Rest is not about work/life balance or even retirement
10 MINUTE READ
Madonna supposedly said “I’ll rest when I’m dead. I’m hungry and life is short.” We might not have her fame or musical gifts but many of us share the same attitude towards rest. We postpone rest to a distant time for the sake of getting more done now.
That approach might get results in the short term but it is neglecting the rich teaching of the Bible on rest both now and in the future.
The concept of rest arrives early in the Bible’s story. In Genesis we read that after God had finished His work of creation, “on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creation that he had done” (Gen 2:2b-3).
God’s rest was not a physical necessity (since He is all powerful) but a sign to us that not working is good. The seventh day of rest is actually holy.
“God’s rest was not a physical necessity… but a sign to us that not working is good.”
Centuries later, when God expressed His will for the nation of Israel in legal form, the command to rest made it into the ten commandments. In commandment four, He required the whole community to rest on the seventh day in imitation of His activity in creation (Ex 20:8-11). This command to rest was for people’s refreshment and to make it clear their days of slavery in Egypt were over, for it is slaves, not free people, who work seven days a week (Ex 23:12; Deut 5:12-15).
The Sabbath command was a basis for several laws in the Torah about rest, including laws requiring a one-in-seven-year rest for the fields themselves (Lev 25:4). Interestingly, in anticipation of people’s tendency to skip rest during busy times, the command to rest on the seventh day applies even during harvest (Ex 34:21).
For the Israelites, law obedience was not only an expression of respect for God but also an expression of trust in His provision. Resting faithfully, even during busy times, demonstrated a belief that a good life and prosperity ultimately came from God rather than endless toil.
Rest in the land
As Israel conquered the promised land, and began to occupy it, the concept of rest broadened to include rest from warfare. God promised His people:
“… you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety” (Deut 12:10).
This promise was fulfilled for leaders such as Joshua, David, Solomon, and Jehoshaphat as their enemies were defeated and the land had periods of peace. The Bible explicitly describes these times as “rest” (Josh 21:44; 2 Sam 7:1; 1 Kings 5:4; 2 Chron 20:30). Rest is not just about a day off each week, it is about God’s provision of peace and protection from hostile enemies.
In Psalm 95:11, God takes ownership of this rest – He describes the state of peaceful occupation of the land as “my rest.” The people cannot enjoy it apart from him. The Psalm warns its hearers that hardness of heart and ignorance of God’s ways will lead to their exclusion from His rest.
The hope of rest
As the story of Israel continued, it became clear that peaceful rest in the land was not going to continue in the long term. The perpetual sin of the people and their leaders made that impossible. Because of His justice and righteousness, God punished His people with military defeat, exile, and enslavement to foreign powers. There could be no rest for people who were in perpetual rebellion against their God.
In the prophets, true rest moved from present history to become part of the eschatological hope of the nation. This hope is expressed particularly in Isaiah chapters 40 to 66. This section looks forward to a time beyond the exile and begins with a message of comfort to the nation: “her hard service has been completed” (Isa 40:2). God promises He will gather His people like lambs (40:11) and Israel’s enemies will be no more (41:12). The passage describes an eternal era of peace (66:12).
There is hope here because God will deal with the spiritual issues besetting His people. He will forgive sin (43:25) and pour out His Spirit on his people (44:3). Key to this hope is the ministry of a servant messiah figure who will bear the people’s sins. This messiah will endure the punishment God’s people deserved so that they might have peace (Isa 53:5).
In view of this future, Isaiah invites his hearers to come to God in hope for rest:
“He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isa 40:29-31).
Here is a promise of rest that outstrips the earthly picture of Israel in the land.
Rest and Jesus
With time, in the Bible, we meet Jesus of Nazareth, the fulfillment of all of the promises of Isaiah. Here on the stage of history is God’s servant king bringing forgiveness of sins, healing and hope. This is true rest for the weary. As he preached in Galilee he made this invitation:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
There are great riches in these words of Jesus. Here is hope for the weary nation of Israel that is burdened by sin and judgment. Here also is hope for everyone longing for rest. True rest for our souls can be found with Jesus.
