“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
What a wonderful promise our Lord gives — rest as response to life’s demands. The continuity of God’s character is boldly declared, emphasizing an essential weekly rhythm established at Creation (Genesis 2:2–3). An Old Testament prescriptive pace becomes solidified in New Testament promise. The first book of the New Testament mirrors the first book of the Old Testament.
What is God’s message to us through this continuity? How can this link more deeply illuminate both God’s nature and humanity’s need? A mixture of curiosity and conviction prompted me to thoroughly investigate questions such as these in light of the 169 Sabbath references interwoven into 23 books of the Bible. I discovered personal and corporate implications that have forever deepened my understanding of God, the church and the Christian life. Below are three that strike me as essential as well as some of the questions that accompany each one.
Sabbath and Society
Implicit in a weekly Sabbath lifestyle is covenantal, communal care.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8–11)
Sabbath is not about me; it’s about we. The fourth commandment could not make this truth any clearer. It empowered people who had known nothing but hard labor for generations in Egypt. As Israel is re-established as God’s people, their weekly rhythm was to mirror God’s own example at Creation. In this way, time becomes a testimony that knows no generational, ethnic or gender bounds. Parents and children, men and women, slaves and free, natives and foreigners declare the character of God through weekly rest. This communal call of peacefulness comes to a people whose value had been defined by the pace of unrelenting work. What does this requirement say about the type of society God desires to create? How is the inclusion of the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments intended to inform our life together in Christ? How do my Sabbath practices invite others to rest?
Sabbath and Salvation
Lest we dismiss Sabbath as an Old Testament ritual of pre-Christ faith, we look to Jesus’ ultimate purpose for living as recorded in the book of Mark to emphasize the link between Sabbath and salvation. Mark 15:42–16:1 highlights this pivotal point in history (emphasis mine).
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea … went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. … When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices so that they might go anoint Jesus’ body.
Did you catch Sabbath’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion? Of all the times in history when God could have used a divine trump card in relation to the command for weekly rest, surely implementation day for the plan of salvation could have been the time. But, no, even the timing of Jesus’ death and resurrection remained in submission to Sabbath’s intended rhythm. As a result, both Jesus’ followers and Jesus’ earthly body rested. It was a mournful, confusing Sabbath day for the disciples, but it remained Sabbath nonetheless. The ultimate plan to save the world submitted to the fourth commandment.
This reality gives me pause. How is a commitment to Sabbath rest meant to point us to God’s salvation today, as it did that first Easter?
Sabbath and Sanctification
The most profound and oft-repeated lesson pertaining to Sabbath is its link to a holy lifestyle. From the establishment of a long-enslaved nation as God’s people (Exodus 16; 20:8–11; 31:13–16) to the proclamation of Jesus as the Great High Priest (Hebrew 4), the character of our holy God has been intertwined in the Creation gift of Sabbath rest. Somehow, in choosing to live obedient lives that honor a Sabbath rhythm, our days and priorities will not only testify to our absolute need for God, but also our utter dependence on God’s rightful role as Lord of our time, talents, and treasures. Only in faithfully adhering to God’s weekly design can I fully recognize this relationship between my own humanity and Christ’s Lordship over my life.
Mark Buchanan, author of “The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath,” further solidifies this important interrelationship:
“Sabbath is time sanctified, time betrothed, time we perceive and receive and approach differently from all other time. … We are more intimate with it. We are more thankful for it. We are more protective of it and generous with it. We become more ourselves in the presence of Sabbath: more vulnerable, less afraid. More ready to confess, to be silent, to be small, to be valiant. There is no day in all creation that can banish our aloneness, even while meeting us in it, like this day.”
What’s at Stake
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). These words are more than a promise; they are a proclamation! As a command with societal scope ingrained in the plan of salvation and into the fabric of holy living, Jesus’ instruction makes it essential for us to recognize how much is at stake in relation to our Sabbath adherence.
What is winsome or attractive about a church that lives at the same breakneck speed as the surrounding culture? How might faithful adherence to a Sabbath lifestyle impact the global church’s evangelistic mission? In what ways could a biblically balanced Christian lifestyle give witness to the lordship of Christ in our lives, neighborhoods and world? Questions of this magnitude are answered by the way in which we steward this sacred trust.
Joy M.O. Ireland resides in Wilmore, Kentucky, and is a Free Methodist elder in the New South Conference. She has lived — and continues to learn from — a committed Sabbath lifestyle for the last 18 years.0