If you saw the newspapers last week, you may have seen that there was a collection of international jokes and one of them which I think is a Belgium joke, not terribly funny but it was talking about a man who had a machine, pushing coins into a machine and getting a Coke can and then pushing more coins and getting another Coke can and more coins and another Coke can. The lady behind him said ‘you must really like Coke’. He said ‘well, when you are on a winning streak like this, why stop?’
It struck me as one of those happy reminders that one of the kindnesses of God is to keep us from that kind of relentless cycle. It’s part of God’s kindness to put us on a journey so that we are travelling in sequential days and we are travelling with him and to him. It’s part of God’s kindness to do this journey for us.
And the wisest thing of course that we can ever do is to work out what our destination will be and of course it’s the Lord Jesus who makes that clear and makes it possible to have a destination with God forever.
Now the journey in the meantime is often a very difficult one and can be full of lots of disappointments, lots of frustrations, lots of sadness, lots of grief and lots of plodding. And as we travel we get tempted by the surrounds, and we also get tempted to give up the Christian faith, and we get tempted to doubt and fall even into unbelief. That’s because the journey is a difficult journey and as David Cook said to us men at the Men’s Convention this year, we are not in the Garden anymore. If we were in the Garden (Genesis 1 & 2) things would be easy but we are not in the Garden, and it is a difficult journey.
That’s why the Old Testament is such a help to us. I am very grateful for the Old Testament. I think people who have lost their bearings and their interest in the Old Testament miss out on a great deal for themselves because in the Old Testament we are told that the people of God were on a journey from the rescue to the reward – from Egypt slavery to Canaan the Promised Land. They were on a journey, so we are not the first people to be on a journey with God and to God.
I find the whole Old Testament story of the journey of the people of Israel very very helpful because it not only helps me to believe in God because there is an actual, factual, historical, miraculous journey. That persuades me that God is real. But also because it reminds me that I must also be careful because there are many dangers and I must also be patient because the journey is a journey.
The writer of Hebrews is very appreciative of the Old Testament journey as well and uses it as well in his letter in the New Testament to help Christians not give up following Jesus.
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We come to Chapter 4; the writer wants people to follow Christ and not go back to Jewish ritual and not fall into unbelief. It’s a lovely thing when people who have no Christian background come to believe in Christ and follow him faithfully and it’s a tragic thing where people who have been raised with a good Christian foundation to decide that they will give up on Christ because when they give up on Christ they give up on the one who is worth everything and holds everything and has everything and rewards with everything.
So we are travelling through Hebrews as we think about this journey and we have looked at
Chapter 1 – we see the majesty of Jesus
Chapter 2 – we see the ministry of Jesus
Chapter 3 – we see the call to fix your mind on Jesus and to guard your heart so that it doesn’t betray him and rebel
In chapter 4 we are going to look at two things this morning. We are going to try and see the link between today and tomorrow in the Christian life. And we are going to try and see the link between responsibility and grace in the Christian life.
Chapter 4 verses 1-10, we are going to look at the link between today and tomorrow. These are very complicated verses. I am aiming, as usual, to be uncomplicated but I am not aiming to be shallow and I am certainly not treating you as 5-year-olds so that if you wish you were doing some colouring-in right now you know there are classes down the hill for you, but I am assuming that you are ready to work for a few minutes and when you work at the Scriptures, it yields rewards. So let’s look at these complicated verses.
Old Testament people of God travelling to the Promised Land, masses of them never entered into the Promised Land. The reason that is the case is that there was no belief – look at the last verse of chapter 3. You see they were not able to enter because of their unbelief. Chapter 4 verse 1 says ‘therefore (Christian people) since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you is found to have fallen short’.
There is the fresh call – chapter 4 – we had exultation last week, and we have an exultation this week. Last week the exultation was “Don’t fall away”, and this week the exultation is “Don’t fall short – Don’t start and not finish – Don’t fail to arrive” – Chapter 4 verse 1.
Then the writer starts to contrast ‘they’ the Israelites and ‘we’ the Christians and he start to talk about what they did and what we must do so look at verse 2 – he says “we have had the gospel as they had the gospel but they heard it to no value but we have heard it and we believe’. So again look at verse 3 – ‘we enter the rest’ verse 3b – ‘they never entered the rest’. And here is a contrast between what they the Israelites did and what we the Christians must do.
Now before we go on any further, we need to work out what this word REST means – REST. And we saw it last week in Chapter 3, and it is here again in Chapter 4. So I want to ask two questions briefly. What is the REST? And when do we enter the REST?
Well if you look at verse 4 it says ‘somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words” “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work” ‘. By the way, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because he says ‘somewhere’ he has forgotten that this is the very first couple of chapters of the Bible. You remember the writer is not so interested in the precise reference; he just wants us to know that somewhere God had said this. So he says thinking back to Genesis chapter 2 verse 2, God rested, and he’s now introducing us to the subject of the rest of God or God’s rest. And when God rested, of course, it wasn’t because he was tired but because he had finished forming and filling the creation.
And when God had finished forming and filling the creation, he did a remarkable thing, he rested, and he established something called ‘the rest or the Sabbath or the seventh day’. And we know that this Sabbath or rest or seventh day is eternal because it has no morning and no evening like the other days or periods of Genesis chapter 1. So it is an open-ended something – the rest, the Sabbath.
And what it is basically is that God has added to the creation the purpose of creation which is to enjoy him, which is to be in his presence, fellowship, rest, delight, joy. That’s what God has established – he’s made the world, but then he has made something bigger and better than the world – his fellowship – the Sabbath rest.
And the goal of creation therefore is not you see that we would be plonked into the world and have a certain span and collect stuff and hold it for a while and then die – the plan of God is that we would be in his creation and that we would enter not just into the creation but into his fellowship, into his company, into his rest and into his joy.
Bill Dumbrel says in his little commentary on Hebrews “God’s rest always was and always is bound up with the enjoyment of God’s presence”.
Now the first couple, of course, enjoyed God’s fellowship. They walked with him. There was absolutely no barrier, and they lost it tragically in The Fall. And we of course who have been born since are born outside the fellowship, outside the rest, outside the Sabbath, outside the Garden. But God who is very loving and very powerful has found a way and worked a way where people may re-enter the fellowship of God.
And the way God has done this is that he, first of all, taught his people to value this, so the Israelites were taught to value the Sabbath and that rest day, that one day in seven, where they were to rest was of course just the signpost to something much more wonderful which is the fellowship of God, the rest of God.
But also God has done something even more remarkable, and that is to send Jesus into the world to open the door back into that rest or fellowship. And so when he died on the cross he paid himself for our broken fellowship and opened the way back into restored fellowship at his expense offered to us as a gift.
And that’s why Jesus can say in Matthew 11 – slightly prophetically – ‘come to me, and I will give you rest’ I will give you Sabbath, I will give you fellowship with God, I will restore you to God’s company. And when he says ‘I will give you rest’ he doesn’t just mean I’ll help you to sit down, I’ll help you with your shopping bags, I’ll help you to have a good sleep – he’s basically saying ‘I will give you that intimate relationship with God’.
But you see the writer is still in a warning mode in chapter 4 verse 4 because he says ‘well God rested, yes he did, he provided this great gift’ but in verse 5 his people, that is the Israelites, they didn’t care what he was promising, and so many of them missed out. They hardened their hearts, they drifted away, they turned their back on God, they fell into apostasy, and they missed out on the rest.
And the writer is, therefore, urging us ‘don’t drift like that and miss the treasure of God’s fellowship’. So there’s the first thing – what is the rest? It is basically let’s say it’s the Kingdom, it’s coming into God’s fellowship and blessing and rule and joy.
When do we enter the rest? Well, first of all, we need to know that the rest is bigger and better than the land of Canaan. How do we know this? Well, I guess we know this because, in Genesis 2 where we read that God rested and blessed the seventh day, we know that that has got to be bigger than Real Estate.
We also know that Abraham and Moses and many of his people, we know this from Hebrews chapter 11, were looking forward to a city which is not made by men. A city whose foundations are heavenly, so they are not interested in Real Estate primarily either. They are interested in glory with God.
But we also know that the rest is bigger than the land of Canaan because, friends, when did David write the Psalm 95 which is being quoted again and again and again here which says ‘Today, it you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts lest you miss the rest’. When did David write that Psalm? The answer is – he wrote it when he was in the land of Canaan. So it’s a sense in which he has already arrived in the land of Canaan, and he is saying to the people ‘don’t harden your hearts, or you will miss the rest’. So we know that it’s got to be bigger than the land of Canaan. There is something heavenly and eternal and sensational still to come.
So we know the rest, this Sabbath rest, is future, still to come and the question I want to ask you – ‘is it also present’? Is the rest or the Sabbath also in the present? Because of look at verse 3 – it says ‘we who have believed enter that rest’. Does that mean we enter when we believe or does it mean we who keep believing right to the end enters the rest?
