The Bible talks a lot about celebration. From the feasts ordained in Leviticus to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, the act of celebration is woven through the Scriptures in law and prophecy, parable and promise, story and song. Rest, too, is a theme that pervades God’s Word from Old Testament to New. Its first mention is in Genesis, at the time of creation, and its last is in the book of Revelation where we see the very end of things laid out. As the holiday season approaches, notions of celebration and rest have been often on my heart.
I don’t know about you, but this year has been a chaotic one for me. I’m entering the holiday season exhausted, and the celebrations ahead of me are feeling a little overwhelming. I think it’s ironic that it’s called the “holiday season.” To me, the word “holiday” conjures images of sun-kissed beaches and lazy afternoons; slow, calm, and total rejuvenation. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a Christmas like that. Have you?
Christmases in my world are the total and complete opposite. They’re fast-paced and jam-packed, and the preparations begin days before the festivities are due to begin. By the time it’s all over, I usually feel as though I’ve run a marathon. I’m utterly spent, in every sense of the word.
As I ponder my need for a break in the face of the festivities ahead, I remember one Christmas when I did things a little differently: I snuck out of the celebrations and took my two-year-old daughter home for a nap. Though I was eight months pregnant and dying for a nap myself, I felt a sudden and magnetic pull toward my Bible.
I sat at my dining table and opened up the Word. I read the story of Christ’s birth. I pulled out my journal and wrote a prayer of thanks. While my feet still ached and my eyelids still drooped, I felt the warmth of God’s peace settling over me. For the first time in days, I experienced stillness. Calm. Rest. A couple hours later, my daughter and I re-joined the festivities, refreshed and ready for a night of feasting and fellowship.
It was a Christmas unlike any other I’ve celebrated before. By the time the celebrations were said and done, I was tired, but I was not empty. My Christmas Day quiet time had done something for me—something deep in my soul. Taking some time to bring my focus back to Jesus had reminded me of that old adage: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” In turning to him through the Word and in prayer, I experienced the truth of the words of Christ himself: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I experienced the peace of God and communion with the Spirit—the very gift that God so graciously sent to the world in Christ’s coming. The gift that Christmas is all about.
As we prepare to enter the holiday season, let’s take some time to ponder celebration and rest, and how these two notions—so persistent throughout the Scriptures—can be balanced.
Day 1: What Does the Bible Say About Celebrations?
Read: Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 3:13-16, Leviticus 23, Nehemiah 12:27-43, Psalm 78:2-8, Matthew 5:14-16
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all celebrated something before. A birthday, a marriage, a baby, a new job. If you’re a Christian, then most likely we can include Easter and Christmas in that list. We look forward to celebrations because they’re marked by joy, and usually good food and fellowship, too. Celebrations are central to the human experience, and when we dig into the Bible, we see that they’re central to the Christian experience, too.
The Bible first alludes to a celebration in Genesis 2:1-3, when God institutes the Sabbath, which he later solidifies as one of the seven feasts of Israel. Following this, God appoints the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 13:3-16), and later, a series of other feasts for his people, the Israelites (Leviticus 23). In instituting these feasts, God provided his people with specific times to meet with him and be reminded of his mighty works. These feasts were so important to God that he structured the entire Israelite calendar around them. It has clearly been God’s intention since the beginning of time that those who love him live lives of purposeful celebration, with him at the center.
The seven feasts of Israel aren’t the only times that God’s people celebrate in the Bible. There are countless stories of other “non-mandatory” feasts and festivities in the Scriptures, and these offer further insight into God’s purpose for, and the importance of, celebrating. Consider these verses from Nehemiah 12:
And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgiving and with singing, with cymbals, harps and lyres. And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.Nehemiah 12:27,43
Here we see the heart of Biblical celebration: gladness, thanksgiving and joy, all in response to who God is and what he has done. Biblical celebration is worshipful and filled with praise. By nature, it glorifies God and aligns our hearts with his. It draws us closer to him and provides a way of communing with him. It builds our faith. And it is a means of shining the light of God’s goodness and love into the dark world in which we live, thereby offering hope to a hopeless generation. While we don’t celebrate the same feasts that the Israelites did, we can still apply the principles of Biblical celebrations to our own festivities, and in this way, they can achieve the same purposes in our own lives and communities.
- Why do you think God used celebratory feasts, and not some other means, to remind people of his mighty works? What do you think was his purpose in reminding people of his works?
