One of the most amazing things about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it gets us off the hook. There is absolutely no “but” in terms of what Christ did for us and the life he lived in our place. Certainly upon receipt of such an amazing gift we can never be the same, and part of that is a desire to do what God wants us to do, but it does not change the fact that everything that God requires of us he accepts through Jesus.
It is this increadible news that the author of the book of Hebrews next shares with us. The work of God throughout human history has urged us toward him, to trust in him, and rest in him. God’s plans are not secret; the mystery of his plan of salvation has been revealed. This revelation demands a response:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
(Hebrews 3:7-11 ESV)
This quotation from Psalm 95 recalls the days of the people of Israel, who had just been saved from slavery in Egypt. God had done amazing miracles, send nation-wide plagues, and even opened the sea for his people to cross on dry land. But in light of these amazing wonders, the people complained. They worried about food and water. They groused about being out in the desert. And they feared the people in their Promised Land.
How might God have shown more clearly that he was invested in the preservation of his people? It is easy for us to look back and think, “I would have believed and trusted that God would provide.” Yet it is just in times of our own lives where things get difficult, where the heat of the day seems to bear down on us, that we begin to wonder if God is really there. Philip Yancey has written much about this lack of trust. In his book Disappointment with God, he talks in detail about the struggle to believe that God has our best at heart, even if it seems that everything is going wrong.
It did seem to be going wrong for the people of Israel. They were indeed a nation of slaves, living in tents in the desert, and in no way ready trained for battle. They had every reason to be afraid, except that God had shown them that he was with them. Yet they still “harden[ed] their hearts.”
Those hardened hearts did not mean that these people were no longer God’s people, but it did mean that they did not enter the Promised Land. They did not enter “the rest” that God had prepared for Israel. It took 40 years of wondering in the desert for God to have a completely new generation who, even though they had not seen the Exodus with their own eyes, believed that they could trust God to keep his promise and to give them the land of their fathers. Their rest came as a result of their belief.
Their Faith, Our Sight
What does all this Jewish history have to do with us? Glad you asked. In later chapters of Hebrews, the author describes these events as “shadows” of what was to come. Being saved from slavery in Egypt becomes being rescued from slavery to sin. And the rest in the Promised Land becomes our eternal freedom from sin:
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
(Hebrews 4:8-13 ESV)
The Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1); just as the people of Israel saw their salvation from Egypt, we live in a time which affords us the privilege of seeing our salvation through the witnesses recorded in the Bible. Christ himself made this observation in John 20: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” For centuries people found their salvation in Christ, but never saw him, never heard about his death and resurrection simply because he had not yet been born. Yet it was in the word and deed of God throughout their history that turned the people’s imaginations toward a time when their faith would be sight and the Messiah would come to their rescue.
We, too, await our savior. This time we look for his return to complete the task of redeeming all of creation and the resurrection of the dead. We expect and anticipate his coming just as those who knew Christ even before he was born. We have the unique perspective of having seen our Lord and his mighty deeds in our salvation, and it is that perspective that comes to use as a warning from the author of Hebrews:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
(Hebrews 3:12-14 ESV)
The mystery is revealed: God’s promise to Adam and Eve as they were ejected from the Garden of Eden was that he would send a savior. God has done just what he said that he would do. Hold fast to your faith that he has saved you and that he is coming again. Rest in God; rest in his promise fulfilled and his promise yet to be realized. Do not doubt what you have heard and what you know to be true and even in your current pain and want you will find his rest.