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The Urgency of Entering the Rest

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 5, 1998

Hebrews 4:11-13

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 4, and we will begin in verse 11.  Last week we looked at verses 1-10 of this great chapter and in reviewing we said that whereas Hebrews 1 and 2 focused on Jesus’ superiority over the angels, that Hebrews 3 looked at  Christ’s superiority to Moses.  And the comparison between Moses and Christ brought many things  to the divine inspired mind of the author of Hebrews.  the comparison between Moses, who was a faithful servant in the Lord’s house as opposed to the Lord Jesus Christ who was a son over the house.  The idea that Moses did not bring the children of Israel into their rest in Canaan came to the author’s mind and so he mentions Joshua.  So by the end of chapter 3 you are getting a comparison between the two Joshuas.  Jesus who gave rest to the people and Joshua who brought the people of Israel into the land. 

So there are  various comparisons that come to the author of Hebrews’ mind that gives us this comparison between Moses and Christ.  One thing that immediately that comes to his mind is how hard-hearted the people of God were in the wilderness.  They disobeyed the Lord, they lost trust in Him, and because of that disobedience and because of that lost trust, there were tremendous consequences of judgment against them and their lack of faith and their lack of obedience is a theme which the author of Hebrews picks up on and presses home in chapter 4.  Chapter 4 opens up with this idea of the believer’s rest and it exhorts us to press on to obtain the rest.  We’ve talked a little bit about what that rest meant.  That rest which we experience in the kingdom of God and which we ultimately experience in Heaven.  So tonight let’s look at Hebrews 4:11-13 which provide us the second great admonition of the book. 

Hebrews 4:11-13 

We do commit ourselves to sitting under Your word and seeking its truth.  We ask that by the Holy Spirit You apply its truth to our own hearts, working it out in our lives, that we might be hearers and doers of the word.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

These brief verses, this short passage, provides us the second great admonition in the book of Hebrews.  You remember, as you read through the Book of Hebrews, you come to a series of exhortations of warnings, of admonitions, all rolled up into one.  This is one of those great admonitions, the second in the book: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest.”  It’s a call, the preacher is coming out in the author of Hebrews.  He’s got to set aside teaching for a few minutes to call you to action.  He doesn’t want you to just say, “Well, you know, that’s a very interesting point.”  He wants you to embrace the practical implications of what he has been teaching.  So he goes into the “therefore.”  “Let us, therefore, in light of what we have just learned in Hebrews 4:1-10, and in the things preceding that, let us, therefore, be diligent to enter into the rest.”  Those words of exhortation are just as relevant to us today as they were when they were first uttered to this particular congregation.   

I. Professing Christians must be diligent in their seeking for kingdom rest.

There are two things that I would like for you to see.  The first one in verse 11 where the author is calling us to a Christian focus.  He wants us to have our eye on the rest.  He is teaching us there that we must be diligent in seeking for a kingdom rest.  Remember that we said that Malcolm Muggeridge says that “the only ultimate tragedy is that a man should have his home on earth.”  That’s the only ultimate tragedy, that his ultimate place of belonging is in this temporal world and is wrapped up in the material and temporal things of this life which will pass away.  That’s the only ultimate tragedy that can befall someone, when someone has their heart set on the eternal things and has embraced the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no ultimate tragedy that can befall that person.  And so, the author of Hebrews is calling us to be diligent to enter the rest.

Let’s look at that phrase there in verse 11 closely.  The first thing he is calling us there is the be diligent.  The finding of the rest which the author of Hebrews is talking about doesn’t happen on its own.  You’ve got to be diligent to enter this rest.  It requires a concentrated active effort.  We must not view the ongoing Christian life in purely passive terms.  There are some things in this Christian life in which we are to rest, to which we can contribute nothing.  Those things I don’t want to de-emphasize; in fact, I want to emphasize them greatly in the Christian life.  There is nothing, praise God, that you and I can add to Jesus Christ’s atonement.  That is something to rest in.  There is nothing that we can add, praise God, to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  That’s something to rest in.  There is nothing that we can add to the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ has ascended and sits at the right hand of God.  Whether I believe that or not, it’s still true.  And whether I recognize the significance of that for my life, it’s still true.  And so that’s something for us to learn to rest in. 

