“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
’Tis an ocean full of blessing, ’tis a haven giving rest!
“Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!”
(Samuel Trevor Francis, 1875)
A theology of rest…
I’d never heard such a thing. While growing up, the practice that was considered most virtuous was definitely not rest, but work. My parents seemed always engaged in some productive task or labor. Our Sabbath-keeping always included church on Sunday mornings, but the rest of the day belonged to tasks that did not get done earlier in the week. While I am grateful to this day that I learned the value of work and productivity, I am beginning to see that God’s Word would have me reevaluate the idea of rest and to embrace it in its proper boundaries as a gracious gift from my Creator.
Joe Rigney offers up a balanced theology of rest in a message he gave at the weekly chapel for Bethlehem College and Seminary. Rigney does not spend time arguing if Sabbath-keeping is still a mandate to be observed under the New Covenant. Instead he approaches the subject looking for wisdom… “Is there wisdom to be gained on the subject from Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments) about how God has made us to need rest?” His premise in promoting a one day-in-seven rest comes from the conviction that because God loves us, He gives us rest. I have taken the liberty, below, to put to print as much of his 33-minute message as needed to present his biblical case and to encourage us (reader and writer, alike) to glory in this good, Fatherly gift of rest.
“The God Who Loves Us by Giving Us Rest” by Joe Rigney
To begin, Rigney points out that the reality of time being regulated is a given. Our time does get regulated, whether by a school calendar or by our jobs and obligations or by merchants promoting Christmas in October. It’s not a matter of will our time be regulated, but a matter of who will regulate it and by what standard. A self-proclaimed work-aholic, Joe finds himself under the growing conviction that the way we regulate our time is “a big deal.”
The God Who Loves Us in Creation and So Gives Us Rest
It is Rigney’s argument that one way God’s love manifests itself is in the establishment of rest for mankind both in creation as well as in redemption. Rest is an expression of God’s creational love, given by design for the benefit of his creatures. It is God who determined the pattern of work and rest which culminates in the “blessing” of the seventh day, making it holy (Gen. 2:3). Since Jesus tells us that God is always at work (John 5:17), it is helpful to note that God is the first person in the Bible who is said to rest. Indeed, in Hebrews we are told that on the seventh day, God entered his rest and remains there, still awaiting man to join him (Hebrews 4). This guards us against the notion that rest is the ceasing of all activity; it’s not. It’s about stopping one kind of activity in order to more fully participate in another kind of activity. It is more about the consummation and enjoyment of completed labor.
Jesus made an unexpected statement in Mark 2:27. He told the indignant but law-abiding Pharisees a truth of deeper magic from [the very dawn] of time as C.S. Lewis might put it, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus doesn’t say that the Sabbath was made for the Jews only, for the covenant people of God, but for “man.” God created the pattern of work and rest to suit our frame, he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103), he knows our cares, our inclinations and therefore makes the Sabbath for us. The whole creation narrative springs from his Fatherly love in making a habitat for his people, setting up a temple in which his image-bearers can dwell.
So when God finally codifies a day of rest in Exodus 20:8, He effectively declares: I love you! I love your sons, your daughters, your servants, your livestock, the sojourner among you… I love you! Stop working, one day in seven. I love you!
Yes, we are to labor, yes, we’re to have dominion, yes, we are to subdue the earth, work the garden and keep it; but we must never forget that the whole target is that we, like Yahweh, might enjoy the fruit of our labors. Work exists for the sake of something else, it has a direction a trajectory which is Sabbath rest.
The God Who Loves Us in Redemption and So Gives Us Rest
We also observe God’s redemptive love in Deuteronomy 5. When the law is restated 40 years after its first giving, the Sabbath is rooted, not in creation, but in the Exodus. After years of slavery and sojourning and wandering, the Lord was finally going to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land with cities they did not build, good things they did not fill, cisterns they did not dig, vineyards and olive trees they did not plant (Deuteronomy 6), a land of rest. They were leaving off their slavery… for rest. In this rest, God would make for himself an everlasting name (Is.63:14).
To be sure, there is an inward rest obtained by the redeemed, those who mix the gospel with faith (Hebrews 4:2), who rest from their futile works and strivings (v.10). Hebrews expounds on this… that because of Christ’s redemptive work of which he now rests (Mk. 16:19), there remains an eternal Sabbath “rest” for the people of God (Heb. 4:8-9). Our Sabbath-keeping is an external reminder of the rest that the redeemed will enjoy throughout eternity.
Sabbath is not meant to be dull or a burden; it is meant to relieve burden. Leviticus 23 includes the Sabbath observances with the feast days (v.3), a festival to Yahweh, a day of celebration, of joy, of delight. More profoundly, Isaiah says if we will make the Sabbath a delight, then we shall take delight in the Lord and ride on the high places of the land (Is. 58:13-14).
This truth converts the keeping of the Lord’s Day (which I use interchangeably, here, with Sabbath-keeping) from a list of off-limit activities to a day of delight. We are finally free to do all the things that the hustle and bustle of our daily work keeps us from doing. It is a day we get to do something which most of the time we are prevented from doing because we have to work. What a delight. A one day-in-seven rest is God’s love, his care, his kindness, his provision both in creation and in redemption.
The Benefits of Sabbath-Keeping
On the practical side, what are the benefits of Sabbath-keeping? Rigney offers four to consider.
1) Keeping the Lord’s Day is a protection against vain anxiety (Psalm 127:1-2).
Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Your labor can be vain, your watching can be vain, your rising early and staying up late can be vain if it’s done with an anxious heart, “in anxious toil.” Because God knows this about us, in love, he gives us sleep, making us unconscious for roughly eight hours a day. There is this constant hum of low-grade anxiety in our lives (papers to be written, books to be read, activities to go to, bills to be paid, a house to care for, laundry to do, and on and on). God gives us nightly rest from that, but also provides a day of rest in the midst of six days of toil. It is a reminder that the fruit of our labors is ultimately not in our hands; we’re not God.
2) Keeping the Lord’s Day re-orients our understanding of fruitfulness.
Many of us worship at the altar of efficiency; sacrificing our families, our relationships to the god of productivity. We know our lives don’t consist of the abundance of our possessions, but how many of us live as if our lives consist of the length of our to-do list or better, the number of things we’ve checked off today. We define ourselves by our achievements and accomplishments, by our productivity.
Sabbath rest reminds us that fruitfulness is not only a quantitative term, but a qualitative term. It orients us to consider the quality of our lives, not merely the quantity of our completed tasks. Rest does not exist that you might enjoy pause before getting back to work; work exists so you might rest, so you might enjoy what you have done. The whole trajectory of history is moving toward an eternal Sabbath rest. Yes, we work, but it has a goal. It’s not that rest exists for the sake of work, but work exists for the sake of rest. Sabbath rest reminds us of that weekly; a weekly reminder of what’s coming. Like God, we labor in order that we might enjoy its fruit.
3) Keeping the Lord’s Day teaches us the difference between escaping from our work and resting from our labor.
There is a difference. When we look forward to escaping, we are desperate to stop doing something. It is “a running from.” Rest, however, is “a running to.” We look forward to rest, we are desperate for it.
Escape hates work and tries to mute it for a moment, to drown it out, but it is still going on in the background. Rest turns it off that we might listen to a different tune entirely.
Escape is death. It’s lifeless, it’s mindless, and it’s dull. Rest is life. It’s vibrant, it’s refreshing, it’s fruitful. Escape numbs us, rest awakens us.
Escape makes the burden of work heavier. We feel burdened by our work, so we take breaks to email or Facebook or etc., but when we return we feel more burdened. In contrast, rest makes the burden lighter (Matthew 11). Escape dreads Monday, Rest laughs at Monday, like the woman in Proverbs 31, rest laughs at the time to come (v. 25).
4) Keeping the Lord’s Day helps to avoid a creeping Gnosticism (a belief that the physical world is bad and that only the spiritual world is worthy). Such thinking corrupts the glorious reality of resting in Jesus which can become an empty slogan if it justifies a never-ending work week – “I don’t really need to physically rest, instead I seek only the spiritual rest I have found in Jesus.”
“Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). There is a tendency to neglect rest because our striving have ceased in a sense and we are resting in Jesus all the time, but this is a dangerous attitude, hazardous to our physical and spiritual health. However, when we intentionally and gladly weave into our lives this amazing reality of the inward rest, that Jesus bought for us by his blood, with a regular rhythm of work and physical rest, we gain an amazing opportunity to experience the fullness of God. Take a spiritual lesson from Elijah – sometimes the most spiritual things you can do is take a nap (1 Kings 19).
Practical Suggestions for Keeping the Lord’s Day
Rigney identifies himself as a toddler just learning to walk in the practice of Sabbath-keeping, but he wants to get better at it. He offers a starter’s list, in no apparent order, of tangible ways to begin living this all out.
1) Define the boundaries of time. Joe and his wife, practice their Sabbath-keeping from Saturday evening to Sunday evening. As a college instructor, Joe needs some time Sunday evening to prepare for his students the next morning. In this way, he is given the freedom of mind to attend to those things even while keeping the Lord’s Day. He wanted a 24-hour period which provided a good night’s sleep where he was not thinking about all the things he has to do the next day; this solution works for him. Define your boundaries.
2) Avoid LIKE THE PLAGUE, blogs, FB, Twitter, texts, etc. One step further? Put computers away completely to avoid mindlessly spending time on the internet or watching movies instead of resting.
3) Eat a really good meal, eat a really good long meal, eat a really good long meal with friends and lots of laughter – make it a delight. It is, after all, a feast day, so feast.
4) Go for a walk; go for a walk with some friends or your spouse or by yourself.
5) Play a board game or a game outside (Frisbee, football, play catch, shoot hoops, go for a jog, etc.)
6) Sleep in or take a nap; do both! Rigney spells out a system he and his wife have designed that allows each to get an extended period of sleep in during the day even with little ones who haven’t learned that the Lord’s Day is a day of rest (@ 29:15” for all of you tired parents).
7) Refuse, absolutely refuse, to prepare for next week, whatever it is. Even as a college instructor speaking to students, Rigney says, “If you’ve got school work, put it up.” Enjoy the fruit of your labor.
[Of all points, this causes me the most fear, not in the setting aside of work on that day, but in the frenzy of the week past or to come as I must now cram my usual seven days of work into six. What will that mean for those six days? I’m thinking that this is an area I would need to take by faith, to watch and see how God takes care of the labors of my other six days. ~ky]
8) Read the Scriptures, a biography, a fiction book (put the study books up); fall asleep doing it ( :
9) Worship with God’s people; look forward to it, anticipate it, linger over it, arrive early and stay late.
10) Invest in family; make it a goal for your children to grow up with Sunday the highlight of the week (looking forward to it on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – looking back, thankful for it).
11) Cultivate gratitude. You’ve been saved by grace, you live in it, you’re swimming in it, so by all means be grateful… specifically. General gratitude dies; specific gratitude grows. Spend time enjoying and thanking God for all of his gifts to you.
12) Use this one day in seven to cultivate a longing for the heavenly Sabbath; awaken it. Infuse it with the anticipation of that great and glorious day when all shall be well and we will sit down to the marriage feast of the Lamb, to feast with Jesus and truly find our rest in Him.