A HISTORICAL & THEOLOGICAL STUDY OF THE SABBATH
When it comes to spiritual disciplines, I have a particular favorite: practicing Sabbath. In my opinion, this gift from the Lord is both underappreciated and overlooked too often by the modern day Christian as we move through our fully packed days and busy lives. Since our C3 Zürich community is unpacking some of the building blocks of our faith this month, I offered to help us to dive deeply into the Sabbath.
To tackle this element of our spiritual lives, we will use three different lenses to let us sift through the beautiful richness that is found in the Sabbath. First, we will look at the Sabbath with a historical lens, referring to its Scriptural and cultural origins. Second, we will apply a theological perspective to understand Sabbath in the context of the Christian faith. Finally – and in my next post – we will get personal and look at our lives under the microscope to see how we as individuals and as families can observe and enjoy the Sabbath more fully.
So, take a deep breath and let us explore the Sabbath together!
THE SABBATH THROUGH A HISTORICAL LENS
What is the Sabbath?
The concept of the Sabbath – a holy day of rest set apart by God – originates from the story of Creation itself:
“By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:2-3)
By this definition, we see how the Sabbath was designated by God to reflect a part of His character – One who works, One who rests, and One who is holy.
Why does God want His people to observe the Sabbath?
As the story of God and His people continues, we find the Israelites wandering in the desert near Mount Sinai three months after the Lord led them out of slavery in Egypt. On that famous mountaintop, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, ten explicit directives to shape how the Israelites could practice their faith and worship the God of Heaven. This account is recorded in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.
For the most part, the Ten Commandments are rather straightforward and simply stated: don’t commit adultery or murder, don’t steal or covet, etc. By comparison, God gives a lengthy warning against idolatry; and somewhat surprisingly, He gives an even deeper explanation and the most wordage to the observance of the Sabbath – a significant fact that we should not overlook.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work… For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth… but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
It seems to me that God understood from the beginning how hard it would be for the Israelites to observe the Sabbath and how necessary it would be to remind them of its importance. He knew they would struggle to not work, to not achieve, to not progress in their personal or communal projects. Thus, God wrote out the full picture on a stone tablet.
But why was the Sabbath so important to God? In short, the Israelites were commanded to keep the Sabbath because God did it first. And as God’s chosen people, created in His image, they were called to reflect the Holy One of Israel. Thus, the “what” and the “why” of Sabbath are wrapped up in the very identity and nature of God.
How was the Sabbath practiced in Biblical times?
Thanks to very decisive language as recorded in the Book of the Law (the first five books of the Bible, which make up the Hebrew Torah), the Israelites understood that observing the Sabbath was a serious matter. Absolutely no work was to be done by anyone. Not even animals could be put to work. The punishment for breaking it could involve exile from the community or even death.
Over the centuries, the Sabbath secured a permanent place in the Jewish faith tradition. Unfortunately, by Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had impressed a strict legalistic view of the Sabbath, using it to regulate Jewish social customs and to judge others out of a need for external righteousness. As we will see in through the next lens, Jesus brings us to the heart of the Sabbath in his teachings during his earthly ministry.
THE SABBATH THROUGH A THEOLOGICAL LENS
How do we reconcile the Sabbath between the Old Covenant and the New?
As Christians, it is paramount that we take the Old Testament origins of the Sabbath and put it into context within the scope of its ultimate purpose as illuminated by the light of Christ. To do that, we must look into the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
Let’s start with the book of Exodus. Shortly after God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, He then instructs Moses to reemphasize the importance of Sabbath:
“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.’” (Exodus 31:12-13)
“A sign,” God says. The Sabbath was a sign of the covenant God made with his people – a promise of everlasting love and faithfulness. Throughout the Old Testament, God demonstrated his love by establishing patterns of grace and mercy, and he required the Israelites to observe the rules in order to receive the benefits of those gifts. These rules and requirements form the Law of the Old Covenant, which is laid out especially in the texts of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. All of these rituals – from offering burnt sacrifices to observing the Sabbath – were designed to atone for the sins of the Israelite people and to reconnect unholy humans with the holy One.
Now, let us move into the New Testament texts:
“Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
As followers of Christ, we recognize that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us freedom from the Law as it was dictated to Moses. In Colossians 2 and 2 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul writes about the New Covenant we have in Christ – eternal salvation through faith in Jesus, the ultimate sign of God’s love for his people. Therefore, we are no longer bound to the rules of the Jewish faith that were designed to “make them holy,” such as observing the Sabbath or eating only with washed hands. Because in Christ, we have already been made holy.
So, does that mean that we don’t need to observe the Sabbath anymore? No, not at all! On the contrary, now we can choose to participate in one of God’s greatest blessings!
Before we take a look at how to practice the Sabbath in our lives today, we need Jesus to give us the wisdom to understand the spirit behind the Sabbath.
What does Jesus say about the Sabbath?
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
During his earthly ministry, Jesus addressed the heart of the Sabbath time and time again as he challenged the rigid and legalistic interpretations given by the religious leaders over the generations. All three authors of the Synoptic Gospels record the following two examples in Matthew 12, Mark 2-3, and Luke 6:
The first incident takes place one Sabbath day when Jesus and his disciples were walking through the fields. They were hungry and picked the heads of grain to eat. When the Pharisees saw their actions, they judged them as “unlawful” and declared Jesus and his followers were breaking the rules of the Sabbath.
Jesus answered them:
“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? … Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:3, 5-6)
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Here we see the Old Covenant flowing into the New Covenant. Jesus is declaring that he is the fulfillment of the Law, and therefore, all of the benefits of the Law are found in him – a true theological earthquake. Jesus offers the blessed freedom from the Law, which Paul later writes about, and he takes his place as the Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).
In the second shared incident recorded by the Synoptic Gospel writers, Jesus attempts to shatter the manmade version of Sabbath once again when he heals a man’s crippled hand in the synagogue. He poses a rhetorical question to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law to prove his point:
“I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6: 9)
And again in Luke 13 and 14, we see Jesus continuing to heal on the Sabbath: a crippled woman in the synagogue and a suffering man at the home of a prominent Pharisee.
“The Lord answered [the synagogue ruler], ‘You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?’” (Luke 13:15-16)
In all of these episodes, we see Jesus defy the religious understanding of the Sabbath to do one thing – to heal and give new life. From these stories and his life, we learn that Jesus’ heart for wholeness is the very spirit of Sabbath. The Sabbath is for healing, for restoring, for recreating. What a gift!
As Jesus helps us understand the full blessing of the Sabbath, that leaves us to decide whether or not to accept this generous gift. In the next post, we’re going to apply our historical and theological insights on the Sabbath to our personal lives and look at ways we can enjoy this spiritual discipline more fully.