If you could make one change in your weekly routine that would have a significant effect on your own life, that of your close friends or family, and your church, would you do it? Perhaps you think immediately of healthy living, a change in diet, a regular trip to the gym or starting a fitness programme. The New Testament does tell us that bodily exercise is of some benefit, so these should not be neglected, but they will not have the greatest effect on our lives and on those around us. It is godliness that will make the most impact (1 Tim. 4:8). But what does that look like? Part of it consists in taking one whole day a week as a time for rest and worship. Of course, this is not a new idea; it is as old as creation. But it seems to have slipped from the collective consciousness of the people of God in our generation. Is it time to think again?
The Sabbath rest
There was a Sabbath rest in the Garden of Eden. The loving Creator God gave Adam and Eve three precious gifts as part of his perfect creation: we are familiar with marriage and work, but the first of his gifts was a Sabbath rest (Gen. 2:2-3). Every seven days Adam and Eve would stop their pleasant work of tending the garden and studying the animal and plant life, to spend the day in meditation on the works and the word of Almighty God. Perhaps, especially on this day, they would commune with their Creator as he walked with them in the garden (Gen. 3:8). This gift (as the other two) has been seriously damaged by our sin, but they remain as gifts to all humanity, not just to the Jews or Christian believers.
A Sabbath rest is included in the moral law. When the Lord God spoke at Sinai, he included the fourth commandment to remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, resting from work and remembering creation and redemption (Ex. 20:11; Deut. 5:15).
Part of the confusion concerning the Sabbath day arises from the tendency for many modern study Bibles to suggest that the Sabbath commandment has been ‘set aside’ in the New Testament (John MacArthur Study Bible note on Isaiah 58:13) and is ‘no longer binding on new covenant believers’ (ESV Study Bible note on Romans 14:5). As a result, we are told that ‘it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians’ (ESV Study Bible), but the implication is that the fourth commandment no longer applies. Yet this approach fails to acknowledge that the Sabbath rest was a creation command and gift, and that the Ten Commandments are the moral law for all humanity. They were written in stone and placed in the Ark of the Covenant, not included in the ceremonial law which was written in a book and has found its fulfilment in Christ. We ignore any of God’s commandments at our peril. He knows what is best for his children.
Lord of the Sabbath
A Sabbath rest remains for the people of God. In one of the most remarkable declarations in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ claimed authority over the Sabbath when he said, ‘the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28). He is Lord over how it is kept: enjoying God’s creation by a walk through the cornfields, teaching his disciples and helping them to meditate on the word of God, engaging in acts of mercy by healing the sick, and defending the right to do all necessary things for our own and others’ wellbeing. He even showed his Lordship by changing the day on which it is observed, marking his resurrection by many appearances on that day. No wonder we now call it the Lord’s Day!
A new Sabbath rest
But is it still the Sabbath? The writer to the Hebrews certainly believes so. In Hebrews 4:9-10 he says, ‘So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.’ Although these are not easy verses to interpret, some things are clear. First, this is the first time in the chapter he has used the word ‘Sabbath rest’ (reminding us of Genesis 2). Second, this is also the first time he has referred to a single person entering rest (previously it is ‘they’, here it is ‘whoever’ and ‘he’). Third, he speaks of someone resting from his works.
We certainly do not rest from our works in this life; we are saved for good works. Our rest will come in heaven. But he is not speaking of heaven here. The Sabbath rest remains for us on earth, because One has rested from his works and entered the rest of God: Jesus, our great high priest has passed through the heavens. He rested from his work of saving us when he rose from the dead giving us a new Sabbath, the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. This is now our Sabbath rest. The fourth commandment is still in force, but now it is invested with a greater and more glorious meaning.
Alec Motyer in his excellent book Isaiah by the Day comments on the changes that have occurred regarding the Sabbath: ‘Very different from our day when the world – and how many Christians? – have devised a week ending with two Saturdays and a ‘Lord’s Day’ observed between 10.30 am and 12.00 noon.’ If that describes you, then you need to stop and think. How much would you personally gain if you spent 52 days this year drinking in God’s Word, meditating on your Saviour and his love for you, worshipping in prayer and song, having meaningful fellowship with other believers in your church and just allowing your body to rest? Wouldn’t those around you also benefit? And what about your church? The people of God have met morning and evening for many centuries because they wanted to follow the pattern of Psalm 92:2: ‘To declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night.’ It is only in our generation with its emphasis on sport, family and profit, that evening services are shrinking and in many places disappearing altogether. Take the advice of the Lord Jesus every week, ‘Come away by yourselves… and rest a while’ (Mark 6:31).