1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 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. 3 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.
I have long had the feeling that most Christians simply do not know what to do with the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day on which God rested from His labors and called us to do the same. I have both felt and seen this inner tension in Christians most of my life. Many of us have in fact grown up with a kind of schizophrenic legalism surrounding this day which leads us (a) to think of this day in terms of what we can and cannot do on it and (b) inevitably to feel inconsistent and unsure about our own behavior in light of this assumption. For instance, when I grew up it was not ok to mow your grass on Sunday but it was ok to go out to eat and pay somebody else to work on Sunday. It was considered bad form and inappropriate—maybe some of the hardliners would have called it sinful—if a man went to the office on Sunday, but not bad form or inappropriate if he watched a football game. This kind of inner conflict has followed me to this day. For instance, every now and then it turns out that I need a haircut and Sunday afternoon turns out to be the best day for it, or so I tell myself. If ever I get my haircut on a Sunday I feel deeply conflicted about it. Have I violated the Sabbath? But then I did it on Sunday and not Saturday, right? But how does thatwhole dynamic work? Is Sunday the Sabbath or is Saturday? Etc. etc. etc.
These are the kinds of inner dynamics and psychology that many of us who have grown up in church have dealt with when thinking about the Sabbath. But what if this is all profoundly wrong-headed. What if reducing the Sabbath to these kinds of legalisms misses the main point of the matter in spectacular ways? I would like to suggest that it does and that the account of the seventh day, the Sabbath, in Genesis actually provides us with a profound and powerful and rich picture of our great God and of what life with Him looks like!
The seventh day is first and foremost about God and His hallowing of creation with His presence.
It is a simple point, but an important one that we dare not miss. In all of our wranglings over appropriate Sabbath behavior we sometimes miss that the seventh day is first and foremost about God! This is reflected in Genesis 2’s focus on God in its description of the institution of the Sabbath.
1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 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. 3 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” after God had worked and God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. The seventh day is about God! If this is so, what does it tell us about God and His relationship with humanity and creation?
I am deeply indebted to the scholarship of Old Testament scholar John Walton for this particular argument. Walton first draws attention to the difference between “house” and “home” and argues that the first six days of creation constitute the “house” aspect of creation but the seventh day speaks of how the “house” of creation became a “home.” He writes:
When a family finally chooses a house to make their home, they pack up all their belongings and move to their new location. On that first rather depressing day, their house is filled with unopened boxes and furniture sitting all over the place. There is no order; the house is functioning well enough (plumbing, electricity, roof, foundation), but there is no functioning home. So the family begins to spend time, day after day, arranging the furniture, unpacking the boxes, ordering their home. They begin to take stock of all that has been provided for them in the house to help make it a comfortable and functional home.
Why are they ordering their home? For what purpose? That sounds like a silly question. When the task of unpacking is done, they expect to live there. They are not doing all of that work just so they can take a nap when it is done. Nor are they expecting to get it all set up and then leave. They are doing all of this so that they can reside there. When they rest from all the ordering work they have done, they do so not by relaxing but by functioning in this ordered space. Even as they cease the ordering activity (which would be represented by the Hebrew root šbt), they begin to enjoy this established equilibrium of order (which would be represented by the Hebrew word nwḥ, “rested”; e.g., in Ex 20:11). Šbt is the transition; nwḥ is the purpose.
Sabbath rest refers, in Walton’s proposal, to the Master’s blessing of the “house” and to the right ordering of the furniture and inhabitants of the “house” to the Master’s will and plan and order such that it becomes a “home.” To flesh out this idea Walton further notes that the creation language of Genesis carries with it temple connotations and the seventh day in particular carries with it the idea of temple inauguration. He writes:
Solomon spent seven years building the house to be used as the temple of God in Jerusalem. When the house was complete, however, all that existed was a structure, not a temple. It was ready to be a temple, but it was not yet functioning like a temple, and God was not dwelling in it. Consequently the temple did not exist even though the structure did. What constituted the transition from a structure that was ready to be a temple to an actual functioning temple? How did the house become a home? This is an important question because there is a comparison to be drawn if Genesis 1 is indeed a temple text.
We find that in both the Bible and the ancient Near East there is an inauguration ceremony that formally and ceremonially marks the transition from physical structure to functioning temple, from house to home. In that inauguration ceremony, the functions of the temple are proclaimed, the functionaries are installed and rituals are begun as God comes down to inhabit the place that has been prepared by his instruction. It is thus no surprise that in Genesis 1 we find the proclamation of functions and the installation of functionaries. More importantly, we should note that in the Bible and the ancient world, the number seven figures prominently in the inauguration of sacred space.
The fact that the sabbath is the seventh day when placed alongside the ancient emphasis on seven in temple inauguration ceremonies and activities heightens the idea of the Sabbath as a kind of creation temple inauguration. As Walton pointed out, Solomon built the temple in seven years. In 1 Kings 6 we read:
37 In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid, in the month of Ziv.38 And in the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished in all its parts, and according to all its specifications. He was seven years in building it.
The seventh day.
The significance of seven in temple inauguration rites.
Seven years to create the Solomonic temple.
There is more. Kenneth Mathews has written the following of Genesis 2:1-3:
Verses 2-3 contain four lines, the first three of which are parallel, each possessing seven words (in the Hebrews), with the midpoint of each line having the same phrase, “the seventh day.”…This is one of the several ways the author highlighted the importance of the final day.
Then, alongside all of this we find the ancient historian Josephus observing of the tabernacle design and furniture that “every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe.” After reviewing how the tabernacle itself was designed to represent the cosmos, Walton concluded that “the courtyard represented the cosmic spheres outside of the organized cosmos (sea and pillars). The antechamber held the representations of lights and food. The veil separated the heavens and earth—the place of God’s presence from the place of human habitation.” Furthermore, speaking of Herod’s temple and its veil, Josephus writes:
it had golden doors fifty-five cubits high and sixteen broad. Before these hung a veil (katapevtasma) of equal length, of Babylonian tapestry…embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill. Nor was this mixture of materials without its mystic meaning: it typified the universe. For the scarlet seemed emblematical of fire, the fine linen of the earth, the blue of the air, and the purple of the sea; the comparison in two cases being suggested by their colour, and in that of the fine linen and purple by their origin, as the one is produced by the earth and the other by the sea. On this tapestry was portrayed a panorama of the heavens,8 the signs of the Zodiac excepted…The innermost recess measured twenty cubits, and was screened in like manner from the outer portion by a veil (kata-petavsmati). In this stood nothing whatever: unapproachable, inviolable, invisible to all, it was called the Holy of Holies.
What, then, does this means? It means that the creation account has temple connotations and the tabernacle and temple have creation connotations. Creation is a kind of temple. In other words, the seventh day is first and foremost about God and His hallowing of creation by His presence just as the temple was hallowed by His presence. And just as Jesus taught us to hallow God’s name in prayer (Matthew 6:9), that is, to see it as holy and sacred, so too creation itself is made holy by God resting on the seventh day.
The seventh day is the sacralizing of creation as the unique and good gift of God. It is the day in which we see the glory of God reflected within the theater of creation. It is the day in which we remember that creation is not an accident because behind it is an indescribably powerful and beautiful and brilliant intelligence and reality and personality called God.
The seventh day is about how our lives are lived rightly only when they are lived in harmony with God’s glory and design.
The seventh day is indeed first and foremost about God. It does carry with it, of course, profound implications for humanity. Simply put, the seventh day is about how our lives are lived rightly only when they are lived in harmony with God’s glory and design. Consider our text’s emphasis on rest.
3 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.
