3 Reasons to Practice Sabbath Rest

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Work and rest are not opposing forces, but elements of a rhythm that make good work and true recreation possible. If you’re trying to establish healthy rhythms for your life, here are 3 reasons to try practicing Sabbath rest.

1) We are designed to rest.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. - Genesis 1:27

God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. - Genesis 2:3

Since we are created in God’s image, we are to obey limits in our work. Did God rest because he was exhausted, or did he rest to offer us image-bearers a model cycle of work and rest? The fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us that God’s rest is meant as an example for us to follow.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. - Exodus 20:8-11

2) Sabbath is a form of worship.

When we stop our work on whatever is our seventh day, we acknowledge that our life is not defined only by work or productivity. Author Walter Brueggemann put it this way:

"Sabbath provides a visible testimony that God is at the center of life—that human production and consumption take place in a world ordered, blessed, and restrained by the God of all creation."[1]

In a sense, we renounce some part of our autonomy, embracing our dependence on God our Creator. Otherwise, we live with the illusion that life is completely under human control. Part of making Sabbath a regular part of our work life acknowledges that God is at the center of life. In addition, the Sabbath rest comes down to an act of trust. To observe it, we must dare to trust God to provide for our needs, rather than working all-out to provide for them ourselves. This can be difficult—both for those who struggle with the prospect of not having enough and for those who struggle with the peril of not recognizing what is enough. Learning to trust God for our provision is an ongoing challenge, particularly if we are prone to compulsive work habits. Gordon MacDonald, a U.S. pastor, observes of his culture:

The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest.[2]

The Sabbath rest is a regular repudiation of the covetousness for more. It is a statement to ourselves that there are other things in life besides producing and consuming. And that there is more to our identity than what we do or what we produce. We are not the sum total of our bank accounts, nor of the work or responsibilities we carry. Of course, compulsive work habits are not limited to those who struggle with affluent culture. They are also a temptation for those who struggle to simply provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families. Sabbath is a reminder that ultimately life depends not on our hard graft, but on God’s provision and grace. This is a hard lesson to learn, and it usually takes trial and error for us to really get it, as Israel discovered when depending on God’s provision of manna in the desert (Exodus 16:1-36).

3) Sabbath is meant for our good.

Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. - Mark 2:27

While religious people over the centuries tended to pile up regulations defining what constituted keeping the Sabbath, Jesus said clearly that God made the Sabbath for us–for our benefit. What are we to learn from this?

In Luke 6:1-5, it is the Sabbath, and Jesus and his disciples are hungry. They pluck heads of grain in a field, rub them in their hands, and eat the kernels. Some Pharisees complain that this constitutes threshing and is therefore working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds that David and his companions also broke the sacred rules when they were hungry, entering the house of God and eating the consecrated bread that only priests were allowed to eat. We might imagine that the connection between these two episodes is hunger. When you are hungry it is permissible to work to feed yourself, even if it means working on the Sabbath. But Jesus draws a somewhat different conclusion. “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5).

Other healings Jesus performs on the Sabbath are described in Luke 6:9 and 14:5. Nonetheless, it would be hard to piece together a theology of the Sabbath from only the events in Luke. But we can observe that Jesus anchors his understanding of the Sabbath in the needs of people. Human needs come before keeping the Sabbath, even though keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet by meeting human needs on the Sabbath, the commandment is fulfilled, not abolished. The healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath provides a particularly rich example of this. “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” the indignant synagogue ruler chides the crowd. “Come on those days and be cured and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). Jesus’ reply begins with the law. If people water their animals on the Sabbath, as was lawful, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). This suggests that keeping the Sabbath is grounded in understanding God’s heart, rather than developing increasingly detailed rules and exceptions.

How will you celebrate the Sabbath this week?

Excerpts for this article are from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary, which is available for purchase in print and for free online:

[1] Walter Brueggemann, "Sabbath," Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 180.

[2] Gordon MacDonald, “Rest Stops” in Life at Work Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4.