Sunday, April 28, 2013

Rest

     One of the central themes of the New Testament, and especially the epistles of St. Paul, is the vanquishing of the doctrine of salvation by works by wielding the doctrine of salvation by faith. By this I mean that the writers of the New Testament sought to make clear that the Gospel of Christ was no Jewish sect, no mere update to the Old Testament, but a radical new way of relating to God. Previously, God had outlined a very specific prescription for how people were to worship Him. This order of worship included very precise methods of animal sacrifice and, of equal importance, a system of 613 laws and commandments that the Israelites were never to break. These laws ranged from sacramental laws regarding sacramental cleanness to practical laws for how to till your land, and they were all inextricably tied to each other. As James wrote,"For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all."(James 2:10)
     As you can imagine, no one ever managed to live an entire life without transgressing, in some way great or small, intentionally or unintentionally, the demands of the Law. That is, until Jesus Christ came onto the scene of the world. Christ, the Son of God, lived that humanly impossible perfect life, died a sacrificial death, and was resurrected by God the Father, thus establishing the good news that all sins could be forgiven by grace through faith. In one fell swoop, through the sacrifice that was once and for all, the Mosaic Covenant of laws and sacrifices was fulfilled and superseded by the Law of Grace. This earth shaking event completely altered the way we relate with God; rather than having one man come into the presence of God once a year, all could now know God intimately and personally through faith.
     This gave rise to a significant biblical doctrine, which the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews outlines in Hebrews chapter 4, verses 1-13, and that is the doctrine of rest. Rest in Christ became, not merely an option to the believer, but our birthright and requirement, and as such is of first rate importance. I want to focus on this vital subject, defining the terms the writer of Hebrews uses and answering some central questions about works, rest, faith and disobedience.

Definition of Terms
        Rest: In verse 1, the unknown author of Hebrews brings in the central word of the chapter: rest. That cornerstone of the preacher's library, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, states that the Greek word used in this verse is "katapausis", and it means "reposing down". It is derived from the word "katapauo", which means "to make to cease". Please keep both of these words and definitions in mind, as they are the hinge on which the entire passage turns.
         Faith: Faith (verse 2), as the passage clearly states, is the means whereby we enter into God's rest. So what did the author mean by "faith"? Strong's says that the Greek word is "pistis", and it means "persuasion, i.e. credence; moral conviction".Give special attention to the phrase "moral conviction", because it is not what most modern people, particularly evangelicals, mean when they use the word faith. Far to often (and quite erroneously) we think faith is verbal confession or mental assent to the truth of the Gospel. If that is your what our faith is, it is not biblical or saving faith. I do not wish to belittle anyone's faith, but I also do not want us to walk in deception; verbal confession and mental assent  are not, by themselves, marks of saving faith. We will revisit this truth shortly.
         Works: Works (verse 10), in the Greek, is "ergon" (from which is derived the English word "ergonomics", which is the science of designing things to work more safely and efficiently), and it means simply "toil". It's uses in this passage raises the question: To what end were the Hebrews, and even us in the modern age, toiling?
         Disobedience: Disobedience (verses 6 and 11), which is the word used in the NASB, from which I read, is translated as "unbelief" in the KJV, and I believe in this case the KJV is the more accurate of the two. The Greek word in Hebrews four is "apeitheia", meaning "rebellious and obstinate disbelief", and it is a derivative of the word "apeithes", which means "unpersuadable". This does not indicate someone who is disobeying the Law, but one who is unwilling to believe. Again, this distinction is key.
         These definitions, though they may seem tedious, are of the utmost importance in studying this text because without them we may be led into confusion by the complexity of the writer's statements. Let us now then turn our attention to the passage itself, and seek to gain understanding of the rest that is the requirement of our faith. To this end, I want to ask and answer these four questions: 1) To what end to we toil?, 2) What does it mean to rest?, 3)What prevents us from resting?, 4) What is the key to finding rest?

