You can read Part 2 of this discussion HERE.
Should Christians observe the Sabbath? I attended a small Baptist high school that believed Sunday is the Sabbath. I remember a friend getting chewed out on a school trip for buying some chewing gum on a Sunday. Seventh Day Adventists believe Christians should continue to observe the Saturday Sabbath as the Old Testament describes. So what are we to do?
The Sabbath has a couple of curious attributes that have made it a polarising debate topic as the positions described above illustrate. All my life I have been taught that Christians do not need to observe the Sabbath as it is the only one of the 10 Commandments not explicitly repeated in the New Testament. BUT, it is also the only one of the 10 Commandments included as part of God’s creative work in Genesis 1.
Here’s a little table I’ve put together to provide a rough interpretative matrix by comparing the Hebrew practices of Sabbath and tithing and how the church interacted with them. I recognise that some of the points are a little strained and the match with tithing is not exact, but I hope it demonstrates how we can retain principles from the Mosaic Law while dispensing with the details.
|Precedes Sinai Law||Abraham (Genesis 14:17-20)||Creation (Genesis 2:2-3)|
|Codified at Sinai||Deuteronomy 14:22-29||Exodus 20:8-11|
|About the Heart (These verses describe ungodly motives.)||Amos 4:4||Amos 8:4-5|
|Jesus affirmed the principle||Give to God (Matt 22:21)||Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8)|
|Adapted by the church||cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7)||Eternity = Sabbath-rest (Heb 4:9)|
At this point I want to define my understanding of the Christian principle of sabbath. I do not believe that God commands Christians to take a particular day of the week and avoid all work on that day. Rather, I believe God intends for his people to integrate periods (lunch breaks, or entire days or weeks) of sabbath-rest into our lives. The simplest distinction I can make is that the capital changes to a lower-case “s”. Christians do not need to observe all the Sabbath rituals described in the Mosaic Law, but we can extract enough principles from that holy day to still describe our practice as “sabbath”.
In creation we find rest at the core of Sabbath. On the seventh day God rested. In Exodus 20 the 10 Commandments provide some commentary, “...he rested on the seventh day. Therefore he blessed the Sabbath day…“. The Sabbath is synonymous with rest.
However, it would be wrong to focus entirely upon rest without also considering how sabbath impacts our relationship with God. Over time, the Israelite practice of Sabbath increasingly included components of personal and organised worship. So when I come to define or describe the concept of sabbath-rest for the church I can’t think of a better place to begin than with the example of Jesus.
Mark 1 :21-34 contains one description of Jesus’ Sabbath. Note the various elements:
- v21 – attend synagogue and teach [study] the Scripture;
- v23 – respond compassionately [exorcise] to a person in need;
- v29 – return home;
- v30 – respond compassionately [heal] to a person in need;
- v30 – spend the afternoon eating and fellowshipping;
- v32 – after the conclusion of Sabbath at 6pm, Jesus again begins his public ministry of healing and casting out demons.
In her book Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity Keri Kent points out that since the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening, it begins with food, fellowship and rest, followed in the morning by more structured worship. We see all of these in the passage above. Sabbath provides an opportunity to restore our souls by creating space to:
- Love God through the practice of other spiritual disciplines; and
- Love others by prioritising time with people over time fulfilling tasks.
In Mark 3:27 Jesus made the famous statement that, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” In my experience many Christians have taken this to mean that sabbath is an optional practice that we can disregard if it gets in the way of the rest of our schedule. When we adopt this attitude, we really read the verse as saying, “The Sabbath was made for your convenience, not to get in the way of your scheduled life.” Nothing could be further from Jesus’ intent!
In this verse Jesus makes the point that God made Sabbath for the benefit of people. When we dismiss it, or crowd it out of our lives we reject God’s gracious gift. Jesus criticises the Pharisees who had created an elaborate list of rules regarding the Sabbath that actually made it a chore to keep. However we integrate sabbath into our lives we must keep it beneficial.
On some occasions sabbath-rest may mean gardening, or just breaking from the busyness of life to relax and refresh. For other people their sabbath-rest may involve intentional time communing with God. Others will best experience sabbath around a table with friends or a board game with family. At its most basic sabbath is not concerned with how we fill that time, but what we leave behind.
However, to gain maximum benefit from sabbath-rest we need to make it intentional. Sabbath is not just a “mental-health day”, or a lazy day bumming around in our PJ’s. Just as many people take a day off work for Memorial Day without remembering anything, the temptation exists to take a sabbath with zero intentionality. Sabbath should restore and equip us for whatever comes next.
We are first called to rest and sit with Christ (Ephesians 2:6); then we are exhorted to walk in a manner worth of Christ’s calling (Ephesians 4:1); and finally we are roused to stand firm against the evil one (Ephesians 6:11). Implicit in this is the proposition that if I am not first rested and comfortable in my new identity in Christ, then I will not be able to draw on his strength to walk righteously or to fight against evil valiantly. Or, to put it in another way, being precedes doing and rest precedes work. (Tabalujan, 37)
Our culture makes it increasingly difficult for us to rest and refresh ourselves. We see this demonstrated in the familiar comment, “I need a holiday to help me get over my holiday.” We often return from our vacations which we intended as renewing retreats only to find ourselves in about the same place we were before we left. Our consumer culture entices us to cram as much as possible into any time we have available. Tabalujan provides this helpful table to illustrate the distinction between sabbath-rest and leisure.
|Impact on person||Restorative||Tiring|
|Relationship to work||Gives meaning to||Provides escape from|
Finally, I want to close by summarising sabbath over the scope of Scripture.
- God created sabbath-rest at Creation. If it’s good enough for God we should not dismiss it too quickly.
- God codified the sabbath at Sinai.
- Jesus clarified the sabbath during his ministry removing the burdensome obligations and restoring its original purpose.
- The church looks forward to an eternal sabbath-rest with God. (Hebrews 3:16-4:13)
God’s intends for his people to experience rest. Yes, in this life we also participate in the mission of God, but we equip ourselves for that mission first through rest. Then we have eternal rest as the goal of God’s mission. That’s not to say eternity will promote laziness. God’s original design in the Garden of Eden included work for Adam and Eve. Rather, God’s promise provides relief from sin, and rest from turmoil and chaos.
For some additional reading, Jonathan Storment recently wrote a good blog post on the topic of sabbath that you can read HERE.
- This post is a lot longer than I usually write. Does it make sense to you, or am I just rambling?
- Does any particular point above resonate with you particularly strongly?
- How do you currently integrate sabbath-rest into your life? I’d love some examples!!