Though we experience tension from the aspects of salvation that are, from our perspective, "not-yet," there is a strong sense exhibited in the New Testament in which, for the believer, both the future and the past converge upon our present reality - we have access to a a future reality that is predicated upon the atoning work of Christ. This, then, both stirs in us a deep longing while simultaneously enacting (and drawing us toward) endless satiation of such. So, though we reside on this earth (albeit as "strangers" and pilgrims) we nevertheless are "seated [...] in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" by having been "made alive" and "raised up" with Him (1 Peter 2:11; Ephesians 2:6; 1:20). Though we breathe, are alive, and are visible on this earth, still we are "d[ead] and our life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Though we belong to terrestrial nations, yet "our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ," who will both "transform" and "reveal" us by "conform[ing]" our bodies unto His at His "glorious appearing" (Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 3:4; Titus 2:13, KJV/NIV). Though we are scattered in cities throughout globe, yet we are gathered together because we "have come unto Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Hebrews 12:22, NASB). Though some have departed from us and have "fallen asleep," and though we long to see and be with God forevermore, indeed we also have come "to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 4:14; Hebrews 12:22-24). And, as this passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews reveals, though "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God," yet "we who have believed enter that rest" - the rest that God alone gives (4:9, 3).
The aforementioned tension is especially prevalent in our this-world experience of the "rest" of God. Even though we recognize that "we who have believed enter [God's] rest," still we have need to bear the exhortation to "be diligent to enter into that rest" (4:3, 11). In his commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin notes, "But though the completion of this rest cannot be attained in this life, yet we ought ever to strive for it" (Calvin 1853 :99). For Calvin, this striving was a "condition" upon which the believer entered into God's rest, echoing the sentiment of the exhortation in Hebrews 4:11. With that in mind, we do well to "fear," as the author of Hebrews instructs us, so that we do not "come short of" entering the rest that God has promised, especially since the promise to enter still remains (Hebrews 4:1, 6). Those who fell in the wilderness, not to enter the rest of Canaan because of a divine oath (see Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11, 18; 4:3, 5), serve as an "example of disobedience" that we, in Christ, are not to follow (4:11). Later in Hebrews, we read that we are indeed "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" of those whom we are called to imitate, whose legacy is an example of obedience, of faith and faithfulness (Hebrews 11; 12:1).
Moreover, these "witnesses," including with those who did enter into Canaan led by Joshua, direct our gaze to Jesus Christ, the preeminent example of absolute obedience, who calls us to abide in Him so that we might obey in love and enter into the fulness of God's rest, of which Canaan was a type (Hebrews 12:2-3; John 15; Hebrews 4:6-11). The promised land of Canaan was not intended to remain the fulness of God's plan; its beauty, though tangible, is as Calvin describes, "evanescent." Again taking our cue from the text of Hebrews, the writer clearly argues from a hypothetical that "if Joshua had given them rest" then God, through David, "would not have spoken of another day after that" (4:8). God still spoke of the promise long after Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan and, furthermore, "He again fixes a certain day, 'Today,'" for us to respond to His invitation by not only hearing the "good news" but having it "united by faith" (4:6-7, 2). For this reason, "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (4:9). And, "the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from his" (4:10; see also v. 4). This "rest" includes cessation from works, but it also involves a dynamic participation in the unity of God to which Christ has called us (John 17:21). Concerning verse 10 of Hebrews chapter 4, we turn once more to Calvin's exposition:
This is a definition of that perpetual Sabbath in which there is the highest felicity, when there will be a likeness between men and God, to whom they will be united. For whatever the philosophers may have ever said of the chief good, it was nothing but cold and vain, for they confined man to himself, while it is necessary for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God; this is attained when we are formed according to him as our exemplar. (Calvin 1853 :97)
Not surprisingly, since the "perpetual Sabbath" involves the "chief good" of enjoying God forever, the theme of God's rest has richly contributed to Christian worship over the centuries. I'll close with a few relatively recent examples.
Hezekiah Butterworth, in his 1875 work on "hymns that have a history," remarks that Dr. Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), after preaching on the text of Hebrews 4:9, read, as was apparently often his custom, a self-composed hymn in which he immediately related the teaching in meter (Butterworth 1875:34-35). The following is the final verse in the hymn now known as Lord of the Sabbath, Hear our Vows:
O long expected day, begin,
Dawn on these realms of woe and sin!
Break, morn of God, upon our eyes;
And let the world's true Sun arise!
According to Butterworth, this yearning for the Sabbath rest of God deeply resonated with Dr. Doddridge in the days immediately before his passing:
Dr. Doddridge, in his last years, seemed to have a spiritual foretaste of the heavenly joy and rest. Embarking for Lisbon, in the hope of benefit from warmer air, he was able to say to his wife in his cabin, when conscious that his life was almost ended, these cheerful and triumphant words: "I cannot express to you what a morning I have had. Such delightful and transporting views of the heavenly world as my Father is now indulging me with, no words can express." He died at Lisbon of consumption, at the age of fifty. He anticipated to the last the glorious rest he sings in his hymn.
May we, too, anticipate to the last, the dawn of the day which is the eternal beginning - the day which has no night - whose every waking moment is the perpetual reality of the "highest felicity" (Calvin 1853 :98), that is, union with the Triune God.
Blessed homeland, ever fair!
Sin can never enter there;
But the soul, to life awaking,
Everlasting bloom shall wear (from Frances Jane [Fanny] Crosby's Blessed Homeland)
Butterworth, Hezekiah. (1875). The Story of the Hymns; Or, Hymns that Have a History: An Account of the Origin of Hymns of Personal Religious Experience. New York, NY: The American Tract Society.
Calvin, John. (1853). Commentaries of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews (J. Owen, Trans.). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society. (Original work published 1549)