Are we supposed to keep Sabbath? If so why? And how are we to do it? I believe we are. Sabbath is command and more than command, it is gift. Heschel, one of the preeminent scholars of Sabbath believes it is holier as something given by God than ancient festivals, than law, than any other gift. “The Sabbath is all holiness,” he says.[ii] But don’t take his word for it, or mine.
Genesis 2:3: “God blessed the seventh day and [made it holy], because on that day God rested from all the work he had done in creation.” To that point, God had been intentional in his order and in the product as he made the world. He created all and with each act of creation Genesis says, “God saw that it was good.”
Then, God made human beings. Men and women were created in the image of God. Men and women were blessed and told to fill the earth through procreation and to subdue the earth as God’s regents on the earth. When God had made human beings and clearly blessed human beings then he was done. Once humans had been given their responsibility to manage God’s creation and enjoy God’s creation, then God saw that it was not just good, but “very good.”
Creation reached its climax on the seventh day. God had made such a perfect world; He did not need to do any more. There was nothing else to be created. God did not need to micromanage what had been made. All was right. The world was in a state of peace. Better still, the world was in a state of shalom. Creation reached its goal on the seventh day and God established the seventh day as a holy day.
Thus we see that Sabbath comes from God. Sabbath comes from the very beginning. And Sabbath is central in God’s vision for us, for creation. As far as we can tell, Jesus and the Apostle Paul both were Sabbath-observant Jews. Jesus did not reject Sabbath, only the abuse of it. Paul did not do away with Sabbath. He objected to the idea that Sabbath-keeping in accordance with the cumbersome rules Jesus opposed was more important for salvation than faith in Jesus. Paul did much of his most effective evangelizing on Sabbath days in the house of worship, the synagogue. God started Sabbath. Jesus, God in the flesh, kept Sabbath and taught the truth on Sabbath, and Paul shared Jesus on Sabbath.
In our own Sabbath observance, as we live our Christianity in a fast-paced, computer age, we see that whatever we do must honor God and seek Him. If we are thinking of ways we can keep Sabbath time, whether it is Saturday, Sunday, or another time, we must set aside a particular time to honor God in a unique, Sabbath way, and we must seek him and share the good news of His salvation.
Last week, in introducing this block of discussion on Sabbath, I said that Jesus gives us a new day, a new rhythm, and rest. Someone turned in to me a very wise note reminding me that God has always been merciful, and that from the very beginning God gave Sabbath rest as a gift. I appreciated that feedback immensely. Building on that, I must say that the New Testament God is not a kinder, gentler replacement for the harsh Old Testament God. God is God and always has been. First John chapter says God is love. God has always been love. In the Old Testament God’s hatred of sin is painfully clear. God hates sin just as much today, and sin is punished, in time in this life, and in eternity in Hell.
I do think Jesus brought something new in God coming in human flesh. I do think Jesus ushered in a new way of knowing God and being in relationship with God. But what I appreciate about what was written on the note was the suggestion that as much Jesus is new, Jesus is a return to the original. The new rhythm Jesus brings is the rhythm God originally intended for human beings in the creation.
Now, we’ve said Sabbath is from God, comes at the beginning, and for that reason is central in God’s vision for us and for creation, which belongs to Him and comes from Him. Because of the centrality of it, we must keep Sabbath and in doing so we must honor God, seek God, and share the good news of salvation. In looking a bit longer at Genesis 1 & 2, what can we learn about this gift of Sabbath rest that God has always intended for us to enjoy?
It is a day set apart, different from other days. I am in two of the small groups discussing Sabbath and I have posed the question, which you might think about now. As you grew up, if your family treated Sunday as Sabbath, then how was Sunday different? In some cases, people said other than attending church, Sunday was like any other day. In other families, Sunday was different. There were activities or prohibited activities that set Sunday apart.
In my own case, I remember, ironically, that when I was in high school, Sunday was the only day I worked. Monday through Friday was school and football. Saturday was church youth group activities. Sunday night was also church youth group. And Sundays from noon until 5, I was a bus boy at a restaurant. I had no Sabbath time. And my relationship with God suffered for that. I had a relationship with God, for sure. But it was not what it could have been because I wasn’t giving God all of me, and I wasn’t honoring God as I could if I had set time aside to do so.
Setting time apart for God is an act of faith. We admit that our activity doesn’t keep the universe going. God is the sustainer, not us. It is trust. We trust that if God could rest and things would be ok, then we can rest. To refuse to take Sabbath is ultimately hubris.
Well, our world is more complicated than when God created in the beginning. That was a simpler time. Please! God is bigger than all that is around us. God is more important the things that fill our lives.
In keeping a Sabbath that is focused on God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – we experience the wholeness, the rest, the peace that in Hebrew is called Shalom and we have Shalom in a way that only can be known on Sabbath.
Thus in addition to practicing Sabbath so that God is honored, sought, and shared, our Sabbath must be unique. Whatever activities we pursue – worship, a walk in the woods, a special time of prayer, the simple enjoyment of nature – it should be unique, only done quite that way on Sabbath. Yes, we worship at other times, and we walk in the woods and pray and enjoy nature and slow our pace and light candles – we do all those things at many times during the week. But there should be a uniqueness that announces we are entering Sabbath time.
The notion of Sabbath, a time set apart that Christians celebrate with a focus on the Father, on Jesus, and in communion with the Holy Spirit, began in our origins. When we keep Sabbath we are directed to and prepared for our eternity. Sabbath is where Genesis 1 & 2 meets Revelation 21 & 22, the very beginning and very end of the Bible. Genesis describes the origin and Revelation, after the final victory of Jesus and final judgment of all describes the destination.
In Revelation 21-22, we read about the New Jerusalem and the New Heaven and New Earth where the perfect city is juxtaposed with the perfect garden and perfection in nature. It is where we are headed. Scholar Walter Bruegemann writes that Sabbath is the affirmation that God is at work to bring creation to His purpose and that Sabbath, and I would add the shalom we have in Christ when we keep Sabbath, is the goal of life.[iii] His comments are on Genesis 1, but they lead to the conclusion in Revelation 21-22.
The same directional arc of history is seen in Romans 8. Paul writes,
“The creations waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but of the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until know, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (v.19-23).
Paul is talking about freedom from sin.. He’s not talking about Sabbath.
The freedom he mentions was present on the original seventh day in Genesis 2 before sin came and that freedom, which like peace and love and blessing and wholeness is a part of Shalom, is where the redeemed in Jesus are headed in eternity. In Sabbath keeping we get a little glimpse of Heaven, what it might be like. Why? We are closer to God, and we relinquish control of our well-being to God; he determines our wellness.
Our Sabbath points to a life lived in good relationships. Meeting Jesus in Sabbath changes who we are in this world as we wait for our redemption. So our Sabbath-keeping must be communal, with others, and must anticipate where we are headed when our earthly life is up.
In Sabbath practices, we enjoy nature; we worship and pray; and we do it with other people. Slow-cooked meals for large group are a Sabbath possibility. Even if the group is small, a group is good. Sabbath is not a time for fasting or solitude. It is a time to honor God and seek and share God; it is a unique and we should approach it as such. No other time is what Sabbath time is: time for relationship – us with God and with one another. We won’t be alone in Heaven and we should not be alone on Sabbath. From our origins when God created, to life with Jesus, to life now, lived in the Holy Spirit, to eternity in the New Jerusalem, we are called God, and our best experience with God includes that which he makes holy, the Sabbath.
[i]Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1951), p.82
[iii]Bruegemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis (John Knox Press, Atlanta), p.38.