HONORING THE SABBATH
Written by Doug Ponder on March 8, 2015
Keeping the Sabbath has been called “the most ignored commandment.” It is almost certainly the most misunderstood (which is really saying something, since most of God’s commandments are badly misunderstood).
Indeed the command to keep the Sabbath is probably ignored, in part, because it is so misunderstood. What is it? Why was it given? Who was it given for?
What Is the Sabbath?
The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word that means “rest” or “ceasing.” The idea for the Sabbath comes from the pattern of God’s work in creation. “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth… but he rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11).
When Moses (the author of that part of the Bible) says that God “rested,” he doesn’t mean that God sat down because he needed to catch his breath. To “rest from your work” means to cease working (which is why the word Sabbath can mean either rest or cease).
So the Sabbath is a day on which God commands us to rest. Why does God does this? What does he care about our weekly schedule?
Why Did God Make the Sabbath?
There are many reasons why God created the Sabbath as a day of rest, and all of them are aimed at blessing his people.
1. To Strengthen Our Trust in Him
Discussions about the Sabbath quickly gravitate toward the basic human need for rest. It’s true that we need rest, but that assertion misses the point. Humans need rest because God designed us to need rest. He did not “have to” create us that way; he chose to for a reason, namely, the Sabbath is meant to remind us of our smallness, our weakness, and our need to depend on God in all things.
When we lay our heads down each night, we are reminded that God is God and we are not. Though he never sleeps (Ps. 121:4), we cannot live without it. More than this, each night we go to sleep we are forced to trust that whatever projects or tasks we left undone will still be waiting for us in the morning. In a similar way, the Sabbath is God’s invitation to consciously refrain from our labor as we entrust all of our lives to his sustaining care and gracious provision. We can rest, because we know that God will take care of us.
2. To Promote Justice among His People
We have seen that the heart of the command to honor the Sabbath is the necessity of resting from our work. But what counts as work? Cleaning the house? Paying a bill? These may seem like odd questions, but traditional Jews still debate them today. You are not allowed to cook on the Sabbath, which includes taking your food out of the microwave. You are not allowed to operate machinery either, so special elevators exist in Israel that move without your pressing a button—for that would be work. The elevators systematically rise and lower, floor by floor, until you arrive at your destination. These are odd examples, but they illustrate an important point: God did not give us the Sabbath as a matter of legalistic nitpicking, but as a matter of justice.
The people who stood the most to gain from “not resting” on the Sabbath were actually wealthy landowners, whose workers needed a day of rest far more than they did. That is why God says, “Neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns” (Ex. 20:10). Thus God gave the Sabbath as a way to protect his people from abusing and mistreating each other. Though our society is no longer agrarian, we have laws in our land that follow the justice-promoting ideals of the Sabbath, limiting the number of hours that any company can force an employee to work in a given week.
3. To Reorient Our Lives around Him
God also gives us the Sabbath as a day to set aside for reflection and worship. “But,” some say, “All of life can be an act of worship (Rom. 12:1), so isn’t it superfluous to set aside an entire day for what we’re supposed to do daily?” Of course not. That question makes as much sense as two lovers saying, “There is no need for us to go on dates or give gifts to each other, since we are supposed to be showing our love for each other all the time.”
Because we were made for God, anything else at the center of our lives—even really good things—only brings frustration, heartache, confusion, and chaos into our lives. The word for having-anything-other-than-God-at-the-center-of-our-lives is idolatry, which means to treat something with the kind of reverence, fear, devotion, love, and commitment that should be given to God alone. To be human is have an idol-factory for a heart. We can’t help it—but God can. He gives his people the Sabbath so that we can meet together for the preaching of the gospel, for the celebration of baptism and communion, for the collective singing of truths too wonderful for words alone, and for prayer. These Sabbath activities are tools in the Redeemer’s hands, used by him to set us free from slavery to sinful idolatry and to reorient our lives around him.
4. To Increase Our Gratitude for His Grace
The last reason God has given us the Sabbath is so we might grow in our appreciation of his grace. I firmly believe that this element is one of the major missing components in most people’s view of the Sabbath, and that explains why we continue to misunderstand what the Sabbath is for.
Because Sabbath means “ceasing from work,” people too often think of Sabbath as a fast. The biblical idea of Sabbath, however, is more like a feast. It’s true that we “fast” from our labors, but we do not fast for the sake of fasting. We cease from one thing in order to replace it with something else. In this case, we cease from work in order to replace it with celebration.
In the Old Testament, there was only one day in the year when God’s people were instructed to ‘deny themselves’ and present offerings to the Lord (Lev. 23:27). All others days on the public calendar for God’s people were feast days. To state the obvious: the coming of Jesus has not led us into a greater period of mourning and self-affliction, but one of greater rejoicing. The promised Messiah has come and did what God said he would do. Therefore, God’s people should live like that’s true. This means Sabbaths at your house should probably include more steak and more wine and more dessert and more music and more laughter—for starters. The world is full of God’s grace, for every gift comes from him (Jas. 1:17), all of them undeserved. And that’s the point: graced is not designed to make us feel guilty; it’s designed to make us grateful (Col. 3:17). The same should be true of the Sabbath. It is one of the chief reasons God has given it to us.
Who Is the Sabbath for?
Lastly, the question, “Who is the Sabbath for?” attempts to understand the New Covenant church’s relationship to the laws of the Old Covenant. In other words, is the command to keep the Sabbath still valid for Christians, or was it just for Israel? There are three basic ways that this question has been answered.
1. Abolished – Some believe the command to keep the Sabbath has been completely abolished along with other ceremonial laws that were given to Israel for a specific place and time. The church is no longer bound by these laws, they say.
2. Preserved – Others argue that the Sabbath remains binding for Christians exactly as it was originally given, and that therefore all Christians should rest and worship on Saturday, the “true” Sabbath.
3. Fulfilled and Transformed – Finally, some argue—as do I—that the Sabbath law of the Old Testament has been fulfilled and transformed.
God’s people no longer worship on Saturday because something so monumental happened on Sunday that Christians began calling it “the Lord’s Day” even before the completion of the New Testament (Rev 1:10). That “something” was the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
His resurrection (and his death that preceded it) brought God’s people into a state of “eternal rest,” free from their strivings to earn God’s favor (Heb. 4:8-10). In this way, Jesus himself fulfilled the deepest purpose of the Sabbath, just as he fulfilled the whole law (Matt. 5:17). That is why the command to keep the Sabbath has been transformed. We no longer keep a day of rest looking for the “rest to come,” for God’s eternal rest has come to us in Jesus. Because of him, God now invites us every Sunday to turn our rest into rejoicing. That’s what it means to keep the Sabbath.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.