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.

See comments (1)


I could not agree more with this statement from the Sabbath Rest article, “Christian often Struggle to understand what Sabbath observation means for us today”.  However in this article the writer talks about the eight day of creation.  This I find nowhere in the Bible.  So I feel we should review the creation story and what rest meant.  Jesus was our creator. (Colossians 1:16-17 and John 1:1-4).  He spoke and everything came into existence.  However it was only man that Jesus formed with His hands and He breathed the breath of life into him (Genesis 2:7).  This was very personal way of creating man.  Also starting with Genesis 2:4 God is no longer referred to as just God, but the Lord God.  I believe this means the “God of the Relationship” and not just some God who created the world.  Notice how the serpent in Genesis 3:1 (NIV) dropped the Lord God and only said “Did God really say”.  He does not want us to have a relationship with our Creator God.   

So in Genesis 2:2,3 (NIV)  “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”   

There are two things here, first did the Jesus need rest?  In Isaiah 40:28 (NIV)  “..the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary..”  Also in Exodus 31:17 (NIV)  “.. for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”  How can Jesus be refreshed if He does not grow tired?  I would say it is because of the relationship with man His creation! 

 The second point is how does Jesus make a day Holy?  Like Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-4,  what made the ground he was standing on Holy?  The presents of God in the bush.  This seventh day of creation is a day that was created for a special relationship time with God.  The presence of God in this day made it Holy. 

This puts special meaning to the phrase in Mark 2:27 “The Sabbath was made for man”.  It was made as a time for a relationship with God.  The leaders in Jesus time had a bunch of rules about the Sabbath, but they did not have the relationship with their creator.  He was standing before them and they did not even recognize Him or know Him. 

Hebrews 4:1,4,7, 8-11 (NIV) “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it…..For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: ‘On the seventh day God rested from all his works.’… God again set a certain day… God would not have spoken later about another day.  There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.  Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish…”

Notice how Hebrews 4:10 says “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from His” and earlier in verse four the writer is clearly referring to the creation story.  This text in Hebrews is also referring to the relationship rest because they “also rest from their works”. 

This is why God said “remember” in the fourth Commandment and then talks about creation.  In Exodus 20:8,11 God said “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.”

The forth Commandment is linked to creation of the world and honors Jesus our creator.  We will be no different than the leaders in Jesus day if add the 8th day of creation and miss the relationship with our creator who is Jesus and focus on just the need for physical rest. 

Barry Hendrick

Dorr Michigan