Keep the Sabbath

At the risk of being too general, most Christians agree it’s good and wise to keep the intention of the Sabbath by taking a day off every week and resting.1 We don’t do this because we’re under the law of the Sabbath, for Jesus has fulfilled that law for us. We don’t have to have it on a certain day of the week, and it’s not done to win God’s favour. Instead, we observe these Sabbath-type days because we trust the God who loves us in Christ and who rules all things; taking a day off once a week is “an expression of this commitment”.2

However, was the Sabbath really just a day off for Israel? Was that the intention behind it? What type of work were they meant to rest from? Furthermore, what type of work were they supposed to do on the Sabbath? Perhaps we’ve missed an aspect of rest by equating ‘Sabbath’ with ‘day off’.

So let’s jump back into the Sabbath question with our eyes focused on what God wanted his people to avoid—and what he wanted them to achieve—on the Sabbath.3

No ordinary work

God first commands his people to Sabbath (literally, ‘stop’) just after Israel escaped from Egypt (Exod 16:22-30, 20:8-11). But what exactly are they meant to ‘stop’ doing? What things did Yahweh tell Israel not to do on the Sabbath?

Interestingly, there are very few prohibitions in the Old Testament: Exodus 35:3 says they couldn’t make fires, and Numbers 15:32 implies they weren’t to carry wood, but that’s it. Apart from these two verses, the only other instruction comes in Leviticus 23, where the Sabbath is described as a day when you must “not do any ordinary work” (vv. 7, 8, 21, 25, 35, 36; cf. Num 28-29).

But what did that mean as they wandered through the desert and lived in the promised land? What did it mean for farmers, mothers, shepherds, children and grandparents? What ‘work’ weren’t they supposed to do?

We see that there are different types of work when we look at the garden of Eden. God set Adam to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). This was ‘work’ we can’t even imagine: it was happy work—always success­ful, never frustrating, forever enjoy­able. I really don’t like gardening; planting a row of citrus trees in our backyard has been fruitless work, even after tending to the soil, deploying fertilizers, and dealing with weeds and insects. But even I’m attracted to Adam’s ‘work’: presumably his seeds always grew, and new shoots always ‘took’. It must have been almost fun to plant a tree in Eden—to watch it grow and then sitting back and eating its fruits! A better word to describe what God asked Adam to do would be to ‘play’—to enjoy making the garden fill the earth.

But that was before Adam sinned—before the ground was cursed, and thorns and thistles frustrated his work. One of the effects of Adam’s sin was that his work was cursed: it became hard and toilsome. All of a sudden, Adam’s life wasn’t about playing with creation and enjoying its fruits; instead, his survival depended on toilsome work: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:19). In other words, part of Adam’s life now had to be spent fighting the effects of sin.

As we move from Genesis into Exodus, we find Israel still under that curse—and nowhere more so than when they were slaves in Egypt. But freedom from slavery didn’t free them from the curse of having to work against the effects of sin to feed themselves. Even when they entered the promised land, every day was a struggle to gather enough food for the family, draw enough water for the animals, keep their clothes from wear and tear, fix the tent roof and do maintenance. These were all the jobs that had to be done because of the Fall—because of the ongoing corruption and decay introduced by sin. Fight-against-the-effects-of-sin-type work had to be done every day.

It’s at this point that Yahweh draws Israel together at Mount Sinai and, referencing the garden of Eden, tells Israel to stop—to ‘Sabbath’. In short, he commands Israel to be a people reminiscent of those in the garden! They were to stop sinning, to remember and avoid the effects of sin (sickness and death), and to enjoy times of rest from their work against the effects of sin for their survival.4

Can you see how the Sabbath laws were meant to point Israel back to the garden, giving them the opportunity to remember work before the Fall? In other words, the type of work the Israelites were meant to rest from involved ‘field work’ and keeping “thorns and thistles” at bay (Gen 3:18). They were meant to stop the hard, again-and-again, bashing-your-head-against-a-tree, providing-and-maintaining-type of work.

