• Paul Coulter

Sabbath: receiving God's good gift

Growing up in a Christian home, I never learned sabbath. I knew one of the Ten Commandments was about Sabbath observance: remember it and keep it holy. Sunday was called ‘the Lord’s day’, but it was intensely busy, certainly not a rest day. Monday mornings felt like light relief.


So, for years I didn’t practice sabbath. Even – maybe especially – when I left medicine for paid church-based ministry.


So, what is Sabbath?


For Israel, as in creation, it was the seventh day (what we call 'Saturday'). A few Christians say we should still observe seventh day Sabbath. Jesus and the Jewish apostles did,[1] but this was not expected in the letter the Jerusalem Church sent to Gentile converts (recorded in Acts 15). The Sabbath commandment is the only one of the Ten that is not explicitly repeated in the New Testament as a command for Christians. Furthermore, Acts records no debates about its relevance to Gentile converts and history shows early Christians didn’t do it.


Some say the first day (Sunday) has become the Christian Sabbath. I can’t see any biblical basis for that. The earliest Christians met on Sundays,[2] presumably because it was resurrection day,[3] but it’s never called the Sabbath. It seems likely that those early Christians among the Gentiles would have worked on the first day of the week.


A third option is that there is no fixed weekly Christian Sabbath day. Most commentators agree that’s indicated by the epistles’ only reference to "Sabbath days", Colossians 2:16, where Paul lists them as one of several regulations we aren’t bound to and shouldn’t judge others by. This also seems to find support in Romans 14:5, where regarding one day as

"better than the others" is mentioned by Paul as something that Christians should not demand of each other or use as the basis of judging one another. The most natural reading of this verse is as a reference not only to the Festivals the Jews observed but also the weekly seventh-day Sabbath.


So, should Christians observe a weekly sabbath?


In a very important sense that we must not miss, every day is holy for us – dedicated to God and grounded in rest from self-justifying works to trust Him.[4] There should not be only one special day when we think about, worship and serve God, while the other days are ours to do as we like with. Every day is his and all of life should be worship.


But, weekly Sabbaths predate Israel, going back to creation. It’s a rhythm woven into how God made us, created for our good, as Jesus taught.[5] We are no less likely to forget God and His goodness, I suggest, than Israel was. Furthermore, I think neglecting Sabbath harms us, especially in this age of constant communication. In recent years, I’ve discovered the joy of a weekly circuit breaker. Saturday is the day – I’m not covering my bases with the seventh day camp, but my family are off and there’s nothing I can’t say no to. That may be different for you.


So, regular Sabbath, if not obligatory, is at least a good idea.


But how do we observe Sabbath?


We can think about that using the two verbs in the Sabbath commandment given to Israel: remember it and keep it holy.

REMEMBER - EMPTYING THE DAY

Begin by emptying the day. Rest. Stop working and worrying. Keep a light diary, with nothing draining or outcome-driven. Be gloriously economically unproductive. And switch off your mobile, or at least check it only occasionally. You might cut out other things on your Sabbath that would burden you or tempt you to idolatry. But don’t neglect your dependents! By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus showed it’s not a day off responding to others’ urgent needs. And Sabbath is not about solitude anyway. It’s richest when done with others.


Importantly, Sabbath isn’t about resting because we’re exhausted. God rested on the first Sabbath day. He wasn’t tired. He wanted to savour His good creation and to model that enjoyment to us. Sabbath was Adam and Eve’s first full day. They rested to enjoy God before starting to work for God. So, pace your working week to Sabbath isn’t spoiled. Work out of enjoying Sabbath, not into needing it.


You may be wondering which day you could take as Sabbath. It may help you to think in terms of a 24 hour period. That's not necessarily from waking one day until waking the next. You could do what the Jews do - start Sabbath at sundown one day and finish at sundown the next. That would allow you to do some work on each day but still to sabbath for a full 24 hours. It is also worth thinking about whether it needs to be the same day each week. In general, I think it's best to have a fixed day as that will help you plan well for it. On occasions, though, you may need to work on the day that is normally your sabbath (as I do sometimes when there is a Saturday speaking engagement I feel I need to accept). If so, make sure you have another day off that week as sabbath (or two the following week if that's not possible).


Maybe your question is more about how you could possibly take a whole 24 hours off every week. You think you cannot squeeze all that needs done into the other six days. This is really an issue of faith. You need to trust that God will provide. For Israel in Bible times, as subsistence farming and fishing societies, this was a greater challenge than it is likely to be for us. They had to trust God to provide enough in six days to feed them for seven. This was worked out powerfully when they fed on manna in the desert. They had to collect enough on day 6 to last for two days.


Sabbath is an act of faith. Trusting that God can sustain us and provide for us even when we aren't working and remembering that what matters most is not what we do (even what we do for God), but what He does (including what He does for us). That leads is to the other movement - focusing the day.


KEEP IT HOLY - FOCUS THE DAY

Then, having emptied the day, we can focus it. Sabbath isn’t a day off to do other kinds of work or mindless leisure. It’s holy to God: dedicated to him to depend on Him. Sabbath reminds us that what really matters isn’t our work for God but His work for us. We can down tools and the world keeps on turning and the kingdom keeps growing.


Two foundations for Sabbath commandments in the Old Testament law tell us what to focus on.


First, the creation foundation in Exodus 20. Israel was commanded to observe the Sabbath because God created in six days and rested on the seventh. Sabbath is a time to remember that we don’t create – we receive, discover, steward and develop God’s creation. Slow down and watch. Intentionally get away from things human beings have made from God's creation (not because they are bad in themselves) and enjoy the original (because it is so much better than our most ingenious technologies). Walk hills or fields. Look, like Jesus, at the birds. Meditate on God’s care and provision for them, then remember you are more precious than sparrows.


Second, the redemption foundation in Deuteronomy 5. In this second giving of the Ten Commandments, the reason God roots Sabbath in is not creation, but redemption. The Israelites were no longer slaves as they had been in Egypt. God had liberated them. Sabbath is a time to remember that we don’t save – we receive, discover, enjoy and proclaim God’s salvation. Slow down and gaze on Jesus in the gospel. Remember you can’t save yourself or anyone else. That is Jesus’ role, so simply trust Him and share Him.


In conclusion, Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, offers you the gift of Sabbath. So why not make it your habit?


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[1] Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2 [2] Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2 [3] John 20:1, 19 [4] Hebrews 4:9 says, “there remains a Sabbath rest for God’s people”. This is rest from our works through faith in God’s work. We enter the Sabbath rest of knowing God’s work is enough for our salvation. In this sense, every day is sabbath for the Christian. [5] Mark 2:27

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