Grace, Faith, and the Rest of God

There is a life to be lived within the presence and provision of God offered by Him to all who are willing to live it.  It looks nothing like the life proposed by some in traditional religion today.  It is not a life that offers the freedom to tell God what to do, how to do it and when to do it.  It is not a life that strives for the things of the world.  It is not a life contrived by the flesh and its desires, but a life of submission and obedience to God.  It’s a life focused on the plan and purpose of God.  It's called God's rest.

Both David and Paul talk about this rest in God.  And both use the same illustration of Israel’s unbelief and their failure to enter into this rest following their release from slavery in Egypt (read Psalms 95:6-11Hebrews 3:7-11).  And before we go any further, let me define unbelief.  You’ll see it in several verses in this paper.  The word is apistia, and means lack of faith.  And faith still means what it always means.  Israel failed because they lacked experiences with God that came as a result of their submission and obedience to Him.  Remember, our experiences with God define our faith, that’s what Hebrews 11 is all about.  When you read the account in the books of Exodus and Numbers, you see the plan of God being played out.  The Lord uses Moses to lead Israel out of their bondage in Egypt.  His desire was to take them to the land He had promised.  But first He had to prepare them to live in it.  He wanted them to know how to live in His plan and purpose, not their own.

When Israel left Egypt they took with them gold, jewels and all sorts of material wealth.  But the Lord led them into the desert where it was worthless.  He took them to a place where there was no water (Exodus 17) and no 7 Eleven on the corner.  God’s message to them was, OK, now it’s just you and Me, will you trust Me?  The problem was that Israel had 400 years experience in learning to survive in the midst of bondage.  They had long forgotten the example of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and how to live by faith. The Father wanted to take care of them.  He wanted to prove that He could. He wanted Israel to experience life as His children.  He wanted to be a Father to them.  But they didn’t understand His ways (Hebrews 3:10) and wouldn’t trust Him.

And because they wouldn’t trust Him, they died in the desert (Hebrews 3:16-19).  For forty years God waited for a new generation that would trust Him.  After all that time He took them back to the same place He had taken them before in Exodus 17 (the place is called Meribah, this time in Numbers 20).  There still wasn’t any water there, and after all that time 7 Eleven still hadn’t put in a store.  And after all that time they still wouldn’t trust Him. The fact is God knew that with few exceptions (in this case, Joshua and Caleb), none of them would trust Him.  When you look towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses on the day he’s going to die that when Israel finally does go into the land they will forsake Him, turn to false Gods and suffer the consequences of their failure (Deuteronomy 31:16-18). And, of course, that’s exactly what happens.

Now, before you start thinking this rest thing was something that only involved Israel and has nothing to do with us today, let’s set the record straight.  As I’ve already said, the incident used to describe this life that God offers is Israel in the desert.  But I’ve also given you passages in Psalms 95 and Hebrews 3, where God through David, then Paul, offers this life again. As a matter of fact, in the Hebrews passage Paul uses the word "today" several times in chapters 3 and 4 in emphasizing and re-emphasizing the current status of God’s generous offer for us to enter into this rest (Hebrews 3:7,15 and 4:7).

And I don’t want you to miss the application here either.  So, let me spell it out.  If and when anyone ever really turns to God (and I mean turns to God, not to religion - if you’ve been reading this stuff then you should know by now that there’s a huge difference between the two), drastic changes have to take place.  You have to learn to quit trusting in your own abilities to survive in the midst of your bondage to sin and start learning to recognize and trust the workings of an invisible God as He sets out to reveal Himself to you and begins to give you opportunities to be conformed to the image of His Son.

You have to reject man’s religion that tells you God is your own personal Santa Claus and He’s just waiting for you to ask so He can give you whatever your flesh craves.  You have to reject the idea that God exists to serve man and His purpose is to make our lives what we want them to be. You have to forget about the religious concept that God is always waiting at your beck and call to rescue you from whatever circumstance you’ve decided is not in your best interest.  You have to recognize that religion is never what God intended.  That religion does not represent God’s heart for us.  And that the morality promoted by the religions of the world is a hoax and a dismal failure.