There are all these great objective truths that the New Testament gives us which are important for the Christian life that we don’t have to do anything about but believe and embrace in our lives.  But that’s not the only part of sanctification.  We are called to strive to enter into the rest.  So there is an aspect of the Christian life in which we embrace these objective realities, the ascension, the atonement, the resurrection, the Second Coming — we don’t add anything to those truths.  It’s important for us simply to embrace these as truth.  That act is almost like a slingshot in our Christian life.  But, there is also another side to our Christian life which is active.  And Hebrews and Paul characterize that aspect of the Christian life as involving deliberate activity on our part.  Listen to the words of F. F. Bruce:  “In view of the glory that is accessible to faith, in view of the disaster that falls upon unbelief, our author urges his reader once more to make it their earnest endeavor to attain the eternal home of the people of God and not miss it through disobedience like that of the Israelites in  the wilderness.  Zeal and perseverance are called for.  No one can be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease.”

He quotes Isaac Watts there.  You have probably sung that hymn where Watts speaks of those who desire to be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease.  That’s not the picture of Christian sanctification.  That’s not the Pauline picture of what the Christian life is about.  It involves being diligent.  And the author is calling us to this kind of diligence. 

Let me give you a human illustration of this.  In the last century there was a very important professor of theology at Cambridge named  Charles Simeon.  Under Charles Simeon, a string of evangelical and Reformed missionaries went out onto the field of mission in Asia and Africa and all over the world.  One of the most famous was a young man named Henry Martyn who was very, very intelligent, who had the highest grades in his class in the university, and yet the desire of his heart was to go to the mission field.  People asked, “Henry, why would you waste all the talents, you are frail, why would you want to go to the mission field?  But Henry Martyn was determined to serve the Lord on the mission field.  He went to the mission field and he died on the mission field, as a young man after a short time of service for the Lord, not unlike Robert Murray M’Cheyne.  Robert Murray M’Cheyne was dead at 30, but what a tremendous impact he had on the mission to Israel in his time.  And Charles Simeon never forgot Henry Martyn for the rest of his life.  Simeon, himself, would have loved to have gone to the mission field, but his health prevented him from being able to go to the field.  He had a profound regard for his student, Henry Martyn and he had a beautiful oil painting of Martyn hanging over his fireplace.  If you were to visit Charles Simeon’s home in Cambridge, he would actually introduce you to Henry Martyn when you came in the door and say something like this: “There, see that blessed man.  What an expression of countenance.  No one looked at me like he does.  He never takes  his eyes of me and he seems always to be saying to me , ‘Charles, don’t trifle.  Be serious.  Be in earnest.  Be about the work of the Lord.  Don’t trifle, Charles.  Don’t trifle.’”

The very life of Henry Martyn was a challenge to Charles Simeon, that great man of the faith, to be in earnest about doing the Lord’s work, to be in earnest in seeking that rest, that city which has foundations.

Now let me ask you a question.  Are you actively involved in encouraging one another like that?  I can tell you some times of crisis in mine own experience in Britain in the context of academic study in the university.  I would be wrestling through deeply troubling things and I can tell you over and over how simple fellowship with non-academic, committed Christians in the local congregation was what the Lord used to keep me from going over the edge.  Because I saw a quality of spiritual life in these people’s hearts that I could not deny was real.  No matter how much Satan vexed my own mind with the questions of unbelieving knowledge, I saw the reality of Christ in the lives of men and women.  It was a tremendous encouragement.  They may not have even known that they were encouraging me in the faith, but the were.  They were encouraging me to be diligent.  Now do we encourage one another like that?  That’s one of our jobs, to be actively encouraging one another in pursuing that rest.  From time to time, we see friends who seem to falter in their interest in Christ.  Somewhere along the way they were committed  church-going Christians who were drinking up the preaching of the word, they were studying the word on their own, and then we seem them lose interest.  Do we care enough about them to encourage them in those faltering moments to be diligent to enter the rest?  That’s what people who love one another do.  Are our eyes open to that?  Do we desire and encourage one another like that?  I think that is one of the things that we ought to be doing as believers.  And praying for that — us that a regular prayer?  “Lord, you have laid this member of the congregation on my heart.  I pray that they would be diligent to enter the rest.  And I pray that you would give me the opportunity to encourage them in that.  What an excellent goal to aim for.

