Christ the Sabbath Rest of the People of God: Part One

by Dr. Don Garlington

Ours is a day of hustle and bustle. No one in Metro Toronto who fights the traffic on the Don Valley Parkway, the Gardner Expressway or the 401 will dispute that! One of the prime hazards of being alive at the end of the twentieth century is stress, due to the increasingly hectic pace and complexity of life. No wonder this is the era of the long weekend and the extended holiday. People need to rest in order escape, at least momentarily, the grind and the demands of every day living. In no small measure the dramatic increase in alcoholism and drug abuse in the past decade bears witness to man’s frenzied efforts to lay aside his burdens and rest. However, nothing is essentially new under the sun. Though written in antiquity, the Bible recognizes and addresses itself to the weariness and vanity of life. In a very real sense, its entire message is a one of rest from labour.

In order to comprehend the biblical promise of rest, we must start at the beginning. Gen 2:1-3 brings to a climax the creation account with the words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.” According to this statement, the rest of God forms the complement of the work of God. The six days of Gen 1 set forth the ordering of the primeval chaotic mass which was the earth (Gen 1:2). In the first chapter of the Bible therefore we read of God subduing the earth, i.e., of bringing of cosmos out of chaos. Thus Gen 1:1-2:3 as a whole establishes a pattern of God working (subduing) and God resting.           

Light is shed on the sabbath rest of God from Exod 31:17: “…on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” To speak of God’s refreshment is, of course, an figure of speech; his energy was hardly taxed. But he was “refreshed” in the sense that when he looked upon the work of his hands, he delighted in it as job well done and took from it supreme satisfaction.           

In addition, the rest of God signifies his kingly dignity. God has proven his mastery of and lordship over the elements by his work of subduing the chaos. Thereafter he rests and thus assumes a position of unique regality. Commenting on Rev 14:13 (“Blessed are they who die in the Lord henceforth …that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”), Meredith Kline tells us: “…the biblical concept of sabbath rest includes enthronement after the completion of labors by which royal dominion is manifested or secured (cf., e.g., Isa 66:1). The sabbath rest of the risen Christ is his kingly session at God’s right hand. To live and reign with Christ is to participate in his royal sabbath rest.”[1] Cf. 1 Cor 15:25 and especially Heb 1:3.

Therefore, the statement of Gen 2:3 that God blessed and hallowed (sanctified, separated) the seventh day has reference to the seventh day of God’s week.[2] Accordingly, the writer of Genesis envisages a state or condition of God subsequent to his labors; it is this state which is blessed and hallowed. As we shall see momentarily, the blessing and the sanctification (separation) of this seventh day consists in the blessed and separated status for which God created man and to which he beckons him. As later revelation will clarify (Ex 20:11; Ps 95:11; Heb 4:3, 5, 10), man’s rest is nothing other than God’s own rest.[3]

It is after this divine model that the work and the rest of man is patterned. As the image of God, man was to subdue the earth, i.e., to take it as it left the creator’s hand as an ordered cosmos and bring it to its full potential by his own labor; an immense task, and yet one for which he had been amply endowed. Man, therefore, was to work as God had worked, and thereafter he was to rest analogously to the way in which God had rested. That is to say, the goal before him was that of one day delighting in and taking satisfaction from the work of his hands and, as God’s co-regent, of reigning with him over a glorious creation. Man was meant to be an imitator of God because of his emulation of the divine work of subduing the earth and the divine rest consequent to that work.

The upshot of this divine/human pattern of work followed by rest is that an “eschatology” was built into the original creation. That is to say, there was a mandate to be fulfilled and then another state to be entered into as the consummation of man’s labors; this is the blessed and hallowed seventh day of God’s own sabbath rest. An exegesis particularly of 1 Cor 15:44ff. suggests that this entrance into the sabbath rest would have corresponded to man’s assumption of the “spiritual body,” transforming him from his original “natural body” and making him an even more adequate image-bearer of the living God[4]—indeed a blessed and hallowed condition!

