The Sabbath Rest of God

Chapter Eight

“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” Hebrews 4:9

The Sabbath seems to be the central theme in the creation account in Genesis.  It’s actually the only inanimate thing that God blessed. He blessed the living animals; He blessed mankind; but unusually, He also blessed a day—the Sabbath:

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that in had done in creation.

Genesis 2:2-3

This theme of rest is pervasive, not only in the Torah, but it was the reason God brought His people into the promised land—it was to be a place of rest. It was not the Garden of Eden as it was before the sinning of Adam and Eve known as the Fall, but it was a step in that direction. And it may be argued that the location of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:1-14 and the land to which God brought Abraham in Genesis 15:17-21 is the exact same place. So the Sabbath seems to be the foundation of everything that God wanted to do for humanity—His people being in His presence.

            Presence and rest—these two themes are closely allied in Scripture, not only in the New Testament, but especially in the Tanakh. To be in God’s presence is to rest. God met with or “rested” Adam in the Garden,[1] that perfect place where all that was necessary for life was present—water, food, and especially the tree of life. God walked with Adam and Eve and spoke with them. Adam was to care for the garden, but the work was easy, one might assume enjoyable. Actually, the words used to describe Adam’s duties in Genesis 2:15 are also used in the Pentateuch to describe the duties of the Levites in the tabernacle. Adam’s duties were of a priestly nature. He was a proto-typical Levite serving God in a beautiful sanctuary. The garden was a place of rest and worship.

            The seventh day, in the scriptural account, has no ending to it as the first six days have. Of course, the cycle starts all over, but it is to be noted that the creation account ends with a day of rest, an open ended period of time. The creation account seems to be pointing to something more than a prosaic account of God’s creative work.

The story continues

Enoch walked with God in Genesis 5:18-24, and Scripture says, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (verse 24).

            Noah, whose name literally means “rest,” also walked with God, and the ark Noah built was a place of rest and salvation. After the ark had settled and the inhabitants had disembarked, Noah built an altar and sacrificed an offering that had a pleasing or soothing aroma to God. The root word for “pleasing” comes from the word “rest” (see Genesis 8:21).

Biblical history then turns to the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s people were enslaved in Egypt until Moses led the people out under God’s power and authority. Then the Law, the basis of the covenant between God and His Chosen People, was given. The fourth article of the covenant had to do with the Sabbath rest:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

Notes on the passage:

One. “Remember” means to continue to observe the Sabbath day—to never let it disappear from the consciousness or observance of the people.

Two. The Sabbath day is holy, different from the other days.

Three. No work is to be done on the seventh day—it is a day of rest.

Four. The concept of the Sabbath day is directly tied to God’s resting on the seventh day of creation.

The Sabbath day points beyond itself

The Mosaic Sabbath was only intended to be a temporary solution to the

problem of the curse that came as a result of The Fall, which was the breaking of the one commandment God had given Adam and Eve (see Genesis 2:15-17). Throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, every rest that God provided—the feasts, the entry into the promised land, the construction of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple in Jerusalem—are temporary but point beyond themselves. God was present in the most holy place in the Tabernacle and Temple, and people met God there; thus, the structures were a place of rest. But these were not permanent.

Rest—almost a code word

It is more than interesting that the listing of the feasts in Leviticus 23 (and Numbers

28, a second place in the Torah where the feasts are described) starts with the

Sabbath, and that the word rest plainly permeates the descriptions of the feasts. The key to everything that God intends, embedded in the discussions of the feasts, is to establish a rest for His people.

There is a longing throughout the Tanakh, not just for the once per week Mosaic Sabbath, but a longing for that rest when the curse of sin and separation from the presence of God is ended. Work is contrasted with rest—both words seem to contain meanings beyond their obvious definitions. When humans work they are not at rest in the presence of God.

Exodus 33:14 and Matthew 11:28

These two verses are chronologically separated in the Scripture by over fifteen hundred years, are written in different languages, and narrate different circumstances completely, but they both end in the very same way. Consider them:

                        “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

                        Exodus 33:14

                        “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I

                        will give you rest.”

