It’s All About Rest
At the base of Sinai, God would give his people seven festivals that would function like individual frames in a reel of film, a series of feasts that would serve to give them glimpses of Messiah’s shadow. There was an additional feast, however, one established at the same time and in the same biblical passage, that was distinct from the other seven and, in fact, framed all of them. Leviticus 23 begins with this feast, a celebration known as Sabbath. Its name suggests the idea of rest, and its commemoration would shade all the other feasts with a unique hue. Redemption in its rich and variegated dimensions—as seven festivals would soon show—was about the bringing of rest and the restoration of shalom. If the Bible is a story, its dramatic movement is from restlessness toward Sabbath rest.1
Sabbath was not only one day per week. Actually, there were Sabbaths, plural, as Israel was soon to learn, and they were to be commemorated every seventh day, every seventh year, and, in the year of Jubilee, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, a year-long celebration following the seventh cycle of seven years.
Keeping the Sabbaths involved first of all heeding the call to remember. But what was Israel to remember? In its first appearance in Scripture (Genesis 2), the Sabbath was a remembering of creation. God himself rested and remembered with delight the work he had done in creating the heavens and the earth. Later, in the first giving of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:8–11), God grounded Israel’s Sabbath-keeping in this creation rest: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
However, in the second giving of the law, God laid a different foundation for the Sabbath feast (Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Here rest was linked to remembering deliverance from Egypt: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
The twin reasons for the feast flavor the subtle but rich recipe of God’s gift of rest.
Remembering and Resting: Creation
In calling Israel to remember creation, God wanted her to do more than recall Genesis 1 and the fact that he had made all things. God wanted her to grapple with the wondrous truth that all aspects of creation took their meaning and purpose from the One who called it into being. Sabbath thus became a gift that defined Israel’s notion of work and gave her a sense of holy vocation. From her stewardship of beasts of burden to her management of servants and employees, Israel was to sense that she was a people on a peculiar mission in the name of her God. Noortzij observes: “The rhythmic character that the Sabbath gave to the Israelites’ life, which is met with nowhere else in the ancient Near Eastern world, contributed to distinguishing them as a peculiar people, and it at the same time exerted an extremely favorable influence both on their capacity for work and on their manner of life in general.”2
If the weekly Sabbaths became routine, every seventh year would jump-start an even stronger memory. Remembering creation was more than a mental exercise; God put legs and feet under the command. On Sabbath days, men and animals were to take a day off to taste God’s gift of rest in their weary world, recalling that work was not supposed to be toil. But in Sabbath years, even the soil would be allowed to remember the goodness it once enjoyed before weeds choked the dirt or invaders salted it. All of creation, including its very soil, had once been good; it bore a divine voiceprint because it had been created by the word of the Lord.3
In a delightful portrait of faith and life in rural Iowa in the 1930s, poet Sietze Buning helps us understand a rest that touched all of creation:
Into the daily swill of skim milk and cornmeal
Dad stirred an extra number-two canful
of Peet’s Perfection Mineral Supplement
on Saturday nights for the pigs’ Sunday breakfast.
It always foamed over the barrel by Sunday morning
and turned so crusty on top you had to cut it with a spade.
It was like slopping the pigs on Sunday with coffee cake.
Roy, Bob, Frank, and Snoodles, our four horses,
each got an extra gallon of oats on Sunday morning;
every cow an extra half-gallon of shelled-corn meal;
the chickens an extra gallon of shelled corn on the ground . . .
Not even during threshing did our overweight horses
need extra oats, although they gladly feasted . . .
“We look to God as animals look to us.
We’re their idea of God, their image of God.
God’s love to animals flows through us to them.
How will they know God’s love unless we show them?
How can they tell the Lord’s Day from another?
How can we comfort animals except by food?
They groan for eternal Sabbath with all creation.”4
Remembering and Resting: Deliverance
Deliverance colored the second giving of the Sabbath command and was the second focal point of all the Sabbaths. This required remembering, too: Israel was to recall and retell the story of the patriarchs—and especially the story of the Exodus—to the rising generations. But it also involved wrestling in faith to see glimpses of the redemption to come more fully on a future day. For the Sabbaths tilted Israel forward to the coming Messiah, one who would finally bring authentic rest. His name was Jesus; all the Sabbaths of the Old Testament would find their meaning in him.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” he would cry, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In the very next verses, he called himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” validating his claim by healing a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath day. Defiantly rejecting the Pharisees’ demand that Sabbath was honored by the avoidance of work, he insisted that his work brought rest.