Again in this phrase in verse 11, we have a call to enter the rest.  The author isn’t just interesting in you pursuing this rest.  He wants you to get it.  He wants you to enter into this rest.  He wants you to attain the goal.  When he calls you to be diligent to enter the rest, that is a call to perseverance, saying, “Don’t start and quit half way through the project.”  He is saying, “I want you to finish.”  It’s just like when I wanted to start playing football in 9th grade, and my father said, “One rule, Ligon, if you start you can’t quit.”  And boy, there were some days in late July and early August when I really regretted making that promise to Dad.  But I didn’t quit, and the author of Hebrews is saying, “Now look, Christian, one rule, don’t quit.  I want you to enter the rest.”  Notice that both the positive and the negative calls to perseverance.  In verse one he said, “Let us fear lest we should come short of the rest.”  And then positively in verse 11 he says, “Let us be diligent to enter the rest.”  He says it both ways.  He says, “Tremble when you think what it would be like not to enter this rest.   And in verse 11, he says, “Strive, be diligent to enter into the rest.”  And so he says it both positively and negatively.  He is saying, “Don’t start out on a journey that doesn’t end up in the promised land.  That’s where I want you to be.  That’s what I want for you.  That’s what God wants for you.”  He is calling us to a determination to persevere in faith and trust until the goal has been obtained. 

There are obstacles along the way for us as we are seeking that  rest.  There are things that come into our lives from time to time which draw our attention off of that ultimate goal.  If you have read Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan tells you about some of the things that come into our experience which distract us from the ultimate goal. sometimes it is relationships.  Sometimes it is business and material prosperity.  Sometimes it is seeking for worldliness power and influence and status.  There are various things that come into our experience and distract us from that goal.  That again is another place where encouragement comes into play.  Have you noticed how often the idea of encouragement comes into the Book of Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews knows that one of the Holy Spirit’s weapons in his great arsenal against those who have a tendency to lag behind in the race.  It’s the encouragement of other believers.  He calls us to encourage other believers and that is overcoming those obstacles. 

II. Professing Christians must take heed of the warnings and promises of Scripture.

There is another thing I want you to see in verses 12 and 13.  The  author connects verse 11 to verses 12 and 13 with a little word “for.”  “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”  What is the connection between verse 12 and the previous verse?  Why does he say, “Let us be diligent because the word of God is living and active?”  What is the point of the connection?  Is the connection in thought between verse 12 and verse 11.  The connection is this: Disobedience always involves a rejection of a command, a word.  The author in verse 11  warns us against falling short by disobedience. And then he says, “Why?  Because the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.  It’s just like when a parent is disciplining a child.  Normally we discipline our children for something that we have told them not to do or for not doing something that we have told them to do.  For instance, when our child, after we have said, don’t do such and such, and they go right ahead and do it, looking at us the whole time and sort of waiting to see what our reaction is going to be.  Yep, total depravity.  I have seen it — look me right in the eyes and do it three times. “Sarah Kennedy, don’t throw that sand out of the sand pile again.”  Whish.  You know, right in your eyes.  Eventually discipline comes. Why?  Because a word, a command has been broken.  What is the connection between verses 11 and 12?  Why did he start talking about the word of God?  Because what has been broken in disobedience is God’s word.  He wants us to start thinking about two things.  In verse 12 he wants us to start thinking about the word of God that has been given as a command and in verse 13, he wants to think about the eyes of God.  God is seeing what we are doing.  He wants us to be aware of the nature of the word of God and in verse 13 he wants us to remember God is watching. 

