The Sign of the Sabbath

March 12, 2023 ()

Bible Text: Exodus 31:12-18 |


The Sign of the Sabbath | Exodus 31:12-18
Brian Hedges | March 12, 2023

I want to invite you to turn in your Bibles to Exodus 31.

While you’re turning there, let me remind you of the ancient legend of Sisyphus. Perhaps you have heard this story before. Sisyphus was the Greek god who was condemned to an eternal existence of misery, as he would push a rock up to the top of a hill, only for it to roll down again. He would push it back up to the top of the hill and it would roll down and again and again and again, and so on forever. You can see a painting from painter Titian of this story; it’s been memorialized in novels and in literature and in art for hundreds of years.

It is a picture of how many of us feel, and how some of you may feel this morning. I wonder if you have come into worship today feeling tired, and not just tired because it was “spring forward” weekend, but more deeply tired because of the grind of daily life.

Maybe you feel overworked, overburdened, overloaded, and overwhelmed. Maybe you find yourself deeply weary; deep in your bones you feel this deep need for rest. It may be physical rest, maybe just a need for sleep and for time away from work and from some of the burdens of life.

Perhaps it’s also a deep need for spiritual rest. You feel restless in your heart, in your soul, you feel out of fellowship with God, a lack of peace in your conscience, and what you need is deep rest of soul.

If that’s where you are this morning, the message from the book of Exodus speaks directly to this deep need for rest in our hearts and souls. This morning we’re talking about a theme that is crucial to understanding Scriptures. It’s a theme that runs straight through Exodus, and really through the Old Testament. It is the theme of Sabbath.

Now, most of us when we hear the word “sabbath,” probably a number of different images come into our minds. We may think of Sunday worship, we may think of Old Testament laws, we might think of the burdens that the Pharisees imposed on people for Sabbath keeping, or maybe we think of people we know who observe Sabbath in a way very differently than we do. We may think of Seventh-Day Adventists or something like that. But I think there’s a lot of confusion about the meaning of Sabbath, and yet this is a thread that runs through the Scriptures and that I believe finds its resolution and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. So understanding Sabbath rightly gives us a window into the gospel and into the deep rest that Christ brings to our souls.

We’re going to consider that theme this morning, reading from Exodus 31:12-18. This, of course, is part of this ongoing study of the book of Exodus, which gives us the story of redemption in the Old Testament. As we’ve seen numerous times, Exodus shows us the God who delivers his people from slavery in Egypt, and he is the God who dwells with his people.

Last week our focus was on the tabernacle, the dwelling place of God, God’s presence with his people, and a restoration to the garden of Eden through this gift of God’s presence with his people. And today we’re looking at something that’s related. If the tabernacle had to do with sacred space, the Sabbath had to do with sacred time. We’re going to be looking at this passage, first of all, in Exodus 31, beginning in verse 12. So hear the word of the Lord.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, “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, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”’

“And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”

This is God’s word.

This is obviously a very serious passage, and it’s an important passage for us to understand, and it connects to this theme of Sabbath in Scripture. To help us understand it, I want us to look at three things: first, the sign of the Sabbath for Israel; second, the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ; and third, the implications of the Sabbath for us.

Most of the application is going to be in point three; hang with me in the first point, as we try to understand the Sabbath in its context in the book of Exodus and then connect the lines of this theme with the person and the work of Christ in the New Testament.

1. The Sign of the Sabbath for Israel

You can see in the passage we just read, in both verses 13 and 17, that the Sabbath was called a sign. This was a sign of the covenant; it was a sign of this binding relationship that God had with his people Israel. Remember that he had made a covenant with them in Exodus 24. The “book of the covenant” was given in Exodus 21-23, and then in Exodus 25-31, as we saw last week, God gives instructions for the building of the tabernacle.

As we saw last week, the tabernacle was meant to take them back to the garden of Eden. These instructions are given with seven statements from God: “And the Lord said to Moses.” It’s significant that the seventh of these statements is the statement we just read. It’s a statement not about the tabernacle as such but about the Sabbath. Just as God had created the world in six days and then on the seventh day rested, so in his seventh statement to Moses he gives this command, these requirements for the Sabbath.

Notice the emphasis here in the way it’s worded in verse 13. “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths.’” That highlights the significance of the Sabbath day.

We read that the Lord made the Sabbath holy. Just as God had made the tabernacle holy—he had set it apart for his dwelling in Exodus 29:44—so he sets apart the people of God and makes them holy in Exodus 31:13, and the Sabbath itself is holy to the Lord in verse 14.

Not only that, but we could say—and I’m drawing this from Christopher Wright, who’s been helpful in many ways in understanding this passage—Christopher Wright points out that there are three ways in the book of Exodus through which the children of Israel would know that Yahweh was God, that they would know that the Lord Yahweh was the true God.

The first way, in Exodus 6, was through the event of the exodus itself, their deliverance from Egypt. The second way was through the tabernacle and God’s ongoing dwelling among them (Exodus 29:46), and the third way was through the weekly observance of the Sabbath. This is how they would know that he is God, he is Yahweh, the Lord, who sanctifies them.

All of this underscores for us the vital importance and centrality of the Sabbath for the nation of Israel. Of course, one of the key ways that we see this is that the Sabbath was actually given in the Ten Commandments. It was the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments, and it’s given in both versions of the Decalogue, the Ten Words or the Ten Commandments; both in Exodus 20, given at Mount Sinai; and then forty years later in the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy means “the second law”; it’s the second giving of the law before the children of Israel go into the land of Canaan.

There’s a slight difference between these two different Sabbath commands, and I won’t take the time to read all of this, but just note the main difference.

In Exodus 20 the command to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy is grounded in verse 11 in the fact that God created the world. “In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,” and rested on the seventh day. Part of the theology of the Bible is that this seventh day of rest was actually God’s rest that would be an eternal rest into which human beings were invited to participate. Adam and Eve were invited to participate in this final rest, kind of an end-time rest, but they sacrifice that rest, they lose that rest, as they are banished from the garden. Just as in the building of the tabernacle and God’s presence in the tabernacle is an invitation to come back into the blessing of God over his people, this sacred space where God dwells; so the invitation to keep Sabbath and the requirements of Sabbath was meant to bring them into God’s rest.

In Deuteronomy 5 the emphasis is slightly different. Here the command to observe the Sabbath day is grounded not in creation, but rather in redemption. The Lord says in verse 15, “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.”

So, for the Jewish people, for the people of Israel, both creation and redemption were reasons for which they were to keep the Sabbath day.

Another thing we should note here is that the Sabbath really extended into all of Israel’s calendar. I won’t take time to read any of the passages, but if you read the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch—especially the book of Leviticus, you’ll see in Leviticus 23 and 25 that the Sabbath really heads a list of the many different festivals and feasts and holy days that were to be kept in the Jewish liturgical calendar. In fact, even the Day of Atonement is in some ways a Sabbath. It is a kind of Sabbath. This leads one scholar, Tremper Longman, to say that the Sabbath is the most foundational of sacred times in the Old Testament, and in a sense, all of these festivals were extensions of the Sabbath. So really their whole live, throughout the year, was structured around Sabbath-keeping—Sabbath-keeping weekly but also in the festivals and the feasts that they were to participate in every year. Then, even beyond the year, there were Sabbath years. There were whole years that were Sabbath years. So every seventh year would be a Sabbath year. Then, every time you had seven series of seven years, you would have in the fiftieth year the year of jubilee, a year where slaves were to be set free and debts were to be forgiven and so on.

All of this just underscored the importance of the Sabbath for the people of Israel.

Another way that we see that directly in this passage, in Exodus 31:14-15, is that there was a death penalty imposed on those who would profane the Sabbath. Maybe when we read that it was a little bit shocking to you. Maybe you didn’t know that, that there’s actually a death penalty in the Old Testament for those who broke the Sabbath. That penalty was actually executed in Numbers 15.

It’s almost shocking to think that God would require that, and it causes us to ask the question, “Why?” Why was the Sabbath so important? That’s what we have to get in this first point, is that this is central to the faith of the people of God in the Old Testament.

The reason was both for their worship and for their ethics, their morality, their practice of justice. There’s both a vertical reason and a horizontal reason. Vertically, it protected their worship; and horizontally, it protected the practice of justice in that nation.

Christopher Wright says (in describing why the death penalty was there): “As a brake on the temptation to idolatry it protected the uniqueness of Yahweh as Creator and Redeemer, and as a brake on economic exploitation and oppression it preserved the social liberation that reflected the character of Yahweh. Sabbath was a sign of the covenant precisely because it embodied the vertical and horizontal dimensions of covenant commitment. It was unto the Lord but also for the good of society. That is why prophetic passages that attack Sabbath-breaking highlight the accompanying greed, exploitation, and maximizing the profit at the expense of others that went along with it.”

