In the second chapter of the Bible, we read this: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)
From the beginning, long before sin or law entered the picture, God was establishing the pattern of Sabbath. Like him, we were meant to work six days and then rest and reset on the seventh day. This was one of God’s first and best gifts to humanity
So what’s the point of Sabbath – other than just to rest? What is the purpose of Sabbath?
First, Sabbath is to reflect on and delight in God and his good gifts. When God was finished with Creation, “he rested and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). He wasn’t exhausted, he was exhilarated. He looked at the beauty of Creation and he rejoiced and called it good. So when the fourth of the Ten Commandments requires us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” and to cease from work because God ceased from his work (Exodus 20:8-11), the point is to pause for enjoyment.
Second, Sabbath is to signify our dependence on God’s grace rather than our performance. Exodus 31:13 puts it like this: “You shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” We ought to be celebrating Sabbath in a way that signposts the conviction that it’s not up to us – and our nonstop performance – to make ourselves more loving or holy. It is God who does the deep heart work of sanctifying us. When we are at rest in God, God is making us more like Jesus.
Third, Sabbath is to declare our trust in God’s provision. This almost certainly is the meaning of Leviticus 25:1-7 and 18-21, where the Lord requires a Sabbath for the land every seventh year. The instinct, of course, would be to farm the land every year without ceasing. How else are you supposed to grow crops and feed your families? But God basically says, “Stop – and trust me to provide for your needs.” Let the land itself rest and be refreshed, and believe that it’s ultimately God who gives you food and every good thing.
Fourth, Sabbath is to celebrate our freedom in Christ from every form of slavery. When the Law is given a second time in Deuteronomy 5:12-16, we read this: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work. . . . You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” See the point? Pharaoh demanded ceaseless work. Justify your existence or be killed. But God says the opposite. Pause to rest and rejoice because of the work of Jesus, who liberates you from bondage.
Fifth, Sabbath is to be a foretaste of future glory in the presence of God. Hebrews 4:9-11 says there’s still a future Sabbath rest that we should strive to enter. When we’re home with Jesus, we will finally rest from our trials, pains, doubts, and fears. Until that day, Sabbath is an opportunity to bring the future into our present experience by living in light of that hope of ultimate rest today.
If all these good gifts can be enjoyed every time we Sabbath, then why do we struggle to rest like this? Let’s consider the two main reasons:
One, we feel the internal pressure of insatiable desires. We always want more: more money, more possessions, more success, more experiences, more popularity, more pleasure, more fun. And so we drive ourselves to work, or network, or spend just a little bit more. We’re essentially building our identity – our sense of self-worth – on what we do plus what we have. So we can’t stop ourselves.
Add to this the external pressure of cultural norms. The reality is the Lord’s Day is treated as just another day. There’s nothing sacred about it. It’s just another day to sleep in, shop, eat brunch with the friends, cut the grass, go camping, or drag the kids all over town for their endless cycle of extracurriculars. Our society doesn’t help us rest; it demands that we don’t.
So how do we get over this barrier? How do we break the toxic habit of busyness, stress, and the endless pursuit of more? Consider three basic practices of Sabbath:
One, do adhere to a regular rhythm of work and rest. First of all, work. Work hard. Work at things that matter – and do them for the glory of God and the flourishing of Creation. Then pick a day – Sunday probably makes the most sense for most people – and set it apart to be special. Practice this weekly rhythm when it’s easy, and especially practice this rhythm when it’s hard.
Two, do not do your regular business during Sabbath. Don’t let it be just another day to get stuff done. This is going to be hard at first, but stop with the sales, the emails, and all the usual tasks. As a rule of thumb, if you work with your mind, let your mind rest; if you work mainly with your body, let your body rest. Let the Sabbath disrupt patterns of workaholism, selfish ambition, and mindless consumption.
Three, do look for ways to practice the biblical purposes of rest. Don’t just sit around staring at the wall. You’re not honoring the Sabbath by lying around in sheer boredom. Turn from seeking delight and meaning in your work, and be deliberate about seeking these things in God. Use this day to exercise dependence on God’s spiritual and material provision for you. Celebrate your freedom in Christ. Focus on relationships and holy pleasures. Jesus himself feasted on the Sabbath, and you should too. Remember, it’s always good to do good on the Sabbath. So look for ways to encourage others and to help them find their identity in Christ with you.
Let the Sabbath be to you the gift it was intended to be. Run to the Lord who invites you, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”