Another prominent theme in the book of Hebrews is the believer’s rest. Entering into God’s rest is foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt and their eventual arrival in the promised land. The three stages of their deliverance are symbols of the three stages of deliverance for New Testament believers.
Stage one is the Israelites release from Pharaoh’s grip during their exodus from Egypt. This represents our initial salvation when Christ delivered us from Satan’s grip by His sacrifice on the cross. The Egyptian taskmasters of Pharaoh’s day represent the flesh, our sin nature, that controlled you and I prior to our salvation. Paul writes of his before-salvation experience, “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing that I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom 7:19-20). Prior to salvation, sin is our taskmaster just as the children of Israel suffered under their Egyptian taskmasters. And just as the children of Israel were set free by the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, we have been set free from our spiritual destitution by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. And just as their Egyptian masters were buried at the bottom of the sea, so our sin nature has been crucified and buried with Christ.
Stage two of the Israelites deliverance begins at the crossroads of Kadesh-barnea. Fearful of what lay ahead in the land of Canaan, they shrink back (a common phrase in the book of Hebrews) and lacking the faith to enter in, they are denied entrance and subjected to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They have already been saved (delivered from Egypt), but do not experience the promised land. For New Testament believers this represents living in the wilderness of striving, not experiencing the rest that God promised. The wilderness Christian received all the new promises – a new identity, a new heart, a new nature, a new Spirit, a new disposition, a new power, and so much more – at salvation, but has yet to experience their fullness. For the wilderness Christian, the Christian life is a law-keeping self-effort that seeks to attain spiritual growth as if Christ were not there. But we were made for so much more. This is not where Christ wants us to be.
“There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest” (Heb 4:9-11). This is the transition to stage three: the believer’s rest.
In stage three of their deliverance, the children of Israel entered the land of Canaan, the promised land. This represents, for us, as laid out in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4, entering into God’s rest in the here-and-now. Canaan does not represent heaven despite what your hymn book says. The land of Canaan represents the believer’s enjoyment, on earth, of the resurrection life of Christ. (For a full length explanation see The Saving Life of Christ by Major W. Ian Thomas.) In the Old Testament land of Canaan, there were still battles to be fought even though God had promised the victory. Likewise, when we enter God’s rest and experience the power of the resurrection life of Christ is us, we still have battles to fight. We still have the enemies of Satan and the flesh to overcome. What this analogy emphasizes and the New Testament confirms is that the outcome of these battles is secure. Christ has promised and given us the victory!
So, to put some application on this picture of the Christian life, how do we move from stage two in the wilderness to stage three in the promised land? How do we enter into God’s rest? We will answer these questions and more from the book of Hebrews next time.