I want to talk about rest—spiritual rest. In this world, all is turmoil. But for the Christian there is rest and quietness. The passage of Scripture I would like to consider may seem unusual. It is Joshua 1:10–15.
Why this passage? In the book of Joshua, the Israelites come to the River Jordan, border of the land God promised to them. In that land, God promised that the Israelites could rest. There are lessons in this passage that speak to believers today about their need for resting in Christ and why it is important.
Throughout the Bible, the land of Egypt, where the Israelites were held as slaves, is a symbol of our lives as slaves of sin, before we repented and trusted in Christ. God’s deliverance of the children of Israel by Moses and their arrival in the Promised Land by Joshua symbolizes believers’ deliverance from the slavery of sin by the Lord Jesus Christ. The promised land, the goal of the wandering children of Israel after much warfare and struggle, represents the resting of Christians. This is a resting from their evil works, trusting in the Lord.
Now here is what is going on. The children of Israel had arrived at the east side of the River Jordan and were about to cross over into the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, were given their inheritance on the east side of the River Jordan. However, God commanded the men from these tribes to cross over to the west along with the rest of the tribes. They were to fight along with the other Israelites so that they could occupy their land as well. We read in Joshua 1:12–13, 15,
“And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh Joshua spoke, saying, remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, the Lord your God is giving you rest and is giving you this land… until the Lord has given your brethren rest, as he gave you, and they also have taken possession of the land which the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and enjoy it.”
Notice the word “rest” appears in this passage twice. Why? The giving of the promised land by the Lord to his people was a sign of their promised rest. This is what I want us to see.
As I said, the land of Egypt represented slavery and bondage. We know this is true because we read in Exodus 1:13–14 how the Egyptians treated the Israelites. This passage says, “So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.”
The children of Israel were turned into slaves. However, God delivered the Israelites from this bondage. Remember how the Ten Commandments began in Exodus 20:2–3, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”
We see, then, the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. We also see how God, through his servant Moses, delivered them from their bondage and led them to the Promised Land, a place of rest.
The Fourth Command
While we are on this subject, here is something interesting. We know that the fourth commandment teaches us concerning the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest. In the Commandments, as we find them in Exodus 20, we find that the reason for the Sabbath is that God created all things in six days and rested on the seventh.
The fourth commandment reads differently in Deuteronomy 5, where the Ten Commandments are repeated. The command ends by saying in verse 15, “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
In the Ten Commandments, as we find them in the book of Deuteronomy, the reason given for the Sabbath day of rest was that the children of Israel were delivered from the slavery and bondage of Egypt and brought into the Promised Land where they had rest.
Now, having seen the symbolism of this account, let’s go on and see how it applies to our lives.
We see, first of all, how the slavery of Egypt symbolizes slavery to sin. We can see this by turning to the words of Jesus in John 8:31–36, “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed him, if you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. They answered him, we are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, you will be made free? Jesus answered them, most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
It’s interesting that these Jews, although we are told that they believed in Jesus, said something very strange. First, Jesus told them that the truth would make them free. They replied that they were descendants of Abraham. They said that they had never been in bondage to anyone.
Oh, really? How about those four hundred years the children of Abraham were in bondage in Egypt? They forgot that. Jesus replied by making this point, whoever commits, or continues to commit, sin is a slave to sin. What he was saying to these Jews is that there is a bondage far worse than physical slavery.
Freedom from Spiritual Slavery
The slavery of Egypt symbolizes slavery to sin. Apart from God working in the hearts of His people, we are all in bondage to sin. As question eight of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “we are wholly incapable of any good and prone to all evil.” Or, as question five puts it, “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” We can do nothing but sin unless we repent of our sins and trust in Christ. We are in a slavery to sin far worse than the Israelites experienced in Egypt.
