Biblical Theology Articles

The Sabbath Rest

Joshua Ng


Workaholism is an addiction that needs remedy, much like alcoholism. Its symptoms are clear: long hours getting longer, work pri­orities overriding family and church; no time for recreation (what's that?!). Workaholics can't even go on holidays without taking their ball-and-chain mobile phone or laptop. But what is the underlying disease? What drives workaholism?

Is it not the seeking of approval from others, be they peers or the boss? A desire for success, or at least the avoidance of failure. Workaholics are their work. When asked at a party what they do, they answer by who they are: "I'm a doctor", "I'm a lawyer", "I'm an accountant". If work fails, they themselves have failed as people. Their self-­esteem, significance and self-worth are inextricably tied to their work.

Are you a workaholic?

"No", you probably say - denial is common. In Alcoholics Anonymous people often need to be con­vinced by listing out exactly how many drinks they actually have, and calculating the total over a week or even a day. What if you opened your diary, and counted honestly the number of hours you work per week? Is your pattern of life to work or study seven days a week? That is a common marker for worka­holism: the inability to take a day off. There's a good chance your life is about work. It is work that gives you meaning in life.

The Fourth commandment reads:

"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 to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Ex 20:8-11)

The Sabbath command makes it quite clear that there is a pattern of 6 + 1... all work is to be done on the six days, and the seventh is set apart as different, distinct, holy. "Holy" does not mean being dressed up in your Sunday best and sitting in quiet solemnity all day while your pagan friends are out watching movies, playing sport and enjoying themselves. In what sense is the seventh day "holy"? That is, how is it set apart and distinct from the other six days? Answer: no work! It is a 'holy-day'... a 'holiday'.

But isn't it just an Old Testament Law that no longer applies today? Before we dismiss it off-hand­edly like that, we need to see the commandment in the context of both the Old and New Testaments. God's unfolding history from Creation to Heaven needs to be the framework in which we seek to live in obedience to him.

Sabbath rest in the Bible

1. Creation and Eden

Genesis 1 is a highly stylised account of the creation, underlining the movement from chaos to order. Six distinct days arranged in an orderly array, all rounded off by the repetition of the phrase, "And there was evening and there was morning, the ______ day." While mankind may be seen as the apex of the creation - since he is its ruler - he is not the climax of the creation. For the creation account does not end in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 2. The climax of creation' is not man, but the seventh day! Indeed, the seventh day is not only the end of the week, but the end goal of creation. The seventh day is what the whole thing was heading towards. This created world is not the be all and end all of everything, but rather the final' purpose is God's rest itself (Gen 2:1-3). As the Fourth commandment had quoted, God Messed the seventh day and made it holy. It was a day of blessing, goodness, enjoyment... rest! As they say in the land of the long weekend, "You've got it made!"

Moreover, this day of rest does not end. For there is no eighth day of creation. Indeed, while each of Days 1 -6 concludes with "And there was evening and there was morning", no such phrase is found for Day 7. In other words, the day of God's rest continues. And it is not just for God, but He leaves his rest open for mankind to enter and share. Adam and Eve shared in that seventh day blessing in the Garden of Eden. And so Genesis 2 goes on to describe that sharing in the blessings of God's rest trees that are good for food and pleasing to the eyes, the centre of riches and gold, and the relationship of harmony and unity between man and wife, nakedness without shame. It is a picture of heaven itself, walking with God in the cool of the day. It is not a negative picture of restriction nor oppression, but joy and blessing in the company of each other and the abundantly generous Creator.

2. Fall

But the Fall of mankind in Genesis 3 spoiled all that. We rejected God's goodness and wisdom and thought we could decide what's best for ourselves without Him. God's rightful punishment on us was to banish us from Eden, ejected from God's rest. God's rest was still there, but mankind had lost his share of it, barred from re-entry by the flaming sword.

3. Salvation and exodus

Nevertheless, God continued to seek mankind out through Noah, and through Abraham, through' whom God's blessing would one day come to all nations. Then came the Exodus of Abrahams descendants via Moses. It is in this context that the Ten Commandments come, but even before they got to Mount Sinai, God had already taught them about the Sabbath rest. Manna was provided to them daily. They were not to distrust God's provision by col­lecting more than their daily need and storing it overnight. The exception was the sixth day, when they could collect twice the amount so that they would not have to do the work of gathering on the seventh (Ex 16). It was a weekly reminder that God was their provider all the way to the promised land.

