Friday, October 18, 2013

Hebrews 4:1–11

The fourth chapter of Hebrews begins as the third chapter does, with the word, "Therefore," but in this case the antecedent is provided or restated as follows: "while the promise of entering his rest is still open" (4:1). The aim or function of this passage is much the same as in the previous chapter which urges faith, for without faith one cannot enter God's rest; it is the very key to rest. Here, however, faith is less the primary aim of the passage and more the means to its desired end, namely, that one should not simply arrive at the point of entry, but actually enter into God's rest. One can, of course, open a door, but there remains the simple act of crossing the threshold and passing through, and to fall short of that is to run the risk that one "may fall through such disobedience as" ancient Israel displayed (Numbers 14:1–25).

Although the apostle asserts that the rest is still open (thus, does not even need opening)—a presupposition established in the previous chapter and restated here as a basis for his urging that we should by all means enter—the large part of the remainder of this passage is devoted to repeatedly emphasizing this continued openness. This the apostle does by appealing to a sort of chronology of the Spirit's progressive revelation on this matter of rest, namely, by focusing on when precisely the the Holy Spirit, speaking in various places and through various agents, revealed that God's rest remains open. In many respects, this survey or quality inspection of the apostle's interpretation seems as much aimed at warding off despair and inspiring hope as it does summoning obedient faith. For while the psalm (Psalm 95) that is the basis of his meditation sternly warns of the consequences of disobedience for those who failed to enter, the temporal and grammatical (tensive) references to God's rest must now be enlisted so as to say, in a sense: Do not give up on finding rest for your souls, for the door is still open, and this is how we know. The very fact that God spoke of his rest well after the sabbatical completion of creation confirms it (4:5). The fact that David, centuries after Joshua led Israel's new generation into the promised land, still spoke of entering God's rest in the ever-present tense—"Today!" (4:6-8)—also proves it. With Israel's conquest of Canaan, God did not close the door to his rest behind them (as he did, for example, for Noah upon his entering the ark; see Genesis 7:16).

Thus, with this additional work of confirmation done, we may consider what is new and astonishing in this text: (1) the tension between the effort required to enter (v. 11) and the cessation of labor upon entering (v. 10); (2) the evidently evangelical concern that one avoid even the appearance of having failed to enter (v. 1); and most importantly, (3) the nature of "the good news" that is (again) to meet with faith in those who are thus enabled to enter.

All three of these concerns are closely related to the apostle's straightforward and unambiguous claim that "we who have believed enter that rest" (v. 3). Neither this certainty, however, nor the decisive role of faith, nor the promised rest itself, exempt one from making "every effort" to enter. This seems quite paradoxical, of course, since the happy result of faith is so strongly assured. Why then is effort required at all? The apostle's spiritual logic would suggest two reasons: (1) to avoid lapsing into disobedience, and (2) to avoid discouraging or encumbering others by even seeming to have failed. In other words, entering is imperative, but so too is ensuring that others are able to enter and are not hindered by unfaithful or disbelieving stumbling blocks.

Finally, what is perhaps most interesting about this passage is the sense in which the homilist equates "the good news" of God's open rest as he and his audience have heard it with the good news that was proclaimed to, but not believed by, a generation of rebellious Israelites who died in the wilderness. There can be no doubt, in light of the epistle as a whole, that the apostle has in mind the Christian gospel; yet here he claims this "good news" came to Israel in the wilderness, centuries before Christ, and they (all but two of them: Joshua and Caleb) failed to receive or believe it.

This then begs the question: in what sense was the New Testament gospel conveyed in the Old Testament to this generation as they heard it, poised as they were on the threshold of (but unable to enter) God's rest? Approaching the question in this way should rightly send us in search of those hidden and overlooked signs of Christ in the Torah. (Thus, the reading of Numbers next week suggests a fruitful focus for such an exploration.)

But the question could also be posed another way: what dimensions of the Christian gospel as we have heard it may be read back into the Torah, retrospectively. The latter way of putting the question has always been somewhat controversial, but is nevertheless unavoidable and is even arguably normative. For as Paul asserts, the unveiling of Torah can only occur from the standpoint of Christ (2Corinthians 3:14–16); likewise, Kierkegaard's observation that we understand in hindsight, though we "live forward;" so too, Barth, Cullman, and 20th c. Basel theologians of the Reformed tradition who observed that, dogmatically speaking, revelation and Christology lead us to the doctrine of God, not the other way around.

To suggest but a few possibilities, we may wish to simply ask: "In what sense does the Christian gospel convey the desired and blessed rest?" A number of associations spring readily to mind: the light yoke assigned to those who come to Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30); the assurance of faith (Heb 10:22; 11:1; cf. 6:11); the kingdom of peace Jesus confers on his disciples (Luke 22:29; John 14:27); the freedom from worry and the unsurpassed peace that derives from the nearness of God (Philippians 4:4-7). Above all these, however, I would suggest that the rest the author of Hebrews has in mind is the good news of the resurrection itself, for he makes a point of indicating that the Sabbath (seventh day) is not the rest of which the Holy Spirit speaks in Psalm 95; rather, he seems to point beyond Sabbath to what the Epistle of Barnabas (15:8) describes as the eighth day, the Lord's Day, the "beginning of another world." In short, what Hebrews offers is an eschatological view of this rest that, even now in our day, remains open.

The early Christians, of course, took this as a warrant for worshipping the risen Christ on Sunday, the Lord's Day. But clearly there is more than a scheduling change offered us here. While scholars such as Walter Brueggemann suggest texts of exile and restoration are perhaps the best standpoint from which to address the North American church at present, I would propose alternatively that a Deuteronomic standpoint "on Jordan's stormy banks" is at least as compelling, if not more so. No, we are not as the pilgrim Puritans undertaking a great experiment on a new and wild continent, but we stand on a far greater threshold, where the faded glory of Christendom is no longer the predominant point of reference, but rather something more like the eschatological consummation. Advent is a season of apocalyptic expectation, and at this juncture in history, we should no longer be attenuating this expectation as we draw near to Christmas. On the contrary, in anticipation of the coming King of kings, we should be singing:

O'er all these wide extended plains
shines one eternal day;
there God the Son forever reigns, 
and scatters night away.

When I shall reach that happy place,
I'll be forever blest,
for I shall see my Father's face
and in his bosom rest.

Samuel Stennett (1727–95)

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