When you break down themes of sabbath as found in scripture, you could create a number of different categories. For now we’re going to look at Sabbath as Holy and Blessed, Sabbath as a Gift, Sabbath as a Command, Sabbath as Resistance, and Sabbath as a Matter of the Heart.
Let’s start off by making sure we’re on the same page by establishing some working definitions.
Sabbath → Shabbat : to stop. To cease.
Stop working, stop wanting, stop worrying. Stop, and rest.
Rest→ Anapausis: Intermission or cessation of labor; to cease working with the purpose of refreshing or recovering one’s strength.
Last time we established that Sabbath is a vital element of Christian discipleship. Continuing on that train of thought, how do we build a biblical case for this?
Biblical Theology of Sabbath
Genesis 2: Sabbath as Holy & Blessed
To start, we need to go back to the very beginning. The biblical concept of rest pre-dates Jesus and the 10 commandments and all of it… it literally started on day seven of creation. Genesis 2:1.
Some observations I made:
God Himself rested…
We see that sabbath doesn’t just mean stopping, but an intentional stopping and delighting
AND, He called the seventh day, this day of rest, HOLY…
What does it mean that He makes this day holy, or, set apart?
So, wait a minute… God actually CREATED rest? He created margin? He created this idea of set apart time that is meant to just be and abide and delight?
He sure did.
God, on the seventh day, built a rhythm into the fabric of creation that He intended for us to follow.
I find it important to also interject here and remind us that there is also an incredible theology of WORK in the bible, also starting at the creation story and vocation of mankind. God absolutely values hard work and created us to work, don’t mistake that…but He also created a rhythm of rest for our lives that far too many of us neglect.
Now in Genesis 1 God blesses 3 things: Animals, Humans, and Sabbath.
With the first two, the blessing is “a life giving ability to procreate.” To be fruitful and multiply.
What does this mean that God also blesses the Sabbath in this context? G.M Gomer would suggest that sabbath, just like animals and human-beings, has a life giving ability to fill your soul and the world itself up with more life. But only if we actually accept and honour this blessing.
“The Principle of First Mention”
The idea behind this hermeneutical term is that you go to the first place in the Bible where a word or phrase is introduced. This helps to bring definition, or clarity and context to the word as it stands in the remainder of scripture. It sets the tone or foundation for all future occurrences of the same term. A simple google search yields this definition: “The idea is that the first time it is mentioned will be the simplest, most understandable reference from which all others then build.” This is a tool I don’t pretend to fully understand, but I do find it a helpful way to guide the study of a word or theme. And you wouldn’t believe how almost every major theme finds its origins in the first few books of Genesis. So here’s what I found interesting…
Did you know that the first time the word holy is used in the Bible is right here in regards to the Sabbath? What does God make holy?
I also didn’t originally realize how significant this would have been to original readers. In the ancient middle east, the gods and goddesses were found in space, not in time. At a temple, on a mountain, in a shrine…The ancient form of worship was in this so-called ‘thin space’ in which you were higher to heaven and closer to the gods. In their culture it would have made more sense for God to declare a temple or mountain or some other space holy and dominating over all others. Instead… God makes a holy DAY.
The implications of this are so incredible that I can barely scratch the surface here. But you realize that if making something holy means to make it set apart, pure, consecrated, and sacred, then He was making time and rest itself something to be sacred. This is a profound reality that we’ve failed to grasp in today’s culture perhaps more than ever before.
This also means that for God, no single place is a dedicated holy space of worship (this was reinforced in the new covenant!!!) but rather the entire Creation is His temple. He is found less in the world of space, and more in the world of time…meaning that if you want to experience God you don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to a special temple. All you need to do is STOP. Rest. Abide. Listen. Delight.
Exodus 16: Sabbath as God’s Provision- A gift that was misunderstood.
I’d encourage you to take a read of this passage for yourself to get the full picture. But the main idea here is that after a few months of travelling through the desert since escaping from Egypt, Israel becomes discontent and disgruntled about their situation. They complain that it would have been better to die in Egypt than to be hungry. The Lord tells Moses that He will rain bread from heaven for them and that the people can go out daily to gather just enough as was needed for that day. On the sixth day they will gather twice as much as they normally would, then on the seventh they will not need to go out because they were already provided for the day before.
Here are a couple observations I made:
- They were each commanded to gather as much as they could eat. It wasn’t a pitiful ration that they had to hoard away to make sure they had enough food- No, they were given as much as they could eat. God did not intend for us to live from a scarcity mindset, but rather one of plenty.
- It was an individual thing. Not every person was given the same amount, because each one has different needs based upon age, size, work, etc.
- Israel was commanded to not leave anything over until the morning…this would be an act of distrust, hoarding as if they will not receive what they need the next day. Those who hoarded away leftovers ended up with rotten food in the morning as punishment for their unbelief.
- The one day they were allowed to save leftovers was on the sixth day. The intention was that on the seventh day they should not be going out and labouring and gathering, but simply resting and taking of that which had already been provided.
- Some of the people still went out on the seventh day to gather food and they were rebuked yet again for their disobedience in not honouring this day that was meant to be set apart.
- There’s nothing coincidental about the fact that the provision God sent to them was bread. We follow this thread all the way to the new testament where the bread being provided is now Christ- the Bread of Life- and like Israel in the wilderness we need to receive from His nourishment daily.
Exodus 20: Sabbath as a Command
The Ten Commandments are given to Israel and, low and behold, the fourth commandment is to remember the Sabbath
That word remember in Hebrew (pronounced Zakar) means to bring back into your active memory.
The way memory recall works is that your brain essentially takes something from your long-term storage to your working memory. During recall, the brain “replays” a pattern of neural activity that was originally generated in response to a particular event or phrase. Isn’t it also so interesting that after something is recalled to your active memory, it’s then re-stored back in long term memory, reconsolidating and strengthening it?? Think about the implications of this…
By asking them to remember, God is asking them to take a reality from the past that is to give shape to their behavior and their life in the moment.
And each time they remember, they are growing stronger in their ability to practice that which they’ve drawn back to their working memory.
So…remember it how?
By keeping it holy. It’s already holy, don’t profane it. To profane means to make secular, or to defile or unsanctify, to disrespect, or to be irreverent.
The Sabbath here is clearly not the same as ‘a day off’. A day off is something that anyone, Christ-follower or not, can practice. Over and over we see these words… “a day TO the Lord…holy…set apart”
Notice that the sabbath is both a command and a gift… Do we sometimes have the tendency to see commands as being negative or forced, rather than recognizing that they are often gifts? Things that are actually in our best interest?
I don’t know about you, but I never used to really pay attention to the commandment of sabbath. Here’s some things I read and found interesting…
- If you pie graphed the commandments and what God says about all of them, sabbath would take up close to 40% of the 10.
- Did you know that when most christians recite the 10 commandments, sabbath is the one they miss? (I was literally guilty of this myself a couple years ago when sitting in a group bible study and asked if we could remember all of the commandments)
- Isn’t it also interesting that sabbath is the 4th command…acting as a bridge between the first 3 (that focus on our relationship to God) and the last 6 (that are all about our relationship with our neighbours). Is that coincidental?
- Out of ALL of the practices of spiritual disciplines- prayer, reading of scripture, ordinances, etc- sabbath is the only one commanded as part of the Ten Commandments
There’s all sorts of debate about whether or not followers of Jesus NEED to keep the sabbath now. Is it part of the new testament covenant? Is it still a command binding on us or not? Many scholars argue that no, while it was part of the Torah for Israel there’s no command in the new testament to practice the sabbath. Now we have the Lord’s day (and there are commands around that as a Church) and we live from a “spirit of restfulness” all week long because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. This is the majority position.
On the flip side…
It’s one of the Ten Commandments. Have any of the others changed or been abolished? If the other nine are not in question now, why would this one be?
Jesus was also an adamant practitioner of the Sabbath- He never broke the command of Sabbath. He broke the mishnah, but not the command of sabbath. He never said anything to abdicate or annul the sabbath.
It is also the one command that is rooted in the Genesis story… The more you pay attention to the first couple chapters of Genesis, the more you’ll realize that here lie the foundations of nearly every other significant theme and theology expanded upon in the rest of scripture. There may be changes to the way a command or theme play out post-resurrection of Jesus, but they are not annulled, rather perfected. We’ll get more into that later.
Even if you can’t figure out which of these camps you lie in, the fact remains that God still created rest to be a rhythm of His creation… it is something very GOOD and very holy for us to participate in. Fighting about whether or not we have to keep the law of Sabbath is crazy… we neglect it at our own peril.
Deuteronomy 5: Sabbath as resistance
In Deuteronomy (chapter 5) we run into a command for sabbath again, yet with slight changes from the first time we read it in Exodus. Remember that the Exodus 20 command was to “Mom and Dad” generation, fresh out of slavery. Deuteronomy is now being commanded to their children who have had zero lived experience of the slavery they hear about and are far removed from, other than stories they’ve heard. This is now 40 years later. Not on the mountain of Sinai, but on the edge of the Jordan river. Moses now gathers them together and retells part of the Torah to them.
