The 'Above All' Commandment of the Sabbath
When Moses came down from the mountain a second time, he gathered the Israelites and told them everything he had received from God, starting with the Sabbath command (35:1-3). So the Sabbath command functions as a set of bookends: It was not only the last command that Moses received from God the first time around, it was also the first one Moses revealed to the people on the second pass. It seems that rest was intended to lie at the heart of Israel's religious observances—an "above all" commandment.
Living in Justification
Why is the Sabbath so important? After all, it's a command to do nothing; it requires no activity or effort. And that may be precisely the point.
This "above all" command encourages us to trust in God in a way that no other activity can. So much more could be accomplished by adding another day of labor, but the Sabbath requires us to trust that God will provide for all our needs and that he will continue to manage the world without our help. The Sabbath is a practical reminder that we are completely dependent on God.
But there is also this: "That you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you." Here rest is closely connected to sanctification. We instinctively believe our efforts and activities effectively promote personal and spiritual growth—that God is the primary agent in justification and that the individual is the primary agent in sanctification. We may need to think again.
John Calvin said that the Holy Spirit was given to us for our transformation, and that "we are purged by [God's] sanctification." Calvin here expresses what Christians from many theological traditions affirm, that God is the primary agent in sanctification, and that the Spirit alone enables Christians to live a holy life. Though Christians perform many activities to overcome sinful habits and become more like Christ, it is the Spirit, Calvin said, who "dispenses a power whereby they may gain the upper hand and become victors in the struggle."
Similarly, pastor Tim Keller said in one interview that though sanctification requires enormous effort, it is not "works based" but rather comes by continuously "reorienting ourselves to our justification." Keller teaches that sanctification is living in accordance with our justification, which is a free gift. Therefore, even in sanctification we acknowledge that God is the primary agent, and that our works contribute nothing on their own. So in both sanctification and justification, Christians are declared righteous and are continually being made righteous solely by the free grace of God. Though we are called to be active, the "activity" seems mostly to mean the call to rest, to trust, to freely receive sanctification from God.
The Sabbath, therefore, helps us realize we completely depend on God for all our needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual.
So, can we just sit back and passively wait for some mystical experience to transform us? As Paul would say, "By no means!" God is not dependent on our doings, but like many aspects of life, he has gladly chosen to use us and our activities to transform us. Thus, the story of Israel remains significant today. Although Israel was instructed to obey God's commands in order to "be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45), at the end of the week the only thing they had to do was relax; in the midst of their religious busyness, they were called to simply remember that God alone sanctified them. As Paul put it, "So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:7). Only God brings about our transformation. That is something we can count on, and rest in.