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Why We Need Sabbath Rest

By Cheryl Taylor

Cheryl Taylor is the director of the doctor of ministry program at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. She also serves as the vice president for academics at Asia Theological Centre for Evangelism and Missions, an Assemblies of God Bible college in Singapore. She previously served in local church ministry, on the district level, and on the foreign mission field.

We live in a world that operates at breakneck speed, yet God never intended for us to live and minister perpetually in turbo-charge. The relief valve He created is called Sabbath keeping. Throughout Scripture, the importance of keeping the Sabbath Day is emphasized. Practicing the Sabbath was not an option. For Israel, it was mandated, punishable by death (Numbers 15:32-36). But why is keeping the Sabbath so important? And is it really that big of a deal if Christians today fail to keep the Sabbath Day or observe regular sabbath rest?

Old Testament Foundations for Practicing Sabbath Rest

There are two primary scriptural rationales for observing the Sabbath Day. First, in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, the instruction to observe the Sabbath is given with the rationale that God rested on the seventh day. In short, we are to rest because God rested. God blessed the Sabbath, and in so doing, blessed rest. The Hebrew Shabbat means “to cease.” It does not mean “worship,” much less to orchestrate worship services, teach Sunday school classes, lead programs, and attend church committee meetings. God’s example is the only reason we need to rest, according to Exodus 20. Like God, in whose image we are created, we are to cease our work regularly to rest. God, the all-powerful Creator, celebrated the completion of His work by resting, and we are to imitate His example.

Do you feel that ministry is too demanding to allow anyone to take a step back and a day off? If so, at what cost?

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2,3, NIV). It is significant that God “finished his work” by creating menuha or rest which elsewhere in Scripture the word is translated as “happiness, stillness, peace, harmony, and even eternal life.”2 This is a far cry from the busy rush of activity that characterizes many ministers’ lives on Sunday, the “day of rest.” It is further significant that this creation story includes the first use of the word qadosh in Scripture — the word translated as “holy.” The first “holy” thing in the world was not a thing or a place, but time — the Sabbath. So the holiness of the Sabbath precedes any of the typical assignments of “holy” that we tend to make for places or objects. Inherently, Sabbath involves worship of God, for it is to be a holy day.

In Deuteronomy 5:15, we find a second rationale for the Sabbath. Here the justification comes from remembering that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that Yahweh delivered them. So while the first appeal is on the basis of God’s rest, the second is on the basis of God’s action. One is based on His creation, the other His redemption. This Deuteronomy instruction is centered in a vision of a new humanity — a new social reality based on equality and justice for everyone. The practice of Sabbath by the whole community as a blending of physical and spiritual rest enacted a new way of being a community.

New Testament Development of Sabbath Rest

Unfortunately, by the time of Christ the Sabbath had become a heavy burden as Sabbath keeping degenerated by the influence of narrow-minded and legalistic scribes and Pharisees. Entering this context, Jesus was accused of being a Sabbath breaker, but the truth was He was a master Sabbath keeper. You do not have to read very far in the Gospels to see that Jesus condemned the human traditions and reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made as a gift for people, not the other way around (Mark 2:27,28). Jesus installed himself as Lord of the Sabbath or Lord of rest, saying “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). He set the example of how to keep the Sabbath. He often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Even when pressed in on all sides by people and the demands of His public ministry, Jesus recognized His need to regularly withdraw to renew himself (Mark 4:35).

For the Early Church, sabbath rest took on a new dimension in Christ: it included a clear call to assemble with others for worship as part of sabbath practice. This corporate dimension had not been present in the Old Testament, but flowed out of the reality that true rest is not possible apart from worship, and when we consistently worship with others, over time we are formed more into the image God planted in us.

The Book of Hebrews culminates the discussion of sabbath rest. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God (4:9, NIV). The Greek word for rest in Hebrews 4:9 is sabbatismos. (This is the only New Testament occurrence of this word.) The Anchor Bible Dictionary explains that the experience of Sabbath rest points to a present rest reality in which those who have believed are entering (4:3), and it points to a future rest reality (4:11). So the Sabbath as in Sabbath Day retains its Old Covenant meaning that identifies God’s specially sanctified people (“the people of God”) and pointing them back to God as Creator. Added to that is the New Covenant meaning of entering into another Sabbath or sabbath rest through Christ. This spiritual rest begins now in this life and anticipates a complete realization as the community of faith moves forward toward the final consummation of total restoration and rest in the Resurrection to eternal life at the return of Christ (Revelation 20:6).3

Suggestions to Help Ministers Practice Sabbath

Scripture is clear: God desires for His people to regularly experience sabbath rest. What about you? Have you surrendered to the rat race? Do you feel that ministry is too demanding to allow anyone to take a step back and a day off? If so, at what cost? To fail to live by God’s plan, we are likely setting ourselves up for burnout — personally and in ministry.

Jesus has invited us—even exhausted ministers—to take rest seriously.

In the book Aqua Church, author Leonard Sweet perceptively reveals that it’s not so much that we keep the Sabbath; rather, the Sabbath keeps us. It keeps us whole, keeps us sane, and keeps us spiritually alive. Sabbath rest is a two-way channel. For those who labor and are weary, Sabbath-keeping is a reprieve from the constant strain. But the embodiment of Sabbath keeping also creates a place for God to find a “resting place” among His people (2 Chronicles 6:41; Isaiah 66:1). Sabbath-keeping prepares a nesting site for the presence of the life-giving God. It is where we can reflect on what He has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. A spiritual discipline of regular rest from the constant drive to check items off a to-do list can be a powerful symbol of our trust in God’s sufficiency. Sabbath allows the soul time and space to catch up to the body. Sabbath moments add beauty to the soul, goodness to the heart, wisdom to the mind, and truth to the world. Only by experiencing sabbath rest can spiritual leaders hope to keep spiritually fresh while trying to minister effectively.

Unfortunately, for people in ministry, it can be challenging to practice sabbath. For example, corporate worship is, well, work. Focusing on the work sometimes makes it more difficult to worship. While there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy here (i.e., all of life is worship, according to Paul in Romans 12:1,2), we often need some way of pulling out of our place of work for Sabbath to really begin. For many of us who spend a lot of time talking about God, it may mean experiencing the worship that comes with silence and being still, or finding another place and time to worship with others when we’re not responsible for any part of the service. A lot of people in pastoral ministry feel like it’s an absolute must to have sabbath rest on some day other than Sunday. Whether Sunday morning, Monday night, or any other time you pause to worship (and hopefully rest), there’s something powerful about living out sabbath.4

Jesus has invited us — even exhausted ministers — to take rest seriously. In our rest, we can freely worship and set others free to do the same. As spiritual leaders, we must help the church to return to a Sabbath consciousness. The celebration of the goodness of God and of His creation needs no further justification. We are to be imitators of Him. Therefore, we must demonstrate that sabbath rest and leisure are a part of God’s whole plan for His people.

ENDNOTES

1. This is discussed in detail by Brad Griffin in his online article, “R-E-S-T: The Four Letter Word of Youth Ministers?” on Fuller’s Theological Seminary’s Center for Youth & Family Ministry Web site, http://cyfm.net. The two rationales have been adapted from this article.

2. Griffin.

3. Online article “There Remains a Sabbath Rest for the People of God.” United Church of God Web site, http://ucgstp.org.

4. Griffin.