“Sabbath Rest and the Seventh Day”

I was privileged to be able to “attend” the 72nd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last week. The meeting was all virtual, and I spent 5 days staring at my computer, listening intently, and taking notes on fantastic presentations and discussions. There were more than 500 papers to be read ahead of time, and 141 virtual discussions to view. The main topic was “Christianity and Islam,” and I learned a lot about the Quran and the Muslim people; however, the sessions were on a wide range of topics. I am still processing all that I heard and learned and will be for a long time. It was intense, challenging and such fun!! You can be assured that I will be sharing a great deal of my thoughts from the conference on this blog site.

The first session I want to share was on “Sabbath Rest and the Seventh Day,” which I found fascinating. Since my last blog expressed my struggle with “Rest,” I thought it only appropriate to share what I learned in this session that was so relevant. Foundational to our humanity, of course, is the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God (“imago dei,” Gen 1:26-27), as a climax to God’s creative activity. In Genesis 2:2-3, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

Made in his image, then, we can make these observations from Genesis:

  1. Creation “days” are not 24-hour time periods, so God did not “check out,” or take a nap for 24 hours. It is, however, an intentional space in time. It is worth noting that the phrase “there was evening and there was morning” (i.e., Gen 1:5) is NOT included on the seventh day. There is no prescribed time-period of resting.
  2. God did not lie on the couch and watch television on the seventh day. God never “rests” in the sense of not doing anything. His rule, his sovereignty is always active. He is never asleep, as was the case for some of the gods in other ancient cultures.
  3. The theology of rest is tied to the theology of work. Rest is the climax to God’s “work” of creation, including the unique appointment by God to human beings to “rule” over the God-created world (Gen 1:26). He delegates work to us.
  4. That is, “work” is tied to the human kingship and rule over all creation, to “subdue” and have “dominion” over what God has given to us (Gen 1:28-30; 2:15). It is our job to care for all creation, which is, in God’s opinion, “very good” (Gen 1:31).
  5. On the seventh day, God ceased one activity – that of creating – and started another, which was to sustain and support what he had created (including humanity). The “builder” became the “administrator.”

The seventh day is “holy,” meaning it is “separated” from the day-to-day habit of work. The word “sabbath” comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat,” translated “rest.” For the ancient Israelites, shabbat created a “rhythm” for a liturgical life (worship, fasting and feasting) and an intentional day to be in communion with Yahweh. It was designed to benefit God’s people, to distinguish them, and to “separate” them from the pagan cultures around them. The Lord said, “I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy” (Ezek 20:12).

Thus, we have what is called a “creation ordinance” concerning human work and rest. It is a directive to establish an intentional time and place for everything. We have a mandate to work (Gen 2:15), and then God gave us a reprieve from our work. God’s rhythm of creation sets the tone (and example) of our cycle of work and our rest. Work is assumed all the time; but, rest is a change of focus. It is a blessing, as we seek balance and precedence in our lives and in our week.

Jesus knew that the Pharisees and Jewish leaders misused the Sabbath in his culture to control ordinary people and to increase their own power (see, for example, Luke 13:10-17). Jesus did his own kind of “work” on the Sabbath: he showed mercy, he healed and taught; he did “good and saved a life” (Lk 6:1-9), and “worked” at loving others. Of course, Jesus did this on other days besides the Sabbath, but he transformed their prohibitions and “laws” about the Sabbath from duty to blessing, from condemnation to “doing good” (Matt 12:12). It is time, indeed, that many of us learn to change our ideas of “rest,” and follow in the Master’s footsteps.

Rest is not a cessation of our service to others and our devotion to God, but an intensification of them. We can “rest” anytime we want, but it is imperative that we do it, and do it on a regular basis, putting our devotion to the Lord over our devotion to anything else.

I like the idea of “rhythm” in our work and in our rest, and I want to explore this in greater depth with you in the future.

Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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