Jesus is the man of rest. Rest is the coming kingdom. Rest is Sunday together. The day of stopping has moved from the seventh day to the first day because we now start from rest rather than finish in it. Which is why we’re all so knackered when church is online during the pandemic.
Repeat: Rest is not relaxation.
It has become trendy in the evangelical circles I move in to speak of the Sabbath frequently and to use it as a verb, “we Sabbathed yesterday” (which does make some sense in Hebrew if not in English, so we’ll let it go). Except, we’re no Sabbatarians—we don’t believe and teach that the first day of the week is particularly holy and special, and that working on it is prohibited for Christians. We’re barely proponents of the Lord’s Day—that there is something special about the first day of the week.
Most of my friends who ‘sabbath’ do so on a Saturday, though I’ve known some to do so on a Sunday, and others on other days of the week. They might describe it as a day of rest, there’s little association with Jewish Sabbath customs for those who keep it on a Saturday, but the association is an interesting one. It amounts to having a particular day set as a day off.
Now, I think that’s typically a wise decision to structure your week like that, but is that the Sabbath?
Friends, it isn’t. The Sabbath isn’t about relaxing because rest isn’t about relaxing. Christians don’t keep the Sabbath, but we do keep the Lord’s Day, on the first day of the week. Like ancient Israel we ‘rest’ with the people of God and we do so by worshipping (in word and sacrament) and by eating around each other’s tables afterwards.
The Hebrew word we translate Sabbath (shabbat) means cessation, it’s the day of stopping. We stop our work of ordering the cosmos in six days because God did too. And on our day of stopping we rest (nuakh), which means something nearer to ‘settling in’ to a place than it does to sleeping or reading a good book. To skip a few theological moves, we settle into stopping by enjoying the order our hands have created the other six days of the week.
We think that rest is passive, like watching television or sleeping, but it isn’t. It’s not active either, as though rest required the study of the Bible or something similar. It is more active than it is passive, but it’s better to think of it as neither. Rest is received.
Which is why the primary place of rest is the gathered church, it’s a place we receive from God in contributory worship, the preached word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Rest is about order, and therefore about being with the people of God. Rest is not simply stopping, its settling in.
We know it isn’t just relaxing or an accommodation to our weary bodies—it’s often taught like that though isn’t it? As though the Sabbath which holds no law for us (which is true, Jesus rose as Lord of the eternal Sabbath on the first day of the new week, we stop in Christ forever more) is received as wisdom because humans need to rest one day a week. I’ve heard that a lot. It’s not wrong, in the sense that there’s some wisdom there, but it does violence to the Bible to assert it in that way.