In Romans 6:6–7, 17–18, we read more about this slavery. It says, “knowing this, that our old man (a Christian’s sinful nature) was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin… But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”
Christians died with Christ when He died on the cross. This is dying to sin, the death of their sinful nature. Then, when Christ was raised from the dead, they were raised with Him to a new life in which they belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. True, they still sin, but the slavery is broken.
Christians can serve Christ because they have been liberated from the bondage and slavery of sin.
The Promised Land Rest
Having seen what the slavery of Egypt symbolizes, we can now ask what the Promised Land represents. It symbolizes rest in Christ from the slavery of sin. Christians rest in Christ from all those evil works in which they were enslaved. Although a Christian still struggles with sin, the slavery is gone. A Christian’s behavior can—it must—change.
Therefore, the rest promised to the Israelites in the Promised Land symbolized the greater rest, the true rest, all believers have in Christ. That’s why it says in Hebrews 4:8, “for if Joshua had given them rest, then he would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.”
What a wonderful teaching we have here. Joshua led the children of Israel into a land where they could be at rest physically. And yet, this rest did not last forever. When the Israelites rebelled against God, their land was repeatedly invaded by heathen nations such as the Philistines. For all this, the Promised Land symbolized true rest. However, it was only a shadow or symbol of a better day, a better rest. What better rest is this? It is the rest of believers who have been redeemed from their slavery to sin. Believers can now cease from their wicked works.
After the children of Israel had been in the Promised Land for centuries and had departed from the Lord into sin and idolatry, God gave them a rebuke through the prophet Jeremiah. He told them they would have to leave their land of rest for seventy years of exile.
In the midst of this coming judgment, God declared in Jeremiah 25:5, “Repent now everyone of his evil way and his evil doings, and dwell in the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers forever and ever.”
God told the children of Israel to repent of their sins and they would again dwell in the land. Now the meaning of this verse is clear. At the time Jeremiah spoke to the Israelites, they were in deep sin and about to be carried out of the land. However, this verse also has reference to those who belong to the Lord. The message for Christians, including us today, is that we must repent of our sin. And, if we do, we can dwell in the land, we can have that rest. We can know freedom from the slavery of sin.
If, on the other hand, we stubbornly seek to hold on to our sin, we will find that our spiritual peace will be replaced by the uncomfortable convicting work of God’s Spirit until we repent. As Jesus said in Revelation 3:19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.”
One other question comes up. How do we know that this promise in Jeremiah does not refer only to Palestine, the Israelites’ Promised Land? We know this because the verse speaks of “the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers forever and ever.” Notice that Jeremiah speaks of a land given to believers “forever and ever.” This is the perpetual, eternal Sabbath rest that has no end. The Heidelberg Catechism, question 103, speaks of this eternal Sabbath when commenting on the seventh commandment. I’m only going to quote the last part of it. It says, “that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting sabbath.”
In this life, believers begin to rest from their evil works. But part of what the catechism says is that I must “allow the Lord to work in me by his Spirit.” Why is this? Our rest is not complete, and we still have a war with sin.
This is very similar to what happened when the children of Israel arrived in the Promised Land. They did not immediately sit down and do nothing. They had to fight wars against the inhabitants. It was a struggle to achieve their rest. The Lord helped them.
In the same way, we have this Sabbath rest in Christ forever. However, it is a struggle. We are at war with our sin. So we rest and fight at the same time.
Another important passage comes from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet who lived in Babylon amongst the Jews taken captive from the Promised Land. He rebuked these exiles for their sins against God and urged them to repent. Here is what God told the Israelites through Ezekiel in Ezekiel 20:10–12, “therefore I made them go out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them my statutes and showed them my judgments, which, if a man does, he shall live by them. Moreover I also gave them my Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.”
The Sabbath teaches believers about their sanctification, their rest from their wicked works. This involves allowing the Lord to work in them as, more and more, they enter into their rest. It takes warfare to occupy this rest.
Now, the Bible also uses this symbolism to give believers a warning: Do not go back to slavery.