His rest did not come because he healed a man or plucked grain on a Sabbath day, thus offering people an example that stretched the traditional understanding of Sabbath behavior. The central teaching of Jesus about the Sabbath is that no one finds rest by his own efforts, by what Scripture calls “observing the law,” even Sabbath laws. The Old Testament prohibition against work on the Sabbath—under penalty of death, no less (Exodus 31:15)—anticipated that truth. God wanted his people to know—in every generation—that seeking rest by their own effort was a doomed enterprise, for no rest is to be found at the end of such a quest. Thus he forbade them from working to find it.
Jesus’ words and Jesus’ Sabbath-keeping hung a neon sign in a public place, a sign for all generations to see: working at rest won’t bring it—don’t even try!
Only God can give rest, and it will come only through Christ. God’s rest would be secured by Jesus’ death on the cross as a punishment for our sin and as the end of the guilt that makes our souls so very restless. Paul would instruct the Romans that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins” (4:25) and that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (6:6). He explained this more fully in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (2:20).5 He assured them that, justified by faith, we have “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). His conclusion was that, in light of the cross of Christ, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
Such rest runs deep, for it releases our souls from the burden of guilt both for sins committed and obedience omitted, seals the tear in the fabric of our personal history, and gives each of us a new purpose and meaning that is tied to a new life enjoyed in the love of God.
Yet keen eyes and sensitive hearts know well that the restlessness of the world and in the human soul are not yet completely done away with. People still hurt, they still cry, and they still die, all marks of the old restless order of things.
James and Rebecca were the model couple. Newly wed and in their late twenties, they are handsome, their wedding picture the sort that could have adorned frames for sale at the neighborhood Walmart. And with a new baby, life before them had a sweet cast to it. James had been a Navy diver, was well trained, and was physically a specimen the likes of which would inspire jealousy in all men over the age of forty. They were partners in a new business venture that promised a solid and prosperous future.
But when James suffered nine days of relentless, brutal headaches, it was not only Rebecca who was concerned; the doctors shifted into diagnostic overdrive. They dug deep, ordering tests that bewildered and frightened everyone. The tests confirmed the worst fears: James had a brain tumor.
The diagnosis launched a series of bewildering but rapid actions: the immediate surgery was radical, leaving visible scars; the follow-up radiation killed cells indiscriminately, destroying healthy hair follicles as well as malignant cells; and chemotherapy brought a weariness that young men are unprepared for. Tears gave way to fears, and fears gave way to more tears as the unknown trumped the known. At first, the tumor was seldom discussed, a pink elephant everyone knows is in the room but which no one wants to acknowledge. Gradually, as they grew in faith, and with the support of family and friends, the tumor became a reality to be dealt with, a factor in daily life, but not the defining factor.
James and Rebecca are resting in Christ. Like the rest of us, they do not know the future. But if asked, they’ll tell you, without hesitance, that all is well.
Stories like this remind us that there is an undeniable not yet to our rest in Christ. We inhabit a broken world; those who follow Christ walk with both a limp and a tilt, hobbled both by cosmic brokenness and by personal sin, always leaning toward the new order of things his resurrection promises. Even though people who come to Christ really do find forgiveness, joy, and hope because of the finished redemption his cross provides, they don’t always heal completely—not this side of glory, anyway. Our sins don’t disappear overnight; neither do their consequences. Some brain tumors are completely healed; but sometimes, the medical journey is a hard one and the outcome sad. Sinful marital patterns—twisted out of shape over decades—don’t untangle easily; memories aren’t quickly purged of cruel treatment or harsh words, and hearts cringe in desperate fear for years following physical or verbal abuse. One may be set free from addictions, but a rotten liver may well be the price of decades of overindulgence. A bright young mind may have limitless potential, but a self-image crippled by the cruel names children call out or damaged by parental criticism that never showed unconditional love or approval may well be hobbled for life—life this side of the grave, anyway.
We already taste rest, but we haven’t yet been seated at the table for the full feast. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
Twisted Sabbaths, Weary Rest
Ever been invited to a party at someone’s home, only to discover that there was no reason for the party? There is nothing to celebrate, nothing drawing this particular group of people together except the personalities of the hosts. In such gatherings, most mill around for a while, but leave early. With all due respect to the hosts, nothing keeps them there.
