The pattern of six days of activity interrupted by one day of rest is a continuing reminder that human beings are not caught up in a meaningless flow of days, one after the other without end. History has a beginning and an ending. We are heading toward final judgment and the consummation of all things. Every time we remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, it encourages us to “think big.” It reminds us of the truly large picture we are part of as God’s redeemed children. The weekly Sabbath is a God-given sign that our lives are not meaningless and without purpose.
On the sixth day, God contemplated his finished creation in its vast splendor and saw that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). But he did not yet see the “very best.” That was because even before he created, God had decreed that “the best of all possible worlds” was not to be at the beginning, but rather at the end of history. That, too, was why he made Adam and Eve to be his image bearers—to give them the privilege and responsibility, unique among his creatures, of working for their Creator-Lord and so to bring the creation to its intended consummation.
Our first parents, however, proved to be unfaithful and unprofitable servants, and the rest is history—the sad, calamitous history of human sinfulness and God’s just wrath and curse on that sin. “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom. 5:20). In his wrath, God did remember mercy (Hab. 3:2). God purposed, despite sin, not to abandon the creation. He purposed to save a people for himself. He sent his own, only begotten Son to be the new, “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). By his life, death, resurrection, and ascension he has not only canceled out the punishment we sinners deserve, but has also secured the realization of God’s original purposes for the entire creation. As “head over everything for the church” (Eph. 1:22), he is presently working, by his Spirit, for the full realization of those purposes at his return. Then, as he surveys the new heavens and the new earth in their final, unshakable perfection (Heb. 12:26-28), he will in fact see the “very best.”
What, you may be wondering, does all this have to do with the Sabbath? “Much in every way” (to borrow from Romans 3:2). Certainly in the book of Hebrews, for example, God makes it clear that he would have us appreciate the deep tie between the comprehensive scope of the Christian religion just outlined and our weekly keeping of the Lord’s Day. In the long passage Hebrews 3:7-4:13, he is intent on giving New Testament Christians a sense of their basic identity: they are sojourners; the church is a pilgrim people. He makes his point, in commenting on Psalm 95:7-11, by comparing the church to Israel in the wilderness. That analogy has two sides. On the one hand, just as Israel had been set free from slavery in Egypt, so believers have already been released from the guilt and power of sin. But, on the other hand, just as Israel in Sinai had not yet entered the land of Canaan, so we have not yet attained our salvation in its final fullness. An unthreatened, unchallenged (but not uncertain!) experience of salvation is still future for the church. This is why there are so many pronounced exhortations to persevere, not only in this passage, but throughout Hebrews.
God calls this future possession of salvation “rest” or “my rest,” picked up from Psalm 95 (see Heb. 3:11, 18; 4:1, 3, 5, 10, 11). Moreover, he explicitly associates the Sabbath with that rest. That happens in two ways. First, in Hebrews 4:4, he connects that rest with Genesis 2:2 (“So on the seventh day he rested from all his work”). This is the only place where the New Testament quotes this verse. It is also significant that there are only two places where the Old Testament quotes this verse, and they both function to support the weekly Sabbath commandment (Ex. 20:11; 31:17). Second, in Hebrews 4:9, he deliberately calls the rest “a Sabbath-rest” (or “Sabbath keeping”).