4. Mosaic covenant

The Ten commandments then formally instituted the day of Sabbath rest, to be kept always especially when they arrived in the promised land. They were to down tools on the Sabbath, even during the busiest and most crucial agricultural periods, namely, sowing and har­vest time (Ex 34:21). The positive nature of rest remained the thrust of the Sabbath legislations; it was to provide refreshment for the Israelites ... even for their oxen (Ex 23:12).

To break the Sabbath, however, was a serious offence, carrying the death sentence (Ex 31:12-17). The Sabbath was for the Israelites a sign of God's covenant with them; to break the Sabbath was far more than merely foregoing the refreshment of rest, it was tan­tamount to outright rejection of Yahweh as their sov­ereign, much like an American setting the "Stars and Stripes" alight!

In the second giving of the Law 40 years later, at the verge of entry into the promised land, the Sabbath requirement is reiterated. However, the reason given seems different. Israel was to remember not so much God's rest from creating in Genesis, but God's deliverance of them out of slavery in Egypt (Deut 5:12-15). Redemption, even more than creation, seems to be the underlying rationale. However, as we shall now see, they are not two unre­lated reasons, but essentially one, because of the nature of the promised land.

5. Promised land and heaven

Canaan was viewed as the land of rest. It will be the Israelites' resting place, their inheritance where they will live in security, having rest from all their enemies (Deut 12:8-10; Ps 92). It will be a second Eden, a prosperous land where they will enjoy the blessing of ­peace and joy, being in the presence of God and his people (Isa 51:3; Ezk 36:35). Just as the goal of the six days of creation was the rest on the seventh day (Eden), so the goal of the Exodus redemption is the rest in the promised land (i.e. the second Eden). One is but a reflection of the other. In essence then, the ­rationale for the Sabbath command is the same, be it Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. Be it the initial work of creation from chaos, or the recreation in the redemption from Egypt, God's ultimate goal was that his people might share in his rest - that is the funda­mental reason for resting on the seventh day. Indeed, the argument of Hebrews 3-4 flows out of ­this understanding. The writer of Hebrews concludes that Canaan was not the real rest that God foreshadowed in Genesis 2. The ultimate fulfilment of sharing in God's rest lay yet in the future, not only for the people of King David's day, but our day as well. For the final Sabbath rest that all believers look forward to is the promised land of heaven itself (Heb 3-4). But we have jumped ahead: what about Jesus' view of God's rest?

6. Pharisees and Jesus

Jesus arrived as a Jew when Israel was under the : judgement of God. Although the nation had: returned to Palestine from the punishment of the : Babylonian exile, they were still in 'spiritual exile', ­awaiting yet another new exodus when God would: ultimately bring them into the promised land (Mk 1:1-3). After all, they were still under the foreign occupation of Caesar. There was no "rest from the enemies" in that! Hence, the longing for God's kingdom ­to arrive.

The Pharisees sought to usher in the kingdom by fanatical obedience to the Law of Moses, including the Fourth commandment. If all Jews could keep God's commands, then the Messiah would come and give them rest from their enemies, the Gentiles. The Pharisees minimised obedience to God's commands by making more rules. And so they sought to define what was "rest" on the Sabbath, and what still classi­fied as "work". For example, to carry something outside of your house was considered work, but if you handed it out through the window to someone, and they carried it away, then it wasn't work! No wonder they lost focus of the Sabbath as enjoyment!, Eden, salvation, milk and honey in the promised land, rest! Here then, was the source of the conflict between Jesus and the legalistic Pharisees over the Sabbath.

The Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Fourth commandment because he was plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28). But Jesus wasn't a farmer, nor was he harvesting - he was just having a 'drive-thru' snack! Jesus gets to the essence of the matter, that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." It is for our benefit, and ought not to function as a restrictive matrix of rules that we must fit into like a contortionist. When despised because he was about to heal a man's withered hand on the Sabbath (that would constitute "work"), Jesus rebutted, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" Again the positive benefit of the Sabbath rest is underlined. The Pharisees then showed their hypocrisy by plotting to kill Jesus...and that on the Sabbath, too! (Mark 3:1-6.)

On other occasions, Jesus points to their own inconsistency in caring for an ox on the Sabbath, but forbidding Jesus to do good for a human (see Matt 12:11-12; Lk 13:10-17; Jn 7:21-24.) It was the Pharisees who were in the wrong, not Jesus. Jesus never broke the Fourth commandment, nor did he speak against it. He sought to rescue it from the Pharisaic legalistic distortion, and to bring it back to its intended focus. Indeed, their legalistic teaching was the very burden from which Jesus had come to give us rest (Matt 11:28-30; cf. Matt 23:4). More pointedly, he is the ulti­mate focus of the Sabbath, for he, the Son of Man, is the Lord of the Sabbath in whom we will find rest for our souls (Mk 2:28; Matt 11:29).

