Old Testament Laws: Entering God’s Rest
In chapter two, we saw that the law given to Israel at Sinai, which includes the Ten Commandments, was designed to last only until Christ came. We saw that Christians are not under that law, but rather are under the law of Christ and are led by the Holy Spirit. Now, we will look more closely at the Sabbath day and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
The question seventh-day sabbatarians have taken seriously is this: “Since the law given at Sinai is the law of God, then why shouldn’t we, as Christians, keep it as it is written?” Indeed, that is the issue at hand. If God commands, his people should obey. But the answer that sabbatarians have been taught is the wrong answer. They have been taught that since the law given at Sinai is the law of God, then Christians should keep it, and since the seventh-day Sabbath command is part of the law of God given at Sinai, then Christians are commanded to keep it, too. That is not the biblical answer.
Articles About the Sabbath
The biblical answer is that the law given at Sinai, including the Sabbath command, was the law of God for Israel (Leviticus 26:46; Deuteronomy 4:13), and it was the law of God for Israel until Christ came (Galatians 3:19). It was not the law of God for all people, nor was it the law of God for all time. It was for Israel; it was temporary; it was in force until Christ, and when he arrived it was transcended and therefore it faded (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). It is no wonder that John, writing some 60 years after the resurrection of Jesus, was inspired to use such terms as “Jewish Passover” (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55), “Jewish Feast of Tabernacles” (John 7:2), and “feast of the Jews” (John 5:1) in references to annual festivals. Now that Christ, the Object and Purpose of the law of Moses, had come, it was clear to John that the feasts of the law were not intended for Christians. They were, rather, feasts of the Jews.
Using the law
The Sinai law is no longer the instructor of God’s people (Galatians 3:24-25). Our instructor is Christ, who instructs us through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). We are not under the Sinai law (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). We are under the law of Christ (1 John 3:21-24). Still, the Spirit uses the law of Moses as one of the ways he instructs us. This is important to understand. It is right to say that Christians are not under the law of Moses: Paul makes that plain in passages such as Romans 7:6 and 1 Corinthians 9:20.
However, it is also right to say that Christians fulfill the law of Moses. They do not fulfill the law in the sense that they keep it as it was given to Israel and in the way Israel was commanded to keep it. But they do fulfill it in the sense of what God was driving at with the law, that is, the real intent and purpose that was always behind the details of the law.
Numerous descriptions of godly behavior, consistent with the law of Christ, which is the law of God for Christians (1 Corinthians 9:20-21), are given in the New Testament (for example, Galatians 5:13-6:10; Ephesians 4:20-6:20; Colossians 3:1-4:6). These descriptions of the new life in Christ go much deeper than the Ten Commandments. They reach deeply into the intents of the heart, where the Spirit of God is at work to fashion us into the image of Christ.
Fulfilling the law
Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment in the law of Moses. He replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
On another occasion Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). When he was giving instruction about Christian conduct to the Roman Christians, Paul wrote this:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
Now we can begin to see what Jesus meant when he said he did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). To put our trust in Jesus and follow him in the life of godly love is the only way to be the true and real people of God (Galatians 3:26-27). Only when we are one with Christ are we in fact walking in faithfulness to the covenant between God and his people, because only Christ is faithful to God. If we are to be counted faithful, we must be counted with him.
Who, then, puts his love in us and comes to dwell in us to teach us? God himself. Whatever God teaches us in person is not inconsistent with the law he gave Israel. The same God deals with all humans in the way that is in harmony with his plan.
So the Sinai law is instructive and useful for Christians, because it reflects the heart of God for his people Israel as a nation. Yet, as we have seen in previous chapters, that law, as written, was specific to ancient Israel. Because it was specific to ancient Israel, many of its details are not intended for Christians, such as the priesthood, tabernacle and temple worship, land rests, dress requirements and seasonal celebrations. The seventh-day Sabbath is another example. That commandment was a temporary pointer to something permanent that has now become available through faith in Christ.
But isn’t it a good thing for people to rest from secular work once a week and devote that day to God? I doubt many Christians would argue against the value of taking a day off and using it to spend focused time with God. But that is not the real question for sabbatarians. Their real question is, “Doesn’t God command us to keep the weekly Sabbath day?” The answer to that question is “No.” God did command the Israelites to keep the weekly Sabbath day, but he never commanded the weekly Sabbath for anyone else.