- As the holiday season approaches, take some time to write down some of the things that God has done in your life. Think about what you have learned about God’s character through these experiences. Write a prayer of thanks in response. For an example of one of the Bible’s most beautiful prayers of thanks, read Mary’s Song of Praise, also known as the “Magnificat,” in Luke 1:46-55.
- During the Feast of Booths, the Israelites would dwell in booths as a reminder of their time wandering the desert after God liberated them from Egypt (Leviticus 23:42-43). This tradition was a tangible reminder of the miraculous ways in which God forged them into a nation. Write a list of some ways you can create tangible reminders of God’s work in your own life this holiday season.
Day 2: What Does the Bible Say About Rest?
Read: Deuteronomy 5:13-15, Matthew 11:28-29, Psalm 23, Hebrews 4:10,16, Colossians 2:16-17
When you think of the word “rest,” what comes to mind? For me, it’s bubble baths, tea, a good story, or a sunny spot in the garden. It’s time on my own, doing relaxing things that I enjoy. The world calls this kind of rest “self-care.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-care, except maybe it’s proclivity to direct us more to our own well being than that of others—which is the opposite of what the Bible tells us to do (Philippians 2:3-3). And there’s no doubt that it’s important to replenish our bodies physically and mentally through this kind of rest. But self-care does little to nothing for us spiritually—and often when we feel most in need of self-care, what we really need is God.
God carves out a clear vision for true, soul-restoring rest in the Bible, beginning with the Sabbath. This day of rest signifies the completion of his creative work (Genesis 2:2-3). God blessed the Sabbath and made it holy (Genesis 2:3), and, as we established yesterday, appointed it as both a law and a feast (Exodus 20:8-11; Leviticus 23:3). The Israelites took the Sabbath so seriously that the penalty for breaking it was death (Exodus 35:2).
The Sabbath rest was important to God’s people for many, many reasons. Here, I’ll outline just a few: first, it pointed to the covenant between God and his people, and it provided them with spiritual refreshment through intimacy and communion with their creator. Second, it reminded the Israelites of God’s redemptive work in their history (Deuteronomy 5:13-15), which promoted humbleness, humility and dependence on God. And third (perhaps most importantly) it served as a foreshadowing of the redemption that was to come in Christ (Colossians 2:17). With Jesus’s death and resurrection came the offer of salvation for all sinners, and the opportunity to rest from the labour of trying to sanctify ourselves (John 18-20; Mark 16:16). In the same way that God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, Jesus Christ, the Son of God redeemed us from our slavery to sin, and he himself became the fulfilment of the Sabbath.
Understanding why the Sabbath was so important to God’s people helps us understand God’s vision for rest. If Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath, and if the Sabbath is rest, then it is clear that God’s vision for rest is all about Jesus. Biblical rest is communion with God through Christ, which leads to the kind of deep spiritual refreshment seen in Psalm 23. When we come to Jesus in prayer, worship and study of the Word; when we submit our worries and anxieties to him; he promises rest for our souls: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Since God is our creator, only he can restore our weary souls and enliven our tired spirits (Isaiah 40:28-31). So come to Jesus and find your rest, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
- What comes to mind when you think of the word “rest”? How does this compare with the Biblical vision of rest?
- As we’ve seen, rest is so important to God that he wove it into the rhythms of his people’s lives. While under the new covenant we aren’t obligated to keep the Sabbath, rest remains an important spiritual discipline for the follower of Jesus, and the Bible demonstrates time and time again the blessings of obedience (for examples, see Leviticus 26:3-6; Luke 11:28; James 1:25; Romans 2:6-8). It is in our best interest to include rest in the rhythms of our lives. How do you make time for rest? If this is not something you have done before, write down some ways you can intentionally make time for rest each day.
- In our fast-paced culture, particularly during the holiday season, many people find it difficult to make rest a priority. If this is you, take some time to pray that God would help you in this area. And take some time to rest with Jesus now. Listen to some worship music, write a prayer, and open up your Bible. Surrender your anxieties to him—he cares about you (1 Peter 5:7). If you’re unsure of what to read, why not start with the book of Matthew, or Psalm 92, which was written for the Sabbath?