Now some very able commentators say that the rest is all future. And this, of course, would fit the theme of Hebrews which is ‘keep going because the best is yet to come’. And in a sense it is quite a comforting thing to be told that the rest is in the future because what it is basically saying is ‘I don’t know what you are experiencing now in the Christian life, and there is a lot of joys to experience in the Christian life but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming – that’s quite comforting’.
However I am persuaded myself (and you need to think this out for yourself) – I am persuaded that this rest, this Sabbath rest is probably present and future. That it is partially enjoyed here and it is completely enjoyed there. And I think this fits in with the whole way the Bible talks, e.g. when Jesus says “come to me, and I will give you rest” “take my yolk upon you” something has begun. It’s fellowship with him, not by sight, just by faith, walking with him, experiencing forgiveness, and experiencing the Holy Spirit. It seems to me there is some partial enjoyment of the rest in the present.
And when you think about the Kingdom itself, of course, we enter the Kingdom as soon as we believe, but we enter the Kingdom in a sense completely when we see him face to face. So I am suggesting that we are in a kind of a happy tension and that we are in the rest when we believe, will be in the complete and perfect rest when we see him face to face.
Maybe this explains the unusual words in verse 10 where he says that we who believe in Christ ‘rest from our works’. Maybe this is a slight illusion to the fact that when we believe in Christ, we no longer are resting in our merits and our trophies and our good deeds because we are now resting in what Christ has done for us. But then of course when we see him face to face, we’ll even rest from our earthly labours in a perfect world.
So there is the first issue this morning. That’s the Christian life – we are to listen to the word today and trust and obey, and one day that word will be magnificently fulfilled in the tomorrow. And you can’t have the today with the tomorrow.
There are some people who will say ‘the Christian life is all today – let’s forget about this pie in the sky when you die, it’s just today’. And that emphasis of the course is very much a kind of a social gospel – let’s just be good and do good and do all we can because that’s Christianity, forget about tomorrow. No, No says the writer to the Hebrews. When you listen to the promises and believe, there is a tomorrow – a huge, eternal and perfect tomorrow.
But also you can’t have tomorrow without today as the pagan world would like. The pagan world says ‘yes, we’d like to be there whatever it is, but we are not listening to anybody today. We just want to have all the treasures, but we are not going to take anybody seriously in the present but ourselves’. No, No says the writer to the Hebrews. It’s the person who today hears his voice and knows that Jesus calls on us to trust him and obey him – that’s the person who will be there in the tomorrow. So there is an absolutely unbreakable link between today listening and tomorrow arriving.
The second point this morning – the link between responsibility and grace. Dalralph Davis tells a story of a man called Henry Rouse who struck oil in the days of black gold in the United States and was so excited that he had struck oil that he instantly and unstoppably lit one of his big cigars. And a tiny piece of lit ash fell into the pool of oil near his feet, and he was tragically caught up in this burning oil, whisked away as quickly as they could get him and he just had time to dictate his will.
Now there is a terrible piece of grace supplied and irresponsibility. And there is an unbreakable link between the grace of God and responsibility, and we see that in these last verses (11-16). The writer says in verse 11 “Let’s make every effort to enter that rest so no one will fall by following their example”. Verse 12 “for the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit etc. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account”.
Now, these verses are invariably lifted out of this passage and are used to give a talk about the Bible, and because they are great verses about the Bible, it’s easy to get the impression that the message is ‘read your Bible’. And somebody has said that almost every dull sermon has only 3 points –
Say your prayers
Read your Bible
Evangelize the world.
So I am going to try to avoid that because I don’t think these verses are just saying ‘read your Bible’. Why does the writer suddenly say ‘don’t give up on Jesus for the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword’? Why does he say that?
Here you are this morning, you are trusting Jesus, you are following Jesus, you are being told not to drift away, you don’t plan to drift away, you do want to make an effort in the Christian life knowing that you are saved by grace, and you are hoping that the Christian life will come quite naturally to you but it doesn’t come. Naturally, it comes supernaturally and then there is some serious responsibility. Why does the writer suddenly say ‘and the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword?
Is the writer challenging you? Is the writer saying ‘God sees right through you’? So be afraid or is the writer giving a comforting word to you? The word of God can get right in and strengthen you.
Notice incidentally that the word of God is not a sword but is sharper than any sword, and I don’t know how sharp things need to be to get between soul and spirit? Peter O’Brien says ‘soul and spirit are virtually identical’ so if soul and spirit are virtually identical to get between soul and spirit something has to be very sharp indeed. And the word of God is SHARPER than any sword.
