#WCSK Episode 2.10a: The Sabbath

How this Biblical principle applies to your everyday life: 

Dr. C.H.E. Sadaphal What Christians Should Know (#WCSK) (#WCSK2) The Sabbath Time Rest Holiness Day

Introduction

If I were to piggyback and use the lesson on sanctification to sum up this lesson in two sentences, here it is: Sanctification refers to the pursuit of holiness in space. The Sabbath refers to the pursuit of holiness in time.

Of course, one reason why Christians pursue holiness in time is because we pursue eternal life, not temporary life in the world. The temporary world will pass away, so we strive for The Lord and His Word, which are endless. God rested on the Sabbath, and the Bible commands us to do the same:

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

“So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).

“Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God” (Ezekiel 20:20).

“If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Practically speaking, many Christians may be aware that the Sabbath (or Sunday) is a “day of rest.” It’s a day different from the others because you get up later than normal, you typically don’t go to work, you do go to church, and the very essence of the day feels different from the rest of the week. This distinctive essence is a signal that the Sabbath is in fact intrinsically separate from the other days, and what Christians should know is that God has decreed not only that the Sabbath be distinct, but that the way we think, act, and behave on the Sabbath be distinct. 

From this distinction and subsequent separation results an evergreen way of thinking about God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. We therein carry this imagination with us into all those other “regular” days. In this frame of mind, we don’t do our regular routine Monday through Saturday and then take a break on Sunday. Rather, Sunday is when we embrace our true selves. Here, God has provided the time (by stopping labor) so that we may devote all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our might to The Lord within the confines of a sacred, hallowed day. There are many other things that will compete for our time the rest of the week, but Sunday belongs to God. Exclusively focusing this day on the One who gave us days in the first place is an often overlooked and casually dismissed act of worship, reverence, and obedience to The Lord.

In this lesson, I am strategically going to avoid speaking about the Sabbath as it pertains to the Fourth Commandment because there will be an entire lesson devoted to this in What Christians Should Know Volume III: The Ten Commandments. Accordingly, this lesson will assist you in the process of formation and how you think about the Sabbath. The lesson in Volume III will be focused on execution and the specific peculiarities of the Fourth Commandment. By far, of all the chapters in this book, this one will persuade you to think more than you actually do.

Furthermore, many of the concepts discussed will rely on a timeless classic, The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel. This is a text that I highly recommend and encourage everyone to read for themselves: Your walk with God and understanding of the Sabbath will forever be changed.

 

What is the Sabbath?[1]

The Sabbath is Sunday and is a day of rest and holiness. The word for Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word sabat, which means seventh. Hence, the Sabbath is the seventh day and is the first thing in the history of creation that was made holy by God. 

Genesis 2:2-4 (ESV) says:

“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”

Holy comes from the Hebrew word qadas, which means to be clean, consecrate, be hallowed, or be separate. So by hallowing the seventh day, God set the Sabbath apart from the rest. Why is this important? Because, as an ordinance for all of creation, God declared that the seventh day would be something unique and special. God is in a covenant with creation, and a critical component of that covenant is the Sabbath—it so critical that in the Old Testament, violation of the Sabbath carried with it the penalty of death. Because of the meaning of the word Sabbath, some insist that Saturday is the legitimate Sabbath and not Sunday. Yet, historically speaking, Christianity has celebrated Sunday as the Sabbath because it is the day that Christ rose from the dead,[2] and it is called the “Lord’s day.”[3] It must be noted that prior to the resurrection of Christ, the Sabbath was celebrated on Saturday, and then it moved to Sunday, the first day of the week, after the resurrection.

Potentially, I could divert here and discuss some of the quarrels believers have about the Sabbath, but my concern is not about the specifics of the day but rather the principle of the Sabbath. Bible scholars and theologians have many disagreements about what is proper to do and not to do on the Sabbath, yet a vast majority concur that it is certainly a time to engage in corporate worship, to reflect on God’s Word and what God has already done for us in Christ. Most theologians also agree that the Sabbath mandates stoppage of all but vitally necessary commerce or labor.[4] Of course, stoppage does not imply total inactivity, because in Matthew 12:1-21, Mark 3:1-6 and Luke 13:10-17, we see Jesus engaging in active works of ministry and outreach on the Sabbath despite objections from religious leaders at the time.

If we look back at Genesis 2:2-4, we see that God’s special Sabbath decree carries with it a threefold mandate: to rest, to bless, and to make holy. Because this creation ordinance is located in Genesis, it applies to everything in existence throughout the entire Biblical narrative until the present day. Note as well that God did not consecrate a mountain. He did not sanctify a piece of land. He did not hallow an idol.

