The Sabbath represents the Messianic Era and the menuchah of the world to come. In Hebrews 3:7-4:11, the holy epistle to the Hebrews compares this present world to the work week of preparation, and he warns us to prepare ourselves now for the kingdom and the world to come. This important message demonstrates that Hebrews 4 should not be used to justify a spiritual interpretation of the Sabbath that makes actual Sabbath observance obsolete.
Lancaster spent about the first half of his sermon reviewing the previous sermon. Remember we were left with a cliffhanger? What is God’s rest? Is it…
- The Sabbath?
- The Land of Israel?
- The Messianic Kingdom/The World to Come?
We are told a number of stories in today’s sermon, most from the Talmud, such as one found in Tractate Sanhedrin 98a, of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who, while meditating near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, met the Prophet Elijah.
Rabbi ben Levi asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” asked Joshua. “Ask him,” replied the Prophet. “The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched. Like them, he changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
The Rabbi traveled to Rome, found the Messiah, and greeted him with ”Peace upon you, my Master and Teacher, to which the Messiah replied, ”Peace upon you, son of Levi.” When the Rabbi asked Messiah when he would come, Messiah replied, ”Today!”
But by the time Rabbi ben Levi returned to Elijah, the Messiah had not come. Messiah had lied…or did he?
Elijah explained “This is what he said to thee, To-day, if ye will hear his voice”, a reference to Psalms 95:7, making his coming conditional with the condition not fulfilled.
You should remember Psalm 95 from last week’s review, since it figured heavily in laying the foundation for our “mystery” of what is meant by “God’s rest” or for that matter, the mystery of “What is today?”
Before continuing, as Lancaster said, Hebrews 3 and 4 are frequently used by many Christian Pastors to prove that a literal Saturday Shabbat has been done away with and that it has been spiritually “converted” into Christ. Our Sabbath rest is Jesus Christ. Problem is, this letter was written by a Jewish writer to a Jewish audience who were still keeping the Sabbath. While Gentiles may not have been placed under that aspect of Torah obedience, these Jews were still Jews and were still performing all of the mitzvot including observing Shabbos.
But these guys were tired. They’d been waiting for the return of the Messiah for thirty years and their faith and patience were wearing thin. They either had been barred from the Temple because of their Messianic faith or were about to be. As we learned last week, the writer of Hebrews was adjuring them to keep their faith in Messiah or risk the fate of that faithless generation in the desert who disobeyed God and did not enter the Land of Canaan to take it as their possession. They did not enter God’s Sabbath rest.
But again, what is God’s rest?
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
–Hebrews 4:1 (NRSV)
Apparently it was something that the readers of Hebrews could still attain since ”his rest is still open.” If Lancaster is right, then it can’t be the literal Saturday Sabbath, because they were already keeping that. It couldn’t be literally the Land of Israel, because they were already there.
…again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
–Hebrews 4:7 (NRSV)
Lancaster went through a rather lengthy explanation of what “today” means, which includes literally this very day, that is, right now. But from our perspective, it’s always “right now” or “today.” Part of what the Hebrews writer is saying, according to Lancaster, is that as long as you are still alive, “hear (heed) his voice, do not harden your hearts, ” but repent and return to God.
But “today” is also idiomatic language for the Shabbat. I just got done saying this wasn’t about a literal Shabbat on Saturday, but what were the Hebrews risking by a lack of faith? And why did Lancaster tell the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, Elijah, and Messiah?
The object of the Midrashic story from Talmud was to say Messiah would come today if Israel would repent. The Jewish readers of the Hebrews letter will enter God’s rest if they repent. If the coming of Messiah is linked here to God’s rest, then what is to be entered is the Messianic Kingdom.
The Sages liken the Shabbat to the Kingdom of Heaven and the World to Come. It’s as if the days of the week and Shabbat represent the different ages of creation with the seventh day, the end of time, being a grand, millennial Shabbat, an age of great rest, and our weekly Sabbaths are merely a periodic reminder, down payment, or foretaste of that ultimate rest in Moshiach.
This seems to resolve Lancaster’s mystery or cliffhanger, but in fact, he states that it was a trick question. Since the Messianic Age is future oriented, then Hebrews 3 and 4 are not only a rendition of history but prophetic. It may surprise you to realize that all of the prophesies in the Bible have to do with Israel and Jerusalem and for all prophesies to be fulfilled, there must be an Israel and Jerusalem. No Israel, no fulfillment of prophesy.
So a literal Sabbath, a literal Land of Israel, and the Messianic Age to Come all figure into God’s rest and the object of Lancaster’s sermon for the past couple of weeks.
He says some interesting things about work and rest:
Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.
