(Syndicated from the Stabs of Joy blog.)

Note to the reader: the Keller Project has a simple goal: write/post my sermons notes for every sermon preached by Bible scholar Timothy Keller since 1989. Keller is the author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Each post is a commentary and summary of my notes from listening to one of his messages. (And to briefly introduce myself: I’m the author of the C. S. Lewis-themed book Shadowlands and Songs of Light.)

Finding ‘The Rest-Giver’ in Hebrews 4:1-13 (And Finding Rest in God in a Workaholic Culture)

One thing pops out when you read the book of Hebrews in the Bible: God really wants us to value rest–both physical and spiritual rest (which we’ll define in a moment)–and to truly treasure and preserve our rest with zeal and intensity.

In Psalm 95, for example, what is the awful punishment, the dreaded consequence of turning away from God?

No rest.

Judith Shulanitz (a writer for the New York Times when Dr. Keller preached this sermon) had a religious Jewish upbringing, but she rebelled against detailed Sabbath observances. She found she had a problem: her mood would darken on the weekend. Her realization: “I was suffering from the lack of Sabbath rest.”

Sabbath resting is one of the Ten Commandments, placed alongside commandments such as “thou shalt not murder.” This is shocking. In other words, a society that encourages over-work is in the same context of brutality of a society that allows thievery, murder, adultery, etc.

Why is our society so over-worked?

Technology is a huge reason. Smart phone addiction is an epidemic. Work follows us everywhere on our phones.

But that’s an obvious reason.

There’s also a cultural explanation. In traditional societies in the past, we got our value from our families and our clans. It was all about “we” not “me.”

Not so anymore.

We now live in the most individualistic society in history.

What does this mean?

It means we must now earn all of our value on our own. It means our relationship with work has completely changed. At one time, work was something simple: it was how we got our family ahead. But now work supplies everything we need and want, including the value we once drew from family. This leads to an incredibly demanding lifestyle that requires exhausting work ethics.

In a strange twist, we also use our family to boost our individual status. Family exists to serve the individual’s need. The individual no longer exists to serve the family’s need. (Having a family requires a certain measure of selflessness. Is that why our me-first individualistic society is having less families? Have we become more selfish than past generations?)

Bottom-line: We’re the most over-worked society in history.

But the Gospel illuminates the problem even further and points us to the exit, to the way of escape.

Two Kinds of Rest: Rest from the Reproach of Others; Rest from Self-Reproach (aka Self-Justification, Self-Righteousness, Spiritual Pride, etc.)

Hebrews 4:1-13 is very hard to follow if you’re not careful. Its line of thought is difficult because the author is using rest in very different ways with each time the word shows up in the text. As Keller says: “He is not using it univocally but equivocally.”

Before we go any further, let’s read the passage in question:

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed.[a] 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,

“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”[b]

And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.”[c] 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”

6 Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, 7 God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”[d]

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day.9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works,[e] just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

The first way rest is used in v. 3 is referring to the rest of the Promised Land.

The land of Canaan was rest. It was physical rest and social rest. The Israelites were slaves. Canaan was rest from that. God is saying here basically: when you rest, it is a declaration of freedom: “I am not a cog in a machine, I am not a slave to materialism, I am not a slave to the identity system of society, I am declaring my identity in God.”

When you rest, it is a revolutionary act.

Second way rest is used: when it refers to God’s rest in beginning of time.

But wait, God does not get tired. How can the Bible say this? He does not get weary or worn out as if He were mortal. What in the world does it mean when He rested from His work (quoting Gen. 2:2).

We need to look at the context of that verse in Genesis: God was satisfied with what He had done. He was pleased with what He had done. That’s the meaning of that word “rest” in the Genesis context: a sense of arrival and satisfaction about what has been in done. It is a deep spiritual rest. We need more than physical/social rest, in other words. There is an inner issue to deal with.

There’s a deeper rest, and here’s a hint: everyone on this earth is extremely desperate for this deeper kind of rest because no one can get it.

Something else to think about in regards to all of this: religious rituals do not exist just to promote togetherness.

Nope. Religious rituals are designed to tell a certain story of who we are: to remind us that there is more to us than our work. As Shulanitz wrote about the Sabbath: “[during the Sabbath rest] the machinery of self-censorship shut down, too, stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.”

This means being completely at rest in your heart and not frantically trying to always prove ourselves and striving to make ourselves acceptable in our eyes, in the eyes of others, and in the eyes of God. Unless we can rest from that “eternal murmur of self-rapproach” we can’t get the deep rest that God intended for us on the Sabbath.

Believing in the Gospel causes us to enter this deep spiritual rest. If the physical rest that Joshua achieved in the Old Testament period was the only type of rest, God would not have continued to talk about a coming rest (like the “rest” that is prophesied in Psalm 95).

This second kind of rest–i.e. a deeper kind the goes beyond physical–can only be gotten through the Gospel.

The Ordeal We Must All Endure

Third thing: there is a terrible ordeal we must go through before we enter into this deep rest. V. 12 breaks it down: the Word of God is an incredibly sharp sword that cuts down to the bare roots of everything and exposes all of your real motivations and reasons for doing things.

