At the Redwood Campus where I pastor, we just finished a two-week series on Sabbath. I’ve condensed the two teachings into a medium-length blog post for those of you that weren’t there or if you’re interested in further studying this. I’ve tried to answer three(ish) questions:
1. What is Sabbath and is it for Christians? (yes I know that’s two questions)
2. Why is Sabbath important? and
3) And how do I do it?
I. What Is Sabbath And Is It For Christians?
The Hebrew words for Sabbath is Shabbot, which refers to the Jewish seventh day of the week (Saturday), but more fundamentally means something like Stop, or Ceasing (from work). The Jewish people are commanded, by God, to take Saturday off from work. After their liberation from slavery, they are to continue practicing their liberation through Sabbath.
But Is this weekly Sabbath something we as Christians should do? There’s a lot of controversy over this, and btw, it’s always been that way (read Romans 14). And it is complicated, because there’s a lot that we don’t do anymore from the Old Testament, like the dietary laws (no bacon, SAD).
Something that has helped me think through this is seeing two different kinds of “Sabbaths” spoken of in scripture (shout out to the legendary Dr. Lyons at Simpson U for helping me see this). These two Sabbaths overlap in some ways, but are not exactly the same.
1) Covenantal Sabbath: “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” Exodus 31:15-17
This Sabbath was a special sign for Israel, to make them a distinct people group. For thousands of years: circumcision, Sabbath, and the dietary laws really set the Jews apart from other people groups, helping them retain their identity, even in horrible persecutions, wars, and exile. Jewish leader Ahad Ha'am famously said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat,Shabbat has kept
Gentiles, on the other hand (non-Jewish Christians) are never commanded to treat Saturday like the Jews. We can learn a lot from this practice, but the specific rules and guidelines are not for us today.
But there is another Sabbath, in my opinion. It’s called THE WEEKEND. Can I get an amen? More theologically, I’m calling it a creational sabbath.
2) Creational Sabbath
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then 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
Before there was the law, before there was an Abraham or Israel, God embedded a particular pattern into creation: six days of work, one day of rest. The day itself isn’t necessarily that important, it’s more that humans are not meant to work seven days a week. They are meant to work six. This isn’t just a religious statement, it’s scientifically and historically defensible too. Just look at the disaster of the French Revolution’s 10 Day Week Experiment. :ook at the life expectancy of Seventh Day Adventists and Mormon communities (10-14 years longer than most Americans), and you’ll see some correlation between a kind of Sabbath day and longer life (yes I recognize that diet and social structures matter a lot here too).
II. Why Is Sabbath Important?
Sabbath is both rest, and reps. It brings us restoration, as well as resistance training. First,
1) Sabbath as Restoration
-Restores Our Body. One of my favorite parts of Sabbath is not setting an alarm, and getting to take guilt-free naps. “For [God] grants sleep to those he loves.” Psalm 127:2b. There’s lots of research on the restoration that rest brings to our body.
-Restores Our Mind. This is a day to mentally let go of work or school problems. You can write them down or set a reminder; I promise they’ll be there the next day. In ministry, and probably in most of people-centered jobs, the work is never complete. “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” -Isaiah 26:3
-Restores Our Relationships: In a busy work week, there is no way to fully spend enough time with the people we love. So, if for no other reason, take a day a week to value people over production. There is a lot not to like about “blue laws” (laws prohibiting activity on Sunday), but I wonder if our society was more at peace because of it?
And of course, there’s such value in dedicating a portion of this day to spending unhurried time with God.
Sabbath doesn’t only bring restoration, it helps us resist the world, our sinful nature, and Satan.
2) Sabbath as Resistance
Idolatry is when we take good things, and make them ultimate things; when we take good things and make them god-things. Sabbath resists these idols, like
Idol #1: “I am what I do.” Worshipping work. My value, my significance, my worth as a person, comes from how much I produce, achieve, accomplish. Mary Bell once put it: “Achievement is the alcohol of our time.” If two people meet for the first time, what is often the first question that usually gets asked: “What do you do? For work?” Non-western cultures might ask about your family, progressive culture might ask about your feelings, but most Americans will ask you about your profession.
Batman himself once echoed this ideology, with a mouth-full of marbles: “It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.” -Batman
One of our biggest fears is not being able to take care of ourselves. Being dependent on others, losing our job, or drivers’ license, growing old, or becoming disabled. The productivity idol is BARBARIC, because if it’s not being served BY you, it has no further use FOR you. The temptation is to end life early.
But the Sabbath Word says: “I am NOT what I do.” I am a human being, not a human doing. My worth doesn’t come from my work. I am NOT defined by my job, or my productivity or lack thereof around the house, or my to-do list or my grades or my performance. Sabbath becomes a day to literally practice this truth, and resist the work-idol.
