Exodus 20:8-11 - The Sabbath is a Sign
July 27, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:8–20:11
[Exodus 20:8-11 - "The Sabbath is a Sign"]
Was the Sabbath meant to be a burden? Is the Lord’s Day meant to crush? Or were they a gift? Is the day of rest about lists of what to do, what not to do? Or is the day of rest about rest?
[Pray – (adapted from St. Ambrose, 339 – 397)
Lord, teach us to seek you, and reveal yourself to us as we seek you. For we cannot seek you unless you first teach us and we cannot find you unless you first reveal yourself to us. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.]
[Read Exodus 20:1-11 for context]
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). That’s how this Story of Redemption begins – God working and his work making all things “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
Six days he worked, creating spaces then filling them up with life. The earth, the seas, the air filled up with birds and fish and creatures with human beings as the crowning work. But when he finished his work of creation, we see this God do something profound.
Genesis 2 opens with this - “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
God rested. On some level, that seems shocking to me. But at the same time, it creates longing in me. Because even if I don’t exactly know what it means, if God can rest – maybe there’s rest for us, too.
Think about how enticing rest would sound to an Israelite of the exodus. Slaves they had been for centuries. And slaves in this world do not get rest. Their time was not measured by a weekly cycle of work and rest. Because their time was marked by the crack of their masters’ whips urging them to do more. The passing from one day into the next only mattered if they were behind on their quota of bricks for Pharaoh’s monuments. For Israel, one day of servile work simply gave way to another for 400 years. Work never gave way to rest. And rest is what their bodies needed.
Maybe you can relate to that. We are busy people, often by our own making. We look in the mirror at the one cracking the whip, urging us to do more, do more, do more. And we hear it screamed by bills and sales reports and committee meetings and sports leagues – “Do more! Do more! Do more!” Is rest what you need? Israel could feel the need for it in their bones.
But as much as they needed rest for their bodies, their souls needed rest, too. YHWH was calling them to be his people, to be a kingdom of priests in his service (Ex. 19:6). They were to be his treasured possession (Ex. 19), his vehicle of blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). And like every human being who’s ever met this God, they felt the weight of the call, the importance of such work. But humans working to please the God who demands perfection always find it exhausting.
What about you? Some of us keep trying to please God ourselves, working hard to keep the rules, hoping to earn a smile. And it’s wearing us out. Some of us are tempted to give up on pleasing God at all, thinking we might as walk away from the plow because this work is too hard. And we turn to other things that promise rest and refreshment, things easier to please than the God who demands perfection.
Either way we go, we are robbed of rest. In rule-keeping or rule-breaking, we become rest-poor. Do you ever feel bankrupt of rest?
If so, then you are not alone. Because ever since the Fall in Eden, humanity has lived under slavery more ruthless than that of Pharaoh. When we rebelled against our Creator, our blessed work as gardeners became the labor of farmers. The fruitful earth would yield “thorns and thistles” and we would only eat bread by the sweat of our brows (Genesis 3:18-19). Our bodies would suffer and grow weary and wear out because we severed ourselves from the God who knows how to rest.
Our souls, too, would come to know weariness as we came under a wearisome new master – Sin. And Sin is a master that never gives rest. No matter what promises it makes it never delivers. Both rule-keeping and rule-breaking leave us exhausted. Because there is only one source of rest for our bodies and souls, the God who has rested. As one man confessed to him, “…you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Augustine, Confessions, I.1)
But to weary, restless hearts like ours this God freely gives rest to body and soul. We hear the hope of it in the Fourth Commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, 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. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:8-11)
I want us to consider this issue of Sabbath rest in three movements, helping us understand what has happened in the Story of Redemption we call the Bible. First, we’ll see how the Sabbath pointed to rest for body and soul. Second, we’ll see how that rest arrived in Jesus (and how the Church recognizes the arrival of rest each Lord’s Day, each Sunday). And finally, we’ll see how each Lord’s Day points us to a fuller rest to come. (repeat)
So, first, the Sabbath is a sign, pointing to rest for body and soul.
The Fourth Commandment speaks of Sabbath, of rest and the cessation of work. In the Fourth Commandment, rest is what YHWH gives to his people. Their daily work was to be set aside on the Sabbath so that they could be refreshed. And not only them, but their servants and strangers among them along with their animals were to be refreshed by the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12). This is something not seen in any other ancient culture. The Sabbath was a gift to the people of God, to physical beings who grew weary from work. It meant they had a day to rest, remembering that their life wasn’t in the hands of their work. Their lives were in the hands of their God.
But the Sabbath rest was not only for their bodies, needed though it was. The Sabbath pointed them to rest for their souls.
Listen to how YHWH speaks about the Sabbath in Exodus 31:13 – “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, YHWH, sanctify you.”
To sanctify something is to make it holy, to set it apart from everything else. YHWH had chosen Israel to be his people. He’d set them apart from the rest of the world to be his treasured possession, to be a kingdom of priests in his service, his vehicle of blessing to all the families of the earth broken in the Fall. And in the Sabbath, YHWH pointed Israel to the hope that the success of this call did not rest on their shoulders. The purposes of God would not depend on their work, but God’s. And as the people of God rested in that truth, that hope, God would sanctify them, setting them apart for his purposes. Their souls could rest in him.
So, for Israel to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, was first an act of faith. It meant they were looking to YHWH alone to give them rest for their bodies and rest for their souls. Remember, it was to be a “Sabbath to YHWH” (Ex. 20:10), a day of joyful rest with their bodies and souls looking to him.
But by the time of the New Testament, indeed hundreds of years before the arrival of Christ, the religious elites had formulated their own ideas about the Sabbath. And instead of rejoicing in the rest the day pointed toward, the Pharisees turned a day of rest and gladness into a day of rules and burdens for a soul to carry.
The simple rules regarding the setting aside of daily work were multiplied. As one writer puts it, “The brief reference in the fourth commandment, ‘You may not perform any work,’ was far too vague, according to the interpretation of the Pharisees….” And in the Mishnah, the traditional teachings of the rabbis going back to the Babylonian captivity, “we come across no fewer than thirty-nine kinds of forbidden work.” Though it began with great respect for the Sabbath, the legalism of the Pharisees forbade even the Sabbath healing of a suffering woman whose body was weary from being bent over for eighteen years! (Luke 13) Thankfully for her, Jesus’ work isn’t limited by legalistic law-keepers.
Now, of course there were others whose desire for profit would not allow them to rest on the Sabbath. Because there was business to be done, some new work or deal to be made that would better situate the businessman in the competitive world. But that was just the flip-side of legalism. No rest is just as disobedient as extra rules about rest. Because no rest is a form of unbelief, trying to control our destiny when we are called to entrust our present and future to the Lord. Some of us need to repent of seeking to control our lives instead of entrusting our bodies and souls to our faithful God.
In the years leading up to the New Testament era, the rabbis taught that if all the earth kept Sabbath, then Messiah would come and make all things right. If only people would follow the rules about rest, then God would fulfill his promises and bring them real rest for their bodies and souls.
But they had it all backwards. Only when the Messiah came would rest begin breaking into this weary world. This is the second movement in the Story. Rest arrived in Jesus. And the Church marks the arrival of rest each Lord’s Day, each Sunday.
Because when Jesus came, he came promising rest. As we heard in the promised grace before our confession of sin, Jesus said, “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.”
For everyone wearied by working to earn a smile from God, for everyone worn out by the crushing weight of legalism Jesus offers rest. To trust in him, Jesus promises, is to find the rest our souls desire because the crushing weight of the law is removed from us, replaced with the lighter load of the law of liberty, the law of Christ. What we could not earn, what we’ve worn ourselves out trying to find, Christ promises freely to those who trust in him.
But Jesus also speaks to those of us who want to find rest by other ways than working to please God. To those of us who look for rest in rebellious ways, on our own terms, Jesus offers rest through another way – through him. Just as Augustine said, “…you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” So, Jesus calls us to come to him, to trust him. Rest has come with him. And it can only be found by faith in him.
So, at the end of Matthew 11, Jesus promises rest for our souls. But in the opening of Matthew 12, we hear Jesus bringing rest for the bodies of his people. He protects his disciples as the Pharisees attack them for breaking the Sabbath. They broke the rules of the Pharisees by picking and eating grain as they passed through a field. By easing their hunger with a few heads of wheat, they’d become workers harvesting on the Sabbath in the eyes of the religious elite. But in the eyes of Jesus, the lord of the Sabbath, they were guiltless.
On the same Sabbath day, Jesus went on to the synagogue. “And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”— so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” (Matthew 12:10-14)
In these passages, we hear Jesus announcing in himself the arrival of rest. He promises that in him we find rest for our souls. And we see him restoring to his people what the legalism of the Pharisee’s had stolen away so that the Sabbath could be a day of rest for our bodies, too. In Jesus, rest had arrived, the celebratory atmosphere of the Sabbath was restored.
But the arrival of rest came at a cost. Because the lord of the Sabbath rested his body in the grave one Sabbath day. The machinations of the Pharisees came to fruition. And my own sin joined with theirs, nailing the rest-bringer to the cross. But it was through Jesus’ death on the cross, the Scriptures say, he won rest for our souls, having made peace with God for us through his sacrifice. The work that you and I could never do – win the Father’s smile toward us – Jesus did. And when he rose from the dead on the first Lord’s Day, Sunday morning, his Church recognized that a change had come. It was not the end of the Fourth Commandment, but the fulfillment of it. Rest has arrived through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And so the Jewish Sabbath was fulfilled and the people of God began coming together at least on the Lord’s Day to mark the arrival of our rest.
Each Lord’s Day, we come together to rest. Yes, this is a day to rest our bodies. We need it and should be careful to guard it as a gift from God (also being careful not to create new rules to be followed beyond what God has said). But we come together as the people of God to celebrate and proclaim again that Christ has brought rest to our souls. Because through his life and his death Jesus served God as a faithful priest. He made the way for blessing to come to every family of the earth. Jesus satisfied the demands of the God who demands perfection, winning forgiveness and righteousness for all who trust in him. And I need to hear that again and again because I forget it. My restless heart stirs and wants to work to earn God’s smile. Or my heart wants to find rest some other way. Only the Gospel of Jesus that speaks to it of forgiveness and peace already accomplished can quiet it down.
But when I hear and believe once again with you that rest has come through Jesus’ finished work, I hear again that the burden is already lifted, Christ has already removed the guilt and power of sin. Through trusting in Jesus, the smile of the Father is already ours. Rest has come. And it’s not found by following the rules. And it’s not found on our own terms. Rest is found in Jesus. And as we heard in Hebrews 4, by faith in him, we enter into God’s own rest.
All this leads me to a few simple questions moving toward application. These are questions I won’t try to answer right now. So much error has come as Christians with good intentions try to make lists of what is and isn’t allowed on the Lord’s Day. So, I’ll simply invite you to ask yourself, “Does my use of this day fall in line with the Lord’s intent? Do I receive it as a day of rest and gladness for body and soul? Is it a day for the refreshment of my body and soul? And do I care for the body and soul of my neighbor as well?” In answering these questions you have help. Faithful brothers and sisters throughout the ages have thought deeply on this issue of how we use our rest in Christ. Go to the Westminster Confession. The Heidelberg Catechism is a fantastic resource, too. And putting both together will serve you well as each emphasizes something the other doesn’t.
The Lord’s Day is our weekly reminder that in Christ rest has arrived. Now, don’t misunderstand. As one put it so well, “We have six days to labor and do all our work, and that too is serving Yahweh.” But as we come together on the Lord’s Day, “we are celebrating a feast that is not available to us every other day….” Why should we deny ourselves the joy and delight our God has given to us? Why should we trust something else will refresh us better than this day?
Because even though we believe our rest has come with Christ, even though we experience rest of body and soul as we rest in Jesus – even so – we live in the time of the Story when the fullness of our rest has not yet arrived. Because still, our souls stir restlessly, waiting for the day when our flesh does not fight against the Spirit of God within us. Still, our bodies wear out and die, groaning until we put on glory.
And so the Lord’s Day stands, too, like the Sabbath, as a sign. This is the third movement. The Lord’s Day points us forward to the time when God’s rest – his perfect, unending rest – comes again with Jesus. It points us toward the time when Christ returns and completes the restoration of all things he already began – the restoration of this physical and spiritual creation. But that is what this Day promises. The work he began will be finished. So, our hope is like that of Israel of old, only more sure. The purposes of God for us and this world will surely come to pass because Christ died and rose again.
Don’t misunderstand, God calls us to work. And our work done by faith in Christ is lovely to him, used by him. But just as the purposes to God did not depend on Israel’s work, rather on God’s, so the Lord’s Day reminds us that this God knows how to finish what he began even in spite of us. He can use our faithful work and even our sin to accomplish his purposes of redemption and restoration. And so, for today and for tomorrow, our souls can rest in him even while we work. Because who can thwart the purposes of this God? He means for his people to rest in Christ, both now and forever. And his will will be done.
We so often look to vacations or three-day weekends to satisfy our appetite for rest. Because they speak of days with no overflowing inbox. They promise evenings to eat without rushing back to projects. Vacations are wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But do they truly give us rest? Or do they show us that we need something better?
We need something better than rules to give us rest in God. We need something better than a libertine life to help us find true rest and refreshment. We need God’s rest. We need to enter into the rest he enjoyed and promised in the beginning – his un-ending rest that endures. This is the rest for body and soul he gives freely to all who turn from legalism and license to the Rest-bringer, Jesus. Through his work, you may rest now with promise of the Father’s smile resting on you forever.
Take hold of him again this Lord’s Day. Order your day according to the rest Christ has won for you. Take a nap or take a walk enjoying good company and this beautiful creation. Eat a meal with your brothers and sisters in Christ’s Church, talking about how Christ has provided for your body and soul. And may the Lord himself refresh you this day.
[Pray – Father, for this Day we give you thanks – this Day where we remember and believe again in your Son who died and lives and is coming again. Rest he won for us. Rest he gives to us. Rest he is bringing to us again. For that good news of forgiveness and peace with you through his death and resurrection, we praise you, O God. You have done what we could never do even if we worked for a thousand years unceasing. By faith in Jesus, we enter into your rest. Keep us there, we pray. Protect us from believing the lie that rest can be found in any other way, be it law or license. But we also pray that as we rest in Christ, we would work, too, for your glory and for the good of our neighbors. For the sake of Christ and his name, may we be those who spend ourselves recklessly, drawing new strength each day as we are refreshed by Christ, our peace. For those who are weary today, give rest, Father. For those who want to give up, give rest, O Christ. For we who need rest, give rest, O Holy Spirit. And may we respond with love and praise this day. In the name of Jesus, our rest-bringer, we pray. Amen.]
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.