This is what the Sabbath days and regulations were all about. Yahweh told his people to rest from doing that providing-type of work—that consequence-of-living-in-a-fallen-world-type of work. It’s as if God said, “I’m giving you a day—one day in seven—when I want the painful toil to stop”. In some sense, the Sabbath day was trying to recapture a taste of what life was like before the Fall.

Extra work

Now, imagine being an Israelite and making sure you didn’t toil every seventh day. How would you do that? It takes effort and hard work to make sure you don’t do any work. You’d have to prepare well.

Yahweh demonstrated this to Israel when he gave them manna. In Exodus 16, the people were hungry, and Yahweh provided them with food (manna) in the mornings. They were under strict orders to gather only enough food for each day. The only time they were told to gather more was the day before the Sabbath, when they gathered twice as much. They had to do twice as much providing-type work on one day so that they could avoid that providing-type work on the Sabbath.

I think that principle was also meant to be applied to all other areas of toilsome work. It meant getting all the washing up done before the Sabbath, and leaving the Sabbath’s washing up until after the Sabbath. It meant doing the laundry early. It meant fixing the cart, the tent and everything else before the seventh day. You weren’t meant to set up a fire and cook new food; you were meant to eat food you’d already prepared. It was a lot like family leftover night—the night when you’d get out food from earlier that week and eat that. Sabbath night was meant to be a massive leftover night for Israel.

Do you see what the Sabbath was meant to be? You were to work hard on the other six days and complete all that providing-type work so that you didn’t have to do any of that on the Sabbath. Instead … well, what sort of work were you meant to do instead?

Sabbath work

The Old Testament is just as vague about what Israel was supposed to do on the Sabbath. There were some special Sabbaths when the people were meant to fast, but that was usually before a week-long Sabbath when they were meant to feast (cf. Lev 23:32, 39). If, however, the Sabbath is meant to be a taste of life in the garden, then it seems the Sabbath day is a day to work the way Adam was meant to work—to serve God, enjoy oneself and even ‘play’.

In other words, the works Israel were meant to do on the Sabbath were simply good works—caring for their families; hanging out with their spouses, kids, parents, brothers and neighbours; serving each other; and enjoying God and his good gifts. It’s the sort of picture that we get in Micah 4:4: “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken”—a picture of people enjoying both God’s salvation and God’s gifts.

But that’s not the whole story. Israelite guys weren’t meant to think the Sabbath was their day to go and watch the cricket, and Israelite mums weren’t meant to think it was their day to go out and get their hair done. The Sabbath was meant to be Yahweh’s day: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places” (Lev 23:3).

There are two things worth mentioning here. Firstly, it’s clear that the Sabbath day belongs to the Lord. Those hours when you’re free from having to work the soil, clean and cook—those free hours in the day are not yours; they are God’s. This is a day to praise and enjoy God.

Secondly, the idea is that you have an ‘assembly’—a get-together—a gathering of the people of God. That is, you do church on the Sabbath. Whether it was the whole assembly of Israel, just your tribe, or your immediate family and friends, as an Israelite, you were to get together and spend time as God’s people, meditating on the God who saved you, reading the Scriptures and praising him. (See Psalm 92, which was meant to be sung on the Sabbath. It’s a song of praise to God, who provides, protects and comes through for his people.)

Can you imagine these things happening every seventh day in the Israelite campsite? Can you imagine everyone avoiding toilsome work so that they can concentrate on doing good to each other, enjoying Yahweh and even ‘playing’? Can you imagine everyone eating leftovers, doing it all with thanks and praise for their God who saved them? It sounds a bit like a church weekend away!

Prayerful, joyous dependence on God’s fatherly provision: that’s what the Sabbath day was about, and that’s still what our heavenly Father wants to see in us, his children.

Sabbath-keeping

I agree with wise Christians before us who have seen the value in having a Sabbath-type day, even though we’re not under law. However, I don’t think that it means that we’re meant to have a day every week when we do no work and avoid everything we might find stressful. There is a tension we have to live with: on one hand, Jesus says “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28), but on the other hand, he tells his followers, “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:38). Jesus is saying, “Always rest in me … and don’t forget work!” He makes the point even better when he says to the Pharisees, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt 12:12).

So bearing in mind that I’m not saying that observing a Sabbath-type day is a law we need to uphold, what follows are my thoughts on how we might keep the intention of the Sabbath as we wisely take Sabbath-type days.

a) See your work for what it is

A Sabbath-type day reminds us that we do paid work as a result of the Fall.5 Regardless of what your job creates or sustains, employment’s primary purpose is to put food on the table by the sweat of your brow. We still live in a cursed world, and therefore our slavery to our stomachs is characterized by great effort. Having a Sabbath-type day every week is a good reminder that your job is just a means to an end. Stop doing that work once a week to remind yourself that you won’t have to work like that in heaven, for then, the curse will be lifted (Rom 8:20-21).

The Sabbath also presents us with a right picture of work in a success-mad world. After a week of being surrounded by colleagues who worship their careers, the Sabbath day helps us recognize that we don’t serve our vocations; instead, they are meant to serve us.

b) The Sabbath is not about refreshment

We also need to be careful that we don’t take stopping work too far, because taking a Sabbath-type day is not really about taking time-out, getting some ‘alone time’ or being personally refreshed. There are occasions for that; Jesus himself went out to be on his own and recharge the batteries. But it’s not a Sabbath thing. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s good to keep a check on your personal wellbeing and mental health. But as far as I can see, Sabbath-type days are not primarily about your emotional health. They will probably help that, but that is not their primary purpose. There is something more important to do on a Sabbath-type day than feel refreshed.

c) Don’t swap cursed paid work for cursed unpaid work

This might be a touchy subject. I think that some people—especially my own species of ‘family dad’—can catch ourselves thinking that a Sabbath-type day is the best time to do the lawns, fix up the shed or the car, and engage in heaps of other things that are all about fighting the effects of the Fall. We end up swapping one form of cursed work (our job) for another form of cursed work (housework or yard work). But this is exactly what was meant to stop on the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is the day to say, “I know there are heaps of things that, left unchecked, could mean real problems, but I’ve got something more important to do”.

d) A Sabbath for mums and dads?

As my wife Julie and I discussed this, we found ourselves wondering just what ‘keeping the Sabbath’ would have looked like for Israelite mums and dads with little kids in nappies who had to be spoon-fed. We’ve got four young kids; is it even possible for us to observe Sabbath on the same day?

Firstly, raising kids is hard work, but it’s not all ‘work’. Raising kids was something that Adam and Eve were expected to do in the garden had they not sinned! Raising and caring for your kids is a blessed pre-Fall activity. Of course, it has certainly become much, much harder because of sin, which corrupts humanity and makes our kids rebellious. But Adam and Eve would still have been cleaning bottoms and feeding messy food into slobbery mouths. I don’t think that’s ‘work’ as Leviticus describes it. In fact, I think it might have been fun and something to thank God for.

Secondly, however, I think that there are parenting tasks that are fight-against-the-effects-of-sin-type work. Gathering and preparing food are big ones. So are cleaning, washing up and laundry. They’re all tasks that have to be done again and again. It’s worth having a go at preparing food the day before, getting the groceries earlier in the week, and leaving as much of the new mess until the following day. Some weeks, this works at our house; other weeks, it’s a farce. But it is nice when it works.

Thirdly, whatever you do with your kids on your Sabbath-type day, the purpose is to enjoy God and his good gifts—including each other. That might mean that you make a game with your kids of putting out the washing or making a cake. I love it when I ask my kids what things they’d like to thank God for, and they say stuff like, “I got to wash the car with mummy”. Sure, it’s a cursed task, but it’s not motivated by having a perfectly clean car. Spots will be missed, streaks will be left, but that’s okay because we weren’t doing car-upkeep-type work; we were doing enjoying-God’s-gift-of-each-other-type work.

e) Work hard on the Sabbath

So don’t waste Jesus’ day; instead, work on your Sabbath! Don’t do secular work or even maintenance work—cooking and cleaning. Instead, do the work that God has planned, prepared and created for you to do (Eph 2:10). Do the sort of self-sacrificial, other-person-centred, God-honouring, work that Jesus did (e.g. Matt 12:9-13).6 Spend the day doing nothing but good, loving work for God’s glory.

