Transformation through divine rest

One of the less common expressions of transformational ministry comes from the book of Hebrews.

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
(Heb 4:9-11 ESV)

The Hebrews would have understood full well the effort it took to prepare for the Sabbath. Food was cooked the night before. They took one day and set it apart from their normal daily activities to rest. They let everyone rest, visiting foreigners, slaves, everyone.

By the time the exile and the transition to Synagogue worship complex liturgies and prayers were put into practice. To this day many observant Jews go through specific prayers and services to honor and observe the Sabbath. Most of it involves eating good food leisurely and resting. They made a great effort to carve out enough time to rest and receive from God. The practice is not onerous.

This Sabbath rest was intended as blessing to those who practice it. God promised to those that observed the Sabbath that they would delight on the Lord. It was understood as a place of sanctification for God’s people.

It is a beautiful picture for how we receive the life changing grace of God. Our goal isn’t to reach God with our self-effort, but to carve out a place for him to minister to us. Making an effort to honor and observe the Sabbath is a wonderful picture of we relate to God by means of grace.

It does seem ironic that we might make every effort to not make an effort. I often find myself making the same sorts of paradoxical statements when talking of shifting towards a spirituality based on God’s grace rather than human effort. The challenge isn’t to muster up ones faith in God, but to stop, cease, rest, Sabbath from all our other activity intended to curry his favour. In order to submerge ourselves in to the transformational grace of Christ we must rest.

So many church programs take us in the opposite direction. I think A.W. Tozer said it well over 50 years ago.

“Every age has its own characteristics. Right now we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all.”

I doubt that Mr. Tozer would mind if we added rest in with peace in this statement. (I’m not sure that this sentence needs to be here. When I read it, I found myself wanting to disregard the above quote because this sentence seems to be trying to fit this quote in with the theme of this page when I think it fits the theme better without this qualifier)

Because the dominant paradigm of church ministry is the production and consumption of knowledge we fall in to the trap that more activity = more knowledge = more spiritual growth. This puts on a relentless treadmill where we don’t even give ourselves time to absorb the useful things we have been taught. This is as true in Christian higher education as it is about church. When our dominant ministry training paradigm is education, then our churches will tend to follow in the same pattern.

In short we are too busy, we try too much, and rest too little. While the greater context of Tozer’s chapter is about simplicity I see incredible overlap. Because we don’t know God that well, we are trying to occupy ourselves with activities that seem spiritual but don’t seem to help us very much. I fear they are have as much impact as the human regulations that Paul condemns in Colossians.

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
(Col 2:23 ESV)

We are afraid to cease because we don’t want to be alone in our hollowness. It is better that we strive on and fill our hollowness with wonderful spiritual distractions. People who are afraid of grace are afraid of any pause in their self-generated or church generated activity. It looks like a giant void. They are afraid that there is nothing really down there. Nothing to catch them if they fall. It is easy to see how faith and grace are so necessary together.

One of the great tragedies of restless, life consuming church activity is that it values people relative to our programs and institutions. The people matter less than the program or the organization. A people without rest are a devalued people. This is why the Sabbath included even slaves and animals in Mosaic Law. God instituted this tradition for the benefit of all people. It was a sign of his covenant to them and it communicates to us how important we are. It was instituted for people.

Sadly the religious leaders of Christ’s day turned the Sabbath into something onerous, with complicated restrictions that often ran counter to Jesus’ desire to heal and minister to people. One day when Jesus and the disciples were walking through a grain field and they plucked a few heads of grain. Upon being challenged by the religious leaders of the day Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, man wasn’t made for the Sabbath.

