The Goodness of Sabbath Rest
The Goodness of Sabbath Rest
Let me read to you from Genesis Chapter 2. We have spent a number of weeks looking into Genesis Chapter 1, which gives to us the record of the creation of the world culminating in the pinnacle of that creation, which was the creation of human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
Now in Verse 1 of Chapter 2 it says,
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
The rest of the Chapter retells the events of the sixth day. On the sixth day in Chapter 1 there is the creation of life—animals, then finally human beings. Now the rest of Chapter 2 goes back to the creation of human beings. If you like, Chapter 1 is the headline news version and Chapter 2 gets down to some detail as to how and why God created human beings.
There are three things that stand out to me. My original intention was to talk about these three things but I'm not able to; so I'm going to talk about one of them. But I want to put this one into the wider context and we'll come back to this next week with some of the other sections.
First of all, this chapter talks about the Sabbath rest, the seventh day when God rested from all his work. Then when God created Adam and then Eve, it says in Verse 15, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it."
We've got this whole issue of work responsibility, and along with that, taking care of the earth—something we haven't really addressed biblically very much though the whole world is waking up to the need to do that, because we have not been taking care of it if we're going to sustain life on this planet. But right in the Garden of Eden Adam was told to take care of it.
The third element is that in Verse 18, having created Adam, it says, "The Lord God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'" Then you have the whole question of marriage and relationship that is introduced to us in the last part of Chapter 2.
So there are three issues here. The first is the issue of rest: what is the meaning of the Sabbath (God rested from all his work)? Then the issue of responsibility: working and taking care of the earth. Finally, the issue of relationship: it is not good for man to be alone.
I am calling these the key issues of life, because when you think about them, they are. Rest is actually what we do most. We actually spend at least one third of our time in bed. You know, by the time you are twenty years of age you have spent probably at least seven years in bed. You sleep a little longer when you are younger.
By the time you are thirty, you have spent, you know, ten years, although it may be less because in your twenty's you go to bed late. You don't necessarily get up early but you don't sleep very much; there is too much else to do. By the time you are sixty, you have spent twenty years in bed. By the time you are seventy-five, you have spent twenty-five years in bed. I mean, what a waste of time! It seems that way. Hilary said to me one day, "We haven't spent much time together lately." I said, "Well you have been asleep most of the time we've been together. We spend a third of the day together—at least." But rest is the thing we do most. And the Bible says things about rest and why God created rest and not just created rest, but mandated rest.
If rest is the thing we do most, responsibility is the thing we prepare for most—that's why we send our children to school, that's why we have education, that's why we discipline our children, that's why we go through training in order to equip us to undertake responsibility in all that we work. Work is a privilege; if you're not sure, ask somebody who doesn't have work. We're to find fulfillment in that.
If rest is what we do most and responsibility is what we prepare for most, relationships are where we find the most satisfaction. We actually live in a society that has become deluded by the idea that life consists in the abundance of things we possess. That of course is the reverse of what Jesus said. He said life does not consist in the abundance of things that we possess; life actually consists of relationships.
Now of course we need things and we can be grateful God gives us all things richly to enjoy. Let's not feel embarrassed about the possession of things. We must be responsible with how we use them of course, but what really makes life meaningful is relationship. That's why you can go into situations such as I have been in recent days, where people materially have little or almost nothing, and yet they have relationships that are rich, joyful and fulfilled.
Commemorating creation and salvation
I want to follow this truth through in Scripture. Actually it is mentioned here in Genesis Chapter 2 and the Sabbath—the seventh day—is never mentioned again for century after century after century until the Israelites are wandering through the wilderness on their way to Canaan and God gave them the Law.
When God gave them the Law, one of the commandments—the sixth commandment—was, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God."
Now I need to point out that although that is the first time it is explicitly stated, a couple of chapters earlier, in Exodus 16, the Israelites were fed with manna, a miraculous provision God gave to them. He gave them enough each day for that day except on the sixth day He gave them enough to last for the seventh day, and there was no manna on the seventh day. So there clearly was some practice, some recognition of the seventh day though it's never mentioned until we get to the Law.
The reason why God gave it in the Law is twofold. You see the Law is given to us twice. Exodus 20 is the original giving on Mount Sinai. Then in Deuteronomy 5, in the last year of their wandering in the wilderness there is sort of a recapitulation of what has been happening over the previous 39 years, and it repeats the giving of the Law. But it gives a different reason there for keeping the Sabbath. Let me read both of these reasons to you.
Exodus 20:11 says, "Remember the Sabbath day. 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 reason, he says, is because in six days God made the heavens and the earth; it is to commemorate creation. That is the first reason for the Sabbath day. God rested on the seventh day of creation.
But in Deuteronomy 5 the reason is different. Verse 13 says, "Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God." It explains what that means, and then in Verse 15 it says, "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."
Now this time he says, "Remember that having been slaves in Egypt for 400 years (at least they were in Egypt for 400 years—slaves for the latter part of that time), God intervened, God rescued, God brought you out, God is taking you to the land of Canaan that he promised to you, where as a nation you would fulfill his destiny for you. "Therefore," he says, "remember the Sabbath day."
If in Exodus 20 it's to commemorate their creation, in Deuteronomy 5, the Sabbath is to commemoration their salvation. Now those two things were entirely and exclusively the work of God in their lives and experience. Creation, of course, was an unaided work of the Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together created, unaided.
Equally, their deliverance from Egypt was an unaided work by God. If you read Exodus 3 when God met with Moses at the burning bush and told Moses he was going to send Moses back into Egypt to lead the Israelites out, God spoke entirely about himself in that context. It says, "I have heard their cry, I have seen their distress, I have come down, I will rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians, I will take them to the land flowing with milk and honey." It was "I, I, I, I." This was going to be a work of God. You know that the release of Israel from Egypt is a picture of salvation that we enjoy in the New Testament because this story is re-told in the New Testament as a picture of that.
So these two issues—creation and salvation—the reason for the Sabbath day is to remember that you are to live your life in a sense of total dependence on that which is exclusively God's work in your history and in your lives. You rest in the fact that it is his work, strength, and sufficiency.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the Sabbath having physical benefits of rest, though of course it does. We need to rest. But it is mentioned as pointers to the completed and the finished work of God. It is resting in the strength, the sufficiency of God. That was the reason why the commandment to observe the Sabbath was given.
More than just a rule
The Sabbath has a very interesting record in the New Testament. Jesus seemingly did not keep the Sabbath, which is one of the things which upset people about him. John 9:16 says, "Some of the Pharisees said, 'This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.'"
Now we know a number of instances when the embellished laws of the Jewish people, (and especially the Pharisees), had built around the Sabbath, were broken by Jesus. But this is a statement that he does not even keep it. Actually Jesus never affirmed it.
The positive statement he did make about the Sabbath was when he and his disciples were being criticized for picking corn on the Sabbath day in Mark 2 and eating it and making a meal was forbidden. This was making a meal, they said, just getting the corn and rubbing it in their hands and then blowing away the chaff and eating the grain—that's making a meal, they said, you're breaking the Sabbath laws.
Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." In other words, the Sabbath does not master you; the Sabbath teaches you. It was made for you, for your benefit. When you get into the epistles, Paul twice talks about the Sabbath and in both cases he does not affirm it in the way the Old Testament does. Let me read you the two instances. In Colossians 2:16 he says, "Do not let anyone judge you …"
Then he lists some things that people were judging each other by: "… by what you eat …" Obviously there was an issue over food that people were judging each other over. "… or what you drink." There was obviously an issue over that. "… or with regard to religious festivals …" Probably a legacy of the Jewish history—many of the early Christians were Jewish. "… or a New Moon …"
I have no idea why they should be fussed about the new moon, but they were. "… New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day." Now he says, "Don't let anyone judge you over the Sabbath day."
Now you say, "Paul, why in the world are you saying this about something which God gave in the Law?"
In Romans 14:1-6, Paul talks about what he calls "disputable matters" (in other words, things which are ambiguous, unclear). Now we would rather everything was black or white, but it isn't; there are disputable issues and these are some of them. He says, "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, only eats vegetables."
Well listen: "The man who eats everything …" By the way, I think the allowance is interesting—he doesn't say "the man who eats anything," which has one meaning; he says "the man who eats everything." "The man who eats everything must not look down on the man who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does …" In other words, this question of vegetables and meat, which was obviously a controversy, he says, don't judge each other over these issues. Then he says in Verse 5, "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike."
