God, having completed His work of creation, rests on the seventh day, blessing and making it holy and thus seeding patterns that will be developed and expanded upon throughout the Scriptures.
In a world obsessed with work, productivity, economic output and its increase, God’s word reminds us that He created us not only to work, but also to have and enjoy regular rest from our labours. The rest enjoyed in Genesis points forward to the rest from striving for salvation that we can have today in Christ, and the rest that we will ultimately enjoy when the heavens and the earth are fully and finally renewed.
We live in a world obsessed with work. When a disaster of any kind occurs, it doesn’t take long for us to be given an estimate of the effort required to get things back to what they were beforehand (measured, of course, in terms of the almighty dollar). Throughout each year, we are told how much the economy of our nation grew in comparison to the same period in the previous year. If some new initiative is being promoted, its worth will inevitably be measured in terms of the contribution to the economy – jobs that will be created and so on.
Even rest itself is viewed through the lens of work. Its value is most often measured not in rest providing us with an opportunity to recuperate and enjoy God’s creation, but in how money is spent and how many jobs are created as a result of us taking a break from our labours.
Even in our private lives, we can be obsessed with work.
Let me use myself as an example: In my resume, I describe myself as “compulsively useful”, and its for a good reason – if I’m awake and not fulfilling the obligations of my paid work, I’m probably seeking to improve our home in some way, or contributing in some way to my SES unit, writing a sermon or working on one of my other projects. I genuinely struggle with the idea of having a whole day each week in which all I do is rest.
How many of you have the same struggle?
And if most or all of us know this struggle, what do we do with these words from Genesis 2? What do we do with the whole pattern that God lays out through the Bible, in relation to rest? That’s our topic this morning.
What is rest?
First, we need to ask what God means when He talks about rest. This might sound like a silly question – surely we all understand what rest is, right? But let’s do a quick check of the Scriptures to make sure our ideas match God’s ideas.
Notice first that in our passage itself, we’re clearly told that with the close of Chapter 1, all of God’s work in creation is complete. When you and I finish work on Friday afternoon, or finish our chores on Saturday afternoon, we might still have a list of things to pick up on Monday. Not so here – with the close of Chapter 1, God’s work of creating is totally complete.
This fact isn’t merely stated. It is hammered home - repeated in every one of the three verses, four times. This is like that famous passage in Isaiah 6 where we read “Holy, holy, holy”.
Genesis 1 tells us in no uncertain terms, with the Hebrew equivalent of bold type and yellow highlighting that God’s work of creation is done. Finished. Complete.
Since God’s work is finished, the key difference between the sixth day and the seventh is that God stops doing what He was doing. This is the basic meaning of the word translated ‘rests’, which is also the word from which we derive the term ‘Sabbath’.
God’s kind of rest is not a brief pause. It is stopping.
Biblically, to observe the Sabbath is to stop doing what you tend to do on the other six days of the week, particularly in the way of productive work. It is a clean cut, a fresh phase.
Rest for refreshment
In Genesis 2, God doesn’t take this day of rest because He needs it. Nothing in our text indicates that the work of creating the universe tired God in any way. As we saw previously, there is no struggle between God and an unruly universe. He speaks and the creation obeys.
So why does God rest?
He takes the rest as part of setting up yet another good and helpful pattern for us.
This pattern is similar to one of the Standard Operating Procedures we have in the State Emergency Service that sets out practices around Duty Time Limitations. I’m sure you can imagine that volunteering in the SES can sometimes involve some pretty long, physical and tiring days. At the same time though, people volunteer for an emergency service because they want to be helpful, and we don’t always want to stop when there is work to do.
But the crucial difference is that we’re not God. The longer we work, the more tired we get and the greater the chance of mistakes and mishaps. It is for this reason that we have policies limiting the amount of time people are allowed to work before they must take breaks. We need rest for our own welfare and for the good of others. Sometimes we have to be told to take a rest even when we don’t want to do so.
Knowing our limitations, God takes a day of rest to start a pattern of rest for us.
Although the idea of rest is primarily defined by what we don’t do, the point to the day of rest, like the point to the SES Policy, isn’t to restrict us from doing something we might consider enjoyable and want to do. The day of rest gives us the opportunity to recover from the exertion of the other six days. It is given for our good.
Exodus 23:12 says in full:
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
You and are I not supposed to work day in and day out. We are meant to work a good portion of the time, fulfilling that creation mandate to fill the earth and subdue it and labouring to make the goodness and glory of Christ known to those around us. But it is also good and right for us to take a rest from work. We should not feel guilty about doing so. God has told us we can and should take rests, and has done it Himself as an example to us.
Rest for all creation
But it’s not just God’s people that are supposed to have rests. In the remainder of the Pentateuch, God commands that animals and slaves (Exodus 23:12) be given the opportunity to rest at the same time as God’s people.
This has good and necessary implications for us today – it is a clear implication of God’s word that we should support efforts to promote fair and just workplace relations laws and good treatment of animals that are used in workplaces. Employers and employees alike should be justly and fairly compensated for their efforts – noone should be exploited because they are immigrant workers or young and inexperienced, for example.
But it’s not just other people and creatures that get rest.
