Some time ago, I was talking to some colleagues from the organisation I worked for before I joined Mission Aviation Fellowship. One had come from Australia and said that, because of his work, he spent half his life with his family, and the rest travelling between various countries.
After a detailed account of his physically exhausting itinerary, he concluded by saying, ‘And after that I return home’.
‘Well, try and get some rest,’ I replied.
‘Rest?’ he exclaimed somewhat disapprovingly, ‘What’s that?’
I was about to respond, when my other workmate chimed in, ‘It’s a four-letter word!’
They both laughed, though I didn’t. It may have been a joke, but it was neither funny nor biblical. Rest is not only a spiritual principle; it’s a biblical command. But how seriously do we take the command to rest?
Exodus 20:8-11, which is of course one of the Ten Commandments, tells us: ‘Remember the sabbath day by keeping it holy. 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy’. The same command appears in Deuteronomy 5:12-14.
So the sabbath is a day on which the people of God were not supposed to do any work, but to rest, as the Lord himself rested on the seventh day. It was a day that the Lord blessed and made holy. It was something the Lord gave to his people for their good.
Exodus 23:12 also makes this plain: ‘Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed’.
God realises that the people he created need to be ‘refreshed’: to rest, relax and be restored — animals too! Leviticus 25:1-2 even notes that ‘the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord’, every seventh year.
Deuteronomy 5:15 instructs the Israelites to, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt’, reminding them of the dichotomy between legitimate, God-inspired work and the tyranny of slavery. It points out the difference between Egypt, the land of captivity, and the land of promise that God had prepared for his chosen people — a land where they would be free to worship him by observing his commands and keeping the sabbath.
It’s also a reminder to God’s people today that, although our Christian service can involve hard work, it shouldn’t be seen as hard labour! Jesus is Saviour, not slave-master.
Is it possible that we can take Sunday, the traditional day of rest for Christians, for granted? Do we sometimes forget what a unique concept God’s gift is? After all, if it wasn’t for the day of rest, most of us would have to work six or seven days a week! But because many of us are used to having a five- or six-day week, it’s easy to become blasé about it, forgetting what life would be like with no time off for good behaviour; with no opportunity to rest, work and play.
Now it’s true that there is always spiritual work to do. But sometimes we can take on too much or spend our time worrying about what isn’t being done, rather than giving thanks for what, through God’s grace, we have accomplished.
But why, I wonder, are our 21st century lives so driven by the need to keep busy? Do we think the world will somehow stop spinning if we get off the merry-go-round at least once a week? Or is our self-image so bad that we believe we stop being of value the moment we cease working or being productive?
As a young Christian, I didn’t have time for a girlfriend; I was too busy writing articles for Christian magazines. Eventually, as the years went by, I realised I needed to do something about this, so I joined a Christian dating agency. But when they heard that I was a writer and editor, they tried to get me to set up a magazine for Christian singles!
Nothing came of it, of course, and I eventually left the dating agency, having forgotten why I’d originally joined it in the first place! Instead, I’d spent much of my time — in this case, unproductively — trying to do yet more Christian work. Thankfully, the Lord showed me his love and mercy, and I’m now happily married with two kids.
But is it possible that we can end up being so busy ‘serving God’ that we don’t necessarily serve him by observing his commands and taking time to rest? Indeed, is it possible, when non-believers see us rushing frantically around, that, rather than wishing to join us, they’re quite happy not to have entered the race?
‘You will know my disciples by their stress,’ rather than their love, is not an option for us. It’s just one of the problems that can occur if we don’t glorify God and take our sabbath rest.
I’m also concerned that, if we don’t take the day of rest seriously — spending time with God in order to become ‘conformed’ (Romans 8:29) or ‘transformed’ (2 Corinthians 3:18) into his likeness — then our nerves will get frayed and we’ll begin to unravel. It’s something that can adversely affect our walk with God and with one another.
I often wonder if there is something we can learn from the Jewish people. The sabbath is seen as a day of joy and gladness; of celebration, relaxation, renewal and refreshment. It’s a day of cheerfulness and beauty, of rest and rejoicing. It’s a day that gives meaning to the other six.
However, for many New Testament believers, there’s a tendency to overlook or marginalise the whole concept of the sabbath, to view it as an optional extra or legalistic duty.
And yet the God we serve is a God of rest. ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength’, Isaiah 30:15 reminds us, swiftly adding, ‘but you would have none of it’. As Psalm 62:1-2 tells us, ‘Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him’.
Jesus, who described himself as ‘Lord of the sabbath’ (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5), knows that we need our rest. In Mark 6:30-32, when the apostles had reported to Jesus everything they’d done, but hadn’t had a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest’.
Jesus knew that, like Elijah after his victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:3-9), the apostles were hungry and needed a break. As Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28-30). So, if we learn from the Lord Jesus, we will indeed find rest. But do we?
I remember, many years ago, before my current job at Mission Aviation Fellowship, a hard-working boss once saying to me, ‘Have a great holiday; you’ve earned it! Try to get some rest’.
Then, when I returned to the office two weeks later, he said, ‘Well, did you get any work done while you were away? Have you got anything we can print about the spiritual climate in — where was it you went to — Hungary?’ It would seem that, while I was away, my employer had forgotten his earlier instruction to rest!
Yes, there’s work to be done if we’re to play our part fully in building God’s kingdom, but we often forget that the Lord is the builder. We’re just the stones.
We should all be chips off the old block (Isaiah 28:16; 1 Peter 2:7), as it were, but we shouldn’t chip away at each other, or carry a chip on our shoulder, Martha-fashion (Luke 10:38-42), when others are resting or apparently taking it easy.
The key, I think, has to do with obedience and humility. Knowing who we are, and who God is; what we can do, and what we cannot. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19), so it’s our God-given responsibility to look after ourselves, body, soul, mind and spirit.
It’s true what my colleague said about rest. It is a four-letter word. But then so is ‘work’!
Gary Clayton is married to Julie, is the father of Christopher (13) and Emma (11) and is copywriter and editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship. To learn more about how MAF’s 135 light aircraft help some of the world’s poorest and most isolated people in 26 developing countries, visit www.maf-uk.org