Fellow dads: when you get a day off work, work hard at loving your wife and kids. Help plan and prepare things the day before. Please your God by continuing to put your family before yourself: play with them, change nappies and teach them what a godly father is like. Wives: work hard at loving your husbands on your Sabbath-type days. Make it easy for him to focus on good works—not as you define them, but as God defines them.

Whatever your life situation, try to get as much as possible out of the way so that you can enjoy God and do good on that Sabbath day. Spend it writing a letter, catching up with that unbelieving friend, doing walk-up evangelism, meeting up with someone to read the Bible, praying, singing God’s praises, teaching a Sunday school class, serving with thanks in your heart to God. That’s what the Sabbath was meant to look like.

f) Church on your Sabbath

When you look at it this way, it seems appropriate to go to church on your Sabbath-type day. But don’t just attend church; be there emotionally and spiritually with God’s people. Take the opportunity to love people at church, and serve them for God’s glory. Putting out chairs, folding outlines and helping out at crèche are all Sabbath activities! It’s the sort of work characterized by loving others. But don’t stop when the meeting ends; take people home with you and encourage them. Pray, laugh and cry together in thankfulness to God.

What if you’re a minister: should Sundays be your Sabbath? You can accuse me of being biased, but simply because church ministers get paid to be there on Sunday, they need a different day to call their Sabbath. However (to borrow from Colin Marshall and Tony Payne), as much as possible, I’d recommend that paid ministers get as much of their ‘trellis’ work done during the week so that they can spend as much time doing ‘vine’ work on Sundays.7

What if you teach Sunday School and church feels like ‘work’ (i.e. you’re constantly fighting against the effects of sin)? Again, as much as possible, I’d suggest you make Sundays about ‘vine’ work, not ‘trellis’ work. Do your class preparation and your photocopying another day. Try to make it so that you can walk in with everything under your arm, ready to go. Then enjoy getting messy with the kids as you talk about Jesus.

Sabbath-type days hold out for us the joy of avoiding cursed work and, instead, allow us to focus on doing the good works God has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:10). Most of us don’t have much time to do good things because our food-providing work gets in the way. The Sabbath was always meant to be a time when you didn’t let anything prevent you from doing good. In this sense, it’s the day we get to spend with our heavenly Father, doing his work with him.

  1. There have been some great Briefing articles about this. See, for example, ‘The relationship between the testaments: Law and Sabbath’ in Briefing #59 and Joshua Ng, ‘The Sabbath Rest’ in Briefing #293.
  2. Anonymous, ‘The relationship between the
    testaments: Law and Sabbath’.
  3. This article is an adaptation of a series of sermons preached at Hunter Bible Church in 2009 (see
    http://hunterbiblechurch.org/sermons/talks/).
  4. The garden forms the backdrop for many of the ‘strange’ regulations in Exodus and Leviticus. In Leviticus 11, Yahweh tells his people they can and can’t eat certain foods—reminiscent of Adam and Eve. In Leviticus 12-19, Yahweh says that when people and objects display the effects of sin (like sicknesses, mould, guilt, debauchery, death, and even bleeding, which symbolizes death), those things make you ‘unclean’—that is, not like pre-Fall Adam and Eve, and thus you were unable to dwell near Yahweh by going to the tabernacle. All those ‘unclean’ things were outward displays of the internal problem with Adam and his descendants. Furthermore, in Leviticus 23-25, Yahweh tells his people to set aside days and weeks and even whole years, during which they should avoid the type of work that came into this world because of Adam’s sin.
  5. There are exceptions to this as some people don’t need the money their job provides.
  6. You could argue that Jesus giving himself as the true sacrifice of atonement is therefore the true pattern of Sabbath activity (see Lev 23:28).
  7. See Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2009, which has been reviewed by David Mathis in Briefing #379 (http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/briefing/library/5873/).

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