Bernard Lagat is a Kenyan-born U.S. citizen and four-time Olympian runner. At 37, he placed fourth in the 5,000 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, and he holds seven American records, ranging from the 1,500 to the 5,000 meters. While most athletes his age are preparing for retirement, Lagat shows no sign of slowing down.
Runners like Lagat invest incredible time and effort to achieve a world-class rank. But Lagat has a regular routine that distinguishes him from most first-rank athletes. Not only does he rest one day of the week to worship at church but every fall since 1999, he has taken an extensive break—no running, no lifting weights. For five weeks, Lagat takes a sofa-spud sabbatical: he watches TV, plays with his kids, reads some books, and even puts on a few pounds.
Peter Thompson, an expert running coach and track and field official, comments, “In the U.S., runners are very obsessive about not letting go of training.” But Lagat is unapologetic about his need for prolonged rest. “My runs are very hard,” Lagat told the Wall Street Journal. “[But] the body is tired. You’re not a machine.” While many athletes fear getting out of shape, Lagat recognizes that “rest is a good thing.”
Like Lagat’s critics, many Christians are afraid of rest. Ingrained within the evangelical psyche is the belief that spiritual growth is connected to disciplined activity: prayer, Scripture reading, fasting, you name it. If we want to be transformed and become more like Jesus, we have to constantly train ourselves in spiritual activities. But like athletes who are obsessive about letting go of training, many Christians fail to recognize the importance of rest. This is surprising, since the Bible teaches that rest may be the most significant activity of all.
An “above all” commandment
Some Christians seem to think that they are saved by God, but once saved, their duty is to become holy, and they do that through sanctified effort. They believe that God is the primary Agent in justification, while they are the primary agents in sanctification. They favor biblical passages emphasizing disciplined activity—hallmark texts such as “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).1 Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Paul admonished Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). These texts tend to reinforce the idea that transformation requires nonstop effort on our part. But what place do we give rest in our pursuit of sanctification?
With these presuppositions, it seems counterintuitive to suppose that rest is the most transformative activity in the Christian life. Yet the Sabbath may be the most sanctifying “activity” of all. Consider this: “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” ’ ” (Exodus 31:12, 13; italics added). This passage suggests several features about the Sabbath that are sometimes overlooked.
First, this passage implies that the Sabbath is an “above all” command. To be sure, the Sabbath does not hold precedence over the command to love God. Jesus teaches that the greatest command is to love God with our whole being (Matthew 22:37). But Exodus suggests that the Sabbath is a fundamental way in which we express our love for God.
When God said “above all,” it was as if He had said, “This is the most important one!” A brief survey of the context of Exodus reinforces the point. In chapters 25–30, Moses received many instructions regulating Israel’s worship activities: instructions for building the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and other tabernacle furnishings, festivals, and priestly duties. The last command Moses received concerned the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12–17). Chapter 32 describes the incident with the golden calf; after severely chastising the people of Israel, Moses went back up Mount Sinai, where he interceded for the people and received more instructions from God.
On the mountaintop, God told Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). When Moses came down from the mountain, he delivered the instructions he had received from God, starting with the Sabbath (Exodus 35:1–3). The Sabbath was the last command Moses received from God, and it was the first one he gave to the people the second time around. This literary structure places rest at the center of Israel’s religious observances, emphasizing it as the most important of all.
Furthermore, Exodus 31:14–17 says that the Sabbath is a principal sign of God’s covenant with Israel— a thought that is repeated in many of the prophetic books. One of the main reasons for Israel’s captivity was Sabbath breaking.
Sabbath observance was intended to distinguish Israel from her pagan neighbors. It was a fundamental way in which Israel imitated God—by working six days and resting on the seventh, Israel testified that she worshiped the God who created the world in six days. By violating the Sabbath, Israel rejected worship of the one true God.
The Sabbath also had major social implications. All Israelites, including their livestock, were supposed to rest on the seventh day. Sabbath breakers not only failed to worship God, they also oppressed their servants and animals by denying them rest.
The Sabbath was a reminder that God liberated Israel from Egypt: “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” (Deuteronomy 5:15). By overworking servants and livestock, Israel acted more like her former oppressors than her gracious and compassionate God.
Despite the prominence of the Sabbath in the Old Testament, some Christians today presume that the Sabbath has now been “spiritualized.” They say that because of Christ’s fulfilling the law, we are no longer obligated to observe a weekly day of rest but simply find our rest in Christ. While Christ did say that He is our ultimate rest (Matthew 11:28–30) and that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), He never implied that Sabbath observance was abrogated by His redemptive work and is therefore optional. Rather, in His negative remarks about Jewish Sabbath observance, He was reacting against pharisaical legalism. Christ beckons us to practice good on the Sabbath, not evil. Not only does the Sabbath anticipate our future rest in the earth made new, it is a call for humanity to participate in that rest now, and to imitate God by doing so.
Exodus also teaches us that the Sabbath is linked to sanctification. But how? After all, it is a command to rest—to do nothing. And that may be precisely the point.
The Sabbath teaches us to trust in God in a way that no other activity can. Resting from work requires faith on our part. So much more could be gained by working every day of the week. However, the Sabbath requires us to trust completely on God to provide for all our needs.
And there is another reason why the Sabbath is so significant: “That you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” This verse shatters the faulty notion that we are the primary agents in sanctification. The Sabbath teaches us, as explained by Peter Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, that “God’s work of creation was complete; . . . the people could add nothing to it.” The same is true for Christ’s sanctifying work in our lives. Just as justification is a free gift from God, so is sanctification. Gentry said that though sanctification requires enormous effort on our part, it is not “works based.” Rather, it comes by continuously “re-orienting ourselves to our justification.” God is, therefore, the primary Agent in both justification and sanctification, and the Sabbath reminds us of that.
So do we cease all disciplined activity and wait for some mystical experience to transform us? To use the words of the apostle Paul, “By no means!” Throughout history, God has chosen to use people to accomplish His goals. While God is the primary Agent in sanctification, He has chosen to use our activities to transform us. Though Israel was commanded to observe certain religious activities in order to “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45), at the end of the week the only thing they had to do was relax. In the midst of their religious busyness, they were called to remember that God alone sanctified them. The psalmist said, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Without God’s work, our activities accomplish nothing. He alone brings about our transformation. While we keep the Sabbath outwardly, God also calls us to be Sabbath-minded people, recognizing that we can add nothing to His work. Just as God rested and took delight in His creation, so we are called to rest and delight in His sanctifying work in our lives.
Kevin Emmert is an assistant editor of Christianity Today.