What’s this Sabbath all about?

Some time ago in the course of a normal conversation, someone affirmed that God had set Sunday apart to be a day of rest (a sabbath) and so they had planned a great time for themselves to garden and watch football or whatever it was.  At the time I agreed that it sounded pretty good (and it still kind of does).  A Willow TreeBut it got me thinking.  Is that really what God means when He talks about “rest?”  Aside from the fact that Sunday, the first day of the week, is not the same as the “Sabbath” day of the Old Testament which was the seventh day of the week, I found that, indeed, relaxation is not really what God means when He speaks of “rest.”  And that led me to thinking about “heaven” which is often equated with God’s rest.  So then, what’s the deal with all this?  I’m glad you asked.  Here’s what I found.

First off, understand that the word “sabbath” means rest.  And there certainly is a sabbath or “rest” into which God desires us to enter.  But what God means by “rest” is not like the types of physical rest we often enjoy and look forward to (even on Sundays).  And even the “rest” of heaven, as it turns out, is not a place where “good” people eternally enjoy their favorite hobbies.  And it’s not a time where all thought is eternally set aside and replaced with amusement.  And it is certainly not the ceasing of all conscious thought like sleep.  Not surprisingly, these views of heaven prevail in the world today.

Sadly, even Christians sometimes paint a very superficial picture of God’s promise of rest in these terms, saying, in essence, that God’s rest is sitting peacefully in heaven under the shade of a willow tree with nothing to do but blissfully sigh as we eternally sip nectar from a cornucopia.  And it’s often taught as though it were a reward for having faith.  (Actually sounds pretty boring to me).  As if heaven and comfort were the Christian’s goals, it’s not uncommon to hear a Gospel message with statements like, “Just believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven,” or, “Trust in Jesus, and when you die you’ll go to heaven, and all your problems will disappear.”

Of course, these statements are perfectly true.  Faith alone in the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross does result in the salvation of the soul and eternity in heaven.  And it’s perfectly true that for all who place their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God has raised from the dead, a time will come where “all tears shall be wiped away…” (Rev 21:4), but these are not at all the primary purpose of God’s promised blessing and they are not what God means when He exhorts men to “enter into that rest” (Heb 4:11).

The abolition of sorrow and an eternity in the bliss of heaven itself are merely incidental facts of something infinitely greater.  The primary point of God’s blessing toward the believer is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  “Sabbath” or “Rest” is simply the means by which a believer can fellowship with Him: and not only in some far-off future, but right now! Today!

In the story of Creation, it’s recorded, “…on the seventh day God ended His work …; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work …” (Gen 2:1-2).  The contrast God presents to us between what He did on the first six days of Creation and what He did on the seventh is plain: it’s the difference between “work” and “rest.”

So then, what did He do on the seventh day during His “rest?”  Anything?  I’ll tell you what He did.  During the first six days He established a relationship with man: first by creating an environment to sustain him (Gen 1:1-25), then by creating man himself (Gen 1:26-27;2:7;2:21-25), and finally He instructed the man with one commandment which if obeyed would keep him alive (Gen 1:28-30;2:15-16).  This was God’s “work.”  On the seventh day, God did nothing more to establish that relationship with man, rather He sought to enjoy it.  He “walked” with man, His creation and companion (Gen 3:9).  This was God’s “rest;” and it’s essential to understand this point.  (read here for more on this topic).

From Adam’s point of view, God placed him in an environment where he had nothing to do of urgency (Gen 2:8-9; 2:15-17).  When he grew tired, he could sleep.  If he grew hungry, he could pluck the fruit from a nearby tree and eat (Gen 1:29-30; 2:9; 2:15-17; 3:2).  There was nothing to deter him from enjoying fellowship with his Creator.  Adam was placed directly into a personal relationship with God: a relationship he had done no work to establish.  This man, Adam, knew only rest: God’s rest.  And what did God do during “God’s rest?”  He enjoyed what He had created.  He had fellowship with man.  It seems reasonable to expect then that when man enters into “God’s rest,” he would enjoy that same fellowship with God.  Seems reasonable to me, at least.

Well, it didn’t last.  Adam disobeyed that one commandment and brought upon himself a very big problem.  His disobedience not only resulted in the sin nature and man’s accountability to God for that sin, but it also required God to change the very way in which man lived.  God said to Adam, “Because thou hast … eaten of the tree, … cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee…; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,…” (Gen 3:17-19).

Now, instead of being focused on God and enjoying fellowship with Him in “God’s rest,” Adam would be almost completely occupied with his own survival.  He must eat to live and now the ground has been cursed.  Whereas before, the ground brought forth abundantly, it would now need to be worked.  Adam would no longer have the kind of freedom to fellowship with God that he once did.  Adam would learn what “work” is.

