Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 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)
Sometimes it feels like my work is never finished. In my job, the list of daily tasks often seems like a two or three-day list, to say nothing of larger projects that come up from time to time. At home it’s no better: Beds always have to be made, dishes always have to be washed, and where am I going to find the time to clean out the garage or paint the ceiling?
To take a day completely off sounds crazy. Two days a week, I don’t have to go to work—but I consider all I might get done around the house. And one of those days, I’m supposed to do nothing?
The Purpose of Sabbath
Not exactly. Sabbath is not about laziness or being a leech. The commandment to rest one day includes a directive to work for six. We are created to work: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).
We are also commanded to work, not only in Exodus but also in the New Testament:
If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. (2 Thessalonians 3:10b-12)
But we are also created for rest. Mankind is made in the image of God, and God rested, therefore we are also to rest. God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. To be holy means more than just “perfect.” It also means to be set apart, not to be like other people, places, or things.
The people of God are holy—we are set apart. The Temple was holy. It was not like other places. Just so, Sabbath is holy. It is not to be like other days.
Sometimes we can think of Sabbath as a prison. Can’t do this, can’t do that, can’t go there. But we need to understand that Sabbath is a beautiful gift from God, not a cruel burden that keeps us from enjoying life. Restriction is necessary, but is not the point in itself. If we take a Sabbath day, but do not place restrictions on our activity, we will soon not have a Sabbath at all. Either we will slip back into the habit of working every day, or we will make it about our own pleasures, rather than about rest, spiritual renewal, and worship.
To persons looking from the outside—Jew or Gentile—the Sabbath might appear to be restrictive….Yet experienced from within, it is just the reverse. It serves as a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation. It is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy and spiritual uplift, accompanied by song and cheer….It is not without reason that the Midrashic description of the eternal Paradise, of the world to come, is that of one long extended, unending, eternal Sabbath day… (Rabbi Hayim Donin)
Sabbath is a reflection of the world to come, when there will be no more sin, no more death, no more striving.
The Practice of Sabbath
So what is to be done on a Sabbath? In a word, worship. Worship through the gathering of believers, through music, through study of God’s word. Enjoy the beautiful world he made and worship him as creator. Worship through loving other people and spending time with them, cultivating relationships. This should be a time of joy, of focus on God, a time of freedom from all the concerns that dog us throughout the week.
We need to acknowledge that while work is important, it is not work that sustains us, nor gives our lives meaning. God sustains. God provides. Our lives do not depend on our jobs, our paychecks, our upward mobility, or any other material thing. If you think you don’t have time for a Sabbath, then you probably really need one!
Trust God with your time and with your work. Do not think that everything will fall apart if you take a day off. Perhaps you need help from another person or from your community of believers. Sabbath in the Bible was most definitely observed communally and not just individually.
The Person of Sabbath
There is yet another area in which we need rest. Sin is a tremendous burden. When I look at my life and consider all of the many ways in which I fail to live up to God’s standard, all the ways my life does not reflect that of Jesus Christ, the weight is crushing. I could easily look at my life and think that God must see me as nothing but a big disappointment.
Consider what a relief it is to pay off a debt. Whether it’s a car, a credit card, a mortgage, or a student loan, a burden is lifted. Debt consolidation may be an option for some people, but that can also damage your credit rating, making it difficult to get another loan in the future.
In Christ, all our debts, past, present, and future, are consolidated and paid. We will never owe again. That kind of rest will never exist in the world of finance, but that is what Jesus offers to our souls. He says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
What a simple and glorious promise this is! This promise takes us right to the heart of the gospel message. We find rest for our troubled souls in him. The Law of God represents a tremendous debt that I owe because I have broken every single commandment there is. And Jesus said that not one stroke of the Law would pass away. But he also said that he would fulfill it!
Because I have believed in Jesus Christ, his righteousness is credited to my account. That is the truth of the gospel: The debt has not merely been cancelled, it has been paid in full! The Law is not abolished, it is fulfilled in Christ. He is our Sabbath.