The Believer’s Rest

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.

Putting Faith into Practice

That the Christian life is lived “by faith” is a prominent message in the New Testament.  But how do we do it?  It is great to understand the theology and theory, but we all want to know, “How do we put it into practice?  What does living by faith look like?”  I can measure laws and law-breakers; I can measure rule-keeping and rule-breaking; I can measure a life lived by works.  But faith?  That’s a little too nebulous; a little too out there in a world that we can’t see, smell, or touch.  But it is exactly how God intends us to live.  So how do we bring faith to our every day experience?

Think of your Christian experience as a big circle.  We start with a faith challenge.  Something in our lives that doesn’t make sense.  Some crossroads where life isn’t working.  One path available to us is to walk by sight – seeking to explain everything in terms of consequences for our past actions, or finding the victim or beneficiary in each situation, or laying blame on God, our spouse, our co-workers, etc for what is happening.  The other path is to let God’s revealed Word guide our thoughts.  And when we take this route, we are choosing to walk by faith.  We understand that no matter what it looks like on the outside, our life is defined by what God has said and promised, not by our circumstances.  We choose to live as if Christ is living His life through us.  We act according to the influence of Christ living His life through us.  We hear the voice of Jesus and we follow.  When we do this, we are walking by faith.

When we walk by faith, the crushing influence of our external circumstances begin to lessen.  We find that in the middle of our challenging situation, we experience peace and joy and the fruits of the Spirit, because we are walking in the Spirit.  We experience God’s incredible spiritual blessings.  We experience success in our spiritual walk.  In short, we begin to see and feel in our daily lives what walking by faith looks like.

In the middle of this spiritual blessing, our enemy, the devil, comes along and stirs up trouble.  He reminds us of situations, some minor and some dire, where it looks like God has given up on us.  He accuses us of some besetting sin and tells us we are never getting better.  He blames God and encourages us to do the same regarding a chronic illness or wayward child.  We are back to a faith crossroads.

And just like the last time we were here, we choose to walk by faith.  We believe by faith that God is good, despite the fact that at times the evidence suggests the opposite.  We believe by faith that we have been set free from sin’s power and by virtue of Christ living His life through us will overcome our besetting sin.  We believe by faith that God has a training program for us, His child, marked by good gifts and a good plan.  In short, we choose to walk by faith rather than by sight.

Do you see the circle we are on?

  • We face a faith challenge.
  • We make a righteous choice by God’s power inside us.
  • We choose to walk by faith.
  • We experience the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
  • Our faith grows stronger as we experience God’s blessing.
  • We face a faith challenge.

And the circle repeats itself.  The beauty is that as we continue to make righteous choices and exercise our faith, our faith gets stronger.  Does that mean the choices get easier as we go along?  I don’t know if easier is the right word.  The challenges become different as God, through His sovereign training program, conforms us more and more to the image of His Son.  Walking by the Spirit, walking by faith is not some distant goal for the super-spiritual saint.  It is how you and I, children of and home to the Living God, are designed to live.  And it is available to us right now.  It is our path to spiritual maturity – our sanctification.

Faith and the Three Great Promises of God

If you take a comprehensive read through the New Testament, you will find three great promises God makes to new covenant believers that are repeated over and over again.  And just like our old covenant ancestors, faith is a primary requirement to lay hold of and experience the power of these great promises.

The first promise is the most familiar.  Believe in Jesus and you will have eternal life.  Jesus introduced this promise about a hundred different ways in the gospels.  One of the most succinct is, “He who believes in the Son [Jesus] has eternal life” (Jn 3:36).  Because we can’t see the future, because people don’t generally come back from the dead and share their experience, we don’t know for sure what our after death experience will be.  God has promised that for those who believe in His Son their experience will be eternal life in His presence in heaven.  Because we haven’t been there, we believe this by faith.

When my father passed away, my mother knew that he was gone.  She knew standing next to and touching his cold body that Adrian had left the scene.  Of that, she said, there was no doubt.  But where had he gone?  To know that she had to open her Bible.  It was only on those pages that she found the answer to where he had gone.  He went to the presence of the Lord.  This we believe by faith in God’s promise of eternal life to all who embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

A second great promise of God to new covenant believers is the indwelling presence of God Himself through the Holy Spirit.  In the latter chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit to live inside us following His departure.  Two hundred and sixteen times in his epistles, Paul writes about Jesus or God living inside us.  Let this incredible thought sink into your consciousness.  The God of the universe, the creator of all that is, lives inside you and me.

