How can we experience true spiritual rest?

A Bible translating missionary in South Africa had great difficulty translating the word ‘faith’. He resolved to leave a gap every time the word came up while he thought about the best way to communicate what ‘faith’ meant. One day a runner came sprinting in with a very important message from the next village along. Panting, the runner handed over the message, then collapsed into a hammock utterly exhausted. The missionary was excited. “What was it that you just did in the hammock?… What did you just do?” The word that the runner used to describe being able to collapse into the hammock, knowing it would hold him up, was the word that the missionary used to translate the word faith.

We can rightly see from this illustration that faith and rest cannot be separated. Our world, our lives, our worries and even our religiosity can leave us feeling ready to collapse into a hammock exhausted. Faith in Christ will lead us to experience rest and contentment. In our sermon for this Sunday, we’re looking at the notion of rest. 

I don’t know about you but I am a fan of rest! And even though the thought of rest is a nice and simple one, rest is actually a complicated area of Christian theology. I know I can’t possibly deal with it all properly on Sunday morning, so I thought I’d cheat and write a bit about it here! Let’s have a brief look at the Bible’s idea of rest.

The notion of rest begins right back at the beginning, at the original creation of the universe. The picture that God has given us is that the creation happened in 7 days. As we read Genesis 1, we notice quickly that day 7, which is all about rest, is the only day that has no beginning and end. It is missing the refrain that all the other days have had, that ‘there was morning and evening, the [day of the week]”. This hints that the end of creation is therefore ongoing and eternal rest. And in our passage this week, God refers to heaven as rest. So rest came on the final day of creation and rest is to come on the final day. We can enjoy rest now and look forward to complete rest in heaven. As scholar Graeme Goldsworthy puts it, “The end of creation is not Adam and Eve in the garden, but Christ and the gospel”. The end of the Bible’s story is the new creation in which God and his redeemed people live together at peace, at rest.

So does that mean that rest is the goal of life? Maybe you know someone who lives for rest here and now in this life? Someone who makes all their decisions so they can maximise their recreation and downtime? Well, the Bible says that to live for rest here and now in this creation misses the whole point of life. It’s why I find aspects of our retirement culture so devastatingly tragic. To live our lives for the sole goal of a strong retirement is to miss the point and will ultimately end at worst with us feeling empty or at least, being distracted from what we have been called too. That’s not to say that recreation or downtime are bad things, or things that we need to avoid. After all, God himself rested on the final day of creation and directed us to rest regularly when he gave us the commandment to “Keep the Sabbath”. The problem comes when we take those good things that should be a part of our lives and make them the whole point of our lives.

When God commanded us to rest regularly by keeping the Sabbath, he was giving us a weekly reminder that eternal rest is on the way. As we were reminded last week, we are pilgrims saved by Jesus on the cross and we are lead home via His Word. He is our shepherd who leads us by his voice or his Word (John 10:4-5). 

Does this mean that we can’t get a glimpse of real rest until we’re home with Him in the new creation? Not at all! Jesus gives us a beautiful invitation that has become one of the most popular verses of all time: “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). According to Jesus then what is this rest? The only way to a proper understanding of what Jesus is talking about is to look at the context. The verses above read, “All things have been handed over to me by my father, and no one knows the Father accept the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  He then goes on to invite people to come to him for rest. There is therefore an inseparable link between spiritual rest and knowledge of the Father. We could go as far as saying that “spiritual rest is knowledge of the father though Jesus”. 

Does that help us understand more about what our rest is going to be like in the new creation? It’ll be a rest that comes from a perfect relationship with the Father through Jesus. Not just knowing about God but knowing him personally through Jesus. That’s the point of our Sabbath rest! To spend a day a week particularly devoted to stopping work so that we can know God! Our knowledge of God won’t be perfect until the eternal rest in the new creation, but I can know God genuinely now, even though it’s limited. As I exercise my personal relationship with God through Jesus, in prayer and Bible reading and the means of grace like the sacraments, my soul finds true rest. 

The more we know God, the more we will trust him and in turn, the more soul rest we’ll find. No longer burdened with heavily loads but content, as though collapsing in a hammock after a tough days work. How do we know God in increasing measure? You’ll have to wait for the sermon… See you on Zoom!