The 7th day: work and rest in Hebrews 4

Posted: 28th April 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

Last week I was reading a bit in Hebrews and paused for a while over chapter 4, where the author describes our future prize in the context of God’s Sabbath rest:

[1] Therefore, while the promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear so that none of you should miss it. [2] For we also have received the good news just as they did; but the message they heard did not benefit them, since they were not united with those who heard it in faith [3] (for we who have believed enter the rest), in keeping with what He has said:

So I swore in My anger,
they will not enter My rest.
[Ps 95:11]

And yet His works have been finished since the foundation of the world, [4] for somewhere He has spoken about the seventh day in this way:

And on the seventh day
God rested from all His works.
[Gn 2:2]

[5] Again, in that passage He says, “They will never enter My rest.” [Ps 95:11] [6] Since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news did not enter because of disobedience, [7] again, He specifies a certain day-today-speaking through David after such a long time, as previously stated:

Today if you hear His voice,
do not harden your hearts.
[Ps 95:7-8]

[8] For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken later about another day. [9] A Sabbath rest remains, therefore, for God’s people. [10] For the person who has entered His rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from His. [11] Let us then make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall into the same pattern of disobedience.
– Hebrews 4:1-11 (HCSB)

The thought that struck me was that God rested on the seventh day from his work and He is still described as resting in the days of David (Psalms) and even in the days of the author of Hebrews and presumably even today. This spawned a flood of questions and tangential thoughts that I have no answer for:

Are we then living within the context of the seventh day of Genesis? How does that fit with a literal reading of Genesis 1? What does that mean in terms of how we view God having an active or passive role in the unfolding of our history? Does God resting mean that he has removed himself from interacting with His creation? Did he wind up Creation’s toy top motor and now watches as it winds down, wobbling across the pages of time?

According to the author of Hebrews, God the Creator’s work has been done “since the foundation of the world”. Jesus the Son’s work was accomplished on the Cross and He now sits (rests) at the right hand of the Father, with all his enemies under his feet. The Spirit of New Life’s work is being accomplished in/through the Church. If the Spirit is still working, can a triune God truly be said to be resting?

How does our view of God’s present rest affect our view of what life/work/rest on the future physical New Earth will be like? Will it be a celebration? an eternal nap? or tireless, joyful new work?

For us here and now, the Sabbath rest is a pause, a break in daily activities to stop and remember the blessings of God. The Sabbath was not eternal, it was always followed again by work. Will God’s 7th-day Sabbath end when Creation is redeemed? Is God’s Sabbath the millennium? Is the final judgment the end of God’s rest?

Just a few questions for a Monday morning…

* * * * *

HT: At about the same time that I was reading Hebrews 4, Greg Willson posted some thoughts on this same passage.

  1. TC says:

    Elshaddai, I believe the first Genesis rest that we account is seminal in nature. We see a Sabbath rest given to Israel as the 7th day, and then 7yrs applying to their land, and the serving of their slaves, and so on.

    For example the Puritans had an emphasis on the Sabbath, and even referring to Sunday as the new Christian Sabbath. I don’t know if I agree with that one.

    At any rate, I believe the Hebrew writer is drawing from the Sabbath rest that we see in the OT, to encourage believers this side of the cross of our eternal rest.

    I really don’t believe it is going to be like what the Jews had. I think the John captures it in Rev 14:13,

    “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
    “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (TNIV)

    My two cents worth.

  2. Thanks, TC. I think what piqued my interest in this passage was the statement that God’s rest began on the seventh day and then that we enter into His rest. I wondered if “His rest” was a literal statement or an archetypal description of the OT Sabbath and also of our heavenly rest. The former being a pause in the week (and in the years), but with work resuming; the latter being eternal.

    I need to look at this passage more – I have the shadowy impressions of a real thought flitting through the corners of my mind and I feel like I’m trying to grasp it with large, wooden hands.

    That said, I’d be curious to hear more from you on why you may think that a “Christian Sabbath” is maybe an invalid idea. I was brought up with Sunday as a set aside day for rest and reflection on God and Christ. Work wasn’t forbidden, but it wasn’t the priority of the day either.

  3. Robert says:

    I heard this once referred to as the “Perpetual Sabbath” don’t remember the source, and not even advocating this – just a thought. Maybe someone reading knows where it came from and can shed some light on it. Maybe I heard it at BIOLA in one of there classes??? Man I hate getting old, can’t remember nothing 😉

  4. TC says:

    Elshaddai, I think we both agree that the rest of God in Gen 2:1-3 is seen as seminal for what we read about in the rest of Scripture.