You have to understand that God isn’t interested in whether or not you hear a message on "5 Ways to Overcome Anxiety" or "How to Survive Divorce" or even a well-documented series on "The Historical Reality of Jesus".  He wants you to learn the same thing He tried (without success) to teach Israel in the desert.  He wants you to learn to trust Him.  He doesn’t want you to trust in religion or in your own strength (by the way, they’re the same thing). He wants you to understand what true spirituality is.

And if you dare to have even the slightest desire to know what true spirituality is, then take a deep breath, maybe sniff a little smelling salts to clear the cobwebs out, and try to concentrate.  This is what true spirituality is: the determination to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit and live in the continual presence of God as He works out His purpose in your life, along with the ability to both enjoy the good and endure the unpleasant that comes, knowing that both are part of His plan.  If necessary, you might want to read that again and think about it for a while.  Let it sink in before you move on.

So, that being said, we can now go on and define the rest of God and illustrate it through the life of Paul.  We begin in Hebrews 4:3.  This is what it says.

"For we who have learned to trust in God do enter that rest.  And this is in accordance with the declaration that He has made, that those who do not learn to trust Him should not be able to enter when He said, As I swore in My anger, they shall not enter My rest.  And when He said that, His works had already been completed from the foundation of the world and were waiting for all who would learn to trust in Him."

At this point we should look at several references to "the foundation of the world".  In the verse above "world" is kosmos, used to describe the earth formed and finished by God in six days as recorded in Genesis 1:2-2:1.  In this verse in Hebrews, Paul tells us that when God established or founded the earth, His work was done.  This agrees with what we find in Genesis 2:2, when it says that "on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested from all His work that He had done".

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but it puts things in the proper perspective.  The phrase "foundation of the earth" is an important one.  It defines a specific time and establishes certain facts and conditions regarding God, His plan and man’s relation to Him.  I’ll just quickly go down the list of references; there are 8 of them.

In Matthew 13:35 we see the fulfillment of Psalms 78:2.  It tells us that Jesus would use parables (illustrative teaching) to speak truths that had been kept secret by God and not revealed to men since the foundation of the world. Paul makes several references to this in his epistles (Romans 16:25I Corinthians 2:7Ephesians 3:9and Colossians 1:26).

And in Matthew 25:34 on the occasion of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats, He makes reference to the kingdom that had been prepared since the foundation of the world and was waiting for those who would gain eternal deliverance.  Again, Paul refers to things already prepared by God (I Corinthians 2:9Hebrews 11:6).  In fact, God has already prepared the eternal fire for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

Then in John 17:24 Jesus is praying for those who would follow Him and asks that they be joined to the Father and the Son in that perfect love that had existed even before the foundation of the world.  This is one of those verses that reveal the eternal plan of God in taking to Himself all those who would submit to that plan.

This brings us to Ephesians 1:4 where Paul explains that God chose those who would follow Christ to be His own, again, even before the foundation of the world.  This is a verse that is often used in various, stupid arguments about predestination and foreordination.  If you have a problem with these terms, let me help you out.  Never use them to refer to people, they don’t. Always use them in reference to God’s plan.  God never predestined anyone to either heaven or hell.  He predestined a plan that would determine it.  God will never interfere with our free will.  Love is only real and valuable when there is choice.  And, believe me, God knows that better than we do.

In Hebrews 9:26 Paul tells us that Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was far superior to that made yearly by the high priest so that it was not necessary for Him to suffer over and over again since the foundation of the world.  It was established in the father’s plan from the foundation of the world that Jesus would suffer once for all time (Hebrews 7:279:1210:10 and I Peter 3:18).

And speaking of foreordination and the fact that it refers to the plan of God, not to individuals, we come to I Peter 1:20.  Here Peter tells us that it was foreordained or predetermined by the Father before the foundation of the world that Jesus would be the sacrificial lamb that would give Himself to purchase our deliverance.  Paul also says in II Timothy 1:9 that Jesus was given to us for that purpose before the world began.  And he tells Titus in Titus 1:1,2 that the God Who cannot tell a lie promised the coming of the Christ and eternal life before the world began.