In this case Hebrews is warning us in verse 12 that failure to recognize with God’s word will result in judgment because, first of all in verse 12, the word of God searches us out.  The author gives us some of the divine qualities of the word just so we will see how it is that the word of God searches us out.  As we look at the character of the word of God, as we read the word of God, we will see these qualities in the word. 

First he speaks of the word being living.  This word is not just a beautiful book that was written hundreds of years ago by some guy who is dead and gone and really didn’t know anything about you or about me or about our culture.  Nor is this word even written by someone who lived hundreds of years ago and was incredibly perceptive about how the world would be today.  This word was written by a person who is still living and He has invested this word with a dynamic quality about it so that this word is not simply the divine command of God, but is the personal word of the Holy Spirit to every one of us.  It is not just propositional.  That is,  it is not just made up of divinely inspired sentences.  It’s personal.  It is both given to us in word and phrases and sentences, but it is also the word of a person who still lives to us.  It is as if God, Himself, were speaking into our ears His view of us and of truth.  It’s not a dead word spoken by irrelevant dead men from the past, it’s a living oracle.  

Today, we live in a world of deconstructionism.  If you are in an English Department, the way you do your standard write-off of Shakespeare and Milton is you say, “Oh, they are just dead, white European males.”  “Dwems,” they call them.  Well the Bible was not written dead, white European males.  It wasn’t even written by dead, darkish Eurasian males.  It was written by God, Himself.  He still lives.  And so it is a living oracle.  It is different from any other book.

Notice he says it is active.  What does he mean by that?  It is active in the sense that the word of God speeds to accomplish the purpose for which it has been uttered.  Do you remember Isaiah’s word?  God does not send His word out without it accomplishing that which He has sent it to do.  Or it does not return to Him void.  His word is not an empty word.  What He speaks happens.  Example — Genesis 1, “Let there be light and there was light.”  Why does God tell us not to say one thing and do another?  Because what He says He does and He want us to be like Him.  But His word actually speaks reality into existence.  It is an active word; and, therefore, it is a challenging word.  And it disallows anyone saying, “Oh well, that’s really nice.  But it doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”  It accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Notice also that it is a sharp word.  It is penetrating.  It is cutting.  It probes our inmost being.  It cuts and pierces into the depths of the heart.  Calvin and some of the early church fathers used to call our hearts “labyrinths.”  They are a maze.  Even when  you look at them, you can’t quite figure them out.  You can’t quite figure out the complex of motives that led you to do certain things.  No matter how long you think about it.  The heart is a labyrinth.  You can’t figure it out.  But God’s word can sort it out.  It can penetrate and understand and analyze.  It cuts and pierces the depths of our hearts and it unravels mystery.  The word of God is sharp, it is able to penetrate, analyze and discern.

Last century there was a professor of Old Testament at New College in Edinburgh named John Duncan.  They called him “Rabbi Duncan” because he was the professor of Hebrew and he not only taught the language of Hebrew, but he taught Old Testament and various other Semitic languages.  He was a very famous professor.  He, himself, as a young man had been an atheist.  He had grown up in a Presbyterian home.  He had been converted first to theism in his philosophy class at Aberdeen.  He had come to believe in the existence of God and subsequently he had been converted to Christ.  He became a great Christian teacher and preacher in the last century.  He used to recommend to his students to read John Owen’s Treaty on Indwelling Sin.  He would say, “Men, you need to study this book because God’s ministers need to be holy and that means that they need to examine their own heart.  You need to know what kind of indwelling sin you have in your heart so that you can pray for the Lord to help you deal with it, so that God’s Holy Spirit will make you aware of these issues that you have to wrestle with.”  He would always say to the men after they went home.  He would say, “But, gentlemen, prepare for the knife.”  What he is saying is, if you really read this book, you are going to read it in tears, because it is going to tell you just like you are.  It is going to discern things about your heart that you have suppressed and you haven’t wanted to think about. 