–Hebrews 4:11 (NRSV)
Why do we work to enter God’s rest? I thought we were saved by grace. Lancaster says we must do all that is necessary to get ready for the Messiah’s return, even though it will never be enough. It’s like if you keep a traditional Shabbat. On Friday you work and work and work to get ready, but even if you don’t get everything done in time, Shabbat comes and then you stop, you are quiet, there is peace, and there is rest…
…whether you’re ready or not.
Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross (John 19:30) and in the past, I’ve said that it can’t mean literally all of Messiah’s work is finished. If it did, then he wouldn’t have to return. But in another sense, besides Messiah’s suffering, something else was finished, which was the inauguration of the Messianic Age. It started with the death and resurrection, so that part’s finished, but everything will not be completed until all of Israel (according to Lancaster) repents:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
–Matthew 23:37-39 (NRSV)
I should say that Rabbinic opinions differ on this point, with some saying that Messiah will come when all Israel repents, and others saying that Messiah will come when Israel is wholly corrupt and about to fall. Lancaster apparently is taking the former view.
So does “get ready” and “strive” and “work” mean “shore up your faith?” I can see why Lancaster says we’ll never be ready because no one’s faith will ever be perfect. Of course, we have the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) that says there are things to be done, preparations to make, to be ready for the coming of the bridegroom (Messiah), with the oil in their lamps representing perhaps our faith and devotion to God.
And yet without God’s grace, nothing we do could ever be enough all by itself to merit the Messianic Age and a life in the world to come, which is part of what Joshua ben Levi wanted to know from Messiah. But being faithful and obedient, by grace, we shall enter God’s rest if we persevere to the end (see 2 Timothy 4:7).
What Did I Learn?
Beyond that, someone commented about one of my blog posts on Facebook not too long ago. I’ll withhold his name unless he allows me to use it, but here’s what he said:
A.) There’s 6,000 years of linear-time human history since Adam & Chava ‘stepped out of Gan Edan into the physical world of existence.’
B.) For the sake of Israel, G-d will deduct ‘time served in the captivity of Egypt’ from the 6000 years. Consensus opinion is 210 years.
C,) Mashiach comes and ushers in a 1,000 year earthly kingdom with Israel as head of the nations
D.) At the end of this 1000 year “shabbat hagadol” the earth is ‘recreated’ and existence as we know it ends and begins in a new reality – THIS is the time of the New Covenant, as outlined in the Tenakh, the writings of the sages and the final chapters of the book of Revelation.
E.) The New Covenant existence is one of no more ‘evil,’ no more ‘free will,’ no more ‘choice,’ no more ‘sin,’ no more consequence of sin, i.e., death, suffering, sadness, etc.
Of course, the eye-catcher in all that is the 210 year idea and how it relates to the Jewish calendar. We are presently in 5774 which would mean another 226 years maximum to go (Messiah can come any time in a 40-year window before this but no later.) Now, deducting the 210 years for ‘time served in Egypt’ we have a year that corresponds to 2030 on our western calendars. This is not some modern nonsense to sell books. It is primarily from the Zohar first published in the 13th century. Rabbi Pinchas Winston has some interesting stuff on this.
This will all make more sense if you listen to Lancaster’s forty minute sermon on A Sabbath Rest Remains, since I hardly have related everything he taught. This is just a review. Also remember that taking midrash and mysticism too much to heart is a lot like playing with matches. It’s dangerous and you could get burned. Just saying.
As I conclude this eleventh sermon in a series that is still ongoing over a year after it started, I find I could easily get lost. There is so much detail involved, so many sources and references, both inside and outside of the Bible, to consult and connect, that it’s hard for my mind to apprehend and hold in focus everything all at once.
OK, I admit it. I can’t keep everything Lancaster’s taught so far in my head in “active memory,” so to speak, all at the same time.
So, like most people, I have to reduce a lot of talking and studying into a small, manageable point. Faith is an active and even physical process. It may start with intellectual ascent of the existence of God and a spiritual awareness of the presence of the Creator, but that means nothing unless it also encompasses a lived obedience to God.
For the generation who died in the desert (except for a very few such as Joshua and Caleb), even the physical awareness of the Divine Presence with them for over forty years on a daily basis was not enough for them to merit entry into the Land of Israel or into the Messianic Kingdom. They failed to obey. They failed to fulfill the promise of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by entering the Land, going to war, and taking possession of Israel.
For the readers of the letter of Hebrews, like the generation in the desert standing on the eastern bank of the Jordan, they too stand on the threshold, risking everything, risking the fate of the faithless generation of Israelites, should they also test God as did that generation of their Fathers. Intellectual knowledge and spiritual awareness are not enough. Lived, active obedience to God in the continuation of their faith in Messiah as the future King who is coming but who already rules is an absolute requirement.
The readers of the letter had waited thirty years and their faith was wavering. We’ve waited almost two-thousand years. What about us?
For more about a traditional Jewish perspective on Messiah, the world today, and the world to come, see Moshiach and the World Today.