The story of creation is one we have numerous times. “On the ______day, God created ______ …and He saw that it was good.” From day one to day six, that is the pattern. But on the seventh day God “rested”. Moses was given the 10 Commandments and the people of God were told remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Why? God “rested” after His “work” and set a pattern we are to emulate.
Our long Ohio winter has finally melted away and before long spring will give way to summer. Seasons change. Flowers bud and bloom and when the cold returns the seeds carried off in the wind get covered in a blanket of snow. Trees, now brimming with green leaves, will eventually shed their transformed autumn colors and succumb to the winter sleep. Any good farmer will tell you that for land to produce plentiful crops, it must be given rest. And good human will tell you that for our bodies to function as intended we must rest. When we shut down our thoughts and still our bodies, our bodies are then able to recuperate, regenerate, and heal. For all creation, rest is central to health and survival.
That’s why Jesus was quick to correct the religious notions of the Pharisees. “Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man”. He pointed out a vital distinction; a distinction that misunderstood turns a gift into a rule. The Sabbath was not created first and then man made to serve it. No! Man was created and Sabbath was a gift to help sustain man.
Man needs Sabbath, but what about God? On the seventh day was God exhausted, worn out, sick of clocking in? Did he just need to hit the snooze button a few extra times that morning? No.
God is. Creation is His nametag and on it simply states: “I am that I am”. The One who carries that name never depleted or lacking or needy.
The key to understanding that seventh and final day of the creation story is in the understanding of the words “work” and “rest”.
We hear the word “work” and we think about our places of employment and home improvement projects and sinks full of dishes. “Rest” just as quickly brings images to mind. We dreamily picture anb afternoon nap or a lazy beach vacation. None of these pictures compare well to the action or inaction of God in the creation poems of Genesis 1 and 2.
Our work is toilsome. We sweat, analyze, and learn our way through projects and jobs. When God works, it is without exertion. He created everything that has been created without strain or effort. Creation was His work but it took nothing out of Him. He didn’t lose time or energy. He didn’t perspire. He was unchanged. The word “work” in the original language is better understood as the ability or skill required for a unique assignment. The word spoke more of the one completing the task and less of the grunt of the actual labor. God alone possessed and possesses the unique skill and craftsmanship to speak into nothingness and birth everything. That was the “work” of God in creation.
The Hebrew word used in Genesis and translated as “rest” more fitly associated with the concept of completion than it is a Sunday afternoon nap. To Sabbath is to cease, to end, to finish and to celebrate. God wasn’t tired, but He was ready to celebrate the completeness of what had been born out of His character.
The Ten Commandments state unapologetically that God’s people are to remember the Sabbath that God enacted and to regard it as intentionally set apart.
The Pharisees made it a religious rule; a rule that they elevated above even the original intent. They were concerned about bread being cooked on a certain day of the week. They missed the point.
The call to remember what God did was not a call to equate an infinite God’s response with the finite man not sweating from sun up to sun down once a week. If what we are to remember and make distinct in our mind is God’s example then it has little to do with physical movement; likewise it has little to do with the primal need for restoration in our finite bodies. Remembering the “rest” of God is to treasure the completed “work” of God placing Himself into the world in which we exist. Out of Himself He created every atom and particle and yet He gave up none of His substance. This He finished and this He celebrated.
Why then does the Old Testament Law stress not doing this or not doing that? The Law was unfulfilled before Jesus. It was a standard with one goal: to make men aware of their inability. The language of The Law is given to pictures and types so that in the course of daily living, there would have been reminders. It was external; written on stone. People need reminders of external constraints. That’s why speed limits are posted at intervals along highways. Nothing within us says to drive 35mph around a curve. We need the reminder.
The new covenant Jesus brought through His life is written on human hearts. It is internal. Instead of rituals to remind us of important truths, we have been given the Holy Spirit who testifies to our own spirits about the truths contained in the person of Jesus. That same Jesus came and fleshed out the law; He was the realization of those words etched in stone.
He didn’t take away our need for Sabbath and stillness and rest. No! He expanded it. Just as “do not murder” was expanded to include “do not hate” and “do not commit adultery” was broadened to “do not lust”, stillness was no longer reserved for the wakeful hours every seventh day. The redeemed idea of rest was not about physical inaction but about the position of the heart.
The writer of Hebrews clearly states that there is a place and need for Sabbath in the life of believers under the new covenant. Only this rest is a rest into which we enter. This rest isn’t our rest from jobs and projects and to do lists. This rest is the rest of God. And this rest is important, the writer says, to keep us from faltering and disobedience.
How do we enter rest?
In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer quotes a Psalm that would have been familiar to the readers, Psalm 95. In both the song and the letter the story of Joshua and Caleb checking out the Promised Land sets the stage on which the words play.
