By Tim Metzger
Throughout history many groups of Christians have had very strong opinions as to what the Sabbath is and what its significance is for followers of Christ. Today, Sabbath is no longer as central to American culture; so people are often confused about what exactly it is. There is really no need for confusion, though. The Sabbath is one of the few religious traditions in ancient Israel that includes both explicit instructions and the reasoning behind them. I hope to unpack them a little and explore what they mean for Christians today.
A Holy Rest
The first reference to “Sabbath” is found in the Pentateuch and it simply means rest. So when we read “Sabbath year” the Israelites would have understood it to mean “year of rest.” The special meaning that has come to be associated with the term was established by the instructions Moses received from God.
The first instruction God gave was to establish a weekly Sabbath on which no food was to be gathered or prepared. (Ex. 16:22-30) When Moses received the Ten Commandments, more explicit instructions were given for this weekly rest. The Israelites were told that no work of any kind was to be done on the Sabbath either directly or vicariously, through servants and animals. In some places this type of Sabbath is referred to as a “Sabbath of complete rest.” (Ex. 35:2) It was described as a holy day, a day which was to be different and sacred, a day dedicated to and belonging to God. (Ex. 20:8-11) In addition to every seventh day, many feasts and festivals were also Sabbaths “of complete rest.” Typically these Sabbaths were paired with national holy days on which the covenant was read or sacrifices were offered and the weekly Sabbath was no exception. (Num. 28:9-10)
The second type of Sabbath God instructed His people to follow was a Sabbath year. Every seventh year and every fiftieth year (the year of Jubilee) they were told not to plant, tend, or harvest their crops. This is different from the previous Sabbaths because they could still do other types of work. Working the land, however, the primary means of acquiring food, was forbidden. (Lev. 25:3-7)
God’s stated reason for establishing the Sabbath days and years was different from what you might expect. He did NOT say “Rest on the seventh day because you worked hard for six days and you deserve it.” He said that the Sabbath was a sign “throughout the generations, that you may know I am the Lord who sanctifies you,” and that it is a “perpetual covenant.” (Ex. 31:13, 16) In typical God-fashion, however, the instructions He gives have both primary and secondary purposes. God knew that as humans we need rest, and so he gave a mandatory weekly Sabbath. God knew that there would be poor, and so he commanded the Sabbath year as a way to care for them. While crops were not to be planted, tended, or harvested, the Israelites, and specifically the poor, were permitted to eat what grew on its own. (Ex. 23:11, Ex. 25) As a side note, it is for this reason that I believe God may have intended each family to have their own Sabbath year. That way, every year would be a Sabbath year somewhere. In addition, debts were to be canceled on Sabbath years, and property returned on the year of Jubilee. But wait, there’s more!
Probably the most important secondary purpose for weekly Sabbaths and Sabbath years was to demonstrate God’s abundant provision and give his people regular opportunities to show their trust in Him. This started in a very simple and obvious fashion in the wilderness. Mana rotted after 1 day except on the Sabbath. To make it even more obvious, mana didn’t even appear on the Sabbath. (Ex. 16:22-27) The Israelites had to prepare for the Sabbath on the day before. God promised that he would provide for them in the same way in the land they were going to, but on a grander scale. He said that the seemingly unpredictable harvest would be guaranteed to last two years (or three in the case of Jubilee) if the followed God’s instructions. (Lev. 25:18-22)
We have seen that the weekly Sabbath (which is what most people refer to when they use the term) is not distinguished from other holy days in Mosaic Law except in their frequency. We have seen that it was a day of “complete rest” and a day of worship, both through sacrifice and through remembering their covenant with the Lord. God’s primary reason for instituting it was to remind His people that it is the Lord that sanctifies his people and is the source of their blessings. His secondary reasons were to take care of the poor and establish a healthy rhythm of life. Biblically speaking, there is only one main point left to be made.
Is The Sabbath Still Relevant?
In the New Testament, the term “Sabbath” is only mentioned twice in a way that does not merely refer to a particular day of the week or to the institution I just described. In Colossians 2:16, Paul groups together Sabbath days with other Jewish holy days as matters of law which Christians (and gentile Christians in particular) have no obligation to follow. His line of reasoning is that these laws are “a mere shadow of what is to come,” with the substance found in Christ. The author of Hebrews seems to have a similar idea describing a “Sabbath” that God’s people can now enjoy if they are faithful to Him and should pursue diligently so that we don’t lose it. (Heb. 4:1-13)
I think that it is impossible to grasp this New Testament understanding of Sabbath unless we first draw the connection between Sabbath and peace–harmonious relationship. (Lev. 26:6, Deut. 20:10-11) The OT Sabbath was God’s reminder that he was at peace with them. When they broke their covenant with God, they lost their Sabbath and their peace. Today, we receive peace with God and enter the promised Sabbath when we accept, by faith, that Jesus has covered us with his righteousness and given us the gift of peace and through it, true Sabbath. We enter into the Sabbath rest when we invite God into every area of our lives and find rest in his presence. However, there is a difference between peace and Sabbath. Peace is the state of our relationship with God, while Sabbath is a manifestation of that relationship. Because we have peace with God, we can rest. We no longer need to work to earn a place in God’s house. This is the first and most important thing to remember.
The secondary things that Sabbath accomplished, however, are still important. If we choose not to observe the Sabbaths that God commanded the Israelites to follow, then we should ask ourselves this question: “Are we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater?” I will look at the three secondary purposes mentioned and offer a few suggestions.
First, establish a healthy rhythm of life. Regular rest and worship is not just healthy, but necessary for spiritual growth. These can be established on very short time scales or very long time scales. You can have “Sabbath minutes” between activities during your day. You can have “Sabbath hours” every night. You can have “Sabbath days, weeks, even months or years” if you plan for it. I must be careful to distinguish, however, between a “Sabbath” and a “vacation.” A Sabbath is time given to God, to worship Him and to learn about Him and to experience Him. A vacation is time not working, but doing the things that YOU want to do instead. When trying to figure out how often to engage in this “Sabbath rest,” remember this principle: RHYTHM MEANS REGULAR INTERVALS. Whatever you decide to do, make it a habit, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. If you do not make Sabbath rest a habit, it might help you for a while, but it won’t change your life.
Second, you can rest from slavery to the self by being generous. Forgive people’s obligations to you and freely share what God has given you. Maybe it is a friend who never returned something. Maybe it is that guy who doesn’t have enough money for fuel at the gas station. Maybe it is something really hurtful that has been said to you. Rest from the obligation to make things right and fair yourself, recognizing that Jesus has already paid the price for all sins and that everything we have is a gift from God.
Third, practice faith. God asked Israelites to trust that every seven years God would provide for them when they followed his commands. Look for opportunities to trust in God’s strength rather than your own. We can do this in two ways. 1) We can recognize that God is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of all our endeavors. When we lift our needs and our cares up to God and trust that He will provide, we are exercising faith. 2) We can commit to things which we are not sure we can do, but are in God’s will for us, and trust that God will provide to make it happen. Whatever you decide to do, remember to ask two questions: “What is God asking me to do personally?” and “How is God providing for what I can’t do?” As we step out in faith, we must be willing to humbly obey God’s direction and to accept his provision even when it doesn’t look like we thought it would.
The Sabbath pictured in the Bible is rich both in how it portrays God’s plan for his people as a whole and in how he cares for his people individually. Now that we are free from the law and have peace with God, we should rely on the Spirit to guide us into a true Sabbath that permeates every area of our lives, “pursuing it diligently so that we don’t lose it.”