I often find myself singing the words of a beloved hymn: “‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, Just to take Him at His word, Just to rest upon His promise, Just to know, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” These familiar words many in the faith have come to know and treasure, but how often do we stop and ponder what it means to “rest” upon His promises? What does it look like for one to “rest” in God when we live in a society that is constantly moving, where life seems to be racing by and when we stop long enough to look around, we find ourselves “burnt out.” Today we will look into both Old and New Testament passages about rest and the interwoven idea of Sabbath to answer what it means to rest—what it is, where it is found, and what that means for our lives today.
Rest in the Old Testament
Genesis 1 tells us that after the Lord created, He rested. God, being all-powerful and all-sufficient, has no need for rest (He neither slumbers nor does He sleep, Ps 121:4). Yet, in the founding of human life, He models for us a rhythm of six days of labor followed by a day of rest. This established pattern is affirmed as important to God by its presence in the Ten Commandments. When the Law is given to Moses in Exodus 20, God establishes a covenant with Israel and commands that His people “shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” A God-ordained rhythm of rest is echoed in the annual festivals He established for the nation (Deut 15, 16) and the treatment of beasts of burden, sojourners, and the land itself (Lev 25:4). The common theme of these passages is that God’s people are to rest, or take a break from working, to solemnly reflect on His provision. In a largely agrarian culture that was dependent upon plowing, harvesting, and planting for survival, the Lord was requiring the society to rest. By mandating rest, the nation was required to look to God for its provision and well-being, entrusting its fields, crops, flocks, and livelihoods to Him. God’s commandment concerning rest was so important that He required those who profaned the Sabbath to be cut out of society (Ex 31:14), as the Sabbath was set apart as holy.
Throughout the Old Testament, God established for His people a rhythm of work and rest from the beginning; it is therefore a good thing. He reaffirms for us in the giving of the Law and the structuring of holidays that observance of it is pleasing to Him, important and holy. These observances of Sabbath nurture a culture that values its reliance upon God to provide.
Scripture teaches us that rest is not solely limited to the Sabbath. There are many types of rest mentioned in Scripture, and in each instance, rest is connected with the truth that God Himself is both the source and the giver of rest (Josh 1:13-15, 25:19; 1 Chron 22:9, 23:25). That is to say, apart from the Lord willing or granting it, there is no rest of any kind. Finally, in the Old Testament, the Lord calls His people to enter His rest. In Psalm 95:11, David reminds his readers to not “harden [their] hearts . . . though they had seen [God’s] work” and references the disobedience of Israel in the wilderness and how the people did not enter into the rest the Lord had designed and prepared for them. In other words, they missed out on experiencing the rest God had planned to bless them with. In Isaiah 30:15, we are told, “in returning and rest you shall be saved.” Therefore, we see the call toward not only repentance but also rest portrayed as a foundational element of salvation (which we see the fulfillment of in Christ).
Christ Revealed as the Sabbath Rest
God’s design and plan for rest and Sabbath culminate in the ministry and salvific work of Christ. Jesus taught us that He is our rest (Mt 11:28-29). Consistent with the Old Testament, God Himself is the giver and the source of rest. Jesus’ assertion is that He, as the source of rest, is also God. He affirms this when He tells the Pharisees He is “Lord of the Sabbath.” Furthermore, when Jesus states that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” He affirms God’s good design that the observance of a Sabbath rest is God’s gift to remind us how we should structure our time and posture our hearts before Him. It is not just another command to adhere to (Mk 2:27).
The Gospel accounts show us that Christ fulfilled every prophecy made concerning His first appearance on earth and obeyed the Law perfectly. This means He kept the Sabbath perfectly, thus fulfilling or keeping the demands of the Law. Hebrews 1:3 further reveals that in completing His work on the cross, Christ then sat (or rested) in the presence of God the Father. The author of Hebrews goes on to show us clearly how Christ was the culmination and completion of our command to Sabbath and that those who place their faith in the Savior enter into this Sabbath rest (Heb 3:7-4:11). Quoting David in Psalm 95, the writer of Hebrews calls us to consider the disobedience of Israel in the wilderness as a cautionary tale before entering the Promised Land; those who disobeyed God’s commands were denied the means to enter His rest. We see from this that when one is not walking in obedience to the Lord’s instruction, one is demonstrating a lack of trust that His commands are good, true, and worth obeying. The fruit of trust is obedience; the fruit of a disbelieving heart is a blind eye toward the Lord’s good instruction, manifesting itself in disobedience. We, in the same way, are instructed to not walk in the way of disbelief of what Christ has done but to walk in the belief that results in trust as evidenced by our obedience to “enter His rest.” So just how are we to enter His rest? Hebrews 4:3 shows us it is through faith that we are brought into a positional standing of rest before God. Furthermore, Hebrews 4:11 tells us, “Whoever has entered God’s rest” by the means of faith aforementioned, “has also rested from his works as God did from His.” In the same way God established for mankind a rhythm of labor and rest through the Law, we, by means of placing trust in Christ, enter into His fulfilled design and purpose for Sabbath.
