The idea of Sabbath rest has always interested me. In Genesis we are told that God created the world and everything in it in six days. And then on the seventh day he rested from his labors. When the Lord God gave the ten commandments to Moses, commandment number four was to “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
How can I most honor God’s intentions for Sabbath rest? What does this look like for me personally?
The question I’m concerned with here is not, “Do we need to observe the Sabbath?” but more like, “Why did God command Sabbath rest?” Both are valid questions. I’ll touch on the former a little, but, it may be a discussion for a different day. I’m working from the assumption that whether or not Sabbath is expected of 21st century Christians, God had an original purpose in prescribing that law. And since God is good, the law is meant to be good for us.
Let me begin my exploration by reminding everyone that I do not hold a seminary degree. I’ve simply been a student of God’s word for over 35 years. You may have other thoughts and opinions about Sabbath, and that’s okay. I welcome you to the conversation. I’m not going to try to change your mind. I’m just sharing my own ideas in case that can help to shape your own perspective. We all know in part.
What is Sabbath rest
Let’s look at what the Scripture says about the Sabbath. Although Genesis 2:3 gives the example of God resting on the sixth day after creation and proclaiming this rest to be holy, the first time the word “sabbath” is found in the Bible is in Exodus 16.
The Israelites had escaped their oppressive masters in Egypt and Moses was leading them through the wilderness en route to their new homeland in Canaan. As you may expect, it was hard to feed the large company of people and they were asking for food. God answered, but also supplied a lesson on work and rest at the same time.
God provided, but his provision required work on the part of the Israelites, or rather work and rest. The miraculous manna would appear, but the Israelites had to go out to collect it. If you read further you will find out that the bread, or manna, was only available according to the Lord’s stipulations. If they hoarded the day’s collection until the next day, it would be full of maggots. Except when they gathered it on the sixth day and kept it overnight as commanded. On the seventh day, there was no manna available on the ground, but the previous day’s collected manna was good to eat. (Ex. 16:21-31)
From then on, although the provision of manna lasted only as long as the exodus, the Sabbath became a regular part of the Jewish tradition. And in other scriptures God often linked the idea of Sabbath to holiness. (Ex. 20:8, Ex. 20:11, Ex. 31:13-15, Ex. 35:2, Deut. 5:12, Neh 9:14, Neh. 13:22, Jer. 17:22-27, Ez. 20:12.)
New Covenant in Christ
And then Jesus Christ came, he was born, died and raised back to life, fulfilling the laws in ways that we sinful humans never could. The laws that were meant to be our tutor until Christ came – who fulfilled the law and purchased for us a salvation attainable by faith – those laws now changed in purpose. Here’s what Colossians states about the Sabbath.
Which makes it sound like the choice to observe Sabbath is optional. The Sabbath’s purpose was to point to Christ. Only Jesus can make us holy. We don’t achieve holiness by observing holy days.
The Historical Practice of Sabbath
I grew up Christian, and although observing the Sabbath is one of the ten commandments, I never really heard of anyone doing it. But I remember reading one of the Little House on the Prairie books, and Laura Ingalls described their practice of basically sitting around all day not allowed to play. But just like Puritans, the Ingalls had adopted Sunday rather than Saturday as their day of rest. The day was supposed to be dedicated to rest, study of the Word of God, going to church…basically anything sacred rather than secular. You can read all about Puritan Sabbath practices at Ligonier Ministries.
Although the holiness of the Sabbath did institute a separation from daily work and a “set apartness for God” (see especially Ezekiel 22:26.), Jesus as Lord now means that he governs every part of our lives. And often the stark division of sacred and secular can be the result of allowing a heavily prescribed set of restrictions to envelope a religious tradition. The holiness connected to the Sabbath becomes dictated by laws, the laws become too great for us to fulfill, so we relegate all our attempts to one day of the week. Or one hour when we go to church. We can’t be holy every moment every day so we create a small space of time where we can pretend to be “holy” for a little bit and call that good.
What is holiness?
So the practice of Sabbath the way that God intended has a lot to do with the idea of holiness. And guess what? The word “holy” does have a separateness as part of its definition. And biblical holiness has to do with being set apart for the Lord.
But the word “holy” also implies wholeness and integrity. You can’t be partly holy. Holiness is a purity that isn’t contaminated. And so the secular parts of our lives can’t be “unholy” and the sacred “holy” at the same time or else we are only partly devoted to Christ. And he wants to transform our entire lives.
Acts 17:28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.”
In this way, Christ fulfilled the Sabbath as Colossians stated. We don’t have what it takes to be holy any more than we would have what it takes to sit still in Laura Ingall’s chair all day, every day. Holiness isn’t found in sitting still or removing ourselves from fun, but holiness is just as impossible for us as this would be. The pure life, without mistakes, sin, or regret isn’t possible on our own. But the good news is that Jesus, the perfect, pure, and holy one offers a trade. By accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior, our sin is exchanged for his righteousness and we become new, pure, whole and holy.
God knew the benefits of rest
As I hinted earlier, I think the practice of Sabbath rest may still be valid because it cycles work and rest. Devotion to God should permeate all our work and play, but allowing space to acknowledge God in rest may also be vital to our health. The practice of Sabbath reminds us to pause and to praise because our natural tendencies can be to relegate rest to the edges of our energy.
Isn’t God so smart? We all know the importance of rest, but haven’t our idols called us away to serve them instead? We don’t have time to rest because we’re serving money, fame, or simply our selfishness or laziness. The break to reframe and refocus helps us to serve God with integrity, holiness and devotion. It allows me to remind myself who truly is the Lord of my time.
God knew the benefits of rest before scientists did. The Bible is never behind the times on medical research. A day of rest is good for our exercising bodies. A day of rest is good for our minds . The benefits include minimizing stress, improving sleep, mental clarity and more.
Unplugging on Saturday
Recently, I’ve decided that I needed to make Sabbath rest something I include in my week. Again, let me stress, this is not in an effort to make myself holy which I am incapable of doing. But it is an opportunity to sit with my Creator and learn his holiness which he imparts to me through the Holy Spirit.
In considering how to incorporate the rest and holiness of Sabbath into my own life, I looked at the idea of Christ permeating all my life. What are the things that most distract me from the voice of God?
The answer for me was social media. Maybe it’s something else for you, but technology is what I need to unplug in order to focus all my attention on my friend Jesus. And so this has become my practice for Saturdays.
We all know this is good for us, right? Taking breaks from social media? Right now I’m reading “Thrivers” by Michele Borba, Ed.D. The book explores how to raise resilient children who can rise above life rather than live defeated. This quote reinforces my important unplugged Sabbath rest. “Psychology professor Jean Twenge states that four large studies show ‘happiness and mental health are highest at a half-hour to two hours of extracurricular digital media use a day; well-being then steadily decreases. Teens who spend the most time online being the worst off.’” Average adults in the U.S. are expected to spend an average of over eight hours a day with digital media in 2023.
Lest I become too religious – approving and excusing pride based on following rules that I’ve invented – I hold my “unplugged” goal loosely. Generally speaking I try to stay off the internet and forms of media entertainment on Saturday.
But what if I’m with friends who want to watch a movie? I’m not going to sweat it, condemn myself, or make up another sacrifice as a substitute. I’ll just enjoy the movie and my friends. If someone wants to show me something on their phone, I’m not going to shut them down. Relationships trump religiosity. And that would just be following Jesus’ example. He’s the one who healed on the Sabbath. He’s the one who ate with the sinners. (Luke 14:1-5, Luke 5:29-31)
Worship and Sabbath rest
Convinced you need a Sabbath rest? However you divide your time between work and rest, I would encourage you to devote a portion of your hours, days and weeks to worship. And by worship I mean looking at who God is. This kind of Sabbath rest is vital to our souls’ health.
Sabbath rest in worship can mean praying while you take a walk. Reading the Bible and materials that provide Biblical commentary. It could mean turning up the worship music and dancing. Or simply sitting in silence in God’s creation.
It seems that the holiness of Sabbath is in the “wholeness” with which we approach all things through Christ’s grace, and in the “set apartness” of intentional devotion. Whether we call it “Sabbath” or not, it is a practice worth pursuing.