Jesus invites us to come to him and enter into a personal relationship; he invites us to submit to his lordship (his yoke) which is light and easy; and learn from him as his disciples. It is not necessary to have completed our various jobs and tasks before coming to him. It is not necessary for us to tidy up our sinful lives. The invitation is there for anyone overwhelmed right now. Pastor and author Dane Ortland writes:
“You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come. No payment is required; he says, “I will give you rest.” His rest is a gift, not a transaction. Whether you are actively working hard to crowbar your life into smoothness (“labor”) or passively finding yourself weighed down by something outside your control (“heavy laden”), Jesus Christ’s desire that you find rest, that you come in out of the storm, outstrips even your own.” 1
In Jesus we find rest. Ultimate Sabbath rest is in him. It is fitting that only a few verses on, in Matthew 12:8, Jesus describes himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mat 12:8). Jesus is the king over God’s eschatological rest.
How this state of rest (including victory over hostile forces) is achieved is made clear in the story of the gospel. Although Jesus came to the nation as Israel’s king, he was rejected by the people because of their sin and hardness of heart. When he died on the cross he took upon himself all our sin, guilt and judgment. He was fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah 53. At the same time, he secured all the promised blessings, including rest and peace. When he rose from the dead he was confirmed as the living Lord over the kingdom of God.
The hope of rest
The book of Hebrews draws together the themes of Sabbath, rest in the land, and the gospel message of Jesus. Those who have believed in him have entered God’s rest just as Jesus promised (Heb 4:3). Spiritual rest is real and present for us now.
However, there remains the hope of rest in the future, when all of God’s plans and purposes will be finally completed. During this current era of temptations and sufferings we need to make sure we enter that future rest as well:
“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb 4:9-11).
There is a paradox of sorts here for us in this age: we rest in Christ yet also make every effort to enter God’s final Sabbath-rest. We take sin seriously, for every sin is a danger that needs to be resisted. We rest in hope, while at the same time making no allowance for spiritual laziness.
God, rest, and me
Madonna planned on resting when she was dead, but for the Christian the invitation of rest in Jesus is available now, even as we have a hope of rest after we die. So what then are the implications and applications of the Bible’s teaching on rest? Here are three:
1. Don’t sanctify your busyness: As Christians we can be tempted to regard our busyness in work and ministry as a holy state. “Look how hard I am working! What a saint am I!” However, God is a God of rest who blessed the seventh day when he rested. Busyness has its place but if disconnected from rest, it is not holy or godly. You may need to repent of sanctifying your busyness.
2. Find your true rest in Jesus: Real rest does not come from holidays or long service leave. Without Christ we will never find true rest. We will always be burdened by sin, guilt, and hopelessness. In Psalm 62, David meditates on true spiritual rest:
“Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him…
…Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him” (Ps 62:1, 5).
If you do not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus this is the most urgent issue on your list of things to do; come to him today in humble prayer. Likewise, the invitation to rest in Jesus is the greatest comfort you can offer your exhausted colleagues.
If you do have a relationship with Christ but this relationship has stagnated, then that is a problem. Neglect of Jesus is a barrier for true rest. This issue is now the most urgent on your list of things to do. Set aside everything else and give time to Bible reading, meditation on God’s word, and prayer. Make time for fellowship with your spiritual brothers and sisters. As Hebrews says:
“Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (Heb 4:1).
We need to find our true rest in Jesus.
3. Put your hope in God’s heavenly rest: In the midst of busyness and exhaustion we need to ask ourselves where is our ultimate hope? Is it in the completion of our tasks? The next step in our career? Or in the next holiday or retirement? These things are all good but are false hopes if that is what we are looking forward to most. The only firm and reliable hope is God’s end-time rest where sin and conflict are no more. This is what Hebrews says:
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb 6:19).
This is where we need to look for ultimate rest, not work/life balance, retirement or other things. This hope is true eternal rest in fellowship with Jesus.
Praise God for His kindness and provision for us weary sinners. May He keep us in His care, correct our waywardness, and guide us to rest in Jesus.
Richard Sweatman Richard Sweatman is a pastor at Hunter Bible Church Newcastle. Before ministry training and Bible college he worked as a junior doctor and CMO.
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- Ortland, Dane. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Wheaton, Crossway. 2020. Pages 20-222.