The Purpose of Labor and Rest
What’s the point of labor and rest? Asking this question is like asking, “What’s the point of breathing?” Like breathing, the cycle of labor and rest is essential to life, embedded in the created order, ceases at death, and begins again for all believers after our resurrection to eternal life. The whole of life is taken up with the rhythm of labor and rest. We labor and rest each day, each week, each year, and each season of life. This is no accident. It is the divine design. In fact, labor and rest are part of the divine nature, and our engagement in these activities constitutes worship. This is why we labor in our work, and this is why we rest from our labor.
First, we must understand that we work because we were created in the image of God, and God works. His image-bearers were created to imitate Him. Consider the work of God in Genesis 1. God creates, makes, commands, names, shapes, forms, separates, establishes, and blesses the visible realm of creation. In Genesis 2:2-3, this activity is three times called “work.” After the account of God’s Sabbath-day rest in Genesis 2, we read further that God began the process of subduing and ruling this world by planting a garden (that is, working the ground) and providing for His covenant people. As a worker (Prov. 8:30), God is the first master craftsman.
Once we observe that work is a prominent attribute in the revelation of God as the creator of all things, it is not surprising that those created in His image would share in this same capacity. In Genesis 1:28, God’s first recorded speech to those created in His image includes the command to work. It is written, “God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (italics mine). Even as God first worked the ground (Gen. 2:8), so He also created mankind to engage in this same activity (Gen. 2:5b, 15). Just as God Himself filled, subdued, and ruled over what He had created, so now man and woman together participate as image-bearers in this same activity. In other words, the work of humankind constitutes royal dominion over this world and the filling of it. When understood in this way, work is no longer something that is menial or beneath us. Rather, it is what God created us to do because God Himself does it.
Second, because we are created in the image of God and commanded to work, work is fundamentally an act of worship. In other words, work is worship. This connection between worship and work is easier to observe in Hebrew, but we can still make sense of it in English. We begin by understanding that our English verbs work and worship are translations of the same Hebrew verb. Consider two examples. First, in Genesis 2:5, it is recorded that “there was no man to work the ground.” But then in Psalm 100:2, we have the imperative summons, “Worship [serve] the Lord with gladness!” The English verbs to work in Genesis 2:5 and to worship in Psalm 100:2 represent two possible translations of a single Hebrew verb. Work is worship.
This important connection between work and worship is not restricted to the Old Testament. It is also affirmed in the New Testament. In Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul commands that everything we do and say should be an act of worship, an offering of thanks to the Lord: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). This statement is reinforced just a few verses later: ” Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (vv. 23-24; see 1 Cor. 10:31). In these two verses, we are reminded to work hard, to work for the Lord, and to work for His reward. We are commanded to work this way because our work is an act of service—that is, worship—to the Lord Christ. In other words, our work really matters. It is not some neutral, earthly preoccupation that distracts our attention and fills our time until we go to heaven. From the beginning, it has been encoded into our image-of-God DNA, and this constitutes the power and authority to engage the cultural mandate and to obey the Great Commission. Even Jesus, the incarnate God-man, characterized His life as an act of work that rendered worship and glory to His heavenly Father. While on earth, Jesus said to His Father, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” This connection between work and the rendering of glory to God reminds us that work is worship and worship is work.
Third, not only are the labors of life rooted in the image of God, but so also is our rest from those labors. It was stated above that we work because God works; His image-bearers imitate His image. In the same way, we rest from our work because God rested from His work. Both work and rest are image-of-God activities. They are two sides of the same coin. In order to understand the intended nature of our own rest, we must first understand why God rested from His work and what His rest means.
The account of God’s rest from His work of creation is recorded in Gen. 2:1-3. Specifically, verses 2-3 record both the reason for and the result of God’s seventh-day rest. It is written in these verses:
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
The text is clear that the reason for God’s seventh-day rest resides in the fact that He had completed His work. In other words, God earned or achieved rest by finishing His work. This rest also expressed God’s satisfaction with what He had done, as well as the sufficiency of the work completed. God did not rest because He was exhausted by His labors. Rather, God rested because He had completed His work and that work was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). And so, because God rested on the seventh day, He blessed the seventh day by making it holy. By making it holy, God set this day apart from the previous six days as special, different, or unique. Because God completed His work, He rested. Because He rested, He blessed the day of His rest.
Now, because God rests from His labors, so do those who are created in His image, but not because we are tired or exhausted, though this may also be true at times. For our rest to be true rest, it must be like God’s rest. This means that our rest should result from the reasonable and routine completion of the work to which God has called each of us in this life. This reality is reinforced by God’s command to Israel in Exodus 20 to observe the Sabbath day rest after the completion of all work. We read, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:8-10a).
When we rest from the completion of the work to which God has called each of us in this life, we express satisfaction in our labors and confess His dominion over all of life in and through us. This type of rest protects us from the crippling mania that everything depends on us. It reminds us to trust in the God who brings all things to their true and final completion, whether in the larger created order (Gen. 2:1-3), or in the lives of His people (Phil. 1:6). More importantly, however, when we rest in this way, we begin to enter into the blessing of God’s seventh-day rest, the day of His satisfaction. And when we experience God’s satisfaction, we find the true purpose of our labor and the ultimate meaning of rest.
Have you found the purpose in your labor and the meaning in your rest? If not, hear again the pleading words of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).