The first entity that a holy God made holy was a day, a segment of time. 

In fact, the Sabbath is the only thing made holy in the entire order of creation. Everything that God made was either “good” or “very good” (e.g., Genesis 1:31), but the Sabbath was exclusively made holy.[5] Hence, the Sabbath, which came first, is a pursuit of holiness in time;[6] it is only later in the Bible—at Mount Sinai—that holiness in people was decreed by The Lord: “[Y]ou shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6; c.f. Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:19, 28:9). And, if you really want to get fancy, what came third was the holiness of space that was decreed in the construction of the Tabernacle.[7]

Of course, the Tabernacle points directly to Christ, and the mobile sanctuary was only meant to be temporary because it directs our attention to the Messiah. So, by understanding this trinity of holiness (in time, people, and space), by modern extension we appreciate the fact that holiness of space serves to do the same thing as the Tabernacle: to point us to God, who then animates our own pursuit of holiness on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, then, is the incarnation of God into time. As in the case of Jesus, His focus was to save sinners in order to bring life. The Sabbath is about giving life and nurturing life, and it is not about adding burdens to life and following rules. While legalism may define the contours of holiness, legalism divorced from God’s hesed or overflowing love for His creation simply misses the point. Of what value is rest or “holiness” if we despise our neighbors and project disdain against God and His creations?

Abraham Heschel writes:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”[8]

 

Architecture of Time

Using Heschel’s language, the Sabbath is a great cathedral of time, built within an architecture of time for a people who are largely concerned with the sanctification of time. In fact, time is the greatest challenge of humankind: The ultimate defeat is death (time is up), and the greatest victory is eternal life (time never runs out). 

So, no matter who you are or where you are, a cathedral of time can never be torn down, nor can spiteful outsiders ever sack it. To make that concept plain, consider when the Israelites were conquered and exiled to Babylon: They realized that they were a foreign people in a foreign land with foreign customs and a foreign God. Every one of the Babylonian norms ran counter to what the Israelites stood for, and as God-worshippers in a land that was indifferent to Yahweh, they were also far, far away from their physical sanctuary: the Temple in Jerusalem. So, the Jews realized that the one thing the Babylonians could not take away from them and their communal identity was how they honored God with time. Hence, the Sabbath was a sanctuary of time impervious to assault and built with foundation stones that no foreign invader could ever remove. The Sabbath also became a way for a displaced community to remember weekly who they were and where they came from by participating in the ritual. If I figuratively say that nowadays, Christians are the displaced Israelites who worship God in the midst of an empire that would rather engage in recreation on Sunday, then the analogy begins to become very clear.

Time is so important because it lies at the center of our existence. At the boundaries of every person’s life lie two markers of time: a date of birth and a date of death. What happens in between all occurs in time, yet modern society is largely more concerned with space and the things that occupy it. Again, Heschel writes:

“In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.”[9]

The promise of God to those who have faith and believe in Him is a promise qualified by time: eternal life. This helps to make sense of Jesus’s words when He asks, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world (space) when he loses his soul to eternity (time)?[10]

The Bible is full of stories of people who take a wrong turn when they begin to pursue space and neglect the realm of time. This is part of the reason why idolatry is so attractive: It attempts to change something immaterial into something material in our space that can be made, contained, and carried in our pockets. Temporal things never saved anyone. This isn’t a call to reject the natural world but rather to highlight the idea that while in the world, we are sincerely committed to our loving and timeless Father in heaven.

The Sabbath, a holy day, reflects the pervasive Biblical idea that no person can ever use things to overcome time. The only entity that does allow us to overcome the inescapable endpoint of our time—death—is Christ. God is the same one who reveals to us that moments mean more than schedules, stewardship means more than money, familial relationships mean more than inheritances, and the cultural legacy and history of a community mean more than national or political boundaries.

 

Practical Implications

With this framework in mind, it now becomes clear that in order to enter into the sanctuary of time, we have to adequately prepare ourselves and take certain measures: We don’t take the baggage of the world with us into the sanctuary of time, because material, worldly things have no place in an immaterial refuge. Consequently, we not only cease working, but we also embrace the idea that creation will continue to thrive without our efforts. For six days we work in order to produce, to provide, and to support as a means to make our journey in the realm of space more certain and comfortable. Then, on the Sabbath, we rest and acknowledge that ultimately, God is the one who provides and supports us. What this means, practically speaking, is that work stoppage on the Sabbath isn’t just a physical act; it entails a mental and emotional separation as well. It means not allowing your thoughts to dwell on work, not allowing your mind to go into a frenzy about deadlines, and not allowing your cell phone to dictate what you do. The Sabbath, then, is a command that engenders a state of mind and forms of conduct.