I suspect what the writer is saying here is that this word that God has spoken and he has given us his word:
is not dull
it’s not weak
it’s not superficial
it’s not bland
it’s not less interesting than a Newspaper
it’s not less interesting than other papers and books and magazines which you have at hand
it’s not ineffectual
it’s not impotent.
I suspect the writer is saying the word of God which has come to us is all we need, and it’s very clear. So we can never say ‘gee God is a bit quite isn’t he, he’s a bit dull, he’s a bit vague, and he’s a bit weak’. The word of God is astonishingly clear and helpful. So we must never fall into the trap of saying ‘gee God hasn’t said anything to me, and there’s no helpful word for me’ because the word of God is so good, so precise, so clear and so strong that we know exactly what God is like and what he calls us to trust and do.
Interestingly he has given us his information (verse 12), and we will one day give to him our information (verse 13). He has given us his word, and we will one day give him our word. We will answer to him, we will report to him on how we have responded to his word. And we who are so privileged to have the word and have such access to the word, we will have to give an account for what we have done with what we have heard and what we have been given.
If that comes across to you this morning as more burden and heavy responsibility, look at the grace in verses 14-16. These are greatly loved verses, aren’t they? We have a great high priest. He is in heaven (verse 14). He is, therefore, able to do astonishing things and he was (chapter 3 verse 14) on earth once, so he knows exactly what it’s like to live here. He has total sympathy for his people.
One old Puritan commentator says “it’s not just that Jesus can sympathise, it’s that he can’t but sympathise”. You know what it’s like when you see a parent and we look at our children, and they have done something dumb, but we just can’t stop loving them – it just doesn’t change.
And that’s the way the Lord Jesus looks at his people. , And he has great sympathy with us for some reasons:
1. He became flesh like us, so he knows what it is like to be in the world and be weak.
2. He has felt every category of temptation, so he knows what we are talking about when we come to him.
3. Especially this, he is sinless, so he has the most sympathy in the universe. Sin makes you hard and careless; sinlessness makes you soft and deeply, deeply sympathetic.
Therefore there isn’t anyone in the whole universe that you and I can go to and speak to who has more interest or sympathy or empathy or compassion or power to help than Jesus. And there’s just something perverse about me and you when we turn away from him and say ‘well he’s the last person I am going to talk to – I am going to ring 25 people’.
Brothers and sisters, this part of Hebrews says whatever you do don’t be so proud as to think you can do the Christian life on your own. Prayfulness is crucial and doesn’t be so foolish as to think if you were to turn to him that he would have run out of patience or compassion or that he would not be able to help. He is the first person to take an interest in your situation and the best person.
If you find yourself avoiding him because you just think you are not good enough, you’ve missed big chunks of the gospel and if you find yourself avoiding him because you think he lacks in compassion, you’ve missed big chunks of the Bible. He’s the best person to talk to, and that’s why the writer says (verse 14) “hold the faith” and (verse 16) “approach him”.
We are responsible, but he gives much grace, he gives enough grace to come into the kingdom, and he gives enough grace to keep going in our day to day journey.
So there is the link between today and tomorrow. Today we are listening, and tomorrow we are arriving, and there is the link between responsibility and grace – today we are listening, and tomorrow we are arriving.
Now friends you and I are going to hear lots of voices this week, some of them we are not going to listen to properly and some husbands are not going to listen to their wives, and they are going to say “yes dear” and they are going to walk off having not listened to anything they have been told because we are good at ‘not listening’.
But there is a voice, the voice of God, the word of God which speaks so clearly and so lovingly and so wisely and so significantly – we would be crazy not to be good listeners.
And when you consider that one day we’ll arrive in the rest which we have only just tasted and that when we arrive in the rest we will enjoy the fellowship of God and the security of God and the joy of God and the comfort of God in deep and lasting ways such as we have never even dreamed possible – it’s worth persevering in the journey.
Father, we thank you again this morning for giving to us in this part of your word the truths that we need and the encouragement that we need and the warning that we need and the promises and we pray that you would incline us in our hearts to be those who honour you and walk with you and faithfully witness to you and serve you until eventually, we see you.
And in all the circumstances and all the setbacks and all the temptations and the doubts and the disappointments and the grief and the hurts, we pray our gracious God that you would help us to keep following knowing that you supply what we need in mercy and grace.
We ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.