Ethics of Christian Love: “Sabbath Rest” (part 6 of 13)

Hebrews 4:1-13



We talked together about the 4th Commandment this morning:  You shall keep the Sabbath day holy, or set apart for God.  The Old Testament Sabbath was on Saturday – the last day of the week following the example of God in creation.  You recall in the story of creation in Genesis that God rested on the 7th day, and he ordered his people to do the same.  We saw this morning what a great act of love that was, especially in a world that will drive us to self-destruction with continued work.  The New Testament Sabbath was changed to Sunday in response to the fulfillment of the new covenant, seen in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We saw this morning that Jesus dealt with the issues involved with why God included the 4th commandment in the moral law.  We saw the following concepts:

  1. God’s command was given for our benefit – not his.  It was given for our health – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  The issue of morality comes in at the point where we value what God has given us or whether we are self-destructive.  Our inability to have balance in our lives destroys our precious relationships, destroys our bodies, cripples us spiritually and emotionally.  The point is that we do not trust God enough to take care of our needs so that we can take time to rest.
  2.  As we begin to interpret this commandment into specific kinds of behavior, we must be evaluating our needs in our relationship to God, our family needs, and our personal needs for rest and time set aside.  This comes before what we can or cannot do.  If we looked at our attempts to deal with this in the light of our children’s perceptions of what is important, we quickly become clearer about what we need to do.
  3. Sunday is a celebration of resurrection life.  It is a time of renewal in relation to the Lord of the Sabbath.  I wish we had a format in which to discuss this further because the balance that God is calling us to is so very important to all of us.

Lets go on to a series of concepts that run through the New Testament that take us one level deeper theologically.  These are the two key concepts: rest and sabbath.

The book of Hebrews begins to put these together.  First, the Hebrew concept of rest, as we read in Hebrews 4:1, “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”.  This does not refer to a Sunday afternoon nap.  (Not to knock the Sunday afternoon nap, it is just not the biblical idea)   Further, it does not refer to leisure or spending time at the lake or lack of work.

This concept is closer to what Augustine talks about when he speaks about our human incompleteness, a human restlessness or anxiety that can only be satisfied by God.  In other words, we were created in relationship to God, and human fulfillment, completeness, and peace can only happen when we return to that relationship.  rest, then, is more like peace or fulfillment opposed to restlessness or a kind of anxiety.  It has less to do with the prescription for tiredness, as we usually use the term.  It is about peace with God and ourselves, fulfillment and contentment with who we are and what our life is.

Allow me to spend a few minutes developing this concept from the Scripture.

1.) In Genesis 2 God rests after creation.  Obviously this is not because he is tired.  His rest is to enjoy his creation.  For example, he enjoys this time of a relationship of love with the humans he created.

2.)  Exodus 16:30 adds to our understanding.  Israel is told not to gather manna on the Sabbath.  You recall that at this point they were in the desert, totally dependent on God for their food.  God gave them manna to gather each morning – just enough for that day.  When they tried to gather more, it quickly spoiled, except for on Friday.  Then they were told to gather enough for two days, and it did not spoil.  All of this is tied to their trusting God to provide for their needs on the 7th day.  Their Sabbath rest, then, in this passage is clearly seen as their being confident in God.

3.)  Leviticus 23:32 is a reference to the Day of Atonement.  The Day of Atonement was the day in which Israel experienced God forgiving their sins.  They had to sacrifice and bull as a sin offering for the priest, and a goat as a sin offering for the people.  Then the priest laid his hands on a scapegoat while confessing the sins of the people.  The scapegoat was then taken out into the desert far from the camp, as it carried away the sins of the people.  This day, says the instruction of the Lord, was to be to be a “Sabbath of rest for you.”  This is the celebration of a renewed relationship with God.  It is basking, resting in the reality of being forgiven, resting in the joy of reconciliation.  It was a day different from all the others.

This concept is further developed in the Psalms:

4.) Psalm 37:7 (Read 37:1-7) Note that “Be still” is the same word as “Rest” – Rest before the Lord.  As one takes this apart the issue clearly becomes trust, confidence, a feeling of security, having our needs met – in opposition to being alone and fearful.  Verse 3 relates this rest to behavior, to doing good (by implication: do good in the name of the Lord, or for God’s sake).

(Read Psalm 55:1-8,22) 

5.)  Psalm 55:6 teaches us that there is no rest in escape.  The issue is that we cannot run away because we take our problems, our anxiety, our weaknesses, our fears and lack of trust or rebelliousness with us.  The alternative is stated in verse 22, “Cast your burdens on the Lord.”  This is the means of obtaining “rest” in the spiritual and emotional sense.  This concept is developed even more in the New Testament.

Matthew 11:28

6.) (Read 11:25-30)  Rest here means casting one cares and burdens on Christ.  We also much see that the context here is his revealing the Father to us.  Rest, then, comes in knowing God.  7.)  Hebrews 4 is the passage we read at the beginning.  In verse 1, rest is equated with faith or trust.  Sabbath rest means freedom from toil, freedom from labor in Christ.  Later, Sabbath rest refers to a correct relationship with God, peace of mind, fulfillment, and it is a symbol of heaven.

Putting this all together,  The fourth commandment is given to lead us to health, to life in worship to God, to rest in God, meaning peace, fulfillment.  Our Sabbath rest, then, becomes an image of heaven.  Rest is all about being right with God, being healthy spiritually and emotionally because we are at peace with who we are in Christ, and it refers to the completed relationships in our families and the church were we are at peace with one another.

The concept of the Hebrew Sabbath rest comes in the context of faith and trust in God when we cast our cares on him.  In Hebrews 4:1, the failure to trust and find rest is the absence of God, that thus it is a picture of hell because it is separation from God – anxiety and fear, a place where there is no rest.

It all fits together.  Anxiety, fear, constant work and worry rob us of spiritual, emotional and physical health.  Our rest is in God, our trust in him, our faith-growth is the experience that is a foretaste of heaven.  Rest, then, is not inactivity, but rather being creative and free from the burdens of life.  It is a celebration and enjoyment of our relationships with family and friends.  Our anxieties and worries cause us to retreat, to withdraw, to be eaten up inside.

As we go to the Lord’s Supper now, it is Jesus calling us to rest in him.  “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”