Our culture is marked by incessant business and cluttering communication; we are generally overworked and overloaded with information. Both our work schedules and social calendars are jam-packed, leaving us drained on Fridays and tired on Mondays. It is ironic that, although we are constantly engaged in events, surrounded by people and always in contact with hoards of “friends” on social media platforms, loneliness and the feeling of isolation are also on the increase according to leading newspapers. Thus our never-ending business leave us tired and lonely.
Evidently the need to rest is not only for social or recreational purposes: a lack of rest has many known health-related consequences, including heart disease, headaches, depression, diabetes, and obesity, decreased mental alertness resulting in poor memory, lower creativity and delayed reaction, and even death – overwork is a cause for at least 1000 death per year in Japan, and 2007 saw more than 2200 work-related suicides, mostly attributed to overwork.
In light of this I find Jesus’ words very logical and refreshing: “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). God instituted resting days and seasons in the Israelite calendar that mandated rest for everyone, because everyone needs a regular break that refreshes, rejuvenates and restores. These resting days were ceremonial laws in the Old Testament, and although New Testament believers are not mandated to keep these resting days sacred, we learn a lot from how and why these holy days (from where we get the word “holidays”) were instituted “for man”.
What then do we learn about our need for Sabbath from the ceremonial culture instituted by God in the Jewish nation?
A need for reflection
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the 7th day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the 7th day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the 7th day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)
The creation account in Genesis concludes God’s creative work with the creation of man. After creation God appointed man as governor and keeper of the earth, but the first thing man had to do was rest. Imagine this! Here we have Adam and Eve created in perfection – no sin, no ageing, no sickness, no tiredness (they have not even lived a full day!) and they had to observe a resting day! What “rest” did they need to observe? A rest of reflection that takes off the pressure of responsibility: God is in control. The rest which the psalmist refers to when he writes “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Resting in the knowledge that God was busy before I arrived here, and God does not need me – he simply invites me into what He has been doing. Likewise we rest and breathe out when we reflect on this truth: it does not all depend on me.
The institution of the Sabbath day in Israel’s law, before they enter the promised land, had the same intent: “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15) The command to rest is so that the Israelites remember that they were not slaves who live from their labour, but rather that God saved them from that lifestyle. Their rest was for reflection – to know that they are not left to themselves – God takes care of them. The Sabbath was a weekly reminder that life does not only depend on my effort, but that God cares for me.
A need for relationships
In the Israelite calendar, every 7th day is holy to commemorate the deliverance from Egypt, the forming of their nation under and by God. Yet in addition to the weekly ray of rest seven other feasts are prescribed, namely the Feast of Harvest, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Pentecost, Passover Feast, Feast of Booths (tents), Feast of Lights, and the Day of Atonement. These feasts were grouped together over three periods during the year considering the agrarian calendar, allowing for longer time spent together in traveling as well as festivity. God calls these sabbaths were “holy gatherings” (Leviticus 23:3), annual celebrations of God’s faithfulness in deliverance and provision. Thus the intent was that the inhabitants would leave their homes and everyday dealings and travel together as families and friends to Jerusalem for the festivities. The Passover feast was unique in that it had to be celebrated with the family around a meal (reminder of God’s deliverance from Egypt). But whether at home around a meal or in Jerusalem in festivity around the temple, there feasts had in common that were times where people gathered together in celebration of life in relationship with God. There was a regular coming together and celebrating relationship, and a constant affirmation of identity and belonging.
And this was the intent of the resting seasons. We primarily find our identities in our work (what we do) and who we relate to (family and friends). When you meet someone you typically ask “What do you do?”, then “Are you married? Tell me about your family!” or “do you know [John Little]?” We find our identities in what we do and who we closely relate to; we are known by our work, our family and our friends.
But the performance-culture at work places stress on us to always do more, because the underlying philosophy is “you are what you do, and therefore you are worth what you contribute”. At work what we do gets celebrated and rewarded, yet at home showing up gets celebrated and rewarded. “You are family therefore you are worth much.” It is so easy to fall into the trap of valuing yourself based on you responsibilities and contribution at work. And this is the intended of rest family/friendship holiday seasons: when the work gets left out of the picture for a season and I find my identity and value in whom I associate with and my relationship with God (referring to the seven feasts of Israel), where I am not valued for my work contribution but for my relating with them.
These seasons of rest are essential for families to bond hearts around festivity and relaxation. We know that incessant business and work-related stress decreases intimacy in marriage and families, and also friendships. Thus stopping everything and spending time with loved ones is essential to build and maintain these heart-connections, which in turn re-enforces identity and belonging in the individual –vital for growing children.
A need for refreshing and restoration
These holiday times in the Israelite calendar served as a refreshing as well – a break that not only allowed for reflection and relationships, but also for refreshing of the soul and spirit. But at times unplanned or unscheduled breaks from the vocational arena might be necessary to restore what was lost or drained from work fatigue or some intense episode.
A practical example for such a need comes from the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Acts 13-14). They have travelled quite a distance to the Galatian churches, had times of intense preaching and ministry with signs and miracles with success, followed by intense discipleship. Yet they were also violently resisted and even stoned. The closing words in this missionary account read as follows: “From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed. Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them… So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Act 14:26-28) Paul and Barnabas were set apart for missionary work, but after their intense and eventful first trip they were drained, and needed refreshing, so they stayed with their home church and did not go out again for a long time until they were ready for another trip. They knew that “the sabbath was made for man”.
Even in Jesus’ ministry we see him taking time out to withdraw frequently, sometimes to rest with his disciples, sometimes to rest by himself. On two noteworthy occasions Jesus withdrew for a season to refresh and restore himself after particularly intense episodes: once after the execution of his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 14:12-13) and another time after intense resistance when the Jews sought to kill him (John 10:39-40). We can learn from this: after an intense working schedule or even an intense spiritual or emotional experience we need a lengthy break within a loving community to refresh our spirits and souls.
There are times, however, when a “Sabbath year”  or a prolonged season of rest might be necessary. This might be true in the case where the need is for restoration or rejuvenation, as Israel had to refrain from sowing and ploughing for a year, because the ground needed to rest and be restored. The reason might be due to loss or trauma which left deep emotional wounds, perhaps recovery from sickness or simply burnout due to overwork, or even recovery of a man who fell in sin, but the idea is that a longer season of recovery is needed. The idea of restoration in the Scriptures is frequently coupled with “waiting on God”, since a work of recreation is commonly needed, and God alone can restore that which is no more. The petition during these times is as Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 5:21 “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”
A promise of reward
The last Sabbath I would like to highlight from Scripture is the Eternal Sabbath that we will celebrate together when the Lord will take us into the eternal Promised Land when He returns. Hebrews 4:9-11 speaks of that promised rest:
“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”
The chapter in its entirety makes it clear that the author exhorts the recipients to not depart from Christ as Mediator, but to keep the faith amidst severe persecution, because the reward is worth it: eternal rest with God! That is the Final Sabbath everyone in Christ will enjoy – one that is given as a reward for perseverance in faith during this life. Every other sabbath in this life is a picture of the rest believers will enjoy with Christ in eternity.
How do we respond?
How do we respond to Jesus words “The Sabbath was made for man”? There are at least four ways: firstly, there is a need to stop all our work dealings weekly in deliberate declaration and reflection that it all does not depend on me – to remind oneself that God is in control. We need to acknowledge that God is at work and has been before I came onto the scene. Therefore I do not carry all the responsibility, nor do I have all the answers. This is really difficult for us; frequently taking a sabbath is in itself a declaration of trust that God success or provision does not depend on us alone, but our trust is in God.
Secondly we take holidays – time with friends and family deliberately aimed at building relationships in times of laughter. We do it because we believe Jesus when He said we need that relational time. It is a time of bonding hearts, a time of laughter and festivity. We find our rest in relationships as we realize again that my value is not determined by my performance but by my acceptance in relationship. Holiday times with friends and families refreshes as it bonds hearts, strengthening identity and belonging. These holidays are important for ourselves, but even more so for the children and the lonely people. Holidays are not just for fun.
Thirdly we acknowledge that there are times we may need to step aside from the vocational arena for a while to recuperate after a particularly draining project or intensely emotional event. These sabbath seasons are meant to refresh and restore our spirits and souls. Our egos may stand in the way, since resting many times are associated with weakness, or our fear of lack the lack of provision tomorrow. But the epidemic proportions with which anxiety and depression are diagnosed is a strong indication that these sabbath seasons were indeed “made for man” – we need them to function well.
Fourthly, in resting times we make time to reflect on the Eternal Sabbath – that life on earth is temporal, and soon Jesus will return to judge all people and to test our works, and only the weighty things will remain. Much of our work is vanity, as the writer of Ecclesiastes laments. So reflecting on our eternity brings proper perspective to our time spent on earth. This reflection has the power to reveal the motives for our incessant business. The pursuit of riches and comfort in this life is vanity, since all will be dissolved with fire. However, our relationships, obedience and faithfulness, kind deeds, prayer, witnessing for Christ and building into God’s people – these things have eternal value and eternal rewards. Although God instituted work, our work must find a proper place in our lives. Reflecting on our life in eternity helps to bring proper balance and removes undue work-pressures.
So, how will you respond to Jesus’ words “The Sabbath was made for man”?
 Merz T., Young people are lonely, The Telegraph, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html; Pantry L., Yorkshire Post, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html, Gill N., Loneliness: a silent plague, The Guardian, 20 July 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html
 Harden B., Japan’s Killer Work Ethic, Washington Post Foreign Service, July 13, 2008, Available online http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/12/AR2008071201630.html
 Note that the Sabbath we discuss is not the ceremonial law instituted for the Jews as weekly memorial of their deliverance from Egypt (refer to Exodus 31:13) – Christians are not obliged to celebrate a weekly “ceremonial holy day” (refer Colossians 2:16-17). We however learn a lot from God’s answer to our need for rest, for as mentioned above “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In this article “Sabbath” implies resting time, not the observation of specific ceremonial calendar dates.
 Giglio L., I am not but I know I Am, (Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs), 2012, chapter 1.
 See Leviticus 23.
 Stanley A., When work and family collide, (Multnomah books, Colorado Springs), 2011, p20.
 Every 7th year in the Jewish calendar was a year of rest – for both the soil and the farming community. See Leviticus 25:4.
 Colossians 2:16-17
 See 1 Corinthians 3:13-15
 Ecclesiastes 2:23; 4:4.
 See Revelations 22:11-12
5 thoughts on “Is there more to rest than sleep?”
This was a right word for a right time, for me.
Thanks for an awesome, well written contribution, Ross. Not many writers take the trouble to spell out in such details, with references and footnotes, their message. I hope you can keep writing on this blog.