To quote Francis Schaeffer, “How shall we then live?” What are we to make of all these commands to Sabbath in a post-resurrection era? To help us understand and apply what we are to conclude from these passages, let us summarize the following into the words recognizing and remembering.
1) As believers in Christ, we are first and foremost to recognize what we have. That is this: we have a gifted, unearned legal ownership of Christ’s account of a life of obedience, death to sin, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:1-11). This means that when Christ’s work was finished, our striving to “enter his rest” by living righteously was also finished. It was done; the work of earning our standing before God was completed and we have been brought into a positional standing of righteousness before the Father. We are no longer under Law but under grace (Rom 6:14).
2) True rest is resting in the finished work of Christ. He is our Sabbath rest. We enter this rest when we are brought into His fold through faith. Therefore, rest is not found in doing (that is, in the practicing of rest), but in believing Christ has met our requirements and given us His standing before the Father. Believer, recognize this means you cannot be any more pleasing, holy, deserving, worthy of His affection, or more loved than you already are. When the Father looks at you, He sees not your failures but Christ’s perfect obedience. Christ being our true rest also means we do not find rest in our ability to accomplish, plan, save, budget, invest, or hustle, but in Him alone.
3) The limitations you have been created with; that you cannot, try as one might, function optimally without rest. Working too much overtime, not taking holidays and vacation, railing against the unforeseen forced rest of an illness, or even neglecting to plan periods of Sabbath into our lives ignores this God-given gift and mocks the restraints an all-knowing Creator has purposely placed on our existence. Jesus’ words in Mark 2 affirm that Sabbath is not an empty rule to follow but a gift of a reminder to stop and acknowledge our limitations while recognizing we serve a God who is limitless in his ability to provide.
1) Remember to rest. It is helpful and there is value in practicing it as a spiritual discipline. Rest is a decision. In the same way that striving in prayer, study of the Word, meditation, acts of service, taking of communion or fasting does not make us holier or more pleasing to God (because we already have His full acceptance and pleasure in Christ), neither does our practicing of Sabbath rest. Instead, observing rhythms and regular periods of rest (i.e. holidays, vacation, etc.) helps to remind us that our physical and spiritual needs are fulfilled in the Lord’s provision. Rest for the purpose of looking to Christ is something to be valued and planned for. (Just as the Israelites would’ve had to prepare ahead to gather extra manna or cook a larger meal, so the practice of planning and preparing for rest has its place.)
2) Remember Christ as your Sabbath. As we exercise our gift of Sabbath in a physical sense, we remember to do so not under a law of works but under a law of grace. This means our practice of Sabbath or rest does not have to be limited to a particular day of the week, to a particular number of hours, or exclude/include a specific list of activities.
3) Remember your soul is in Sabbath. In physically resting, we remember Christ’s work that bought our spiritual rest; we remember our striving for holiness has been accomplished. It is complete. Believers must learn to look at themselves the way our Father does: no longer bound to our sin, but as having been crucified, dead, and buried to it. We are no longer the victim of sin, but the victor through Christ’s victory given to us. “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). No head-hanging, self-condemning behavior is appropriate in the life of the Redeemed; rather let us own our actions, repent, reconcile, and step forward in joyful obedience, knowing we’ve already been brought into an eternal Sabbath of resting from the work of earning God’s favor and holiness.
As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Let us strive to enter [that] rest,” not out of a moral obligation to obey, begrudgingly, or legalistically to gain God’s pleasure, but out of joy, recognizing that we are already perfectly pleasing to God through Christ and there is nothing we can do to add to or take away from His pleasure in us. So this next Sunday, holiday, planned vacation, or unplanned sick day, rejoice in recognizing and remembering the finished work of Christ. Pursue rest in remembering He is your provision and celebrate. If He clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the air, surely, He will care for you, who means more to Him than many sparrows.
About the Author: Faith Hines is a long-time member at Genesis. She’s a wife, mother and homeschooler to her four children. She and her husband, Justin, lead a community group and she regularly invests in discipling women at Genesis.