I’m taking a break from the “Integrity” series for a week to post an essay about understanding and appreciating the Sabbath. I recently heard someone declare that God created the Sabbath rest so human beings can maintain a sense of balance in our lives; too much “busyness” is not good for us. It’s true that being too busy can be harmful to our health, both physical and spiritual; but the sanction God placed on the day he sanctified (e.g. death: according to Numbers 15:32–36, God told the congregation to stone a man who gathered wood on the Sabbath) seems to indicate that he had more in mind when he hallowed this day than calendars with too much activity on them. So I looked again at the various passages in which biblical writers addressed this idea. A different picture emerged, a three dimensional picture, deep and rich and vibrant with significance. I’ll help us focus the eyes of our hearts on this picture by asking two questions: How are the creation and the exodus so significantly similar that God can use them both as foundations for celebration of the Sabbath cessation? And how does either of them relate to Jesus?
When God established the sanctity of the Sabbath in the first creation narrative, he didn’t command us to honor it. That didn’t happen until he made his covenant with Israel in the wilderness. But the reason he gave for requiring them to honor this day each week was not rooted in anything he did during the Exodus, but in the creation story. They were required to cease work one day each week because God stopped “working” when he finished his creative efforts. Did he stop because he was tired and needed a break to catch his breath before he continued? No. “By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing, and he ceased.” God stopped, not because he was tired, but because he was finished; he had accomplished what he had set out to do. As a way to celebrate his success, he designated this day as a special/holy day — ultimately, the verb indicating a cessation of work, the number seven, and the name of the day became coterminous in the Hebrew language. While God did not explicitly command human beings to honor the Seventh/Sabbath day when he first mentioned it, the author of Genesis clearly implied that it was important for his readers to know that God hallowed this particular day for this reason. Thus humanity began its existence by entering directly into God’s rest, that is into a state of affairs which God believed was just the way he wanted it to be, so that we could succeed in our assignment to represent the Creator as we spread across the globe.
When Yahweh led the people of Israel out of Egypt in order to take them to the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he informally instituted Sabbath requirements when he began feeding them with manna. According to the flow of the narrative (Exodus 16:12ff.), it seems that some people recognized the need to observe a cessation in their gathering of manna. Not everyone understood; so Moses explained that Yahweh actually did want the entire nation to set aside the seventh day as a day in which life sustaining labor ceased. Neither Moses nor God related this requirement to the creation story, but it seems that at least some of the people made a connection with the sufficiency of God’s provision and the history of the seventh day.
When Israel finally reached the Mountain of God, where God proclaimed to them the outline of his covenant relationship with them, Yahweh commanded them to remember that the Sabbath was a holy day. While this command did not establish Sabbath keeping, it placed their observance of it in the context of Yahweh’s declaration that he was the deity who brought them out of the land of Egypt (This is implied in Exodus 20, but made explicit in Deuteronomy 5:15). By placing the commandment in relationship to his accomplishing this mighty feat, he made it clear that the nation would demonstrate its confidence in his ability and willingness to set them up for success by ceasing to engage in life-sustaining activity one day in seven. When God supported the commandment with the argument that Sabbath had been instituted at creation, he gave the exodus event a significance equivalent to that of the creation event. The exodus event was different than the creation event in that the exodus would not actually be finalized until the nation entered the Promised Land. Since the commandments were intended by God to govern the lives of the people once they were in the land, God spoke of the two events — and intended the people to consider them — as equivalent. Humanity entered God’s “rest” on the seventh day, and Israel would enter another aspect of God’s “rest” when he finished establishing them in Canaan. Until then they were to remind themselves of God’s wisdom and power every week as they demonstrated their dependence on him by ceasing to work for themselves.
Another aspect of the Sabbath’s connection to creation and exodus is that Sabbath marked the transition from preparatory activity to performance activity. By way of analogy, we recognize the difference between the activity which goes into getting a house ready for occupation and the activity of occupying the house as a home. Or, we understand the difference between the activity of rehearsal which precedes a dramatic production and the activity of performing the same production. Similarly Sabbaths mark the transition into a new phase of activity characterized by satisfaction and enjoyment, the kind we associate with “being at home.” In particular, biblical Sabbaths mark Israel’s movement into a phase of life prepared by God’s work on their behalf. Thus God established a sabbath transition into a life of forgiveness and fellowship after the annual atonement ceremony (Leviticus 16:31). In Leviticus 23 when Yahweh summarized the primary cultic religious events of the year, each event was marked by a cessation of work in celebration of movement into a new phase of life, in particular a life identified as being God’s special people (23:13): Passover reminded them of God’s work in the exodus; Pentecost reminded them of God’s work in providing food season after season; Atonement reminded them of God’s overall forgiveness; Booths reminded them of God’s provision during the wilderness wanderings. These cessations from work celebrate their transition into the state of blessing God prepared for them. While the events (other than harvest) marked by the Sabbaths occurred only once, the celebrations were a means to remind the people they continued to live in the “house” God had built for them. The “refreshment” which comes in the cessation of work (Exodus 23:12; 31:17) is not a restoration after the expenditure of energy, but the leisurely enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labor, exhibited, strikingly, by sharing it with the less fortunate, such as one’s slaves and strangers who prevail on one’s hospitality.
When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and when he justified his disciples for eating grain off the stalks on the Sabbath, he was honoring the sanctity of the day as God established it in the beginning, and as he enhanced it during the exodus. Instead of “doing his own pleasure,” instead of exerting himself to sustain his own well-being, as God condemned Israel for doing (Isaiah 58:13-14), he was doing what pleased the Creator and Redeemer of Israel by extending God’s creative and restorative power into the lives of needy people. In contrast, most of the Israelites whom God rescued from Egypt refused to live in the Sabbath of God, as did most of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Because of their unbelief, they died in their sin, never experiencing the joy of God’s satisfying “home.”
The author of Hebrews saw this connection and argued to his readers that the term “God’s rest” represents a state of existence characterized by God’s presence and providence. People “enter” God’s Sabbath rest today in a way similar to how the nation of Israel was supposed to enter the Promised Land: by whole-hearted, obedient faith in the One who promised an environment where the people could flourish as a community. “Today” he urges us to celebrate God’s Sabbath by being “diligent” to rest in him, that is to maintain (and help one another maintain) a good heart which confidently “leans in to” the living God (as opposed to falling away from him [3:12]). As we enjoy living in God’s Sabbath rest, we will continually experience his mercy and helpful grace whenever we need it.
Then, as we live by faith in the reality of God’s Sabbath, we would probably be wise to maintain the practice of celebrating a weekly reminder of the sufficiency of his work on our behalf. We could keep the custom of the seventh day celebration, but it seems more fitting to use the day of Jesus’ resurrection, since that day marks God’s satisfaction with the work Jesus did on our behalf and on behalf of his Father. Just as God finished the work of creation which opened up the Sabbath future for humanity; and just as God offered the Sabbath of the Promised Land when he finished rescuing the nation of Israel from Egypt; God acknowledged the finished the work of saving humanity from sin by raising Jesus from the dead. Christ’s finished work of dying for his people parallels the finished work of creation. The resurrection is the new Sabbath. Now he invites everyone to follow him into the Sabbath rest of resurrection life in the age to come.