In the interest of full disclosure, I’m hardly qualified to be writing this post; I’m awful at sabbathing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a very Type A, striving, and overachieving person, so it’s hard for me to not be busy and doing stuff. But I chose this topic with that in mind, knowing full well how much I need this reminder about the importance of sabbathing. So hopefully we can all take something away from this lesson on what it looks like to sabbath nowadays (i.e., post-Jesus).
By way of recapping, let’s revisit what the Sabbath used to be in the Old Testament times, because it establishes God’s intent for the Sabbath. It’s perhaps best summed up in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20: 8-11). With these words, God establishes the purpose of the Sabbath: to keep the day holy (and, by extension, I would argue, keep ourselves holy), to rest from our duties (because the Lord said so and because it gives us time to devote to the Him and be with Him), and to remember that God is the Lord (by remembering what He did in the creation week). The Sabbath, then, was a time of rest, of being set apart (i.e., being holy) for God, of devoting your time to God, and of remembering God: you refrained from work; you didn’t fret about life; you ceased striving; you rested—in other words, you abided in God.
Several centuries later, Jesus, master of disrupting the established practices, entered the scene. Just as Jesus overturned the warped views and regulations the Israelites had about other aspects of the law (anger, lust, divorce, oath, retaliation, and loving others) by bringing them back to the heart and center of the Law (“you have heard it said…but I say to you…”), He similarly turned the warped notions of the Sabbath on their heads. He was able to do this because He was God and wrote the Law, so, of course He knew its heart and central intent. He was also able to do this—to re-conceptualize the Law—because He fulfilled it. That’s key. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”, He said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17). Jesus was not redefining the Law; rather, He was ushering in an era of a New Covenant, a time in which the living out of the law—i.e., its application, its practical fulfillment—would look different. The Law is the immutable Word of God, so it cannot—and need not—be changed; Jesus just redefined what it means to do the Law. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the Law to the last iota, living out the law looks different for us today than it did for the Old Testament believers. (The same can be said for other laws, hence why all foods are clean to Christians. But this idea of the new vs. the old covenant is not the topic of this post.)
How does that pertain to the Sabbath? Well, Jesus re-conceptualized that, too. In various encounters with religious leaders, Jesus argues that it was indeed lawful to heal and to do good on the Sabbath (cf. Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; and elsewhere). Not being work, per se, healing and good works do not violate the initial mandates of the Sabbath—resting, being holy, remembering God. And since the law can be summed in the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving one’s neighbor, certainly God’s law would not include a commandment that could be used as a loophole to break a central commandment. Thus, it’s always allowable to do good and to love one’s neighbor—even on the Sabbath. But it’s what Jesus says in another encounter that’s an even more profound insight about the Sabbath and its re-conceptualization: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). The Sabbath isn’t just some rule God created for us to follow. No. It was created for us. Period. It was created for our good. (The latter part, about Jesus being lord of the Sabbath, is important too, but not central to my purpose in this post. Still, it deserves at least an aside: Jesus is lord of the Sabbath. First, He is God, so He is Lord of all. But, even more mind-blowingly, Jesus “earned” lordship over the Sabbath because He perfectly fulfilled it. He never broke it. Not once. Not even when doing His greatest work, the work of salvation. As the gospels clearly record, Jesus was crucified and died before the Sabbath began; He wasn’t risen until after the Sabbath had ended. Jesus did no part of the work or salvation—neither sacrificial death nor miraculous resurrection—on the Sabbath. Even in His death he upheld the Law! Now that’s what I call perfection! Okay, aside over.)
Jesus further clarifies the purpose of the Sabbath and emphasizes His lordship over it in an encounter with the religious folks after having healed a lame man. The Jews got upset that He healed the man on a Sabbath; Jesus replied, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Though God rested from His work of creating things on the seventh day, He never stopped working—i.e., He never stopped watching over things, never stopped caretaking, never stopped loving, etc. (if He did, the world would crumble!). This is further support that God’s resting on the seventh day was to show us how to live; it was for our benefit; it was for us. That was the initial purpose of the Sabbath and the intent Jesus was trying to get the Jews to understand once again.
After the gospels, reference to the Sabbath largely trails off. There are a several references to it in Acts, mostly in service of indicating a day of the week or something similarly not doctrinal. After that, only two references remain. That alone powerfully suggests that the regulations about the Sabbath being a particular day to be observed in a particular way are no longer relevant. If observing a Sabbath day were doctrinally and/or practically important, certainly Paul would have written about it in his epistles, yet the only thing he has to say about the Sabbath is that there ought to be not judgment about how we choose to spend it: “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a […] Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). But he’s not done yet; what he goes on to say is more telling: “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17). Did you catch that? The substance of the Sabbath belongs to Christ. That sounds very like much like Jesus’ words about being the lord of the Sabbath: it belongs to Him; He is lord over it. It also sounds a lot like the other remaining New Testament reference to the Sabbath. The author of Hebrews writes, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his”, arguing that the time to enter this rest (or to fail to do so) is today. The time to rest—i.e., the Sabbath—is today; it’s any day; it’s every day.
So, where does that leave us now? Well, the Sabbath can happen anywhere, anytime. It’s not a specific day of the week, though you could do it that way if you want to. Just make sure that, whichever you choose, you don’t have the mindset that it’s the better choice. As Paul said, there’s to be no judgment for how you choose to Sabbath. If it works for you, go for it! As for what the Sabbath looks like—well, that part hasn’t changed over the years. It’s still a time to cease, to stop working, to rest, to abide. In Jesus’ famous Passion night speech (cf. Jn. 15), He tells us we are to abide in Him—a Sabbath that never ends; continuous rest in Jesus. But the Sabbath is also still a time to pursue holiness, to heal, to do good works—that is, it’s a time to live out love. And, as Jesus continued in that same Passion night speech, we are to love others. If we’re properly relating with Jesus (i.e., abiding in Him), Sabbbathing will happen naturally: we will be in Jesus, abiding and resting (and, therefore, Sabbathing); we will be filled with His love and so equipped to love others, heal, and do good works (i.e., Sabbathing); we will be filled with His spirit and so able to love Him in return, being able to obey His commandments and therein being holy (and, therefore, Sabbathing). So, as with the rest of the Law, the Sabbath is the very heart of God. And God’s heart is everywhere and is always for us. So is the Sabbath. It is the heart of God; it is for us; it is anywhere and everywhere, anytime and all the time; it is rest in the very presence of God through Jesus Christ.
Now that doesn’t sound so hard. Maybe I can do this sabbath thing after all.
I’m Dustin Meriwether: scientist by training, writer by passion, learner by nature, a teacher by gifting. While I’ve always done well in school, I did not always enjoy learning for its own sake, and I didn’t care much for writing; but since I started to really live for Christ and under His authority, I have had a voracious appetite for knowledge, a similarly strong a desire to pass that knowledge on to others, and an ability to communicate clearly with the written word. I have a particular passion for sharing the Truth and science—perhaps God has a special place for me in their intersection. After all, it’s in the intersections and connections that we get a better sense of how the world works, and in that, we get a different perspective on how God works in the world, and that’s what I most like to share about: God, His ways, His works, and His Word!