Parties without meaning are empty; they have no purpose other than fun, a pale counterfeit for real joy. The truth is that it is easy to lose the purpose of a celebration. A wedding anniversary can be shared with friends, with a first-rate dinner at a five-star restaurant and a card or gift, while the first love that bloomed into wedding vows shrivels after years of neglect, cold hearts, and quiet desperation. In our culture, Christmas commemorations are often the worst. Traditions like gift-giving—unrelated to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea but essential to the commercial extravaganza December 25 has become—drape the holidays with stress and financial pressures that make them prime time for painful family crises and bleak seasonal depression. In today’s commercialized culture, the incarnate Son of God has become as easy to miss in December as a mustard seed in a shopping mall.
The meaning of the Sabbaths was easy to lose too. Over the centuries, Israel distorted the biblical gift of rest by reducing Sabbath to duty and tying it to a twenty-four-hour period beginning at dusk on Friday. She worked the day to death and “turned the permission to rest into an imperative.”6 She scrupulously obeyed the rules and drew out the implications but never found the rest the day proclaimed. She worked hard at not working: her rabbis identified “Sabbath day journeys” that limited the distance a person could walk without his steps becoming laborious. A housewife was permitted to take one stitch in a garment, but two constituted work and thus broke the law. Some knots might be tied on a Sabbath, but others—any that would be “lasting” knots, like a camel-driver’s knot or a sailor’s—were prohibited. If a stone lay on the mouth of a jar, the jar could be tipped so that the stone fell off. But the stone itself could not be lifted; such would constitute labor.7
Modern people react variously to the notion of Sabbath. Many ignore it altogether, giving Saturday to Sunday no spiritual significance except as a recreational weekend.8 Some Christian communities see no compelling connection between Sunday and the Sabbath. They reason that the age called Law is past and another called Grace has arrived, and with the change in epochs, Sabbath became a relic of the former dispensation.
Other Christian fellowships are convinced of a different logic: Sabbath is tied to the fourth of God’s Ten Commandments. Sunday has replaced Saturday and is now the Christian Sabbath, and keeping the Sunday-Sabbath is a matter of obedience. Believers are to follow God’s laws against unnecessary work or commerce on the Lord’s Day.
Those who so easily disconnect Sabbath from Sunday risk forgetting that Sabbath did not start out as a complex of rules but as a celebration of rest that echoed God’s own, a rest that enjoyed fellowship between a creation and its Creator. They also risk forgetting that Sabbath remembers redemption—once in the Exodus and more fully in Christ alone. Remembering God as Lord of creation and as Redeemer through Christ grounded two thousand years of the church’s pattern of faith: they gathered communally each Sunday to rest in Him.
Those who suggest that rest can be found by following Jewish Sabbath proscriptions—applicable now to Sunday instead of Saturday—also run a risk. They risk forgetting that any rest that has to be obtained by human efforts—even Sabbath-keeping ones —is not really rest at all.
The hard part of honoring Sabbath today is sorting out what is rehearsal and what is truly feast, what was temporary and what is eternal, what is shadow and what is the substance that cast it.
Such struggles are not new. John Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer, provides a helpful perspective. He warns against “superstition” in regard to Sabbath-keeping:
By the Lord Christ’s coming the ceremonial part of this commandment was abolished. For he himself is the truth, with whose presence all figures vanish; he is the body, at whose appearance the shadows are left behind. He is, I say, the true fulfillment of the Sabbath . . . Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days [emphasis added—JRS].9
In the same paragraphs in which Calvin argues that the “ceremonial part” of the fourth commandment should be abolished, he affirms two valid reasons for “observing Sabbath.” The first is a call to gather “on stated days” for worship and instruction in God’s Word, which will help us to rest in Christ and turn away from seeking to earn rest by the works of the flesh; the second is a call to treat employees well, giving them a day of rest to show the holistic grace the kingdom of God brings.10
Calvin’s balanced warnings are fresh and timely for believers in this generation. Any view or practice of Sabbath that puts its focus on our behavior one day of the week instead of placing the focus on the accomplished work of redemption by grace in Christ is off target. Jesus Christ is the true Sabbath; all the Sabbath requirements in the Old Testament point to the rest he alone would provide for his people by the cross and resurrection. Learning to rest in the salvation that Jesus brought—without adding our own efforts—is the way we embrace Sabbath rest. All the weight of salvation is borne by Christ alone, given to us by grace alone, embraced by faith alone.
