You know those times when you're reading a familiar passage of the Bible and all of a sudden you stop short and think, "Um . . . when did that get in there?" Something strikes you a different way, or you're reading a different translation so an aspect of what's written becomes more apparent or something?
Yeah, well, that happened to me yesterday.
Hebrews is a potentially confusing book of the Bible. Probably particularly to those of us who are not ethnically Hebrews. I like to think I have a pretty good handle on the Old Testament, and I think my "handle" on it is probably better than a decent number of Gentile Christians', but I'm still not Jewish, nor do I know many Jewish people, and I can't very well pretend I am or do.
However, I do have this Bible . . . the Complete Jewish Bible. It's part translation and part paraphrase and you can read about the philosophy behind it on the website, but I guess what I'm getting at right now is that, because it's been translated/paraphrased by a Jewish person, there are occasions where I have a minor epiphany that has more to do with a Jewish worldview peering through the words than simply the fact that the words are slightly differently ordered than the NIV/NRSV/KJV conglomeration of words I imbued as a child. Then again, surely I've read Hebrews in this version before . . .
Yesterday I was reading Hebrews 4 (all ensuing Biblical quotations will be from the CJB unless otherwise noted). "Therefore," it begins, "let us be terrified of the possibility that, even though the promise of entering his rest remains, any one of you might be judged to have fallen short of it."
The writer of Hebrews has just been using the account of God's "resting" on the seventh "day" after creation as a picture of His promise for all of us. Said writer is warning his (or her!) readers not to ignore God's voice if they hear it, and so miss out on His "rest," like the ancient Israelites did when they doubted Him in the desert. So now here's this injunction to be terrified in case you miss out. I'm going to be honest and tell you that the first, not very politically correct, thought that entered my head was, "Okay, so there are some verses in this book that make 'works theology' seem pretty biblical!" I guess what I meant is, this verse in this translation makes it sound an awful lot like you have to try to earn your own salvation.
Of course, this verse sounds a little different in, say, the NRSV: "Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care than none of you should seem to have failed to reach it." Seem to have failed, huh? What does that even mean? That makes it sound like the whole thing is about appearances.
The next verses completely turn the "works theology" around, though: " . . . for the Good News has also been proclaimed to us, just as it was to them. But the message they heard didn't do them any good, because those who heard it did not combine it with trust. For it is we who have trusted who enter the rest" (4.2-3). Ohhhhh.
This is one thing I really like about the CJB. It never uses the word faith, which I feel is one of those words which has been spiritualised to the point of being well-nigh meaningless. Any time another translation would say faith, the CJB says trust. So . . . those ancient Hebrews didn't "enter God's rest" because they didn't trust Him. They didn't trust He was going to get them through the wall of giants and . . . so He didn't. Not until the next generation, anyway.
The thing that really jumped at me yesterday, though, was verses 9-11: "So there remains a Shabbat-keeping for God's people. For the one who has entered God's rest has also rested from his own works, as God did from his. Therefore, let us do our best to enter that rest; so that no one will fall short because of the same kind of disobedience."
"Rested from his own works." I've read this chapter so many times, and I think I've always thought, "Yeah, yeah . . . Sabbath rest, a Jewish concept . . . good symbol for Heaven . . . " I never until yesterday saw this passage as talking about the here and now. Because of Jesus, our great High Priest/Mediator between us and the Father (a concept which the Hebrews-author will talk about at length shortly), we can rest from our "works" as God rested from His. At most I saw it as an injunction to take time off every seven days. But this passage does exactly the opposite of defend a view of salvation in which we have to purchase our own by our own good works (including, maybe, taking time off every seven days? Which I still think is a valuable practice, regardless). It clearly says that the only thing we have to do is trust. Trusting implies resting. That resting trust is the keeping of the Sabbath that the writer is talking about here.
The disobedience that causes us to fall short is our own works. As any good born-again evangelical will tell you, you can't do enough good works to get to Heaven, or to get in good with God. If that's what we're trusting in, there will be no rest at all, and we will certainly fall short of the rest. That kind of lifestyle is completely opposed to rest--antithetical to it. It's not so much that God shuts us out of His promise, as that we shut ourselves out.
Why is it so hard just to trust Him and rest?