To what end do we toil?
        The nature of human life is one of work and toil. We are simply hardwired, from our very inception as a race to the present day, to set goals and work to achieve them, whether they be fame, fortune, security, power, etc. However, this attitude, which can be so noble and lead to magnificent things in practical life, is terrible in religious experience. At that you may object and say," But are we not to labor for the Lord?" To this I respond yes, we are to labor for the Lord, but so often our labors are not to the glory of God, but to gain his approval. We may cloak our labors in spiritual language and garments, but their iniquitous purpose will always shine through.
          You see, the whole thrust of the Law was that the Israelite's were to obey the Law to gain God's approval. "If you will obey my commandments, I will "fill in the blank". That was the arrangement, only the law-abiders  were insufficient in keeping the law because they were born in sin and conceived in iniquity, so that failure was inevitable. For this reason, Christ came to reconcile us to God, and has offered the free gift of salvation to all who will believe. This means that when we try to earn God's favor through doing good works, we are essentially working for something we already have in Christ. This makes our toiling an insult to God, for we are in essence claiming that His gift is insufficient and that we have to add to it, or even worse, that we cannot accept the gift due to our unworthiness. This would be a slap in the face to any earthly gift-giver, much less to the Creator of the universe. Thus, to toil for our own salvation or for the approval of our heavenly Father is not good work at all, but rather the grave sin of unbelief.

What does it mean to rest?
         To answer this question, think back to the definition, "reposing down". Frankly, it is almost unnecessary for me to unpack that; it is rather clear. You cannot work if you are lying down; you cannot build anything, or fix anything, or impress anybody, you are lying down and vulnerable. Nobody can be impressed when you are lying down, nobody will exclaim,"Look at how well he lies!" To rest, in the Christian experience, is to recline at the table with the Father, fully aware and convinced that you are loved unconditionally, accepted for who you are and at what stage of life you are, and forgiven for all your sins. It is to know will moral conviction that the Gospel is as true and real as the ground beneath your feet, and that no sin of yours makes it less real and no amount of good works makes it more real. It is to stop thinking in terms of making restitution to God (besides, the payment for your sins is death, not good works, so either you accept Christ's atoning death or you must die for yourself; God's word is not "karmic", you will never balance the scales by doing good works). It is to stop thinking that by doing a multitude of good works we will earn God's love and acceptance. We rest when the work is done, and beloved reader, the work is  eternally done!

What prevents us from resting?
           The obvious answer would be that we keep working, but there is an underlying motivation for our perpetual labor. The motivator which compels us to work harder and do more is the unpleasant truth that we do not possess the moral conviction that the Gospel is absolutely true. Unbelief, not works, is our ultimate problem, and the reason that we, and the Israelites before us, fail to enter into God's rest. We simply do not believe that the Gospel is true, or that it applies personally to us, even if we desperately want it to be true. We say things like "it's too good to be true", or that it "doesn't make any logical sense". This is why the author of Hebrews enjoins that we "... be diligent to enter into that rest..."(Hebrews 4:11) True faith, that profound moral certitude, does not come to the nonchalant or flippant, but to those who earnestly seek to obtain it.  We must labor, not to be approved, but to believe that we are, and we must pursue it with the focused diligence of a bloodhound on a hot trail. If you despise your unbelief, if you are not obstinate in your doctrine of works and your labors to build a facade of holiness to hide the death in your soul, rejoice!! There remains hope for those who want to believe. God rewards those who are diligent to enter into His rest. He will in no wise cast out those who cry in agony, "Father, I believe but help Thou my unbelief!!"

What is the key to finding rest?
        I have already given it away, but absolute, abandoned faith in the truth of the Gospel of Christ. Living daily in light of the promises, not as abstract facts to be accepted, but as moral truths to be relied upon. We must possess moral certitude that all of God's promises are toward me, all His love and acceptance for me, for I have repented and started on the path of faith. Moral conviction is the only gate into the land of rest for your soul.
        In conclusion, I (though I am but a beggar, and barely inside the gate myself) would like to offer some tips for obtaining that moral conviction. Be advised, you must be radically transformed in order to possess the moral conviction of which I have spoken, and it is a supernatural work of God. You cannot earn it, but you can prepare your heart for the work that God will  do. He will not fail to visit those who turn their heart and focus upon Him, and He will set that moral conviction in the heart eternally. Here are the ways in which I have been led, step by step, into rest: 1) Saturate your life in the Word of God, day after day, as much as you possibly can, 2) Pray fervently and constantly for God to persuade you hard heart of the truth, 3) Read the writings of the wise and godly men who have come before, and 4) Listen to and heed the sermons of godly preachers (the internet is replete with them). Do these four things, and do not lose heart if it takes time, and you will watch your life and walk with God become one of sweet peaceful rest.