My chosen form of fitness is doing aerobics, but when I’m short on time I do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). You do 20 seconds of a hard exercise (say plyometric lunges, or jump squats) flat out as hard as you can, then rest for 10 seconds and start again. They say just 4 minutes of this can be more beneficial than a stack of cardio, which is good, because I’ve never made it past 10 minutes without my lungs bursting and my legs burning. It’s intense! The ‘rests’ are really just recovery, and not much of it before you have to go again.
I think this is how we tend to think of rest more generally in life, as a bit of downtime to gear up for the next thing. But Deuteronomy 5 gives us a different reason to rest, one which re-shapes it around our identity. It helps us to see that rest is not about how tired you are, but about who you are.
‘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. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants 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.
This stuff about the Sabbath is part of the giving of the Ten Commandments, or I should say, the re-giving. The people Moses is speaking to in Deuteronomy are the generation after the ones who were originally set free from Egypt and went out into the desert, when the Ten Commandments were first received. And in Deuteronomy Moses kind of tinkers with some of the commands a little bit, especially the one about the Sabbath. He still says all the same things about the Sabbath that he said in Exodus, but he adds the thing about no longer being slaves in Egypt. Of course, these people never actually were slaves – that was their parents – but Moses wants them to see that freedom as part of their identity.
A slave is given no rest. Constantly on duty, they are to serve their taskmasters, and even a day off may be merely in the pragmatic interests of a master wanting to get the most out of his slaves.
But these Israelites are not slaves any more. God rescued them. Their story is of a people set free, so why should they live like slaves? They need to act like free people, people for whom rest is now appropriate. In fact, a failure to rest would be like going back to their lives before, when they were slaves, as if they weren’t a free people, as if God hadn’t rescued them. This isn’t rest because you need to be ready for work the next day; this is rest because you are no longer beholden to such a taskmaster.
This is also our story, isn’t it? We also are a rescued people, but we’ve been rescued from far more than Egypt. We’ve been set free from Satan’s bonds, from enslavement to sin, from the powers of darkness. We know more of freedom and being set free than any other people at any other time in history because of the work of Jesus, the great Liberator, the one who has set us free. We are also free people, so we must live like it. We must rest!
There are always good opportunities for service, at church, in the community, at work, with our families.
You may be the backbone of your family… How will the dinner get cooked or the kids to music practice or the house tidy if we take the time to rest?
You may be a high flyer at your job… How will that proposal get written or that phone call made if I don't do it?
You may see the needs of hurting people around you and want to help them out… When no one else is listening, I must bring a meal, sit down and chat.
These are all good things, so good in fact that they ought to occupy the majority of our time, or in the thought world of Deuteronomy, six sevenths of it! But as much as providing for others or being compassionate or looking after our families are part of who we are, so ought rest to shape our identity. We are slaves no longer; the people of God rest.
We do work, with God and for God, but we know him as the One who set us free. It’s this experience of being set free by him that builds in us trust that He is at work in this world even when we are not, and frees us to rest.
Do you remember how God set His people free from Egypt? He came up against the world superpower, Egypt, and He trounced Pharaoh with incomparable natural phenomena. The Israelites were powerless to do anything to change their situation, but He could handle it.
Do you remember how God set us free from Satan’s grasp? Again, it was when we were powerless. Though we were dead in our sins, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.
In the face of a hurting or chaotic world, it’s easy to think that our work is more important than our rest. This is when we must lift our eyes, and fix them on Jesus. As he lay in a tomb, dead and wrapped in grave clothes, his Father was still at work, bringing him back to life. And he is in the grave no longer. He is at his Father’s right hand, ruling over his world, even when you are resting.
Resting reminds us who we are – free – and it reminds us who God is – big enough to make us free! What a relief to serve this kind of God, to be in the kind of kingdom where rest characterises His people, because it is what He has won for them, and because they can trust Him.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). Read more from Tamie on her blog