Day 3: Finding Rest in a Season of Celebration
Read: Matthew 18:20, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Luke 10:36-42
What’s your favorite thing about Christmas? For me, that answer has changed over the years. I’ve loved the gifts, the food, the time spent with loved ones. And now, as a Christian, wife, and mother, I still love these things—but as I’ve grown more mature in my faith, I love even more that Christmas is a time set apart to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Loving God has made me want to make much of the Christmas season. I want my family’s celebrations to be special and meaningful. I want them to shine the love of Christ. But sometimes, that means I get so lost in the details that I forget the reason for making such an effort in the first place: celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace—the prince whose gift to mankind can be summed up in the words “rest” and “surrender.”
Over the past couple of days, we’ve established that God values both celebration and rest. We’ve seen that these practices are spiritual disciplines that draw us closer to him. If we look once more at the seven feasts of the Israelites, it’s clear that celebration and rest aren’t mutually exclusive principles. They can be experienced simultaneously, and each can lift the other to a “higher plane”, if you will. During times of feasting, God commanded that no ordinary work be completed, which tells us that rest should be an intentional part of our celebrations (Leviticus 23:3, 7, 8, 11, 21, 24, 25, 28, 31, 32, 35, 36, 39). Looking again at the Sabbath, we see the other side of the coin. Consider this quote from Craig J. Slane: “The Sabbath is to be a delight and a joy…The joyous character of the Sabbath is reflected in, among other things, the Jewish tradition of eating richly, which derives from its inclusion in the list of ‘festivals of the Lord’ (Leviticus 23), the prohibition of fasting, and the forbidding of outward expressions of grief and mourning.” The nature of the Sabbath demonstrates that our rest should be joyful and celebratory – and how could it not be, when Biblical rest is by nature a reminder of all God has done for us?
But what does all of this mean for us, practically? How can we find rest in our celebrations, and celebrate as we rest? In his article, “The Lost Art of Feasting”, David Mathis says that “what makes feasting a means of God’s grace for nourishing our souls is explicitly celebrating Christ together in faith.” In other words, when Christ is at the center of it, filling our bellies with satisfying foods in an act of celebration becomes an outward metaphor for an inward phenomenon: as we celebrate him, God fills our souls with peace, joy and gladness, and we are drawn closer to Jesus. This is because, as Matthew 18:20 tells us, when two or more are gathered in his name, Jesus is present among them. So, when we gather to celebrate with Christ at the center, Jesus promises that he’ll be right there with us. This is the source of our soul’s rest.
To facilitate this, it’s important that our intentions are right. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says that whatever we are doing, including eating or drinking, we should do “to the glory of God,” and 1 Timothy 4:4-5 tells us that our feasting can be made holy “by the word of God and prayer.” It’s not enough to just throw a party: we must plan to make Jesus “the culminating point” of our celebrations. We can do this by incorporating prayer and Scripture into our celebrations, and, most importantly, by cultivating a pure and thankful heart before God.
Of course, while celebrations can provide rest for our souls, there’s also a strong scriptural case for retreating from the festivities and taking time alone with God. In the Gospels, Jesus often withdraws from the crowds to commune with God in prayer (Mark 1:35; Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:18). And the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-43 stresses the value of simply being still and listening to Jesus. In this passage, two sisters, Martha and Mary, welcome Jesus into their home. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his teaching, while Martha is too “distracted with much serving” to sit at rest in Jesus’s presence (Luke 10:40). I don’t know about you, but in my approach to the holiday season, I’m definitely more of a Martha than a Mary. I get so busy with the preparations and the details that I lose focus and jumble up my priorities. But as we’ve learned: if we don’t take time to rest in the presence of Jesus during our celebrations, we miss what the celebrations are really about. So, this holiday season, let’s not only seek the rest our souls crave in God-centered feasts and festivities. Let’s also take a moment to slow down and be still, planning times of quiet where we can feast on the Word of God.
- Think about your plans for this holiday season. Is Christ at the center of them? Write down some practical ways you can help yourself, your family and your guests remember who, what and why you’re celebrating this year—and plan to follow through. Some examples include reading a pertinent passage of Scripture at the dinner table, cultivating gratitude by intentionally asking people what God has done for them this past year, and simply planning to say grace at mealtimes—a ritual that can easily be forgotten during the excitement.
- Think about your schedule this holiday season. How can you carve out some “alone time” with Jesus amongst the activities you have planned? Write these times into your schedule and again, plan to follow through!
- Now, take some time to pray that God will help you find rest for your soul this holiday season. Pray that he’d help your celebrations to glorify him. Pray that he’d help you to follow through with your plans for quiet time. And thank him that we have a reason to celebrate!
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter