Physical rest in the Bible is an important topic. Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way to learn the Bible verses about rest.
Table of contents
- The Need for Physical Rest in the Bible
- The Consequences of Inadequate Sleep
- The Spiritual Helps Us Rest Physically
- Rest in the Bible Requires Balance
The Need for Physical Rest in the Bible
On the surface, work and rest seem like opposites, as though one undoes the other. They appear to be mutually exclusive. To do one must mean that we reject doing the other. There’s a conflict: do we work or rest? The answer is, yes! We’re commanded to do both.
Rest is as much a theme from Genesis to Revelation as work. God introduced the concept of rest at creation. Genesis 2:2–3 says, “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” God is omnipotent. He wasn’t tired. He didn’t need to rest. Instead, He was establishing a pattern for His people to follow.
The Ten Commandments made resting on the Sabbath a requirement of the Law. The fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8–11 reads:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
God said, “Remember the Sabbath,” because it wasn’t something new; it had been around since creation. The command to rest was not an excuse to be lazy, considering they had to work six full days before the seventh. Since the Sabbath preceded the Mosaic Law, we can “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” as a creation mandate.
Transition from the Seventh Day to First Day
Jesus and the disciples kept the fourth commandment, just as they kept the other nine commandments. But there was a transition.
Jesus instituted the New Covenant at the Last Supper with these familiar words: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). With the institution of the New Covenant there was a shift from the seventh day of the week (the Sabbath/Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday) in honor of Christ’s resurrection.1 Thus, we see the first day of the week emphasized in the New Testament. The phrase “first day of the week” occurs eight times:
- Six times in the Gospels identifying the day of Jesus’ resurrection: Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, 9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, and John 20:19
- Once in Acts 20:7 identifying the day the early church met: “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread”2
- Once when Paul encouraged believers to set aside something to give financially: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). More than likely Paul told them to set their collections aside on the first day of the week, because that’s when they gathered for worship.
If we only had Acts 20:7 stating the early church met on the first day of the week, this would be enough to encourage corporate worship on Sundays. Pastor John MacArthur writes, “The writings of the early church Fathers confirm the church continued to meet on Sunday after the close of the New Testament period.”3 Matthew Henry writes, “The first day of the week is to be observed by all the disciples of Christ; and it is a sign between Christ and them.”4
While the first day of the week is emphasized in the New Testament, the seventh day (or Sabbath) is de-emphasized. The phrase “first day of the week” occurs eight times, but the phrase “seventh day of the week” never occurs. Understandably we’d expect the seventh day to be called, “Sabbath.” The Sabbath is mentioned in the Gospels, but only because the transition to the first day of the week had not yet taken place. When the Sabbath is mentioned in Acts, it’s associated with the practice of Jews who had not yet embraced Christ, but it’s never associated with the practice or worship of the early church.
After Acts, the Sabbath only occurs in one verse: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). After Acts, this is the only time the Sabbath is mentioned.
Since the epistles are the instruction letters for the church, it’s inconceivable that there wouldn’t be at least one verse commanding observing the Sabbath if that’s what God wanted. Instead, Colossians 2:16–17, the one place mentioning the Sabbath, identifies it as a shadow pointing to Christ, and the command is for believers to avoid judging each other over their view of it and other nonessentials. We don’t see any verses saying something similar for moral issues. In other words, there’s no verse saying something like, “Let no one judge you regarding forgiveness, or love, or lying, or prayer, or service, or adultery.” Unlike the Sabbath, these are moral issues involving judgment.
Similarly, Paul downplayed observing the Sabbath in Romans: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it” (Romans 14:5-6). Paul wouldn’t write this if he wanted believers keeping the seventh day.
Although we aren’t expected to keep the Sabbath under the New Covenant, we are expected to rest. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Why would Jesus say this? Because we need to rest! Just as we are not at liberty to murder or commit adultery, we also are not at liberty to ignore the importance of rest.
The Need for Sleep in the Bible
Sleep reveals that we are creatures, and not the Creator: “Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). Sleep reminds us of our limitations and the need to depend upon God for our very existence. This keeps us grateful and humble.
When God became a Man in the Person of Jesus Christ, He experienced our human limitations, including the need for rest. When Jesus left Judea for Galilee, He passed through Samaria and “being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well” (John 4:6). At one point, He was so fatigued He slept in the bottom of a boat during a storm: “And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep” (Matthew 8:24).
Mark 6:31 records Jesus’ own words, “‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.” Jesus and the disciples were so busy they didn’t have time to eat, say nothing about sleep. Jesus was God in the flesh, and not a created being, yet He still sought time for Himself and the disciples to relax and refresh; therefore, we must see the same need in our lives.
We are weak. Our bodies require sleep to function and be recharged and refreshed. Sleep allows our minds to rest so we can think clearly when we wake. Lamentations 3:23 says, “[The Lord’s mercies] are new every morning,” implying that after a good night’s sleep, we can pray for help and strength for the day. Sleep is a gift from God that we’re wise to accept:
- “I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid” (Leviticus 26:6).
- “When you lie down, you will not be afraid; yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet” (Proverbs 3:24).
- “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).
Conversely, the inability to sleep is presented negatively, often associated with fear and a guilty conscience:
- “I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears” (Psalm 6:6).
- “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4).
- “For they do not sleep unless they have done evil; and their sleep is taken away unless they make someone fall” (Proverbs 4:16).
The Consequences of Inadequate Sleep
Sleep is often neglected in our busy schedules. Some are inclined to view it as a luxury and think the benefit of a few more hours awake outweigh the negative consequences. Although scientists have only begun to identify the problems associated with insufficient sleep, enough studies have been performed that they agree the healthiest amount of sleep for adults is about seven to eight hours per night, and it’s as important to health and well-being as nutrition and exercise.
While getting enough sleep does not guarantee good health, it does help vital functions. Many restorative functions take place during sleep, such as tissue repair, muscle growth, and protein synthesis. When we get enough sleep, we not only feel better but also increase the likelihood of living healthier, more productive lives. When we don’t get enough sleep, there are considerable negative consequences.
Researchers in the United Kingdom and Italy analyzed data from sixteen studies conducted over twenty-five years on more than 1.3 million people and more than one hundred thousand deaths. In 2010 the U.S. National Library of Medicine published their findings. The study, “Sleep Duration and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies,” concluded people who sleep less than five to seven hours per night are 12 percent more likely to experience a premature death.
The Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research published another study: “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem.” They found that sleeping five or fewer hours per night may increase mortality risk by as much as 15 percent
God has designed our bodies so that during the deepest sleep the amount of glucose in our blood drops. In 2004, Diabetes Care published, “Incidence of Diabetes in Middle-Aged Men Is Related to Sleep Disturbances.” The study found that improved sleep positively influences blood sugar control and reduces the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.5
On the other hand, another study, “Association of Sleep Time with Diabetes Mellitus and Impaired Glucose Tolerance,” found when we don’t sleep enough, our bodies have a harder time responding to blood sugar levels, increasing the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.6 The Archives of Internal Medicine published the “Role of Sleep Duration and Quality in the Risk and Severity of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.” The study found sleep deprivation can cause prediabetes in healthy adults in as little as six days.7
The Archives of Internal Medicine published, “Sleep Duration and Body Mass Index in a Rural Population.” The study found people sleeping less than six hours per night are more likely to have excess body fat, while people sleeping eight hours per night had the lowest relative body fat.8 Inadequate sleep negatively affects the hormones that regulate appetite. Levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, are increased, and levels of leptin, which suppresses appetite, are decreased. Infants who sleep less are much more likely to develop obesity later in life than those who sleep longer.9
While we sleep, our blood pressure decreases, allowing our hearts and blood vessels to rest. The Journal of the American Medical Association published, “Short Sleep Duration and Incident Coronary Artery Calcification.” The study found that even moderately reducing sleep from eight hours per night to six or seven hours is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery calcification, which is a predictor of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.10
The research aside, after a good night’s sleep, most of us feel refreshed and energetic; after a poor night’s sleep, we feel lethargic and fatigued. This affects us mentally. We lack motivation and initiative.
From a scientific standpoint, the Harvard Medical School published, “Sleep, Learning, and Memory.” They found that the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Problem-solving skills and mental performance are also improved with adequate sleep.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine published, “Partial Night Sleep Deprivation Reduces Natural Killer and Cellular Immune Responses in Humans.” The study monitored the development of the common cold after giving people nasal drops with the cold virus. Researchers found that those who slept less than seven hours per night were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept eight hours or more. Another study, “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold,” also found people who averaged less than seven hours of sleep per night were three times more likely to develop cold symptoms when exposed to the rhinovirus than those sleeping eight hours per night.11
A Harvard University study revealed that our moods are negatively affected when we don’t get adequate sleep. When we’re in a bad mood, we don’t interact as well with others because we’re typically more irritable. Another study, “Sleep Deprivation Impairs the Accurate Recognition of Human Emotions,” used emotional facial recognition tests to find that people who hadn’t slept well had greater difficulty recognizing others’ emotional expressions. This hindered their relational skills because they couldn’t recognize important social cues and process emotional information.
When Science Catches Up with the Bible
Why so many articles cited in the previous pages? Do we really need this research to tell us what to do? No, we don’t. Having Scripture is enough; however, it’s worth recognizing that academic articles support what God has commanded for centuries.
Millions of dollars go into studies, and they confirm the consequences of working too much, as well as the need for rest. God’s commands are always for our benefit. Working too much and failing to rest is not “God’s way.”
The Spiritual Helps Us Rest Physically
Since rest is so important, how can we ensure we’re resting enough? The best approach to this physical dilemma is found with a spiritual solution. Our relationships with the Lord allow us to rest when needed.
Rest Produced from Obeying the Lord
Since the Lord commands us to rest, if there was no other reason to do so, this should be enough. We set boundaries and train ourselves to rest, not necessarily because we feel like it, but because we want to obey. We trust the Lord knows best, and “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Rest is as much an issue of faith as every other area of the Christian life.
Rest Produced from the Lord’s Leading
The Lord knows how much we can bear and when we should rest. We must prayerfully seek His schedule (versus our own) for our lives. But it’s harder than ever in our loud, fast-paced culture that threatens to drown out God. The closer we are to Him, the more sensitive we are to His leading. The more our eyes are fixed on Jesus, the more likely we are to know when to rest, and the less likely we are to push through boundaries we should respect.
James 1:6 says, “Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.” This language conjures up weary people who don’t know what the Lord wants for them. If we’re walking with Him, “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro” (Ephesians 4:14). We’re stable and unshifting, knowing what God does and doesn’t want us to do.
Rest Produced from the Lord’s Sovereignty
Nothing makes choosing to rest easier than knowing God is in control. We’re liberated from worry and anxiety because we trust God will bring about the best end. We don’t feel obligated to handle everything ourselves; instead, we are able to “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7).
“Relax” is a synonym for “rest.” Sometimes the best way to rest is by relaxing our grip on our affairs and “casting all [our] care upon Him, for He cares for [us]” (1 Peter 5:7; see also Psalm 55:22.). Practically speaking, God’s sovereignty allows us to:
- Head home on time, knowing He can take care of the work until the next day
- Decline the overtime, knowing He will provide for our needs
- Take a day off or go on vacation, knowing His will won’t be thwarted by our absence
- Lie down at night and sleep soundly, knowing our lives are in His hands
Rest in the Bible Requires Balance
One of the difficulties with laziness and workaholism is that they can’t be handled with the severity Jesus commanded toward other sins. In Matthew 5:29–30, He said:
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
Jesus didn’t expect us to do this literally. He often used figurative language, in the form of hyperbole, to make a point. In this case, He described the ruthlessness with which we should deal with sin. If we struggle with a certain temptation, we should completely remove (cut or pluck) it out of our lives. Show it no mercy:
- People struggling with drunkenness throw away their alcohol.
- Men infatuated with sports cancel their cable television subscription.
- Women obsessed with shopping stay away from their favorite stores.
- Youths addicted to video games get rid of their gaming systems.
While this approach applies easily to some temptations, it’s harder for others. For example:
- People struggling with gluttony don’t cut food out of their lives.
- People struggling with laziness don’t cut rest out of their lives.
- People struggling with workaholism don’t cut work out of their lives.
If we think in think in terms of putting off and putting on, we don’t put off laziness and put on workaholism, or put off workaholism and put on laziness. Instead, God wants us to have a strong work ethic, and He wants us to rest. We must ensure we don’t:
- Give into laziness—rest too much, and fail to work enough
- Give into workaholism—work too much, and fail to rest enough
Simply put: balance is required! Regarding work, we depend on God for the strength we need to fulfill the responsibilities He’s given us. We do the work He calls us to do with all our hearts, but we recognize boundaries are needed.
Regarding rest, we embrace it because that’s what we need, and what God has commanded. We accept help from others because we can’t do everything ourselves. We remember that our identity is not drawn from work we do, but from our relationship with Christ.
Along with resting physically, we must also rest spiritually, as we’ll begin discussing in the following chapter!
- With the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial portions of the Law, such as the sacrifices, circumcision, and festivals. In Chapter Seventeen we’ll discuss Jesus fulfilling the Sabbath.
- The words “break bread” refer to communion as opposed to simple fellowship together. The two are distinguished from each other in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” As much as communion looks back to Christ’s death, it also looks forward to His return: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). They broke bread as part of their Sunday worship service. They wouldn’t celebrate communion on the seventh day of the week when Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week.
- John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1477.
- Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary: In One Volume (Zondervan, 1961), p. 1716.
- P.M. Nilsson, et al. “Incidence of Diabetes in Middle-Aged Men Is Related to Sleep Disturbances,” Diabetes Care. 2004; 27(10): 2464.
- Gottlieb DJ, et al. Association of Sleep Time with Diabetes Mellitus and Impaired Glucose Tolerance, Archives of Internal Medicine. 2005 Apr 25; 165(8): 863.
- K.L. Knutson, et al. “Role of Sleep Duration and Quality in the Risk and Severity of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus,” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2006 Sep 18; 166(16):1768.
- N. D. Kohatsu, et al. “Sleep Duration and Body Mass Index in a Rural Population,” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2006 Sep 18; 166(16): 1701.
- E.M. Taveras, et al. “Short Sleep Duration in Infancy and Risk of Childhood Overweight,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2008 Apr; 162(4): 305.
- C.R. King, et al. “Short Sleep Duration and Incident Coronary Artery Calcification,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008: 300(24): 2859-2866.
- S. Cohen, et al. “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold,” Archives of Internal Medicine 2009 Jan 12; 169 (1):62-67.