Last week, we began looking at the Sabbath and we observed the three patterns of rest that God established: daily sleep, weekly Sabbath, and the Sabbath year for the land. (REST) They all point to our need for rest and illustrate the contrast between our mortal bodies of flesh and the immortal spirit that is our God. Our conclusion was that it devoting a day unto God is a good idea, that it’s to our benefit, and that it will benefit the people around us as well.
We agreed to come back this week to talk about what a Sabbath or day devoted to God should look like. What’s prohibited? What’s allowed? Can we go out to eat? The church isn’t short of opinions on the matter and the debate can get heated.
I confidently set out to answer the question definitively and, like a climber making his first attempt at Mt. Everest, realized I had underestimated the challenge. Answers are important to me; I love knowing them, and I love sharing them. As a pastor, I believe it’s important to be able to show people the way that God answers any given question in scripture. I don’t like leaving questions without a direct and sufficient response. This question on the practical expression of the Sabbath had me quickly feeling defeated, like no answer was to be found, and I hated it.
My first exploration was with the Sabbath laws. I found all sorts of information outlining the prohibitions of the Sabbath and they are extensive. The following list contains all the categories of prohibited activities, according to Jewish law:
Reading through all the attempts to justify these different Sabbath faux-pa’s I realized that the question was deeper than, “what is prohibited on the Sabbath?” Multiple books of the Old Testament were referenced so the questions became, “What, if any, Old Testament Law applies to us today?”
My desire for a definitive answer took another crushing blow when I began to explore the answer to this question. Entire theological frameworks are built upon the answer to this question and the conclusions make up and entire spectrum of possibilities.
One camp breaks the law into three separate categories: Civil law, which are the laws to protect the unique identify of the nation of Israel, Ceremonial Law, which are the laws detailing the sacrifice system, temple ritual, and the priesthood, and finally the Moral Law, which are commands like “thou shall not kill.” They argue that the Civil and Ceremonial Law no longer apply because Jesus was the final sacrifice, eliminating the need for any of the ceremonial laws, and that the Nation of Israel was set apart to protect the bloodline of Jesus, rendering the civil laws archaic now that he’s arrived. They believe that the Moral Law still applies, especially the commands that are repeated in the New Testament. For the record, this one makes a lot of sense to me.
There is also a school of thought that says only the 10 commandments.
Down the road is another school that says only nine of the Ten Commandments apply, leaving out the 4th, “Remember the Sabbath.” They argue that the other nine are present in the New Testament, but the 4th has been revoked. The horizon is graying.
Some say that nothing in the Old Testament applies while others say all of the Old Testament applies. I felt like my friend, Jay.
Jay offered to take my family out on Lake Jackson in his pontoon boat after church. Apparently not one to take risks, he took the boat out for a test run on Saturday. Jeni, the boys, and I were driving home from the library when I got a call from Jay with bad news. He was surprisingly light hearted considering that he was informing me that the engine broke down and he was stranded in the middle of the lake. He said he was just enjoying the sunset and waiting for someone to help him but that our trip for today “wasn’t looking good.” He was stuck in deep water with no sign of rescue, and that’s exactly how I felt.
I decided to refocus squarely on the 4th commandment in hopes of zeroing in on my answer.
The first thing I learned is that the Sabbath and Sunday are not equal. The Sabbath is on Saturday. The early church began holding their gatherings on Sunday’s because Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday, but they never believed that the Sabbath moved. Some observed the Sabbath on Saturday and worshipped with the Christians on Sunday. So, my question was, “Are modern Christians required to keep the Sabbath?”
The New Testament seems to say, “No.” (Matthew 12:1-12, Luke 6:6-9, 13:10-16, Colossians 2:16-17)
Assuming that’s true, my question quickly turned to “Why have the Sabbath in the first place; what did God intend by it?” I can answer this question in the context of the sacrificial system; it was a shadow or copy, according to the book of Hebrews, of the sacrifice of Jesus and when He was sacrificed there was no longer the need to repeatedly sacrifice animals. I was hopeful to find a neat and tidy answer in regard to the Sabbath as well.
