Divine rest for human restlessness

The Sabbath expresses God's best news to the human family: the news that He has created us perfectly, that He has redeemed us completely, that He loves us immensely, and that He will restore us ultimately.

Human restlessness! Our lives, tension-filled and anguish-compressed, long for rest. The heart specialist often admonishes us, saying, "You need to slow down and rest." Yet, how difficult it is to work off tension, to quiet restlessness! Some join athletic clubs; others, meditation groups. Still others seek release by taking vacations, tranquilizers, drugs, or alcohol. Experience tells us, however, that even fabulous vacations or magic pills provide at best only a temporary evasion, but not a permanent quieting, of inner tension and restlessness.

How, then, can our restless lives experience perfect rest and peace? Augustine points to the real solution when he says, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it find rest in Thee."

True rest is to be found not in places or through pills but rather in a right relation ship with a person, the Person of the Saviour, who says: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28, N.I.V.).' Perfect rest and peace are not a human achievement but a divine gift. It is an experience that comes to us when we allow Christ to harmonize our lives.

Why is divine assistance needed to experience true rest and peace in our lives? The answer is found in the fact that perfect rest does not come about accidentally but is the result of a harmonious accord of the physical, mental, and spiritual components of our being. Can we by ourselves harmonize these three—our body, mind, and soul? We can stretch our tired body on a bed, but if our mind and soul are troubled, we have no rest, but agitation, tension, or even nightmares. Just as the various components of an orchestra need the direction of a skillful maestro to blend them into harmonious music, so the physical, mental, and spiritual components of our being need the direction of our Supreme Master in order for us to experience harmonious rest and peace. 1

How can we enable Christ to harmonize and quiet our restless lives? God gave mankind before and after the Fall a vital institution, the Sabbath day: a day specifically designed to free us from secular concerns so that we might freely find rest in God (see Heb. 4:9, 10). Unfortunately this divine institution has often been neglected, disregarded, or even perverted. This occurred in Old Testament times, and it is happening also in our materialistically oriented society. Many people today view God's holy day as a time to seek for personal profit and pleasure rather than for divine power and presence.

The story is told of a pastor calling upon a member who had missed church services for several weeks. "What keeps you away?" he asked.

The member replied, "I'd rather be in bed on Sunday morning thinking about the church than in the church thinking about my bed. At least my mind is in the right place."

Indeed, many believe the right place to be on their "Lord's Day" is not in God's sanctuary but in the sanctuary of a bed, a boat, a car, a restaurant, a football field, a cinema, or a shopping mall. Even those Christians who attend morning church services often revert in the afternoon to places of business or entertainment. This is hardly reflective of the Biblical notion of Sabbathkeeping, namely, a day set apart to experience God's restful presence in our restless lives.

This prevailing trend raises a crucial question: Is the Sabbath institution a superseded religious tradition no longer relevant to space-age Christians, or is it still essential to Christian growth and survival? It is hard to believe that at the very time when the tyranny of things enslaves many lives, there should no longer be any need for the Sabbath—the day whose very function is to free human beings from the bondage of materialism in order for them to experience divine peace and rest in their restless lives. The Sabbath is indeed a vital divine institution that provides time and opportunities to develop a growing relationship with God and fellow human beings. In a special sense the celebration of God's holy day enables the Lord of the Sabbath to bring His peace and rest to restless lives.

Rest of Creation

The Sabbath brings Christ's rest to our souls, first, by constantly reassuring us that our lives have meaning, value, and hope, because they are rooted in God from Creation to eternity. We may call the Sabbath "Christ's creation rest" for the human soul. It is the rest that Christ brings to those thinking persons who search for life's meaning and value in their ancestral roots; to those who wonder whether their existence, as well as that of the whole cosmos, is the result of chance or of choice, of a merciless fate or of a merciful God. Through the Sabbath Christ offers His restful assurance that our ancestral roots are good because they are rooted in God Himself (see Gen. 1:26, 27); that our existence has value because it is not the product of chance, but of a personal creation and redemption by a loving God.