In Leviticus 25, the land itself is to be given a rest every seventh year and also every fiftieth year. The rest for the land shows us a second purpose – that of teaching us to trust in God and giving us a means of expressing our trust in God. Leviticus 25:18ff says:
Therefore you shall do my statutes and keep my rules and perform them, and then you will dwell in the land securely. 19 The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely. 20 And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ 21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. 22 When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives.
The Israelites were being commanded in this chapter of Leviticus to take a whole year of rest from planting and harvesting, trusting God to provide for them as they obeyed His commands. We have no evidence that this ever actually happened, but that doesn’t negate the truth that God promised they could and should do so. The differences between then and now mean I wouldn’t recommend taking a year off work today and just relying on God to provide for you – we’re not a nation of people living under God’s rule like they were. But the principle is still true. Their God is our God, and He is more than capable of providing for us and does ultimately provide for us even while we work and even when we don’t trust Him like we should.
Rest is also for worship.
Another aspect to the pattern of rest that God is starting to establish here is the fact that the day of rest has also been ordained to be a day of worship. “Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” This is the aspect of holiness to the seventh day. It is an opportunity for God’s people to gather and worship Him together in a way that isn’t so easily available on other days of the week.
That aspect of holiness should leave us asking how much we view Sunday as a special day. It should raise in our minds questions regarding the extent to which we look forward to that opportunity to meet with others of God’s people, the extent to which we look forward to having time to focus on God’s Word, being reminded again of our desperate need, His gracious and glorious supply, and the blessed hope we have of a day in which all things will be made new.
Rest is not a legalistic requirement.
Notice also that we’re not supposed to be legalistic about observance of the day of rest. When in Mark 2, the Pharisees complain about Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath, Jesus’ reply includes the statement that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Sometimes in the past I’ve heard stories of people making the Lord’s Day more of a pain than a pleasure for their children. They weren’t allowed to do this or that or something else – like the stereotypical picture of the Bible, it was more about “You shall not” than anything else. Let me come back to what I said earlier, again: Although the idea of rest is primarily defined by what we don’t do, the point to the day of rest isn’t to restrict us from doing something we might consider enjoyable and want to do. God’s provision of a day of rest is meant to be a blessing to us, a reflection of His care and concern for His creatures. Surely this is also why we read in Genesis 2 that He blessed the seventh day and made it holy. The day is meant to be a joy and a privilege for us – special and appreciated, not viewed as a chain around our necks. Think of it as an opportunity to do things together – as God’s people and as families – that perhaps we don’t get the opportunity to do on other days.
There will be some tasks that we still need to do on Sunday – perhaps for example putting the bins out if your rubbish is collected on Monday morning, or cooking or doing the dishes. But the primary point to a day of rest is not building a list of things we may and may not do or reasons why we have exceptions. The primary point is for us to have a day in which we can recharge the batteries – and do other things - such as corporate worship – that we otherwise don’t have the time to do together.
One of the most important aspects to this rest is the reason it is possible. We can rest because of God’s blessing and provision. In Genesis 2, it wouldn’t make sense for God to take His rest on day one, would it? It only makes sense in the context of some work having been done.
But it is God’s word – His blessing and provision, not our work that enables us to take a rest. We rightly say that all our labour and effort will be worth nothing if God does not bless it.
And this is most clearly seen when we consider our eternal rest, which is the end point of the pattern God is kicking off in Genesis 2. The next step beyond taking a day off each week or a year off planting and harvesting is taking a lifetime off worrying about what happens after you pass from this world and a lifetime off trying to make yourself right with God by your own efforts.
Hebrews makes it abundantly clear to us that this is what we can do today, by God’s grace. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot undo the effects of the fall. We cannot return to the blessedness of Genesis 2 on the basis of what we do.
Entering God’s rest can only happen through us, by God’s grace, combining the message we hear each week about the Saviour’s finished work on the cross with faith and obedience. The message we need to listen to is the message that just as everything was finished and complete and done at the close of day six of creation, so everything needed for our salvation was and is finished and complete and done with Christ’s word on the cross, “It is finished”. The perseverance in the faith, the good works we produce, the hope we have – these aren’t products of our striving, but fruit of the salvation we have in Christ; the fruit of resting in Him.
Brothers and sisters, are you still striving for reconciliation with God through your own efforts? Do you worry that this sin or that will cut you off forever from heaven, removing all hope for your soul? If you do, think again about what it meant for creation to be finished and God to rest. Think again what it means for Christ to have said on the cross, “It is finished.” Know, by God’s grace, the peace, the security, the rest that come from trusting that it is finished.
We started this sermon talking about the way in which our world is obsessed with work. I want to finish by reminding us that work is not at all bad. God gave us the creation mandate, to fill the earth and subdue it. But there are some things in this world that cannot be subdued, no matter how much we fill the earth, not matter how much we seek to do so. Sometimes we need to stop working and rely on God to do the work for us, as He done in giving us His own Son to be our Saviour.
So when you hear the word ‘rest’, don’t just think of all the work you have still to do, or the cost to the economy. Don’t think of Sunday as a day to get out of the way as quickly as possible, or rest as something for after you die. Seek, by God’s grace to find a new appreciation for the rest we are allowed day by day and week by week, but above all else an appreciation for the greatest rest ever provided – the true and lasting peace and security – that is only found in Christ. To Him be the glory.