Saturday, November 19, 2011

resting from our "works": Hebrews 4:10

I have long had difficulty figuring out Hebrews 4:10: "The one who has entered into his rest has also himself rested from his own works just as God from his own."

1. It's not that a number of easy interpretations don't jump out.  Ah, first thought, this is the old Martin Luther "faith versus works" issue.  We stop trying to be justified by works and instead rest in justification by faith.

The problem is that Hebrews doesn't say anything about the old faith versus works debate.  That's an issue in a couple of Paul's writings.  This is a great illustration of how you have to let each author, indeed each book of the Bible speak in its own terms.

Of course, even the old "faith versus works" debate is a skewed version of Paul.  Paul believes in works. It's "works of [Jewish] law" that Paul is primarily concerned with.  He makes no absolute distinction between the two.

2. Then there is a very local interpretation I grew up with.  The passage is about entire sanctification, resting from the fight against sin, finding it easy to be righteous and do good.

3. If you want an example of repeated comments I make about very few people being able to read the Bible in context, here is one.  We bring a dictionary of later church history and our traditions to the Bible and define the "obvious" meanings of the Bible without a clue.  That doesn't mean we aren't preaching truth.  It just means that half our preaching isn't really the Bible. This is why even at Wesley Seminary with its practical emphasis, we insist that the Bible, theology, and church history teaching be done by people who are experts in this area, people who are trained to be able to read the Bible exegetically as well as theologically.

Let me offer a suggestion for what resting from works here might mean in context:

a. The context is the image of Israel leaving Egypt but not making it to the Promised Land because of lack of faith.  They did not enter God's rest.  This image resonates with a recurring theme in Hebrews.  If we do not continue in faith to the end of our earthly pilgrimage, we will not be part of the coming kingdom.  As an exhortation, therefore, the exhortation to enter rest is about making it to the end (3:6, 14).  We may enter in a sense "every day called today" (3:13), but the ultimate sense of entering has to do with the end of our journey, which does not come until death or Christ's return.

6. Hebrews characterizes the present of the audience as one of striving, of effort, of diligence.  "Let us be diligent" (4:11).  In Hebrews' thought world, we thus do not rest, do not ultimately enter rest while we are in this life.

7. Work is not negative in Hebrews, as in the "faith versus works" interpretation.  God's work is the creation, and it is not a bad mark on his resume (4:3-4).

8. I am now in a position to argue that the "sabbath rest" of Hebrews refers to the ultimate rest from our striving, at the end of our persistence in faith, our endurance in obedience, one that will not ultimately come until God's unshakeable kingdom arrives.  We will rest from our "works" when we finally make it to the end.  In this world, however, Hebrews insists that we work our way through the wilderness, pilgrims and strangers on the earth looking for a city that is to come (11:13; 13:14), whose builder and maker is God.

Beware when your interpretation fits too tidily with the categories of later Christian traditions, whether they be those of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation, or the nineteenth century holiness movement for that matter.  God inspired the authors of the New Testament in the categories of ancient Jews.  The past is a foreign country.


Dick Norton said...

Great post, Ken! I love it when you read the Bible in context. The result is rich, rewarding, and so different from the isogesis we both grew up with. Thank you! And Happy Thanksgiving -- even if you are far away in Europe.


Ken Schenck said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!