Jesus said, in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Ok, but why was it made for man? I know that a screwdriver is made for man… to tighten and loosen screws, open paint cans, etc. What is the purpose of the Sabbath? I went to the source, the 4th Commandment.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. –Exodus 20:8-11
We established this last week, but here it is again, the Sabbath is there because we need rest. It’s a reminder that God is Sovereign and that the world will get along fine, even while we sleep. It’s a practice of trust, of letting go. But a few chapters further, God makes it even more specific.
“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. –Exodus 31:13
So just like an anniversary is there to remind me of my vows and savor my relationship with Jeni; the Sabbath is there to remind Israel of their dependence on God and to savor their relationship with Him. So what happened? Like a vacuum for an anniversary present, we messed up the Sabbath.
Israel was repeatedly guilty of failing to remember it; they were guilty of neglect. They were also guilty of overemphasizing it, to the point of abuse. (Luke 13:14, 15-17) They transposed the holiness portion and believed that remembering it made them holy. (Mark 3:4-6) Ultimately they leveraged it for their convenience. If they were Sabbath keepers, they judged people who didn’t keep it the way they did, even though they violated it as well in the eyes of other people. It was a fierce battle of personal convictions where personal intentions trumped others behaviors and everyone lost.
Just like a parent overhearing his children argue over a toy, God stepped in. Jesus addressed the issue indirectly in multiple passages, but Paul hits it between the eyes in the book of Colossians.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. – Colossians 2:9-17
The bottom line? IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DAY. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
If you want to remember the Sabbath, more power to you. Remember with all the passion and prohibition that you can handle. But, don’t judge another believer who takes a different approach. If you choose to neglect the Sabbath entirely, so be it. But, don’t look down your nose of freedom at those who want to observe it.
An annoying, monochromatic, pencil gray answer… Not what I was looking for.
Here is my attempt to darken the lines a little.
I do not believe that we are required to remember the Sabbath, in the Jewish context. Meaning, we won’t be put to death if we turn on a light or wash the dishes. However, I do believe that we should have a day that is set apart, a holy day. Here are some thoughts on how to go about it.
- I believe that Sunday’s a good idea. It’s the Lord’s Day, it’s the day Jesus rose, and it’s already considered a non-working day, etc. All 24-hour periods being equal, Sunday makes good sense.
- I believe it should be different than the other six. Six days God worked at creation and on the seventh He rested, He did something different. If you are a diligent homemaker, perhaps your holy day would be free from household chores. If you are an accountant, you might avoid numbers. A coach stays off the field, a salesman off the phone, or an editor out of the book.
- I believe it should include corporate worship. (Heb 10:25, Acts 2:42) Go to church for crying out loud. It’s a holy day after all, a day set apart for… God. I don’t believe we can say that driving to church or getting the kids ready violates out serenity so we don’t attend worship.
- I believe that it should involve Christian fellowship; spending time with the family of God and with your family. I don’t believe that it’s a good idea, nor do I believe that it’s in the spirit of a day set apart, for a father who isn’t around his family all week, because of work, to hit the golf course for five hours and be separated from them again. If you must hit the links, take your wife or one of your kids along. Play nine big boy holes, and then take your kids to play putt-putt. Get creative.
- Finally, I believe it should include rest and replacement. Take a break from talking to clients and replace it with talking to your family. Take a break from listening to the TV and replace it by listening to God. Take a break from your office chair and replace it with a prayer walk. Think of it like a date. Think about God and consider what He would want to do, then do it with Him. Just like talking your wife to see a Nicholas Sparks movie or taking your husband to watch a ball game; you are devoting time to God on His terms.
You remember Jay don’t you? The guy stuck out in the lake. I got to thinking about him and God gave me my black and white, definitive answer. Jay has set out with an intention but found himself in an unexpected place. Even if he had somewhere to be, he couldn’t get there anyway. He was forced to be still…
I had done the same thing. I set out with a purpose in mind, I was going to corner the market on Sabbath honoring and found myself stuck. Even if I wanted to give someone a perfect answer, I couldn’t. I was forced to be still…
…and know that He is God. That is the heart of the Sabbath.
God spoke to me through the following passage and I’ll give Him the last word.
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matt 11:25-30