What does this mean, “God rested”? Was God tired? Was He exhausted? Did he have to rest? Of course the answer to these last three questions is “no.” God does not get tired. God is never exhausted. God never hasto do anything! One way to get at what is happening here is to understand that, biblically, rest does not always mean simply not doing anything. On the contrary, consider how the word “rest” is used in the following passages:
10 But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety
13 “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’
43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
In these texts, “rest” obviously is not a synonym for “do nothing.” On the contrary, it seems to refer to peace and to a life oriented to God’s good person and will for creation and humanity. In these passages in particular, it refers to God’s protection of his people in the land of promise as they walk in obedience with Him. On the meaning of “rest,” Walton writes:
When God tells the Israelites that he is going to give them rest (nwḥ) from their enemies (Deut 12:10; Josh 1:13; 21:44; 2 Sam 7:1; 1 Kings 5:4), he is not talking about sleep, relaxation or leisure time. The rest that he offers his people refers to freedom from invasion and conflict so that they can live at peace and conduct their daily lives without interruption. It refers to achieving a state of order in society. Such rest is the goal of all the ordering activities that the Israelites are undertaking to secure their place in the land…[W]e can discern that resting pertains to the security and stability found in the equilibrium of an ordered system.
For us, the Sabbath becomes the weekly reminder that we have been created by God, for God, to live with God. To “rest” is to live in conformity and harmony with God’s own good intention for us and the “equilibrium” of the “ordered system” He intends for us!
But there is more. The seventh day has the distinction of being the only day of creation that does not have a concluding formula on it that signifies the closing of the day. R. R. Reno put it nicely when he wrote:
The account of the seventh day does not end with the formula “and there was evening and there was morning.” The new “work” of rest takes place on a day that has a beginning, but no ending. The seventh day, it seems, stretches forward and beyond the counting of days. In this sense, the seven-day account of Gen. 1 does not simply provide us with a beginning. It extends to the end of the ages. The seventh day contains within itself the fullness of time. Creation is finished, but the story of God’s strategy for blessing and sanctifying still needs to be told. The entire sweep of scripture from this point onward tells us what happens so that the seventh day can be brought to completion…In the end, all that was created joins God on the seventh day…The seventh day gives creation its future.
The seventh day is not closed!The sabbath rest of God has entered creation and we are called not merely to a weekly observance of this fact but to a life lived within and oriented to it. God rests, the house becomes a home, the temple of creation is hallowed, and we are invited to live in the victory and joy and peace of God!
But, of course, victory and joy and peace do not make up what we see around or within us today, do they? Nobody watches the news today and says, “Well, it looks like victory, joy, and peace are ruling the day!” Far from it! This is because Adam and Even fell and we fell with them. They fell, and we have continued the fall of humanity with our own willing falls every day. The Sabbath rest offered by God to humanity has been rejected for the exhaustionof sin. And sin is indeed exhausting, is it not?
We need rest.
God offers rest.
But we choose the exhaustion and death of sin.
But God has now made a way for us to enter into His rest. God has now made a way! Perhaps now these famous words of Jesus from Matthew 11 make even more sense. Listen:
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Jesus gives us rest! Jesus reestablishes the Sabbath! Jesus brings back into the peace and order and joy of God. And this leads us to our final point.
The seventh day finds its renewal and fulfillment in Jesus.
If the seventh day is the Sabbath day and if the Sabbath day is the day in which creation is consecrated by God’s rest and we are brought time and time again into an intentional reorientation of our lives Godward, then why do we worship on Sunday?To answer this question we must understand how the Sabbath finds its renewal and fulfillment in Jesus. And to reach this understanding we should understand the astonishing scene that unfolds in the beginning of Matthew 12. In this scene, Jesus is responding to those who criticized His disciples for their eating of heads of grain on the Sabbath.
3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Notice first how Jesus brings the temple into this discussion of the Sabbath. Again, the Sabbath is couched in temple imagery and language and ideas. More importantly, however, notice that Jesus calls Himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” What an unbelievably shocking thing to say! In truth, if one wanted to get killed around Jerusalem in the first century, this would be the thing to say. But Jesus said it! It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Who are youto criticize Meabout what Ido on this day? I madethis day! I know what this day is for and about! Do not tell me that I do not understand My day! Do not tell me what to do on My day!”
Yes, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath? This means that the Sabbath was created by Jesus, for Jesus, and is defined now by the person and work of Jesus. And the definitive work of Christ is, of course, found in His death, burial, and resurrection…which happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, 19)!
We worship on Sunday because the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus, conquered sin, death, and hell through His resurrection from the dead on Sunday! The early church understood this and began to meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2) in recognition of this fact. This is significant, Sunday worship. David VanDrunen has made the very interesting point that the observance of the first day of the week instead of the last day of the week carries with it the concept of the Jubilee which was prescribed in the Old Testament and which Jesus applied to Himself in Luke 4:16-21. VanDrunen writes:
Jesus rose “after the Sabbath” (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1), on the “first day of the week” (Luke 24:1; John 20:1)—Sunday. The timing is truly amazing. The day that Jesus lay dead in the tomb turned out to be the last Sabbath of the Old Testament era (for after his resurrection the old covenant was no more). Remember that the Old Testament Year of Jubilee had occurred on the fiftieth year—that is, the year immediately after the “perfect” number of Sabbath years (7 × 7 = 49). And thus Jesus rose from the dead on the day immediately after the number of Old Testament seventh-day Sabbaths had reached their complete and perfect number! His resurrection was the true Year of Jubilee. The weekly Old Testament Sabbath had looked back to God’s work of creation (Ex. 20:8–11) and reminded God’s people of the first Adam’s original obligation to work perfectly in this world and then to attain his rest. The resurrection now announces that Jesus, as the last Adam, has completed the task of the first Adam and has attained his reward of rest in the world-to-come.
How beautiful! How powerful! We launch into each week with resurrection power and Jubilee joy! Jesus has encapsulated and clarified the Sabbath and Sabbath rest!
Sabbath rest is therefore now defined as rest in and a life oriented toward and in harmony with Jesus Christ!Jesus opens the door again to the Sabbath rest that humanity has rejected, whether it be the children of Israel who rebelled against God in the wilderness or the rest of us who, scripture tells us, have likewise rejected Sabbath rest and life by sinning against God (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Jesus reestablished Sabbath rest! Sabbath rest is now open to the world in the person and work of Jesus! As the writer of Hebrews put it in Hebrews 4:
1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
Do not miss the Sabbath rest that is Jesus! Do not miss the land of promise that is Jesus! “Strive to enter that rest”! Do not reject Sabbath rest!
Yes, Sabbath rest is now open to the world in the person and work of Jesus, and the exclamation point of His person and work is His Sunday resurrection.
Ah, church! To reduce this day to whether or not you can mow your grass on it is to miss the point! The point is Jesus and the orientation of our lives toward and with His person and His will. How easy it is to make a list! How easy it is to draft a law! But what is more valuable is to ask the Lord Jesus how we might set this day apart so that our hearts will not be distracted by our soul-crippling routines and the distractions that so easily waylay us. Yes, this will involve rest as “ceasing to work.” Obviously that is a part of this. But that clearly is not the mainpoint, as if the mechanistic cessation of weekly labor means you are now partaking in Sabbath rest. No, the deeper issue is the weekly reorientation of our lives to Jesus and the rest and peace He gives. Therefore, whatever keeps you from experiencing that on Sunday should be set aside. And, indeed, this same trajectory, a Christward movement toward Sabbath rest, should shape what we do everyday of our lives!
Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (pp.46-47). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Walton, John H., The Lost World of Adam and Eve, p.50.
Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1:11-26. The New American Commentary. Old Testament, vol. 1A (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 1996), p.126-127.
Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 81). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Quoted in Daniel M. Gurtner, “The Veil of the Temple in History and Legend.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.49/1 (March 2006), p.98.
Walton, John H., The Lost World of Adam and Eve, p.47-48.
R.R. Reno, Genesis. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), p.29-60-62.
VanDrunen, David. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (pp.138-139). Crossway. Kindle Edition.