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THEOLOGY > God > Work of Creation > The Seventh Day > Eternal Rest


An unambiguous principle is stated by Paul in Colossians: Jewish ritual and ceremonies are said to be “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ” (2:17). In connection with the Tabernacle and sacrifices, the writer of Hebrews states that the priests “serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (8:5); and in 10:1 the Law is said to be “a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things.”

Therefore, it is proper to understand, based upon these New Testament passages, that much of the Old Testament, perhaps all of the Old Testament, is an anticipation and an illustration of the New Testament; in other words, preparation is the essence of the Old, while fulfillment is the essence of the New. This does not deny the historical character of the things spoken of in the Old Testament, but it does affirm that the authentic and ultimate message is in what is portended by the Old Testament events, places, and people. “Shadow” and “copy” characterize the Old, whereas the fundamental nature of the New is described as “substance” and “good things.”

It seems that this principle of hermeneutics is essential for a correct comprehension of the word “rest” as used of God in the Old Testament, and as used in relationship to the believer in the New Testament.

God’s rest in Genesis anticipates the believer’s eternal rest.

When God rested, He rested from His works of Creation. As indicated previously, God did not need to rest, for He was not weary from work. There is obviously a deeper implication and anticipation in this act of God: in God’s rest is a statement of the rest provided for the people of God. It is in fact the very rest that believers will enjoy, a rest initiated in this life but one that reaches definitive realization in eternity. It is provided for the people who practice belief and obedience and do not follow rebellion against the Lord God.

The history of Israel illustrates these spiritual concepts and eternal realities. After the Exodus the people “tested” and “tried” (Ps. 95:9) the Lord in the wilderness on the journey to Sinai, even though they had seen His work of deliverance for them in Egypt. Their additional revolt against the Lord by not taking Canaan at Kadesh Barnea resulted in the Lord’s not allowing that people to enter the Promise Land but causing them to wander in the wilderness and slowly die.

Rest in the land of promise, the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was denied because of their sinful testing and trying the Lord. Of this people God said: “For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’” (Ps. 95:10-11). God did not permit that nation to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan, a land spoken of by God as “My rest.” Hebrews concludes: “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Because of the nation’s rebellion, rest was denied. In this historical event is soteriological and eschatological symbolism.

The “rest” that the nation could not enter appears to be a reference to the Promised Land. Perhaps it was, as well as a reference to the future spiritual rest, the eternal rest. Or could it be that the reference all along was to the spiritual rest, a point which is amplified in the New Testament, where we learn of a rest that awaits the believer, a rest that the believer can enter into in the present age, and a rest that is related to the Gospel and to belief in the Gospel?

Whether “My rest” refers exclusively to Canaan, to the future eternal rest, or to both, it is clear that rest cannot be enjoyed where there is unbelief. Instead of the rest that the believer enjoys, the unbeliever experiences and will experience torment, which is the opposite of rest.

In contrast to the Israelites who did not enter their rest but perished in the wilderness, the author of Hebrews states that if the Gospel is obeyed the believer can still enter “His rest.”

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest (Heb. 4:1-3).

The writer affirms that he and others who have believed have entered that rest. And in the New Testament the belief that results in rest always centers in Christ and His work of Redemption. This is the Gospel that was preached “to them” as well as “to us.” (Note that the Old Testament was not without the Gospel.) For them there was no profit, no rest, because the Gospel was not mixed with faith. But for those who believe the Gospel, who are Embraced by the Gospel, who embrace the Gospel, entrance into the rest is the promise. So, New Testament believers experience in a spiritual sense that which was denied, perhaps, in a historical sense, to the nation because of their unbelief.

Following the episode in the wilderness, Joshua, after the death of Moses, eventually led the new nation across Jordan and into the Promised Land, a place associated with “rest” in the book of Joshua. To be in the land was to be at rest:

Yahweh your God is giving you rest and is giving you this land (Josh. 1:13);

But you shall pass before your brethren armed . . . until Yahweh has given your brethren rest, as He gave you (Josh. 1:15);

So Joshua took the whole land . . . then the land rested from war (Josh. 11:23);

So Yahweh gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and . . . Yahweh gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers (Josh. 21:43-44);

And now Yahweh your God has given rest to your brethren, as He promised them (Josh. 22:4).