This reassuring message of the Sabbath is found in the Creation story, where the imagery of God's rest is used to proclaim the good news that God originally created this world and all its creatures in a perfect and complete way. The believer who celebrates this good news on the Sabbath by renewing his or her faith in the perfect Creator and by delighting in the beauty of God's creation experiences Christ's rest of Creation. To do so means to rejoice in the divine assurance that human existence, in spite of its apparent futility and tragedy, has value because it proceeds from God and moves toward a glorious divine destiny. As eloquently expressed by Augustine, "Thy resting on the seventh day after the completion of Thy works foretells us through the voice of Thy Book, that we also, after completing our works through Thy generosity, in the Sabbath of eternal life shall rest in Thee."2 To celebrate the Sabbath in this restless present means to experience a foretaste of the future rest and peace that awaits God's people; it means to rest in the assurance that "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6, R.S.V.).

Rest of divine presence

A second way in which proper Sabbathkeeping brings Christ's rest to our lives is by enabling us to experience His divine presence. It was Christ's presence that brought stillness to the stormy lake of Galilee (see Matt. 8:23-27), and it is also the assurance of His presence that can bring peace and stillness to our troubled lives. This is basically the meaning of the holiness of the Sabbath, which is frequently stated in the Bible. The holiness of the Sabbath consists in the special manifestation of God's presence through this day in the life of His people. The believer who on the Sabbath lays aside his secular concerns, turning off his receiver to the many distracting voices in order to tune in and listen to the voice of God, experiences in a real sense the spiritual presence of Christ. The heightened sense of the nearness of Christ's presence experienced on the Sabbath fills the soul with joy, peace, and rest.

Relationships, both at a human and human-divine level, need to be cultivated if they are to survive. I vividly recall the privilege system that governed social relationships among students of the opposite sex at Newbold College, in England, where I received my college training. A couple with an "A" status was entitled to a weekly encounter of about one hour in a designated lounge. Those couples who qualified for a "B" or a "C" privilege could officially meet only biweekly or monthly. I did my best to maintain the "A" status because I viewed those brief weekly encounters with my fiancee as indispensable for the survival of our relationship. The Sabbath is, in a sense, a special weekly encounter with our Creator-Redeemer. This encounter, however, lasts not merely one hour but a whole day. It is a sobering thought that to enter into the holy Sabbath day means to enter in a special sense into the spiritual presence and communion of the Lord. Believers who cultivate Christ's presence during the Sabbath, experience His rest and peace every day of their lives.

Rest from competition

True Sabbathkeeping brings Christ's rest to our lives by releasing us from the pressure to produce and achieve. The pressure that our competitive society exerts on us can cause untold frustration. It can dishearten, dehumanize, and demoralize; it can turn friends into foes. In order to keep up with the Joneses, some Christians today, like the Israelites of old who went to gather manna on the Sabbath, choose to moonlight on God's holy day. But the Scripture points to the senselessness of such greed when it states with irony, "They found none" (Ex. 16:27). The Sabbath teaches a greedy heart to be grateful, and a grateful heart is the abiding place of Christ's peace and rest.

By temporarily restricting our productivity, the Sabbath teaches us not to compete but to commune with one another. It teaches us to view fellow beings not quantitatively but qualitatively, not in terms of their income but in terms of their human values. If Mr. Jones lives on social security, we may be tempted during the week to think if him in terms of his small income. On the Sabbath, however, as we worship and fellowship with Mr. Jones, we appreciate not the little that he makes but the much that he offers to the church and community through his Christian witness and example. Thus, by releasing us from the pressure of competition and prodution, the Sabbath enables us to appreciate more fully the human values of people and the beauty of things. This free and fuller appreciation of God, people, and things brings joy, harmony, and rest to our lives.