Well, this is pretty clearly a reference to the Sabbath day. "Each one should be convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord." He goes on to explore this whole issue. There is almost an indifference to the question of the Sabbath. "Don't let anyone judge you over the Sabbath, don't let anyone, you know, this is one of those disputable matters."
Interestingly he says it's the person whose faith is weak that keeps these rules. So don't begrudge them that. You know I think we've changed this around. Often we think the person whose faith is weak is the weaker brother (which is how one translation puts it), is the person who doesn't keep the rules; that's the weaker brother we often think.
But actually the reverse is true. The weaker brother is the person who is living still by Law, is what Paul seems to be saying here. The weaker brother is the one who is not free to do some of these other things. The reason I think is that if a person's relationship with God is not real and vital and seven days a week (I think that is how you would define a weaker brother), all they actually have are rules to keep and to live by. Now when a person begins the Christian life, often that's how you understand and get your direction, which is fine.
It's like painting by numbers—did you paint by numbers when you started to paint when you were a kid? You would get a little paint book and it has a code—1 is red, 2 is green, 3 is yellow, 4 is blue, and 5 is black. So you find all the 1's and get your paintbrush and you fill out all the ones in red. Then you find all the 2's and you paint them all green. Then you find 3's, paint them yellow and so on. When you finish your painting, your mom and dad come and say, "Oh wow, that's wonderful! Look at that!"
Well painting by numbers is a good way to start and sometimes we start the Christian life painting by numbers. "What are the hoops I'm supposed to jump through?" But if you meet someone in an art studio at the age of 25 and they say, "I want to show you my work of art but I had forgotten what the number was so there's a blank there because I haven't filled it in," you would say, "You haven't progressed very much."
This is not an invitation to license in Scripture; it's an invitation to liberty. Because what is happening is that the Christian life is worked out of a relationship with God where God, living in you, has only one ambition—that's to reproduce his image, character, holiness, righteousness, and that's what he's doing. He'll do it from the inside out, not from the outside in by keeping the rules.
Resting in God's sufficiency and strength
It seems to me that this is what the Sabbath is about. If he says, "don't judge anyone about the Sabbath," then what is its meaning, what is its purpose? Well let me read to you from Hebrews 4 where I think it comes to its fullness (in fact it's the last time it's spoken about). In Hebrews 4:9 it says, "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God." What is that Sabbath-rest? Verse 10, "Anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest."
Paul says there that this Sabbath is not a physical thing. Any Tom, Dick, and Harry can observe the physical outward law. No, he says, we need to enter into God's rest, resting in God in his sufficiency and his strength.
Go back to the Law: if in Exodus 20, the Sabbath was because God rested on the seventh day, why did God rest on the seventh day? Was it because he was tired after six days of hard creating? You know, having made the world he sat down, "Whew, that was tiring; need a day off." No, it tells us God rested not because he was tired; he rested because he was finished. It says that. He was finished. Why are they to rest in Deuteronomy 5 on the Sabbath day? "Because God delivered you out of Egypt, because you are resting in the fact that the journey that we are on (and they weren't yet in Canaan) is one which is destined by God, predetermined by God and is going to be fulfilled by God."
You are going to meet enemies, (as they were). You can read this also of course in that whole section—there were seven nations inhabiting the land of Canaan and they were living in 45 cities. They had equipped armies; the Israelites were a nomadic tribe who used to be slaves, never held a weapon in their hands.
They sent spies in—twelve. When they came back, ten of them said "We can't do it; they're too powerful for us." Two of them said, "No we can't, but God can." Joshua and Caleb said, "God will give them into our hands." They said, "Don't be so spiritual; we've got to be practical about these things." They didn't go in. But now they are reminded: "Listen this is a work of God. You will go in and you will settle and God will give you the victory. It's not what you do for him; it's what he will do for you. Therefore take a Sabbath on this issue. You take a Sabbath because God created rest in his finished work and because God is your deliverer. Rest in his sufficiency and his finished work."
Therefore the Sabbath is not a physical thing but it's a spiritual issue in the New Testament. Resting in the sufficiency of God, resting in his strength. You discover that when you rest in his strength, you have a lot more strength than you realized you had.
