Rest is something for which we all seem to be searching. I don’t know any person who would say, “No thanks, I am perfectly rested in every possible way.” If you do happen to feel that way, maybe I need to have coffee with you to find your secret!
Rest is one of those all encompassing concepts. It speaks to the interconnectedness of our human nature. We are physical beings, emotional beings, volitional beings, intellectual beings, and spiritual beings. This is the “whole” of who we are as human beings. All of these parts are interconnected and affect one another. For example, even if my body is getting enough sleep, but I am emotionally tired or anxious, my body may suffer from the storm in my emotions.
I think all people seek rest—Christians and non-Christians alike. The late H. G. Wells, famed science fiction writer, is quoted as saying,
The time has come for me to reorganize my life, my peace—I cry out. I cannot adjust my life to secure any fruitful peace. Here I am at sixty-four, still seeking peace. It is a hopeless dream.
Wells speaks of peace, but I think we may say that in this instance, the peace for which he searches and the rest at topic in this article are the same.
As with all things of importance, we need to discover what God has graciously revealed to us about it. God speaks quite frequently and deeply about the idea. As with any spiritual challenge, we must come to understand God’s story as THE STORY behind all other stories. To surrender ourselves to his revelation in the Bible is to surrender to and to discover the truth.
What the Bible Has to Say about Sabbath & Rest
Allow me to give a very brief overview of the Bible on the topics of Sabbath and Rest. Afterwards, I’ll try to make some suggestions for resting from the quest to rest.
Genesis 2:1-3 gives the divine example (not a mandate) for a holy day of rest. It follows his finished work of creation. This divine example of resting from the God who needs no sleep nor slumber (Psalm 121:4) informs us for the rest of the story. First, rest isn’t an exact parallel to the physical act of sleeping. Rest may involve sleeping, but sleep doesn’t fill out the whole idea of rest. The Hebrew term means to cease, to stop, to rest, to celebrate. It seems to emphasize what happens once something—particularly work—has come to an end. Second, we must remember that Moses is writing Genesis as God reveals to him things from the dawn of creation and how those things should inform the life of the people of Israel. In Israel, the creation rest of God will be experienced by the people in the practice of the Sabbath. Third and very important, God created Sabbath, so the Sabbath isn’t bigger than God. Rather, Sabbath is subject to God’s will and mission. Lastly, this is just food for thought—is there any evidence that the patriarchs in Genesis ever practiced Sabbath-keeping? Did Adam practice it in the Garden? If so, how would such a practice have looked before the Mosaic law gave detailed laws and commands? How does the seventh day rest in the beginning instruct us about rest at the end when God makes all things new?
Exodus 20:8-11 and 31:17 establish the divine command for a holy day of rest into Israel’s weekly practice based upon the creation example where God rested and was refreshed. God designed and provided the law in order to make Israel a distinct people. Sabbath laws were a part of the peculiarity of Israel. The seventh day in Israel was marked by the cessation of regular work and “by religious and ceremonial observances” (Westerholm, 716). So, it was for rest and to be holy. It marked not only the completion of God’s own creative work, but also “a reminder of the relief God granted his people in delivering them from slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15)” (Westerholm, 716). This is an important advancement in a “theology of the Sabbath rest”—with the great exodus, Sabbath became identified not only with Creation, but also began to become identified with Redemption. This represents the substance behind all the practice. Of particular note, you can begin to see God’s heart in this. God’s heart for Israel seemed to be that they would trust him as Creator and Redeemer on the Sabbath, a trust that set them apart among the nations. This trust expressed itself in a regular cessation in vocation—what one typically associates as the key to livelihood and provision—and a turning toward worship and dependence upon the Creator and Redeemer, who had sovereignty over their livelihoods. God doesn’t like it when we declare our independence from him; the tower of Babel incident teaches us that much (Gen. 11:1–9).
The prophets reminded the people about the heart of the Sabbath and rebuked them for making it meaningless ritual. Isaiah 1:13 indicates that God hates rituals, even Sabbath, when divorced from genuine obedience and loyalty. So, Sabbath isn’t the main thing, even in the OT. Ezekiel 20:12 and other places emphasize that Sabbath is a means by which God accomplishes his end to make his people distinct in the world.
Entering the New Testament, Jesus made great efforts to recover the heart and spirit behind Sabbath, that had been lost due to suffocating traditions. The Gospels teach that (1) Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–27), (2) Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–27), and (3) it is good to do good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–6). Luke 13:14-16 introduces a freedom aspect to the purpose of Sabbath. Here’s an interesting question to me, why wasn’t it God’s plan for Jesus to resurrect on the Sabbath, instead of the first day of the week, which would eventually and effectively change the day of worship? Is he moving away from a physical Sabbath day to a spiritual or eternal Sabbath in Christ?
Paul certainly seemed to think so. In Rom. 14, Gal. 4:10, and Col. 2:16, Paul seems to have really no concern for a Sabbath day, unless a (weaker) brother is being offended over such a matter. We may even say he’s critical of it.
Finally, the Sabbath rest of Hebrews 3-4 seems much more like the creation example than the example in the law of Israel. It seems bigger than a mere day. It’s God’s rest, kind of an ultimate cessation from labor and works. In 3:6, Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. From there, the readers are invited into God’s rest. Unbelief keeps us out of this rest (3:19), as it did for the exodus generation, but the inheritance now is not a land, but a person (3:14). So, the rest in Christ for now and forever (cf. Rev. 14:13) is entered into by faith (4:11).
Thus, this seems to be the pattern:
Creation Rest before the Fall—A completion of God’s Creation work
Commanded Rest after the Fall
Christ-centered Rest Free from the Law by the Spirit
Eternal Rest—A completion of God’s Redemptive work
Resting from Your Quest to Rest
I guess then the question begs, what is the practical outworking of finding God’s rest in Christ by faith to my daily life, vocation, and work week? Many “Sabbath practices” in conservative, evangelical Christianity come from the Puritan John Owens, who dealt extensively with the subject. While I like some of Owens’ ideas—particularly that since Sabbath means cessation, we ought to spend nearly the entire day (morning and evening services) in worship on Sunday as the church—I get a strong sense that he does not go far enough with the implications of a Christ-centered, New Testament revelation on Sabbath. He seems to mostly create a new set of laws and traditions to govern the external do’s and don’ts of Sabbath, extending beyond vocation even into recreational prohibitions. You didn’t know it, but John Owens is the reason that some of you as kids weren’t allowed to play on Sunday afternoons! From his ideas, I believe, come regulations like—we shouldn’t go out to eat on Sundays because that causes some stranger to work on Sunday. Although, it was perfectly ok for mother to work her tail off in the kitchen preparing and serving a huge Sunday dinner for the family gathering. . . . I digress.
I want to give you four timeless takeaways that I hope will help you to rest from your quest to rest. Here you go:
(1) Rest and laziness are not the same thing. “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him” (Prov. 10:26). And in the New Testament for good measure, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). To be lazy cannot be justified by the imperative to rest. On the other hand, to avoid rest is not justified by a fear of being perceived as lazy. I feel many of us wrestle with this. Throughout the story of the Bible, laziness is evil, and rest is good.
(2) Rest always exhibits faith and dependence on the Creator and Redeemer. Throughout the whole biblical story, rest is God’s idea—not your’s, not your employer’s, not your family’s. You should rest because you believe that God is your Creator and Savior. Rest is one thing that marks you as a believer, and it glorifies God.
(3) Rest these days should be Christ-centered and Spirit-Driven. I don’t think Sunday should be our day of rest because its the Sabbath because it isn’t. Saturday is the actual, physical Sabbath day according the Old Covenant. I think Sunday should be preferred by the Christian church as its day of rest, because it is the most Christ-centered day we could pick out of the seven! He resurrected on the first day of the week. This is why the early church in Acts began gathering on Sundays instead of Saturdays. With this, our faith and practice are Christ-centered, governing our choices at every level. Our rest should be driven by the Spirit, so that we are not entangled by obsolete laws, so that we understand rest as a gift rather than as something to enslave us, and so that we make sure we continue to do good on it, against which there is no law (Gal. 5:13–26). So, for example, it is Spirit-driven to love another on your day of rest.
(4) Rest in eternity marks the completion of God’s redemptive work and the fullness of our experience of God’s intended rest in Christ. God has an aim to redeem us body and soul—through a physical resurrection like Christ’s and through the new birth. His will is to make us whole, giving us rest in body, emotion, volition, intellect, and in spirit. He is doing this, and he will finish it in the new heaven and new earth. This is something to hope for. It is also something that informs us as we struggle to rest today.