What Is the Sabbath?
Imagine that you are walking in the neighborhood of a busy city and someone flags you down from the stoop of their brownstone. The homeowner is waving with some urgency, so you stop to see what they want. “Can you come in the house and change out my lightbulb?” they ask you. “Why do you need me to change out your lightbulb?” you reply. “Because I’m Jewish, it’s the Sabbath, and I can’t work on the Sabbath. The house is dark and we need the bulb changed. I figured that since you were a Gentile, you wouldn’t have a problem with doing it.”
Something very much like that happened to a friend of mine many years ago (and he gladly changed the bulb). I suspect that it captures many of the impressions that Christians often have about the Sabbath—It’s just for Israel, but it’s not for the Church. The Sabbath is legalistic and stifling because it burdens people with unreasonable, man-made rules. I am free from the law in Christ, so why would I ever think about observing the Sabbath?
In this addition to the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, Guy Prentiss Waters provides a study of the Sabbath, from creation to consummation.
It is tempting to rush into discussions about what to do (and not to do) on the Sabbath. But before we get there, there are a couple of questions that we need to ask. First, what is the Sabbath? The Sabbath is a weekly day that God has appointed for human beings to rest from the labors and activities that fill out the other six days and to devote that day to the worship of God and fellowship with his people. The Hebrew word underlying the English word sabbath means “rest.” The Sabbath is a day of holy resting, of spiritual refreshment in God. We see God establishing the Sabbath at creation. He completed his works of creation in six days, and then he “rested on the seventh day” (Gen. 2:2). That “seventh day” was a day that God “blessed” and “made . . . holy” (Gen. 2:3), that is, a day set apart for people to worship God.
In the life of Israel, the Sabbath takes on added meaning. In Deuteronomy 5:12–15, God tells his people that the Sabbath is a day to “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” (Deut. 5:15). It is a day to remember the mighty work of God in redeeming his people. Since the Exodus always pointed forward to God’s work in redeeming his people from their sin through Jesus Christ, the Sabbath, therefore, commemorates what God has done in Christ to save sinners.
Should We Still Observe?
Second, is the Sabbath something that Christians should observe? Some may interject at this point, What you have been saying is all well and good, but that’s the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? That is an excellent question, and the New Testament affirms the Sabbath as a standing commandment for all people. Jesus taught often about the Sabbath. In the Gospels, we see him correcting misunderstandings of the Sabbath. The religious leaders of Jesus’s day had taken a commandment that was to be a joy and had turned it into a miserable burden. Again and again, Jesus clears up the true meaning, intent, and purpose of the Sabbath. He is able to do this because “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Far from abolishing the Sabbath, Jesus reaffirms and clarifies the true meaning of the Sabbath.
The epistle to the Hebrews argues that the Church, like Israel, is on wilderness pilgrimage (Heb. 3:1–4:13). We have been delivered from Egypt (sin) but have yet to enter the land of promise (heaven). We are awaiting, the author stresses, the “Sabbath rest” that “remains . . . for the people of God” (Heb. 4:10). That future rest is something we must “strive to enter” in the here and now (Heb. 4:11). To be sure, Hebrews is not here talking about Sabbath day observance. But if heaven is our future “Sabbath rest,” then we surely continue to observe the weekly Sabbath as a reminder of and help to pursue that Sabbath rest that lies ahead of us.
We should also remember that the Sabbath is an ordinance of the creation. It is, therefore, for all human beings in all times. But the New Testament tells us of an important change that Sabbath observance has undergone in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Israel gathered to worship God on the seventh day of the week, according to God’s command. In the New Testament, we see the church meeting together on the first day of the week, under the supervision of the apostles and therefore according to the command of Christ (see Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor. 16:2). Why the change in day? Because it is on the first day of the week that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. As the Sabbath before the resurrection commemorates God’s work of creation, the Sabbath after the resurrection additionally commemorates God’s work of new creation (2 Cor. 5:7).
What Should Observance Look Like?
Knowing, then, what the Sabbath is and what it is for, we are in a position to think about what it looks like to keep the Sabbath. First—in order and importance—the Sabbath is the day each week that God calls us to set apart for public worship and for Christian fellowship. When we gather with God’s people every Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), we are gathering to do what God created and redeemed us to do: worship him. In doing so, we are preparing to meet with God and to receive blessing from him. We should take every opportunity that we have on this day to join God’s people in gathered worship and to enjoy the fellowship of our fellow believers.
Every week, the Sabbath gives us a powerful counternarrative—the truth about God, ourselves, and what this life is all about.
Remember what the Sabbath does. It reminds us of first things (creation, redemption, consummation), of who God is, who we are, and where we are going. All week long, the world bombards us with a welter of narratives that try to answer questions like Who am I? Why am I here? What is life for? Every week, the Sabbath gives us a powerful counternarrative—the truth about God, ourselves, and what this life is all about.
To observe the Sabbath and receive the benefit that God has prepared for us, we must be prepared to set down certain things that God would have us set down. God calls us to refrain from the work and other activities that fill up Monday through Saturday. Of course, Jesus recognizes that there are certain kinds of work that are unavoidable on Sunday (see his teaching in Matt. 12:1–13). If you’re a police officer or a nurse and you are called into work on Sunday, you may do that. If you are about to leave the house for church and your daughter becomes sick, take care of your daughter. But if we understand what the Sabbath is, and if we “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isa. 58:13), then we will make these kinds of decisions with the right attitude and spirit.
Observing the Sabbath is something that looks strange to our 24/7 world. But it is a powerful testimony to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In a world where people are often mastered by their calendars, Christians declare that Jesus Christ is Lord over their calendars. We gladly obey Christ knowing that every command of his is “easy” and “light” (Matt. 11:30) and only for our good. When we set apart the first day of the week, we are declaring openly that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. We are testifying to his saving work for sinners. We are no less declaring the reality of the “rest” that awaits us in the consummation—the fullness of the blessing, life, and glory in Christ. Observing the Sabbath is a profound declaration of the gospel—its truth, its importance, and its claim on our hearts and lives. In doing so, we are saying that God, our Maker and Redeemer, is altogether worthy of our worship, devotion, and praise.
So, what are you doing next Sunday?
Guy Prentiss Waters is the author of The Sabbath as Rest and Hope for the People of God.
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