7. Jesus and heaven

And so it should come as no surprise that in the opening chapters of Hebrews, Jesus as man is Lord, not only of this creation, but of the world to come. He leads many sons to the glory of heaven by pioneering the way (Heb 2:5-10). He is the greater Moses who leads us to our heavenly hope, the promised rest of which Eden and Canaan were only shadows. And in what sense will heaven be our sharing in God's rest? It will be Eden revisited, indeed even better... beyond Eden! For not only will there be no more pain and sorrow and death, there will be no possibility of it ever again (Rev 21-22). Moreover, we will have rest from our labour, including our struggle to remain faithful in the face of persecution, the daily struggle with the sin that so easily entangles, and the hardships that come as God's discipline (Rev 14:12-13; Heb 12:1-13). We must fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer who has gone into heaven before us, and never harden our hearts, lest we never enter God's rest. For in the future, "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).

Sabbath rest today

But what about a Sabbath rest for the people of God now? Some take Hebrews 4:9 to be commanding Christians now to take a day off each week. But that simply will not stand the scrutiny of good exegesis. The Sabbath rest spoken of in Hebrews is not about taking a rest now, but persevering faithfully as Christians towards the rest then. Indeed, if the former were true, why not insist that it must be on the Saturday and not the Sunday (or even more precisely: sundown Friday to sundown Saturday!). We need more finesse in sorting out how to apply the Sabbath command to us today, a finesse that sees where we fit now in the framework of the Bible's progressive revelation of the Sabbath rest as outlined above. For we are no longer under the Mosaic Law but under Christ's law (1 Cor 9:20-21). We do not obey the fourth commandment as Old Covenant Jews, but we need to apply it to ourselves as those who live with Jesus as our Lord, realising that he is taking us to our heavenly rest, whilst we still live in this creation. How then are we to apply the Sabbath rest today?

1. Avoid legalism

Firstly, we must not obey the Sabbath command in order to be right with God, or even to think we can get to a higher state of spirituality as a result. This was the context in which Paul argued against suc­cumbing to Jewish legalistic judgements, such as "a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day". Christ is the reality who has come and fulfilled them all. Some Seventh Day Adventists (not all) keep the Sabbath in order to win their way to God. This is sadly heretical, as with any teaching that sees our obedience as good works that win God's favour. Another implication of Jesus fulfilling the Sabbath is that it no longer functions as a covenantal sign of our belonging to God's people, as it was for the Jews in the Old Testament. Breaking the Sabbath therefore is no longer a capital offence (phew).

Secondly, there is the legalism of thinking that the only way to please God with regard to this command­ment is to keep it on Saturday (thus, many Seventh Day Adventists). While not heretical, it is having an uninformed and weak conscience. For Paul in Romans 14:1-6 argues that it is the weak Christian who thinks that any particular day is special.

Thirdly, there is the legalism of avoiding taking a whole day of rest by counting up a morning here, a few hours there throughout the week, in order to add up to 24 hours per week. Some have even suggested that three nights of 8 hour sleeps equals a Sabbath rest! Such legalism still fails to see the benefit of having a day of rest per week.

Fourthly, there is the legalism of equating the Sabbath to a "No Fun" day. Some of us remember as kids having to wear our Sunday best, sitting through boring church services, no TV, no sport, repression and restriction. It hardly evokes the joy of the Garden of Eden!

Finally, we must avoid the legalism of the Pharisees who tried to define for everybody else what constituted work and what didn't. We all know what is "work" for us and what isn't. Whatever you consider as work for yourself, don't do it a day a week. Work need not be paid employment. Work may sometimes be enjoyable for you... but it's still work. Don't be legalistic - have a break!

2. Living in this creation

The motivation given in Exodus 20 for why the Israelites were to rest was because it was following the pattern of the LORD himself, when he created the world. God was a worker in Genesis 1. But not only was he a worker, he was also a "rest-er" in Genesis 2:1-3. This basis for the fourth commandment is cru­cial. While the commandment is given in the spe­cific situation of the Israelites being rescued from Egypt, and delineating how they were to live in Canaan, nevertheless, the rationale for the command, is rooted in God himself. He worked six days and rested one. We are to follow his example. More pointedly, the fourth commandment is rooted in Creation itself. We may not live as Israelites under the Mosaic covenant, but we still live in God's creation. God's pattern of work and rest in Genesis is still relevant and applicable to us.

