Enjoying God's gift of rest

If we had lived only a few hundred years or so ago, we would have probably accepted the common view that Sunday was to be held as a Sabbath. The word comes from the Old Testament and means “rest.” Sunday would have entailed ceasing from most work and other activity in order to gather with God’s people at church (twice), devote the day to deepening our faith and that of our families, and give time to serving the needy. The rise of secularism has almost totally eroded these convictions, not least because many Christians are required to work on Sundays, and all sorts of activities can only be entered into on that day too.

This has led to a re-evaluation of what exactly scripture teaches in order to ask what is actually required of Christians on Sundays, and whether we are wrong to make this day pretty much like any other.

My own conviction is that this re-evaluation has been healthy and has highlighted an unhelpful legalism in how Sundays were regarded. Having said that, as is so often the case, there is a danger that the pendulum swings too far, and we forget the principles that led the church to act as it did and that are for our benefit.

This paper is intended to help you consider the issues so that we can frame our lives in our secular world in such a way that more fully honour God.
The creation
There were two stages to the development of the Sabbath in the Old Testament. The first is recorded in Genesis 2v2-3. God worked for six days, creating, subduing and filling the cosmos. He then rested on the seventh day and set it apart as “holy,” which means especially devoted to him.

We also learn that he commissioned humanity in Eden to image him by filling and subduing the earth. The sense is that the work of every human being should be patterned on his. In other words, we should take one day in seven to rest and enjoy the creation in such a way that we are appreciating God as our creator and our ultimate destiny of sharing his rest in paradise.

The law
The second stage was the fourth of the Ten Commandments and how it was applied in Israel (Ex 20v8-11). This refers back to the creation but is more prescriptive. It was a joyful occasion devoted to delighting in the Lord, remembering his deliverance of Israel from slavery and his gift of rest in the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, because of Israel’s tendency to sin and so failure to devote the day to the Lord, it required a rigid rest that did not allow buying or selling, or even domestic chores such as preparing food. It also required that God’s people gather for worship.

The New Testament
Both Jesus and the apostles affirm the creation account and humanity made in God’s image as foundational for Christian living. On this basis, we can see that pattern of work and rest that is based on creation and images God still applies.

Their understanding of the law is most clearly seen in Matthew 5-7 and from Galatians and Hebrews. We learn that the Christian is not under the law as Israel were (Rom 6v14). The fuller work of the Holy Spirit in writing God’s law on our hearts (Heb 10v16) means that such rigid regulations are no longer needed to ensure we honour the Lord. We obey him not because we have to in the legal sense but because we now want to as mature children. We therefore do so not out of fear but out of love for him and for others. It is this “want” and “love” that are the marks of true faith and the signs of the Spirit’s work.

With respect to the Sabbath then, we should note its principles of ensuring others have a day off, and that the Israelite would so devote their time to God that they use their rest day to gather for worship and celebrate all they have been given as a foretaste of the world to come (Heb 4v1-11). It is true that such things are not legally required of the Christian, but an understanding of our new hearts suggests that we would still want to match them.

The Sabbath in the New Testament
Interestingly, the New Testament’s teaching on the Sabbath leans towards just this. Paul in particular states that observing the Jewish Sabbath is no longer required, implying that its legal requirements are not either. Indeed, he stresses that keeping a specific day entirely devoted to the Lord is a matter of freedom for Christians as every day is in some sense for him (Rom 14v5-9, Col 2v16-17).

So the time for keeping the law as a system has passed. But the need to apply its principles remains. And so we see the apostles do two things. First, they go beyond the Sabbath. The principle of devoting time to the Lord is affirmed as something can be done every day, and even a daily meeting with God’s people is displayed (Acts 2v46). This is no doubt affirmed by Jesus’ own call to people to come to him and enjoy “rest” (Matt 11v28-29). In him, we constantly enjoy a delight in God and his people that frees us in some sense from the toilsome nature of life this side of heaven. Second, the apostles uphold the pattern of the Sabbath. Sunday, the first day of the week, is recognized as the day for the main church gathering (Acts 20v7, 1 Cor 16v2). And Sunday is almost certainly what the whole church in John’s day knew as “the day of the LORD” (Rev 1v10). The language here is significant in echoing the commandment that Israel’s Saturdays be “to the LORD” (Ex 20v10). As John’s phrase suggests, Sunday is now the day to be seen as belonging to the Lord in a particular way. It was the day of Christ’s resurrection and so of remembering God’s new creation.

This did not mean that the apostles required people to rest on that day. That principle could not be applied anyway, as many would have had to work in Greco-Roman society. So finding other opportunities for rest would need to have been considered. Nevertheless, the apostles did expect the early Christians to want to prioritize their time in order to meet together on Sundays even if it meant meeting through the night and so before work (Acts 20v7-12)! This shows a strong commitment to the Lord’s Day as special. We cannot therefore assume that if the apostles had lived in a more Christianized society that they would not have encouraged people to take a day off on Sundays too.

In short, the picture we have is twofold: First, an abiding call to take one day off in seven to enjoy the creation and remember the creator. Second, a suggestion that although the Mosaic Sabbath no longer binds us, we should want to apply its principles where we can.

