The Sabbath Rest for the People of God

What is your mental image of Heaven? Is it exciting, relaxing, boring or catatonic? Artists, who are usually bad theologians, have done much to shape the picture of the place. Grabbing on to the image of Jesus coming the clouds, they have formed in our heads an idea of a cloudy Heaven. Heaven is nothing of the sort.

Paul and others may have done a similar unintended thing. To diminish the idea that our physical death is the ultimate punishment, Paul refers to the physically dead as those who “sleep”. The inanimate state of our bodies bolster that image. Adding to this are several passages in the Psalms which are quoted in Hebrews which use the word “rest” to describe our general condition in Heaven. Together they may paint the wrong picture in your head. It may make Heaven seem like a large waiting room with comfortable chairs but not much going on.

The Bible does little to describe what activity we will experience in Heaven outside of worship. This probably leaves people who find a worship service to be boring further convinced that Heaven is a consolation prize that they are not excited about. My point in this article is to not be mislead by an unintended connotation of a word. We have not experienced worship in Heaven. I expect that “boring” will not be a description that anyone will ever use.

I have already spoke about the choice of the word “sleep”, but what is meant by “rest”? The historical reference used in Hebrews 3 and 4 is the people who were with Moses during the Exodus. Their persistent disobedience and impatience drives even a very patient God to distraction. God does declare that these people will not enter into the promised land in Numbers 14, but it is much later in the Psalms that God speaks in terms of rest.

So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Psalm 95:11

What “rest” was being talked about? Was it simply that they would not settle down in Palestine and experience God’s favor? As this passage is quoted twice in Hebrews the author sees a parallel between the disobedient people with Moses and those of any time. He speaks of a planned “Sabbath-rest” that is intended for all God’s people. Our question is what kind of “rest” are we talking about?

Hebrews 4 and again in Revelation 14 speaks about this rest as a “rest from our labors:

Then I heard a voice 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.”

Revelation 14:13

There is a lot of detail in this passage. First, to “die in the Lord” means that a person goes through physical death while being a part of the body of Christ. They are saved by their connection to Jesus. “From now on” is an interesting phrase for exactly when is this spoken? The context immediately preceding this is that it is in the midst of the tribulations caused by “the beast”. It is immediately followed by a Judgment Day picture.

Here on Earth we have to deal with a number of problems. Through the whole of Earth’s history we must deal with sin and the curse and their effects. During particular times the stress of persecution will make it even worse. To “rest” is to be free of these burdens. To rest is to no longer have particular responsibility for the struggle here on Earth, but the fruit of our time of struggle will “follow us” in the form of some type of reward.

Rest isn’t to become purposeless, for we will have other responsibilities; but they won’t be carried out in an environment of stress, resistance or evil. They will be a joy. Revelation 7:15 speaks of serving God day and night in His temple. Matthew 25:14-23 speaks of being put in charge of much. The details of these activities are not given, but it is clear that it is rewarding, active and pleasurable.

So if you harbor an image of Heaven and the New Earth that is dull and purposeless, think again. What we rest from is difficulty. What we experience is life that is truly life.

The Place of Our Prayers in Heaven

Much of this blog has been about our experience after death. With this entry I will take a slightly different angle. I want to consider what we are already engaged with Heaven.

The book of Revelation is a complex book to understand. Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic images and numbers to give a message. Sometimes that message isn’t meant for you, and it is impossible to understand. Still, there are overarching lessons that can help you in some way. One way is to appreciate the power of our prayers.

In Revelation 5:8 and later in chapter 8:3-4. The “prayers of the saints” are mentioned. Here are the quotes:

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Revelation 5:8

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Revelation 8:3-4

John is simply telling us what he saw and knew about what was going on in Heaven. His revelation in these spots was meant, in part, to convey something about our prayers. What was the message? In one spot the prayers are incense, in the other they are mixed with incense. The difference is intentional.

The first setting is one of praise. It pleases God to have genuine, heart-felt praise in any form. In Revelation 5:8 it is in the form of the Seraphim and Elders prostrating themselves before Jesus (the Lamb) and in the form of our prayers, presumably prayers of thanks and praise. These prayers are like a pleasing aroma to God.

In chapter eight the setting is different. God is dealing with the treachery of mankind. The prayers in this case are presumably prayers asking for protection for God’s people from persecutors. These prayers are added to incense indicating that God is pleased that they asked, but the response is one of anger toward those who are hurting His people and obstructing the work of the Gospel.

So what can we say about prayer? First, it is always pleasing to God in some way. Even if it is a distressed prayer, God is pleased that you came to Him. Next, prayer engages God. He may have acted on a situation even in the absence of prayer, but praying matters to Him.

Already we are engaged as citizens of Heaven. Our prayers are dialog with God.

Does this continue when we are actually in Heaven? It does in a much more tangible way. Everything seems to speak to God in Revelation: Angels, Seraphim, the Elders, nature, even the altar. People do as well, both in praise and in protest.

In Revelation 6 the humans who had been martyred speak to God about the delay of Judgment Day. They say:

O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the Earth?

Revelation 6:10

This interaction is a bit surprising. It is respectful, but it is a complaint. The martyrs are eager for either Judgment Day or an act of judgment on those who killed them. This speaks to a degree of awareness of what is happening or not happening on Earth. A final, full contentment only comes when Judgment Day and the resurrection of our bodies is complete. They are put at peace, but they are asked to wait.

Could those who are in Heaven make other intercessions? It is a curious possibility, but since our prayers have direct access to God, it is unnecessary and probably impossible to request the intercession from anyone else. They may act on their own depending on their knowledge of our situation. This is beyond what we know.

It is a mistake to only think of our involvement with Heaven as a future thing. Through prayer and praise, we are engaged there now if we belong to Christ. Because we cannot see this happening, it is easy for this to seem surreal or imaginary. Realize that just because you cannot see it doesn’t make it not real. Use these images, if it helps, to help you to “see”. You may not be in Heaven yet, but you can be engaged there.

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