
[14] Lane observes, “[o]ver the course of time a distinctly eschatological concept of rest developed…An eschatological understanding of ‘my rest’ in Ps 95:11 is presupposed in v 1 and is fundamental to the exhortation to diligence to enter God’s rest in 4:1-11,” in Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 98.
[15] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 38.
[16] Robert P. Martin, “A Sabbath Remains: The Place of Hebrews 4:9 in the New Testament’s Witness to the Lord’s Day,” in Reformed Baptist Theological Review (July 2004): 1.2, 5-6.
[17] Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest and Eschatology,” 213.
[18] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 101.
[19] Martin, “A Sabbath Remains,” 5-6.
[20] Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 101; see also Hughes, Commentary, 162 n. 67. See also Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2001), 115.
[21] Gaffin, “Sabbath Rest,” 41.
[22] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “A Sign of Hope,” available from New Horizons 3,http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH03/03a.html. Internet; accessed 02/12/04.
[23] Martin, “A Sabbath Remains,” 8.
[24] Murray, “Pattern of the Lord’s Day,” 223. See also Gaffin, “Sign of Hope,” 3 (of printout) and his “Westminster and the Sabbath,” 137.