Applying this today
For clarity the following are stated as commands, but we have learnt that they should reflect our heart’s desire.

1) Take a day off each week on the pattern of creation.  We are commanded to image God in our work, and just as this requires us to do our bit in subduing and filling the earth, so it requires us to ensure we and any employees have a day off from our usual work-like activity each week to appreciate God’s gift of this world and the coming rest in the next.

We need to hear this in a society that fills every moment with busyness to the detriment of our health and our families. It takes faith to trust that God will enable us to do whatever is necessary in six days. But we are called to trust him, and taking a day off seems to be more a matter of obedience than an option. This really is good news! Rest is a gift from God he wants us to enjoy.

2) If at all possible, have you rest day on Sunday. This is not commanded but it is strongly commended by the apostles and the early church designating Sunday “the day of the Lord.” When one considers its allusion to new creation and the lengths people went to in order to meet on this day, we really should be cautious of having no preference for Sunday as our main day off, nor assume it doesn’t matter which day of the week our main church gathering takes place on.

Meeting on the same day other Christians do creates a habit in our week that makes it easy for us to attend another church if we move, and shows a concern to make it easy for those moving from elsewhere to attend ours. Moreover, taking the whole of that day off enables us to give more than the time of one service to our church family, and enables us to engage in the very aspects of devotion to God in the rest of the day that we rarely have time for otherwise.

It is here that the swing from a rigid Sunday Sabbath has surely gone too far. We may not be required to devote a whole day a week to the things of God, but the renewed heart would surely love to if possible. Nothing is prescribed, but on whatever day we have off, we might give time to Bible study, prayer, praise, teaching our children the faith, visiting someone who is struggling, hosting a church family or simply being with our own. Yet in all this, we must not forget just enjoying God’s creation and reflecting on the creation to come.

As our culture gives two days off a week, we actually have a luxury Israel didn’t have that means that we are able to do necessary chores and extra socializing on one day in order to maximize our use of the other one. Our problem is perhaps that we expect too much time for ourselves and so can resent devoting such a portion to these things.

3) Above all else prioritize time for formal worship with God’s people on Sunday. This is a matter of obedience (Heb 10v24-25). What does it say of our love for God and his people when we allow activities that really are not necessary to prevent us from doing this? And what does it say to our children? If the early Christians forfeited sleep to gather together it would have been inconceivable for them to miss the gathering for the sake of a hobby or because they would not schedule a trip around church. There’s also a challenge here for shift workers to consider declining Sunday shifts if that is possible, even if it means less pay. The Sabbath was always about trusting God to provide through the rest of one’s time. 

It is of course extremely difficult to pull out of hobbies and habits that are already formed and keep us from church. It is especially difficult to gently but firmly encourage our children to do so too. But our love for God, his people and our children’s good, urges us to just this. Do talk to someone for advice and support in this if you need to.

4) Limit other activities even though they are not forbidden. It is not wrong to do chores, play sport, further a hobby, travel or buy something on our day off or on a Sunday. We are not under Old Testament law and are not responsible for others having to work on any particular day unless they are our employees or family members. In fact, these activities are ways of enjoying the things of creation, and the Sabbath never required spending every moment in ‘spiritual exercises.’ God himself continued to sustain the universe on his day of rest!

But we should remember the rigidity of the law was required because human beings do not easily prioritize God. So we might well want to make some personal commitments about what we will and will not do on our day off, so other things do not encroach on our time at church and with the Lord.

5) Maximize the free time you can use to appreciate all God gives and to deepen your relationship with him. This is surely the primary principle of the Sabbath law written on our hearts. It is about more than Sundays. Of course we are called to be industrious for six days of every week and need time for other things too. But we should long to create ‘Sabbath-time’ every day to look to God, as well as viewing our Sunday this way if we can.

6) If you are truly unable to do the above, be sure you are not sinning. In a secular society many Christians are required to work on Sundays and some are not even allowed one day off in seven. Others may be kept from these things by other necessities such as being a full time carer or having to maintain peace with a non-Christians spouse. Now some may be able to come to an agreement with their spouse, decline Sunday shifts or change their job or situation. But those unable to would just want to apply the above principles as best as they are able. Indeed, there are times every Christian will need to do certain things they’d rather not do on Sunday or their day off. We are no longer under the law. Such activity is only sin if arising from sinful motives.

The point throughout is that we should not let the busyness of life keep us from obeying God’s call to rest for a day each week and gather with his people for worship. In our hearts we would also want to make time on our rest day for focusing on the things of the Lord, and keep other things from dominating. More than that, we would prefer to do this all on a Sunday if we can.

We are each responsible before God for what this means in practice for us and our families, and it may be depend on the sort of week we’ve had and the situations we face. But each of us should examine our conscience before God and pray he would give us a greater love and longing for him so that we would carve out more daily and weekly Sabbath-time, and delight in doing so. We, our families, and our church family can only benefit. Indeed, perhaps the reason we often feel we are drowning under the pressures of life is because we so rarely come up for this sort of air.