The church is similar to the Sabbath. It too was made for people. People weren’t made for church, church was made for people (do you want to differentiate “church” from “Church gatherings” here? It seems like you might have traditional church in mind here when you are saying this but it could be of benefit to use the definition of Church as called out ones. Or are you intending to say that Jesus made the Church for the mutual benefit and building up of one another? Either way you might want to change the wording slightly or re-frame this idea.). When people sacrifice their lives with endless fruitless church activities we’ve got things backwards. The church exists to be a benefit to the people of God’s kingdom. (again with this last sentence it seems a bit redundant in the sense that it is essentially saying: “the people of God exist to benefit the people of God” unless you make a differentiation between the use of these terms)

In so many circles, many church practices have become like the Sabbath practised in Jesus day. It runs counter to its original purpose and actually impedes the purposes of God. The problem isn’t that the Sabbath in Jesus day lacked any benefit to anyone. The Sabbath in Jesus day was most certainly beneficial to many, even with the onerous rules. I’m certain many people still rested, but the experience would have changed their perception of God for the worse. The risk we run in church is that we tell ourselves all this activity is good, and in many (some?) churches it is good, but when it becomes an obligation and it becomes more important than the people Christ died for it becomes a problem.

In addressing many religious practices of the day Jesus found that the religious leaders would neglect the most important values in favour of much less important values. He chastised the Pharisees for being so precise in calculating their tithes while neglecting to take care of their own parents. He believed they were neglecting the weightier matters of the law.

Rest is one of the weightier matters of the law. The prescribed punishment in the Mosaic Law for desecrating the Sabbath was severe and the promises for observing it were generous. How one interprets that rest might not be so important. Jesus saw no conflict with plucking some heads of grain or healing people on the Sabbath. In this Jesus shows us that in all our interpretations, guidelines, programs and rules we must always be willing to go back to the core value and re-evaluate whether we are truly honoring it or not.

The author of Hebrews linked rest with obedience. Jesus links rest with himself.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
(Mat 11:28-30 ESV)

The rest that was offered through the Sabbath is now being offered through Christ. Jesus makes a personal invitation (Utley 102). The object of faith was Jesus, not religious leaders, methods or institutions. (MacDonald) .

The word we translate humble or lowly is tapeinos which had a negative quality about it in secular Greek usage. It meant servile or excessively willing to please (Kittle 1152). At the very heart of his being, Christ desired to serve us selflessly. Many of those who pride themselves on their competency and strength would have looked at Christ in disdain because he wasn’t tough. They might have seen him as pathetic, inferior and weak. In the Greek world of Christ’s time humility wasn’t virtue (Robertson).

To have a humble heart, is to at the very essence of ones being consider others more important than oneself. Could it be that Jesus, the lamb of God, truly considered us more important than himself. At the very least the orientation of his life was to sacrifice himself for us.

Gentle and lowly in heart…I will not use you for my agenda, I will not put burdens on you that you cannot handle, I will not run you ragged, I will not drive you with shame, I will not coerce you, I will not treat you like you are worthless, I will not exploit you, I will not defame you. I will treat you like a precious object, like my very own child. When you are wrong I will not beat you, I will lead you gently away from your faults and failures. I believe you have worth, you have value and you are incredibly important to me. You are safe with me, when you are safe you will find rest and you can learn from me. (love this paragraph 🙂

The key to understanding what the people laboured for and were burdened by lies in Jesus’s appeal to the people. He offered himself. He offered gentleness and humility in contrast to the harshness and arrogance they were accustomed too.

We see evidence of this elsewhere in Matthew.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
(Mat 9:36-38 ESV)

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
(Mat 23:4 ESV)

We can find rest in Jesus because we can trust him. Jesus perceived that the people of his day were very distressed and their spiritual leaders were untrustworthy. Their spiritual leaders tied them down with heavy burdens but wouldn’t help them.

Jesus wasn’t just offering people rest from the burden of their wounds, flaws, and sin, but from an oppressive religious system presided over by hypocritical men without a clue of what it would mean to know God. Their hearts were so hardened that they couldn’t enter in to what Jesus was offering them. Not only would they refuse to enter, they would bar the way for those that would.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.
(Mat 23:13 ESV)

To be able to be transformed one must be at rest.