Rest Or Suffer

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Most of us don’t like to be admonished, however there are two good reasons for considering this particular warning. First, writers of Scripture including Moses, David, Paul, and the unknown author of Hebrews highlight it. Second, it taught me something about my relationship to God and His love for me that I hadn’t realized and I’m hoping God’s spirit will use this sermon to make you aware of it too.

Consider Jesus

The text of this warning is contained in the 3rd and 4th chapters of Hebrews. The book has three main divisions. The first ends with verse 13 of chapter 4 and is itself composed of three sections. Hebrews 3:1-2 introduces the third section and is the hinge around which the first division revolves.
Therefore, holy brethren, sharers in a heavenly calling, you must give careful consideration to the Apostle and High Priest of our calling, Jesus, who was faithful to the one who called Him like Moses was in all God’s house. (My Translation)
The word Apostle refers to the first section where Jesus is extolled as the eternal being who created, sustains, owns and eventually replaces all that we know as the physical universe. In becoming human He became God’s Apostle, His ultimate messenger to humanity. “High Priest” links to the Second section where it is explained that Jesus is the perfect High Priest who offered His own life blood to satisfy the debt of life the rest of humanity owed God making reconciliation with God is possible and who is the ultimate compassionate shepherd of all who heed God’s call to be reconciled with Him.

The crucial thought of the book’s first division:

For those who have accepted His call to become children of God, the supreme nature of the messenger sent to us and the supreme actions He performed and still performs on our behalf must summon something more than acceptance from us if we are to live the rest our days in this world as God intends. We are not recommended but commanded to intently and carefully examine one thing in Jesus’ character that the author is going to admonish us to copy.

Faithfulness

Now I know you’re thinking “I’ve heard this before.” If I were hearing this for the first time I would think the same way. My first thought would be that faithfulness is about consistency in moral Living, attending church, giving, reading scripture, praying, serving, witnessing and loving. You know the list that most preachers keep telling us about. But the author wants us to be faithful at something much more personal, something without which Christians can displease God in spite of being faithful in these other activities. God is so adamant that we become faithful at this one thing that after spending the first 38 verses of the book lifting our hearts and minds to worship Jesus, the very next thing he does is shake a stern finger of threat right in our faces so we won’t miss it. He wants to wake us up out of religious lethargy so we will sit up and take note that He has something essential for every true Christian to do. That finger shaking in our face is the warning section of Psalm 95 quoted in Hebrews 3:7-11
“Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried me by testing me, and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘they always go astray in their heart, and they did not know my ways’; as I swore in my wrath, ‘they shall not enter my rest.’ “
This is the central text for this section of his sermon. But doesn’t it seem an odd one to aim at Christians? It isn’t so odd if we understand that the first Christians to hear it were Jewish people thoroughly familiar with the history it mentions. Ah! So we need to become familiar with that history if we are going to understand this. Exodus 17 contains one of the conflicts this text alludes to. Two months after waving goodbye to the drowned Egyptian army the people of Israel ran out of food and after God promised them a daily supply of the miraculous Manna, they trudged on until the water ran out. We pick up the story in Exodus 17:1-17:
Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim [ref-ee-deem’], and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.” 5 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:1–7 (NASB95) )
Massah means testing and Miribah means strife. So the place was named “Testing and Strife.” It’s important to note that despite God’s clear leading and whopping demonstration of power, almost every new challenge on the journey was met, like this one, with the accusation that God had abandoned them and met with an assault on their leaders. As at Massah and Miribah, God was patient and gracious in those circumstances but as we are about to see that He had a limit. And crossing God’s limit always ends in bad news.

When you cross God’s limits

The greatest tragedy of the Exodus referred to by Psalm 95 and our Hebrews passage is recorded in Numbers 14. After months of desert travel the nation of Israel finally arrived at the southern end of their destination where they launched 12 spies to help define a strategy for conquering it. The spies said the land was productive, but ten infected everyone with the cowardly fear that it was far too dangerous to conquer.
Numbers 141-4 (NASB95) Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. 2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” 4 So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” NEWS & FACEBOOK
Moses and Aaron pleaded with the people to change their mind. Their answer?
But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Then the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel. 11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? 12 “I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.”
So Moses pleaded with God
20 So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. “Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it. 
27 “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me.
29 your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me. ‘Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.
Five times in this chapter God repeated that the corpses of the adults will litter the wilderness! God continued to provide their basic needs until they lived out a normal life, but He would not allow them into the land.

Why were they forgiven but prohibited from entering the land?

The answer has to do with what the land represents in the grand scheme of the Bible. The land is not a symbol of heaven or of free prosperity. If they had gone into the land, they would still have had to work, go to war occasionally, and suffer illness and death but God would have given them a life of rest from constant fear of want and oppression and lack of hope. In fact, Psalm 95 and Hebrews change the word LAND in Numbers 14 to REST. But they could not have that rest without trust in God and they refused to trust Him. So they brought the consequence on themselves. He was finished trying to earn their trust. There came a point where their refusal to strengthen their trust in Him resulted in having to endure a life that was far short of what God wanted for them.

What Paul said about all this

Now before we can appreciate how the author of Hebrews uses these failures, we need to consider what Paul says about them in 1 Corinthians 10.
1 Corinthians 10:1-12 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea;
The key word is ALL. All of Israel experienced physical salvation from slavery in Egypt. In this context, Paul is comparing all true Christians to all the Israelites brought out from Egypt. He treats Israel’s Exodus journey as a physical picture of certain aspects of living the Christian life, kind of like seeing a play that teaches you something about your own life.
and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.
Here you see Paul connect the Exodus and the Christian life. The life-giving water that came from that rock was a picture of the life-giving blood of Christ we celebrate in communion. So while all of Israel had experienced God’s salvation from Egypt look at verse 5.
Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
Laid low is a nicer way of saying dropped dead. Paul’s point is that while all of Israel was saved from Egypt, not all benefited in this life. This is not about their eternal salvation or ours but about the quality of physical life for the people God saves. Next Paul drove this home:
Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
The Israelites lost the privilege of rest in the promised land and some died prematurely because they did these things and this happened and was written for Christians to learn from. This is the context for the next verse which people often quote out of this context:
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

Does falling mean a Christian can lose their salvation?

That’s not possible.  Paul means that there are serious consequences in this life for Christians who do what Israel did and no Christian is immune. We all have to be careful. To drive this point home listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:30 as he discusses people who crudely abused the communion ceremony:
1 Corinthians 11:30 (NASB95) —For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.
That is they died prematurely.

OK, back to Hebrews

In light of all this let’s now return to Hebrew’s application of Psalm 95’s warning starting at Hebrews 3:12
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.  But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
Notice the words God uses. A Christian can have an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from trust in God. A Christian can have a hard heart. A Christian can provoke God and make Him angry. A Christian can be disobedient and live in unbelief. The one thing above all else God wants us to copy from Jesus’ character is the quality of confidence in God that produces total peace in our souls despite our circumstances. God sees anything less as worthy of the descriptive words we just read. Is this meant to make us live in fear? Quite the opposite. So why does He operate this way and say these things? A couple of illustrations might help.

The Family Feud show.

Steve Harvey hosts a TV show called Family Feud. One day he had a contestant who was so stressed and profusely sweating they had to pause recording so he could change his shirt. His team lost for three days and when he finally won $20,000 the man fell to his knees sobbing uncontrollably. Later Steve asked why he was so emotional. The man said “Steve, I’m terminally ill. I have 3 months to live and I can’t get insurance. This money is for my family.” It left a deep impression on Harvey that a man so close to death would work so hard to provide for his family. If that’s how we feel about our families think how God deeply longs for us to trust our needs to Him.

Parents know, right?

How many parents reading this would like their children to really, truly trust them? Now how many of you can say you’ve always had the best answer for our children’s problems? I certainly can’t. No way. But God is certain He knows what is best for us. That’s why God is called Father, Good Shepherd, and Advocate. They know that if we don’t trust them for our needs the quality of our lives will suffer and we will miss out on the rest in our souls they want us to have. And that provokes God. That’s why he warns us so harshly. By the way, out of his own pocket, Steve Harvey gave that man an additional $25,000.  Steve Harvey graciously eased a burden on that man’s family. I doubt it hurt Steve Harvey’s wealth much, but a bit. God says His children, the meek, will eventually inherit planet Earth and it won’t hurt God’s resources at all.

What does it look like to trust God?

Let’s go back to Miribah and Massah. What should they have done instead of threatening their leader and demanding God prove Himself? One morning at the breakfast table the answer dawned on Connie and me as we asked ourselves that question. They should have immediately called a prayer meeting. The entire nation should have come before God, asked Him to meet their need, and quietly and confidently waited to see how He would do it. He calls that rest. The word REST is referred to 13x in Hebrews 3 & 4 It’s a confident peace in our souls during this life that comes from faithfully trusting Him. That’s what we are supposed to see in Jesus and copy.

Hebrews 4 will add more insight:

Hebrews 4:1–13 (NASB95) — Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.
The Greek word behind “come short” needs some clarification. Suppose you owed me $100 and pay back $99. You are a dollar short. I almost have all my money, I’m just short 1%. That’s not what the word means. Suppose you lived in Switzerland where the trains run on time. Your train is scheduled to leave at 9:00 sharp and you arrive at 9:03 just in time to see the end of the train leave the platform. You could use this Greek term to say you almost got on the train but the point is you are not on the train, you missed it. So here is something a Christian is commanded to fear, not entering God’s rest. Hebrews clarifies:
For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “As I swore in My wrath, They shall not enter My rest,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world.  For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this passage, “They shall not enter My rest.” Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.  So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
Who does the author admonish to enter the rest? The people of God. God’s people. Are you a child of God? Your Father wants you to enjoy total rest in your soul that comes from trusting Him. Paul said the same thing in Philippians:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6–7 (NASB95)
The promised land is not symbolic of heaven or eternal salvation. It is a symbol of emotional and spiritual peace in our souls that comes with confidence in our God as we live in this world trusting in God’s care. That’s what God is warning us to be faithful about.

Does that mean we live free of challenges? No.

Like God led the nation of Israel to places where there was no food or water, God will lead us to places where we are challenged and places where even our lives are threatened. But these challenges are intended to strengthen our faith and reveal it to others so they can find God’s rest for their souls too. God loves us so much it provokes Him when we live a life of anxiety, fear, and depression because we don’t have to! No wonder He says we must fear to miss that rest. Perhaps you feel that, like Israel, you have pushed God too far and you are doomed to emptiness until you die. There is a great difference between Israel’s experience and the Christian’s. Did you notice the number of times the word Today was mentioned in Hebrews 3 & 4? Today if you hear His voice, “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today…” That’s as long as you and I are alive in these bodies. Today you can respond and find peace no matter how many times you have been faithless. It takes the courage to trust Him. The choice is yours alone.

Who needs your encouragement? Everyone.

Today, shake someone’s hand and say “I encourage you to rest in the Lord Today, I am.”

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