Again, we won’t take the time to read the passages, but if you read the prophets—Isaiah 58 or Amos 8—they condemn the people of God for breaking the Sabbath, and part of the reason is because of their exploitation of servants and slaves and the poor and their neglect of the land—all of these ways in which they were breaking their covenant with God.

Here’s one more way in which we see this that I think is quite interesting. You may know that the Hebrew Bible, what we know as the Old Testament, is actually arranged differently than the English Bible. In the English Bible we end with the minor prophets, with Malachi being the last of the minor prophets that we have in the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible, the Tenach, is actually arranged differently, and the last book in the Tenach is 2 Chronicles. 2 Chronicles 36, the last chapter of the Hebrew Bible, in almost the last verses, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21, gives us a reason for which the children of Israel went into Babylonian exile, and it has to do in part with their neglect of the Sabbath.

So in 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 we read that the king of the Chaldeans “took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.”

Just get this: from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 2 to the end of the Hebrew Bible in 2 Chronicles 36, the Sabbath is a central theme. It was a sign of the covenant, and it was so serious that the violation of the Sabbath led not only to death for the individual but it led to exile for the entire people of God. You can see that the Sabbath is an important theme in Scripture.

Now, that raises all kinds of questions, doesn’t it, for our own application. How are we, as disciples and as believers in Jesus Christ, to make sense of the Sabbath in the Old Testament, and in what ways (if any) should this affect our practice today?

2. The Fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ

I think to answer that question we have to look secondly at the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ. I’ll be brief on this point, but what I want to do is just point out four aspects of Jesus’ relationship to the Sabbath. I’m mainly just going to give you the points and the cross-references, and I’ll just read a couple of verses. Then I want to lean into application for the rest of the message. Four aspects of Jesus’ relationship to the Sabbath.

(1) Number one, he observed the Sabbath. You should understand this. When you’re reading the New Testament, when you’re reading the Gospels, understand that Jesus, as a Jewish man, was a Torah-observing, law-keeping Jew. He regularly observed Sabbath in the same way that he ate kosher, he followed the typical Jewish customs, he went to the temple for the Jewish feasts and festivals. You see that especially in the Gospel of John. He was circumcised on the eighth day; you see that in the Gospel of Luke. All these things that were required of Jewish people Jesus observed.

You see it in Luke 4:16, when Jesus goes to Nazareth to the synagogue, and it says that “as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.” This was the custom of Jesus. Jesus was a Sabbath-observing Jew. So, he observed the Sabbath.

(2) Number two, he healed on the Sabbath. There are at least seven stories in the Gospels where we see Jesus healing on the Sabbath. This is where it begins to get interesting, because some of the time the way in which he healed was a violation of the Pharisees’ understanding of how Sabbath should be kept.

So as you read the Gospels you’ll see again and again and again that Jesus finds himself embroiled in these controversies that are about the Sabbath, because he heals people on the Sabbath day. Jesus is then regularly involved in discussions about the Sabbath where he is correcting the misapplication of the Sabbath principle, and essentially says that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. So he comes to heal and to make whole and to make well people on the Sabbath day.

(3) Not only that, here’s the third thing: Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. It’s very significant that Jesus claims authority over the Sabbath itself. You see this in Mark 2:28, when Jesus says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” That means that Jesus was not under the Sabbath, he was over the Sabbath. He had the right, then, to define and redefine the Sabbath, and what we see ultimately is that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of the Sabbath.

(4) That’s the fourth thing: Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath. You see this even in that very first sermon that Jesus preaches in Luke 4, in the synagogue of Nazareth. He goes the synagogue, as was his custom, on the Sabbath day, and then he opens up the scroll of Isaiah and he reads from Isaiah 61 a passage about this Messiah, this one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest, who will bring in the year of jubilee. Listen to how it reads in Luke 4:18-19. Jesus speaking, quoting Isaiah 61, says,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

This leads Tremper Longman, an Old Testament scholar, to say, “The Isaiah passage was understood as anticipating the Messiah, the one who would establish the eschatological [that means the end-time] jubilee, when the redemption would once and for all be accomplished. Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one who announces and accomplishes our final salvation. He is the Sabbath.”

Here’s what I want you to get. I want you to get that Jesus is the one who fulfills everything that the Sabbath pointed to. He is the true source of deep spiritual rest, and he is the one who leads us into God’s end-time, final rest.