Is it the same? No it’s slightly different. There are two changes to the sabbath command in Deuteronomy from Exodus:
- The first word is changed from remember to observe (shamar: keep, watch over, guard…) This word would be used in relation to celebrating something such as a ceremony, a custom, or a holiday. It also has undertones of obedience (ex. observing the speed limit). You might not think this was a significant or intentional difference, but it really was. One thing that evidenced this was the Kiddush ceremony that would continue to be celebrated in Jewish generations to follow. This was a ceremony blessing Shabbat, and during it the mother would light 2 candles and ask the children what they symbolize: remember and observe. There was also discussion and ‘activities’ differentiating how to remember versus observe sabbath and the story of Israel leading to both commands. Interesting, right?
- At the end of Deuteronomy 5 verse 14 the command gets changed to: “so that your male and female servant may rest, just as you do. Remember that you were slaves in egypt, and that YHWH your God brought you out of there.”
I love how Pastor Gomer contrasts the differences:
In Exodus this command is rooted in the creation story.
In Deuteronomy it’s grounded in the story of the Exodus… “remember you were slaves.”
In Exodus at Mt. Sinai the command is about rhythm.
At the Jordan River, it’s about resistance.
At Sinai it’s an invitation to delight in God and His world and your life in it…
At the Jordan it’s a stark warning to never go back to Egypt or its ways.
At Sinai the sabbath is this life-giving thing to tap into for soul health and the health of your community at large.
At the Jordan it’s a protest against Pharaoh and his empire and all it stands for and represents.
The second command, the one to observe sabbath, becomes a command about resisting.
How does the story of slavery in Egypt help us understand what it is that they are being commanded to resist?
Remember. Not just where you came from and how good you have it now…but remember you are no longer SLAVES. Remember that you live in a new kingdom under a new king. You have a new identity as an image bearer of God, not to be confused with the culture around you. There’s no quota or taskmaster to beat you… you are free. This has literal implications for the tribes of Israel and their immediate ancestors, but metaphorical implications for us today.
Resist. But also, remember that YOU are not to become a slave-driver and further perpetuate this cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. There are social justice themes here that have incredible implications. In our own pursuit of living and resting as God commanded, we are called to ensure that we don’t also go back to an “Egypt way of life”. It’s so easy to get sucked into the whole Egypt empire system if we don’t resist. That’s why Sabbath is an act of resistance. A rebellion against Egypt and its system. Saying enough. Enough work, enough striving, enough ‘more’, enough consumerism, enough production, enough accomplishment. Enough accomplishment at the expense of others.
Gomer goes on to comment on the way Israel’s slavery speaks to our current Christianity…
“The Sabbath tells a subversive story to that of the Empire– be it Egypt, or Babylon, or Nazi Germany or our own- -a story that says, no matter what other people say or do to you, we are image-bearers of God. We are not slaves, we are not sub-human…we are made in the image of God, and we were created for a rhythm of work and rest. This is the subversive story that keeps the people of God from getting sucked into a secular or pagan host culture. Sabbath was, for ancient Israel, and still is, a line in the sand. A way of saying we will never go back. We will never go back to Egypt, we will never become Egypt…we and those with us will remain free. We now need this practice- this line in the sand- more than ever before. Because Pharaoh is alive and well, and so his system…merely manifesting itself differently with each generation.”
How true is this? Now perhaps more than ever before we live in a global, economic system of MORE that is built off of injustice. We’re blind to it. We choose to be ignorant because it’s easier than knowing the cost behind our lifestyles.
These themes of resistance and social justice underlying sabbath are huge. I encourage you to look more into the year of jubilee and the ways that even their farming and land were under rules of sabbath- it’s fascinating. I didn’t end up having time to dig into that one as much as I would have liked to, but it’s also a huge part of this theme of sabbath.
In Nehemiah 13 we also see an example of how sabbath law adapted as an act of cultural resistance. In the Torah there’s no command to not ‘shop’ or ‘trade’ on the sabbath. But later, because of pagan cultural influences of trading on sabbath, the infiltration caused profaning of the sabbath. Nehemiah warned the people against this. Shift in culture led to a shift also in sabbath law. And notice how seriously Nehemiah took this… He went as far as to lock the city gates and put armed guards outside to try to prevent the profaning of the sabbath.
Sabbath is not only an act of resistance against Pharaoh and his system, but an act of alignment with Yahweh and His.
