A Biblical approach to Rest
8 MINUTE READ
Recently I’ve discovered something – I write essays to have a rest. I’ve been studying part time while also working part time as a GP and being Mum to a 15-month-old. Compared to the demands of patients and caring for an even more demanding toddler, writing essays is restful! But I think I’m not the only one who rests in unexpected ways. I know people who find all sorts of things restful, from running marathons, to exploring family history, to painting their house, or taking pictures of their food. If such diverse things can be considered rest, what even is rest? What is the purpose of rest? In looking at what God has to say about rest, I observe one thing rest is from, and two things rest is for.
We rest from work
When we rest, we stop working. Now this might sound obvious, but we’re so bad at doing this that God had to command us to rest! In Exodus 20:9-10, God mandates a Sabbath day rest for his people, saying ‘Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.’ (ESV) God commanded that all people in Israel rest on the Sabbath. The reason given for doing this is the pattern that God provided in Genesis 2:2, of resting on the seventh day following His work of creation. God doesn’t need to rest, but by ceasing from His work He graciously provides a pattern for us to follow. Because we do need to rest, whether that’s from the mental strain of our work by getting out and running a marathon, or from the physical strain of chasing after a toddler by sitting in a chair and writing an essay. Not because work is bad, but because work is hard. Since the Fall, our work has become hard and often painful (Genesis 3:17-19). Even though the Sabbath is mostly not mandated in the same way now as it was in the Old Testament, it reveals to us the importance of resting from our work.
“ Even though the Sabbath is mostly not mandated in the same way now as it was in the Old Testament, it reveals to us the importance of resting from our work.”
But in modern society, finding rest seems to be getting more difficult. I’ve found this especially working from home. In the first COVID lockdown, I was set up with a home connection to our work server for the first time. I found I was often tempted to check one more result, or contact that patient to ask one more clarifying question, now that I could just go into my study and open up the laptop. This meant that I was thinking about work even when I was eating dinner, or trying to sleep. But in Deuteronomy 5:15 God gave the Israelites another important reason for keeping the Sabbath, remembering that they had been rescued from Egypt by God. The Sabbath reminded the Israelites that God was the one who had ultimately done the work of looking after them by redeeming them from slavery. And in Exodus 16:21-30 God provided enough bread for His people to last for two days, so they wouldn’t have to work on the Sabbath. Just as God rescued Israel from Egypt, and provided their food, He also looks after us, and He can keep things going without us. He provides for the birds and the flowers, and we are so much more precious to Him (Matthew 6:25-34). The world won’t end if we take a break! I doubt that any patient would thank me for waking them up in the middle of the night to give them their cholesterol result, but even if they did, God doesn’t need me to do that! God is watching over us and our patients whether we’re working or not, 24/7. We can have a rest.
We rest for fellowship with God
And this leads nicely into the second thing that I have realised about rest, which is that it is for fellowship with God. By making the seventh day holy, God was setting apart a day for Himself (Genesis 2:3), and he required the Israelites to also set apart the Sabbath for time with Him (Exodus 20:11). Many of the festivals in the Israelite calendar were also set up to create a holy space for the Israelites to reconnect with God, whether in thanksgiving or repentance. There was the Passover which reminded them of when God rescued them from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-20), Pentecost (Numbers 28:26) when they remembered God’s good gift of the harvest, and the day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32) which reminded the Israelites of the need to be cleansed before the Lord from sin. Space was created apart from work in order to worship the Lord.
God is also the only one who can give us spiritual rest. Many of the Psalmists sang about the rest their souls needed that only God could provide, for example in the beautiful words of Psalm 23:1-3a (ESV):
‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.’
We experience spiritual rest even more fully now, having received Christ’s forgiveness, as we don’t need to strive to earn God’s favour. As Jesus says ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28 ESV). Hebrews 3 and 4 also speak of the rest God gives to those who share in Christ. And Revelation similarly describes the ultimate rest we will experience once we die, when we will have rest from all suffering and dwell with God forever (Revelation 14:13, 21:3-4) – not necessarily meaning work will cease, but it will no longer be the painful toil that it is now.
Seeing rest as a means of fellowship with God doesn’t mean we need to feel bad about going for a run or Instagramming our coffee, but we can see these moments as an opportunity to be thankful to God for His many blessings to us. God rested on the seventh day to enjoy the creation He had made (Genesis 2:2-3), and we too can rest by enjoying God’s wonderful creation and praising Him for it, as well as by setting aside specific time to talk to and listen to Him. Knowing that rest is for fellowship with God also helps us find rest even at those times when life feels absolutely overwhelming, when there doesn’t seem any opportunity for rest. When we feel like we’re drowning under the weight of our circumstances or our own burden of anxiety and guilt, our souls can still find rest in our Lord, knowing that He has forgiven us, is caring for us, and will bring us home.
We rest for fellowship with others
A final thing that I noticed about rest is that rest in the Bible often looks a lot like a party. Many of the days of rest in the Old Testament involved eating meals and celebrating as a community (e.g. Deuteronomy 16:9-15), and similarly many of the pictures Jesus used for heaven involved a feast (e.g. Matthew 8:11). We’ve seen that in Exodus 20:10, God commanded the whole community of Israel to rest on the Sabbath regardless of status. Old and young, male and female, servant and foreigner, we’re all freed to participate in worshipping God together. Just to reassure the introverts among us, this isn’t the only way to rest. Jesus himself would often withdraw from the crowds to pray alone (Luke 5:16). But if being alone is the only way we rest, we’re missing out on a really important kind of refreshment. Meeting with other Christians is important in encouraging us and renewing our motivation to love and do good (Hebrews 24-25), and also strengthens us in our faith (Ephesians 4:11-13).
“We experience spiritual rest even more fully now, having received Christ’s forgiveness…”
I asked my husband, who is an introvert, whether he found church restful. He said it was restful in a different way. Even though he is very happy in his own company, he found being among a group of people who knew and cared for him, that feeling of belonging and encouragement of worshipping the Lord together, was refreshing in a way that time alone couldn’t be. Working in healthcare, our days can often be filled with listening to the distress and needs of other people. When we finally arrive home, sometimes the last thing we feel like doing is going back out to a Bible study full of more people. But using our rest to share meals with other Christians, or to reflect on the Lord’s words and spur one another on is refreshing to our souls in a way few other things are.
Having reflected on these things, I have felt affirmed in finding rest in my essay writing, but have also felt inspired to thank the Lord for the many good things in my life and the chance to change pace by sitting in peace. I have also felt a greater encouragement to give my work worries over to the Lord, and take time to catch up with that sister over coffee. I hope that you also feel encouraged to rest from your work, enjoying the goodness of our Lord and the fellowship of others, however that looks for you!
Dr Emma Bott Dr Emma Bott works part time as GP at Awabakal Medical Service and has recently completed a Masters of Divinity at SMBC. She is married to David, a pastor at Grace Evangelical Church Newcastle, and is Mum to Samuel.