While I was recently spending a few days at a retreat house, I found myself seeking to understand a little more of the meaning of Sabbath rest. The Sabbath in the Bible, founded in the divine order of God’s creation, provides for a holy day each week, requiring a cessation of work, in order for God’s people to find rest together in Him (Leviticus 23:3). The command given to the Children of Israel to completely rest each seventh day was an essential part of their covenant relationship with God (Ezekiel 20:12).
In fact, all humanity is designed by God to need such regular rest, in order to allow renewal of body, soul and spirit. The laws and commands of God have always been for the well-being of His creation, and it’s interesting that historical attempts to impose ten-day weeks, and the like, have been notably unsuccessful.
Under the New Covenant, Jesus brings to spiritual fulfilment the intent of all God’s laws (Matthew 5:17). Although not negating the significance of God’s instructions to the Israelites, it’s no longer enough to follow the letter of the law, but rather it’s the spirit of God’s commands, met through Jesus, that now keeps us right with ourselves, with each other and with our Creator.
Jesus explains this, for example, when He tells the disciples that it’s no longer sufficient to just refrain from murder, with which they all hopefully agreed, but that they must now understand how cruel words are just as destructive to the human heart. Such words even deserve the same divine punishment as for murder itself (Matthew 5:21-22).
In the same way, the intent of God’s command to observe a Sabbath rest has now been brought to spiritual completion through Jesus, in the New Covenant. Undoubtedly, a weekly rest-time remains God’s instruction for our well-being, but there is a deeper and more permanent Sabbath rest which He desires for each one of us.
This is experienced as we become increasingly secure in the knowledge that, in Christ, we can live as untroubled children of our Heavenly Father (Romans 8:16). He doesn’t want us to be driven by oppressive rules, but rather we’re encouraged to be utterly surrendered to the one who has fulfilled every one of God’s laws on our behalf (Mark 2:27,28). As today’s verse reminds us, the fullness of Sabbath rest, for the people of God, is a way of life centred on Jesus, not just a weekly holiday.
Prayer: Father, teach me Your ways for my work and my rest, helping me to live more like a son and less like a slave, more focussed on relationship than religion. I make a choice this day to come fully under the gentle yoke of Jesus, and so find true rest for my soul (Matthew 11:29). Amen.
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