This curse God pronounced on the ground that day has served an important purpose throughout history.  God has used it as a sort of throttle on the wickedness of fallen man.  Concerning the nation of Israel, for example, when the nation was obedient, God blessed with rain and the “increase of the land” (Lev 26:4).  When the nation was disobedient, the land would be “cursed” (Deut 28:18; see also Zech 14:16-21).  In effect, as the Israelites sought fellowship with God in obedience, the curse on the ground (i.e. the curse of Gen 3:17) was eased in order to facilitate their desire: “And I will walk among you…” (Lev 26:12; compare Gen 3:8).  And, as the Israelites rejected God, the curse on the ground was hardened to, in effect, slow down their fall into pagan idolatry which always leads to total moral bankruptcy and horrible human suffering (Deut 28:14).  Just as concerns over survival will hinder a man from fully enjoying a relationship with God (as with Adam), so it will also hinder him from fully indulging himself in wickedness.

Now think this through a little.  Why would God bother to lessen or increase the effects of the curse on the ground?  At least one reason is that it demonstrates God’s profound care for the overall good of mankind.  Knowing the complete depravity and misery that results from the worship of the pagan gods, the living God, through this disciplinary device, drives man toward Himself much in the same way a parent promotes good behavior through reward and punishment.  But with the Law God gave to Israel through Moses, He takes it a step further.  Through the Law, He shows that He actually desires to fellowship with Israel, His redeemed people (Exodus 15:3).

“Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day …” (Ex 20:9-11; Ex 31:17; 35:2).  Because of the curse on the ground, mankind was required to work in order to survive.  This was all-encompassing.  It applied to every nation and every family on Earth.  But God, after establishing a relationship with the nation of Israel, gave them this law of the Sabbath.  There was now one group of people on earth for whom God desired “rest” from that necessity of work.

The Sabbath was not given so that the people of God would have time for their hobbies.  And it was not given for self-indulgence.  But, it was also not a time where nothing was to be done.

The reason for the Sabbath day was so that the Israelites would have a time when they would not worry about their survival.  (Remember the curse on the ground?)  As a result, Israel would be perfectly free to fellowship with God, their Redeemer, during the Sabbath.

For example, in the Sinai wilderness, a double portion of manna was given to the Israelites on the sixth day (Ex 16:5).  The implication is that the people would have no worry for their survival on the Sabbath; therefore, no hindrance to fellowship with God.  On the Sabbath day, Israel was free to fellowship with God much as Adam once was.  When Adam was hungry, he simply took from a tree and ate.  When an Israelite was hungry on the Sabbath, he drew from God’s sixth day provision and ate.

But then over the centuries, the nation of Israel lost God’s intended purpose for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28).  The Lord Jesus points out on one occasion that the priests of the temple work on the Sabbath as they do every other day of the week, “and are blameless” (Mat 12:5).  In other words, the same law that says an Israelite is not to work, commands the priests to continue working (Numbers 28:9).  And on another occasion, the Lord Jesus points out that when a male child is born, the child is circumcised on the eighth day according to the Law even when that eighth day falls on the Sabbath (John 7:22; Lev 12:3).  These things are work, aren’t they?  So what’s the difference?  Why on the Sabbath is some work bad and other work good?  The key to understanding God’s true purpose for the Sabbath is through examining, not what work was forbidden, but rather what “work” was commanded or permitted on the Sabbath day.

Worshipping and serving God were right to do on the Sabbath day (Mat 12:11, Luke 14:5).  God met all the physical needs of the people prior to the Sabbath in order to free them from the curse of work which for six days demanded their full attention.  The seventh day was commanded to be for “rest.”  Through commanding that no “work” should be done on the Sabbath, God guaranteed that every Israelite would have time for God, if he desired it.  Through all the Sabbath laws (did you know there were more than one?  See Lev 25:4), God showed His own desire for their service and their worship: in other words, their fellowship (Ezek 46:3-4; Isa 66:23).

Before the Israelites were redeemed from slavery in Egypt with the passover lamb, they were promised that they would enter “unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8;17).  As that name implies, this land would bring forth its “fruit” abundantly (Num 13:26-27).  The Land of Milk and HoneyTherefore, after God’s people took the land, they would not have a pressing concern for their survival.  (Remember Adam in the Garden?)  Through the great fertility of that land God would provide for their physical needs.  Consequently, they would have great freedom to give to God the fellowship He desired of them.  God would give them rest.

Today, man is once again exhorted by God to “enter into His rest” (Heb 4:10-11, in fact just read all of Hebrews 4).  But, as has been shown, this rest is meant to facilitate fellowship with God, not self-indulgence (Rom 6:1-2).  And God doesn’t give His rest indiscriminately.  Remember, Israel was redeemed before they entered into their “land flowing with milk and honey.”  They were, therefore, already in a relationship with God when the rest was given.  And just as God had done all the work in establishing a relationship with Adam, so He did all the work in establishing a relationship with Israel.  And Israel had done nothing to merit this relationship; it was a gift.  And guess what?  It’s no different now.  Today, once again, God gives His promised rest only to the redeemed: those who have been redeemed out of the slavery of sin by the precious blood of the Lamb (1 Pet 1:19).