That's why it says, "Make every effort to enter into his rest." That sounds like a paradox doesn't it? Make every effort to enter into rest? The reason is because all the time there is a temptation to be independent of God instead of dependent on God. You've got to discipline yourselves. No, I'm going to trust him; I'm going to rest in him—that's a disciplined response as we go through life. That's why Paul also writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16, "Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed every day." Why? Where does your strength come from? It comes from resting in God.
Out of rest, we work
Now let me finish taking just a moment to talk about the fact that out of rest in Genesis 2, God then says to Adam, "You have some responsibilities. You need to work the garden. You need to take care of the garden; but it's out of rest.
I've said this before I think that for Adam—for God, the seventh day was a day of rest; for Adam the first day was a day of rest because he was created on the sixth day. What's happening tomorrow? It's a day off. It's a great day to have been created!
Because we work out of rest, that's partly why Sunday is the day of rest in the Christian calendar. Now with a resurrected Christ—not just because historically he was raised on the first day, but because we work out of that position of rest.
Now we need physical rest; I am not in any way undermining that physical need. Though we have changed it from six days shall you labor to five days shall you labor (we have messed that up in recent years) and two days' rest. That's the life for many. But nevertheless we need to be realistic about the need for our bodies to re-energize. We need to rest—of course we do. But that's not the message of the Sabbath. The message of the Sabbath is: there remains, waiting, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God. The context in Hebrews 4 when he says that is about the Israelites who didn't rest in God and they took 40 years because they didn't rest in God, going around in circles in the wilderness depending on their own resources.
But there remains a rest for the people of God, so make every effort, discipline yourselves to enter into that rest. Out of that rest you work. That is, in your inner life there is a sense of being relaxed in the fact that that to which God has called me—whether it's driving a bus, teaching a class in school, in a medical practice, in a store behind the till, being a missionary on the field—it doesn't matter what your nature of your work is—that we rest in him. We have all the resources we need for life and godliness.
Out of rest come relationships
Then in the area of relationship—it's not good for man to be alone. That says a lot more about human beings than simply the need for marriage. It actually, when we look at this, talks about our relationship to animals too. In that passage, God put all the animals before Adam and still no suitable helper was found for him. Intriguing isn't it? I don't know what he tried—giraffe? That would give him a stiff neck.
But there is a relationship to the animal world, and that's hinted at there. Then of course the relationship of male and female in marriage as well as simply with other fellow human beings where it's not good to be alone. Self-sufficiency is a weakness, not a strength, by the way. It's not good to be alone.
But our relationships, if they are going to be rich and effective, will come out of that disposition of rest in God, in his strength. So that, as Peter wrote in his epistle, we have everything we need for life and godliness. Where? In our knowledge of Christ, and our knowledge of Christ leads us to rest in him. We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing, Paul said to the Ephesians, in Christ. All the resources you need—if you like, the gas tank of your car is full; get on the highway and rest in the resources that you have.
When Gideon was once waiting for a battle, scared, God said to him, "Go in the strength you have." Gideon—Judges 6—"the strength you have." But Gideon said, "But I don't have any strength. I'm the least of all my clan. I'm the weakest." "Go in the strength you have." What was the strength he had? What God had said to him: "I will be with you. Now Gideon, go in the strength you have. What is your strength? I am with you; I am your strength."
That's why Scripture, if you notice very carefully, never tells us to ask God to give us strength. Do you ever pray, "God please give me strength?" What the Scripture says is "The Lord is my strength." That's different. He is our strength—his presence in us. In Genesis 2, the seventh day never ends. The previous days had an evening and a morning. "And it was the first day, the second day, it was the third, fourth, fifth, and it was the sixth day."
Could it be that the writer of Genesis is telling us that the seventh day is still in existence, we live in the seventh day; we live in that disposition of rest and trust? God finished; relax; he's enough, he's sufficient. We start from that position of rest in his finished work.
Then our responsibilities: we have the resources for them. Then in our relationships, which are complex and difficult—let's not pretend otherwise—relationships have to be worked on. But our resources are sufficient and we rest in his wisdom and strength. Does that make sense? Well, take a rest; take a long rest—the seventh day, the rest of your life resting in him.
Charles Price is the Senior Pastor of The Peoples Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the founder of Living Truth, an international teaching and preaching ministry.