My wife and I recently enjoyed the privilege of a working sabbatical. I was working on this chapter, in fact, so Sabbath rest was in the forefront of my mind and heart. So we were excited one Sunday when we visited another church and read in the bulletin that the preacher would preach about “Keeping Sabbath.” Very articulate and most persuasive, he touched on important issues. He charged us to “get off the merry-go-round” of stress to find freedom from the tyranny of the urgent. He recited compelling statistics showing how busy we are as a culture and how desperately we need to find balance by taking time off from the demands of work. He lamented that our expanding list of labor-saving devices merely adds to our stress levels by seducing us to think we can get more done than ever.
But his solution—“Keep the Sabbath; take Sundays off!”—missed the mark. Not a word was spoken about resting in Christ alone. Not a word pointed us to the cross and the resurrection as the ground of our peace. Time management was offered as a substitute redeemer.
As we left, I couldn’t help thinking that the same talk could have been delivered by an Orthodox Jew steeped in the Sabbath regulations of the Mishnah or a secular business consultant advising an overworked client. Perhaps the word Sabbath would have appeared in the Jew’s presentation and been absent from the consultant’s, or even a different day proposed for it. Yet the message would have been the same: if you take a day off you will achieve schedule and relationship balance, be able to say no to overcommitment, and you will invest more time in marriage and family. The benefits will be well worth the effort.
Few will disagree that a day off can benefit stressed people and that renewing your commitment to a busy family shows love and provides nurture to a generation of children themselves showing the strain of this pressured life. But the currents of rest run deep, its spring bubbling from a place far beyond human obedience. Going to church faithfully on Sundays does not itself fix the greed that drives people the other days. Making a commitment not to go shopping on Sunday and not to buy or sell or go to the office that day could be driven by a desire to honor the Lord more purely. But it may as well be driven by tradition, custom, or even fear of reprisal—from the Lord, your parents, or your church community. Ultimately, keeping Sabbath by such behavioral commitments is no guarantee at all that you rest in Christ or that your labor the other six is “unto the Lord.”
To find rest in a world of relentless change, stress, and the tyranny of the urgent, people need a new heart, one emptied of self-reliance and unburdened of frustrating duty, one desperate for God’s grace. They need redemption of a kind that will set the world right once again.
The Sabbaths in Leviticus 23 showed the movement of the plot of God’s redemption: he would bring rest to a restless world. The redemption would prove to be something mysterious, different from anything Israel could imagine. In fact, it would take seven feasts to help her dream.
1. C. Vonk speaks of the “idea of rest” as being the “signature” of all of the feasts, not only of Sabbath. De Voorzeide Leer: Leviticus, vol. 1b (Uitgave: Drukkerij Barendrecht, 1963), 635.
2. Bible Student’s Commentary: Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Corp., 1982), 230.
3. Brueggeman, Walter, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 49.
4. Buning, Sietze, “An Open Letter,” in Style and Class (Orange City, Iowa: Middleburg Press, 1982), 56–7.
5. The verb tells the story: it is in the perfect tense, stressing completed action with ongoing results.
6. Noortzij reminds us that the prohibition of all work was not absolute. Leviticus, 230.
7. For a glimpse at the extensive rabbinic tradition surrounding Sabbath laws, see Shabbath 15.1 in The Mishnah, trans. Herbert Danby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 113.
8. Ironically, what our culture refers to as recreation (meaning by the term weekends, sports, and play) is rooted in the biblical concept of redemption, the bringing of the new creation—and with it, rest.
9. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill, bk. 2, chap. 8:32 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967).
10. Ibid, 8:32. For Calvin, Sunday has no special claim as the day of rest but is an accommodation to our weakness, only advisable because we do not worship every day. He comments, “Would that we were privileged to do so!”
Dr. John R. Sittema is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church (PCA) of Jacksonville, Florida
Questions for Further Study and Discussion
1. God established Sabbaths (plural) that blessed animals, servants, and even the land itself with rest
How does this fact shape your thinking about the redemption Christ brought?
2. Re-read Matthew 11:28–12:13. How does the healing of the man with a shriveled hand bring him
3. Hebrews 4:9 speaks of a Sabbath rest to come. Will it be a rest tied to a Saturday (Old Testament
Sabbath), Sunday (called by many the Christian Sabbath), or neither?
4. Do you rest well in the cross and resurrection of Christ? Does your church? Explain.
5. The chapter refers to the “relentless movement of history from restlessness to rest.” How does
this movement affect the way you read the daily news reports? Does it shape the yearnings of
your heart? Does it influence the mission strategy of your local church to bring rest to the restless
in your community?