Now if you are like me, you cannot see, hear, smell, or taste the Holy Spirit inside.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I don’t really feel the Spirit inside.  How do I know He is there?  How do I know He is influencing me?  How do I know my conscience is now controlled by the Holy Spirit?  I know all of this by faith.  By faith I believe God’s New Testament promise that His Holy Spirit is living inside me and helping me to do God’s will.

A third great promise of the New Testament is God’s deliverance, God’s rescue, God’s salvation from the power of sin in my life.  God has promised that my old sin nature was crucified with Christ on the cross.  God has promised that when I embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ I received a new identity, a new nature, a new heart, a new disposition, a new power over sin, and much more.  All this new is indeed incredible.

Now do I always see all this new playing itself out in perfect obedience?  No.  I struggle with my sworn enemies of the flesh and the devil.  I experience the tug of sin’s power.  But by faith, I believe a constant and ongoing conflict with sin is not my destiny.  By faith, I believe that I have the indwelling and resurrection power of His Spirit to choose righteousness.  One of the great promises of God is that I now have a choice to use my “mortal members as instruments of righteousness to God, not instruments of sin” (Rom 6:13).  Because I don’t always feel this, I believe it by faith.

How do we overcome the enemies that challenge our experience of the freedom from sin’s power?  “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (I Jn 5:4).  Faith in the three great promises of God and the hundreds that go with them is how we live the Christian life and how we experience its abundant power.

A Better Promise (Hebrews 11)

In Hebrews chapter 11, the author develops a critical similarity between the old covenant saints and new covenant believers; the absolute need to live by faith.  For the Old Testament believers, their faith was centered around the idea that something better was coming.

By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain…By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death…By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, prepared an ark…By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out…not knowing where he was going…By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised….All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:4-13).

The author continues to highlight the faith of the Old Testament saints throughout the rest of chapter 11.  By the end of the chapter he brings us, the new covenant believers, into the picture.  “And all these [Old Testament saints], having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us [new covenant saints], so that apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Heb 11:39-40).  “Something better” takes us back to Hebrews 8:6, “But now Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (Heb 8:6).

What are these “better promises” that apply to new covenant believers?  And what kind of faith is required for us to lay hold of these promises?  We will explore these questions next time.

Faith is the Means

The power to live the victorious Christian life is “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  The power of the Exchanged Life, the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God is the fuel that frees us from the power of sin.  And the means or vehicle to lay hold of this power is faith.

God has promised that our old self, our sin nature, died with Christ.  I believe this by faith.  God has promised to take up residence inside us by His Holy Spirit.  I can’t always feel this, but I believe it by faith.  God has promised Christ’s resurrection power to all believers.  I believe this by faith.  God has promised that sin will not be our master.  I need constant clarity on how this works in practice, but I believe this by faith.

Three times in the New Testament – Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38 – God succinctly states, “The righteous man will live by faith.”  Paul summarized the role of faith in experiencing the power of the exchanged life in Galatians 2:20.  “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

The power to live the Christian life comes by faith, not by human effort or self-righteousness.  Listen to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians,  “That I may be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9).  We often view these kinds of verses in the past tense.  That is, we were not justified in our initial salvation by keeping the Law, but by faith in Christ.  But I believe this encouragement applies to our ongoing salvation, our sanctification, our growth in acts of righteousness, as well.

Twice in Philippians 3:9 we are reminded of the role of faith in our righteousness; “righteousness which is through faith in Christ” and “righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”  Our present righteousness does not come from a self-righteous effort to keep “the Law”.  (We often form a New Testament version of what keeping the Law looks like.)  Our righteousness, our present righteous actions, come through faith in Christ.  Faith is the power.

“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (I Jn 5:4).  In our conflict with sin, fueled by our enemies – the world, the flesh, and the devil – we are the overcomers by faith.  Let’s learn to believe God’s words in our every day experience and thinking rather than search for excuses for our weakness.  You have the power!