Jesus and the New Testament
What you’ll notice in the New Testament is that Sabbath takes on a slightly different face yet again. You’ll remember that previously I mentioned that Jesus never broke the command of sabbath, but rather the mishnah. The mishnah was the written collection of jewish oral tradition that essentially accompanied the written law originally given to the people. There were numerous intentions, one of which was to guide the people more specifically in their observation of various commands- including sabbath. A current day example of this- as weak as it might be- is if you tell your children that they all need to clean their rooms. The command is to clean the room, but more specific guidelines and examples may be necessary to ensure that each child knows what entails a clean room. What’s important to recognize here though is that our human added guidelines and interpretations of commands can be imperfect, or could have a tendency to become legalistic.
In the Gospel Accounts we see several examples where Jesus was criticized or rebuked by the Pharisees for dishonouring the Sabbath. But the reality is that Jesus is showing them a new way of understanding sabbath and the real heart behind it. It had morphed into more of a list of do’s and don’ts, and the heart of it was lost in the process.
Jesus had a tendency to often surprise His disciples and the crowds He spoke to, by “levelling up” commands they knew from the Old Testament. Here are a few examples of what I mean by this…
Do not murder → Do not hate. Hate is murder in the heart.
Do not commit adultery → Do not lust. Lusting after someone is committing adultery in your heart.
Have no other gods before Me → Even loving something more than me is idolatry
Keep the sabbath day holy → … what now?
Notice that all of these “levelled up” commands have an element of heart to them?
I think what Jesus was trying to teach us is that sabbath is much more than a day; and yet, also not less than a day. What do I mean by that?
Firstly, it can’t be restricted to a day and precise laws of what can and cannot be done on that day. In Hebrews 4 we read, “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works [labor, toil], just as God did from His. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest”. The sabbath rest the author indicates here is not merely a day of the week, rather a new way of living every day of the week. Before this passage in Hebrews 4 the author also says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t be like the Israelites who had a path forward to this rest but were always on the wrong side of it. It was available to them, but because of their disobedience they did not get to experience it. Don’t be like the Israelites!” He’s referencing back to the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for far longer than they should have, an entire generation not even entering into the promised land (rest) because they were disobedient, rebellious, and did not have faith in their God.
That promised rest is available to us too. A life that ceases striving, rushing, ‘achieving’ and trying to “be” by “doing”. No longer trying to live out of self effort and power, but rather by the grace– the enabling power– of God. A life of abiding.
It’s one thing to hear and know about the rest He offers, but it’s another to obey and experience the rest He offers. Once again, Sabbath is more than just a DAY. It is a way of being in the world. It is a spirit of restfulness that comes from living in the Father’s loving presence all week long.
Secondly, while sabbath can no longer be restricted to rigid thinking about how one day per week should be observed, there is also much value in observing one day per week. Practicing rhythms of rest in a set apart way on one day of the week.
This topic alone is so big that I couldn’t reduce it to a few sentences of explanation, so we’re going to move into the next part of this series by talking about what it looks like to actually practice a sabbath day each week.
Lastly, we look to the death and resurrection of Jesus and find that the true fulfilment and perfection of sabbath happens in Him. My brother in law, Tony Zerbin, shared the following with me on the topic:
“With Christ’s Crucifixion on the Friday (John 19:31; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54), and His resurrection on the third day which we refer to as Sunday and scripture notes as the day after the sabbath (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1), we see that the only full day of the three days that Christ spent in the tomb was, in fact, the Sabbath. And in this way, Christ fulfilled the Sabbath as a day of rest (Luke 23:56; cf. Ex 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), from which all sabbaths derive their quality of rest. When Christ proclaimed upon the cross, “it is finished!” (John 19:30; cf Gen 2:2-3), His work was completed. And as He rested, we rest. We find out identity in Him (Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 13:4). Our kingdom life, in all ways, is derivative of the Life of our King. We are because He is; we do because He Does.”
Sabbath, in essence, is a release. Releasing us from something and for something. The rest that Christ fulfilled in His death and resurrection releases us from striving and achieving and working as a means of our identity. We are released for abundant life in Christ, finding our beingness in Him and producing only that which He produces in and through us. We practice a day that is set apart for remembering and observing this rest, but then also let that day powerfully flow into the rest of our week, shaping and informing our daily rhythms.
I find this the perfect place to wrap up a biblical framework of sabbath, from the beginning to the end of the Bible. We explored the themes of sabbath as holy and blessed, a misunderstood gift and a test of our faith in God’s faithful provision, a command, an act of resistance, a matter of the heart, and perfectly fulfilled in Christ. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring this original design of sabbath rest to perfect fulfillment. So it’s now to Christ that we look to as we further consider the practice of sabbath both as a day, and as a daily rhythm.
Whew! That was a long one. And intense. If you’re tired after that one, I’m with you. Don’t stop now though, I promise the next two parts are easier reads and super practical, not to mention beneficial! See you on the next post.