The Rest of Worship

God’s Work, God’s Rest, Our Rest

God created over six days, and on the seventh day “he rested from all his work” precisely because “God had finished the work he had been doing” (Genesis 2:2). Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains, “In the Bible ‘rest’ really means more than ‘having a rest.’ It means rest after the work is accomplished, it means completion, it means the perfection and peace in which the world rests” (Creation and Fall, 40). Similarly, Adolph Saphir states, “The rest of God is the consummation and crown of the creation. Without it the creation would not have been complete” (Epistle to the Hebrews, 221). The idea of sabbath rest hence begins with God. Jiri Moskala builds on this:

God is entering into His rest, and He makes it possible for humans to rest. . . . When we pause, we participate in divine rest; we rest in Him. . . . Karl Barth explains it precisely by pointing out that God’s rest day is man’s first day, that man rests before he works—man’s life therefore begins with the gospel, grace and not the law, in freedom to celebrate with joy the seventh day and not with an obligation to work (“The Sabbath in the First Creation Accounts,” 13).

In Barth’s own words:

It is only by participation in God’s celebrating that he [man] can and may and shall also celebrate on this seventh day, which is his first day. But this is just what he is commanded to do. Hence his history under the command of God really begins with the Gospel and not with the Law, with an accorded celebration and not a required task, with a prepared rejoicing and not with care and toil, with a freedom given to him and not an imposed obligation, with a rest and not with an activity (Church Dogmatics, III.4:52).

Or, as James Torrance has observed, “The indicatives of grace are always prior to the imperatives of law and human obligation” (“Covenant or Contract?” 56).

Christ’s Work and Our Rest

Christ himself came to do the work of God:

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17).

“I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36).

That work culminated (was “accomplished,” “finished”), of course, in Christ’s atoning death on the cross:

“But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50).

“Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:32–33).

“Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled’” (Luke 18:31).

“Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28).

“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished’” (John 19:30).

Because Christ came and finished the great work, everything necessary for our salvation (“I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4)), he is able to extend us grace and give us rest and release from our spiritual burdens and strivings:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

We . . . know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law (Galatians 2:16).

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:7).

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8–9).

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

Worship Is Not a Work!

Because Christ’s death has granted us free access into the very presence of God, we are able to come confidently and boldly into God’s presence in worship:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19–22).

According to these verses, we can come with assurance both because of Christ’s past, finished work (vs. 19–20) and because of his present, interceding work at God’s right hand on our behalf (v. 21). In addition, we read in Christ’s words to God in Hebrews 2:12 that Christ has committed himself to being present in our midst through the Spirit whenever we gather for worship:

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”

Not only does Christ show us the way to God; he takes us with him! John Calvin, in his commentary on this verse, calls Christ “the Chief Conductor of our hymns” gathering our imperfect expressions of worship and offering them as part of his own perfect praise of God. As James Torrance put it:

Here lies the mystery, the wonder, the glory of the Gospel, that He who is God, the Creator of all things, and worthy of the worship and praises of all creation, should become man and as a man worship God, and as a man lead us in our worship of God, that we might become the sons of God we are meant to be (“The Place of Jesus Christ in Worship,” 351).

Gregory Nelson’s statement about God’s rest and ours after creation applies equally well to our present state of rest in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: “God does the work, human beings enjoy the results” (A Touch of Heaven, 30).

This, then, is God’s grace for our worship: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his (Hebrews 4:9–10).” We do not need to worry about whether our worship is good enough; when we come in and through and, indeed, with Christ, God is always pleased with our worship because God is always pleased with God’s Son. Hence worship is not a work, not something by which we strive to make ourselves somehow acceptable to God. Torrance reminds us:

We are accepted by God, not because we have offered worthy worship, but in spite of our unworthiness, because he has provided for us a Worship, a Way, a Sacrifice, a Forerunner in Christ our Leader and Representative, and our worship is our joyful Amen to that Worship. This is the heart of all true Christian worship. It is our response of faith to God’s grace. So we worship God “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and pray “in the name of Jesus Christ” (“The Place of Jesus Christ in Worship,” 352).

Worship is always and only a response—a grateful response because of God’s merciful self-revelation and gracious initiative in providing for us, and bringing us to, eternal salvation. The great work has been done! We rest and bask in the light of God’s unmerited favor, and we offer God our thanksgiving and praise with wonder, joy, freedom, and assurance.

Works Cited

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2009.
  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall; Temptation: Two Biblical Studies. New York: MacMillan, 1959.
  • Moskala, Jiri. “The Sabbath in the First Creation Accounts.” Digital Commons @ Andrews University. Accessed November 24, 2020. digitalcommons.andrews.edu/old-testament-pubs/14/.
  • Nelson, Gregory P. A Touch of Heaven: Finding New Meaning in Sabbath Rest. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1999.
  • Saphir, Adolph. Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1983.
  • Torrance, James. “The Place of Jesus Christ in Worship.” In Theological Foundations for Ministry. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979.
  • Torrance, James. “Covenant or Contract? A Study in the Theological Background of Worship in Seventeenth-Century Scotland.” Scottish Journal of Theology, no. 23 (February 1970): 56.