Where Time Stands Open

Fitter, healthier, more productive

“Just say that again?” My interest had been piqued. At ease on the couch at the university chaplaincy, my colleague from the counselling service repeated the anecdote: “We’re finding students coming to us saying they feel bad—they feel bad when they’re not working or studying. They somehow feel resting is wrong.” We mulled together. Once proverbial for a decidedly relaxed approach to work and study, university students had, it seemed, so deeply internalised the imperative to be productive that they were getting the guilts when they rested. A grief settled over us. It wasn’t that such affliction was unintelligible to us: my colleague headed up a counselling service that was hugely overstretched, and I’d been juggling two or three jobs simultaneously for the past five years, so we knew what it was to be overwhelmed in our work. It was, rather, that the demand constantly to produce—to squeeze your schedule until it sweats money (and so, eventually, as the wisdom goes, happiness)—had lodged so deeply in students’ lives. Standing on a wide threshold of time, it is the glory of a 20-year-old to be looking forwards with wonder, even with joy, at what is to come. How strange and distressing then that the invitation to rest in the midst of our labours should have become—along with everything else—an overwhelming point of stress.

I suspect my story will not surprise you. Many of us have internalised the belief that we live to work, to be productive. So, we’re quick to explain to friends and colleagues why it is we’re taking time off. We’re even quicker to trade quiet complaints about how hard we’re working, how swamped we are, how little time we get for ourselves. This is frequently true and often for troubled reasons: employment and enterprise that are strongly driven by narrowly measured results, which are tightly tied to ambitious time-frames or vulnerable to knock-on impacts from wider industry, typically create relentless work cultures. And such work cultures are not geared to consider the whole life of each employee; indeed, they readily claim the person who has internalised such a work “ethic.” But, for our part, the trading of complaints about work/life balance can sometimes be a veiled boasting: secretly, we congratulate ourselves on being such hard workers. There’s no doubt that job distress is often real; nonetheless, when we come to rest, we find the imperative to produce and to be valued as a producer remains with us. We rest uneasy. We try to be still but find the pent-up flywheel of the week is spinning madly inside us. Concerns about money and future throng about. For a moment, we’re concerned that our time management training didn’t properly prepare us for rest. And then we recall something about rest being good for productivity, and we relax. It’s OK—rest helps me to work. Armed with that thought, we promptly throw ourselves into a weekend that can only be described as a bewilderment of fun.

Again, this is all banally familiar. It settles in the puddling consciousness like a sodden paper towel. It’s hard, then, to recall God’s command to Israel. How did it go? “Six days you shall labour and do your work, and the seventh day is a day of work also—particularly for finishing all those other jobs that remain from the week; or else you can use it to relax so you might work even better. Seven days, therefore, shall you work, and then seven more, and seven after that, with the occassional weekend off. When you and your household rest, make sure it is in some way productive. After all, God never slumbers, so why should you?” Such a doctrine of total work would be unbearable, causing those most vulnerable to its power to internalise its abusive domination as “life-giving.” I am, of course, deliberately misremembering God’s words to Israel here; I want to draw attention to the fact that our restlessness (a characteristic of our fallen life) is shadowed by the spectre of total work, and that agreeing to rest requires us, in the first instance, to admit that we frequently allow work to assume the central place in our lives. As we’ve affirmed in The Good of Work, work is a gift from God, the outworking of humanity’s high calling to partner with God: to seek the flourishing of all creation and to lift creation in praise to its Creator. Good work is restored to us in Christ through whom we enjoy friendship with God by the Spirit. But when work is pursued apart from God and beyond the limits God sets, it tends to come under the domination of powers opposed to God’s purposes. Work takes centre stage; other things—the self, other relationships, even the world—become merely resources for work’s ends. It becomes an instrument of oppression, a totalised proposition, a liar’s invitation to freedom. Those who give themselves willingly to totalised work can become deeply subject to its domination. Most profoundly, totalised work lays claim—with great hubris—to time. Every moment becomes coin in a currency that (although debased as soon as spent) the working self obsessively budgets and spends. No wonder, then, that rest seems like a waste of time.

Therefore, if we want to do good work—to fulfil our high calling to partner with God in seeking the flourishing of the world—then we need to consider rest. In particular, we need to consider the rest God invites us into: we need to turn to the scriptural practice of Sabbath. In simple terms, the call to rest on the Sabbath is a call to share in God’s way as a worker (for God is the First Worker) and, like God, to cease work. The Sabbath speaks directly to work: in ceasing, we find grace to see our own work within creation and to better understand our endeavours in that light (be they crooked or true, fruitful or wasteful). The ancient and seemingly severe practice of the Sabbath both reveals the distorted place of work in our lives and provides a robust, wise context in which to experience the goodness and liberation of God’s rest. So what, then, are the origins of the Sabbath, and what does it mean?

An invitation to freedom

Israel knew oppression through work firsthand. In Egypt, Israel increases and multiplies, enjoying the blessing of God’s creation purpose (see Exodus 1–5). The response of the god-pretending king, Pharoah, is to exploit blessing as a means for power, repurposing work as slave labour. When Moses asks that Israel be allowed to hold a festival to God, Pharoah’s response reveals how intolerable totalised work finds true worship to be:

You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies. (Ex 5:7–9)

Here work has become not just an instrument of oppression but a way of keeping humanity from sharing in God’s life; when it comes to work and rest, it turns out the stakes are high indeed.

From all this, God delivers Israel. And for the first time, humanity is called into Sabbath-keeping. “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Dt 5:12–14). Into the midst of unrelenting labour, God commands a day set apart, holy, a day of ceasing oriented to God. The Deuteronomic command goes on:

On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Dt 5:14–15)

This new kind of day is a memorial of freedom from slavery, from totalised work. Israel is called to remember God’s redemption; they are people who have been set free from work domination and who now live by God’s gracious provision and leading. And the remembering is not simply mental but enacted: the Sabbath is a practice of freedom for life with God. God’s people and all who come under their mantle—all guests, all employees, all family, indeed, all their animals—savour together a day charged with the memory and reality of the God who redeems.

As Tim Keller puts it in Every Good Endeavour, keeping the Sabbath is “a declaration of our freedom. It means that you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities.” Israel’s Sabbath legislation had profound implications for economic, social, and environmental justice, ensuring those most vulnerable to exploitation—human and animal—were afforded rest and refreshment; it set limits on profit-taking and mandated a seven-year cycle of production in which fields were to lie fallow one year in seven (see Ex 23). The name “Sabbath” comes originally from the verb “shabbat,” literally “to cease” or to leave off—refrain—and take a breather. The implications of this for business, production, and employment should not be lost on us. A Sabbath rest, then, is not an individual concern but a practice that involves each of us profoundly in the life around us—the life of employees, of our households, and of the land.

Most of us first heed God’s call to Sabbath because work threatens to take over everything. Seventeenth century poet George Herbert in his poem, “The Pulley,” imagines God saying of humanity, “If goodness lead him not, yet weariness / May toss him to my breast.” For sure, our work weariness can pitch us into Sabbath rest, but it’s unlikely to keep us there. If my Sabbath-keeping is only a matter of liberty from work, then I’ll likely relish a weekly day off and find some delightful ways to enjoy that freedom that feel good. I might even quietly congratulate myself on finding “a better weekend,” a God-sanctioned, totally legitimate form of rest. But this self/work-centred posture won’t help me to make sense of the fullness of Sabbath-keeping. For example, if my frame for Sabbath rest is only a decision to enjoy the gift of a day free from employment cares and stress, that almost certainly won’t help me to embrace a key Sabbath practice like gathering for worship. At this point, it’s encouraging to learn that the Sabbath has a significance that goes well beyond work/life sustainability. It is about God’s invitation to be freed from work’s dominating power—and it is much more. So what, then, is the Sabbath’s scope, its origins, and horizons? How might practicing the Sabbath open my life to God, God’s world, and God’s purposes?

Where time stands open

The first instance of a Sabbath command is not found in Deuteronomy but in Exodus at the giving of the law. There, the Sabbath is framed not by God’s liberation but by his creation of all things: “Six days shall you labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:8–10a, 11). The Sabbath is not only a day of redemption but the day the Lord sets apart as the culmination of all his creating work. In the great poem of Genesis 1, the first thing that is made is time—of light distinct from darkness, of day and night, of evening and morning. And everything that follows is created within time. Each day is a matter of evening and morning; each part of creation made is named as the work of God and beheld by God as good (Gn 1:1–31). The six days of God’s creating build, one upon another, to a culmination. Made and beheld and blessed by God in its wonderous and manifold life, the creation arrives at a point of fulness. And that fulness is shaped above all by creation’s first aspect, time—namely, the seventh day. That phrase “seventh day” is repeated three times in Genesis 2:2–3, indicating this final day is not as a point of exhaustion or as a recovery period after a full week but as the high-water mark of God’s work:

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. (Gn 2:2–3)

Here, the life of creation, first gifted as time and then unfolding, gift upon gift, within time’s gracious movements (“there was evening, there was morning”), is crowned by the Sabbath.

And here, God rests. That is, in the sense of the original Hebrew, God ceases—God sabbaths. It’s not that God was exhausted, or that he petered out, or gave up. He rested from all the work of creating he had done and marked this seventh day as set apart. What fills this holy day is not some new work of making or the new humanity who bear God’s image but God himself, resting amidst the fulness of his creation. All the making that has come before now sits in the light of this day of rest, reposing in goodness. Indeed, God freely rests, even as he wills and sustains all that he has made. And in this way, the Sabbath becomes a day charged with God’s presence with the repose of “I AM who I AM” (Ex 3:14). Before it is a practice given to humanity, the Sabbath is a happening of God, established within time—that is, established in that part of creation that encompasses all other parts of creation. On this day, this time blessed by God, all creation is laid open to God’s rest.

The Sabbath is therefore not only a divine example we’re called to imitate. Even more than this, we are called as creatures and God’s image-bearers to participate in this happening of God, this day of God’s ceasing. On this day, time stands open. The Sabbath gathers to itself the rhythm and goodness and order and delight of creation, even as it is filled with the knowledge of God. In his gracious ordering of creation, God apportions a whole day—a seventh of all creation time—to this repose. He thus gives to us his creatures absolute temporal expanse to abide in his loving gaze and, with God, to pay careful, loving attention to the world. We are beheld by God and share in his beholding; it is a day of wonder on which we can be arrested again by the fullness of what God has made. How many evils stem from our inability to see and wonder at creation, from our refusal to delight in God’s gifts? How many wrongs have roots in our mistrust of God’s care and our refusals to trust in his power rather than our own or Pharoah’s? Sabbath is therefore, as Eugene Peterson puts it in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the focal practice that allows us to engage again with creation; indeed, as we stop and look, we are restored to life under God’s care:

Sabbath is a deliberate act of interference, an interruption of our work each week, a decree of no-work so that we are able to notice, to attend, to listen, to assimilate this comprehensive and majestic work of God, to orient our work in the work of God.

So, we attend to the quiet wisdom of the Sabbath. “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24)  for “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). As we participate in this ceasing, we’re freed to delight instead in God’s way: his faithfulness to all that he has made, his creation of all things, and his works of freedom and justice.

Following Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath

No surprises, then, that where the Sabbath is lifted from its context of creation and redemption, its meaning becomes distorted. If, for example, I rest only in order to maintain my precarious work/life balance, my Sabbath practice becomes one more means to the end of maximal productivity. Or if (as has happened in periods across the life of the Church) the Sabbath is repurposed as a way to prove or attain righteousness before God, it becomes an oppressive legalism. Either way, such distortions of the Sabbath fail to bear witness to God’s initiative to deliver and heal, or to be about delighting in God’s presence and the goodness of creation.

So when we follow Scripture and come to Jesus, we find him renewing the Sabbath, restoring it to its biblical shape. Over and against the Pharisees’ legalism, he declared—through prominent acts of healing and deliverance—the Sabbath as a day full of God’s liberation. “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Lk 13:16), Jesus retorts to his Pharisee critics. His teaching and ministry on the Sabbath is charged with this knowledge of God’s redemption: God has saved before as every Sabbath reminds Israel. And now, as Jesus’s healings make clear, God’s deliverance is again at hand. Already in Jesus’s ministry, Israel’s Sabbath is being opened up to new horizons. The right day to heal, it is also the right day to reveal God’s liberation through Jesus the Messiah.

When it comes to creation, Jesus lays claim to the Sabbath in an extraordinary way. Walking through grain fields close to harvest time, the disciples are at ease. As they go, they pick a few heads of grain, rubbing the kernels in their hands to release the grain to eat (see Luke 6:1ff). The Pharisees challenge Jesus: by this simple food preparation, his disciples are Sabbath-breakers. Jesus does not set aside the Sabbath command but establishes the day in relation to himself. His precedent is David, anointed of God but not yet enthroned and on the run from Saul:

Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions … The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Lk 6:4–5; cf. 1 Sm 21)

The parallel is stacked with implication: like David, Jesus is the anointed king, not yet enthroned in an Israel. Like David, he therefore has the right to enter God’s house and take up the Bread of the Presence, a double symbol of God’s care and of Israel’s dedication to God. With that prepared grain—the work of human hands and proof of God’s love—he and his disciples are nourished, eating food like priests. So, what is the temple that Jesus has the right to enter in which is found the bread of the presence? It is the heavens and the earth—it is all creation. And this happens on the Sabbath, where time and all creation stand open to the knowledge of God’s love and the fulness of his presence. And now, at the centre of the Sabbath, this new figure is revealed—the Son of Man. Stunningly free within God’s rest, Jesus the Messiah walks in the temple of creation with his followers, gleaning and rejoicing in God’s provision.

In Jesus’s life and ministry, then, the Sabbath is renewed as a day of God’s deliverance and a day of creation gathered with joy into God’s presence. Living in unbroken communion with God, Jesus is stunningly free to participate in God’s Sabbath purposes. Likewise, all those who follow this Lord of the Sabbath find that their lives are also opened to God’s liberation and loving presence. Indeed, in Christ, our Sabbath practice is both a reminder and an anticipation of the rest all creation longs for. I’ve explored elsewhere how Jesus took up the Genesis language of work to explain his ministry as he taught, healed, and restored. At the last, facing the cross, he prays to his Father: “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the world you gave me to do” (Jn 17:4). The echo of Genesis 2:2—“God finished the work he had been doing”—hints at what is to come. The day on which Jesus lies in the tomb is indeed the Sabbath, that great liturgy of God’s purpose. And God raises this “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14), “the author of life” (Acts 3:15), in whom God’s redeeming and creating find completion upon completion. By his resurrection from the dead, Christ is revealed as “the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15ff), the great reconciler and deliverer in whom we share in God’s renewed creation (see also 2 Cor 5:17). Here, “On the first day of the week” (Lk 24:1)—the never-before “eighth day” as it were, a day newly open to God’s everlasting life—Jesus Christ is indeed Lord of the Sabbath.

How fitting, then, that the first overflow of God’s new creation life to the Church, the day of Pentecost, most likely occurred also on this new Sabbath, on a Sunday. Christ, our Great High Priest, has pioneered a way for us into this eighth day, the “day” of new creation, and opened it to us. Renewed by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s life becomes our pathway: at death we Sabbath “asleep in Christ” (1 Cor 15:18); raised in Christ we shall share in the everlasting Sabbath of resurrection. “There remains, then,” the writer to the Hebrews declares, “a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb 4:9). That is, we live in earnest anticipation of life freed from death, life that participates in the fulness of God’s creating and redeeming work, where all rejoice in the goodness of creation and the justice of God’s mercy—a ceasing filled with God’s presence. In this way, the writer to the Hebrews takes up the Sabbath as a lodestone of salvation history. Maturing in Christ, he urges, means living more and more in the light of God’s Sabbath purposes. The Church, then, follows the Lord of the Sabbath, rejoicing in God’s gifts. With him, we seek to be a Sabbath people—people whose efforts to seek justice and the flourishing of creation are anchored in the knowledge that through Christ, God has opened to us his own rest.

Christians are people who bear witness to God with their lives. We live in anticipation of the fulness of God’s rest, and we do so by learning here and now to live lives shaped by the Sabbath’s liberating rhythm. The fourth of the ten commandments is fulfilled in Christ in such a way that the command becomes a doorway into wonder and praise, a day resounding with redemption history and God’s presence here and now. I am, now we come to it, a Sabbath-breaker, one more acquainted with longing for God’s rest than with mature Sabbath practice. Mostly, I’ve enjoyed—relished!—broken pieces of Sabbath; I know how good that tastes. So I keep reaching for a whole day’s ceasing. And a whole day is what’s in the offing—indeed the first thing declared “holy” in all of Scripture is not a special place, or a special building, or a mountain top, but the seventh day. For this reason, for us as much as for Israel, “wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord” (Lv 23:3). I do not learn to construct “my” Sabbath—rather, I go to bed and I rise on the Lord’s Day in keeping with the rhythm of creation: there was evening, there was morning, the Sabbath.

When we keep that whole day has been a matter of wisdom. Through the first few centuries, the Church’s observance settled on Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, but it did so only gradually. It is, as Peterson observes, “a most difficult command to keep, a most difficult practice to cultivate.” And so it has always been a matter of careful application, taking into account surrounding culture and government, the demands of different life seasons, and the weekly rhythms of work. Shift work requires creativity, as does life with young children, and so on. But the basic invitation remains: to set aside a whole 24 hours in which God’s Sabbath history—that fulness we’ve been exploring here—fills our lives. We cease from work, we gather for worship, we delight in the bread of God’s presence, we remember God’s saving acts, we receive his Holy Spirit, and we rejoice in creation. Agreeing to live in step with God’s time, we open our lives to his presence wherever we live. A demanding practice, for sure but then, as we embrace it, wonderfully simple:

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again,
because the Lord sustains me. (Ps 3:5)

(Image: “Auckland, from the verandah of Mr Reader Wood’s Cottage,” by John Kinder. Public Domain.)