Sabbath Rest

The discipline of rest is a key to human flourishing.

Christians often struggle to understand what Sabbath observation means for us today. The Old Testament clearly prescribes a day of rest from work, as well as a Sabbath year and a Year of Jubilee. The Old Testament Sabbath is ultimately a sign and promise of the true rest that is inaugurated by the Messiah (Col. 2:16-17).

But far from nullifying the Sabbath, Christians live in the reality to which the shadow of the Sabbath points (Heb. 4:1-11). Because Jesus deepens, intensifies, and internalizes other Old Testament commands for his followers (as in Matt. 5), we ask, what does this mean for our Sabbath observance?

From seventh day to first day. In John’s gospel especially, Jesus’ resurrection is both the eighth day of creation as fulfillment of God’s intentions in creation and the dawning of the first day of new creation. Rather than working throughout the week and then resting on the seventh day, Christians mark the first day of the week with rest because of God’s gracious action toward us. The pattern of our week thus marks a proper understanding of God’s grace and our action—we live from God’s rest and work on the basis of his gracious provision, not to somehow attain it.

Worship. If the point of Sabbath is rest, wouldn’t it be more restful just to stay in bed on Sunday mornings? Bible scholar John Walton points out that the biblical concept of rest is not merely inactivity but properly ordered activity. Rest isn’t simply kicking back in a lounge chair but living a life that is in sync with God’s intentions for human life.

The fourth command—Sabbath—is inextricably linked with the first—honoring God as God. So it is fitting that new creation people are called together on the first day of the week for worship, preaching, sacraments, prayer, offerings, and fellowship. True rest is found only in worshiping our triune God for who he is and celebrating what he has done for us. Each Sunday is a mini-Easter, and is, as the Heidelberg Catechism proclaims, a “festive day of rest.” So we focus less on somber ceasing from labor and more on joyful celebrating. And if we truly understand who God is for us, the idea of skipping the festivities has no pull on us.

Rest from normal work. Rather than asking legalistically whether it is permissible to work on the first day of the week, we need to ask ourselves a different question. Is my life structured according to a pattern of disciplined work and real rest, or am I caught up in a ceaseless cycle of stress and sloth? If the Old Testament Sabbath was a step of faith that trusted God to provide for his people, do my patterns of work show that I trust God to provide?

We dare not divorce “spiritual” rest from our actual patterns of sleep, work, and ceasing from that work. The two are inextricably linked. Furthermore, if my work consistently forces me to forsake the assembly of God’s people, I need to ask whether I am living by bread alone or by the Word that comes from the mouth of God. Though some may see the discipline of rest as a burden, it is a key to human flourishing, a point that Jesus underscores in his declaration, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

God instituted a weekly rhythm of rest and work for us. In a culture full of restless people seeking fulfillment in all kinds of things, a Sabbath people who mark a joyful rhythm of worship, rest, and work will be a powerful witness to the One who alone provides true rest.

Other articles on Sabbath you may enjoy:

Keeping the Sabbath: A healthy habit (by Clifford Bajema, The Banner)

Day Off … Or Sabbath? (by Mary Hulst, The Banner)

Sabbath? What Sabbath? (by Bob De Moor)

 

Web Questions:

  1. How does keeping Sabbath look backward to what God has done? How does it look forward to what God will do?
  2. Why have we shifted our usual Sabbath observance from the seventh day to the first day?
  3. What does worship have to do with Sabbath? Why does the Heidelberg Catechism characterize it as “a festive day of rest?”
  4. How can we honor God’s ongoing will for us to observe Sabbath but do so without falling into legalism?
  5. Smartphones and the Web have blurred the lines between when we work and when we don’t. Does technology tempt us into Sabbath-breaking in a whole new way? Give some examples.
  6. How does keeping Sabbath honor God? How is it a testimony to those who don’t know Jesus?

About the Author

Branson Parler is associate professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He and his wife, Sarah, have four kids.

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