I feel hot breath, then a wet tongue licking my face. This is Tilly’s wake-up signal. I roll out of bed, feel my way down to the basement, and dump a cup of dog food into her bowl. Back upstairs, I take my vitamins and start to make a cup of coffee. Then I remember—it’s Sunday.
While my family doesn’t observe a strict Sabbath, we do try to rest on Sundays. This is the heart of Sabbath, from the Hebrew shabbath, which means “to cease, desist, rest.” Initially, it was modeled by God after the six days of creation. Later, Sabbath was established for Israel as a day set apart from life’s regular work, a holy reality God asked Israel to “remember” and to “keep.” In explaining Sabbath to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:8-11), God made it clear that resting from work one day each week was as much a part of bearing His image as doing work.
All too often, though, my Sundays go a little differently. After feeding Tilly and taking my vitamins, I’m tempted to go back to bed. But I remember the grocery order that needs to be picked up at 8:00, and it’s already after 6:00. I grab my Bible and coffee and head to the couch for my morning ritual, thinking about the laundry that needs to be put away and the email I need to check. Later, after church, while my husband and stepsons lounge in their rooms or nap on the couch, I spend the afternoon running from one activity to another.
It’s a tension I’ve struggled with over a lifetime of being busy: Am I a human doing or a human being? Often, the more I do, the better things go—both for me and for those I love. Doing is how I situate myself in the world, in my family, in my relationship with God. It’s as if my life motto is James 2:18—“Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” In other words, I do, therefore I am.
Until I do not, and then I am not. It’s the only logical conclusion of a life or faith built on doing. Except I don’t believe it. I don’t believe children who can do nothing on their own are worthless. I don’t believe people living with disabilities or lingering into old age have less value because they’re not able to do the things they used to. I don’t even believe taking a day off to rest makes me less of a person. But if I don’t believe not doing makes me worthless, then why do I live as if doing makes me more valuable, especially in the life of faith?
This is the other side of Sabbath: it isn’t just some future reality of the kingdom. At least not for us. In Hebrews 4, the author reminds us that in the Old Testament, Sabbath was a shadow of things to come. He points to Joshua, who fought for God’s rest in the Promised Land, and David, who centuries later was still seeking God’s rest in His coming kingdom. However, neither of these men experienced God’s true Sabbath, “for if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that” (Heb. 4:8).
In the days after Jesus arrived, however, God’s rest was made available to all who believe in Him. What Israel experienced once a week—resting from their efforts and simply being God’s people—Jesus accomplished once for all when He died on the cross. In Christ, “we who have believed enter that rest,” saved from the effort of trying to earn the salvation He freely offers (Heb. 4:3). Keeping the Sabbath, then, becomes not just a weekly rest from the physical work of our lives but also a weekly reminder of that ultimate “Sabbath rest for the people of God,” when “anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10 NIV).
The invitation to rest in Christ is an ongoing, always-available offer to stop finding our own way to God, with the urgency described in Hebrews simply as Today: “Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today’” (Heb. 4:6-7 NIV). We are no longer waiting, like Joshua, for God to lead us into His presence or, like David, for the kingdom to be established. Jesus is with us. His kingdom has come. Today is the day of rest for those who believe.
But what about those weeks when Sunday feels like just another day, when the work itself feels too urgent to keep the Sabbath? Even Jesus Himself was known to rile up the Pharisees by “violating” the Sabbath. They wanted to follow the letter of the Law without yielding control over their lives. Jesus, on the other hand, was perfectly willing to sacrifice man-made, legalistic rules in order to submit to God’s perfect intention. When He picked grain with His disciples (Mark 2:23), drove out spirits (Luke 4:33-34), and healed people who had no other hope for being made whole, the Lord was showing us the many ways that “Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This means that on a busy Sunday I can still be assured of the spiritual rest Jesus offers, since keeping the Sabbath doesn’t make us more loved by God—or less loved when we fail to keep it.
To be honest, though, when it comes to a weekly ritual of Sabbath, I see myself less in the role of Jesus, clarifying the intent of the Law, and more in the role of those He ministered to: the man with a withered hand (Matt. 12:10), the woman with a fever (Luke 4:38), and the man born blind (John 9:14). If people’s value lies in what they do, then these individuals were worthless. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t care for their families. They couldn’t even take care of themselves. And when it comes to proving my worth or earning my salvation by the things I do, even my best efforts are worth little.
And yet on the Sabbath, a day to remember the rest we have in Christ, Jesus saw the lame and blind, and He touched them. He showed them they had value beyond what they could or couldn’t do. And when He healed them, it was as if He was saying to them—and to us—Do or don’t do; either way, you are Mine. Whole beings, loved by God.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft