Let me ask you a simple question. Are you someone who rests to work, or who works to rest? That is to say, is the goal of your working to enable you to rest, or do you view rest as a time to recover and be refreshed in order to work more efficiently?

More importantly, as Christians who are seeking to glorify God in every area of our lives, both work and rest, how should we be answering that question?

In this week's blog we're taking a look at how the gospel affects our approach to how we spend our holiday. And in order to do that, we first need to understand what the Bible says about rest.

The pattern of rest

In order to answer this question, it will help us to look at God's pattern for creation in Genesis. Our picture here comes from Day 7—the day God rests from his work in creation. If you read through Genesis 1:1-2:3, you might notice something odd about the 7th day; all the other days have ended with the same little refrain 'And there was evening and there was morning, the nth day...'. But notice that there is no such refrain for the 7th day! The implication is that the 7th day doesn't finish. Notice too that God blesses the 7th day, unlike the other days. This points to rest being the goal of creation, the purpose for which it was made.

The picture of rest

At mount Sinai God's people were given a picture of rest in the form of the Sabbath. We're told in Exodus that this picture was given to reflect God's pattern of rest from creation:

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. 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 20:9-11)

However, come to Deuteronomy 5 and we see that the purpose given here for the Sabbath is not a reminder of creation but a reminder of salvation:

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 or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:13-15)

We also see in Exodus 23:12 that the Sabbath was intended as an opportunity to be refreshed:

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. Sabbath rest, then, had three main purposes:

  • A reminder of God's goodness in creation
  • A reminder of salvation
  • An opportunity to be refreshed

The promise of rest

Rest was also God's promise to Israel when he brought them out of Egypt (Ex 33:14, Deut 12:9-10). The promised land was to be the great rest the they were to look forward to as they wandered in the wilderness. That rest seems to appear in Joshua 1 when Israel enter the promised land. However, we find in chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews (which form an excellent overview of each of these five points!) that if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God... (Heb 4:8-9). So we see that their real rest was still to come.

The provided rest

Jesus says in Matthew 11 that he is able to give us rest:

'Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' (Matt 11:28). However, this is a widely misunderstood passage. Jesus is not saying here (as many take it) that we can come to him at any time that life gets hard and he'll make it easier. He is really talking about is the greater rest that we are welcomed into when we accept him as our Lord and saviour, which is the perfect rest

Again, Hebrews tells us that:

'...the promise of entering his rest still stands...' (Heb 4:1). The ultimate rest that we look forward to is perfect rest in the new creation (Isa 65:17-25, Rev 21-22). Given that, the writer to the Hebrews urges us: 'Let us therefore strive to enter that rest' (Heb 4:11).

What are the implications of all this?

There are a number of things to say about how this Biblical framework of rest helps us to understand how we should view the purpose of the rest time that we have and what our attitude should be towards it.

Firstly, understanding the role of the Sabbath (though I won't go into debates on the continuation of the Sabbath here lest we get distracted) helps us to see that rest is not a bad thing in itself. That's a particularly important point to note for those of us who might be tempted to feel guilty about taking rest. God tells us that we do need times of rest. And we can glorify God by taking rest - if we have the right approach to it.

However, the Sabbath picture also shows us that when we do rest part of it's purpose is to be a reminder the great things that God has done - his great work in creation and his salvation which brings us the hope of perfect rest.

So let me ask you this question: Have you ever prayed before a time of relaxation (e.g. that you would thank and praise God for it, in be reminded of His salvation and marvellous creation from it, and that you would be refreshed because of it)?

Notice too that God wanted the Israelites to be refreshed; the implication being that they would then be able to go back to work.

That leads nicely on to our second point, which is that understanding that perfect rest is still to come helps us to see that rest now is not what we live for. It is all too easy to make an idol of rest and to live and work now so that we can enjoy a nice holiday, and view holiday rest as the goal of our working. That's not a Biblical view of rest. If we understand the promise of the new creation in the future and the urgency of the gospel message in the present, we will want to be living in the last days with a focus on that perfect future rest, not our own self-indulgence. In a sense then, to answer that first question, as a Christian our answer should be something like: we rest to work to rest (i.e. We rest now so that we can be refreshed in order to work now in the light of the future rest we look forward to)!

It might be helpful then to ask ourselves questions like these:

  • Do I ever take more rest than I need?
  • Is there a way I could be using some of my free time to love my Christian brothers and sisters?
  • Could I use some of my free time to study a part of the Bible that I don't know much about?
  • Would reading a good Christian book or two be something I could aim to do over my holiday time?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying here that all of our rest time should be productive. There's nothing wrong with things like watching TV or a film or playing sport to relax. However, in my experience, reading a Christian book in the holiday or really studying a part of the Bible in depth has often been the best rest I've had, as it's has served to remind me of the gospel and deepen my relationship with God - and I've gone back to work much more refreshed and than if I'd sat in front of a TV for a week!

I'll end with a great reminder that a pastor who I was staying with in North London a couple of years back told me he gave to his staff every year at Christmas: 'Take a break from work, but don't take a break from being Christian; we don't ever take a break from our relationship with God'

I hope you have a really relaxing Christmas this year—but I hope too that you'll remember it's significance and keep it in perspective in the light of eternity.