Indeed, as Jesus says in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Hence, the Sabbath isn’t just a day to get up late and to recoup from a long week of work so that you have restored energy to go back to work. If that was the case, this tacitly admits that our existence is nothing more than a commodity to be traded and managed for the sake of labor. Labor without purpose is just toiling for the sake of toiling. Because God made the Sabbath for us, it is a gift to be celebrated in recognition of the gift-giver. It also means that we ought not to sacrifice our neighbors for the Sabbath because God made humankind first, and then He rested. The Sabbath isn’t a destination but a place of origin so that we are not citizens of the world who seek to travel to the sanctuary of time; rather, we are citizens of a heavenly realm who travel from the sanctuary into the rest of the week. In this perspective, the Sabbath is the well of inspiration that we draw from, and this life-giving drink sustains us from Monday through Saturday.

People often neglect to realize that God rested and participated in the Sabbath, so when we recognize the holiness of the day and rest, we are imitating God. It is in that imitation that we discover that “the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.”[11] The Sabbath is meaningful to both God and humankind.

When I go to work on a normal weekday, my day is gauged by what I do. If I get up late and reach the office late, I have a bad day. If I miraculously heal someone, I have a great day. The other six days are granted value as a function of what we accomplish with our time, how we use it, and whether or not we are effective.

The Sabbath, however, is holy and set apart regardless of what we do. It is a block of time sanctioned by God as holy and distinct from the rest. So, when Christians feel restless about things, where do we turn for rest and comfort? Where do we turn to find the peace of God? The Sabbath, which prescribes a time of tranquility and tells us that in the realm of space, we may possess many things, but ultimately, we can do without them because we seek holiness in time. So, is it really possible to do all of your work in six days? Of course not. There is always something to do. And that’s the point. We rest as if our work is done, not as if our work is endless.

The last point to make in this section is that the Sabbath, practically speaking, does not just revolve around the concept of work. It compels us to reconcile with God. It is a time hallowed by The Lord to hit “pause” on everything else and the frantic nature of life in order to honor He who gives life in the first place. We are not sovereign, but God is, and by consecrating time to God, we thus draw closer to He who brings order to our lives. Oftentimes, He will thus reveal to us that many of the things we are “busy” with are not things we ought to be concerned with. Ultimately, everything has a time and a season, and He can direct us as to what particular season we are in. As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 3:1-10:

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace. What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils? I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.”

So, for example, if during the week you don’t normally read the Bible, pray, listen to a sermon, or sit down and fellowship with others, then the Sabbath is the perfect place to start. In fact, for anyone in pursuit of personal holiness, the ideal time to practice holiness is in the unit of time that God has already prescribed to be set apart from the rest.

The typical weekend, for example, is when people do what they want to do. So, if you’re in a cubicle all week, the weekend is when you go to the beach, swim, and talk about baseball with your friends on the sand. You spend the evenings looking out over the horizon and painting images on a canvas. You do this because in the cyclical weekend break, your thoughts and behaviors manifest from who you are and what you love. Your true identity is not a cubicle worker. In a similar light, celebrating the Sabbath is the return to who we truly are: loving servants of The Lord created in His image in order to glorify Him. The stoppage of labor facilitates us never forgetting or becoming distant from who we are truly called to be. Heschel writes, “What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us. The law of the Sabbath day is in the life of the spirit what the law of gravitation is to nature.”[12] Personal holiness without a proper understanding of the Sabbath can never reach maximum potential.

More next week in Part II …

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] See Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11; Isaiah 58:13-14; Matthew 12:1-14; Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:1-2; Revelation 1:10

[2] Mark 16:9

[3] See Revelation 1:10

[4] R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 239.

[5] This is an intriguing point of contemplation because according to God, there is something much more desirable than “good,” and that is holiness. We stand on earth able to be simply “good” by our own merit. God stands in heaven, being holy, something remarkably distinct and greater than “good.”

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), 9.

[7] See Exodus 25-40.

[8] Heschel, The Sabbath, 10.

[9] Heschel, The Sabbath, 3.

[10] See Mark 8:36, 16:26

[11] Heschel, The Sabbath, 16.

[12] Heschel, Sabbath, 89.

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