But in Canaan in the experience of ethnic and political rest, a historical and earthly rest in Canaan for the nation, resides another illustration and anticipation of a spiritual rest for the people of God. The rest under Joshua was not the ultimate rest; it served as a type, “a shadow,” of the future and eternal rest for all believers. Hebrews makes this clear: “For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day” (4:8). The “rest” of Joshua is not the definitive rest, for the writer of Hebrews states that “He” (God) spoke of another day.

This later speaking, subsequent to Joshua, refers to God speaking in Psalm 95: “Today, if you will hear His voice: ‘Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion’” (vs. 7-8), words attributed to the Holy Spirit in Hebrews. The point is that if the “rest” of Joshua was the genuine and absolute rest, then we would not have the words of Psalm 95, which were spoken several hundred years after Joshua.

Following the time of Joshua, God is still beseeching the people not to harden their hearts so that they will be able to enjoy His rest. The writer of Hebrews concludes: “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (4:9). We live in the time of “Today” (Ps. 95:7); and today His voice needs to be heard. “Today” there must not be a hard heart as in the rebellion. At stake, now as then, is rest. Belief opens the door to rest; unbelief closes the door for eternity.

This future, endless rest is related to God’s rest at the conclusion of Creation; He has been at rest since Creation (there is no reference in Genesis to “evening and morning” on the seventh day; it is continuing), and into this rest the believer is called. The relationship of the two, God’s rest and the believer’s rest, is made plain in Hebrews 4:10: “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.”

To enter God’s rest is to cease from individual works that one feels obligated to perform in order to be accepted by God. If this understanding of the text is accurate, then the rest becomes a rest from the works of the Law that an individual had believed were necessary for salvation and that the individual had struggled to accomplish prior to experiencing an understanding of grace. A rejection of works in the hope of being accepted by God indicates, on the part of the believer, a resting in the finished work of Christ. The believer has ceased striving for an acceptance before God: he has “ceased from his works.” In this sense the believer enters the rest of God, a rest based upon the Atonement that is sufficient to deliver a believer from the necessity of works into the rest of grace.

The text also indicates that the rest of God is entered into by the believer during the present age. But that which is begun in the present extends into the future. After the struggles of this life, the believer’s hope is for rest, an eternal Sabbath of rest.

During the time of earth, the believer is resting but the most blessed rest is still ahead. There is coming a rest characterized by neither “evening” nor “morning”; it is beyond time, suprahistorical, an eternal rest. The believer will be at home with the Father. During the glorious everlasting rest, there will be worship, an unending Sabbath of worship.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me” says Yahweh, “so shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says Yahweh (Isa. 66:22-23).

“The new heavens and the new earth” of Isaiah reminds one of John’s writings in Revelation, writings which describes a time when God will make all things new (21:1-4). If this association of the prophecy of Isaiah with the words of the beloved apostle is correct, then at that time, when all is new, all the believers will worship the Lord; they will come before Him and ascribe worth to Him, the only One worthy of worship. This new order will “remain” and those who are a part of it will “remain”; continuing worship, eternal worship, of the Lord is assured.

From the Old Testament is drawn this concept of rest, and then application of it is made in the New Testament to the believer. In both Testaments there are the elements of Gospel (God’s word) accompanied by promise (“His rest”), with the responsibility and accountability for belief in the Gospel on the part of the individual and a warning of coming short of the Lord’s rest if there is no faith in the Word.

In this association (Old Testament “rest” and New Testament “rest”) is observed the unity of the Revelation of God and the oneness of the message. Agreement is the proper relationship of the two parts of the Canon; they are not in opposition to each other, but are in essential harmony. It is accurate to point out that the New is concealed in the Old, and the Old displays its ultimate expression in the New; preparation is the atmosphere of the Old, while fulfillment is the environment of the New. The Testaments are not to be separated but joined; there is one Bible, characterized by a diversity that leads to unanimity.

For we who have believed do enter that rest . . .
Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest.
Heb. 4:3, 11

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