This study focuses on the Sabbath, and while it is only mentioned in one verse in Lev 23, we'll also use other passages in the Bible to understand the value and purpose of the Sabbath.
(A) The Sabbath calls God’s people to regularly remember God
In Lev 23:3, the Israelites were told to keep the Sabbath weekly. This distinguishes the Sabbath from the other feasts, since the other feasts we learn about are yearly affairs. The Sabbath is an indication of a kind of regularity and consistency in worshipping God, which is also an essential part of life. It might not be the most momentous occasion, but that does not mean it is not important. We know this already, because some of the most mundane, regular things we do in life are the most essential and important, e.g. brushing our .The regularity of the worship is just as essential and important. Likewise, being a Christian is not just about Easter and Christmas – we must also remember the regularity of it. Worship is not just on special occasions, but our weekly and even daily worship are also important! How often do you think about this? If we are honest with ourselves, we don't think about our regular service that much.
The Sabbath is also described as a ‘solemn rest’ and ‘holy convocation’. This might seem like a confusing thing at first – rest seems to imply not doing anything, but convocation seems to imply doing something. Rest is described as "solemn" conveying a picture of a very serious, formal and dignified occasion because a higher power is present. The convocation or gathering is also "holy", and as we've been learning in the past studies, it means to be set apart for God and to be of God. Notice that whatever the actions are on the Sabbath, the focus is on God. The purpose of the Sabbath is to honour God with that day that has been set apart for Him.
This command to the Israelites also has a lesson for us. We too, are to worship regularly. It is so much easier to celebrate the big events, but far harder to persevere. The discipline for daily, consistent, regular worship is difficult. How is your regular worship life? Are there things that hold you back from it? If there are, these are the things we need to pray against! It's not about how "on fire" we are for God at a particular phase of our lives, but we also need to pray and ask for His help to do only what He can enable us to.
(B) The Sabbath calls God’s people to remember we are not God, and the wonder of who God is
To understand more about the Sabbath, we need to go to Gen 2:1-2, where the Sabbath was first established in the creation story, which is then referenced in the 10 commandments in Exodus 20. Keeping the Sabbath is therefore a part of creation, and hardwired into who we are as created beings. The 6-day work, 1-day rest rhythm and cycle is established from the beginning of time. The truth is that as created beings, we need the rest – this is something we know innately. God models it even though He doesn't need it and also institutes it in our lives, this is His grace to us. And yet, we often find as many ways as possible to neglect rest for the sake of work and ‘maximising time’. Conventional wisdom also advises us to plan our time properly to do as much as possible. The Sabbath is counter-intuitive to all of that. The Sabbath is an act of trust because it is a distinctly unproductive thing to do. God’s people are not God. We are created beings, and we need the ‘solemn rest’ that God has commanded, to put things aside and really resting.
From Gen 2, we also learn that God ‘blessed’ the seventh day and ‘made it holy’. What do these 2 words mean? For it to be blessed by God, it is to be made rich with His blessing, to bestow His favour upon it, to become a source of blessing. Once again, to be made holy is to be set apart for God’s purposes. The two (blessing and holiness) go together – when we honour God instead of chasing the world, we receive more blessing, and when we seek God for blessing rather than seeking human labour for it, we honour God. The Sabbath is about that: stopping our work (even our ministry work!) to focus on God, remember His goodness, power, majesty, grace, love – all of who He is. It is an act of rest and trust, but also of dedication – this is the ‘doing’ part of the Sabbath, the ‘holy convocation’. Just like how God stopped at the end of creation to marvel at all He did, so too, do we stop and marvel at God.
Once again, we see that the Sabbath revolves around the character of God and not us. If your idea of Sabbath and rest is about "taking a break", the Sabbath is truly more than that. There are more dimensions to this. There is something about worshipping Him.
(C) The Sabbath calls God’s people to rest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, experiencing total assurance and hope
We now turn to Heb 3:17-4:13. There is a rest being described here, and to enter it, we are told that people must ‘believe’ (Heb 4:3) the ‘good news/message’ (Heb 4:2). On the contrary, people fail to enter because of ‘disobedience’ (Heb 4:6) or if they are not ‘united in faith’ (Heb 4:2). There is a clear 2-option choice presented here when one hears the good news or message – to believe or not to believe, which has consequences on entering into ‘rest’. What is this good news or message? The Gospel means the good news. What must be believed is the message of Christ – that He came and died on the Cross to redeem a sinful people, offering hope and calling them to repentance. The gospel is a message that we must hear and believe in order to enter the rest of salvation. In Matt 11:28, Jesus Himself says, "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This is the rest that salvation offers. It is the rest that comes from knowing that we no longer bear the guilt and burden of sin upon ourselves, because it has been taken by the Saviour. Here we see that rest also comes from knowing that our sins and the consequences of sin has been wiped away and borne on our behalf. Our ultimate rest is found in Jesus Christ, and what we must do to enter it is listen to His Gospel, and believe in it. It is freely offered to those who believe in Him. As the hymn goes:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! ... Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my saviour am happy and blest, watching and waiting, looking above, filled with His goodness, lost in His love
In our Savior, we find happiness, blessing, love and rest because we no longer bear our sins. Rest is primarily not even about thinking of ways to worship God. Rather it begins and is anchored in Christ's finished work on the cross.
Heb 4:10 tells us what happens to a person who enters into God's rest. When we enter the rest of God, we are freed from our attempts to save ourselves or to work out our own forms of salvation. Perhaps we are working toward some kind of idol like power or money or fame, or we are continually trying to be a ‘good person’ to be accepted by God whether we realise it or not. There is no longer a need for that work for the Christian. Take a rest from this kind of work. When we enter the rest of Christ, we enter the full power of His work by His grace, His unmerited favour which has nothing of our doing or our work, but it is God’s sovereign choice to grant all who believe in Him salvation. In so doing He provides us rest from our work. Entering God’s rest enables us to experience His grace.
However, the rest spoken of here in Hebrews is not merely speaking of the situation now. It also points to a future rest, spoken of in Rev 21:1-4. This is a promise for present times where chaos appears to be taking over the world (economic uncertainty, leadership struggles, racial tensions), or if you are going through any personal turmoil or pain or suffering. The Sabbath provides rest for the weary, but also points to hope for the eternal. One day, all things will be set right again and we have the rest we long and yearn for so much. This is not an abstract idea, but is a real future that awaits us in the future. As we wait for that day when all our longings will be satisfied, and we get the rest we so desperately long for, we need to wait by preaching the gospel to ourselves everyday.