“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest . . .” (Hebrews 4:9-11, NIV)
I will jump right into this with a question: what does the above scripture really mean? For years I skimmed this section of Hebrews rather quickly, thinking, “I get it; we all need to quit working on Sunday. I’ll try that next week.” But by a strange coincidence (just kidding; I knew God did it), my systematic reading of the New Testament brought me across Hebrews 4 on a Sunday. Today, March 22nd, 2015. Once upon a Sunday, I actually paid attention. People, Hebrews 4 is a major chunk of the story of what the Biblical Sabbath is really about. Hebrews 4 led me to study Matthew 12:1-14 (which may be the major piece of the Sabbath story), and that chapter led me to study the previous one, Matthew 11:28-30, and then (you guessed it) I began to write in my Warm Journal. Here’s what I discovered:
It’s More Than Just a Day
“There remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” This cannot be just a physical rest. That is useless unless your mind is also at peace. Hebrews 3:1 is key: “FIX YOUR THOUGHTS on Jesus.” Otherwise, you will wake up on Monday morning after your so-called “Sabbath” just as exhausted as ever.
I really believe Paul is speaking about peace in the inner man; a respite from inward toil, more than he is a certain day of the week. His frequent use of the word “today” in this section of Hebrews (Chapter three, verses 7 and 13; twice in 4:7) convinces me that the “Sabbath-rest for the people of God” can be entered into on a daily basis. This means that you can be at rest even while working with your hands. (That’s good news to anyone who has to work seven days a week. If you do, ask the Lord to help you enter into His spiritual rest as you work.) This total, healing peace is the great, new, and improved version of the Old Testament Sabbath.
You see, the Sabbath of the Old Testament was a gift given by God to his people, one purpose of which was to give them a rejuvenating rest from their physical labor that would both bless them and help them be more fruitful the rest of the week (Exodus 20:8). However, this day of the week could come and go without a person ever experiencing rejuvenating rest in his heart. True rest in the Lord happens inside us, and it’s far more precious (and effective) than any other form of rest. The good news is that Jesus paid everything He had so that we, as believers, can experience it constantly!
It’s not just a day of inactivity that only comes once a week and runs out quickly. It’s a state of being; a river of spiritual quietude and constant rejuvenation, which never runs dry. That’s why, when the Pharisees took issue with Jesus about grain-gathering on the Sabbath in Matthew 12, He replied that He was the Lord of the Sabbath. He knew better than anyone what the Sabbath really meant. He had entered more deeply and faithfully into the God’s rest than they could possibly conceive. To them it was just a day; a rule; a tradition. (Apparently they also thought it was just fine to plot murder on the Sabbath; see Matthew 12:14.) But to Jesus, the Sabbath was a way of life.
Doing Good Will Do You Good
Later that day, Jesus healed a man, saying that it is also lawful to “do good” on the Sabbath. And what He considered “good” included but was not limited to: healing, helping, encouraging, rescuing, blessing, and preaching good news. Now, God Himself declared in total authority and by personal example (Genesis 2:2-3) that the seventh day is a day of rest. So it occurs to me that, as Jesus healed, helped, and rescued on the Sabbath, doing those things (as the Lord leads you) must INCREASE your rest, rather than detract from it. Done in the right spirit (without seeing them as toil) and at the Lord’s instruction, these cause you to wake up more refreshed on Monday morning and more recharged for another week.
How do I know that Jesus (and the apostle Paul) believed and practiced spiritual rest as the ultimate Sabbath? Well, the answer lies in the verses immediately preceding that account of Jesus’ Sabbath-day activities in Chapter 12. In Matthew 11: 28-29, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (NIV, emphasis added) Clearly, it is our souls which need rest. And I believe rest of the soul is what Lord had in mind when He appointed the Sabbath.
There are no accidents in the Bible. Every word of it is there for a reason. Furthermore, the events of the life of Jesus did not happen in random order. God arranged every episode of Christ’s days to happen exactly as they did. For maximum effect, you might say. So it can clearly be seen why, immediately after His closing that same sermon with the words “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30), the scripture says “at that time” Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. We are to understand that the sermon and the Sabbath account happened back-to-back and are therefore linked. When Jesus taught us, as He healed a man’s shriveled hand, that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, He still had rest on His mind. And He would never compromise that rest. Therefore, doing that good work on the Sabbath sustained His rest.
Whatever He Says To You, Do It.
Remember that just doing any and all good things, such as housework and writing to your Aunt Margaret, is not necessarily what the Lord meant by “doing good”. What He meant is this: on Sunday (on any day, for that matter), do whatever God tells you to do. Because whatever that is, it will be good. He might tell you to write that thank-you note. Or to a post on your blog. Or to preach a sermon (if you are a pastor, this is highly likely). He might tell you to simply lie on the couch and talk with Him a while, and then drift off into a refreshing nap.
Jesus did plenty of similar things, including the napping (Matthew 8:24)! He traveled, healed, and preached on the Sabbath. But we can be certain that WHATEVER He did, it was done at God’s command:
“Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.” (John 14:10)
“Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” (John 5:19)
Most of my Sundays, God wants me to just kick back, spend some extra time in the Bible, and enjoy myself for the rest of the day. But sometimes I spend practically all day in the Bible and in prayer, or re-sew buttons on shirts and answer important emails, or do lots of laundry and clean the bathrooms. And as long as these are God’s ideas, it’s all Sabbath-rest to me. Including today’s activities: Once upon a Sunday, God told me to write about Sunday.