    Well, Scripture doesn’t refer to Sunday as a “Christian Sabbath.” I believe the term is more of a tradition than what Scripture actually says.

    But I do believe we need to pause and reflect on God and what he has done through Jesus, on a Sunday.

    At any rate, I’m looking forward to my eternal rest (smile).

  5. Yes, I agree that it seems to be seminal for the rest of scripture. I’m just curious whether anyone is also reading Psalms/Hebrews literally, e.g. God’s rest is the entire stretch of time between End of Creation and Final Judgement (and beyond). That would put a kink in a literal 7-day creation account by allowing the first six days to perhaps also be of indeterminate length.

    I’m learning to appreciate tradition, but it’s a slow learning process.

    @Robert: thanks for the tip on “Perpetual Sabbath”. I’ll have to look that up later tonight.

  6. Greg says:

    Man, some good thoughts. As for the idea of God resting, I’ve got a few things I’ve been mulling over. Both of these ideas are kind of bird’s eye views, so I guess what I’m really thinking about is what their implications might be.

    1. God resting, but Hebrews still says He is at work. I think this is due to the so-called “semi-eschatological” nature of our current age. The Now and Not Yet idea- we are saved, we are being saved, Jesus says, “It is finished” but there is still much to be done. I think the author’s use of “today” in Hebrews draws on this aspect.
    2. Especially in light of Eden, there might be a difference between priestly duties and royal duties. Adam was made as a royal priest, and I’ve heard the case often that our Sabbath rest should focus on priestly duties (keeping the garden) and suspend royal duties (dominion and dynasty). But how do we separate the two?
    3. Sabbath ultimately reflects what is in heaven. By observing Sabbath rest, we are reflecting the order of heaven here on earth. Now in heaven, everything is in correct order: God resting, Jesus sitting, etc. and all of creation (including the saints in heaven) are waiting for the the new heavens and earth when there will be no separation between the two.

    But it’s hard to put meat on these skeletons sometimes…

  7. Steve says:

    ElShaddai,

    Funny, I was reading this same passage yesterday. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that the original concept of “rest” was not “cease from work”. Rather, God’s resting on the seventh day in Genesis 1 was about “settling in” at the control booth, not taking a nap (have you watched Walton’s presentation yet?). God created everything and then became the operator of the machine He built. I don’t think this implies non-interaction with humanity (a la deism); in fact, because He created the world, and because “it was good”, God has a fully functional and hence wholly adequate system over which He may exercise control. Someone who builds his own budgeting spreadsheet does not typically let it sit on his hard drive without using it for budgeting.

    God’s people were not simply to rest on the Sabbath – they were to rest in Him. Jesus gave an extraordinary example of the true purpose of Sabbath when He healed the man with the withered hand: Jesus did not rest from doing everything, but demonstrated the dominion of His Father over creation by healing the man’s hand. Jesus was showing a picture of the ideal order of things that Hebrews 4 is talking about when the author of Hebrews noted with sadness that not everyone was resting from “his own works” (v. 10) as had all those who believed (v. 3). The “better covenant” of Hebrews 7 being phased in before the fulfillment of the old (8:13) is not of works but of the Spirit. We now rest in the works of God, and share in His dominion as was always intended (Gen. 1:28).

  8. Dave says:

    If you’re interested in the YEC position, here is a decent article on it:

    http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/579

    An excerpt that kind of sums it up: “Hebrews 4:1-11 teaches that the seventh day of Creation Week was a parallel to the spiritual rest found through Christ alone. Only those who have believed in Christ enter this rest. If the Bible was speaking of an actual continuation of the seventh day of rest, then all would already be in this rest. The rest referred to is obviously a spiritual rest.”

  9. Thanks for the link, Dave. That was about as on-topic as you can get! I appreciate the perspective on this issue and will look up some of the footnotes when I get the chance.

  10. TC says:

    @Elshaddai, I take Genesis 1 as literal.

    What do we do with Matt 11:28, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”?

    I do see a correspondence with Heb 4:11 and Rev 14:13. What do you think?

  11. TC says:

    Here’s something I found in William L. Lane’s commentary in the WBC series:

    “In conjunction, vv. 9-10 anticipate the festival of the priestly people of God in the heavenly sanctuary, celebrating in the presence of God the eternal Sabbath with unceasing praise and adoration.”

  12. Yes, I agree that Heb 4:11 and Rev 14:13 are cut from the same cloth, as is the statement by Lane.

    The question is whether this is regarding our present spiritual reality in Christ, as Steve argues, or our future physical hope in the resurrection. Or both in a “now, not yet” scenario as Greg described.