When you get down there to that point–when the Word cuts that deep and you feel it without any of the numbing agents we use to deflect and avoid God–in that moment you will feel defenseless, uncovered, and helpless–“totally naked” is what the words mean in this verse.w

So what on earth is this verse doing here in this whole passage about rest?!

Answer: You will never come into this deep rest of the heart unless you go through a process of spiritual nakedness. It is hearkening back to Gen. 3, which speaks about them being in their original state, naked and unashamed, and there was no problem with it.


Because they were absolutely at rest and satisfied with who they were on every level of their being. There was no distance between their heart and God’s heart. There were no rifts.

But the minute we turn from God, the minute we decided to be our own saviors and our own lords, at the deepest level they knew–we all know deep down–we are radically unfit for the job of being the god of our own lives. A deep unease and inadequacy and spiritual nakedness, a kind that causes fear and restlessness, is at the core of every fallen heart. It’s a horrible ordeal to have to see it, to have to really face the reality of this problem at the center of your life. You suddenly see how it lies sneakily behind all your motivations. But going through this ordeal and facing the truth about the state of the fallen heart is a necessary step to reach this rest.

Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial.” The character Joseph K. wakes up and finds he is arrested, but he never finds out why, and he is eventually executed. It’s a parable for our modern situation.

Modern society doesn’t believe in sin or the Fall but deep down inside we know there’s something wrong with us and we are driven and we are covering ourselves, working so hard, being perfectionists. These are fig leaves.

Not until you get that can you understand verse 10. Anyone who enters God’s rest will also rest from their work just as God did.

Again we must face a difficult truth: Our works are worthless if it is an attempt at self-justifying work. If we’re working to justify ourselves, whether to earn God’s favor by doing good works or find peace about our identity by achieving great things in our careers or ministries or families, we will never ever be satisfied or find rest.

We all feel the emptiness of our failed attempts to justify ourselves and prove our worth to God, to others, and to ourselves. It haunts us.

This haunting exposes the truth that all of our hard work to be a good person and earn our ticket to Heaven by our own awesomeness is based on something rather shocking: the motivation to feel good about yourself and construct a self-image that chases away your fears and restlessness about who you are.

The core of the fallen heart: the realization that all your unselfishness is selfish.

All your loving of other people is really loving yourself.

Maybe you’ve tossed out all the major sin habits in your life, but there’s still a problem: the thing really separating you from God and true rest is not really your sins but your damnable good works. Repented from your sins? Great. But just repenting from what you do wrong doesn’t bring you this rest described in Hebrews 4.

It’s not just repenting from everything you’re doing wrong but repenting from the reason you’re doing everything right. To be clear: still avoid the bad stuff, but the secret motivations for righteousness, the selfish self-justification, the tainted motivations, it’s all a deadly toxin that cuts our restless hearts off from true rest. It’s just a religious form of self-justification.

In the film “Chariots of Fire,” the runner Harold Abram says, “I’m running the 100 yard dash because when that gun goes off I have 10 seconds to justify myself.” In other words: I’m working hard so I can feel good about who I am.

In the same film, the other runner Eric Liddel says: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.”

One man running in order to be sure about who he is. The other running because he knows who he is.

One man is always working even when he’s resting; one man is always resting even when he’s working.

How do I get to the second one, the place where I’m always resting even when I’m working?

Go to the source of all rest, which brings us to the final point.

The Author of Rest

In verse 13, we read this phrase: “everything is uncovered and laid bare.” But there’s a failure of translation. Craig Klester, a Bible scholar and translator, points out that this phrase meant to stretch the neck back so you could cut it in two. The word was always used in connection to sacrificing animals in temple. It’s a direct relation to the previous sword verse, but modern translations don’t quite make that clear.

There’s sort of a brutal point being made here, and the sharpness of the point is meant to cut our pride in two.

Francis Schaefer said this: Imagine you had a tape recorder around your neck your whole life and it only recorded what you said whenever you told someone “You ought..” or “you ought not” to do something. On Judgment Day, God says, “I’m going to be really fair about this, I’m not going to judge you by my standards or some religious leader’s standards from history. I will simply judge you by your standards that you laid on everyone else. Let’s play the tape recorder around your neck and judge your life by your own measures and standards.”

Not a single person would pass that test.

If there is a God of true justice, we’re all going to be cut off. We will all be “laid bare,” meaning (using the actual language of this verse) the sword will cut us in two (in a spiritual sense).

And yet, the very next verse in v. 14 says, “He is a high priest, go to Him and He will give you grace and mercy in a time of need.”

But wait a minute, don’t the other verses imply us being cut off?

But it won’t be us who are cut off.

Jesus was cut off for us.

Jesus experienced radical and cosmic restlessness and eternal separation for us. The eternal murmuring and endless restless work and insecurity that we contain in our hearts has already been defeated. Jesus has already ended that work. He has done that work for you. He is the only one that can silence that eternal murmur and cause you to “lay your deadly doing down.”

When you realize that you will never be able to do enough work to satisfy your heart or please others or please God, but that you are saved because Jesus has done that work for us on the Cross, then we finally arrive at that place of deep rest.

Go to the foot of the Cross and lay your deadly doing down.

And then you can rest even when you’re working.

Going away thought: ask the Holy Spirit to get you through the ordeal, to show you what lies at the heart of your motivations and to expose all of the frantic efforts of secret “works righteousness” and self-justification that lie behind the things you do and say.