The Sabbath Rest: Bringing Rest to Others
by Jules Grisham
The Sabbath is one of the most important and yet most controversial and least fully understood of biblical doctrines.
- In Old Testament times, in the theocratic society of ancient Israel, observance of the day was enforced by the full sanction of the civil authorities, and punishment for breaking that observance could range in scale all the way up to the death penalty.
- But it is crucially important to keep in mind that in fact we’re not living in Old Testament times any longer; we’re not living in the theocratic society of ancient Israel. Christ has come, and has perfectly fulfilled the demands of the Law; he has freed us from the curse and penalty of the Law. The gospel message brings a radical freedom even as it submits us to one another and to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. (See Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”) The gospel of Christ brings freedom from a world enslaved in sin and greed and self-directed compulsion.
But… Free from what? What becomes of the Ten Commandments? What becomes of the Sabbath-keeping obligation which is so clear and consistent teaching throughout the entirety of the Old Testament?
- Does it pass away like a shadow, like the Temple and its sacrifices?
- Or must we still keep the Sabbath as a matter of legal obligation?
- Or again, must we keep the Sabbath on the basis of some other consideration, e.g., that the Sabbath rest is a creation ordinance, that its observance was built into the structure of the created order even before the Fall, and that therefore we’re still – and always will be – responsible to observe it…?
Observations on Orthodox Jewish Practices of Sabbath-Observance:
Orthodox Jews are prohibited from turning electric devices on or off on the Sabbath. Why? Because (a) "tiny sparks are created in a switch when the circuit is closed, and this would constitute 'lighting a fire'" (category 36 of the 39 categories of human behavior prohibited on the Sabbath as constituting work); or because (b) "if the appliance is one whose purpose is for light or heat (such as an incandescent lightbulb or electric oven) then the lighting or heating elements may be considered as a type of fire; if so, then turning them on constitutes both 'lighting a fire' (category 36) and 'cooking' (a form of baking, category 11), and turning them off would be 'extinguishing a fire' (category 37); or because (c) "a device which is plugged into an electrical outlet of a wall becomes part of the building, but is nonfunctional while the switch is off; turning it on would then constitute 'building' and turning it off would be 'demolishing' (categories 35 and 34)."  One common workaround involves the use of pre-set timers for electric appliances, scheduled in advance to turn them on and off automatically.
For similar reasons, deduced from the 39 categories of proscribed behavior, Orthodox Jews are forbidden to drive on the Sabbath, or to take elevators. In the case of elevators, this is because the pressing of buttons has been declared "work." The workaround in this case is setting up the elevator to function specially as a "Sabbath elevator," making automatics stops on every floor.
Again, "many Orthodox Jews avoid the prohibition of 'carrying' in the absence of an eruv by making their keys into a tie bar, or part of a belt buckle or brooch. The key thereby becomes a legitimate article of clothing or jewelry, which may be worn, rather than carried."
Jesus’ Opposition to Pharisaic Sabbatical Legalism
From these few randomly selected examples we can really begin to understand why Jesus went to such lengths to upset the cart, as it were, as he demanded that the Pharisees stop substituting the endlessly multiplying and needlessly complex traditions of men in place of genuine (“heart”) obedience to God and to his commandments. (See Mark 7:6ff., a devastating rebuke.)
Jesus made clear that the Sabbath had been made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). His harshest rebuke seems to have been reserved for those who spent incredible amounts of energy on the keeping of innumerable rules and runarounds devised by men, while spending far less time, effort, and thought on conforming their lives to the true spirit of the Sabbath.
Jesus’ Own Principle of Sabbath Observance: Worshipping God, Giving Rest to Others
For Jesus, it seems, the Sabbath was not to be spent in an endless game of fitting within prescribed rules, but in worship to God – part of which worship was to entail giving rest to others.
Our Lord constantly, and quite intentionally, got into trouble with the local religious authorities, by boldly asserting the principle that, not only works of necessity, but also works of mercy, are more important in their observance than the most rigorous labors undertaken in the name of avoiding all “work.”
It's important in this regard to point out the Pharisees allowed (and the rabbis allow) exceptions in cases of necessity. But as we'll see, what got Jesus in trouble with the authorities were not those actions of his which were deemed necessary, but those which were deemed "merely" acts of mercy. See for example the case of the paralyzed man by the pool of Bethesda who'd been sitting there for 38 years. Surely, Jesus could have waited one more day! Surely it wasn't an act of strict necessity that Jesus should have healed him and commanded him to arise and - egad! - "carry" his mat! He knew this would get him in trouble with the religious rule-enforcers, but he came to show a higher, purer form of obedience to the spirit of the Sabbath.