Rest of belonging

Genuine Sabbathkeeping also brings Christ's rest to our lives by reassuring us of our belonging to Him. At the root of much human restlessness is a sense of alienation and estrangement. The sense of not belonging to anyone or anything causes feelings of bitterness, insecurity, and restlessness. In a relationship of mutual belonging, however, one experiences love, identity, security, and rest. To enable human beings to conceptualize and experience a belonging relationship with Him, God has given such helpful signs and symbols as the rainbow, circumcision, the Passover lamb and blood, the bread and wine. The Sabbath occupies a unique place among these various God-given covenant signs, or symbols, having functioned as the symbol par excellence of the divine election and mission of God's people. Being the symbol of divine owner ship, the Sabbath constantly reminds the believer who keeps this day of his belong ing to God. "The Sabbath," aptly writes Charles Scriven, "is the insignia of the man of faith, a sort of badge worn at God's request in order to recall God's loyalty to us and our loyalty to God. ... It is a placard we carry to show the world what we stand for and whom we serve. "3

During the week a person may feel frustrated by a sense of anonymity. "Who am I?" he asks, as he lives and moves among the crowd. The answer that often echoes back is, "You are a cog in a machine and a number in the computer." On the Sabbath the answer is different. The Christian who observes God's holy and chosen day hears the Lord saying, "You may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you" (Ex. 31:13, R.S.V.). Being the symbol of divine ownership and sanctification, the Sabbath assures the Sabbathkeeper of his own divine election and sanctification. Moreover, the Sabbath offers not merely an assurance of belonging to God but also a concrete weekly opportunity of expressing such a commitment by reenacting the baptismal covenant of self-renouncement and renewal. By renewing the sense of belonging to our Creator-Redeemer, the Sabbath restores a sense of human dignity, identity, peace, and rest to our lives.

Rest from social tensions

A fifth way in which true Sabbathkeeping enables us to experience Christ's rest is by breaking down social, racial, and cultural barriers. The inability or unwillingness to appreciate and accept another person's skin-color, culture, language, or social status, is a major cause of much unrest, hate, and tension in our contemporary society. After the Fall, an important function of the Sabbath has been to teach equality and respect for every member of the human society. Every seven days, seven years (sabbatical year), and seven weeks of years (jubilee year), all persons, beasts, and property were to become free before God. And genuine freedom leads to equality.

The uneven divisions of the Hebrew society leveled out as the Sabbath began. Samuel H. Dresner rightly complains that this equalizing function of the Sabbath has seldom been recognized, and then he states: "Although one Jew may have peddled onions and another may have owned great forests of lumber, on the Sabbath all were equal, all were kings: all welcomed the Sabbath Queen, all chanted the Kiddush, all basked in the glory of the seventh day. . . . On the Sabbath there was neither banker nor clerk, neither tanner nor hired-hand, neither rich nor poor. There were only Jews hallowing the Sabbath."4 It is noteworthy that Isaiah reassures the outcasts of Israel, specifically the eunuchs and the foreigners who were prevalent following the Assyrian and Babylonian wars, that by observing the Sabbath they would share in the blessings of God's covenant people, "for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isa. 56:7, R.S.V.).

Many social injustices could have been avoided both in ancient and modern society if the concern for human rights expressed by the Sabbath (and its sister institutions) had always been understood and practiced. The Sabbath forces upon us •the important issues of freedom and humanitarian concern for all, from our son to our servant (see Ex. 20:10; 23:12; Deut. 5:14). By placing such issues before us at the moment of worship—the moment when we are truest to ourselves—the Sabbath cannot leave us insensitive toward the suffering or social injustices experienced by others. It is impossible on the Sabbath to celebrate Creation and redemption while hating those whom God has created and redeemed through His Son. True Sabbathkeeping demands that we acknowledge the Fatherhood of God by accepting and strengthening the brother hood of mankind. The bond of brother hood that the Sabbath establishes through its worship, fellowship, and humanitarian services influences by reflex our social relationships during the week. To accept on the Sabbath those of all ethnic back grounds or social statuses as brothers and sisters in Christ demands that we treat them as such during the weekdays as well. It would be a denial of the human values and experience of the Sabbath if one were to exploit or detest during the week those whom the Sabbath teaches us to respect and love as God's creatures. By teaching us to accept and respect every person as a human being created and redeemed by the Lord, the Sabbath breaks down and equalizes those social, racial, and cultural barriers that cause so much tension and unrest in our society. Consequently, it makes it possible for the peace of Christ to dwell in our hearts.

Rest of redemption

Sabbathkeeping brings Christ's rest to our lives by enabling us to experience through physical rest the greater blessings of divine rest and peace of salvation. A very close relationship exists between the Sabbath rest and Christ's redemption rest. From being the symbol of God's initial entrance into human time, the Sabbath became after the Fall the symbol of God's promise to enter human flesh to become "Emmanuel . . . God with us." The rest and liberation from the hardship of work and from social inequalities which both the weekly and annual Sabbaths granted to all members of the Hebrew society was understood not merely as a commemoration of the past Exodus deliverance (see Deut. 5:15) but also as a prefiguration of the future redemption rest to be brought by the Messiah. Christ fulfilled these Old Testament Messianic expectations typified by the Sabbath by identifying His redemptive mission with the good news of Sabbath release and redemption, thus making the day the fitting vehicle through which to experience His salvation rest (see Luke 4:21). It was on a Sabbath that Christ inaugurated His public ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth by quoting Isaiah 61:1, 2 and by claiming emphatically to be the fullfillment of the sabbatical liberation announced in that passage. In His subsequent ministry Christ substantiated this claim by revealing His redemptive mission especially through His Sabbath healing and teaching ministry (see Luke 13:16; Matt. 12:5, 6; John 5:17; 7:22, 23). Finally, it was on that historic holy Sabbath that Christ rested in the tomb after completing His redemptive mission. "It is finished" (John 19:30; see Luke 23:54-56). Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb reveals the depth of God's love for His creatures. It tells us that in order to give them life He was willing to experience not only the limitation of human time at Creation but also the suffering, agony, and death of human flesh during the Incarnation. In the light of the cross, then, the Sabbath is a time to celebrate not only the good news of God's perfect creation but also the glad tidings of Christ's complete redemption. It is the weekly celebration and jubilation of a liberated people, the day when we cease from our work to allow God to work in us, to bring to our lives His rest of forgiveness and salvation.

Rest of service

The Sabbath brings Christ's rest to our lives by providing time and opportunities for service. Inner peace and rest are to be found not in selfish relaxation but rather in unselfish service. The Sabbath provides the time and the reasons for serving God, self, others, and our habitat. We serve God on the Sabbath by resting to acknowledge His claim over our lives and by worshiping to celebrate His marvelous creation, redemption, and ultimate restoration. This celebration of God's goodness offers us a fresh experience of divine rest and peace in our lives. We serve our personal needs on the Sabbath by taking time to reorder our lives, to sharpen our moral consciousness, to experience divine forgiveness, presence, and rest.

We serve others on the Sabbath by coming closer to loved ones, friends, and needy persons, sharing with them our friendship and concern. The service we render unto others on the Sabbath honors God and enriches our lives with a sense of restful satisfaction. We serve our habitat on the Sabbath by learning to act as curators rather than predators of this earth; by taking time to admire rather than to exploit God's creation; by experiencing rest and peace through an appreciation of God's creation.

Does the Sabbath bring divine rest to our human restlessness? Yes, as we have seen, the Sabbath does enable the Saviour to bring perfect rest to our lives. Is the Sabbath, then, good news or bad news? A day of celebration or frustration? We have found in the Scriptures that the Sabbath expresses God's best news to the human family: the news that He has created us perfectly, that He has redeemed us completely, that He loves us immensely, and that He will restore us ultimately.

In this cosmic age the good news of the Sabbath provides the basis for a cosmic faith, a faith which embraces and unites Creation, redemption, and final restoration; the past, the present, and the future; man, nature, and God; this world and the world to come; a faith that recognizes God's dominion over the whole creation and human life by consecrating to Him the seventh day; a faith that fulfills the believer's true destiny in time and eternity; a faith that offers divine rest for human restlessness.

Notes:

1 For further treatment of this concept, see chapter 6 of my book, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness (Rome: The Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1980).

2 Augustine, Confessions XIII. 36.

3 Charies Scriven, "Beyond Arithmetic: A Look at the Meaning of the Sabbath," Insight, Sept. 7, 1971, pp. 17, 18.

4 Samuel H. Dresner, The Sabbath (1970), p. 43.

* "Texts credited to N.I.V. are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

 

 


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January 1982

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