You’ve been working for as long as you can remember in the hot sun to keep life and limb together, with scarcely any time for leisure and reflection. Then your God comes to you with His omnipotent authority and says…’I don’t want you to have to work so much. I want you to have one day off each week to rest and really enjoy what matters most in life. I promise to meet your needs with just six days of work.’ Would you consider that a cruel burden to be borne or as a gracious gift?
I would like for us to consider together the fourth word that God gave to Israel at Mt. Sinai. Of the Ten Words (Commandments), this commandment receives the longest and most detailed instruction. It is the oldest commandment, going clear back to the creation of the world; and it is the one most often mentioned in the Old Testament and the one most frequently violated. This is surprising, since of all the commandments this one sounds more like a gift than a command. A gift so simple, yet so profound that few understand it, and even fewer receive it. It is the gift of rest. If we could truly lay hold of just one commandment that would radically alter our spiritual life, this is the one. At a time when Israel had hit rock bottom and lay bleeding in the gutter of her exile, Isaiah boldly promised that it she would just step ‘one foot’ into this commandment, it would catapult her into the Messianic age, with untold healing: “If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure, and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14). Whether its an overworked engineer, an overburdened mother, an anxious young adult, or a frazzled teenager…many people today feel that a day of complete rest is a luxury they cannot afford. Yet almost everyone would say ‘rest’ is his or her greatest need. No one seems to master it, however. It was not long ago my wife Christie said to me – ‘You never take a complete day off.’ So you can rest assured that I’m not going to make any of you feel guilty by my example, but I earnestly desire that to CHANGE! I would like you to allow God to stir our imaginations together, to see what Sabbath rest was intended to be like in Israel, and for us today as the Body of Christ.
The Sabbath is a celebration. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” The Sabbath celebrates the Creator. The command to ‘remember’ the day does not just mean the mental process of remembering, but to re-enact something in the past so that its significance is felt in the present. A celebration is – ‘the action of making known one’s pleasure at an important event, by engaging in enjoyable activity.’ This commandment gives Israel the awesome privilege each week of re-enacting the role the Creator at the climatic moment when He had perfected His creation and rested from all His work. This was the seventh day of creation. The word Sabbath – ‘shabat’ – means: to stop – to cease from work – to pause – to rest – to interrupt. Israel is to remember to have a rest day, a day off. Rest conveys not the thought of idleness, but rather peacefulness accompanied with the joy and satisfaction that comes from a completed work.
Why did God rest? It wasn’t because He was exhausted and in dire need of a break, but rather because His work was complete, finished, perfected. There was nothing He needed to add to it, because it was done! When God rested, it means He was satisfied that His work of creation was complete and was ‘very good’. His rest means that He wanted to now stand back as it were in leisure and savour the beauty and completeness of His creative work. As the heavens and earth were now complete, it was only appropriate for God to take time to rejoice in their beauty, to sing in their splendour, and to revel in their complexity, coherence, and diversity – even the sheer enjoyment of a finished task! So God took a whole day off to celebrate and glory in the completed product. He then blessed the day filling it with life and fertility. Finally He set it apart as holy, endowing it with all that is eternal. This act was God’s finishing touch to the creation that would infuse the entire creation with the eternal rhythm of working and resting. By divine invitation, man is asked to join the Creator in the dance. There is one significant difference however. While God worked six days and rested on the seventh, man’s first day on earth was not a work day, but a holy-day! Adam’s first task as a human being was not work but celebration! Not doing but seeing! Not planning but enjoying with God all He had done for Him before He ever arrived on the stage. This is a powerful clue that the fulfilment of our humanity is found in appreciation. Our value is not found in what we produce or what we do, but in receiving the gifts God has created for us to enjoy.
Weekly we are reminded that we contribute nothing to usher in the rain from heaven’s doors, the rising of the dew from the earth, sunlight for warmth and light, fragrance and colour of the rose, or breath-taking splendour of the sun setting over the Torquay surf. Appreciation for these gifts is what makes us profoundly human. Life is a gift, a banquet table teeming with bounty, beauty, and fertility! The Sabbath was made for the joyous celebration of our Creator’s divine grace! Later in Exodus 23:12 and 31:17 we read – ‘It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labour, and was refreshed.’ Refresh means – ‘to take a breath.’ The word is used of David who refreshed himself at the end of his weary travels. Picture a climber having scaled to the top of a mountain, he finds a place to rest and revel in the joy and satisfaction of completing the climb, reflecting on the beauty of everything below.
Maybe it’s time we learn to ‘breathe’ in a whole new way. We’ll pursue this further soon.