We’ve all heard it before. We learned it in Sunday School. We’ve heard it preached from the pulpit. You’ve probably read it in your personal Bible study time. It’s something we always hear but rarely give much thought to. It’s the classic commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
Like I said, we’ve all heard this a lot. Maybe we’ve heard it so many times that we don’t really take it seriously anymore. But isn’t that a problem? The Sabbath is something that’s mentioned throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New. It’s mentioned over and over again, and yet for some reason, the fact that it comes up so often makes us take it less seriously. I’ve been guilty of this, too. For my blog post this week, I want to take a serious look at the Sabbath and what I think it means in the Christian life.
The Sabbath, or day of rest, has its roots all the way back in Genesis 2. After spending six days creating the earth, God rested on the seventh, creating the seven-day week cycle and setting the seventh day apart as holy. One might wonder why God rested on the seventh day. Was God tired after six days of creation? Does God have a limited amount of energy that has to be replenished? Of course not. God did not rest for His own sake. He rested in order to set a precedent for us. Six days of work followed by one day of rest. That was how God structured the first week, and that’s how He meant for us to structure our weeks, too.
The Sabbath became an official rule after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to Mount Sinai. There Moses received the Ten Commandments (among many other laws). One of the “big ten” concerns the treatment of the Sabbath day. You can read the full commandment in Exodus 20:8–11. These verses present a pretty clear image of what the Sabbath was supposed to be for the Israelites and why. God commanded them (through Moses) to avoid working on the seventh day of each week. Why? Because that is what God did when He created the earth. It seems simple enough. But the Israelites immediately struggled with it.
Exodus 16 tells us that while the children of Israel were wondering in the wilderness, God provided bread for them from heaven. Every morning when they walked out of their tents, they would see an abundance of bread on the ground for them to gather and eat. They were supposed to gather each morning only what they needed for that day, and on the sixth day of the week, they were supposed to gather double so they wouldn’t have to gather on the Sabbath. They weren’t even supposed to cook on the Sabbath. But many people disobeyed and tried to gather food on the Sabbath day only to find that there wasn’t any. God became angry with the Israelites because they didn’t respect the commandment He had given them.
The Sabbath is obviously something that God takes very seriously. He wants us to take a day of rest each week not only because He told us to but because He knows that it is what’s best for us. Our bodies and minds need some time off, especially in our day and age where we are bombarded with information and stressors left and right. We need a Sabbath in order to stay optimally healthy and energized so that we can continue living the lives that God has for us. But practicing the Sabbath has been tricky from the very first time God commanded it, and it hasn’t gotten much easier since then.
Jesus dealt with all the messiness associated with the Sabbath day on several occasions. By Jesus’ time, the religious leaders had come up with a long list of rules for the Sabbath in an attempt to make it easier observe. But instead of helping people obey God’s commandments, these rules actually just privileged man’s ideas over God’s. There were rules like how many steps one was allowed to take on the Sabbath day, and people were ridiculed if they broke these rules. That’s not observing the Sabbath. The rule may have originally been well-intended, but the Sabbath isn’t about making sure you follow a list of rules. It’s about putting all the lists away and allowing yourself to find rest in the God who created Sabbath in the first place.
Jesus made this clear in Matthew 12. His disciples were being ridiculed by the Pharisees (Jewish leaders) for plucking grain on the Sabbath, but Jesus didn’t rebuke them. He stood up for them. He said, “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:7–8). Jesus told the Pharisees that the Sabbath isn’t about following man-made rules. God made the Sabbath, and He decides what is appropriate to do on the Sabbath and what isn’t. Jesus drove the point home by going to the synagogue and healing a man’s withered hand, another activity prohibited on the Sabbath.
It’s not that Jesus didn’t respect the Sabbath. He was a Jew, after all. He just didn’t feel the need to follow man-made rules (sometimes referred to as “tradition”) that tried to set themselves equal with God’s commandments. Jesus understood the meaning being the Sabbath, and He lived it out. We know that Jesus regularly took time for rest and prayer. Just like in everything else, He is our ultimate example of how we should treat the Sabbath.
We seem to live in a society that is completely incompatible with the idea of the Sabbath day. We generally work five days a week and spend the other two days trying to accomplish all the stuff we put off during the week and maybe squeezing in a little bit of recreation. We have regular worship, but it’s not even on the seventh day of the week. And a lot of people don’t have control over their work schedules, which often require them to work on Sunday, the day that in our society sort of resembles a Sabbath. So what are we to do? Should we just give up on the Sabbath completely?
The answer to that question is no. Of course not. Scripture makes it very clear that the Sabbath is important to God, and it should be important to us, too. So then the question becomes, “How does one observe the Sabbath in this crazy, hectic, non-Sabbath-friendly world?”
I think the answer is simple. We have to make time for rest. To put away all the tasks and stressors and everything else and just spend time giving ourselves a break. To spend time with God and find rest in who He is. That’s Sabbath, and that’s something we all need on a regular basis.
Originally, the Sabbath was on Saturday, but Christians moved it to Sunday to be in line with the day of Jesus’ resurrection. That’s fine. I don’t think the day matters so much as the act of doing it. If you have to work on Sunday, don’t feel bad. Do what you can with the situation that you’re in, but make sure that you’re consistently taking time to rest like God commanded us to.
The Sabbath is also a day for worshipping God. I think this is combined with rest for a reason. Worshipping God is a great way to connect deeply with Him, realign our minds with His purposes, and feel that energy that you can only feel when you’re worshipping God. Worship combined with rest gets us ready for upcoming week so that be at our peak mentally, physically, and spiritualy as we go out and live for Him.
There’s one more thing I want to say about the Sabbath, and then I’ll be done. Right before He healed the man with the withered hand in Matthew 12, Jesus said, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). I think what he meant there is that it’s OK to do work on the Sabbath as long as it’s something God has called you to do. Pastors, for example, work very hard on the Sabbath. Putting on a church service takes work from countless volunteers. There’s nothing wrong with doing the Lord’s work on the Sabbath. Just like any other day, if God is calling you to do something on the Sabbath, do it. Don’t let someone else’s “traditional” (i.e., man-made) beliefs about the Sabbath keep you from doing the Lord’s work.
My curiosity about the Sabbath came from a personal struggle I had, and I think this struggles pretty well sums up my thoughts on the Sabbath. It all started last week when I decided to start running on a regular basis. I told myself I would do it seven days a week just to keep the routine going. But then I got to thinking about the Sabbath. Should I exercise on Sundays? I mean, I’m trying to take care of my body, which is something I feel like God has been calling me to do. But then again, my body could probably use a break after six days of running. I decided to skip running on Sundays and instead use that time for Bible study, meditation, and simply resting in the Lord. But that’s not to say I would ever judge anyone for exercising on the Sabbath if that’s they feel like God is calling them to do. The Sabbath is going to look a little bit different for each of us, but as long as we’re all taking time to rest and spend some quality time with God, I think we’re living up to what He has called us to do on the Sabbath.