Furthermore, I argue that the pattern of work for' six days followed by a day of rest is built into us as workers in God's creation. Adam was created to be like God, as a worker ruling responsibly over creation, and Eve as his helper. As workers, we are hardwired to work six and rest one, just like God worked in Gen 1:1­2:3. It is not just a cultural thing for the Jews, but built into the very fabric of the way we function. The Russians tried to have a 10-day week at one stage. It did not work. It should come as no surprise that our world has adopted a 7-day week. There is a need for refreshment for our bodies and psyche. Sleep is needed each day, but also God provides rest one in seven. It is good for us. And God is so good as to make it a command so we do not miss out. Because "every day [is] alike" (Rom 14) and the Sabbath per se is but a shadow (Col 2), our day off need not be on the Saturday. Nor indeed necessarily on the Sunday.

Moreover, we are especially to ensure rest for those under our responsibility. Hence in the Israelite community, the servants, maidservants, and even the animals were to have rest. I'm glad that in Hong Kong the maids are legally granted Sunday as a day of rest. However, in countries like Singapore, they are allowed a day off only once a month! Christian 'mas­ters' need to provide rest as God generously directs. While most of us in the Western world do not have household maids, as a society we have not cared for the poorer and underprivileged by our move to seven day trading. For who works in the retail stores on the Sundays? Is it not those less privileged? It is not the CEOs...they are out playing golf!

For many years CK Tang, a big department store in the centre of Singapore, closed on Sundays because Mr Tang was a Christian. What a great testi­mony it was in that place. We are against legalism in this, but for many a recovery of Sunday as the day of rest would be very beneficial.

3. Living for heaven

If the first rationale for resting a day in seven is cre­ation, then the second is what creation points to. Though this creation was created "very good" (Gen I), its ultimate goal was not itself, but rather God's rest (Gen 2:1-3). And we have seen how God's rest, expressed in Eden, pointed beyond itself to the promised land, and ultimately to heaven itself (Heb 3-4). In other words, life is not ultimately about this creation or this world, but the world to come. We are to live not for this world, but for heaven. However, these are not two completely separate reasons, but one within the other. Creation is the sur­face reason made explicit in Exodus 20. What creation points to is the deeper core reason, which we arrive at through seeing how the creation theme of "work-rest" is progressively developed in the Old and New Testaments. Just as there were two reasons given in the two versions of the fourth command­ment (creation in Exod 20 and redemption in Deut 5), yet they were not two completely separate reasons, but one. So for us today, the two reasons of "living in this creation", and "living for heaven", are but one reason within the other for resting. The first shows that to rest one in seven is a good thing for all humanity. The second is for Christians in particular, for they not only live in this creation, but are jour­neying to heaven (Heb 3-4).

As Christians, our ultimate satisfaction and meaning is not found in this creation, but in heaven. For if we work seven days a week, and close to 52 weeks a year, what are we living for? Work, and this world. If that describes you, perhaps you need the chastisement of the well worn Aussie saying, "Get a life!" But Christians have "got a life" - real life, eternal life. May we live it out by resting a day in seven, con­sciously reminding ourselves that we are en route to our heavenly rest.

This article first appeared in The Briefing February 2003, Issue 293, and is used here with permission. No part of this article may be copied or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of Matthias Media.

Interchange - some responses to Joshua's article

Sabbath wisdom

Thank you for the stimulating essay by Joshua Ng on the Sabbath (Briefing #293). I especially appreciated the reminder that as Christians living under the law of Christ, the fourth commandment points us to the heavenly rest for which we were created.

I do, however, question the grounds on which Joshua builds his mandate for a weekly day of rest. He says, "God's pattern of work and rest in Genesis [2:1-3] is still relevant and applicable to us". Yet it should be clear from reading Genesis 1-2 that it is not a cycle of work and rest that is being described, but a one-off period of work leading to a climactic day in which creations blessed fruitfulness could be enjoyed. Day seven was 'completion day', not a day off before a new round of cre­ating. What is more, God did not command his creation to sanctifY the seventh day, we simply moved into the seventh day by default.

In short, it is very hard to extract from Genesis 2:1-3 a mandate of any sort for humanity to obey. Although the early Christians probably rested on the Sabbath if they could, this was not linked to church­going, as they seem to have met together on the Sunday (Acts 20:7), which would have been a normal working day in both Jewish and Roman society. Of course a weekly day of rest is very good for us, but I believe it is a matter of wisdom rather than obedience.

