Last week, I watched the film Sabbath by filmmaker Martin Doblmeier. You can watch the trailer and full documentary here.
The film argues that many people are waking up to the importance of Sabbath not only for human recuperation from exhaustion but also rest for creation in our contemporary context. Theologian Nathan Stucky at the Farminary and Abundance Farm says, “our exhaustion, and the exhaustion of the broader creation are two sides of the same coin.” It’s not surprising that God has given us a weekly Sabbath rest as well as annual Sabbaths of ceased labor.
How can we implement the ancient practice of Sabbath in our modern world without violating religious freedoms? The documentary recalls the Sunday “blue laws” that were common in the United States as a means of observing Sabbath and to help take time to connect more deeply with ourselves and our families. I do not deny that a weekly break from the relentless and stressful rat race could help in today’s restless world, but as I read the Bible, no day speaks more to the meaning of Sabbath than the seventh-day creation Sabbath:
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.Genesis 2:2–3
Sabbath is truly a gift from God to us. Bringing Sabbath back to its pristine glory—to its origin rooted in creation—makes it a statement of God’s commitment rather than a religious observance. I can’t help but consider the meaning Jesus brought to Sabbath when He was here. When the most careful Sabbath-practicing people the world had ever known added multiple moralistic laws and traditions to the Sabbath, observing it became an intolerable burden. Jesus removed these manmade distortions of Sabbath yet never once suggested that the law be abolished (Matthew 5:17). A misconstrued and misunderstood Sabbath eventually led most of the Christian world to observe Sunday as the day of rest. Constantine’s legislation regarding Sunday as a day of rest made Christianity the Roman empire’s official religion, and anti-Semitism became increasingly prevalent.
Experiencing the Sabbath as a gift to humanity has been largely lost in history. When I consider how much time Jesus spent affirming the seventh-day Sabbath, I am drawn to seek its full significance. Jesus did not reject the seventh-day Sabbath of creation, as many Christians argue, but spent most of His ministry restoring it. Jesus revitalized the seventh-day Sabbath, liberating it from manmade religious and national perversions. Ultimately, the Sabbath law finds fulfillment in Christ. This does not mean the Sabbath was abolished but that Jesus gave it its fullest meaning and expression (Matthew 5:17), bringing it to a whole new level.
The essence of Sabbath is not simply an attitude toward a specific day of the week but an attitude toward the meaning of the day. Arbitrary rules and arguments about how Sabbath should or shouldn’t be kept often distort its meaning. When we emphasize moralistic laws and behavioral violations, we lose sight of the experience of fellowship, a time for resting in God’s character of love. In a sense, requirements and commands are out of place for those who are in a committed love relationship. In this regard, I appreciate Abraham Joshua Heschel’s contribution to the meaning of Sabbath: “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date, but an atmosphere” (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 21). What we need most in our society is an atmosphere of Sabbath. The seventh-day Sabbath is a moment in time where God’s presence has been infused. It would be wrong to enforce a Sabbath law, and no other day speaks to this issue more than the seventh-day Sabbath of creation, for it has been calibrated with liberty and freedom.
The film shows the various ways faith traditions practice Sabbath. I think it is important to concentrate on the meaning of the seventh day Sabbath for today’s world. I recommend the book on the lost meaning of the Sabbath by scholar Sigve Tonstad, who was briefly featured in the film. A scheduled weekly reminder to rest is not legalistic conformity to law but a statement of truth about the kind of person God is. My concern is that wrongly attributing the features of Sabbath presents an inaccurate characterization of God. Jewish perversions, Constantine’s enforcement of Sunday rest, stringent Puritan laws, and state blue laws can never capture the meaning of the seventh-day Sabbath. Sabbath is a statement about God’s presence in the world and takes a stance against tyranny and coercion as well as all obsessive and compulsive patterns of living.
The seventh-day Sabbath is referred to as a sign (Exodus 31:13). It was precisely on the seventh day that God repeatedly demonstrated rest, relationship, and redemption from oppression. From the beginning the seventh day has been a sign of God’s activity in the world, pointing to not only His goodness as Creator but also His commitment to creation. We need all the help we can get to find the meaning of Sabbath for the nurturing of our souls, so that we can live in unison with the Creator. Overall, I think the film Sabbath did a good job of articulating our need for Sabbath.
Craig Ashton Jr.
Leave a Reply