The weekly Sabbath, as a sign between God and Israel, identified the Israelites as God’s own people until Jesus came. When Jesus came, he opened the door to the real thing that the Sabbath command only presaged or foreshadowed. The real thing is for everybody, not just for Israel. The real thing is God’s own rest—the kingdom of God—and Jesus now invites all peoples to enter that rest through faith in him.
The book of Hebrews tells us that Christians have entered into that reality of which the Sabbath command, now superseded, was only a precursor. God is interested in our entering his own rest, the eternal Sabbath, and his own rest is not a day of the week. The day of the week symbolized the rest God entered with his creation when he finished his creation work, but God’s rest did not end (Hebrews 4:3), and, paradoxically, it was a rest in which he continued to work (John 5:17).
Entering God’s rest
This eternal, spiritual rest is the rest God offers believers, and it is a rest that is entered, not by setting aside one day a week, but by faith, by believing in the One whom God has sent (Hebrews 4:3). Many Christians make the mistake of thinking that the weekly Sabbath was changed from the seventh day, Saturday, to the first day, Sunday. In other words, they apply the Sabbath commandment to Sunday. But the Bible makes no such change.
In the Bible, the Christian Sabbath is not a day of the week. The Christian Sabbath is the kingdom life believers enter through faith in Christ. It is not one day in seven—it is the entire sum of one’s life in Christ forevermore. The Bible is telling us that God invites humans to enter his own never-ending rest, the Sabbath rest in which kingdom work is the only kind of work that is done.
The real thing
While the weekly Sabbath was important and had its vital place for a time, now that Christ has come, God doesn’t want us to be content with a mere precursor—he wants us to have the real thing (Colossians 2:16-17). The precursor hinted at the real thing. It was a sort of glimpse into the eternal rest that God would one day make available through the Messiah. But now that the real thing is here and available, there is no point in insisting that we still need the hint.
Paul was very insistent about this with the gentile believers in the Galatian churches. They were being told by certain Jews that they could not belong to the people of God unless they were circumcised and kept the law. Paul says, “Not so!” To be bound to the Sinai law is to be not bound to Christ.
The law cannot save. It can only declare that all are sinners (Galatians 3:19). Its role is ended (verses 23-25). Believers are bound to Christ, and not to the law of Moses (4:24-31). The two do not match; they are not on the same level (5:2-6). One supplants the other. The old must fade away in favor of the new (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The tree cannot grow unless the seed dies and sprouts. The glory of the second is so much greater than the glory of the first that the first has no glory in comparison. The law of Christ supplants the law of Moses (John 1:17).
Whole counsel of God
The whole counsel of God in the light of Christ regarding the Sabbath is that God’s rest is no mere 24-hour day, but rather it is eternal life—the life of the new creation in Christ. It is entered in the here and now through faith in the Son of God (Colossians 1:13-14), and after death, we will enjoy it forever with glorified bodies like that of Christ (Philippians 3:21) doing the works of God in union and harmony with him in a new heavens and new earth.
That is one reason it is so empty to insist that the weekly Sabbath day commandment is still in effect. To do so is the same thing as saying that we don’t believe that the real rest is now available. It amounts to the same thing as insisting that the sacrificial commands are still in effect, or that the clean and unclean meat laws and other purity laws are still in effect. To say that would be like saying that we don’t believe the real sacrifice has been made, or that the real cleansing has happened.
It is a little like telling the bus driver that I still need the bus token to remind me that there really is a bus and that I am really on the bus. “But I can’t let you on the bus unless you give me the token,” the driver would say. “If I give you back the token you will have to get off the bus. That token has no other purpose but to get you on the bus. Now that you are on, that token is canceled.” (It’s only an analogy; if it helps, great; if it doesn’t, toss it.)
Sabbatarians fully understand the point about the sacrifices. They know that the sacrificial commands are made obsolete by the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God. But the concept that the real rest is now available through Jesus to all who believe is not something they are prepared to accept. One reason is that many sabbatarian teachers have missed the point of the book of Hebrews, especially in its discussion of the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God.