For some of you this may be the main point of application this morning, because there are some people, probably in this room, who are working themselves to the ground. In the daily grind, with life as a constant treadmill, you feel like Sisyphus pushing that rock up to the top of the hill, only for it to roll down again. You feel like you’re in this constant grind of work without much rest. You feel the futility of it all.

It may be that even more than just the physical aspect of that you are, in a very subtle way, looking for significance through your work. You are seeking security through your work and through your effort. You’re trying to build a sense of identity and worth through work or education or achievement or parenting, family life. You’re constantly looking to these things that all depend on what you do and how well you do it, in order to find these deep needs of your heart fulfilled and satisfied. And it always eludes you.

There are some of you spiritually who are so bone-tired, weary in heart and soul, and it’s all because of your constant spiritual struggle, because you’re always trying to “be good,” to be righteous, to do better. You’re looking to your spiritual disciplines, you’re looking to your service to others, you’re trying to be a good Christian. You’re trying to prove to yourself that you really are a Christian. Maybe you’re even trying to prove it to God. You’re subtly trying to earn the status that can only be freely given.

If that’s where you are this morning, I want you to hear again the inviting words of Jesus from Matthew 11:28, when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus says, “I am your Sabbath. I will give you rest. Come to me. Take my yoke upon you.” Not the yoke of the rabbis, not the yoke of the law, which is how that language was often used, but, “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.”

In the words of that great hymn-writer James Proctor—some of you have heard me quote these before, but hear the invitation:

Weary, working, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing; all was done
Long, long ago.

Till to Jesus’ work you cling
By a simple faith,
Doing is a deadly thing,
Doing ends in death.

Cast your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesus’ feet.
Stand in him, in hm alone,
Gloriously complete.

You see, the gospel is not about what you do, the gospel is about what Jesus has done for you. You will never find soul rest, rest for your heart, until you rest your weary heart in him. Christ is the fulfillment of Sabbath.

3. The Implications of the Sabbath for Us

So then, what are the implications of the Sabbath for us? This is, I have to confess, a complex and a controversial issue among Christians. It’s complex and controversial not only because the Bible itself is sometimes complicated but because there is such a diversity of views among Christians. I want to just outline for you what those views are, very briefly, and then do my best effort to give you three practical applications for what to do with Sabbath when you come to read about this in Scripture.

Here are the views.

(1) First of all, there are those who practice Sabbath on Saturday. They try to essentially practice the Jewish Sabbath. Seventh-Day Adventists would be the most common group today. That’s a denomination that began in the 19th century, in 1840, and then took that name, Seventh-Day Adventist, in 1860. But they were preceded by other people in history.

During the Puritan era there were some Baptist congregations that were actually “adventist.” There were at least ten of those congregations in England, and they practiced Sabbath on Saturday. So, that’s a group.

(2) Then you have, secondly, Christian Sabbatarians. These are people who observe Sabbath, but they observe it as a Christian Sabbath on Sunday, on what they call the Lord’s Day. There are some biblical reasons for calling Sunday, the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. It’s certainly a day on which the New Testament believers worshiped, and I don’t want to do anything to negate that. The Bible commands us to worship together.

But the English Puritans took it really far. They actually believed that the fourth commandment, as a fourth commandment, was part of the moral law of God, and it was required of all people, including new covenant Christians, that they worship and they keep the Sabbath as Christians on Sunday.

Probably the most extreme example of this was—get this—an 800-page book, by the Puritan John Wells, called The Practical Sabbatarian, written in 1668. Eight hundred pages on how to practically keep the Sabbath. It was books like this that led John Owen, who was a much more moderate Puritan, one of the Independents, to quip that “a man can scarcely in six days read over all the duties that are proposed to be observed on the seventh day"! That was the problem with English Puritanism.

But that was a movement, and there are still some people today who would say Christians must observe the Sabbath, keep the Lord’s Day holy.

(3) Then there’s a third group. These are those who do not see the Sabbath as an obligation for Christians at all, as a Sabbath. That’s not to negate the importance of meeting together, of corporate worship, but they would say this is not a law, this is not a command. The Bible in the New Testament does not directly command Christians to keep the Sabbath. That’s probably where the majority of evangelical and Protestant Christians are today.

(4) Finally, we might include those who are trying to recover the practice of Sabbath for physical, spiritual, and emotional health. You find this especially in writings about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines, things like that.

These are people who are wrestling with the workaholism and the psychological and emotional cost of living in modern society, and are saying there’s something about these ancient practices that we can recover that will be helpful to us spiritually and psychologically and so on.

Now, that’s all I’m going to say about these different views. What I want to do now is commend to you three applications for our own practice. All I can do is my best effort to understand and apply this to our lives today. Some of this, perhaps, will be surprising to you. There are three applications.

The principle of liberty

Number one we could just call the principle of liberty. In contrast to the Seventh-Day Adventists or to Christian Sabbatarians, I believe that the New Testament gives liberty and does not require believers in Jesus Christ under the new covenant to observe the Sabbath. I’ll give you two passages of Scripture in defense of that.

The first one is Colossians 2:16-17. This is the apostle Paul writing, and he’s writing to a congregation where there are people who are trying to Judaize the congregation; they’re trying to impose Jewish ceremonial laws and practices upon them. He says in Colossians 2:16, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink [that would be eating kosher], or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” Those would be the yearly, monthly, and weekly observances in the Jewish liturgical calendar. He says, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of [this]. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

There’s the reason. He’s not denying that these were there in the Old Testament, he’s not denying that these were important in their place, but he says these were a shadow and they pointed to a greater reality, and that reality is Jesus Christ.

You might think of it as the difference between a little portrait or picture, snapshot of your spouse that maybe you keep in your wallet, or now we keep it on our phones, right? A snapshot of your spouse that’s on your phone and the reality of being in his or her presence.

If I’m away on vacation—maybe not vacation but a mission trip or something like that, and I’m away from Holly, I’m going to look at pictures, right, to remember her. I’m going to admire those pictures. I’m looking at these pictures because it’s the closest I can get to her in those moments. That’s a good thing.

But everybody, and especially her, would think I was crazy if I come back to the airport and instead of embracing her I pull out the picture and I look at the picture on my phone, I kiss the picture, and I miss the person!

I think that’s what people do when they try to embrace the old covenant while missing the reality of who Jesus Christ is. Paul is saying, “These are a shadow! They’re a picture! But the reality is here, and the reality is Jesus Christ himself. He is our Sabbath.”

So, I would commend to you, better than the Puritans in this regard, Martin Luther, who I think had a better understanding of law and gospel. Luther said that Moses’ legislation about the Sabbath and what else goes beyond natural law, since it is not supported by the natural law, is free, null, and void, and is specifically given to the Jewish people alone.

In one of his table talks he’s reported as saying, in regards to the controversy with Andreas Carlstart, who was promoting Christians observing the Sabbath—and Luther was so opposed to this law principle being at work in Christian life to in any way denigrate or take away from the gospel of free grace that Luther said, “If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day’s sake, if anywhere anyone sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty.”

Way to go, Luther! I think that’s better than the English Puritans, who give you 800 pages of how to practically keep the Sabbath. Listen, there’s freedom in Christ. We are not under the law, we are under grace. It’s a new covenant. The Sabbath has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So the principle of liberty is first.

The practice of wisdom

Number two. The second application has to do with the practice of wisdom. Now, while I believe that we are free from the Sabbath requirements as an obligation, still we can acknowledge that there was wisdom in the principle of rest, a rhythm of work and rest. Paul tells us in Romans 15:4 that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

I like the way a New Testament theologian, Brian Rosner, talks about the law. In his book Paul and the Law he gives us three Rs for understanding the law. The three Rs are: (1) Repudiation. He says the law as a covenant is repudiated. We are in no sense whatsoever under the law as a covenant. (2) Replacement, because it’s often surprising in the New Testament that when you would think Paul would appeal to the law, he doesn’t, he appeals to something else. Paul never says, “Walk in the law of the Lord,” “Walk in the light of the law of the Lord.” He never does what Psalm 119 does. Instead, Paul says, “Walk in the Spirit,” right? He doesn’t appeal to the law as such, but to the law of Christ. He replaces the law with something better. (3) The third R is Reappropriation, the reappropriation of the law as prophetic testimony to Christ and as wisdom for living.

Following that paradigm, and along with those in that fourth category we saw earlier, people who encourage some kind of recover of Sabbath for psychological, emotional, spiritual health, I would say there’s certainly a place for us to find wisdom in building into our lives certain rhythms that will help us to flourish spiritually and emotionally, physically.

