How Rest is Restored – Sabbath & Jesus’ Redemption in the New Testament
What can break people out of this destructive, self-centered cycle so that they can experience the rest they need? As much as many would like rest to be a matter of strict discipline, people cannot simply schedule regular periods of rest into their calendars and expect to experience the deep menuha rest that Heschel described. The deeper problem with rest is not a matter of scheduling. It is a matter of trust in God. Somehow, people’s hearts have to be changed.
In the New Testament, two passages clarify how God is restoring rest. In the first passage, Jesus makes the unequivocal and controversial claim that he will give people rest.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This claim infuriates some Israelites because only God can provide that kind of rest, as in Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” It is indeed Jesus’ intention to identify himself as the one true God who can provide the kind of rest that is promised to Israel. But how can Jesus provide this rest?
In the second passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes another startling claim that he is greater than the sabbath as he is “lord of the sabbath” (Matt 12:8).
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8)
Jesus makes the dramatic claim that he provides a greater rest than the law of the sabbath can offer. How does Jesus provide a deeper rest than the sabbath law? Romans gives an explanation.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4).
The sabbath law on its own has no ability to address the deeper problem within people. The fourth commandment teaches that people ought to rest, but it cannot enable them to do so because a commandment on its own is powerless to change hearts. The common inability to rest, rather, exposes a much deeper problem. People desire to be self-sufficient without God, and yet the effort that it takes to do so leaves people exhausted and empty. This is where the good news of the Gospel comes in. According to Romans (see below), God knows that the law is powerless to change hearts. Jesus refers to himself as the lord of the sabbath because he does something that the sabbath law could never do. God wants to commune with his people through rest, but people can’t commune with God if they fear his condemnation. Jesus frees people from condemnation by forgiving all sin through his sacrifice on the cross. In doing so Jesus grants Christians renewed access to God that individuals could never earn or accomplish on their own. No longer estranged from God due to sin, people can now enter into real restful communion with God.
Indeed, an examination of the Christian faith, as laid out in the letters to the early church, concurs about what Christ has accomplished for people with regard to rest.
First of all, in Christ believers are saved from condemnation under the Law.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
Because people no longer need to be afraid of God, believers no longer feel compelled to work incessantly in a futile attempt to please God.
By establishing forgiveness, Christ reconciles each person’s relationship with God. In doing so, Jesus restores the possibility of people experiencing loving fellowship with God.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
According to this passage, all people should be able to experience a restful relationship with God, despite any real-world obstacles.
Furthermore, through Christ’s sacrifice the parent-child relationship between God and his people is restored.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
Christ reinstates all the privileges and benefits of being a child of God that God gave people in the garden of Eden. Adopted as God’ children, people have every right to ask for what they need, and God promises not to withhold any good thing from them. (Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 9:8). Moreover, individuals have the honor of partnering with God in the work he intends to do in the world.
A spirit of adoption does not negate the possibility of suffering in the life of a Christian. Rather, suffering can be viewed as part of taking on the family business. People sometimes have the opportunity to suffer with God in the same way that Jesus comes alongside all people who are suffering. Whether believers feel extremely provided for or extremely in need, Jesus’ sacrifice means that they no longer have to turn to their own work as the ultimate source of security and identity.
Similarly, when people partner with God in his work of restoring the world to his original intention, the Holy Spirit empowers them to deepen their relationships with others. It is only through Jesus’ sacrifice that people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-7). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers find it possible to give their time and property sacrificially to others (Acts 4:34). God gives his followers his very Spirit to empower them to live by faith, to work by faith, and finally to rest in faith.
The last insight on this subject in the New Testament is that Christ will come again one day to fully restore God’s intention for both work and rest. In the fallen world which continues today, people will always be subject to a pattern of frustration, exhaustion, and partial recuperation. But when Christ comes again to make the world the way God has always intended it to be, he will reestablish an integrated pattern of purposeful work in partnership with God and rest in perfect communion with him. The following passage from Revelation reveals both themes of work and rest.
The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!" (Revelation 19:9-10)
Life in the new creation will involve both work (in fellow service with the angels) and rest (enjoying the marriage supper of the Lamb.) Human work and rest in the age to come will both occur in perfect partnership with God. Believers can wait for this eventuality in expectation, even as each person endeavors to experience closeness with God in his or her work and rest today (Hebrews 4:1).
The sacrifice of Jesus provides Christians freedom to enter into God’s rest on a perpetual basis. Therefore, it is an open question whether a practice of keeping a weekly day of rest, referred to in the Old Testament as sabbath, is necessary for a Christian believer. The New Testament scripture seems to give a Christian the freedom to choose for him or herself the answer to this question.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)
Some Christians interpret this passage as warrant for not having a formal sabbath day, although Romans clearly states that those who choose to keep a sabbath should not be judged for it. Whether a believer sets aside a specific day for sabbath, or rests only as the spirit leads, this passage from Romans indicates that both practices should include thanking God.
Although people are free to choose when and how to rest, there are compelling arguments both for observing a weekly sabbath rest and for worshiping collectively with other Christians on a customary day of the week (whether or not the latter feels restful to an individual.) Some sort of weekly meeting involving worship has been widely observed throughout the history of the church.
Jesus’ disciples certainly go to the temple on the Jewish sabbath, if for no other reason than to convince others that Jesus is the Messiah.
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (Acts 17:1-4)
Indeed, Paul’s practice is to attend sabbath meeting in any town he visits and to use that platform to proclaim the good news about Jesus. It doesn’t seem particularly restful to him (indeed, his speeches are often followed by violent mob outbursts), and perhaps rest is not the primary reason he observes this custom.
In his own life Jesus demonstrates two distinct practices of sabbath. Jesus engages in both personal spiritual rests and communal worship experiences. Jesus takes moments alone to rest in God’s presence (Matthew 14:13). At other times, he uses the Jewish sabbath worship for reaching out to others with his message of salvation (Luke 4:16-21). Since both resting personally and worshiping communally are important in the life of Jesus, modern Christians might do well to make similar choices with their God-given freedom.
Whether or not people choose to rest in a particular weekly pattern, those who manage other people have a responsibility to ensure that these workers have proper access to rest. God’s commandment to the Israelites reveals his deep concern for the rest of his people:
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 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. (Deuteronomy 5:14-15)
In this passage, the end of slavery brings freedom to rest. Christians’ freedom to observe the sabbath in a manner of their choosing must always be seen in this light. Rest, at its core, is freedom from the unceasing work inherent in slavery. Because God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he expects his followers at the very least to refrain from enslaving others. Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life is not limited to one religious group, but “for many” (Matthew 26:28). Thus when managers protect rest time for employees, they can view this management practice as partnering with God in his continual work of deliverance.
Providing for the rest of all workers may take different forms in different industries or organizations. Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another at least between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.
The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. This is certainly one way to ensure that everyone has a day off, at least from their work at the company itself. According to the company’s website, founder Truett Cathy’s decision to make weekly sabbath a company policy “was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Hopefully, in addition, everyone who works at the company doesn’t feel the need to work elsewhere on Sunday to make ends meet.
Henry Kaestner, panel discussion at Movement Day, New York City, October 10, 2013.