The rest that remains
A reading of Hebrews 3 and 4 shows us that the Israelites who died in the wilderness did not enter the rest God had for them in the land of promise. The reason they did not enter that rest was that they did not believe the promise of God (Hebrews 3:19). The story in Numbers 13 and 14 and Psalm 95 shows us that they did not believe that God could and would do what he said he would do for them. They did not believe that God would rout the Canaanites before them and give them the land. They didn’t trust him.
Using this story of Israelite unbelief as its illustration, Hebrews 3:12 warns Christians, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” The point is made plainly that trust in God is required in order to enter God’s promised rest. The specific disobedience that God’s people are being warned about here is the disobedience of unbelief or lack of faith.
Further, the specific faith being called for in the book of Hebrews is faith in Jesus Christ for salvation (Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:1, 14; 10:19-23). And there is something else we should notice. The Promised Land of the Israelites is called God’s rest (Hebrews 3:11, 18).
The weekly Sabbath day pictured and pointed to a future rest far bigger than one day a week—even for ancient Israel. It pointed toward the “rest” of entering, possessing and dwelling in the Promised Land. But there is an even bigger surprise. That rest of dwelling safely in the Promised Land, the rest at last entered only by those Israelites who believed God, was not even the final rest. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day” (Hebrews 4:8). There was still a rest for the people of God, a final rest that all previous rests could only point toward.
“Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (Hebrews 4:1). Who enters this final and greatest rest? “Now we who have believed enter that rest…” (verse 3). How can our entrance into that rest be challenged? By following the Israelite example of the disobedience of unbelief (verse 11).
God set a certain day for ancient Israel under Joshua, calling it “Today,” when they could through faith enter the rest he had prepared for them in the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:7-11). The previous generation had not been allowed to enter because of their unbelief.
Later, through the words of David, God set another day, also calling it “Today,” when the people of God who would believe him could enter the rest prepared for them (4:7). The Sabbath-rest that remains for the people of God (4:9) is a rest entered through faith in Christ, and it consists of eternal salvation. It is God’s rest. It is the kingdom of heaven, the reign of Christ. We do not enter it through our own works (4:10), but through faith (4:3).
Coming to the point
What is the point, then, of this passage in Hebrews about entering God’s rest? Anytime we read a “Therefore” in Scripture we should read carefully what precedes it, because the “therefore” is the point of what has come before. Hebrews 4:14 reads, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” The whole point of the discussion about rest is that we hold firmly to faith in Christ.
It is the point of the whole Bible: Believe in Jesus. The point of Hebrews 4 is not that the weekly Sabbath commandment given to ancient Israel is binding on Christians, as sabbatarian teachers try to say. Such a concept as that works against the entire message of the Bible. The Messiah has come. The shadowy figures have been obliterated by the brightness of the noonday sun.
Loss of rest
When God finished the work of creation, he took rest in the good things he had made (Genesis 2:2; 3:8), and he gave Adam and Eve rest with him in the Garden (Genesis 2:8-9). It did not take painful toil to make the garden produce. They simply enjoyed its fruit as they took care of the ever abundant Garden, and rested in the joy of their free and unrestricted communion with God.
But then sin entered, and with it alienation from God (Genesis 3:1-10). Adam and Eve were no longer at rest with God. They were expelled from the Garden and had to live by the sweat of their brow (Genesis 3:17-19). In due time, God called Abraham and promised him that his descendants would one day inherit the land God showed him (Genesis 15:12-21). And much more than that, God promised Abraham that through his seed, everybody in the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8).
Some 430 years later, God sent Moses to lead those descendants out of Egypt, where they had become slaves, into the Promised Land. Through Moses, God made a covenant with them in the Sinai desert (Deuteronomy 4:13; 9:11).
Entering the rest
The sign of the covenant was the weekly Sabbath day (Exodus 31:13). Every seventh day, the people of Israel were to rest from physical labor (Exodus 20:8-10). They would remember that God created everything there is, and that there was once a time when humans were at rest with God in his creation (Exodus 20:11-12). They would remember that humans rejected God’s reign over them and became alienated from him.
The Israelites would also remember that they had been slaves in Egypt, crying out under forced labor with no rest (Deuteronomy 5:15). By resting from work on the seventh day, the Israelites experienced a taste of the divine rest—what life would be like if humans believed God and trusted in him for everything, if they were again at rest with their Creator.
The weekly Sabbath was the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. The body and blood of Jesus Christ are the sign of God’s covenant with everyone who believes the gospel (John 6:53-57; Luke 22:19-20; Hebrews 10:19-20). The weekly Sabbath was a foretaste of the divine rest in Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). Through faith in him, we enter the divine rest (Hebrews 4:3).
Jesus is greater
In order for Israel to remain in the Promised Land, they had to continue to honor the Sabbath day (Isaiah 58:13-14). So, one might reason, doesn’t it make sense that in order for us to remain in possession of eternal life in the here and now kingdom of God, we should also continue to keep the Sabbath day? No, it doesn’t. We have possession of the gift of eternal life only one way—by faith in Jesus Christ.
That is precisely the point of Hebrews. In Christ, God has made a new covenant with humans. It is so much greater than the old one, that everything that came before is both taken up in it and completely transcended by it, so much so that the former covenant and everything that pertained to it are now obsolete (Hebrews 8:6-13). The book of Hebrews is a declaration of the utter superiority of Jesus Christ to everything anybody had ever thought to put religious stock or value in, and an admonition to put all our confidence and trust in him. In Christ, all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18).
Message of Hebrews
Consider what the book of Hebrews tells us: Jesus is superior to all previous forms of divine communication (1:1). Jesus is the exact representation of God’s own being. He is God’s agent of Creation, the sustainer and ruler of the universe and the redeemer of sins (1:2-3). Jesus is superior to the angels (1:4-14). Only Jesus saves his people, with whom he identifies and for whom he suffers (2:1-18). Keep your trust in Jesus, who is superior to Moses (3:1-6). Christians enter God’s promised rest only by trusting in Jesus (3:7-4:13). Jesus is superior to the Israelite priesthood (4:14-5:10).
We inherit the promises of God through faith in Christ and patience in suffering (5:11-6:12). Our hope is secure and certain because of Jesus (6:13-20). Jesus is superior to the high priests of old, and the covenant he mediates is superior to theirs and has superior promises (7:1-10:18). Because all these things are true, let us put our confidence, trust and faith in Jesus alone, enduring all trials and hardships with our eyes fixed on him (10:19-12:12).
In summary, we find that we, as Christians, have not come “to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire,” that is, we have not come to Mount Sinai (12:18). Quite the contrary, we have come to “Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (verse 22). We have come to “thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.”
We have come “to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect. To Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:22-24).
This is God’s rest, the rest that remains for the people of God, the inheritance of the saints—and we have already entered it. “See to it that you do not refuse the one who speaks” from this mountain, Mount Zion, we are admonished.
Our hearts are strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods. We eat from a new altar, an altar from which the former covenant offers no right to eat. We look for the Jerusalem to come; the former city has no place for us. Our sacrifices are sacrifices of praise, and they are offered through Jesus by lips that confess his name. The fruit of our lives is the fruit of love as God works in us what is pleasing to him through Jesus Christ (12:25-13:21).
The point of Hebrews is definitely not to command Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. The point of Hebrews is to urge and admonish Christian believers to maintain their faith in Jesus Christ despite all opposition and under no circumstances bow to pressure, even deadly pressure, from the synagogues to give up their faith in Jesus for something now weak and inferior that God has transcended through his own Son.
Some Christians refrain from secular work one day a week as a personal spiritual discipline to help them find special time for spiritual devotion. This is fine, but it is not the same as believing that the weekly Sabbath is commanded for Christians. It is also not the same thing as pushing the idea on others that they will be more obedient or more faithful to God if they set aside a Sabbath day. What we choose to do as a personal spiritual exercise is a completely different matter from what is a law for all believers.
No longer does the Sinai law define the people of God. Now, neither circumcision, nor Sabbaths, nor dietary restrictions are signs of who belongs to the heavenly Father’s kingdom. Instead, God has made Jews and gentiles his own people through a new means—Jesus Christ. Paul wrote:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away [gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-18)
Christians are not under the Sinai law, but are under the law of Christ and are led by the Holy Spirit. The Christian Sabbath is not a day of the week, but our eternal rest in Jesus Christ. In chapter four, we will look at the purpose and content of worship.
Author: J. Michael Feazell