God is the Creator and Designer of mankind, making him in His image; God rested after His works, and has made man to rest as well. Rest cannot be made into a privilege; it ought to be a right.
From the beginning God has established rest as a part of work and creativity. On the seventh day, having made everything in heaven and on earth in six days, the Genesis author says God “finished” His work by resting (Genesis 2:2). God’s day of rest was not divorced from His days of work; to say God created everything in six days is to miss the important element of rest in the work of creation. God created all things and enjoyed rest afterward; so it should be for humanity made in His image.
God’s work in creation would become the model for Israelites and their work: they would expend themselves in labor six days and rest on the seventh, the Sabbath, as a time of refreshment (Genesis 2:3, Exodus 31:15-17, Leviticus 23:3). Their rest was part of the fruit of their labor; it was not to be divorced from their labor. The Sabbath rest was not merely for the nobility and the wealthy; it was for everyone, including servants and farm animals (Exodus 31:15, 34:21, Deuteronomy 5:14). Even the land itself was to enjoy a Sabbath rest each seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-7)! All of the creation testifies to the need for rest.
When we think of rest we generally think of sleep or relaxation. Rest involves these things but also the kind of liberty and freedom which allows for them. Rest is its own form of liberation, and Israel was to maintain cycles of liberation along with rest. After each seventh land Sabbath, or every 50th year, Israel was to proclaim a Jubilee, releasing fellow Israelites from debts and enslavement (Leviticus 25:8-22). The Sabbath was therefore not just about resting from labor; the Sabbath also commemorates liberation from bondage, the ability to enjoy true rest without fear, and so God intended for Israel to allow all of their people to enjoy it (cf. Deuteronomy 5:13-15).
Jesus of Nazareth, as the Lord of the Sabbath, is the Lord of rest (Mark 2:28). In His day the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into a burden in their attempt to delineate what was considered “work” from what was acceptable on the day of rest; they were indignant when Jesus would heal on the Sabbath, since they considered that “work” (cf. Luke 13:15). Yet Jesus was not cowed by them; He understood that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, and it was to provide release as well as rest and relaxation (Luke 13:15-17). In truth Jesus came to provide all mankind with the ultimate hope of rest and release, to no longer be burdened with the despair of sin and death (cf. Matthew 11:28-30, Romans 8:1-7).
When the subject of the Sabbath rest is discussed, most Christians tend to think of it in terms of its strict regulations in Judaism, or perhaps in terms of disputations within Christendom regarding whether Christians must observe the Sabbath or not. The Apostle Paul spoke clearly: Christians from the nations are not bound to observe the Jewish Sabbath, and if they do, it may reflect apostasy from the Gospel of Jesus (cf. Galatians 1:6-5:16, Colossians 2:14-18). The author of the letter to the Hebrews meditated on the meaning of Psalm 95:11 in light of Genesis 2:1-4 and discerned how the Jewish Sabbath was a type, or shadow, of the rest from all labors which God will give to those who have followed Him, and exhorted Christians to give diligence so as to enter this ultimate rest (Hebrews 4:1-11).
Christians are not bound to observe the Jewish Sabbath on the seventh day; and yet Christians also should not look at rest as a burden, obligation, or something which might endanger their souls. Christians must strive toward faithful obedience to the Lord Jesus to obtain the ultimate rest (Hebrews 4:1-11), but Christians do poorly if they neglect their built-in need for times of rest and refreshment. The nature of the creation has not changed; the nature of mankind has not changed. We still need times of rest, relaxation, and the freedoms which allow them to flourish.
Christians in the Western world not only live in a culture starving for rest but perpetuate the difficulty among themselves. Much has been made of the proverbs warning the sluggard and the lazy (cf. Proverbs 6:6-11), but precious little is made of the need for rest built into work and labor as seen from the beginning (Genesis 2:1-4). We are always “busy,” and we are afraid that if we are ever seen as not sufficiently working or active, we will be considered to be the lazy one and the sluggard, and no longer worthy of being named among the saints. People these days pride themselves on how many hours they work: it is the new status symbol.
We do well to heed the warnings given to the lazy and the sluggard; we ought to labor and make a living in peace (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Yet we must also call out our culture’s tendency toward workaholism and oppression for what they are. Demanding work without rest from oneself or others is a form of slavery and is contrary to the purposes of God in the creation. Humans need rest in sleep; without it their functioning is severely impaired. Humans also need time off from work to recharge and refresh; they prove more creative, resilient, and productive when they enjoy such rest. Work was given for humans to do; humans were made for more than work. All humans, as children of God, should be free to pursue their own interests and desires in times of rest and refreshment as part of the fruit of their labors to support themselves and their families.
Rest should never become a “four letter word” among the people of God. If God rested from His work and enjoyed the fruit of His labor in creating the heavens and the earth, so people ought to take time, and be given the opportunity to take time, to enjoy the fruit of their labors. May we labor in the Lord’s vineyard diligently, take the necessary time for rest and refreshment, and strive to obtain eternal rest in the Lord Jesus in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry