Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Have you ever watched a play that had no stage, background, or props? Just a few actors sitting on the ground in street clothes, flatly reading a script.
Apart from being dull, the play could quickly get confusing. Stories need props and settings to fill in the contextual surroundings, and any good story has them. It’s the props and settings of the Bible that give the words on the page depth and color.
The previous article looked into some of these props and settings in Genesis with a sample of how the universe was designed to function like a giant temple.
Here’s a summary of that sample evidence:
Seven is the number for temples
The light on day four is the temple lampstand
The temple and creation alike have three main sections
The temple was decorated like the Garden of Eden
Ancient Jewish writings assumed this connection, including Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the pseudepigrapha—not to mention the New Testament authors.
Jesus himself assumed this connection; in fact, it was central to his mission as the embodiment of God's temple (Jn. 1:14), which is a mission we get to live out as the residence of God's Spirit.
There’s an ocean of proof in Genesis 1-3 to colorfully demonstrate this connection. They're bizarre, beautiful, and they're the thickest thread of motifs running through the Bible. Though temple theology is largely foreign to Western readers, it can be quite a potent shock to electrify our faith and passion for the kingdom.
But, before magnifying our lens in Genesis again to see the cosmic temple, here's a taste of how temples work from a bird's-eye view:
The temple is cleansed through a sacrifice
The temple is converted into sacred space
God's presence, or glory, inhabits the temple
God's presence brings revelation, life, and blessings
God's presence gradually engulfs all creation
All creation is filled with God's glory, revelation, life, and blessings
The goal of creation is, "The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea" (Hab. 2:14). This was the plan in Genesis; the plan God continued to remake through Israel; the plan that Jesus died to secure; the plan that is finally fulfilled in Revelation 21-22.
This article will focus on the Sabbath as it relates to God’s rest from his works in creation (Gen. 2:1-3), and then we will see how this is another cryptic echo in our journey to the temple function of creation.
Why an All-Powerful God Rests
I always thought it was strange that God rested on the seventh day. Isn't he omnipotent? He certainly doesn't need to take a day off because of sleep, or exhaustion, or just to clear his head.
Maybe he rested to set a precedent for Israel to follow, like a dad washing his hands to show his daughter how to do it. He did tell the Israelites to rest from their labors on the seventh day because he himself, “rested on the seventh day.” (Ex. 20:9-11).
Though popular and possible, this theory goes against the deeper flow of the narrative. God made people in his image, so they are to be like him; they are to be holy because he is holy (Lev. 11:44). Not the other way around.
Insight from Ancient Near Eastern linguistics has uncovered something that was hidden in the Hebrew text all along.
The Hebrew word for rest is the basis for “Sabbath” (shaw-bath´ שָׁבַת), and it can mean a few things:
To stop working (Ex. 5:5)
To stop anything, like the seasons that won’t “cease” (Gen. 8:22)
To remove something (Lev. 26:6)
To practice the Sabbath (of course)
Most interestingly, it was used as an image of a king ruling
There's even a noun, sheh´-beth, based on shaw-bath (Sabbath) that refers to a king's throne, since kings were thought of as ruling from their throne chair. Rest meant reign.
If God rested in Genesis 2 the way a king sits down on his throne to rule a kingdom, then it's not a picture of God taking a break, but of God ruling his creation.
This gives a more plausible answer to the perplexing riddle of the rest of God; after all, his supremacy over creation is close to his heart. He is the God who ensures all people will know that he alone, "whose name is Yahweh, is the Most High over all the earth. (Ps. 83:17-18).
This makes more sense of the sentence of death for breaking the Sabbath, since God cares about his supremacy in human lives. That's something that affects us all.
We will glide over some evidence supporting this claim, which will then be plugged in as another tile in the temple-creation mosaic we are slowly unveiling, followed by a one-way flight to the Gospels.
Yahweh Rests on His Temple Throne
Isaiah has a fascinating example of the word rest being used to speak about God's rulership, but what makes it most interesting is that it's surrounded by talk of God's temple.
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What is the house that you will build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” (Is. 66:1).
As we cut this verse open to examine its insides, we’ll see not only that rest is used to talk about God as a king, but that the temple is where God rules as king. Sabbath, rest, the temple, and a throne—another sketch that Genesis 1-2 is about Yahweh building a temple out of the universe.
The Isaiah 66 passage can be broken up into four parts:
Heaven is my throne,
And the earth is my footstool.
What is the house that you will build for me?
And what is the place of my rest?
These four parts are written in the style of Hebrew poetry. They not only end in the same sound, but they are pictures of the same idea from different angles. They rhyme to the ear and to the heart.
Notice how the first two parts mirror each other: “Heaven is my throne” is matched with “And the earth is my footstool”. They mean the same thing because they're the same image.
This is the typical Hebrew parallelism that dominates the psalms, and it affords biblical exegetes an effective way to see how mysterious expressions were used, based on the words that are paired.
For our verse, part one pictures God in his heavenly residence, sitting on a king’s throne. This clearly envisions God governing. Part two builds on the image by portraying his feet resting on the earth, which serves as his footstool.
The intention, of course, is not to say that God is literally sitting on a cosmic La-Z-Boy, or that he is literally using earth as an enormous ottoman. As I've stressed before, the Hebrews didn't view topics ontologically, which means they didn't ask, "What is its nature?" or "What does it look like?"
Asking, "What is its nature?" or "What is its appearance?" is what Western, Greek-minded readers are worried about. That's what interests most of us, but the Hebrews and their scriptures were more practical.
The Jews were more concerned with the effect, or function, of an image. They cared more about answering the question, "What does it do?"
So, what is the function of this image? Isaiah's obviously asserting God's authority over his creation. He's saying, "Yahweh is king of the nations", which would be reassuring to the original readers who were just told they were headed for exile.
God is on the throne. All the time.
Listen to what Isaiah adds for the third and fourth parts. After mentioning God’s reign, he asks, “What is the house that you will build for me, and what is the place of my rest?”
These two parts also mirror each other: God's house and God's rest. Let's start with the first by asking: What is God’s house?
The temple, of course. The ancient world thought gods lived in temples, as did Israel (2 Kings 24:12-13).
Second, what does the temple have to do with God ruling?
Simply put, the temple is the earthly location where God rules from. The ancient audience, pagan and Hebrew alike, assumed this; in fact, everyone knew that “the temple was the command center of the cosmos” (The Lost World of Adam and Eve, 49).
God rules from his temple dwelling.
That’s why the holy of holies at the core of Israel's temple contained the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was even called, “the footstool of our God” (1 Chr. 28:2). It was the earthly counterpart to God's ruling presence in heaven.
Now we see why Isaiah mentions ruling next to rest. If rest means to rule, then God's rest is him ruling. Though Isaiah uses a different word for “rest” (noo´-akh, as in “Noah”) in this passage, the meaning is the same: a deity running his kingdom from a throne chair.
We also see why Isaiah speaks of God's temple next to God's rest: God ruled from his temple throne (see also Ezek. 43:7).
The meaning, then, of the four symbols in Isaiah 66:1 are:
God ruling from heaven.
God ruling from earth.
God ruling from his temple-house.
God resting by ruling.
They all communicate the same effect: Israel's God governs the cosmos from the temple. The Hebrew function is singularly communicated from four scopes: Yahweh is king.
Now, what this has to do with Genesis and Jesus.
Israel Rested to Celebrate God’s Rest
If we take the understanding that the temple was the throne room of God, and combine it like Isaiah did with the image that to rest means to reign, and then use this understanding as a lens through which to view the creation, here is what we get.
Isaiah depicted the rest of God as a king on his throne ruling the cosmos from his temple. In the same way, Genesis ended the creation of the cosmic temple account with the same image of God resting as a king sitting down on his throne to reign.
“On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, so he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” (Gen. 2:2).
This isn’t about God taking a break, or even pretending to take a break so he can later tell the Israelites that they need to take breaks. There's something bigger here. This is about Yahweh having supremacy for his kingdom to come, and for his will to be done "on earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6).
This is about God being the lord over his creation.
Rest equals reign, even as the entire creation account is saturated with clues that the universe was to function like a temple, the very place of God’s reign. Like other clues, the Sabbath is another mysterious sign that Genesis portrayed the universe as a giant temple.
We are still left wondering: what does this has to do with the Sabbath Israel was supposed to keep? This is where it gets literally delicious.
First, the Sabbath itself is another play on words: Israel was supposed to take a rest (shaw-bath´) from their labor to commemorate the rule (shaw-bath´) of God. The Sabbath was a weekly way of shouting that God was king over the stars in the sky and the people on the earth; more, it was a celebration of that reign.
The Israelites were commanded to avoid working or preparing food to match the condition in the garden of Eden as a tasty way of enjoying the kindness of God's sovereignty. Before Genesis 3, where God’s garden is described (Gen. 2), God’s perfect reign was in full effect over the creation, and it meant a few things:
Adam did not have to work for food, because
Food was readily available at all times in rich variety, so
Adam could indulge in the literal fruit of God’s kind reign, so
Adam could pursue his true vocation of ruling the world as God's image
God wanted the Israelites to reenact the pre-fall creation, which was the only time in the Bible people were fully able to enjoy God's kingdom. Doing this reenactment would remind them of the paradise-garden in Eden.
The Sabbath, then, was a powerful symbol of the past, present, and future of creation:
The Eden paradise God designed humans to live in
The current Eden-like existence Israel already lived in, via the temple
The hope of when all creation would be finally restored to the paradise of Eden (Rev. 21-22)
The Sabbath was like a play about the compassionate way God rules, and they all had a part to act out. The lesson of this Sabbath play was to remind them all that when Yahweh rules, humans are blessed and happy (Ps. 16).
Or, as N.T. Wright eloquently puts it, "This is what it looks like when God becomes king."
Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and the Temple
No biblical theology is complete without threading it through the most important centerpiece of the creation story. So, what did Jesus say about the Sabbath, God's rule, and the temple?
Interestingly, Jesus :
Never spent the Sabbath doing what we think of as Sunday worship
Never spoke about the Sabbath as a time to relax
Never spoke about the Sabbath as a time to pray or read the Torah (as most Jews did)
What did Jesus think about the Sabbath? You could say he summarized the Sabbath as, "Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).
This popular verse is immediately followed by Jesus healing a man's withered hand on the Sabbath, which is when he declared that, "I am the lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:1-8).
There were have it again: rest next to kindness and lordship.
In other words, he showed that giving "rest to the weary and burdened" was done by healing the hurting. And since the Sabbath was about a king ruling, he was also saying, "This is what it looks like when I'm king: Be healed!"
The details of this passage are described more here, where I argue that the meaning of the Sabbath now is to show off how good Jesus's reign is by loving others, healing wounds, fighting oppression, and pursuing social justice in his name.
Just like Jesus did.
Jesus and the Sabbath are hot topics in the Gospels precisely because Jesus was always healing on the Sabbath. He taught that living out the Sabbath is nothing less than living out the gospel: to live a life that says, "This is what it looks like when Jesus is king."
That's what Jesus had to say about the Sabbath and God's kingdom, but what about the temple?
Jesus, of course, said he was the temple (Mrk. 14:58), and as we saw, this means he was the earthly location of God's heavenly reign. His body was the place where God ruled, the "tabernacle" of God (Jn. 1:14). That's why his motto was, "God's kingdom is near" (Matt. 4:17). He embodied the rule of God.
He wasn't just God's king, then, but he was somehow God as king.
Temple equals reign, Sabbath equals reign, and Jesus is lord of them both. The temple, just like the Sabbath, was redefined with Jesus at the very center. So, from the Eden in Genesis to the Eden in Revelation, from the Sabbath in Israel to the Sabbath healings of Jesus, the message is the same: Jesus is king.
That's the gospel claim of the New Testament (Mark 1:1, Rom. 1:4, Rev. 1:4-5), so we have a calling to live this out. Here are two essential steps to kindgom living.
First, we are admitted into the kingdom by confessing Jesus as the supreme king:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9-10)
Then as we continue to trust and submit to his reign we follow his instructions about loving God by loving each other. And as we do this, the world hears the right message: "This is what it looks like when Jesus is king."
Show that Jesus is king by loving your family, and your neighbor, and your enemy.
Display the kindness of our king by forgiving your enemies and blessing your opponents.
Live out the power of the kingdom by being rich in good works, full of generosity, and a healer of wounds.
Finally, the next time you enjoy a great family feast, think about how it is a taste of the Eden-to-come at Jesus's return.