Sabbath Rest (June 2023)
There’s a traditional Scottish folk melody titled “The Cockerel in the Creel,” composed by Donald MacLeod. He recalls his grandmother—who lived on the still-largely-Sabbatarian Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides—on Saturday nights, chasing the cockerel, or rooster, around the yard with the creel (a netted basket used for crab and lobster fishing). Once caught, there the poor cockerel would stay until Monday morning, to prevent him finding work on the Sabbath day.
This quaint picture raises the spectre of legalism cast by the very idea of Sabbath-keeping.
Scriptures teach the abiding obligation of Sabbath observance. But far from being legalistic or harsh, the Lord’s Day ought to be a source of joy and restoration for Christians. It offers a powerful, counter-cultural witness to a world ensnared by the frenetic pace of digital life.
The Sabbath day—and the promise of rest it embodies --- was enshrined both in the Ten Commandments, the moral core of God’s expectations for all who seek a relationship with Him, as well as in the calendar of Israel’s pilgrim feasts and civil code. That the Sabbath remained at the end of the week reminds us of the Mosaic law’s function (Gal. 3:24). Rest came after work, as if to reinforce the call to “keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5). It can equally be argued that work (or for those who are retired, whatever preoccupies you!) should flow out of Sabbath rest.
The Lord of the Sabbath (rest).
When Jesus came, he declared: “Come to me, all who labour 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” (Matt. 11:28–29). Jesus inaugurates the intended true rest. He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5), the one who gives us rest. This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he said that “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” (Heb. 4:9–10). We rest in Christ’s work for us and cease from all dependence on our own efforts.
Day for Rest and Day of Rest
Our continuing obligation to observe the Sabbath day holds out to us the promise of a final Sabbath rest to come in the new creation. In practicing Christian hospitality, in breaking from otherwise lawful employments, in turning off the TV to read, rest, and gather with God’s people, in acts of necessity and mercy, we observe a day of rest and gladness—ordained by God for our good.
Let a quiet and happy Sabbath observance awaken in you a longing for the fuller, deeper rest that will come when all our striving with sin is done, the work is at last complete, and we enter into our heavenly Sabbath. Until that day dawns, joyful Sabbatarianism can be a wonderful testimony to life governed by the Word of God and not the demands of the world.
When we gather in our churches on a Sunday, it is an opportunity for all to find Sabbath rest, in all its joy and restoration, as we focus exclusively on the Lord of the Sabbath.
Revd Ian Gulland Rector