Andrew Shead
Newtown, NSW

Consequences of creation and rest

Joshua Ng made helpful comments on society's work obsession and on how Christians can be distinct in this regard. However, I disagree with his idea that the Sabbath is a command for all humanity, based on our created nature. Although this was not a major part of Joshua's article, the idea has enormous implications, which are worth addressing. I held this view until recently. But when I came to preach on the Sabbath commandment, I couldn't see why the Pharisees were wrong for criticising Jesus' approach to the Sabbath. I realised something was wrong! Another look at the command in its context put me right.

In Exodus 20, God's six day creation fol­lowed by one special day is the rationale for keeping the sabbath. The link between what God did and what Israel should do, could be:

1. Israel were part of God's creation and so have an in-built 6-day/1-day nature. The command is to reflect the way that God cre­ated humans as part of His creation.

2. Israel is to be like God, who followed a 6-day/1-day pattern. The command is to reflect the way that God created humans to be like Him.

Joshua claims both of these are true.

I now think that only the second is true. If we believe that we are 'hardwired' with a 6-day/1-day pattern, we must accept some far-reaching consequences. First, it means that we are not only required to keep the one day rest, we must also keep to the six days work. There can't be a one-day-in-seven built into creation without the corresponding six­ days-in-seven. If 6-day/1-day is part of the fabric of the way we function, then we should expect to see disastrous social consequences where society adopts a 5-day/2-day weekly pattern. Christians who worked less than six days a week would be as much at fault as those who worked more.

Second, it means that there is no place for Christian workers to retire from work in their later years. To opt out of work like that would mean opting out of God's creative design for us.

Joel Edwards
Newcastle, NSW

Sabbath rest now and then

I rejoiced as I read Joshua Ng's article on the Sabbath rest but disagreed with him over his primary question of how we as Christians are to understand and apply it today. Joshua argues that Hebrews 4:9 does not apply to taking rest now but in the future. In other words, since the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God is a future realisation, the exhortation to enter God's rest (4:10,11) has no implication for the pre­sent observance of the day.

This argument seems to be in contradic­tion of the fact that in this very passage the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God is presented primarily as a present expe­rience into which "we who have believed enter" or "are entering" (4:3). The verb "enter" is in the present tense and in the Greek is placed first in the sentence to stress the pre­sent reality of this "rest' experience.

The same is true of the verb "remains" (4:9) which, if taken out of context could imply a future prospect, but in its context refers back to the time of Joshua (Hebrews 4:8) in order to emphasise the present perma­nence of the Sabbath rest for God's people.

John Cunningham
Moruya, NSW

Joshua responds

Thank you for all the comments which made me revisit many of my points.

I agree that Genesis 2:1-3 per se does not man­date anything of mankind; indeed, I would go fur­ther and say it does not explicitly mandate anything of Israel either! Yet Moses (and God) explicitly appeals to Genesis 2:1-3 as the rationale for why Israel should keep the Sabbath holy. At least it is because they were to be like God, imitating his pat­tern of work and rest. That is, we are to understand the relevance of Genesis 2:1-3 in the light of what God makes of it in later revelation. My question is, "If God thinks there's justification for Israel to rest on the basis of creation, why should we limit it to Israel, given that we (humanity) also live in that cre­ation?" If the basis had been on something unique to Israel's experience, then it may well not apply beyond Israel, but that's not the case.

As to what the Fourth Commandment stipu­lated for Israel, the emphasis falls on remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. I agree that more work needs to be done on what "keeping it holy" and "rest' should have entailed for the Israelites. It involved fellowship with God and God's people (as manifested in Eden and the promised land, and the gathering at the synagogue on the Sabbath). However, not doing any work on it is a key part of keeping it holy. Does this mean they must work all the other six days? Not neces­sarily. The emphasis of the command is that all work was to be done on the other six days, that is, that none be left over for the seventh (Ex 20:9).

As to the context of Hebrews 4:9, yes we are entering that rest (present tense granted in 4:3)...just like the Israelites were as they headed towards the promised land in Numbers 14. But the whole point of Hebrews 3-4 is that they failed to enter. We Christians are paralleled with them and warned lest we too fail to enter. In other words, 'the rest' is still future in Hebrews 3-4, and not yet our present possession, and we need to make every effort to enter it (4:11).

This Interchange appeared in The Briefing, April 2003, Issue 295. Further interchange on this and other articles can be found

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