How accurately Saint Augustine expressed the usually unexpressed, but deepest desire of every human heart: “Lord, thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” (Confessions, Book 1). The restless heart of Israel is divinely chosen by God to represent with fullest accuracy the dissatisfied, seeking heart of all humanity. In the story of Israel, you and I, by grace, will find ourselves (as we really are, not as we may pretend to be).
Chapters 3 and 4 of the epistle to the Hebrews survey much of the history of Israel in terms of pilgrims on earth seeking heavenly rest. Chapter 3 deals with this sincere but troubled seeking under Moses’ leadership during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, with their faces toward the Promised Land. Chapter 4 takes us a step further toward that longed-for rest. Here Joshua has succeeded Moses as the captain who is to lead the wandering people into the land of promise at long last.
But the inspired author of Hebrews shows us that even though Joshua did get the people into Canaan, the rest they found there was a dim picture of a much deeper and higher rest.
The great Puritan expositor, John Owen, shows that Joshua’s successful leadership of the people into Canaan did not give them “that full and ultimate rest which in all these things God aimed at.” Nor did that true rest, which Israel and all of us troubled humans so long for, arrive some 500 years later when the Psalmist wrote Psalm 95.
All the Mosaic sacrifices, the cities of refuge in Canaan under Joshua, the very throne of David, and all the Psalms in their own way are divinely inspired signposts to Him who said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28 KJV).
This wonderful rest — from which, in one sense, every other blessing we could ever desire on earth or in heaven flows — is nothing less than the rest of God Himself. Although Hebrews 4:3–4 refers to God’s delightful rest after He had finished the six days of creating work in Genesis 1 and 2 — a work pronounced “very good” — this “rest of God” refers to something infinitely greater than that.
John Owen is right in tracing the summit of God’s happy rest (for He is “the only and happy potentate,” 1 Tim. 6:15 KJV) to His fatherly delight in the person and accomplishments of His only-begotten Son. Meditating on Isaiah 42:1 (“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect; my soul delighteth [resteth] in him” KJV), Owen points out the full satisfaction of the mind of God, with that delight and rest in His Son. In which words, the infinite, intimate affection and mutual satisfaction between the Father and the Son are expressed.
One of the surprising things about the Gospel is that Almighty God Himself invites us into His own rest! Most of us would probably give some money to someone suffering with a disease or to a newly released prisoner, but we would be less likely to invite him to live in our homes. But that is precisely what Jesus does; He says: “Come unto me.” And this almost unbelievable generosity of Jesus is exactly what the heavenly Father is like (John 14:9). Paul knew that rest, which brings us “Near to the heart of God,” as the old hymn says.
Such rest empowered Paul to encircle the known world of his time in never-ceasing proclamation of its benefits to all who would receive it. Thus, he says in Romans 5:1, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Several verses in Hebrews chapter 4 speak of us “entering into” this greatest of all treasures: God’s rest (for example, vv. 1–10). Once we were whirling about on the gerbil wheel of life, never able to find true satisfaction, for the wicked [i.e., those who are self-centered rather than God centered] are “like the troubled sea that cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isa. 57:20–21 KJV).
But, in the sheer loving kindness of God, somehow, somewhere we heard the Gospel message, and by faith “entered in.” The Holy Spirit invisibly and secretly, down in the deep places of our lives, created a vital “mixture” of responsive faith with the good news about Jesus dying and rising for us sinners, so that like oil and flour being mixed together to form a loaf of bread, a miraculous chemistry occurred in us. We were born again; we became a new creation; we entered into the eternal rest of God that God Himself secured for His people. Thus, in the midst of our earthly troubles, we constantly experience the peace of God that passes all understanding.
And this serene rest that belongs to those whose consciences are sprinkled in the blood of the One with whom the Father is well pleased (see Heb. 10:22) will expand (as Samuel Rutherford said) “to an ocean fullness in Immanuel’s Land.”