As Lent is underway, many Christians throughout the world are participating in various spiritual disciplines. Some are fasting from a particular food, drink, or activity. Some are spending more time in prayer or the study of God’s Word.
These common Lenten disciplines draw on the many themes of Lent, encouraging us ever toward reliance on God rather than reliance on anything else. Another rhythm to Christian life that encourages such reliance and dependence is the Sabbath, the holy day of rest.
Today in North America (and many other places throughout the world), our rhythms of work and rest are broken. Hard work and independence are among the greatest virtues in many of our cultures. Rest is reduced to laziness. Laziness and dependence are seen as failures. We are encouraged to hustle and hurry, to keep pushing and driving until our hard work is rewarded with what we want.
God’s Example of Rest
Somehow, we have lost sight of this basic reality: rest is good, godly, and biblical. As God rests on the seventh day of creation, He blesses rest. He makes rest a part of His very good creation. As the Scripture says, “And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2–3). God finishes and completes His very good work by resting.
Later, God’s instructions to the Israelites regarding Sabbath rest echo God’s seventh-day rest in creation. From the first instructions regarding the Sabbath in Exodus 16, we see God providing for His people on that Sabbath day of rest by doubling the amount of manna they will find on the day before the Sabbath. “See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day He gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:29–30).
God continually provides a rhythm of rest and work for His people. The land rests every seven years. Every seven times seven years is marked with an extra year of rest and restoration of property and forgiven debts called the Year of Jubilee.
God encourages His people to follow His example in the rhythm of rest and work. Yet, as is so often the case, we turn God’s good gifts into idols.
Jesus and the Sabbath
When Jesus comes to earth, He finds people who are not finding rest in the Sabbath but are using the Sabbath as a day to bully others, to police other people’s observance of the Sabbath. Jesus is rebuked numerous times by bullying religious leaders for healing people on the Sabbath. (See Matthew 12; Mark 1, 2, and 3; Luke 6, 13, and 14; John 5 and 9.)
On one such occasion, Jesus responds with these words: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27b). People had lost sight of why God had gifted them with the blessings of Sabbath rest. In His words and actions, Jesus reminds us that rest is good. Still, He simultaneously reminds us that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12b). Jesus also asks the religious leaders, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9b).
In their zealotry to keep the Sabbath, the religious leaders of the first century were doing harm, destroying life. Jesus shows them it is good, right, and salutary to do good on the Sabbath. We also hear Paul say, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16).
Our Sabbath Struggle
But here is where we have gotten lost. We see Jesus healing on the Sabbath on all these occasions. We hear Jesus telling us it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. We hear Paul’s encouragement to not let others disqualify us and judge us based on how and when we observe the Sabbath. And then we twist and turn all of these things around trying to wriggle our way out of resting. We end up using Jesus as a justification for staying busy rather than resting. We deceive ourselves, thinking, “If Jesus can heal on the Sabbath, then surely I can check my email on my day off and occasionally work on Sunday instead of attending worship.”
We have forgotten what these words of Jesus mean. Jesus says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Notice it is Jesus who is lord of the Sabbath, not you or me. While Jesus’ words show us it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath and that we should not hesitate to serve our neighbors in need because of what day it is, we have too often pretended that we are “doing good” when we are merely busying ourselves with everyday work.
Likewise, we have filled our lives so full of things, that we don’t feel like we can rest. Pastors and other church workers are often guilty of this. We don’t feel like we can take our day off, take vacations, take sabbaticals. We wrongly believe ourselves indispensable, as though everyone is depending on us. But we must point others to the One on whom we are all dependent: God Himself. We would do well to set an example of the rhythms of rest for our congregations by following God’s example of Sabbath rest.
The Holiness of Rest
We are given this word from God in Exodus 20:8, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Now, I am not suggesting that we observe a proper Hebrew Sabbath from Friday at sunset to Saturday at sunset. I’m not suggesting we police Sabbath observance like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. But I am suggesting that many of us are doing a poor job of remembering God’s gift of Sabbath rest. Many are not resting as they should. Many are not depending on God’s care and provision.
Luther connects the Sabbath to God’s Word in the Small Catechism. God’s Word is where we find true rest. We see this most clearly in the Word made flesh: Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
The final day of the Lenten season is the day Jesus rests in the tomb. When does Jesus rest in the tomb? On the Sabbath. Jesus rests from His very good work on the cross of which He says, “It is finished.”
Allow me to encourage you to remember Jesus’ invitation to Sabbath rest and dependency on Him. Find a day or even a few hours where the time is holy, the time is different. Put away your phone, computer, and any other buzzing notifications in your life. Silence the rhythm of the busy world and listen to the rhythm of rest. Receive the rest Jesus gives you freely. Rest your body, mind, and soul in Jesus.
Encourage yourself to spend more time resting by having a robust devotional book for every day of the year with the Treasury of Daily Prayer.