We’ve all heard the verse, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). But does this verse and the biblical principle of a Sabbath day’s rest hold any meaning for us today?
I recently had a conversation with a fellow seminary student, a man training for ministry in God’s church who said that all he did after church on Sunday was school work. If this is the testimony of a man in preparation for service to the church, then what is the opinion of the lay person who does not have the luxury or call to study theology in-depth? Do we not need a Sabbath day’s rest?
I know I’m wading into controversial theological territory here. And I admit that I don’t know all the nuances of what it means to have a biblical Sabbath. I’m just speaking as a simple worshiper who is still refining his thought and practice on this subject. That being said, here are five truths about taking a Sabbath day’s rest.
1) A Sabbath Day’s Rest Is a Commandment
First, the Sabbath is not option. It’s a commandment. The fourth one, to be exact, and one of the longest. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…” And there are two more verses besides those (Ex. 20:8-10). As Christians we cannot simply decide, “I won’t have a Sabbath this week”. All of the other commandments are still in effect, and violating any of them is sin. The commandment about the Sabbath day remains binding and refusing to obey it is still sin.
2) A Sabbath’s Day’s Rest Looks Different from Other Types of Rest
Second, there’s rest and then there’s Sabbath rest. Rest involves activities like sleeping or going to a spa. Rest also includes recreational activities like golfing, watching a football game, or scrapbooking. These things rejuvenate us, in a way, because we enjoy them. But Sabbath rest entails resting in God. Sabbath day activities encourage you to be mindful of the Lord in a way that you are seldom able during the rest of the week. Extended times of prayer, closely reading the Bible, sharing time with other Christian friends, public worship, and similar acts characterize Sabbath rest.
3) A Sabbath Day’s Rest Cannot Be Skipped Because of Busyness
Third, saying, “I have too much to do” is not a reason to skip a Sabbath day’s rest. The work never ends. Surely we’ve all realized this by now. There’s always another e-mail to send, another errand to run, another assignment to turn in, another chore to be done around the house. When are we ever not busy? We’ll never reach that mythical moment when we don’t have anything else to do. Yet the Sabbath day is there at the start of every week to remind us to cultivate a rhythm of work and rest.
4) A Sabbath Day’s Rest Will Not Be Popular or Easy
Fourth, a Sabbath day’s rest is counter-cultural and difficult to practice. Or better yet, a Sabbath day’s rest is difficult because it is counter-cultural. Almost no one takes a day off in general, let alone a day for spiritual rejuvenation specifically. If you intend to take the Sabbath seriously then be prepared for a lonely mission. Few will support you in your efforts to take a Sabbath. Yes, your co-worker, spouse, or mother might admonish you to “slow down” or “take a break”, but this isn’t exactly what is meant by the Sabbath rest (see above). These days even saying the word “Sabbath” is foreign and to actually honor it by not working on tasks related to one’s occupation is simply bewildering.
5) A Sabbath Day’s Rest Requires Faith
Fifth, taking a Sabbath day’s rest is an act of faith. Only sheer confidence in God could make a person spend precious hours on a Sunday in prayer and worship when he or she could be getting a head start on the week ahead. You have to really believe that God means what he says about the benefits of spending intentional time with Him at least once a week. Otherwise, the Sabbath will seem like an immense waste of time. Even if you choose not to work on the Sabbath, unless you have faith in God’s ways, you’ll spend the whole day worrying about what you “should” be doing and miss the whole purpose of the day.
Awaiting the Eternal Sabbath
Christians too often feel guilty for not taking a Sabbath. We feel it is something we ought to do because it’s a command and it seems beneficial in theory, but we don’t really want to do it. I felt this way. It wasn’t until I started to risk laying down my burdens that I felt the refreshment of tarrying with God on the Sabbath. We have to realize that we’re battling the “flesh” on this one. Our hearts tell us, “You’re in charge. The only thing between absolute chaos and another day of survival is your effort.”
But God tells us to calm and quiet our souls like a weaned child with its mother (Psalm 131). He tells us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). When Jesus died on the cross He said, “It is finished.” The work of forgiving our sins and restoring us to a relationship with the Father has been accomplished. Now through faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we can rest assured that the most important work in the cosmos has been completed in and through Christ.
God’s commands are good. He tells us to rest in Him on a weekly basis so that the blessing of His presence can wash over us. For in His presence there is fulness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures forever more (Ps. 16:11). So put down your work for one day, and enjoy a Sabbath day’s rest each week as we all eagerly await the eternal Sabbath at the return of our Lord, Jesus Christ.