Joshua and Caleb were among the spies sent to scout the land God had promised to give His people. After forty days they returned to give their report. Caleb, full of trust in God, said “Let us go and possess the land, we are able to conquer it”. There was but one (or two) “glitches”. Giants already lived in the land and their cities were well protected. The Israelites were terrified and their lack of belief in God was uncovered by what they heard. Joshua and Caleb saw the mightiness of God, the ability and skill of God to do what He said He would do despite the appearance of impossibility. But by and large the Israelite clan only saw giants. The true and trust worthy word of God did not come to fruition in the lifetime of the doubters. His promises bounced off of them, deflected by their lack of confidence in His good heartedness toward them. There was nothing in their hearts that the promises could adhere and bear fruit. They did enter the Promised Land. They did not enter the “rest” He had prepared for them; the “rest” that would’ve put an end to their wandering and homelessness and vulnerability.
Jesus leaves the cities of Tyre and Sidon, shaking the dust from His sandals. The people had been blinded by their religious entanglements and despite miraculous demonstrations, had failed to connect the dots from Jesus to Yahweh. When he had stepped away, Jesus thanked God that the revelation of who God is entrusted to the childlike and the simple and not the kind of religious persons who had become puffed up in their own understanding.
He knew the weight of religion on the backs of men. He knew the gifts of God had been perverted into regulations that were in direct conflict with His intention. He looked around at the people who were clinging to His every word, compassion rose in Him, and He spoke to a people yearning for relief and gave them a incomparably beautiful promise.
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and overburdened and I will cause you to rest. [I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls] Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle (meek) and humble (lowly) in heart, and you will find rest (relief and ease and refreshment and recreation and blessed quiet) for your souls. For my yoke is wholesome (useful, good- not harsh, hard, sharp or pressing, but comfortable, gracious, and pleasant), and my burden is light and easy to be borne.”
The rest Joshua and Caleb pursued was the end pitching tents on foreign soil. The rest made accessible in the person of Jesus is the soul rest we need more than we need physical sleep. Without sleep, the mind becomes irrational and without rest the soul shrivels up.
The yearning of the human heart for relief, refreshment, recreation, quiet, and ease cannot be found in a religious striving. We know it cannot be found in the world around us that is humming and buzzing and chugging along at break-neck speed. Sometimes we forget that the humming and buzzing and chugging along in the church also falls short of the rest for which we long. Going through the motions will empty us. Religion will bleed us dry. We put our shoulders up under that yoke and find that it quickly crushes us. It is so hard and sharp that we think about it more than the ground we are grunting to plow.
Jesus offers the opposite. He says go ahead. Get up under my yoke. You will find it unlike any other constraint or control. It is gracious, comfortable, and even pleasant. I am gentle and humble and what I place on you won’t break your back. It is good and helpful and you can set your mind on the ripe and ripening harvest because the lightness of my yoke.
That’s the promise Jesus made; the offer He put on the table.
How then do we enter into that soul rest? The people of Israel did not enter the rest provided them because of their unbelief. How do we learn from their error?
Hebrews 4: 10 says, “For he who has once entered (God’s) rest also has ceased from (the weariness and pain) of human labors, just as God rested from those works peculiarly His own”
The prerequisite of entering the refreshing rest of God is that we cease from our work in just the same way God finished the work that was His alone to do. God didn’t settle down into His recliner with a heavy sigh and a cold one, worn from the day. His ability and skill necessitated the task before Him and in that ability He completed creation and He celebrated a creation made good.
The Israelites failed to trust the God’s finished work and consequently were unable to follow in footsteps. They did not see the path before them and the qualification freely given them to finish the race. They responded in fear instead of trust. Joshua and Caleb believed God, the believed they were equipped to follow through in obedience and the celebrated the word of God before it was fully realized. Those who did not receive their perspective did not enter the rest and provision and relief that God had already given them.
We access the Sabbath of God by having the heart position of Caleb. We enter God’s rest through the kind of trust in the goodness, wisdom, and power of God that leads us to confidently and wholly throw ourselves at His feet. We enter His rest when we have remembered and ruminated on the truth revealed in that seventh day “rest” of God.
When, at a gut level, we believe in His unique abilities and when we stop to celebrate what He has done without fearing how it will play out, we enter His rest. On the seventh day God celebrated the perfect execution of His will while being fully aware of the winding path on which humanity would stumble back to Him. He celebrated the finished work. When we rest from our humanity and stop in our religious tracks, when we simply come to Jesus like an implicitly trusting child, and move forward joyfully and confidently in His word regardless of the circumstances we have rest on all sides.
Biblical rest isn’t about more sleep or unplugging or vacations from jobs or people or situations. Biblical rest, the kind that nourishes the fiber of the soul, is a state of being, a mindset. When we remember the ability and finished work of God and celebrate it, then we are able to be in the world but not of it; we are able to live in a world with trouble and still fix our gaze on the conquering Jesus; we are able to hear the Spirit speaking affirming words to our spirit. Sabbath isn’t an event, it is a lifestyle of absolute, unwavering trust in the goodness and willingness of God.