To the believer, it is not the ceasing of physical work that the “rest” of the Old Testament illustrates.  Rather, what has ceased are the futile works meant to establish a relationship with God.  It is the believer’s concern for his eternal “survival” that has ended.

The fear of death should never again divert the believer’s attention from fellowship with God through Christ, his redeemer (Heb 2:14).  Believers lean on the fact that through the finished “work” of Christ alone, their relationship with God has been firmly established.  They have entered into “His rest.”

If you think about it, there are really two kinds of rest.  With one you rest because of your work.  In other words, you’re tired from plowing the fields all day so you lay down and rest in order to restore the energy you’ll need to plow more again tomorrow.  In the other type of rest, you rest from your work when the job is finished.  With your work complete, you let out a sigh of relief, go home and rest in contentment.

The latter type is “God’s rest.”  He rested on the seventh day after six days of creating (working).  Everything was “very good” and “the heavens and the earth were finished.”  There was no more work to do.  As Hebrews 4:4 says, “God did rest the seventh day from all His works.”  This kind of rest God calls “My rest” (Heb. 4:5).  Now, the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is told, “There remaineth therefore a rest [Greek = “sabbatismos” meaning “keeping of a sabbath”] to the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).  Since Christ has offered “one sacrifice for sins forever,” we are told to enter into “His rest” which means we cease from our works as God did from His (Heb. 4:10).  So then, as God rested on the seventh day and sought to enjoy His relationship with man, so too should every believer in Christ Jesus the Lord today desire to enjoy this same relationship (Heb 4:9-10) with His God.

“God’s rest” then is not a reference to heaven at all.  To be sure, heaven will one day facilitate the rest God desires for His people in a way heretofore unknown.  Because sorrows and pains will have ceased and physical needs will be a thing of the past, there will never be a distraction from enjoying real fellowship with the Creator.  But, God’s rest begins at the moment of salvation.  It is then that a person is placed in the “garden,” immediately after the “work” has been entirely finished by God.  As it was in Adam’s case, so it is also in the born-again believer (John 3:3).  God alone has established the relationship, and now it is simply to be enjoyed.

Of course, God never forced Israel to remain close, and in time, they drifted.  They became carnal in enjoying God’s physical blessings while ignoring the One who blessed.  They no longer desired fellowship with God.  Oh, they held on to the religious aspects of what God had given.  But God Himself just wasn’t all that important anymore.  As a result and according to God’s promise, He hardened the curse on their land (Deut 28, 31:20-32:43, 32:37-38).  And in time He allowed foreign invaders to take that land He had given to them.  Eventually the nation of Israel was scattered altogether.

However, though many centuries of God’s discipline on Israel have elapsed, that nation has remained chosen of God.  The relationship God “worked” to establish with Israel still exists (Rom 9-11).  It always will.  And Israel will one day be restored to Him.  Likewise, the believer is in a permanent relationship with God through Christ.  He is eternally secure (Rom 8:33-39).  He is never, however, forced to fellowship with God; he is never forced to enjoy his relationship with his Creator and Redeemer.

As Israel was once free to bring offerings in worship to God during times of rest, but was never forced, so it is with a believer today, one who has “entered into that rest” (Heb 4:11).  Every believer should be seeking that same companionship and fellowship with his Savior that his Savior desires of him (John 14:3): to worship Him (Heb 13:15); to know Him and His “rest” (Mat 11:28-30); to learn of His ways (1 Cor 4:17); to grow in obedience to Him (1 Pet 1:2-16); to seek His wisdom (Col 1:9-11); and to serve Him selflessly (Rom 12:1).

The believer has already entered into God’s rest, and must not abuse it through complacency, apathy, or carnality as did Israel.  It is God’s desire for men not simply to be saved, but that they should walk closely with Him, and know Him through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3:7-12).

If you have trusted in the Lord Jesus and have been redeemed, then next Sunday after you honor Him by meeting in the way He desires (1 Cor 11-14), and you find yourself enjoying your garden or watching Football or reading a good book or working in the garage, just remember you can enjoy those things with the Lord by your side.  And why just Sunday?  Why not enjoy the benefits of “God’s rest” all week?  Why not?  Excluding sin, He has “given all things to be enjoyed” (1 Tim 6:17).  He made those beautiful plants; thank Him for the beauty of His creation.  He gave some men great athletic skill.  Marvel at His handiwork.  (Even if some athletes don’t, we can).  He gave us creativity to write and enjoy wonderful stories.  It’s all from Him. … And He gave us opposable thumbs so we can work on things in our garages!  He thought of everything for us.  Let’s enjoy everything about Him right now.  Indeed.  “Who is like unto the Lord?” (Exo 15:11, Psalm 113:5).

-J. Wilbur

some pictures from http://www.bibleplaces.com

2 thoughts on “What’s this Sabbath all about?

  1. Very good. Very restful.

    Typo, though. “In the other type of rest, you rest from you’re work …”

    Ooops. Should be “your work”, of course.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s