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

by Dr. Don Garlington

From a certain point of view, the entire message of the Bible is one of rest from labour. As we saw in our first study, God's work in creation was followed by a day of rest. This day, however, is not to be understood so much as a day of the week as a state or condition which God enjoys as a result of subduing the primeval chaos: God’s rest is his delight in and satisfaction with the work of his hands—his “refreshment” (Exodus 31:17). It is a day which is in progress even now and a day which was held before humanity as the reward of its own work of subduing the earth. However, with Adam’s fall the great mandate was rendered impossible; henceforth “rest” assumes the meaning of “salvation.” Man is to achieve his reason for existence; but first he must be saved from his apostasy and rebellion in Adam. This means that in order for man to be saved, a rest-giver is necessary. Ultimately, of course, this rest-giver is Jesus Christ. However, his incarnation did not take place immediately after the fall: the way was paved by other persons—rest-givers in advance—along with the institutions of the nation Israel over a period of many millennia. We have glanced at the leading rest-givers of the Old Testament, and now we turn to the period of Israel under the law and to the sabbath-institution as the one of the most outstanding pointers to Christ.

To understand the Mosaic covenant, one must reflect that its sign was the sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17). As the rainbow is the sign of the Noahic covenant and circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, the sabbath was the sign of the covenant mediated by Moses. The sign of any covenant pictures what the covenant was all about. In the case of the Noahic covenant, the rainbow signified that God had put away his weapon of warfare. It was also eloquent of light shining in the darkness, i.e., a new creation, following the chaos of the flood waters. In the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision, performed on the eighth day, likewise signified a new creation, the removal of that which was unclean and a new beginning. Similarly, the sabbath institution informs us that the Mosaic covenant had at its center the idea of man working and then resting.

What this means is clarified by Exod 20:8-11 and Deut 5:12-15. The motivation of sabbath-keeping, in the former, is the creation pattern of God’s labour and rest, while, in the latter, it is the exodus from Egypt. Thus the twofold rationale behind the sabbath is that of creation and redemption: the sabbath for Israel was a memorial of God’s work in the creation and in the deliverance of his people from bondage. This connection of rest with creation and redemption is quite natural. The creator’s original design was that man, his image, should enter into his own rest; at the same time, Israel’s deliverance from bondage in the exodus was a kind of new creation.[1] From the perspective of both creation and exodus, Israel was the son of God, as Adam earlier, and, as Adam, was intended to enter God’s rest. This is why the sabbath-command occupies a prominent place in the Ten Commandments and why infraction of it resulted in death. In other words, the person who broke the sabbath signified that he was unwilling to enter God’s rest, and the only alternative was death.

However, Israel’s sabbath-keeping was more than a memorial of past events: by the repeated process of working and resting, Israel was foreshadowing what God would do in the future when he would cause his people to rest in Christ. It is not without reason therefore that the prophetic writings are saturated with anticipations of a new creation and a new exodus for the people of God. All of this informs us that the Mosaic economy was never meant to be an end in itself but a pointer to God’s ultimate goal in Christ. The sabbath then, as the covenant sign, means that the Mosaic covenant as a whole was a picture of rest and a rest-giver and of the necessity of entering into his rest.

The significance of the sabbath, however, is not exhausted by the seventh-day sabbath: there is, in fact, an entire system of sabbaths in the law of Moses. When, in Col 2:17, Paul speaks of the “sabbaths” of which Christ is the “body” (substance), he has in mind not merely the weekly sabbath but the sabbatical years and the series of feast-days commanded in Leviticus 23 and 25. There are eight sabbath-festivals in these chapters, which is significant in itself, because the number eight uniformly in Scripture symbolizes a new beginning (such as circumcision). They are all introduced by Lev 23:1-3, which repeats the sabbath-command of the Decalogue. This is the index to our understanding of what these special days were all about: each of them in its own right was a sabbath, embodying and perpetuating the ideal and goal of the sabbath day. In other words, each festival was a period of rest for Israel, and each spoke of the reason of Israel’s existence, i.e., to hold uninterrupted fellowship with the God of heaven.

Of particular interest is the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8ff.). In the Jubilee the land was to be given its rest after a period of work (productivity). Equally important is the idea of release from bondage: “You shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all you land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family.” Therefore rest and liberation come together in the year of Jubilee: in its own way Jubilees was a new beginning and a release from bondage—a new creation and a new exodus—which bore the character of sabbath-rest.[2] Of such importance is the Jubilee that Isaiah 61:1ff. can depict the work of Messiah as inaugurating the “acceptable year of the Lord” when the captives are set free.

In summary, the Mosaic period as a whole portrays the work of Christ as a rest-giver. By means of a rigid routine of working and resting century after century, the people of God were being taught that they must find their rest, i.e., salvation in God himself and in his provision for eternal life. The lesson was reinforced by the eight feast-days of the nation, particularly the Jubilee, which brought together rest and liberation, when, on the day of atonement, the high priest sent abroad the loud trumpet into all the land. The entire history of Israel then can be summarized as the expectation that the Lord would give his people rest. It is against this backdrop that Jesus of Nazareth one day cried: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

[1]This is why in the prophets the new creation and the new exodus are intertwined.

[2]The year began on the day of atonement, when the sins of the people were put away by sacrifice. As we shall see, this features prominently in the New Testament's presentation of the fulfillment of the sabbath in Christ.