Why do we keep Sabbath?
The Bible's rhythm of creation and rest couldn't be more important for today's busy Christians.
March 31, 2016
The following article was originally printed in the March/April 2016 issue, "The complete guide to youth ministry," of Presbyterians Today. It is an adaptation of an article previously published by Presbyterian Publishing.
"Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” These words are recited at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, but also work well as a prayer of confession for the rest of us—for our frantic lifestyles and chronic inattentiveness to the presence of God.
It is tempting to think that these challenges of time and busyness are a purely modern experience, but the Bible tells us otherwise. The stewardship of time and labor has always been difficult. In Old Testament times, as today, some people were compelled by poverty to work far more hours than was healthy, while others enjoyed a standard of living that depended on the overwork of others. Still, today, some of us are unable to stop working for reasons having nothing to do with economic necessity.
The Bible speaks plainly to these concerns in the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath.” And why are we to keep Sabbath? Because of who God is and what God desires for humankind.
The Ten Commandments are given twice in Scripture, first in Exodus 20:1–17 and then again in Deuteronomy 5:1–22. In both versions the commandment is for the whole community:
Remember the Sabbath day, and 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; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
We are responsible not only for our own keeping of Sabbath, but also for the ways in which our actions affect the ability of others to keep Sabbath.
It also is worth noting that the rationale for keeping Sabbath differs between the two versions in Scripture. In Exodus, we are told we must keep Sabbath because God kept Sabbath. As creatures made in God’s image, we are invited to participate in God’s own rhythm of creating and resting, taking time to savor the goodness of what has been made.
This Sabbath rest is a far cry from our usual experience of “rest.” For us, the model is to work ourselves to the point of utter exhaustion and then crash. Biblical Sabbath keeping is impossible in such a state, as it requires the capacity to enjoy the gifts of life—good food, beauty, loving relationships, recreation, sacred texts, and relaxation. None of these are possible for exhausted zombies.
The second version of the commandment, in Deuteronomy, makes it clear that such drivenness is contrary to God’s will. Here the reason for keeping Sabbath is based in God’s liberating purposes for us: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
Sabbath is a living testimony to the God who seeks to free us—from literal enslavements and from all forms of compulsive behavior.
In the New Testament this theme of Sabbath as a source of freedom finds expression in the passages that describe Jesus’ teachings on Sabbath. Clearly he is an observant Jew and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. But he also teaches that rigid legalism is contrary to God’s intention, saying, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Sabbath keeping is not something we do in order to please God; it something we do because God knows it will make us whole, restore our spirits, and renew our lives.
It may help to be reminded that Sabbath keeping was not only about a day of the week. It was a principle in the ordering of time itself, extending outward to the seventh year, when debts were to be forgiven and the land allowed to rest. It extended even further to the jubilee, or 50th, year, when all people were to be freed and ancestral land holdings were to be restored.
Perhaps most importantly, the Scriptures teach us that Sabbath keeping is a community practice and not simply a matter of personal piety. The cultural forces of our time would have us believe that our happiness lies in a lifestyle of constant work and “productivity,” punctuated by frequent binges of shopping. The Bible says otherwise: that our true happiness comes only from God and with God. Therefore let us as faith communities pledge to support one another in our commitment to “remember the Sabbath” and to rest in our Savior who is himself the Lord of the Sabbath.
Kris Haig is a semi-retired Presbyterian pastor who currently teaches at Waynesburg University.