Idol #2: I am in control. Sometimes, when things are running well, when I’m killing it at home or work or school, I care falsely think I’m running the show. Like a touch screen or a thermostat, that I can manipulate the world around me and make things happen. But when we really think about it, so much is OUT of our control, the passing of time, the people around us, the weather, accidents, aging. As we cease for Sabbath, we release the illusion of control and embrace the joy of limitations. Although I’m not in control, I can have peace knowing there is a God, and I’m not him.
Idol #3: I am always needed. This ties into the idea of people-pleasing: “I need to be available, I can’t say ‘no’ to this invitation or that request because they might be upset with me.” The advent of smart phones takes this to a whole other level, with the pressure to be instantly available to everyone always.
Sabbath is a day to resist this idol, by turning off the phone for a few hours or more, just to recognize that I’m not that big of a deal, and I don’t need to to say “Yes” to everyone. Other than for immediate family or real emergencies, I’m almost never needed instantly.
There’s another side of this idol, the “I am needed idol.” Some people have this warped view, that they are needed by God. That God needs workers 24/7 for his mission. We’ll say things like: “well, the devil never takes a day off!” Now, I’m a young pastor, I’ve not been at this for very long, but I have a question. Since when was our model. . . THE DEVIL? I thought the model is Jesus? The man who practiced the Sabbath every Friday night? The man who took naps on stormy seas?
Yes, our enemy never sleeps, and yes, we need to be constantly vigilant. But we don’t copy his tactics. My whole argument here is that one of the best ways to fight sin and Satan is through Sabbath. Sometimes, we fight by stopping.
So Sabbath becomes a powerful way to resist the grip of idolatry on us by practicing worshipping only God, and not the ideologies that we inhale every other day.
Also, Sabbath Resists Ingratitude.
The Tenth Commandment says: “Thou Shalt Not Covet.” We resist coveting and ingratitude on the Sabbath, so that we can cultivate thanksgiving, practice gratitude, and meditate on what we already have, not on what we don’t have.
A few Sabbaths ago, my dad and I were browsing some Brookings beach houses online. Not seriously, but just out of curiosity to see what some of these homes were going for. In looking at a few, I almost made him a proposition right there: “Alright dad, let’s do this, let’s go in together. I’m thinking something 90-10, maybe 95-5. We’ll make a good team. I’ll be the brains, you can be the bucks.”
The practice of browsing beach houses on a day off isn’t really that big of a deal, but what does it subtly start to do inside of us? Does it produce thankfulness? Not really, it produces desire, longing, discontentment, covetousness, greed. When I instead take the day for thanksgiving, this powerfully cuts against covetousness.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann says this:
“It occurs to me that Sabbath is a school for our desire, an expose and critique of the false desires that focus on idolatry and greed that have immense power for us. When we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us. But Sabbath is the change for embracing our true identity.”
At high school we learned about math and writing and science, but Sabbath is a kind of school for our desires, wants, and loves. These things can be trained as well.
Practically, on whatever day you try and take for Sabbath, I recommend not buying or browsing anything, including Amazon’s 1 click ordering. Other than a dinner date. But there’s something profound about not consuming, not buying, not looking or seeking for one day a week, to just reflect on the amazing abundance God has already given us.
III. How Do I Start?
1) Pick A Day Ending in Y & Protect the Time
Look at your calendar, and see which day has the least commitments. If there are none, pick one and slowly beginning clearing that day. It may take weeks of saying “no” to certain commitments going forward. And sometimes the day varies, I usually take Friday, but during soccer season, I take Saturday (very few Saturday games in our league). It may move around depending on your work schedule. But schedule Sabbath in your calendar and do you best to protect that time.
2) Preparation Day
Take a day to prepare for Sabbath. This could involve stocking the fridge with groceries, cleaning the house, replying to all your messages, and planning the things you’d like to do on the Sabbath (no rushing!)
3) Pursue-Living Giving Activities
Many of us confuse relaxation with restoration. What’s the difference? Relaxation might be watching tv, binging on Netflix, scrolling through your phone, or playing a mindless game. Nothing wrong with these things in moderation, but they don’t actually bring restoration. Who has ever felt good and rested after watching 7 Netflix shows? Probably no one ever.
We’re all are wired a little differently. Some of us recharge while fishing, some of us in the garden. Some of us enjoy exercise on our day of rest, others of us think that’s an oxymoron. For me, I recharge in a Barcalounger with a cup of coffee, reading fiction. For my finance, it’s Starbucks with a friend and shopping afterward. After hearing this, I realized I DO believe in purgatory (Just kidding, babe). I encourage us to pursue the things that will enrich our lives and relationships.
Thanks for reading! What are some practical steps you’d like to take in this direction? Or what are some things you’ve found some success in when it comes to Sabbath?