A Biblical Theology of Rest



          The idea of rest permeates contemporary Western culture. A person can feel unrested if he gets inadequate sleep over night. Friends and family often discuss planned vacations for the year, yearning for the rest it will bring from the monotonous work week. Rest may be a familiar concept in contemporary culture, but are Christians aware of the biblical significance this concept has? God starts developing a biblical idea of rest in the first few chapters of Genesis, and it becomes a theme recurrent throughout Scripture. We will assess the following: God entering into rest at the end of creation, the relationship between rest and the Mosaic Law, rest pre-figured in the conquest of Canaan, rest pre-figured in the Israelite monarchy, the explanation of rest in Hebrews, and the fulfillment of rest through Jesus Christ.

          The concept of rest is introduced in the Bible as early as Genesis chapter two, where it states, “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. 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.” (Genesis 2:2-3) Notably, the seventh day of creation does not have an ending demarcated as the preceding six days of creation did, with references to an evening and morning. The implication is that the seventh day has continued, and God has been resting, ever since. Though further development of this topic awaits additional biblical revelation, these verses still enhance our understanding of rest. God entering into rest on the seventh day is described in contrast to his work of creation. Therefore, rest must be distinct from active work. Additionally, since God entered into rest himself and blessed the day he did so, this idea of rest presumably has an intrinsic goodness and desirableness to it. At this point in Scripture, the relationship between humanity and God’s rest is not yet clear.

          The concept of rest re-appears in the giving of the Mosaic Law to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. Prior to this, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, hardly a restful situation. However, as described in the book of Exodus, God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt by working through Moses. After this divine act of redemption, God eventually brought the Israelites to Mt. Sinai where he entered into the Mosaic Covenant with them. This included the giving of the Mosaic Law. The fourth commandment of the Decalogue exhorts the people of Israel to work the first six days of the week, but to rest and not work on the seventh (Exodus 20:8-10). Exodus 20:11 provides the rationale, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This command developed a link between God’s rest and God’s people. It revealed that God’s rest had implications for the Israelites; they were to mirror his rest in their own lives. Because God rested on the seventh day, the Israelites were to rest on the seventh day.

          In addition to the Sabbath rest commanded, The Mosaic Law further revealed that how the Israelites lived in the Promised Land would directly impact the physical rest they would experience there. Leviticus chapter twenty-six stated that if the Israelites obey God’s laws and commands, he would bless them in the Promised Land. They would have plentiful harvests, experience peace and security, defeat their enemies, and experience God’s dwelling with them (Leviticus 26:1-13). However, if they disobeyed God’s commands and broke the Mosaic Covenant, the opposite would be true. They would experience diseases, have poor harvests, be defeated by their enemies, be scattered among the nations, and experience God being against them (Leviticus 26:14-33). It is implied that a failure by the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath and keep it holy would contribute to Israel being displaced from the Promised Land. “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it.” (Leviticus 26:34-35) However, God also promised forgiveness and restoration if the Israelites scattered among the nations repent and turn back to God. “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me… then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:40, 42) These passages in Leviticus develop the theme of rest by showing that God wants his people to experience rest. However, they also reveal there is human responsibility involved. For God’s people to experience rest, they have to obey his laws. A lack of obedience will result in a lack of rest. This relationship is displayed in subsequent Israelite history.

          The record of Israelite history in the Old Testament shows that they did attain a measure of temporal rest at times. Except for Joshua and Celeb, all the Israelites who left Egypt in the Exodus died wandering in the wilderness over a forty-year period. This was due to the Exodus generation’s sin of not entering and fighting for the Promised Land when God initially brought them to its borders (Numbers 32:6-13). The subsequent generation of Israelites returned to the borders of the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, and they entered it and fought its inhabitants to possess it. Eventually, Israel succeeded in taking over most of the Promised Land, and Joshua 21:43-44 provides an excellent summary, “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. 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.” After God gave the Israelites victory over their enemies and possession of the Promised Land, it is stated God gave them “rest on every side” (Joshua 21:44). This rest was the peace Israel experienced after being victorious over their enemies. The Mosaic Law revealed that the Israelites were to rest on the Sabbath because God rested on the Sabbath, and their experience of rest was dependent on obedience. The book of Joshua shows that rest is something God’s people also enter into, and the corporate experience of rest comes after triumph over adversaries. Unfortunately, this rest did not last. The period of the judges which followed showed a pattern of Israel disobeying God, being oppressed by a foreign nation, crying to God for help, and then being delivered by a judge whom God sends.

          The monarchy of Israel was established subsequent to the period of the judges. During the reign of King Saul, Israel warred with the surrounding Philistine nations. After King David ascended to the throne, Israel defeated its enemies and experienced another time of relative rest and security. 2 Samuel 7:1 described the time of peace, stating, “the LORD had given [King David] rest from all his surrounding enemies”. Instructively, this second experience of corporate rest occurred under the reign of a king described as “a man after [God’s] heart, who will do all [God’s] will” (Acts 13:22). This highlighted that Israel’s experience of rest was related to being under a godly king, and subsequent Israelite history would affirm this relationship.

          The corporate experience of rest extended into the reign of David’s son, Solomon. However, due to sin in Solomon’s life (1 Kings 11:9-13), the nation of Israel was split into northern and southern parts during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:16-24). From this time onwards, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah had conflicts with each other and surrounding nations. When covenant-keeping kings would reign, the nation would experience greater peace, but when covenant-breaking kings would reign, the nation would experience more instability and oppression. Due to sin, the northern kingdom of Israel was eventually defeated and exiled by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:21-23), and the southern kingdom of Judah was eventually defeated and exiled by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:10-17). The covenant curses described in Leviticus came true: the Israelites were exiled from the Promised Land and scattered abroad as a result of breaking the Mosaic Covenant. Though the rest achieved under King David did not last, an association was formed between rest for God’s people and the reign of God-honoring kings. Seemingly, the re-achieving of rest for God’s people would be dependent on the reign of a godly king. 

          Psalm 95, written by King David (Hebrews 4:7), further developed the biblical significance of rest. It described how the Exodus generation died in the wilderness and was unable to enter into rest because of sin. “For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.’ Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” (Psalm 95:10-11) The rest those Israelites were unable to experience wasn’t just physical rest in the land of Canaan. God stated they were unable to experience to his own rest. Since God has been immaterially resting since the seventh day of creation, this psalm suggests the rest God desires to bring his people into must transcend the physical, temporal rest experienced in the land of Canaan.

          Once we get to the New Testament, the concept of rest is more comprehensively explained. Up to this point, there were intrinsic tensions in the rest described throughout the Old Testament. God’s rest on the seventh day was the basis for why Israel was to keep the Sabbath rest. Israel did experience times of rest while in the Promised Land, but those experiences were temporary and dependent on obedience to the Law. The experience of rest became associated with the reign of a godly king. God described an intention to bring his people into his own rest, creating an expectation of rest that transcended the temporal.

          The book of Hebrews provides divine commentary and explanation for the rest described throughout the Old Testament. Hebrews chapters three and four describe how the wilderness generation of Israelites was unable to enter God’s rest because of unbelief. However, the ability to enter God’s rest still stands in the present time, and a person enters that rest through accepting and responding in faith to the message of the gospel; “For we who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 3:7-4:3). Hebrews further explains that the rest experienced by Israel in the time of Joshua was only prefiguring the greater rest to come for the people of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 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.” (Hebrews 4:8-10) The rest experienced under Joshua merely pointed forward to the greater rest to come. To enter this greater rest, through coming to Christ in response to the gospel, is to experience rest from one’s work of trying to achieve a right standing before God on your own. Hebrews makes clear, as was implied in Psalm 95, that the true rest to which God calls his people transcends physical rest in a temporal land, and this rest into which Christians are called is still available today.

          Jesus Christ is the bringer of this true rest into which God’s people are called, rest in a right standing before God. Jesus stated in Matthew, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Through coming to Christ in response to the message of the gospel, one achieves rest for his soul by experiencing a right standing before God on the basis of Jesus’ imputed righteousness. It is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that entrance into God’s rest was purchased for God’s people. The Mosaic Law showed rest is dependent on obedience, and Jesus achieved rest for God’s people through his death and resurrection after perfectly obeying the Law. The book of Joshua showed rest came after triumphing over enemies, and Jesus triumphed over sin and death on the cross. Rest for Israel was associated with the reign of a godly king, and Jesus is the perfectly righteous, reigning Davidic king who achieved rest for the Church. Psalm 95 suggested that God’s rest, which he desired to bring his people into, must transcend physical rest in a temporal land; and Jesus brings his people into true rest through a righteous standing before God, an experience which starts in the present and continues into the new creation.

          Christians experience this rest in an already initiated, but not yet consummated, fashion. Already, Christians are able to rest in trying to achieve a righteous standing before God; because this was done for them through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Already, Christians who have died experience rest in heaven, while awaiting the new creation. “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Revelation 14:13) The temporary rest experienced by Israel in the Promised Land prefigured the greater rest into which Christians are called. The experience of this greater rest begins at the moment of salvation, and it is consummated in the new creation, where God’s people will experience rest for all eternity.

          Through tracing this theme of rest from Genesis to Revelation, we gain insight into how themes in Scripture can be developed by God throughout redemptive history. Though a concept or promise may initially appear in one form, God may achieve its fulfillment in a way greater and more amazing than initially suspected. This is true with relation to the idea of rest. This topic was visible in the first few chapters of Genesis and its implications became clearer as redemptive history progressed. God entered into rest on the seventh day, and his people were told to rest on the Sabbath because God rested on the Sabbath. Obedience to God’s law was associated with experiencing rest. Israel experienced temporary, physical rest in the land of Canaan through triumphing over their enemies, and rest came to be associated with the reign of a godly king. Psalm 95 alluded that God’s rest into which he wants to bring his people is greater than temporal rest in a physical land. Hebrews confirms this notion and describes how the rest into which God’s people are called is rest in a righteous standing before God. Jesus is the reigning, perfectly righteous Davidic king who achieved true rest for God’s people through his perfect obedience to the Law, death, and resurrection. Transcending temporal rest in a physical land, Christians experience this rest now and will continue to experience it in the new creation for all eternity.