What can break people out of this destructive, self-centered cycle so that they can experience the rest they need? As much as many would like rest to be a matter of strict discipline, people cannot simply schedule regular periods of rest into their calendars and expect to experience the deep menuha rest that Heschel described. The deeper problem with rest is not a matter of scheduling. It is a matter of trust in God. Somehow, people’s hearts have to be changed.
In the New Testament, two passages clarify how God is restoring rest. In the first passage, Jesus makes the unequivocal and controversial claim that he will give people rest.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This claim infuriates some Israelites because only God can provide that kind of rest, as in Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” It is indeed Jesus’ intention to identify himself as the one true God who can provide the kind of rest that is promised to Israel. But how can Jesus provide this rest?
In the second passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes another startling claim that he is greater than the sabbath as he is “lord of the sabbath” (Matt 12:8).
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8)
Jesus makes the dramatic claim that he provides a greater rest than the law of the sabbath can offer. How does Jesus provide a deeper rest than the sabbath law? Romans gives an explanation.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4).
The sabbath law on its own has no ability to address the deeper problem within people. The fourth commandment teaches that people ought to rest, but it cannot enable them to do so because a commandment on its own is powerless to change hearts. The common inability to rest, rather, exposes a much deeper problem. People desire to be self-sufficient without God, and yet the effort that it takes to do so leaves people exhausted and empty. This is where the good news of the Gospel comes in. According to Romans (see below), God knows that the law is powerless to change hearts. Jesus refers to himself as the lord of the sabbath because he does something that the sabbath law could never do. God wants to commune with his people through rest, but people can’t commune with God if they fear his condemnation. Jesus frees people from condemnation by forgiving all sin through his sacrifice on the cross. In doing so Jesus grants Christians renewed access to God that individuals could never earn or accomplish on their own. No longer estranged from God due to sin, people can now enter into real restful communion with God.
Indeed, an examination of the Christian faith, as laid out in the letters to the early church, concurs about what Christ has accomplished for people with regard to rest.
First of all, in Christ believers are saved from condemnation under the Law.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
Because people no longer need to be afraid of God, believers no longer feel compelled to work incessantly in a futile attempt to please God.
By establishing forgiveness, Christ reconciles each person’s relationship with God. In doing so, Jesus restores the possibility of people experiencing loving fellowship with God.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
According to this passage, all people should be able to experience a restful relationship with God, despite any real-world obstacles.
Furthermore, through Christ’s sacrifice the parent-child relationship between God and his people is restored.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
Christ reinstates all the privileges and benefits of being a child of God that God gave people in the garden of Eden. Adopted as God’ children, people have every right to ask for what they need, and God promises not to withhold any good thing from them. (Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 9:8). Moreover, individuals have the honor of partnering with God in the work he intends to do in the world.
A spirit of adoption does not negate the possibility of suffering in the life of a Christian. Rather, suffering can be viewed as part of taking on the family business. People sometimes have the opportunity to suffer with God in the same way that Jesus comes alongside all people who are suffering. Whether believers feel extremely provided for or extremely in need, Jesus’ sacrifice means that they no longer have to turn to their own work as the ultimate source of security and identity.
Similarly, when people partner with God in his work of restoring the world to his original intention, the Holy Spirit empowers them to deepen their relationships with others. It is only through Jesus’ sacrifice that people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-7). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers find it possible to give their time and property sacrificially to others (Acts 4:34). God gives his followers his very Spirit to empower them to live by faith, to work by faith, and finally to rest in faith.
The last insight on this subject in the New Testament is that Christ will come again one day to fully restore God’s intention for both work and rest. In the fallen world which continues today, people will always be subject to a pattern of frustration, exhaustion, and partial recuperation. But when Christ comes again to make the world the way God has always intended it to be, he will reestablish an integrated pattern of purposeful work in partnership with God and rest in perfect communion with him. The following passage from Revelation reveals both themes of work and rest.
The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!" (Revelation 19:9-10)
Life in the new creation will involve both work (in fellow service with the angels) and rest (enjoying the marriage supper of the Lamb.) Human work and rest in the age to come will both occur in perfect partnership with God. Believers can wait for this eventuality in expectation, even as each person endeavors to experience closeness with God in his or her work and rest today (Hebrews 4:1).