For a long time, I have observed church members constantly looking at their watches in order to know the exact time of sunset, when the Sabbath would be over, while making joyless, never-ending lists of what they could or could not do on this holy day. Instead of a feast of remembrance and celebration of our redemption, many were trying to make Sabbath a ladder to climb to reach heaven.1 Have we really understood the Sabbath as the sign of righteousness by grace through faith and the rest our souls experience in Christ’s accomplished work on our behalf?
Regarding the weekly Sabbath rest, which was to point us to the complete rest in the reality that our Creator is also our Redeemer, I have found that many were worshiping the Sabbath while rejecting the complete gospel of the Lord of the Sabbath. Deciding to research the topic of true rest in Christ, I discovered that while God has been speaking to humanity since the very beginning, we can only understand the full meaning of each story, doctrine, and commandment when we study it in the light of the Cross.
Developmental understanding of Scripture
In His mercy, God has explained the plan of redemption throughout the Bible in a developmental manner. Redemptive history contains multiple fulfillments of events and prophecies because God has been revealing the plan of salvation in a progressive and developmental way throughout the history of Israel and the world. The author of Hebrews starts his book by highlighting the developmental dimension of God’s revelation, now fully manifested through Christ (Heb. 1:1–3).
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus offered His disciples a fascinating class in theology, reminding them that they needed to start from the beginning. In the midst of their post-Crucifixion despair, He helped them to see that all the Scriptures sought to convey one core reality. “And He said to them, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25–27, NASB; emphasis added).
The Cross is the great hermeneutical key to unlocking Scripture. The Greek verb translated “explained” (v. 27) is dierméneuó, which contains the root word for the term hermeneutics—the science of interpreting biblical texts. Jesus joined His disciples to explain that all of their doctrines of the Law and the Prophets pointed to one reality: Himself crucified!
His goal was to open the minds of His disciples, then and now (cf. vv. 44, 45). His words reminded them that everything in Scripture pointed to His work on our behalf. Everything they ever read and believed, beginning with Genesis—every service in the sanctuary, every Day of Atonement, and every Sabbath celebration—sought to direct humanity to Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection.
Progressive understanding of the Sabbath
God lovingly taught His people to rest in Him. He did it gradually and developmentally as they grew in their knowledge of Him. God rested in His completion of the creation of humankind. As time went by, God kept adding more and more meaning to the Sabbath rest until we finally understood its full significance at the cross. One way to understand this principle is to visualize the whole Bible as a developmental graphic that finds its fulfillment and maximum expansion at the cross.
Here I present just five developmental expansions of the understanding of God’s rest (though there are many more), leading to the full understanding of our rest in the salvific work of Jesus on our behalf.
1. Completion of Creation. The first circle on the left of the diagram represents God’s resting on the seventh day, celebrating the completion of Creation (Gen. 2:2). Now that His children had come to life, the creation process was finished and complete. God’s children are designated by gender, not by kinds or species like the animals. He created a male ’adam and a female ’adam. The Creator bestowed each gender with amazing and unique characteristics for a complete representation of the image of God. Then God ceased His work and blessed and sanctified the seventh day—the day that would forever point to the completeness and wholeness of divine Creation. We start to get a glimpse of the Creation-Redemption theme running from Genesis to Revelation when we analyze one word in Genesis 2:2: “completed.” The term used in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) is the same Greek root word that Jesus cried out at the cross: “ ‘It is finished’ ” (John 19:30). It is completed; it has been fully accomplished.
2. Provision. The first time the Bible actually calls the seventh day a Shabbat rest, offering an expanded understanding of the Sabbath as a day of rest, is in the narrative about manna. “Then he [Moses] said to them, ‘This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath [sabbata anapausis, LXX] to the LORD. . . .’
“ ‘. . . See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested [esabbatisen] on the seventh day” (Exod. 16:23, 29, 30, NASB). This provides a subsequent development after the first use of the verb to rest (Gen. 2:2), describing God’s rest after the work of creation. The people of God had been oppressed for hundreds of years. Now they needed to trust the God of heaven and Earth to provide for their every need, including their daily bread. God was their Provider! In our diagram, this development is represented by the second circle. It is an expanded understanding of the Sabbath rest. God would miraculously preserve the heavenly bread every week so that they could rest in His ability to provide for them.
3. Identification with the Creator. Hundreds of years of slavery would have taken a toll on Israel’s self-worth, on remembering who and whose they were, just as when someone has been abused, violated, or traumatized in any way. Humankind is created in the image of the Sovereign Creator. Aside from remembering that Yahweh is their Provider, they also needed to be reminded to rest, knowing that they are children of the Creator. So, the third circle in our diagram relates to their identity in relation to the Creator. They hold the highest place in the created order. God considered that so important that He brought to their attention a weekly feast of remembrance as part of the Ten Commandments so that they would not forget who they were and to whom they belonged (Exod. 20:8–11). How important it was to be reminded that they were to rest just like God rested. They were His! The Creator and His creatures rested together. The injunction to rest, just like God did, declared that they were His. “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1, NASB).