Adam, however, was unable to accomplish the mandate of subduing the earth because of his apostasy; consequently he failed to enter God’s rest. As the writer of Hebrews informs us (2:5-9), Adam’s unfinished task had to be taken up another Adam who was able to bring to completion the programme begun with his predecessor. Because of Adam’s fall, a turning point is marked in the biblical conception of “rest:” from its original meaning as outlined above it becomes hereafter in the biblical revelation a synonym of “salvation.” Not, however, salvation merely as conversion, but as the accomplishment of humanity’s original mandate to bring the earth to a state of perfection and be all that it is capable of being as the image of God. The pursuit of rest therefore in biblical thinking is the process of reclaiming man, delivering him from the futility of his own efforts to find life’s meaning and enabling him to fulfill his destiny as one made only somewhat lower than God (Ps 8:5).

From Adam’s fall onward the Bible is structured by means of a series of new beginnings. Each of these new beginnings is centered around individuals and communities who represent a new humanity (the seed of the woman, Gen 3:15). In its own way, each new beginning is pointer forward to Christ, in whom God’s actual new creation becomes a reality in human history. Among the most important signposts to Christ are various rest-givers.

In Gen 5:29, Lamech, the father of Noah, says of his son: “Out of the ground which the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” This is fulfilled when Noah delivers his family from the chaos of the flood-waters and commences afresh the history of the human race. Here we see clearly the pattern of chaos subdued and (work) followed by rest.

One of the earliest references to the king of Israel in the Old Testament is Gen 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah takes the form of a prophecy that his tribe would be that of kingly descent. King after king will assume the reins of power until one appears with whom the scepter will remain, viz., “Shiloh.” Commentators such as Leupold, Hengstenberg and Keil connect this name with a Hebrew term which means “to rest.” Leupold writes: “Judah’s capacity for rule and sovereignty shall not be lost; in fact, it shall come to a climax in a ruler so competent that he shall be able to achieve perfect rest, and who shall because of his achievement in this field of endeavor be called ‘rest’ or ‘rest giver’.”[5]

Among the rest-givers is to be reckoned Joshua. Without going into detail, Israel’s conquest of Canaan takes up the idea of subduing the earth. With the onset of sin, human life has assumed chaotic proportions; this is depicted graphically in Gen 6:1-4 and in the abominations of the Canaanites, who were vomited out of the land because of their wickedness. When therefore Israel defeats the cities of Canaan, we see a picture of the people of God fulfilling the mandate to have dominion over the earth. Most noteworthy are the several references in the book of Joshua that Joshua gave Israel rest from her enemies (1:13, 15; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1). Here again we see the pattern of work (subduing chaos) followed by rest. It is true, of course, that Joshua did not provide ultimate rest (Heb 4:8); only Christ can do that. Yet he is one of the brightest beacons to Shiloh, the sabbath rest of the people of God.

[1]“The First Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974-75), 373.

[2]It is commonly noted that the seventh day has no beginning and ending, as the other days. Derek Kidner comments: “The formula that rounded off each of the six days with the onset of evening and morning is noticeably absent, as if to imply the ‘infinite perspective’ (Delitzsch) of God’s sabbath.” Genesis: Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-varsity, 1967), 53.

[3]“The declaration mounts, as it were, to the place of God himself and testifies that with the living God there is rest…Even more, that God has ‘blessed’, ‘sanctified’…this rest means that the author ‘does not consider it as something for God alone but as a concern of the world. The way is being prepared, therefore, for…the final, saving good” (Kidner, Genesis, 53, quoting G. Von Rad).

[4]See R. B. Gaffin, The Centrality of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 78ff.

[5]Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 2.1179. Interestingly, the Israelite king in the Psalms is frequently identified as the son of God. See John Eaton, Kingship and the Psalms (London: SCM, 1976), 146ff. The title “son of God” goes back to Adam, who was the first son of God (Luke 3:38), to whom the commandment to subdue the earth was given. Moreover there are several indications in the books of Kings and Chronicles that the king was looked upon as an Adam-figure.