Specifically, what Jesus' example shows us is that Works of mercy performed on the Sabbath constitute a special sort of advancement of the kingdom, by which love for God and for neighbor merge into actions which bring rest to others….
The Sabbath rest ought to involve that profound nexus where our professed love for God in worship is affirmed and confirmed by our acts of love on behalf of one another.
When we begin to lose sight of these redemptive possibilities built into Sabbath observance; when we lose sight of the Sabbath as a blessing from God, a gift during which we not only can rest and recharge our own systems, but can give rest unto the recharging of others, so that we can then join together in the uniquely recurring fellowship of corporate worship; when we do these things but come instead to treat the Sabbath as a complex set of legal allowances and disallowances to be gotten around by cleverly designed runarounds; then we lose the meaning and the beauty of the day.
The Sabbath is nothing less than an opportunity from God, given us once every week, to reflect forth God’s glory with everything we’ve got, to image God’s lovingkindness as fully as we can in this life, loving God and neighbor with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, at rest with one another in the presence of God. The Sabbath done rightly is a picture and promise of heaven.
A Theology of “Rest”
There is much more to “rest” in the total context of biblical teaching than might at first meet the eye.
The command that we’re to observe the Sabbath comes to us from the Ten Commandments, from the fourth commandment. Exodus 20, repeated in Deuteronomy 5. While the commandment as it’s written in Exodus points to God’s work in the creation, and to our subsequent obligation to commemorate that reality in our own lives; the commandment as it’s written in Deuteronomy points to God’s work in redemption, and to our subsequent obligation to commemorate (and anticipate) that reality in our own lives. Both creation and redemption are in view when we consider the meaning of the Sabbath.
The Divine Sabbath of Genesis 2:2
1. The Divine Sabbath, the divine rest of which we’re speaking, is essentially a celebration, a celebration of God’s victorious completion of all his works of creation. God rested from all the works of creation which he had done. Why? Because he’d completed them!
2. With the completed creation of the universe there arose an entirely new relation which had not existed before – a relation between Creator and created order, between the Lord and his creation. Therefore, the Divine Sabbath, the rest into which God entered upon the end of his creating, is also a celebration of God’s lordship over creation.
3. Recall that upon the completion of all God’s creative working, he had evaluated the creation as “very good.” The cosmos was thus declared a suitable abode and dwelling for God’s glory (see Psalm 19:1). Thus, our Lord’s Day is a finite day of rest to imitate that Divine Sabbath, the great and first Lord’s Day, or Day of the Lord, or Judgment Day (in which he adjudged his creation “very good”), and the subsequent inauguration of the indwelling splendor of his glory. We can think in this regard of the whole of creation in all its vastness as God’s own Temple, as the specially crafted place of his dwelling, wherein the glory of his presence would henceforth reside and shine forth. In short, the Divine Sabbath is a celebration of God’s glory indwelling the creation, as resting in his completed and suitable Temple!
In summary, the Divine Sabbath (God’s rest) is a threefold celebration:
- Of God’s victorious completion of the creation;
- Of God’s lordship over that creation; and
- Of God’s glory coming to indwell that creation.
One more detail: On the Everlastingness of the Divine Sabbath: the Divine Sabbath is unending, it is everlasting. When God rested upon the completion of all his creative works, he entered thereby into an estate and relation which does not and will not end.
The Divine Sabbath, the rest into which God entered at the end of all his creating, is a celebration of God’s victorious completion of the creation, as an abode suitable for his glory to indwell, from which to blaze forth in splendor from every corner of the cosmos, and over which to rule forever, the Lord enthroned in heaven. Amen!
But the Divine Sabbath Pertains to Redemption as well as to Creation:
We humans, as God’s image-bearers, have a role in the Divine Sabbath as well. With regard to redemption, it is an astonishing truth that, even though sin has wreaked havoc in our relationship with God, and has kept us from enjoying the blessings and benefits of presence (which very things we were designed to enjoy), yet even so God’s plan of redemption is all about restoring us to the fullness of that “imaging” potential for which we were originally designed.
Even now, God’s image has been fully restored in Christ our Lord, and our own image-bearing potential been restored in him, insofar as we are united to him by the operations of God’s grace, through faith. Yet, even so, though we stand justified by Christ’s work on our behalf, by which we stand already declared righteous in God’s sight for Jesus’ sake, yet we remain in ourselves sinners whose imaging of God is terribly marred and defaced and degraded. But at the consummation of the Kingdom, when Christ shall come again and our salvation shall be brought to its final completion, then, at the end of this Age, those whom God has redeemed will enter into this very same divine rest of which we’ve been speaking, the Divine Sabbath, into which God himself had entered at the end of creation (see Hebrews 4:9-11). Here then is the goal and end of all our striving: it is to enter into the Sabbath-rest, that estate of blessedness in the presence of God. That’s when our salvation will be complete; that’s when we’ll enter into the eternal rest of Paradise. Praise God, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth!
