“The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God.”Abraham Joshua Heschel
I have gained a few Jewish friends over the years, and most do not normally encourage proselytizing Christians. However, one older gentlemen I’ve had the privilege of meeting invited me to visit his newly renovated synagogue. He gave me some shofar-blowing lessons, and we spoke about the Bible and the Sabbath. Before I left that day, he asked me to consider converting to Judaism and joining his synagogue.
You know the drill—Christians are not obligated to observe the Jewish parts of the Old Testament. Synagogues are where Jews go on Saturdays, and churches are where Christians go on Sundays. While many believers have discarded the seventh-day Sabbath as legalistic, cold, and temporary, the meaning of the Sabbath has continued to intrigue me. I am disappointed by the wedge of alienation that has been driven between Judaism and Christianity. Christian antagonism toward the Sabbath has contributed to the loss of some beautiful understandings of God. It’s easy to see that the church went too far in distancing itself from the Jewish people. I have yet to hear a solid reason to transfer the seventh day to Sunday. I am aware of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries, which has manifested in prejudice and even hatred, and I know Christianity has adopted pagan traditions and theology, but I do not want to overlook that Christianity has claimed much of what is written in the Old Testament. Without at least affirming the Old Testament’s pattern, Christians would have no concept of a weekly Sabbath.
To see the meaning of the seventh day more clearly, we might listen to God’s booming voice thundering from Sinai. In clear, trumpet-like tones, God proclaims freedom and intimacy. Having rescued His people from the unrest of cruel bondage God makes them aware of their liberation from the never-ending system of crushing tyranny and the cruel narrative they were apart of. At the very heart of the divine command lies the refreshing promise of blessing, its rhythmic heartbeat that we hear pulsing every Sabbath echoing from creation (Exodus 20:8–10:8). It is not just a command to be memorized or a rite to be performed—it provides an experience of divine rescue and presence. It is a sign of God’s unconditional love and grace and what He cares about most.
Once I understand the story of God’s unsurpassable grace, I can respond and live according to a mutually meaningful relationship. As in maintaining any relationship, God must keep the Sabbath as much as we do. In this view of inclusion, the Sabbath reveals not only our loving response but God’s gracious commitment to us.
I think we can agree that we need to practice a Sabbath. Man needs a day for understanding the meaning of life and why he was created. We must quiet our lives enough one day each week to hear God’s heart, and we learn that God has created such a day. There is much value in this day, but the vision of the Sabbath must be fleshed out more fully. When God says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), it’s as if He is saying, “don’t let your mind become absent or clueless; act on behalf of what I have done for you.” Remember the Exodus! Remember Creation! Saturate yourself in the memory of my love for you!
In my passion for all things biblical, I took a class to learn Hebrew. I remember that the Hebrew word for “keeping” does not mean “obeying” as much as it means “guarding” or “protecting” what is treasured. If I must be reminded, commanded, or forced to keep my anniversary, my wife has lost my attention and is no longer cherished by me. “Holy” means “set apart” or being different. It transcends ordinary things as it calls us to act differently than does the culture around us.
Sabbath means “to cease.” It means to stop what you are trying to do through your own strength. We must resist our self-interest and our self-sufficiency to connect with the meaning of the Sabbath. There is a human propensity and innate desire to produce and perform as if we are not good enough or have not done enough. Have you noticed that every week, as hard as you may try, you just can’t finish your work? There is always something more to do, but the Sabbath narrative is that God can and does finish it. In part, that is the meaning here. It’s all about grace and having the correct view of what I should do and what God does on my behalf (Ephesians 2:10). It’s not so much about relaxation or treating yourself to a day of rest after a strenuous work week but about being sensitive to what God is doing and participating in His work. We desist from our hectic attempts to bring convenience and pleasure for our own sakes and accept God’s divine gift. Norman Wirzba writes, “As we cease from our steady toil, we learn the valuable lesson that the whole of creation does not exist exclusively for us and to meet our desires” (Living the Sabbath, 2006, p. 40). Such ceasing provides an alternative to oppressive measures that harm the world, causing exploitation or the stifling of divine rest.
One of the most significant features of the seventh-day Sabbath is its leveling of the playing field. It’s not only for Israelites and their extended families but for workers, strangers, slaves, farm animals, and even the land itself is offered this amazing gift of Sabbath. It’s rest for all as free and equal partners in the community of creation. It calls us to see one another in a Sabbath community, extending neighborly compassion and grace to others regardless of their stations in life. Through encouraging such relations, it compels us to considerate and caring views toward the underprivileged, the marginalized and even those deemed valueless. It beckons us to extend Sabbath benevolence not only to the needy and vulnerable but also to the non-human creation around us (Deuteronomy 5:14; Luke 14:5). What about the millions of animals who serve us today in factory farms, who are confined, controlled and caged with no opportunity to rest? Is this not a far cry from a Sabbath theology?