  13. Steve – thanks for the great thoughts. I wonder if there’s a difference between “the creation machine” and a budgeting spreadsheet, in that latter depends on regular input in order for the data to be up to date. Whereas “the creation machine” is guided by the natural laws that God put in place, which don’t require regular attention and input in order to run properly (other than the annoying tendencies of inertia and entropy to cause the whole system to eventually stop).

    Or do you see God as involved “daily” in the hands-on manipulation of creation? If so, how do we separate that from the responsibility of dominion given to mankind?

    Also, I’m not sure about the “rested from his own works” comment in v.10. Am I reading you correctly that you see this as a statement that the spiritual work of man is in contrast to the work of God and we do not enter His rest until we’ve spiritually aligned ourselves with Christ? Vss.3:18-19 would seem to support that:

    And to whom did he vow that they should not enter his rest, if not to those who had refused to believe? We see, then, it was unbelief that prevented their entering. (REB)

    Were God’s works of Creation physical or spiritual? And is His rest, either “settling in” or “hands off the wheel”, necessarily of the same nature?

  14. TC says:

    Elshaddai, I like the “now/not yet” tension in this case. But neither should we dismiss the eschatological new creation, which includes our new bodies (Rom 8:18-25).

  15. Steve says:

    Whereas “the creation machine” is guided by the natural laws that God put in place, which don’t require regular attention and input in order to run properly (other than the annoying tendencies of inertia and entropy to cause the whole system to eventually stop).

    Point taken. I thought of putting it in terms of writing a software program, pressing execute, and allowing it to run. As you have suggested, this might be a more apt analogy.

    Or do you see God as involved “daily” in the hands-on manipulation of creation? If so, how do we separate that from the responsibility of dominion given to mankind?

    And then again, I chose the spreadsheet analogy to avoid the “deism” accusation. I want to make the distinction between having to create physical matter and natural laws and being in control of the affairs of the universe.

    Am I reading you correctly that you see this as a statement that the spiritual work of man is in contrast to the work of God and we do not enter His rest until we’ve spiritually aligned ourselves with Christ?… Vss.3:18-19 would seem to support that:

    Good point, and I believe it does. As I pointed out, the author of Hebrews arguably shows the inception of the rest as a then-current reality in 4.3: “for we who have believed enter the rest” – keep in mind that the Greek here can (and probably should) be translated, “For we who believed are entering the rest…” And then it is spoken of as if already attained in v. 10, “For the person who has entered His rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from His.” Hebrews would align here with Pauline theology’s emphasis on faith over works of the Law quite well. I don’t see how any future resurrected body could fulfill that “rest” from one’s own works.

    Were God’s works of Creation physical or spiritual? And is His rest, either “settling in” or “hands off the wheel”, necessarily of the same nature?

    Great questions! The way I understand it, physical matter was not the issue in Genesis 1: it was the ordering of the functions of the universe that is pictured there. Genesis 1 is the affirmation that God set the cosmos in order. Did He rest from this? Well, I would say so, since He was finished. In fact, some of the original functions of the universe set in place in Genesis 1 are affirmed even after the Flood:

    As long as the earth endures,
    seedtime and harvest,
    cold and heat,
    summer and winter,
    day and night
    will never cease. – Genesis 8:22

    (I strongly urge you to check out the presentation I linked to above. It goes into more detail on the subject of Genesis 1)

  16. Kevin Sam says:

    This post really made me think. To think of the 7th day of rest other than physical rest is almost unthinkable for my traditional theological upbringing too. I have never thought of God’s rest as a stretch of time between End of Creation and the day of judgment, but I do not consider the 7-days (6-days of creation) as necessarily literal either. It might be symbolic of 7 million or whatever years. Moreover, I can’t see this “rest” as God taking his hands off creation and letting it go its course. That would be deism. So I feel that the analogy of “spiritual rest through Christ” makes a lot of sense to me so far. That link from Dave was helpful.

  17. Steve – I’m through Dr. Walton’s introduction; you’re right, it is a fascinating presentation. It’s nice to hear him introduce the topic within the context of ANE culture and deliberately put aside modern theological bias. Thanks for the providing the link!

    Update: finished listening to the entire presentation. Very interesting, though I suspect it would make some literalists’ blood boil. The corresponding concept to think about is whether apocalyptic literature, including Revelation, could/should also be viewed functionally and not materially. The cultural context of course would be different inasmuch as we’re not dealing with ancient myth and legend, but actual recorded history.