As with God, so too with God’s Saints: the Sabbath rest which awaits us in heaven will be a celebration of victory, for by God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus we shall have overcome sin and death.
To summarize: The Divine Sabbath
- Began at the end of God’s creating, when God victoriously completed (and thus rested from) his creative works;
- Continues now, with Jesus our King enthroned in heaven, and we in him by faith; and
- Will continue forevermore, even after the consummation of our salvation when, at the end of this Age, our redemption will be completed and we too will join our Lord in the estate of glorious rest and blessing…
Now, with regard to the Human Sabbath, or Weekly Sabbath, observance, enjoined on God’s people in the Ten Commandments:
Our human Sabbath is to be a replica, a here and now, temporary and temporal, imitation, of the Divine Sabbath…. Recall that God grounded our Sabbath observance on his works of Creation (in Exodus) and Redemption (in Deuteronomy)? We now see that both of these grounds (Creation and Redemption) fully apply in our own weekly Sabbath observance.
In our Weekly Sabbath:
- First, we look backwards, and commemorate the wonders of God’s creation;
- Second, we look forwards, and anticipate the glories of our redemption; and
- All the while, third, we look upwards, and participate in all the blessings of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, received and rested upon by faith.
The Divine Sabbath and our share in it – this is the awesome reality toward which our weekly Sabbath points, as we commemorate, anticipate, and participate in the great spiritual reality whose attainment is our singular hope and longing.
Moreover, the Sabbath builds up faith, by reminding us of who we are, who we’ve been, and who God is forging us to be.
The Weekly Sabbath and our Image-Bearing Function:
As the Divine Sabbath will involve and entail the restoration of our God-imaging potential, so too our weekly Sabbath, as a sort of participation and anticipation of that Divine Sabbath, ought also to involve and entail some restoration of our God-imaging function…. Our weekly Sabbath is a unique and God-given opportunity to shine forth God’s image as clearly as possible. It is, quite literally, an occasion to be all that we can be.
But how do we do that? How do we “shine forth God’s image as clearly as possible”?
We image God most purely and most clearly, when, redeemed by Christ already and in his grace, we are most obedient to God’s commandments. Note that this is not a theology of works! We have been reconciled to God and given new life and new hope not through any work of our own or through any striving on our part, but by God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, received and rested upon by faith. Yet we must ever remember that we’ve been saved from sin and death that we might live unto God’s glory in loving obedience. And thus our point, again: we image God most purely and most clearly when, we are most obedient to his commandments.
And what are God’s commandments? Love for God and love for neighbor (see Matthew 22:40). Thus, for example,
(a) When we worship the Lord in the company of others, in corporate worship, this is an absolutely vital means by which love for God in the loving fellowship of neighbors is expressed; and
(b) When we seek out means by which we might give others rest, this too shines forth love for neighbor and, as the stuff of heart-obedience, love for God, too. (Recall our earlier point: “Works of mercy performed on the Sabbath constitute a special sort of advancement of the kingdom, by which love for God and for neighbor merge into actions which bring rest to others”)
Accordingly, as our observance of the weekly Sabbath entails these very patterns of obedient behavior, we can now see more clearly how very much our weekly Sabbath is a unique and God-given opportunity to shine forth God’s image as clearly as possible. Again, it is, quite literally, an occasion to be all that we can be.
To review: the weekly Sabbath =
- our commemoration of, anticipation of, and participation in God’s stupendous acts of creation and redemption and our share in them;
- our imitation of the Divine Sabbath which God has enjoyed since the end of his work of creating and which we will enjoy at the end of this age –
and is nothing less than a finite and regularly recurring opportunity for conforming our lives more closely to the very pattern we will enjoy in heaven, by Godwardly heart-drawn acts of worship and rest-giving.
The real key to rightly observing the Sabbath, it seems, is not to approach it as to some sort of arbitrary noose – this approach ends up in a morass of complications and, frankly, foolishness. Much work ends up being expended in “work’s” avoidance, and meanwhile the weightier things of Sabbath observance are missed. As we’ve seen, Jesus rebukes such an approach.
Rather, let’s remember that we are free from the curse and penalty of Law, thanks to Jesus. “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.” Take advantage, therefore, of the gift of the Lord’s Day, as an occasion and opportunity for expressing our love for God and our love for neighbor, both in worship and in acts of mercy which give rest to others.
In the final analysis, let the goal of our observance (as in all our obedience) be: How will God be glorified through my words, thoughts, and deeds today?
Be rest assured: when we think along those lines, the opportunities and the blessings will follow.
1. All the quotes in this section were taken from the Wikipedia article on "Shabbat." See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabbat.