And you shall do no work on this same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. — Leviticus 23:28, RSVCE
I was thumbing through Leviticus 23 this morning, which addresses all of the major feasts and festivals to be celebrated by the nation of Israel. I noticed the ideas of Sabbath and rest occur pretty frequently in this passage, and so I thought, “What better topic for a Monday than rest?” Indeed, I think it is an underappreciated mandate of the Old Testament, especially for all that Hebrews has to say about it.
In our current non-stop, competitive culture, “rest” is what you do when you have a little spare time. Rest is what we are to do after we clock-out, finish our various tasks, and squeeze every last ounce of productivity from our bones. Too often, our notion of “rest” is limited to the 5-ish hours of pseudo-sleep we allow ourselves before doing it all over again.
This refusal to recover contributes to our obesity and heart disease crisis, in addition to negatively impacting our relationships with God, ourselves, and each other. We even wear our exhaustion and poor health as a badge of honor, bragging about who sleeps, eats, or uses vacation days the least. On the other side, those who miss work or nap are considered lazy or unproductive. Those who take mental health days are considered “sensitive” or “snowflakes” who haven’t yet matured into proper, self-damaging workers.
Turning to the religious realm, salvation is viewed in relation to what we do or accomplish. Sure, we are “saved by faith” in the Christian world, but properly living out the Gospel involves action. Mission trips, committees, Sunday School, repairs, Fall Festival, soup kitchens, prayer meetings, weekly worship, and private devotional life are all ways we “keep connected” to God and the Church… But what about Sabbath?
What about that pesky commandment that encourages us to find holiness in… nothing? What if we took one day per week to just “be?” Surely our bank accounts would hit zero, our kids would starve, and we’d lose our connection to our Savior… Or not.
In the Leviticus text, every festival that requires a holy convocation simultaneously functions as a Sabbath. “You shall do no work.” By my count, this command occurs at least 8 times in chapter 23. Clearly, this is an important part of Israel’s holy convocations, but why?
After praying over this question, it came to me that in Leviticus (and the Bible as a whole), holiness is not the product of human effort. Rather, it is the result of God’s presence, and the Sabbath reminds us of that. No amount of sacrifices, office hours, Bible studies, mission trips, volunteering, sleepless nights, or heart attacks will earn us the peace and holiness that come from God alone. We are mortal, finite creatures that need rest, play, and time spent in unproductive community for its own sake.
I don’t even like that some people try to justify rest as ultimately productive. “Well it is productive because you have the energy to achieve more later!” You’ve missed the point. Rest is good because it reminds us of our dependence. It is good because our bodies and spirits need it to survive and thrive. Sabbath rest is a necessary reminder that God gives us this world and this life that they may be enjoyed. We are reminded that holiness comes from a relationship with God that extends beyond all our external religious expressions.
I know that we all can’t always afford to set a whole day aside to nothing, but that is okay. How about an hour a day? What if we took a little time every day to just “be?” Take a nap, read a book, watch a garbage television show, play, or talk about nothing with your loved ones. All the while, keep in mind that this is God’s gift to you, reminding you to lean on Him and the holiness He grants to us as an act of grace. After all, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Peace be with you!