The Meaning of Rest

Posted: August 20, 2010

If you’re anything like me, you probably try to find some time for some rest and relaxation during the summer months. I’m sure glad that July afforded me such an opportunity this year.

But as summer vacation wanes and I end up back at work, I sometimes wonder whether I really had a “rest” at all. This year, most of my vacation time was taken up with home renovation projects, yard work, and helping out at my father-in-law’s farm. As I look at back at the month, it almost seems like there was really very little “rest” time at all! Sound familiar?

So what really is “rest”? What, if anything, does Scripture have to say about it?

In one of his most memorable sayings, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28 NIV). Interestingly, we often talk about “rest” as if it were a “thing” that we need to get, but in this verse the word "rest" is translated in most modern versions as a noun. Interestingly, it is actually a verb ("to give rest") in Greek. So we could more literally translate the verse as follows: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will refresh you.” This translation certainly helps to re-orient our perspective when it comes to the matter of “rest and relaxation.” That is, “rest” is not so much something that we seek after through the use of relaxation techniques or deliberate cessation of labour (as important as those may be); rather, rest ultimately comes as an action from Someone to whom we go! He is, after all, the original "Creator" and "Rest-er"! (Cf. Gen 2:1-2; Heb 4:3b-4)

Note also that Jesus makes no promise that the burdens of home and work will be taken away. Vacation time fleetingly comes and goes, but the email inbox, financial needs, health care, and family somehow manage to carry on! The refreshing rest that Jesus gives does not depend on a changed set of circumstances or a reduced set of burdens. Rather, it depends upon intentionally coming to Jesus in the first place. This is, in other words, not a magical formula or three step procedure to follow in order get that much needed rest, but a “whole-life” orientation that we must actively and continually cultivate: Turning to Jesus every day, whether at work or at play!

In short, a biblical concept of “rest” probably needs to be contrasted with what so many consider “rest” today. How many of us have bought hook, line and sinker the idea that “rest”comes only through some kind of passivity—by stopping all action in contrast to the daily activity of normal life? (Is it any coincidence that the majority of vacation ads picture someone laying on a beach doing nothing?) On the contrary, the idea of rest given to us by Jesus is, somewhat paradoxically, something actively pursued: Coming to Jesus in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, whether it be active labour, recreation, or even laying on the beach! Thus, waiting around passively for “rest” to happen is a sure way to fail to get the refreshing rest we need. Rather, Jesus says, “Come to me... then I will refresh you."