The Bible is just like that.  If you read this book, it will discern things about you.  One of the things by which the Bible testifies to us that it is the word is that it so accurately describes our own hearts.  How could these men who lived hundreds, thousands of years ago, be so accurate in describing me?  Because their words were God’s words and God made me and that is what I am like.  And so His book is incredible  in its ability to penetrate and probe our inmost being, because the One who made you is the One who wrote the book.

In this passage in verse 12 it says that the word is not only living, it’s not only active, it’s not only sharp, but it is discerning.  It is able to judge thoughts and intentions, it is able to analyze, criticize, approve and disapprove, that which we do, that which we think, that which we desire.  It is able to sort those things out.  Sometimes when you are in the middle of a controversy and you have had to make a controversial choice and you have thought about it and tried to do what is right and then a controversy breaks out and good men say one thing on this side and good men say another thing on that side, what is one of the things that happens?  You sometimes get confused don’t you?  You say, “Well, I am not sure whether I did the right thing now.  I’m not sure whether I can sort out why I did that.  I thought I was trying to do the right thing, but this man is a good man and he says I’m wrong, and this man is a good man and he says I’m right.  And I’m just not sure.”  It gets very confusing.  The word of God can sort out things, thoughts and intentions and approve and disprove.  The point of the author is that in light of the fact that the word of God is living and active and sharp and discerning.  That we cannot ignore it.  We can’t say, “Oh well, take it or leave it.  I’m indifferent to that.”  The word of God has spoken to us and; therefore, we have only two choices.  We may either obey it or disobey it.  That’s why he has verse 12  in there like he does.  He is warning us, he wants us to diligently seek to enter the rest; and if we are going to do that, we cannot ignore the word of God. 

Then he goes on and speaks about the One who is behind the word of God, and that is God.  He says not only ought we to be diligent because of the word of God, the word of God can search out, the word of God knows where our hearts are, our friends may see us as church-going religious people even though we are empty in our hearts in terms of our relationship with God.  He is saying the word of God can sort you out.  The word of God knows what you are like on the inside. 

In verse 13 he says, furthermore, God knows what you are like.  He is watching.  The eyes of God search us out because God is behind the word itself.  It is His word.  We are told that He sees and He knows everything in everyone.  Listen to this frightening phrase if one is hiding unrighteousness: “All things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him.”  If you have nothing to hide, that is not a frightening thought.  I heard the phrase this afternoon and you will know where it came from: “In the United States of America, you can’t be convicted of perjury if you haven’t lied.”  So it doesn’t matter if you are being investigated, if you haven’t lied, you can’t be convicted of perjury.  To be laid bare, it doesn’t matter if you are unrighteous, but if you are unrighteous, it is the most terrifying thought for everybody in the world to know what you have done.  So the author goes on to say that we must give account to Him because He is the One with whom we have to do.  That’s an incredible phrase, isn’t it, speaking about God.  He doesn’t just say, because He is God.  He says He is the One with whom we have to do.  I think the phrase emphasizes that whether a person goes through this life indifferent towards God or not, we are all going to have to do business with God, sooner or later.  Better do it sooner.  He is the One with whom we have to do. 

We live in a world that is obsessed with looking good on the outside, even if we are not good on the inside.  We live in a world that is obsessed by perception rather than character.  And in a world that is obsessed with perception and spin and appearances, God is calling us to seek diligently the rest, because the only thing that matters is what God thinks of you.  So, let us live for Him.  Let’s look to Him in prayer. 

Our Heavenly Father, we thank you for the truth of Your word.  It is more reliable and it is more directly applicable to our lives than the very front pages of the newspaper today.  Not only because it is true, not only because it is infallible, not only because it never errs, but because it is Your word and it lives.  So by the Spirit, energize us, we pray, to have a zeal to enter the rest.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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