A Biblical Theology of Rest
by Robert J. Young

Here we are at another Labor Day weekend. What is the biblical attitude toward work and leisure? There is work, there is leisure. Both are part of life. How are they part of our world? What part do they play? What is God's plan?
Ancient world made clear separation. Work was for slaves and women. Leisure was the essence of a free man's life. The distinction was haves and have nots, exalted and abased, high and low. But the Bible (OT) comes demanding leisure (Sabbath, rest) for all. Revolutionary! The distinction is scrapped. God wishes every man to have work, and to have Sabbath.
History helps. In Eden, Adam worked to cultivate the ground as part of God's original plan, even before the fall. Work is not to be identified solely with this fallen world and the disorder of sin. At Babel, work was to exalt self. Perhaps to overcome insecurity. While work provided sustenance, the Sabbath and provision of manna in the Exodus disconnected sufficiently to make clear that the ultimate source of provision is God. The fruits of our work are grace. We pray for daily bread. We miss the biblical understanding of rest/Sabbath, and it shows in our world.
Schaeffer writes of the false tyranny of conscience, self demanding more than God. There is today when one tries to understand this tension a tyranny of culture, with false guilt, hostility from other Christians, and discomfort with our own self-awareness. We tend to point to Luke 10:38ff, and to ignore a host of other Scriptures.

I. Understanding the place of work depends on our understanding of God.
In many religious systems, the gods were those who enjoyed sacred leisure, with men created as beings of work. This is not the Christian understanding. We are image of God people, as well as biological/earthly beings. God is not a selfish celestial who gets what he wants or needs as a result of our efforts. Man is not the cosmic slave labor that makes all work, for the God of Scripture is self-dependent and self-existent. If men are to enjoy both work and leisure, we are not mere slave laborers and we are in fact more like God.
Israel's Egypt experience was preparation for this commandment.

II. Understanding the place of work depends on our understanding of life.
Our contemporary culture: increased leisure time, earlier closing times, weekend is Saturday and Sunday, for some weekend begins about noon on Friday, lengthening vacation time, low cost tours and excursions.
To try to understand the biblical rhythm of work and rest, the tension of work time and leisure time, flies in face of society's standards and hopes. Utopia is defined as "no work." Retirement is not ceasing one activity in favor of another, but in favor of nothing. There is divine intention that underlies the idea of Sabbathing, resting, and that is the sanctification of both labor and leisure.
Leisure is not all that desirable for many because it threatens life with boredom and loneliness. Kids are ready for summer vacation to end, school to begin. Boring. We escape the threats of leisure with hobbies that become servile labor, lack of communication within the family, drivenness in sports, or other leisure activities, or we become addicted travelers. Others settle for the dreariness of TV, fast food meals, and extra sleep. Then we come to the end of our free time, worn out , unhappy, and not sure of life. We look forward to going back to work, but think we should not, because of our culture.
How can we consecrate leisure? The OT command, keep your leisure holy. Consecrate it, sanctify it. Remove leisure from the sphere of the normal, profane, and place it in relationship to God. This kind of free time is liberating, brings genuine rest, enables self awareness, helps us be ourselves, but only if it culminates in sacred celebration and contact with God, the essence of tranquility and blessed festivity and festal fellowship. This clearly speaks to that which mankind must honor in the resting.
Eccl. 2:17ff has been misunderstood. We should restudy Ecclesiastes to rethink the source of life's meaning. We must avoid the secularized Sabbathing. We can do so by understanding the genuine meaning of life.

III. Understanding the place of work requires the rhythm of Sabbath and work.
What is the relationship between labor and leisure? Eugene Peterson describes it well in "Working the Angles." The rhythm of evening and morning.
This is no antithesis, no power struggle, no opposing concepts. This is not the dog chasing its tail. We must somehow overcome working for leisure and leisure to gain the strength to work. We must find a deeper meaning in life. It is in worship that we relate ourselves to God as the one who gives ultimate meaning and security.
Perhaps some of the answer is in Gen. 1-2 where God labors in creation and then rests. The transcendent God is utterly beyond the work/leisure tension, or perhaps more accurately, he has a share in both. Man in God's image requires a different understanding that the traditional Protestant work ethic. Evening/morning, part of God's divine plan.
The sixth day is completion, but is not, for all has thus far been work. God stands in relationship as one who works and as one who rests. God engages, then distances. God gives of self, then retires within self. Jesus exists in the tension of the mountain and the marketplace. God demonstrates a unified tension between labor and leisure.
The alienated work (Lohfink's phrase) of Egypt was more than adequate preparation for Israel's understanding of the need for rest. Ex. 1:13ff is genuine slave labor, compulsion, heavy, bitter. This is the reason for the cry to God, and God hears and rescues, he delivers, not to cease all work, but to reestablish the proper tension.
During the Exodus, their work was gathering up manna, but in the established Sabbath was discovered the bounty of the earth and the gracious gifting and provision of God. Their work was different, they were simply gathering what was offered. Sabbath was revealed in worship, the reminder of the sacredness of life. Because of the experiences of life, therefore we worship.
Genuine worship requires the encounter of both worlds. There is encounter between the mundane and the celestial.

Finally, there is in the NT a continuing designated resting with spiritual foundations, but this earthly experience points to the ultimate Sabbath rest of the people of God.
The weekly rest and worship opportunity does not depend upon the designation of a day in which the world stops. God's plan for rest is in the daily rhythms of life, daily down time, worship, quiet time, and in the longer weekly timeframe, a time to assemble, worship, despite the challenges raised by first century culture.
Finally, however, the unified tension of leisure and work will be experienced in heaven, which will not be a time in which we all quit working, but in which the tension is perfected.
Heb. 4 is declaring that because Jesus is greater than Joshua, our rest will be greater than their rest. Amidst the daily rhythms of life, the genuine rest is other worldly, not in a physical Promised Land but in an eternal Promised Land, with type and antitype clearly in view.

Make every effort to enter that rest!

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Last updated October 1, 2002.