The last thing I want to do is impose upon you a burden of Sabbath rules and practices. I’m not going to tell you that there are things that you cannot do on Sunday or there are things you have to do on Sunday. Instead, let me give you a picture of rest and refreshment that will entice your heart so that you can then use your best wisdom in the freedom the Lord has given to find ways of pursuing this kind of rest and refreshment.

The picture I want to give you is Rivendell. You remember Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings? It’s from The Fellowship of the Ring. Rivendell was the place where the elves lived, and when the hobbits are on this journey to Mordor to destroy the ring of power they go through all kinds of dangers and trials and problems, and then they have a time of respite in Rivendell. This is how it reads.

“For a while the hobbits continued to talk and think of the past journey and of the perils that lay ahead. But such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal and in every word and song.”

How long has it been since you’ve experienced something like that? A kind of deep, lingering rest, and a place of quiet where you’re with friends or family. You don’t forget all the good and ill that lies behind or that lies ahead, but it ceases to have any power over the present moment, and hope grows strong in you. That is the kind of real rest to which Jesus invites us, and we find it as we seek his presence, as we learn to build into our lives healthy rhythms of work and, yes, rest. We don’t do it to keep a Sabbath law. You don’t need an 800-page book to tell you how to do that. You just need some common sense and a willingness to build in some structures in your life that will help you to enter into that freedom and to enjoy the kind of rest and refreshment that is available to you. There’s the practice of wisdom.

The perseverance of hope 

Here’s the third thing—I want to end on this note—what we might call the perseverance of hope. I want us to not forget that the Sabbath in the Old Testament always reached back to Genesis 2 and God’s seventh-day rest. And the New Testament points us forward to the ultimate and final fulfillment of that seventh-day rest in the last days. This is an eschatological rest, to use the theological word.

The key passage here is Hebrews 4:9-11. The writer to the Hebrews has warned the people not to forsake the new covenant in Christ, not to be like the children of Israel in the wilderness who failed to enter into the rest of the promised land because of their unbelief. He’s saying, "Don’t be like that, but instead hold onto your hope, hold onto your faith in Jesus Christ, because there’s still rest for you in the future.” Listen to what he says now in Hebrews 4:9-11.

“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.”

How do we enter that rest? We enter that rest through faith! It’s through faith. It’s by embracing Christ, the reality to which the Old Testament pointed all along—Christ who is our Sabbath, who is our rest. By embracing him, trusting him, remaining in him we will enter into that eternal rest.

I’ll end with these words from St. Augustine. This is how he ends his magnificent masterpiece The City of God. The final chapter is all about the greatness of our joy in the final day of rest. He says,

“Nothing will give more joy to that city than this song to the glory of the grace of Christ, by whose blood we have been set free. That will truly be the greatest of Sabbaths, a Sabbath that has no evening, the Sabbath that the Lord approved at the beginning of creation. We ourselves shall become that seventh day when we have been replenished and restored by his blessing and sanctification. There we shall be still and see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be in the end, without end, for what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end?”

It’s a rest that remains for us, a rest that’s ahead for us, a rest that we are journeying towards, the final, eternal Sabbath rest that will be better than Rivendell ever could be, when we will finally be in the presence of Christ, who gives us rest.

Are you trusting in Him this morning? Do you know him? Do you know that rest? Whatever burdens you’re carrying, let me encourage you to lay them down at Jesus’ feet and find your rest in him. Let’s pray together.

Gracious and merciful God, we thank you this morning that there is rest for weary souls and burdened hearts in your Son, Jesus Christ. Right now we want to lay our burdens down at your feet. We want to quit looking to our work, to how well we are doing in our jobs or school or parenting or spiritual disciplines or anything else; to quit looking to those things as the source of our significance and worth, our sense of security, as proof that somehow we are right with you. Instead, we look away from ourselves altogether, not at what we have done or can do, but we look to your Son, Jesus Christ, and to do his doing and his dying on our behalf, the perfect life he lived, his atoning death on the cross, and his triumphant resurrection into new creation and the eternal rest, where Christ now leads his people. Father, we rest ourselves in him. We lay down our deadly doing and we look to Christ’s finished work.

In that spirit of faith we come to the Lord’s table this morning, not trusting in ourselves and what we can do but trusting in Christ and what he has done for us. Thank you that the work is finished. Help us, Lord, to rest our souls in that finished work as we come to the table. We ask you to draw near to us in these moments, prepare our hearts for it. We pray these things in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.