Ah. The weekend. What an incredible invention! You can genuinely thank God for that idea.
Taking a day off from work and intentionally resting has not always been the normal expectation for the working class. Go way back to the ancient times and you have this one little group of people, the Israelites, taking one day off each week. Everyone else thought they were lazy.
One of the key commandments for the covenantal community of God was following the sabbath. They were to take the same rhythm of God; work 6 days and rest on the 7th. This pattern followed their creation story of God found in the book of Genesis. In 6 days God designed an earthly temple for him to dwell with his image-bearing humans and on the 7th day he ceased the building project and enjoyed all he had made. Genesis tells us this about God’s sabbath:
So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.
God deemed this special day as holy and his people were to do the same. In the Exodus story, God rescued his people from slavery and transformed their identify from overworked slaves to chosen people of the creator God. A key piece of their identity was their observation of the 7th day: the sabbath. It was a gracious gift from God. In a world dominated by laboring for the gods, Israel’s God had given them a path to recharge and rejuvenate weekly. Revealed in this is a God who wants his people to find rhythms of rest. To be a people not dependent on their own work but dependent on God’s provision. God gave worn out humans a pattern of restoration.
But was sabbath solely about not working?
For Jews around Jesus’ time, adhering to the Torah and the traditions was believed key in getting God to act once again. The sabbath was an important identity marker for being in God’s family and thus staunch practice was pushed to show God that his people had repented and were ready for him to bring salvation. But the added strict regulations turned a day of rest into an anxious day filled with fear of breaking the sabbath.
And then Jesus shows up and starts doing things differently on that weekly, holy day. Jesus seems to show there is more to sabbath than just not working. Now, Jesus certainly had his moments of rest. Luke makes a point to show that Jesus regularly withdrew from the chaos for moments of rest, prayer, and solitude (Luke 5:16). A perfect example of classic sabbath. Yet Jesus constantly antagonized the Pharisees with his lax following of sabbath relaxation. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is shown doing work on the sabbath and refusing to repent when the Pharisees got miffed. Check out this observation by Old Testament scholar John Walton:
“When Jesus talks about the Sabbath, he makes statements that seem unrelated to rest if we think of it in terms of relaxation. In Matthew 12:8, he is the Lord of the Sabbath. When we realize that the Sabbath has to do with participating in God’s ordered system (rather than promoting our own activities as those that bring us order), we can understand how Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Throughout his controversies with the Pharisees, Jesus insisted that it was never a violation of the Sabbath to do the work of God on that day. Indeed, he noted that God is continually working (Jn 5:17). The Sabbath is most truly honored when we participate in the work of God (see Is 58:13-14). The work we desist from is that which represents our own attempts to bring our own order to our lives. It is to resist our self-interest, our self-sufficiency and our sense of self-reliance.”
-John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate
I think Dr. Walton absolutely nails this point. Jesus life’ demonstrates a following of sabbath which seems to have a greater category than what not to do on that holy day. Jesus is not rebelling against sabbath, he is fully embracing a truer following of sabbath. Sabbath becomes more than just Saturday afternoon’s at the beach (though it certainly includes that!). Sabbath, as John Walton notes, is practiced in our participation in God’s work.
Now, you may say, “that’s a great take on Jesus and sabbath but we as Christians are never commanded to still follow sabbath!”
And guess what. You would be correct.
But only if you think of sabbath in terms of a once a week discipline. While Paul and the other New Testament authors do not seem to push the old covenant practice of sabbath, every conversation about living in God’s kingdom is a sabbath conversation. Every conversation about being made to do good, God-reflecting works through Christ is a sabbath conversation. And every conversation about trusting in and finding rest in Jesus is a sabbath conversation.
As NT Wright puts it, “we are to be Sabbath people of every day of every week…what Jews celebrated every Sabbath is to be the constant life of Jesus’ followers”
So then, how do we sabbath like Jesus?
Well, the life of a follower of Jesus is a cycle of rest, restorative work, and recognizing Jesus as king.
So, we do this first by recognizing that God is in control and he rules, not us. Even just this thought about his ruling helps makes sense of God’s rest in Genesis. If you want to bug a theologian, just ask, “Why would an all-powerful God need a break?”. It can be a mind-jumbling question but within the scriptures themselves, we see a theme that connects God’s rest to his ruling. Check out Psalm 132 for example:
Let us go to his dwelling place,
let us worship at his footstool, saying,
‘Arise, Lord, and come to your resting place,
you and the ark of your might…..
For the Lord has chosen Zion,
he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,
“This is my resting place for ever and ever;
here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.
Psalm 132: 7-8, 13-14
Think of this like how a king would “rest” in and rule from his castle. Here, God resting into the Temple (similar to him resting into his creation), initiates the beginning of his rule from this resting place. On the 7th day, God rested into his cosmic temple to start ruling over his creation. Sabbath is then an intentional time to recognize that truth. Jesus is king. We are a part of his kingdom. We live under his rule and trust his ways.
So sabbathing means ceasing from or pulling back on our pursuit of self-sufficiency and instead learning to trust in God’s provision. Sabbath is not staying at work late when you absolutely do not need to be there. Sabbath is not taking that email when your with your family because work should not rule over you. Sabbath is breaking away from the phone, the screen, the news and spending quality time with your spouse, your family, yourself, and with Jesus. The Israelites would leave no work to be done on the sabbath and so your sabbath is not a day to “catch-up” or “get ahead”. It is loosening the grip you have on life and surrendering yourself. It is recognizing that you are finite, that you cannot do it all and need rest found in Jesus.
Sabbath also means participating in God’s kingdom in such a way to bring liberation to people who need to experience holy rest. As Jesus walked around Galilee initiating restorative works for the heavy-laden, he gave sabbath to burdensome people. The restorative work you do among your family, work, and community is sabbath activation. Jesus said “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”. Our work is moving away the obstacles others have so that they might come to Jesus.
It is the husband who cooks dinner each night so that his graduate-student wife can study. It is the volunteer who watches over the kids so the parents can enjoy the Sunday service freely. It is the church down the street pulling resources together to get meals to a hurting family.
Sabbath is our invitation to rest and our offering of rest to the burnt-out, worn-down people in our community.
So, how might you find sabbath this week? How might you work to bring sabbath to others?