Imagine that your significant other wakes you up one Saturday morning and says, “I know you were planning on getting a lot of things done around the house today but they can wait. Today, I’d like for us to just enjoy one another’s company – let’s have a picnic, go for a walk, watch a movie, go fishing, do whatever it is that we love to do, together.” How would you react? Would you complain? Would you object, “But I want to do dishes! I want to mulch the yard! I want to vacuuum!”? Or, would you receive this as it’s intended – as a gift?
Sabbath is one of those controversial ideas that Christians have a hard time agreeing on. Is the Old Testament Sabbath required of Christians today? Is it merely a day of rest? Should our worship services only take place on Saturday? Did God change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday? Did the Catholic church? Is Sabbath only a shadow of the rest that’s available in salvation? The questions go on and on but I believe they largely miss the point.
Sabbath was not a Jewish invention. Neither was it intended to be an object of argument. It was created by God for his people to practice.
Perhaps the reason that Sabbath is more argued over than lived is because we have failed to see it as a gift. Sabbath isn’t a legalistic commandment that restricts; it isn’t a fulfilled type to be forgotten; it is the gift of life-giving, sacred time.
Jesus and the Sabbath
Most people who see the Sabbath as fulfilled and forgotten appeal to Jesus. They seem to think that Jesus’ goal was helping the Jews see that every day should be holy, not just the Sabbath. After all, Jesus violated the Sabbath – surely he didn’t hold it in very high regard.
Jesus was not doing away with the Sabbath, he was doing away with all of the weeds that had grown up around it. He was clearing the way so people could see the real purpose and beauty of Sabbath.
The Law of Moses (as found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was not exactly clear on what was and what wasn’t a violation of the Sabbath. It said not to do work but the question of how much a person could do before it became work was up in the air. As a result, some Jews built up a hedge of rules around the Sabbath to make sure that people didn’t accidentally violate it. As time went on, these rules grew and became such a burden that the joy of Sabbath was lost. When Jesus came on the scene, the Pharisees were complaining about people who made their beds on the Sabbath (not really, but you get the picture).
What made it even worse was that the Pharisees didn’t even follow their own rules. As Jesus would later say, they “say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:3b-4). One time, after healing a woman, Jesus got in a confrontation with some Pharisees and told them, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15b-16). And yet, in all of this, Jesus was not saying that the Sabbath was worthless.
So, what was he saying?
And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:23-28
On one sunny Saturday, Jesus and his disciples were making their way to town when they passed a field of grain. As they went, they plucked some grain for an afternoon snack. The Pharisees couldn’t stomach such blatant Sabbath-breaking so they complained. What was Jesus’ response? He told them a story from the Old Testament that communicated the idea that human life and dignity is more important than the rigid enforcement of rules. In other words, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
God did not create the Sabbath and then decide, “You know what I need? A creature that can observe this awesome rule that I’ve made.” Thinking this way is completely backwards.
No. God created humankind and said, “These creatures have need for rest, I will create the Sabbath for them to enjoy.”
And if Sabbath was created for man, then Sabbath is a gift.
The Creation of Sabbath
And this is exactly what we see when we go back and look at the creation of Sabbath.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. – Genesis 2:1-3
Sabbath is not simply part of the Mosaic law. It isn’t just a Jewish thing. Sabbath’s origins are in creation itself. Sabbath was intended for all of humanity.
Genesis 2 tells us that “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” What was his purpose in doing so? Did he need to rest because he was worn out after a tough week at the office? Did he need a weekend recharge? Of course not!
After commanding the people of Israel to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” he says, “for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8 & 11). That word ‘for’ that comes at the beginning of verse 11 can mean “because” or “since.” God was setting a pattern for his people to follow when he instituted Sabbath at creation. God rested so his people would understand what rest looks like.
So what was God’s expectation for Sabbath? Did he expect his people to sit in their homes looking at one another until Sunday rolled around? Was he hoping that people would lie in bed all day? Or, was this rest to have some meaning beyond ‘not working’?
