The concept of Sabbath rest is arguably a major theme throughout Scripture, particularly the Old Testament. There is a rich imagery associated with this concept underlying much of the New Testament as well. Understanding the critical role that the idea of Sabbath rest played in the Old Testament is important if we are going to understand how it fits into our Christian lives today. We also have to understand the misconceptions that have grown up around this idea of rest in the Christian community. Only then can we understand Jesus’ teaching on the subject.
Sabbath in the Old Testament: A Brief Synopsis
- Creation: God rested on the seventh day and he invited his creation to rest with him.
- Law: The Sabbath is given as a reminder of God’s sovereignty.
- Relational: The presence of God with his people is an assurance of Sabbath rest
- Physical: The entrance to the promised land is pictured as entering into God’s rest.
- Broken: Mankind is constantly losing their place of rest before God.
- Promised: One of the signs of the Messiah is that he would give his people rest.
- Eternal: Sabbath rest is a crucial element in fulfilling the eternal promises of God.
The Need For Sabbath
How appealing are Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:25-30?
 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children;  yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.  All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  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.”
It sounds so refreshing and yet this is the place where it is incredibly hard for us to get. We are so busy working and playing and making sure everyone knows that we are busy. But Jesus is inviting us to rest. Jesus is inviting us into Sabbath rest. And that invitation is couched in terms that serve to de-center our lives from self and to re-center them on Christ.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew is telling us what the kingdom of heaven is like so that we can tell others. Here, he tells us that the kingdom of heaven is a place of true rest, true Sabbath.
Do you think that’s a message of hope for our time? Do you think that Sabbath rest in Jesus Christ would be good news to share with your neighbor who is running herself ragged with keeping a list of rules in order to please her religious leaders and progress in self-righteousness? Do you think that this idea of coming to Jesus because he isn’t there with a list of rules, but with a humble heart of love would appeal to someone who is concerned with climbing a ladder and not being stepped on along the way?
God paints this picture of Sabbath rest throughout the Bible and intends it to be this wonderful, clear, compelling, enticing, stunning, counter-cultural reality in the life of his people. The rest that he promises, the rest that he gives, should be a cause for celebration in our lives, for praise on our lips.
Too often, though, we have neglected it entirely. We have followed the lead of our culture that measures success by the hours we work, that demands 24/7 engagement with the world through social media. Our minds never shut off anymore. We face a never-ending stream of news content, print, audio, video, paper and digital, headlines and sound bites vying for the prize of being the most disturbing and disrupting to our lives, just so that they can get our attention so they can sell another advertisement. Those advertisements beg, cajole, intimidate, and dare us to buy the product to find the peace we are looking for: this shampoo really could magically transport you to Shangri-la, this soda could really refresh you like the Fountain of Youth. We are in a constant battle inside our own minds, comparing our lives to those of our co-workers, our Facebook friends, and our church family. We come to church to fight for control, to check and make sure the decorations, the lighting, the music, and the sermon are acceptable to our preferences. We paint on smiles and make small talk and all the while we are trampling on the good news that Jesus Christ provides us with rest.
How can we share the good news that Jesus Christ can give us rest if we’ve never taken a moment to avail ourselves of the rest he provides? The world needs to hear of the rest the Jesus offers and we need to learn to live in that same rest. But first, we have to clear up some Christian misunderstandings.
1. Sabbath rest is a moral obligation.
There are denominations and individuals within Christendom who continue to advocate Sabbatarianism (the idea that the Sabbath, as a created institution rather than an Old Covenant statute, is still binding on those who follow Christ). In other words, Christians are as morally obligated to observe a strict Sabbath day as they are to not murder someone. There is certainly an appeal to this position as it seeks to bridge the gap between Old and New Testaments for the believer. Nonetheless, I don’t believe this is an appropriate reading of Scripture and neglects the central role of Christ and his commands in establishing his people’s ethics.
2. Sabbath rest is about personal well-being.
There is another response from Christians that sees Sabbath for the Christian as a largely private enterprise. God ordained the Sabbath, in this view, as a reminder to us that we need margin in our lives. So, as New Covenant people, we are not morally obligated to observe THE Sabbath, but we benefit by observing A Sabbath. Not a specific day, not a specific length of time, but just a reminder from our Father that we need to take time for ourselves, to rest from our labors. While this conception is popular, particularly among American Christians, it fails to give proper weight to the biblical text or, again, to the role of Christ in Scripture.
3. Sabbath rest is an aid to personal righteousness.
Finally, many still think that keeping a Sabbath, whether strict or flexible, serves to help develop personal righteousness. This idea has merit, although it must be carefully caveated. Because too often this approach can benefit us but quickly turn to legalism: Sabbath as a spiritual discipline at best, but, at worst, as showcasing self-righteousness. There can be an immense spiritual benefit in Sabbath rest, but we have to be careful that it does not become an opportunity for pride.
With these misconceptions about the Christian life as it regards the Sabbath, what are we to do? Thankfully, we don’t have to guess.
Jesus Brings Clarity – Matthew 12:1-21
- Sabbath rest is not about keeping specific rules on a specific day, it is about being with Jesus.
 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”  He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:  how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?  Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  And 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.”
The Pharisees were ticked that the disciples were violating their understanding of what keeping the Sabbath meant. Jesus isn’t having it. He clarifies for them, and for us, that keeping the Sabbath isn’t about doing or not doing certain things during certain times; it’s about being in the presence of God. The disciples were free to grab some 1st-century fast food because they were practicing what the Sabbath really meant: they were hanging out with Jesus.
- Sabbath rest is not about personal well-being, it is about seeking others well-being.
 He went on from there and entered their synagogue.  And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him.  He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?  Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.
The Sabbath isn’t a self-serving break from doing good: it’s preparation for doing good. Jesus heals on the Sabbath to model what we ought to use the Sabbath for – an opportunity to serve others. Some days that might mean skipping a shower after work and heading over to help someone pack to move. Other days, it might mean taking a nap so that the next day you can help someone move. If your view of Sabbath rest is wrapped around you, then you’ll resent any intrusion into your special time. But if it’s wrapped around serving others, you’re free to work to serve or you’re free to rest in order to serve another time.
The only thing the Sabbath cannot be is all about you. It’s a vehicle for loving God, loving others, and making disciples, through active participation or passive preparation.
- Sabbath rest is not demonstrating self-righteousness, it is trusting in Christ’s righteousness
 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.  Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all  and ordered them not to make him known.  This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever feel weighed down by the weight of responsibility and work and trying to be perfect? Jesus won’t beat you down, he won’t add to the burden, he calls you to come and be healed, to sit at his feet, to experience the Sabbath rest you were intended to experience. It only happens, though, when you are willing to quit trying to prove your own righteousness and trust in the righteousness of the one Matthew and Isaiah speak of – Jesus Christ.
The Sabbath wasn’t given to be a strict rule, it wasn’t given so you could pamper yourself or display your righteousness. No, the Sabbath was given to point us to Jesus. It is essential that we regain a Christocentric view of the Sabbath as Christians for the sake of our mission – taking the good news of God’s promised rest through the Messiah to the nations by the power of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to experience Sabbath rest? Spend time with Jesus. Serve others in the name of Jesus. Trust in the righteousness of Jesus. And, finally, tell others about Jesus.