by James Montgomery Boice
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. - Genesis 2:1-3
What does it mean, God rested on the seventh day? It does not mean that God closed his eyes and went to sleep. He did not take a nap. It does not mean that God rested in the sense that he became indifferent to what the man and woman were doing. We know God was not indifferent because when Adam and Eve sinned he was immediately there in the garden calling them to an accounting. He pronounced judgment and held out hope of a Redeemer to come. Rest is not to be understood in either of those ways.
What is involved here is what St. Augustine had in mind when, with his magnificent use of words, he contrasted the rest of God with our restlessness. He said, “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Augustine was thinking of the turmoil of the human heart. He was saying that our true destiny is to find the rest that is found in God only.
Is it not the case that what is involved here is this kind of rest? God, having completed his work of creation, rests, as if to say, “This is the destiny of those who are my people; to rest as I rest, to rest in me.”
Rest and Restlessness
One thing that makes our lives restless is the pace of change. I wonder how many people have had the experience of watching a population clock. I did at the first of the world congresses on evangelism in Berlin in 1966 and can report that it is a very disturbing experience. In the Congress Halle in Berlin, where the meetings took place, there was a population clock display. It was a printout of numbers that kept increasing at the rate of the increase of the population of this planet. The numbers went by very rapidly. They were literally flipping by in front of our eyes—ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, a thousand, two thousand, three thousand. … That is the way they went. As I stood watching this clock, I was overwhelmed by the rapid pace of change. On this occasion even the clock was overwhelmed, because the mechanism was unable to keep up with the increase of the population and the poor thing began to slow down. Toward the end of the assembly someone had to announce from the platform that the clock was not keeping up with the population and if you wanted to know what it was, you had to upgrade the numbers by a certain amount.
If we fail to recognize how disturbing this is, we need to think of this further fact: not only are the numbers increasing, indicating that time is quickly marching on, but even the rate of increase is increasing. The population increases are accelerating. Instead of slowing down, the clock should have been speeding up. The speed at which it was going back in 1966 for the World Congress on Evangelism was much slower than it would have to be if it were keeping pace with the increase of the world’s population today.
Moreover, the problem is not just the increase in population. That would not be such a bad thing in itself. It is that everything is changing. This is why Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock speaks of a pending monumental breakdown of people who live in industrialized lands. It is not a case, as some have said, of our choices being increasingly eliminated and industry forcing us into greater and greater uniformity. Rather, our options are increasing and at an ever faster rate of speed. People cannot keep up with the choices they are compelled to make. We look at such things and conclude, rightly and inescapably, that this is an age of great distress and restlessness.
However, we still have not come to the real cause of restlessness. If we were to go back in history before what we regard as the modern age and the quickly accelerating pace of modern life, we would still find people having the kind of restlessness about which St. Augustine wrote. He lived in an age of change. But if we could have asked him, “Augustine, how can it be that you, living back in what we regard as the early periods of western history, can speak of restlessness? We see our problem as having to do with the fast pace of modern life.” Augustine would have said, “It’s not the fast pace of modern life or the slow pace of life that is your problem; the basic problem is sin, which brings turmoil to the heart.” Perhaps he would have pointed us to those words of Scripture that speak of the wicked having lives that are like the churning sea that never rests. That is what sin causes.
The devil was the first one to sin, and he has as one of his names, Diabolos, which means “the disrupter.” The word diabolos is based on two Greek words: dia, which means “through” or “among,” and ballō, which means “to throw.” We get our word “bowling” from it. Together the words describe one who is always throwing something into the middle of things. He is the one who throws the monkey wrench into the machinery. He disrupts. And so does sin! If we were sinless, we would have the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ within. But because we do not, we are at odds with God (who has become our enemy), with others (with whom we are in constant conflict), and ourselves. Even when we sit by ourselves we are unable to be at peace. An author once said, “The greatest problem with men and women is that they do not know how to sit and be still.”
What is the cure for restlessness? It is interesting that these verses in Genesis are picked up by the author of Hebrews in a chapter that is entirely given over to this subject. He begins in chapter 3, but it is really in chapter 4 that he talks about what he calls “Sabbath-rest” (v. 9). He calls attention to the fact that although God has created rest for his people, we are not at rest. He points out that when God led Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness in their days of wandering, he had as a goal to bring them into the Promised Land. It was to be a place where they would find rest from their wandering. It was a symbol of heaven. But the people rebelled, as we do, and God judged that generation. The author quotes Psalm 95:11 in which God says, “I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ” The author asks how this can be. Here is God, who creates a day of rest and promises rest and yet swears that his people will never enter into that rest. He replies that we do not enter into rest because we will not come to God at that point at which rest may be found, namely, in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The author exhorts the people of his day. He says, in effect, “Don’t go on as those people did who perished in the wilderness, about whom these things were said. Rather strive to enter into God’s rest. Cast off sin. Cast off everything that keeps you from Christ. Come in the fullness of faith to rest in him.”
Jesus himself made that offer. Before his crucifixion when he was with his disciples in the upper room, he recognized that they were bothered by what was happening. They had heard his prophecies of his death, and although they did not understand them fully they knew that things were going to change. They were troubled, but he said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1). He went on to talk about heaven and the giving of the Holy Spirit and the privilege of prayer, and when he got to the end he gave them something that can rightly be regarded as his legacy: peace. He said, “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (v. 27).
How does that come about? It is by finding Christ who has done what we need. Sin is the basic cause of restlessness, and sin is the problem with which we must deal. We cannot handle it. We are the sinners. But the Lord Jesus Christ not only can, he does. He comes; he dies; he pays the penalty for our sin. He opens the door into the presence of God for all who believe in him. Then God, on the basis of the death of Christ, pronounces the believing one justified. That one now stands before the presence of God clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
As long as we live we will be troubled by sin. But we can begin to enter into God’s rest now and can look forward to that day when we will be made like Jesus and stand before God in holiness.
Holiness and Sin
That leads to the second point. God not only promises rest in these verses, he promises holiness as well. Holiness means to be set apart. So God sets the Sabbath day apart to teach that we are to enter not only into rest but also into holiness.
The two go together, because holiness is the opposite of sin, and sin is what makes us restless. Why is it that when we go out into the world with the gospel the world is not willing to respond to Christ’s teaching? Why is it that when we talk about rest, the world, which is restless, does not rush with open arms to embrace the gospel? The answer is that rest is connected with holiness and the world does not want holiness.
The attributes of God are always an offense to men and women. God is sovereign. That is offensive because we want to be our own sovereign. We want to be lords of our lives. We want to say, as one of the poets did, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
God is also omniscient. He knows everything. This is troublesome, too, because it means that God knows us. We do not want to be known, certainly not well. We want to be noticed. We want to be praised, built up. But we do not want to be known as we are because we are ashamed of what we are. Yet God knows us as no other man or woman will ever know us, and to be exposed in the sight of a holy God is frightening.
The most troublesome of all the attributes of God is holiness. God is absolutely holy. He has no place for sin. There is not a sinful thought, not a sinful wish, not a sinful deed or emotion in God. Yet everything we do is marred by sin. It says a little later in the Book of Genesis that the thoughts of people had become “only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). We may resist the judgment of God and say that this is not true, but this is the way God sees it. We tend to minimize sin. We say, “Of course, there are times when I do not do everything I should, but generally I’m pretty good.” God says, “Even those good times are so infused with sin that, if you could see as I see, you would abhor yourself in ashes.”
Men and women do not like God for his holiness, and it is this that makes the gospel so hard to preach. People need rest, yes. But they need it in the way it is to be found: by having sin’s penalty removed through the work of Christ; sin’s power broken through the power of the Holy Spirit; sin’s presence eradicated by Christ’s return, when those who believe on him shall be made like him in all his perfections.
For believers there is a sense in which the seventh day is fulfilled in us now. We enter by degrees into the rest and holiness Christ provides. But the ultimate realization of the Sabbath is to be at Christ’s return when we go to be with him and rest with him in holiness forever.
To the Work
In spite of the promise of the seventh day, it is nevertheless the case that the seventh day is succeeded by the first day, which also has importance for us. Donald Grey Barnhouse in his devotional study of the Book of Genesis has an interesting word at this point. Each segment of Genesis is followed by a devotional comment, and at this point, after the words “on the seventh day God finished the work which he had done and rested,” Barnhouse remarks, “But not for long.” Sin entered, and God was soon at work again in Christ to bring redemption. Jesus said, “The Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” That work is still going on. So if God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are working, then we had better be working too, because there is much work to be done.
It is significant that the Christian day of worship is not the Sabbath day of rest (characteristic of the Old Testament period) but the first day of the week, Sunday, which is a day of joy, activity, and expectation. Why is it a day of joy? Because we see the culmination of the gospel in Jesus Christ. Before, God’s people lived in expectation. They looked for the coming of the Messiah. Now the Messiah has come, and we rejoice in him. Christ’s first word to the women after his resurrection was “Rejoice.” They were to rejoice because there was much to rejoice about.
Then let us be done with the long faces and solemn demeanors that so often characterize the people of God on the Lord’s Day. And let us be done with the type of worshiper who comes to church only to go home. If you do not enjoy the worship of God and the fellowship of God’s people, if you do not enjoy the preaching of the Word and the response of the congregation in word and song, stay home! In the early days of the church the apostles did not have to go around ringing doorbells to get people to come out to the service. They did not have to maintain every-member visitation plans to renew flagging interest. In fact, the opposite was true. We read in the second chapter in Acts that the Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. … Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (vv. 42, 46–47).
These were happy Christians. Other people liked to be with them, perhaps most of all because they were happy. Friendships developed. Then on the basis of these friendships the Lord moved and added to the church daily those who were being saved.
The second characteristic of the Lord’s Day is activity. The first Lord’s Day was a day of activity: the women on the way to the tomb, the appearances of Jesus, the return to Jerusalem of the Emmaus disciples, the sharing of experiences, communion, the Lord’s commission. It is possible that if you have been working hard for the other six days of the week, Sunday might have to be a “day of rest” for you. But this is not an integral part of the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath was the day of rest. If you need to rest, try resting on Saturday. The Lord’s Day should be a day of activity.
This does not mean that just any old activity will reflect the fullest significance of the day. You may mow your grass, if you wish. You are not under law. But this does not have much to do with Christ, nor does it help to express your joy in his resurrection.
Worship is significant. It may strike some persons as strange to speak of worship as an activity; for in many minds worship is conceived in a passive sense, that is, sitting in a pew and letting the words of the day run through one’s head like water. But this is a travesty of real worship. The Lord said that real worship is done “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Truth involves content. So worship is above all else an active, rational activity.
Why do we have Scripture readings in the speech of the people instead of in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin? Why are the words of music in common speech? Why does a sermon stand at the heart of each service? The answer is: to engage our minds.
“We must therefore beware of all forms of emotional, aesthetic or ecstatic worship in which the mind is not fully engaged, and especially of those which even claim that they are superior forms of worship,” writes John R. W. Stott, retired rector of All Souls Church in London. “The only worship pleasing to God is heart-worship, and heart-worship is rational worship. It is the worship of a rational God who has made us rational beings and given us a rational revelation so that we may worship Him rationally, even ‘with all our mind’ ” (John R.W. Stott. Christ the Controversialist. Downers Grove: IL.: IVP, 1978, 165).
Another activity that ought to characterize the Lord’s Day is witness. Jesus revealed this characteristic when he instructed the women, “Go tell my brethren,” and later informed the disciples that they were to carry the good news of his life, death, and resurrection into all the world. You can do that on any day, of course. It is of the essence of our day that anything done on Sunday can also be done (and perhaps should be done) on other days also. But do you at least bear witness on Sunday? This is a day on which to invite your friends to go with you to hear God’s Word. At the very least it is a day on which you should teach what you know about Christ to your children.
There is one thing more: the first day should be characterized by expectation. I love Sunday, and one of the reasons why I love Sunday is that I never know in advance what will happen. As I leave my house on the way to church I never know precisely whom I will meet. I never know who will be present in church or who will respond to the preaching. I never plan messages to preach at problems that I imagine to be present in the congregation, yet it is often the case that what I say is used of the Lord to speak precisely to some problem. Lives are changed. Not infrequently, the day is the turning point in someone’s entire spiritual experience.
We who know the reality of the rest and holiness of God should of all people be most joyful, active, and expectant as we take the gospel’s glorious message to a world that knows neither rest nor holiness, but needs them desperately.