By Jesus’ day, Sabbath had become the Jewish day of worship. We often read in the New Testament how Jesus or Paul would enter into the synagogue on the Sabbath day to worship and preach the Gospel. This was one way that the Jewish people set the Sabbath apart and kept it holy. Sabbath became a day of remembering: Remembering God’s faithfulness and love, remembering his provision, remembering his promises, remembering the good future that he is preparing for his people, remembering our own limitations, remembering our purpose and mission, etc.
This remembering requires us to stop. This is why we rest. We rest to acknowledge God as God and ourselves as his needy creatures.
We can get so caught up in all of the work that needs to be done, all of the souls that need saved, all of the things that need accomplished – we can get so caught up in all of this stuff that we never take the time to remember that God is God and we aren’t.
Now, some have mistakenly thought that keeping the Sabbath holy meant we don’t sin on Sunday – only the other days of the week. This is a complete misunderstanding of the word holy. Holiness isn’t (primarily) about moral standing. It’s about being set-apart for a purpose. Setting the Sabbath day apart means that one day per week, we stop the doing and learn how to be.
The Sabbath is more than a day of ceasing from sin – it’s a day of ceasing from self.
Remembering our Creator
With its roots in the creation account, Sabbath reminds us that God is the creator and sustainer of this world. If God chooses to sustain this world, I cannot destroy it. If he chooses to destroy it, I can’t keep it going. I am one small part of God’s vast creation; Sabbath helps us to remember this.
As humans, we like to be in control, we like to make things happen, we like to be at the wheel, making the decisions – and Sabbath, once a week, forces us to sit back and say “If it doesn’t get done today, the world isn’t going to quit spinning. God is still on the throne. He’s still the ruler of all nature. He can handle it on his own.”
Sabbath puts God and ourselves in perspective.
Remembering our End
The author of Hebrews uses the idea of Sabbath to talk about our end – our goal in life – heaven, the presence of God. He tells his readers that there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God and he encourages them to “be diligent to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11).
Sabbath does not only point us backward to creation, it also points us forward into eternity and the unfettered presence of God.
This is why gathering together to worship on a set-apart day has been part of both Christianity and Judaism since their beginnings. Worshiping together with God’s people in the now is a preview of eternity.
Every church service that we attend should be like experiencing the trailer for the best movie that you could ever imagine. And as we worship today, we catch glimpses of what it will be like in that day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
This is why Sabbath matters and why it’s important, even for Christians. Sabbath reminds us that our jobs are not our end – the stuff we do or make or work for are not our end – our money is not our end – God, his presence, his people – these are the things that we’ve been created for and that we long for.
Sabbath calls us, once a week, to put this world utterly away and to live in eternity.
This is the gift of Sabbath – a gift that calls us to God as our creator, our sustainer, and our end.
Grace through Sabbath
As I’ve said elsewhere, God grants us grace through a variety of means. In Sabbath, we give God the opportunity to grant us grace for the rest of our busy, overworked weeks. Below are a few ways that I’ve seen God grant grace in my own life through Sabbath. Leave a comment and let me know about any ways that you’ve seen God work through the practice of Sabbath.
- In Sabbath, we’re reminded of God’s character and his presence.
- In Sabbath, we’re reminded of where we’re going,what our end is, and how we’re doing as we make our way.
- In Sabbath, we receive the grace to get through another busy week of work.
- In Sabbath, we’re given the grace of perspective to help us see the big things as big things and little things as little things.
- In Sabbath, we’re given the grace of physical renewal – studies have shown that people who work long hours have higher incidents of heart problems, diabetes, etc.
Disclaimer: Just so I’m not misunderstood, I do not believe that the practice of Sabbath is binding on Christians. With regard to particular days, Paul told the Romans that “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). However, I see Sabbath as similar to kissing between a husband and wife. It doesn’t make the relationship but it certainly makes the relationship more enjoyable.