4. Liberation-Redemption. Israel needed yet another insight in their understanding of why they should hold a weekly feast of rest. Moses repeats the Ten Commandments to them with the reason for the weekly rest expanded. “ ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day’ ” (Deut. 5:15, NASB). Having been redeemed from slavery, they were now free. The Lord adds freedom and redemption to the ever-expanding understanding of the Sabbath rest. Everything, including the weekly rest, ultimately relates to the Creator-Redeemer, who is victorious on our behalf. That is why we rest, and that is why this developmental exploration can be fulfilled only at the cross. God made sure we know: “ ‘If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed’ ” (John 8:36, MEV).
5. Completion-Redemption. The Old Testament contains multiple expansions of the meaning of rest, pointing to the ultimate reality accomplished by Jesus on our behalf. Hebrews 4, introduced with titles such as “The Believer’s Rest” (NASB), states, “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Heb. 4:9, 10, NASB). As God rested in creation, we rest in the redemption accomplished by Jesus on our behalf. That is the ultimate meaning found at the cross. Only there do we discover His true rest.
In the deliberate juxtaposition found in Matthew 11:25–12:14, Jesus first offers His own rest and then proclaims Himself the Lord of the Sabbath in the next narrative. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel uses the term sabbath 11 times. Eight of these usages appear in the two consecutive passages that follow Jesus’ double promise of rest (Matt. 11:28, 29).2 God has made a promise covering our past, present, and future: “ ‘You will find rest for your souls’ ” (v. 29).3 The Sabbath rest was designed to be a weekly reminder that Jesus, as Creator-Redeemer, offers His complete rest to the weary soul.
Redemptive history reveals the plan of salvation in a progressive and developmental way. Most believers have applied this understanding to a few themes in the Bible, such as the Passover, but not to all doctrines and commandments. Ellen White eloquently explains this developmental principle: “The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption,—the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every discourse given by our ministers.”4
It saddens and puzzles me when we explain doctrines such as the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the state of the dead, and end-time prophecies without understanding them in the light of the Cross. I have watched countless people become weary of rule after rule, commandment after commandment, chart after chart, and prophecy after prophecy without understanding them in relationship to Christ. They hear something like, “Yes, of course, we are saved by Jesus, but . . . ,” and then we add many other requirements. As Max Lucado insightfully observes when discussing Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:
“No more striving after God’s approval. ‘You can rest now,’ he told them.
“And they did. For about fourteen pages, which in my Bible is the distance between the sermon of Peter in Acts 2 and the meeting of the church in Acts 15. In the first, grace was preached. In the second, grace was questioned. It wasn’t that the people didn’t believe in grace at all. They did. They believed in grace a lot. They just didn’t believe in grace alone. They wanted to add to the work of Christ.
“Grace-a-lots believe in grace, a lot. Jesus almost finished the work of salvation, they argue. In the rowboat named Heaven Bound, Jesus paddles most of the time. But every so often he needs our help. So we give it.”5
Righteousness by faith means to be declared right with God, not by our works but by grace through faith in the One who did all the work. “The message of the gospel of His grace was to be given to the church in clear and distinct lines, that the world should no longer say that Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not teach or believe Christ.”6
The redemption that Jesus achieved at the cross on our behalf ought always to be our core message. He will come back for us, ushering in a new and eternal era of complete rest. And even then, this weekly feast of remembrance (Isa. 66:23) will forever commemorate that our Creator did not leave us on our own when we failed but became our Redeemer and offered us salvation, by His grace alone.
- The author presented these concepts at the Commemoration of 100 Years of the Ministerial Association, San Diego, California, United States, September 27–29, 2022. For an expansion of this material, see Elizabeth Viera Talbot, I Will Give You Rest: The Eternal Gospel for the Weary Soul (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2015); www.Jesus101.tv.
- For an academic rendition of Matthew 11:25-12:14, see Talbot’s PhD dissertation: “Rest and Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel: An Investigation of Matthew 11:25–12:14 in the Context of the Gospel’s Theology and Setting," (University of Gloucestershire, 2013), https://eprints.glos.ac.uk/2362/1/TALBOT%20Elizabeth%20PhD%20Thesis%20final_Redacted%20for%20signature%20only.pdf.
- See Elizabeth Talbot, “Rest, Eschatology and Sabbath in Matthew 11:28–30: An Investigation of Jesus’ Offer of Rest in the Light of the Septuagint’s Use of Anapausis,” in “What Does the Scripture Say?” Studies in the Function of Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. Craig A. Evans and H. Daniel Zacharias (London, UK: T & T Clark, 2012), 57–69.
- Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 315.
- Max Lucado, Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 45.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), 92.