I find it fascinating that all of the blessings Jesus secured for the believer in and through His mediatorial work—including, most especially, heaven itself—are frequently depicted in the Bible in terms of rest. This is overwhelmingly the case in Hebrews 4, for instance, when the apostle speaks of heaven in terms of “entering [God’s] rest” (v. 1) and then exhorts Christians in his own day to “strive to enter that rest” (v. 11) by believing in the Lord rather than disobeying Him and, thus, “failing to reach it” (v. 1). The apostle’s ongoing reference to Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:7-11; 4:3, 5, 7) and his explicit mention of both Moses (3:16) and Joshua (4:8) indicate that this rest was foreshadowed and typified in the land of Canaan (see especially 4:8-9). But it was also foreshadowed and typified in the system of “sabbaths” that God instituted beginning with His own resting after He had finished the work of creation. Thus heaven is also referred to as a “Sabbath rest for the people of God,” one in which we rest from our works in the same way “as God did from his” (4:9-10).
In referring to heaven as rest that is typified in the land of Canaan, the apostle is teaching us that the promised land was designed to point God’s people to and prepare them for heaven. It was never intended as an end in itself. That much is obvious in the fact that we are told Moses and Joshua were unable to give God’s people permanent rest on earth (Heb. 4:8). They could only provide a temporary respite, because it was only in the heavenly “promised land”—of which Canaan was a type—that the people could receive lasting rest. So while the rest provided by the earthly promised land was not an end in itself for the people of Israel, it was, nevertheless, intended as a means to prepare them for their ultimate end, which was heaven. The rest they enjoyed in Canaan whet their appetites for more, for better, and for more extensive rest in heaven. It gave them a sample taste, an hors d’ouvre if you will, that set the stage for the main course.
In referring to heaven as a “Sabbath rest” that is typified in the system of sabbaths given to Israel, the apostle is teaching us that the purpose for the sabbath principle was to prepare God’s people for a rest that will be permanent and lasting. The system of sabbaths called them to live eschatologically, with their eyes on the last day. Each week they were reminded that they were heading toward an eternal and superior rest in the presence of the Lord. The weekly sabbaths—and the system of sabbaths as a whole—pointed them in that direction and encouraged them to make the most of the rest God had provided here and now because they would be doing so forevermore.
One of the interesting aspects of Hebrews 4:8-9 is that the apostle doesn’t simply refer to heaven as a “Sabbath rest for the people of God,” but he also indicates that it mirrors the rest that God has been taking ever since He completed His work of creation: “for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10). This not only confirms the fact that our weekly “sabbath” rest points us to and prepares us for heaven, but it also teaches us what both occasions of rest will be like. They will both be patterned after God’s sabbath rest, which is not inactive but wholly active.
When God rested after finishing His work of creation in six days, His rest was filled with activity. We know this because Jesus says so in John 5:17 when He argues that the reason He is “working” on the sabbath is because God has always been “working until now.” If sabbath rest for God involves “working” then it can and should for Jesus too—and for all who follow after Jesus as well.
In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus highlights the kinds of works that are appropriate for us to being doing during our earthly sabbath days of rest. He points to two kinds of works chiefly: works of necessity and mercy. We will look at each from Matthew 12 briefly.
In answer to the objection raised by the Pharisees that Jesus’s disciples “are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” because they had started “to pluck heads of grain and to eat” them (vv. 1-2), Jesus says:
Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (vv. 3-5)
Even though David and his companions were prohibited in the Law from eating the bread of the Presence, an exception was made on this occasion because they were hungry and had nothing else to eat. And because eating is necessary in order to sustain human life, Jesus says, mercy was therefore the order of the day for David and his companions. What is more, Jesus points out, the priests work in the temple every sabbath and are never charged with breaking the sabbath. That is because their work is necessary. If they don’t work, the people of God cannot worship God on the sabbath. What they do is just as necessary as eating is to sustaining human life. That’s why mercy is extended to the priests as well, which is exactly what Jesus is arguing should happen in the case of His disciples too. Their “work” of harvesting a few grains to eat on the sabbath is a work of necessity, and, thus, mercy should be the order of the day for them as well.
This encounter is then followed in Matthew 12 by another in which the Pharisees ask Jesus a second question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (v. 10). Jesus answers by saying: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (vv. 11-12). Jesus’s point is that it is not merely works of necessity that are appropriate for us to be doing on days of rest. Works of mercy or, as He puts it, of “doing good,” are also appropriate. No one in their right mind would ever think to leave their sheep in the pit overnight if it has fallen into one but would instead “lift it out,” even if this means the work must be done on the sabbath day. Works of necessity and works of mercy are both to be allowed, because, as Jesus says, God “desire[s] mercy and not sacrifice” (v. 7).
If, according to Hebrews 4:10, heaven will be a “Sabbath rest” for us and if this “Sabbath rest” will be like God’s, then inactivity will not be the order of the day for us when we get to heaven any more than it is now for God. This means that when we rest and engage in works of mercy and necessity during our time on earth, we are preparing ourselves for heaven. We are training ourselves for the “work” we will be doing for eternity. Rather than feeling like our experiences of rest are simply a waste of time—something that I have acknowledged I am guilty of (see my first article on rest)—we ought to look at rest for what it is: a blessing from God to fit us for heaven. We need to remember this whenever we may be tempted to bristle at the idea of resting. God is preparing us for an eternity with Him in His presence, one in which we will be perfectly resting and perfectly working at the same time forevermore.