(Note: This article is an excerpt from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, which was published by WestBow Press in February 2018. I invite you to check it out. It was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.)
This seems like a good place for my thoughts on rest. The Sabbath is critical to our understanding of a theology of work because God put a lot of emphasis on it for His people.
I had a great scoutmaster when I was in Boy Scouts back in high school. He had a favorite saying, which he told us was from his army days. He would often say, “Hurry every chance you get.” Although there is certainly a time to have a sense of urgency, this approach may lead to a heart attack or stroke if one would apply it to every task every single time.
The first thing we see in Scripture is that God rested from His work of creation (Gen. 2:2–3). God does not get tired, so why did He rest? Perhaps it was because it was good, which He said at the end of almost every day during the creation process. There was nothing more to add to it. It is likely that Yahweh was setting an example for His people. If He could rest, we could learn to do the same.
Remember also that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, including Genesis. The Law was established in these books, which included numerous Sabbath regulations in Exodus, and it was repeated to the new generation of Israelites in Deuteronomy. The fact that God rested gives keeping the Sabbath a proper theological foundation.
Keeping the Sabbath was explicitly required by God in the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15.) It was reinforced often. (See Exo. 23:12; 31:12–17; 35:2; Lev. 19:3; Jer. 17:19–27.) This was one of many commandments that set the Israelites apart from their pagan neighbors, which were designed to bring glory to God. In addition to the weekly Sabbath, the Israelites were instructed to do no work on certain holy days. (See Lev. 16:29; 23:3–36.)
Throughout the NT, we find that Jesus fulfills the OT ceremonial and dietary laws. Thus, in the Gospels, we find several occasions where Jesus healed on the Sabbath, much to the consternation of His adversaries the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus states boldly that “the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath” and that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–12; Mark 2:23–28). However, most would say that the biblical principle of working six days and resting on the seventh still applies to Christians today, although we do not need to be legalistic about keeping it. Its purpose is to find rest, reflection, renewal, and relationships.
Jesus had something else to say about rest. In Matt. 11:28–30, we hear an encouraging word that I personally appreciate. Jesus beckons, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” A yoke was an instrument of farming work. Jesus invites those who labor to find His rest by becoming coworkers with Him as two oxen who have been yoked together. Again, this verse connects human work with divine presence, exemplifying the idea of Immanuel labor.
The writer of Hebrews also emphasizes this concept of rest, which in this context is more than merely keeping a commandment to not work from the Law. We read, “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). The writer had explained earlier that only those who believed the gospel message of life found in Jesus Christ could enter God’s rest (Heb. 4:3). We can rest from working when we rest in Jesus’ finished work on the cross.
The Theology of Work Biblical Commentary reminds us that “God made the Sabbath for us—for our benefit (Mark 2:27) … When, like God, we stop our work on whatever is our seventh day, we acknowledge that our life is not defined only by work or productivity … Part of making Sabbath a regular part of our work life acknowledges that God is ultimately at the center of life.”
Wittmer adds, “Sabbath rest is essential for enjoying life, and only Christians are wholly able to keep it holy.” He acknowledges that “we are free in Christ to consider ‘one day more sacred that another’ or to consider ‘every day alike’ (Romans 14:5). However, every Christian who neglects the Sabbath should at least stop and ask why that is. Is it because we are free in Christ? Fine. Is it because we don’t think we can afford a break? Not fine.” Well said!
Cosden offers this insight:
Central as it is, work is not all there is to this life … Work, both for God and for us, has its limits. Although work is essential and is in one form or another the context for so much that takes place in our lives, the final word both for God and for us is the Sabbath. An existence without rest and space to reflect on our lives—what we have done, what we are doing, who we are and who we are becoming—is no existence at all.
Ironically, I know I need to work a little harder at resting. (See Heb. 4:11.) I need to take the Sabbath more seriously. As important as work is, like Cosden and others indicated, it has its limits. Taking a Sabbath day is good for us in every way—physically, mentally, spiritually, and socially.
Take it. Enjoy it.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.