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 The historical reference used in Hebrews 3 and 4 is the people who were with Moses during the Exodus.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.

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