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Cultivating Sabbath Rest in a Busy World

by Michael H. Burer on September 15, 2013 in Articles

Like a lot of people, I maintain a full schedule with work, church, and family obligations. It is hard to find time for rest and renewal. None of the things that take up my time are wrong in and of themselves: humanity was made for work, Christians are called to ministry, and serving one’s family brings great joy. But as sinful people are prone to do, I can easily avoid rest for the wrong reasons.

We as believers often justify our obsession with work under a thin veneer of spirituality. We can’t rest because of ministry responsibilities or because we must fulfill our calling. We exalt those who work hard and rest little as champions for the kingdom. But this perversion of a godly work ethic refuses to acknowledge that God calls us to rest as well as work.

Our Lord Jesus addressed this issue directly in his own ministry: Jesus proclaimed the Sabbath as a day for God’s people to celebrate their redemption and experience God’s presence. Even though Christians no longer rest on the Sabbath, we should cultivate habits of “Sabbath rest” in accordance with Jesus’s teaching.

Jesus’s attitude toward the Sabbath has long been a subject of scholarly discussion. As believers who are not under Law, we sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’s Sabbath teaching, especially when it involves controversy over a specific issue of rabbinic interpretation. Underneath our questions, however, lie timeless theological truths about rest.

The Sabbath in the New Testament

Jesus highlighted his view of rest in two key passages that still have validity for believers today and help us understand why rest is important.

In Luke 13 we read that Jesus healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath. She had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years and could not stand up straight. While teaching in the synagogue, Jesus was moved to free the woman from her infirmity by laying his hands on her (vv. 10–13).

Despite the clear display of divine power evidenced in the woman’s healing, the synagogue leader became upset because Jesus had technically worked on the Sabbath (v.14), something forbidden by rabbinic teaching. Jesus’s response got straight to the heart of the matter: he proclaimed the Sabbath as a most appropriate day for her healing. Jesus, choosing words that pointed to the history of the Sabbath—that it celebrated redemption, the freedom from slavery that God brought to Israel in the Exodus— described the woman as “a daughter of Abraham” who had been “bound” but was “set free” (v. 16). The Sabbath was her day of celebration! By healing her, Jesus brought her redemption to vivid fruition and gave her the capacity to celebrate more than ever. With this action, Jesus proclaimed the Sabbath day as a time for God’s people to celebrate their redemption.

In a separate encounter with a Pharisee, Jesus made a bold claim about his Sabbath actions (John 5). He had just healed an invalid at the pool of Bethesda (Bethzatha, NET) on the Sabbath, and this man proceeded to unintentionally get Jesus in trouble by carrying around his mat (v. 10). Technically, this action by the healed man violated the rabbinic commands against work on the Sabbath.

In response to accusations against him, Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (v. 17). Jewish theologians understood that God still worked to redeem his people, even on the Sabbath. And clearly the invalid whom Jesus healed had experienced God’s redemption. Jesus tied his own activity to God’s, showing that God was tangibly present in the midst of his people even on their day of rest. Thus the Sabbath was a day for God’s people to experience his presence anew in their redemption.

The Sabbath for Christians

As believers we no longer have to rest on the Sabbath; we can rest on any day, at any time that fits our calendars. But as we can all attest, we often go to the other extreme and hardly rest at all. Jesus’s actions and teaching show that rest remains vital for the believer. He identified the Sabbath as a time of rest when God’s people can experience his presence and celebrate their redemption. God’s desire for us has not changed; he still wants his people to rest so they can experience these tangible blessings of a relationship with him.

Our challenge is to cultivate habits of “Sabbath rest” to experience God’s presence and celebrate our redemption. As believers in Christ, we no longer rest on any particular day, but regular rest should still anchor our schedules as we refuse the perversion of a good work ethic that makes regular rest optional. God does not intend for us to be so busy with work, ministry, or family that we neglect time for celebration and renewal. Rest allows us to revel in God’s presence and celebrate the redemption we have in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Tips on Cultivating Sabbath Rest

To this end, let me suggest some practical ways we can cultivate Sabbath rest in our lives.

Anchor the weekly schedule with regular worship in a local church.

Believers don’t have to worship on a particular day, but we do need to worship. Whether we gather on Sunday morning, Saturday night, or some other time, we can make regular times of worship a solid anchor to our weekly schedules. Cultivate restful relationships with other believers. Our small group at church gets together monthly for times of fun and fellowship. These relationships renew and sustain me. Whether you do so with your family or as an individual, develop key relationships that provide rest.

Augment times of rest with personal worship in prayer and Bible reading.

Rest should not only be corporate but also individual. Consider reading through a prayer book such as The Valley of Vision, if you need help getting started.

Make your rest consistent but not constricted.

Just as it is easy to work too hard, we can also work too hard at our rest. Don’t be anxious if life gets in the way and disrupts scheduled times of rest. Trust that consistency in the long haul will provide ample time to rest and rejoice in your relationship with God.

Learn to see rest in the context of your entire life.

We all experience busy seasons that tax us greatly, and sometimes rest is hard to find during a particular week or month. We can manage those tough times by keeping our eye on the big picture. My situation can illustrate. Due to the academic calendar, free time evades me from August through May; the end of this cycle brings lots of stress at the close of the academic year. Fortunately, summer comes right after this busy season, which affords me ample time for rest and renewal. Your calendar probably differs from mine, but the same principle holds: over time you should make time for rest and renewal. Going month after month without rest indicates a need to examine priorities; it’s likely something needs adjustment.

To summarize, God calls us to rest just as he calls us to work. He wants to bless our relationship with him by giving us time to experience his presence and celebrate our redemption. As believers who love our Lord, we worship him and grow in devotion when we find time for rest. It may not be today, but it should be soon. Develop habits of Sabbath rest so those times of celebration are never far away.

Dr. Michael Burer, associate professor of New Testament Studies at DTS, served as a project director for the NET Bible and is the coauthor of A New Reader’s Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. An ordained minister, he is active in his local church and ministers frequently in France.

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