                        Matthew 11:28

Is Jesus’ deliberately quoting Exodus 33:14 and thus identifying Himself with both the presence of God and God’s rest? At the very least, Matthew may have made the connection, and so this may be indicative of the kind of reflection on Scripture in which both the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New engaged.

            The Exodus passage records the words of God to Moses. The Matthew passage records the words of Jesus to us all. This is not likely accidental or plagiaristic; this is a deliberate quoting by Jesus of words God the Father spoke to Moses. Jesus identified Himself with God the Father. Of course, this brings us deep into the mystery of the Trinity, but Jesus is the One who gives rest. One of the names of Messiah, based on Isaiah 7:14, is Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Jesus—God in the flesh, present with His people—gives rest. The curse of sin, which brought all the trouble and the burdensome work (see Genesis 3:17-19), was placed upon Jesus—God the Son—by God the Father, just as the sins of Israel were placed upon the Scapegoat by the high priest (see Leviticus 16:13-22).

            The great annual event in which the sins of Israel were placed upon the scapegoat, which was then sent into the wilderness away from the camp of Israel, was to be observed on the tenth day of the seventh month (see Leviticus 16:29), and was the very day upon which fell the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 23:27).

Jesus, the scapegoat of God, sent away from the camp of Israel, crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem, sent into the grave burying our sin, gives us rest by bringing us into the presence of God. In the pages of the New Testament we see that this is God indwelling the believer by His Holy Spirit. Paul wrote of the mystery of the glory or presence of God: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

 This radical changing of the nature of the agreement or covenant originally revealed to Moses is exactly what Jeremiah prophesied about centuries before the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Notes on the passage:

One. A contrast is made between an external covenant, the law, and an internal covenant, one which results in knowing God. Knowing means something close to intimate fellowship, and so the concept of being in the presence of God may be associated with Jeremiah’s words.

Two. The range of people who will know God grows greatly—men, women, least to greatest—no longer the professionals and leaders only.

Three. All of that which is coming is dependent on the forgiveness of iniquity and sin—the breaking of the plain laws, however that may occur. God puts the sin of His people away so they may enjoy His presence, because no sin can come before God, for He is holy, and we must be holy in order to be in His presence. Sin must be put away, forgiven.

Four. By implication then, God and humans are in fellowship again; those creatures made in His image will once again enjoy His rest, His presence.

The end point

It began in a garden, and in a garden it will end. But the garden is unlike any garden anyone might imagine. A garden is simply a perfect environment to enjoy the presence of God. There in that garden or paradise, all things are perfect, pure, and holy. It is the kingdom of God come.

            It is no accident, no coincidence, that the Scripture ends with an image of a garden, this one outside of space and time, eternal in that place where God dwells. John paints the picture:

            Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were  for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb  will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will  see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Revelation 22:1-5

Notes on the passage:

One. The Genesis garden has become a city in Revelation. Jerusalem is the great city, and it is fitting that the ultimate destination for God and man in fellowship is depicted as a specific city.

Two. Once again all the elements for life are present, especially the tree of life—the tree, the cross of Jesus perhaps, the water, and the fruit—the perfect garden restored, regained, now permanent with perfect rest.

Three. God is there and the Son is there, and there is no mention of the Spirit, but it is not germane to John’s purpose.

Four. God and humans are in intimate fellowship, for the face of God will be seen. This may be a way of saying that sin is gone, with no enemy and nothing twisted nor spoiled, nothing but the pure enjoyment of God, which alone would require a never-ending eternity to experience.

Once again—the main point

What started out as a rest, however perverted, will once again come around to a rest, the endless Sabbath rest.

            Embedded in Scripture, perhaps most pointedly in the holidays of Israel, is the grand theme of God’s holy writ. Prophetic, dramatic history at the very core of the religious observance of Israel—“Come to me and I will give you rest.”  

[1] In Genesis 2:15 the Hebrew gives the idea that God “rested” Adam in the garden. The same word, in the hiphil, is used several times in Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets to refer to God’s bringing Israel into the Promised Land.

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