And finally, in Revelation 17:8 there is a reference to all those whose names were not recorded in the Book of Life since the foundation of the world.  This verse is similar to 13:8, but there is a distinction.  This is a reference to the fact that God’s plan has been in effect since the foundation of the world and has determined who has been recorded in the Book of Life and who has not. Again, it is the plan of God that is predestined and foreordained, not the eternal destinies of individuals.  Your eternal destination will be determined by the choices you make and how they line up with the plan that God foreordained.

Now, before we move on, look at Hebrews 4:3 again.  The last part of the verse says, "and when He said that, His works were already completed from the foundation of the world and were waiting for all who would learn to trust in Him."  God’s plan was predestined and foreordained by the time He created and established the earth.

And as you look through the verses above you’ll see that a lot was done before the foundation of the world.  Truths were established, but kept secret. A kingdom was prepared.  The Father and the Son enjoyed a perfect love relationship.  The Father formed a plan of redemption that would restore fellowship with mankind.  It was determined that the Son of God would be the sacrifice for the sins of man and that He would suffer only once.  And when man was created and fell, that plan went into effect and has been determining man’s eternal fate ever since.

But there’s yet another point that has to be made.  This is Hebrews 1:2.

"But in the recent past God has spoken to us through His Son, whom He appointed possessor of all things and through Whom He set in order the ages of time."

Here, the "ages of time" (the Greek word aion) were constructed or arranged to accomplish an established purpose (poieo, to make, used to illustrate the act of constructing something for a specific reason or purpose) by the Son of God.  Let me show you another verse, and then I’ll make my point.  This is Hebrews 11:3.

"It is through our experiences with God that we know that the ages of time were designed for their intended purpose by the decree of God, and that what we see was not arranged by things which are visible."

This is a great statement by Paul who essentially says that because of what we experience with God (the things that happen in our lives that we recognize as having their source in Him – true faith), we are made to understand two things.  One is that the times in which we live were specifically arranged by God to be used by Him to accomplish His purpose. And because of that we also understand that what is happening is not coincidental circumstance, but purposeful events guided by an unseen God.

Now sit up straight.  Take a deep breath.  Focus.  You have to get what I’m about to say.  This is important.  If you don’t understand this, then this paper will be useless to you.  The point is that before the beginning of time God predestined a plan and specifically designed the successive ages of time to accomplish His purposes for all who would submit to Him and to what He has already determined and provided.  And let’s be perfectly clear about what that plan and purpose is – for us to accept God’s offer of redemption through Christ and enter into a life of submission and obedience to Him that is designed to deliver us from who we are by changing us into Who He is. Now, those who are willing to trust Him and submit to what He has already planned and purposed will enter His rest.  This is Hebrews 4:9,10.

"So there remains a rest reserved for the true people of God.  And he who enters into this rest has ceased from the weariness and futility of human labors (religion), just as God did from those works that were distinctly His."

Now, I’m going to assume that religion has clouded your ability to comprehend the magnitude of all this (and if I’m wrong, please forgive me). Nevertheless, I’m going to proceed under that assumption (because I remember how much I struggled with this too).  It is not up to you to decide what’s best for you.  God has already done that.  It’s not up to you to decide what’s best for someone else.  God has already done that too.  It’s not up to you to determine which circumstances in your life are tolerable and which ones are intolerable.  God has determined to use both to accomplish what He needs to in your life (that is, if you’re paying attention so He can).  It’s not up to you to figure out what God needs to change in others because you don’t like it.  Again, He wants to use those irritating things to teach you to not be irritated.

Are you beginning to see the picture?  Many people believe that if you come to God He’ll let you design your own life.  Just tell Him what you want (He only wants to bless you).  Tell Him how you want Him to manipulate others because you think you know what’s best for them (after all, you only want to be a blessing to them – as if you could really do that by interfering in God’s plan for their lives).  Or, tell Him to change your circumstances because you’re not comfortable with them.  Go ahead.  You can tell Him all those things and more, if you want to.

But if you do, let me tell you what He’s hearing.  God, I don’t like Your plan. I don’t like Your plan for others.  I don’t really care about Your purpose.  I think I have a better plan.  In fact, I have no intention of submitting to Your plan and demand that You submit to my plan.  And whether you realize it or not, as crazy as it sounds, that describes traditional, denominational, institutional religion perfectly.

Did Jesus live the religious designer life?  Did He decide what His life was going to be like?  Do you ever see in Him even a hint that He was dissatisfied with His life and wanted to change it?  I’ve already mentioned in several papers all those great statements Jesus makes in the Book of John regarding His submission to the Father and to the Father’s plan.  Jesus is the ultimate example of living in God’s rest.  He had no agenda of His own.  He only wanted to fulfill the Father’s plan and purpose for His life; and for most professing Christians this concept would be unthinkable, but it’s what God expects of all of us.  No, that’s not strong enough.  It’s what He absolutely requires of all of us!

In Luke 22 Jesus is eating the Passover meal with His disciples for the last time.  On this occasion He literally changes the Passover observance into Communion to commemorate the events of the cross the following day.  And in reference to that we come to verse 22 where Jesus makes this statement, "for the Son of Man is following the path that has already been determined and appointed to Him".  The verb horizo (it means, "to set or determine boundary or time) is in the perfect tense to indicate what was already completed in the past but has continuing results.  The events of Jesus’ life were predetermined by the Father’s plan.  All Jesus was doing was submitting to it.  Peter and the early Church understood this as well (Acts 2:234:28).

And in Matthew 20 we see the account of the mother of Zebedee’s children (James and John) asking Jesus to grant that her two sons would sit with Him, one on His right side, the other on His left, in His kingdom.  In verse 23 Jesus’ answer goes something like this, "seats at My right hand and at My left are not Mine to give, but they are for those for whom they have already been determined and prepared by My Father".

Now, as promised, we’ll look at the life of Paul.  In Hebrews 12:1 he uses the illustration of running a race over a predetermined course to explain how we’re supposed to live our lives with God.  The context of this statement is chapter 11, where he has just talked about all the great experiences others had with God in the Old Testament and the examples of submission and obedience they had set for us.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so many who have shown us the ways of God, let us toss aside anything that would slow us down, the sin that so easily clings to us, and let us run with patient endurance and steady persistence the predetermined course of the race that has been set for us."

Did Paul live the religious designer life?  Was he constantly trying to decide what was best for him so he could tell God what to do, how to do it and when to do it to make his life what he wanted it to be?  If that’s the case, I have to think Paul was crazy.  He must have enjoyed pain, hardship and humiliation.  Look at II Corinthians 11:23-28.  Here, Paul lists some of the things he experienced while following his appointed course.  He mentions hard work, imprisonments, beatings to the point of death, being stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked and adrift in the sea for a day and a night, exposed to life-threatening danger on journeys, on rivers, from bandits, from his own countrymen who wanted to kill him, from Gentiles who wanted to do the same, in cities, in the desert, on the seas, from those pretending to be believers, in difficult situations where he had to stay awake all night to protect himself, in times of hunger and thirst, times that he was driven to fast so he could endure the destitute situation he was in, times when he was exposed to the cold and didn’t have the clothing he needed and besides all that, he constantly worried about how he was going to take care of the churches he had established.  Compared to many in traditional religion today, Paul looks like a total loser.

In Philippians 4 Paul is thanking the church at Philippi for their generosity in contributing to his needs.  And included in this is an explanation of what Paul had learned over the years by submitting to God’s plan for his life.  This is what he says in verses 11-14.

"I am not implying that I was in any personal need.  I have learned to be content to the extent that I am not disturbed by any circumstance.  I know how to live in humble and difficult circumstances, and I know how to enjoy myself when I have abundance.  I have learned the secret of facing any situation, whether well fed or going hungry, having more than I need or being without.  I’m ready for anything because of the strength that Christ gives me.  But it was right and commendable of you to contribute and share in my circumstance. "

In other words, Paul had learned through the difficult times in his life that he could face anything when Christ was at his side.  His attitude was, bring it on, it doesn’t matter, this is just another day with God.  Real strength is found in our spirit, never in the soul or the body.  Strength of soul is deceitful.  That’s what religion promotes (it’s called morality).  Physical strength is fleeting.  One day you have it and you think you’ll live forever; the next day it’s gone.  Strength of spirit is what counts.  That’s what Paul had.  That’s why external circumstances didn’t affect him.  It’s something you only learn through submission and obedience to God.

Later, when he writes the Book of II Timothy he knows that God is not going to rescue him again and that his death is near.  In verses 15-18 he tells Timothy that everyone, except Onesiphorus, had forsaken him and he was alone and destitute.  He wasn’t complaining, just stating the facts.  In chapter 4verses 6-8 he essentially says that he has done everything that God has determined for him to do and that he’s ready to die.  There’s no remorse and no regret.

For I am ready to be sacrificed, the time of my death is near and I will soon be free.  I have fought a good fight, I have finished my appointed course and I have kept the faith.  So what remains for me is the victor’s crown of righteousness that has been reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that great and wonderful day – and not to me only, but to all those who have affectionately longed for His return."

Paul was done.  He knew it.  And he was ready to go home.

Earlier I quoted Hebrews 4:9,10.  Now I want to give you the rest of chapter 4. It has some great stuff in it.  The following is verses 11-16.

"Let us therefore be fervent and strive to enter this rest of God, that none of us perish through unbelief as those in the wilderness.  For the words that God speaks are always living and have the effective ability to change us. Sharper than any sword, His words cut through to our soul and spirit, even deeper still to the most hidden parts of our nature to expose our very thoughts and intentions, revealing whether they are carnal or spiritual.  And not a creature exists that is hidden from His sight, but everything is apparent and open to the eyes of the God we will have to deal with.  And inasmuch as we have a great High Priest Who has already made His way to God, even Jesus the Son of God, let us be steadfast in what He has said.  For this High Priest is well able to understand our weaknesses, since He was tempted as we are in every respect, yet He was without sin.  So let us fearlessly and confidently draw near to the place of God’s favor and acceptance, that we might be comforted and find the strength we need to help us through difficult times."

What Paul describes here is, again, strength of spirit.  He says we should strive to enter the rest of God, the life He has prepared for us.  He says we should understand that what God speaks to us is alive.  It’s current, and relevant, and purposeful, today, tomorrow, the day after that and the day after that.  And it can change us.  He tells us that we have a remarkable High Priest, the Son of God, Who has already preceded us to the Father and we can trust Him.  And he tells us that this High Priest understands us and sympathizes with us.  And finally, he tells us that we can go confidently to the Father to find comfort and the strength to face difficulty.

Now I hope you see the distinction.  According to what Paul is saying here, God doesn’t want us to avoid hard times.  He wants to give us the strength to face hard times.   Now when was the last time you heard a sermon on that? God has actually predetermined failure, hardship, tragedy and other difficulties to allow us the privilege and opportunity to experience His comfort and strength.

And if you’re struggling with this, let me ask you something.  If you’re the type that wants to live the religious designer life, have you kept score?  I mean have you really kept track of how many times God has jumped to attention to do what you told Him to do to change your life to make it what you wanted it to be?  Oh, I know there’s a lot of people who claim that God has done things like that for them, but they’re kind of like the guy who works 16 hours a day and tells everyone that God has enabled him to make a lot of money.  People who are successful in the world’s system have that success because they know how to work the system.  It has nothing to do with God’s blessing.  If you’re honest, you’ll have to admit that God has a very poor record in this regard.  The fact is He’s not interested in what you want.  He’s already determined what you need.

Let’s go back to the life of Paul.  In II Corinthians 12 Paul is defending his apostleship to this carnal church.  And he is explaining that because of the extent of the revelation God had given him (things that are beyond the ability of a man to put into words, things a man is not permitted to talk about), he was predisposed to exhibit just a touch of pride and arrogance from time to time.  And because of that, God had allowed a demon to attach itself to Paul, follow him around, and beat him senseless anytime this pride or arrogance worked its way to the surface.  And, as you can imagine, Paul wasn’t liking this very much.  This brings us to verses 8 and 9, where he says:

"Three times I called to the Lord and asked Him about this and begged that it might depart from me.  But He said to me, My favor and comfort is enough to enable you to bear it like a spiritual man, if you had no weakness, how could you ever know My strength?  Therefore, I will all the more happily exult in my troubles, so the strength of Christ may rest upon me!"

So there you have it.  Paul gave in to the temptation to try the religious designer life, asked God to change something and God said, no.  But it’s not quite that simple.  In reality, God gave Paul something better than what he asked for, the opportunity to experience God and gain spiritual strength. And Paul, being the smart guy that he is, recognized that and was happy for it.

When you enter God’s rest, you enter the life God has for you.  You don’t strive to change it; you embrace it as it comes to you.  You don’t waste your time trying to manipulate it, because, if you do, what you’re really trying to do is manipulate God.  And unless you’re living in a serious state of denial, trying to manipulate God brings nothing but frustration, disappointment and a load of serious hurt.  It’s kind of like trying to milk a bull; it just doesn’t work.

Over the years I’ve watched a lot of professing Christians try to live the religious designer life.  They were all smiles.  They never had a discouraging word.  They tried their best to keep up appearances.  When something bad happened in their lives they tried to keep it hidden.  And never in a million years would they ever admit that God had let them down.  The peer pressure in traditional religion is a powerful thing.  They all want to be known as the one who has God’s ear, the one who gets prayers answered, the one who gets God’s blessing, the one who told God what to do and He did it. And when the time comes that they can’t hide their failure, they disappear. God "calls" them to another church, where they can start the pretense all over again with a fresh crowd.  Or, they finally decide this God thing isn’t working for them and they quit going to church altogether (these are the smarter of the two).

As I’ve said several times in other papers, the Sermon on the Mount is a complete message.  No matter what subject I’m talking about, I can always refer to this passage for support of it.  This is no exception.  In Matthew 6 Jesus talks about learning to trust the Father.  Basically His point is this: God created the earth and everything in it, so don’t you think He’s able to care for it as well?  I’ll close with my paraphrase of Matthew 6:24-34.

"It’s impossible to pursue God and manage material wealth at the same time.  The pursuit of one will cause you to avoid or neglect the other.  And if you decide to pursue God, don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or whether your clothes are the latest fashion.  Because you’ll soon find out there are things much more satisfying than food and more important than clothing.  Look at the birds.  They’re not worried about those things.  They’re content to just let the Father give them whatever they need.  And since it’s obvious that the Father takes care of the birds, why won’t you trust Him to take care of you?  You must know that you’re more important to Him than birds.  And why should you worry about your appearance?  The latest fashions don’t really make you look any different. Don’t you understand you look the same to your Father regardless of what you’re wearing?  So why should you worry about clothing?  Look at the wildflowers in the fields.  They don’t worry about such trivial things.  And yet, you must agree that even Solomon, when dressed in his finest, never looked as good.  Again, the Father takes care of the flowers, and He knows they live for only a short time and then they’re gone.  He’s going to take even better care of you.  Why can’t you trust Him?  So you never need to wonder, What am I going to eat?  Or, What am I going to drink?  Or, What am I going to wear?  Relax!  Those are the questions people ask when they don’t know the real God.  But your Heavenly Father knows full well you have need of all these things.  When you make the Lordship of God the most important thing in your life, and become a living demonstration of the father’s way of doing things right; then He’ll make sure you have the things you really need.  And by the way, don’t worry about tomorrow.  It will come soon enough.  And when it does, it will bring new challenges and opportunities for you to learn to trust your Heavenly Father.  But for now, just concentrate on trusting Him to get you through the trouble you’re in today.