Second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr regarded the seventh-day Sabbath as a day of punishment rather than God’s gracious gift. Most who treat the Sabbath as a curse, however, haven’t recaptured its voice of blessing. You can hear the critique in the prophetic objection of those who have lost its meaning, saying, “When will the Sabbath be over? Our wheat is ready, and we want to sell it now. We can’t wait to cheat and charge high prices for grain we sell. We will use dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5, CEV). When one hold’s such views of the Sabbath it tends to be a punishment. We forget that the seventh day came as a gift and is filled with the theology of God’s blessing. In His wonderful book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, scholar Sigve K. Tonstad points out that God’s first mention of blessing falls on non-human creation, extends to humans and then in the Sabbath, there is blessing that belongs to all creation (Genesis 1:21; 2:1-2). To be blessed is to receive value. This includes legitimacy and the right to flourish. Just as God pronounced a blessing on all of creation, we in turn show respect and express God’s blessing to others and creation.
The weekly Sabbath is celebrated every seventh day. Seven is the number of fullness and completeness, pointing forward to a final and future rest in the world made new (Isaiah 56:1–8; Revelation 21:1–4, 22:14). It is both a rehearsal and a prophetic declaration that foreshadows the ultimate rest to come. Though the message of the Sabbath is future rest, we are invited to experience that rest now (Matthew 11:28).
So, what are we to do with this ancient practice? Is the Sabbath a law that we must keep?
Fast forward with me to the New Testament, where Jesus does more than silence the antinomian critics. In a popular scene, the disciples of Jesus are walking through a field and plucking grains because they are hungry (Leviticus 19:9), but it happens to be the Sabbath. As you might suspect, the Pharisees are quick to object. They are comfortable regulating God’s gift through obligation enforced by law, so that even picking for one’s immediate needs is forbidden (Matthew 12:2). So, did Jesus break the Sabbath?
Jesus shows that the Sabbath demonstrates God’s concern for human need. He teaches that the Sabbath is about mercy and self-giving love. The Sabbath is made for man (Mark 2:27–28). What exactly does that mean?
Amidst regulations that make rest more difficult, Jesus presents a new view of God in the Sabbath. Better still, He uncovers the biblical meaning of the Sabbath for us. Jesus uncovers and reveals what the Pharisees had misunderstood about the Sabbath by reaching back into the narrative of God creating humanity and resting on the seventh day to convey that the Sabbath “is made” because of and for the benefit of humanity. Jesus in no way rejects the Sabbath project; instead, He affirms that it is a precious gift from God, grounded in the creation narrative itself, that must be interpreted correctly for the good of humankind. Rather than regulating the observance of a weekly Sabbath by human fences and insisting on divine commandment by law, Jesus points to the seventh day as the day of God’s commitment to mercy.
But that is not all the meaning Jesus provides. Jesus refers to Himself as the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:7–8; Mark 2:28). The day is Christ-centered. Jesus is the true owner of the Sabbath and He has ultimate authority. It cannot be changed to another day or regulated by rules and external signs of piety. Since Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, we must acknowledge that He is on the throne. Sabbath should not be considered passé, for its meaning originates in Him and is an expression of His character. It is a sign of the kind of person Jesus is. He is characterized by mercy and self-giving love, which faithfully endure for all eternity.
The seventh-day Sabbath represents this. The theological treasure house of the seventh day is not captured by Sunday observance for Christians. Looking to Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath should enhance our respect for this precious gift. True seventh day Sabbath theology will point us to a way of living that reminds us who we serve.
Might the seventh-day Sabbath be an expression of creation theology within the context of our time—a distressing time in which large corporations win, millions of animals suffer and die in factory farms, and human rights for the poor and vulnerable must be fought for? Might it be a sign that we are called to show mercy to the world and that self-giving love is the only meaningful way to live? Perhaps what is missing from our world is a hopeful message that uniquely orientates us to the kind of a person God is. Exodus makes this abundantly clear when it says, “Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9-10, NRSV).
It is no wonder that the wider culture tends to reject or dismiss the regulations of religious observances, which often dictate how we should congregate or express our commitments. It’s clear that this is not the meaning of the Sabbath. The message of the Sabbath is not regulated by specific requirements and rules, nor is it to be controlled or changed by the commands of men. It is only the presence of God’s mercy and grace in the Sabbath that can provide the meaningful context. If the message is received as a gift to us defined by the mercy and grace of God, then the Sabbath reveals a unique message about the character of God’s love that is vitally significant for our world.
Craig Ashton Jr.