Throughout the history of this world, we know that slaves develop what we might call a “slave mentality.” They begin to like to be slaves. Yes, they had to work hard, but they had cradle-to-grave security. They had no personal responsibility. It gets to the point where they kind of liked the slavery.
Guess what? We kind of like the slavery of sin.
Let me explain this, using the symbolism given to us in the Bible. After the Lord delivered the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, they wanted to go back. We read in Numbers 14:2–4, “And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, if only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt? So they said to one another, let us select a leader and return to Egypt.”
They wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt because they felt that life there was more enjoyable that the spiritual struggle of entering into their rest. The reasons they gave are truly foolish. For instance, listen to what they said about the “good old days” in Egypt. We read in Numbers 11:5, “We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” They missed the vegetables. That is why they wanted to go back to Egypt, or so they said. Any kid you know will tell you that vegetables are not worth it.
Here is the point that they were really making here. They looked back and decided that slavery was better than freedom. Christians can be like this. They have been liberated from the slavery of sin. But because they liked it and miss it, they want to go back. But Jesus said in Luke 9:62, “No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Believers must persevere. In fact, that is one of the five points of Calvinism, the perseverance of the saints. This means that the Lord will not let those who are truly His fall away. God will cause them to persevere and to carry on.
Christians do not always want to persevere. However, having put their hand to the plough, they must not look back. They must not look back with longing at the pleasures they think they had while in slavery to sin.
We see the same thing when the children of Israel actually reached the Promised Land. They did not want the struggle to occupy the land. The promised rest was not worth it to them. In Joshua 18:2–3 it says, “But there remained among the children of Israel seven tribes which had not yet received their inheritance. Then Joshua said to the children of Israel, how long will you neglect to go and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers has given you?” These seven tribes were in the Promised Land, but not in their own inheritance. They were living off the other tribes.
Questions We Should Consider
Here is a similar question for Christians. How long are you going to neglect your salvation? How long are you going to be satisfied just being in the Promised Land but not truly occupying it? How long will you remain content, attempting to live off the faith of others?
Here is the question: are we entering into our rest? Have we rested from the slavery of sin? Or do we enjoy to dabble in the sin to which we were once in bondage? Do we like to try on the old shackles and chains for “old time’s sake?” Do we like to indulge in those things which once held us captive?
In Hebrews 4:1, 11 we read, “therefore, since a promise remains of entering his rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it… Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.”
Let us not be like those Israelites who did not occupy the land, who did not exert themselves, who would not fight. Let us not be like those children of Israel who were content with some little borrowed corner of land because they did not want to fight the Lord’s battles and truly enter into that rest.
Let me ask all Christians, are we going to be satisfied with that little bit of faith, that little bit of repentance, that little bit of holiness? Are we going to say, “that’s enough, we don’t want to become fanatics after all”? Are we satisfied with the little that we give him, the little that we obey?
We, too, are called upon to occupy some land. We are called upon, in the words of 2 Peter 3:18, to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We are called upon to repent of our sin. God would not have us be satisfied with where we are now.
Trust Christ and His strength to fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil in this life.
I want to end with something positive. The Bible invites us to rest, as well as the Israelites of old. In Psalm 119:165 we read, “Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing causes them to stumble.”
The believer’s spiritual rest from sin involves a struggle. But this struggle brings us to that point of peace, for those who love God, love grace, and wish to serve Him. Again, in Matthew 11:28–29, we read, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
On the other hand, we are told in Proverbs 13:15, “the way of the unfaithful is hard.” But Christ’s yoke is easy because He give us the grace and strength we need to bear it. We come to the Lord heavily laden with the slavery of sin, and Christ will give us rest. The truth will set us free.
Therefore, let us take up this spiritual warfare. Let us accept, with gratitude to God, our liberation from the bondage of sin. As we look at the spiritual Promised Land before us, let us pick up our spiritual weapons and, by God’s grace, let us occupy this land. Amen.