I have for many years been perplexed about the passages in Scripture regarding the Sabbath. Part of my response has been due directly to the fact that the church tradition I was raised in never taught about the Sabbath and so I was never given any kind of grid for interpreting those biblical texts. These have remained one of those elusive parts of the biblical teaching to me—and I have discovered in listening to others that I am not the only one. To remedy this perplexity I have read other authors who have written very constructively about Sabbath-keeping but frankly these have only minimally helpful. The persistent questions that have come up in my mind are, “What is the heart of the Sabbath? Why was it given—besides the obvious and rational need for humans to rest from their work?”
The Lord’s words in the Gospels, in response to the hypocritical religious leaders who criticized his disciples, are helpful in that they point toward what must be the primary principle by which to construct answers to these questions. Specifically, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV) As I understand this, the basic meaning of the Lord’s words is that he, the Lord incarnate, is the master of the Sabbath because he gave the command to observe this to Israel and thus can assure them that the primary purpose of it was to benefit human beings.
Further, whatever it means to keep the Sabbath for those who are disciples of the Lord Jesus, this practice is certainly not to be centered upon hope in the efficacy of performing human deeds of devotion. These are empty and they reflect a piety which is wholly informed by a spiritual blindness to the core of the Torah’s teaching—that is, justice, mercy and faith (see Matthew 23:23-24). This is not merely the tendency of the first century Jewish teachers and leaders but of people in every generation who strive to wholly devote themselves to God and to do what he commands. Changing the Sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday or reformulating a new set of rules to govern behavior on that day does not change this dynamic! It seems to me that we need to always keep learning how to go deeper experientially into the heart of Sabbath rest and weigh routines and spiritual disciplines as mere tools by which to express our faith and gratitude to the Father.
As I have considered the logical implications of this interpretation and core principle regarding Sabbath-keeping, I have been led to obedience that is rooted in human will. What I mean is a whole-hearted willingness and desire to do all that God commands. And what I find even more remarkable is that this willingness to obey is reinforced by the knowledge that the command to keep Sabbath is a healthful practice which brings honor to God and shalom to me (see Isaiah 58:13-14). Obedience then, as I have come to see it, is the means by which I open myself to the Spirit and I learn to strengthen myself in my spirit so that I can obey God in all that the Lord commanded. This choice of obedience runs directly counter to what I would otherwise say about and attempt to do regarding the Sabbath—that is, to do things that cost me nothing and tend toward bringing me comfort both in my body and my psyche.
As I have been ruminating and writing for this essay I was struck by a parallel between the Lord’s words and how Paul addressed this same question to the assembly of believers in Colossae. They were being presented with teaching that adopted certain Jewish practices and presented them as a means of spiritual enlightenment—enlightenment which (they apparently asserted) simple obedience of faith in Christ would not bring (see Colossians 2:8-23). The verse that rings in my mind is the summation of Paul’s argument: “These [practices] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23, NRSV)
Is this not the fundamental problem in human religion? We can devise many different forms of religious piety and strive to keep them through self-discipline and accountability with other like-minded persons. Yet even when there is a willingness to do this it is never effective to purge the inward tendency to turn from the living God and toward impure things or to ignore the law of love. Isaiah’s denunciation of the Israelites demonstrates this plainly (see Isaiah 58). Thus it makes sense that we need some more radical remedy than tedious scholarship and clarifications about all the particulars of what God does and does not require of us (and exactly how to carry that out). These are the inventions of humans to fill in the gaps of the practice of piety which they think God has not spoken to (and should have addressed).
Yet this misses the point of God’s just commands altogether! And when we consider the question of Sabbath-keeping this blindness becomes absurdly plain. What does God want from us? He wants nothing short of complete love and obedience so he can bless us with the fullness of his grace. Our sin is what prevents the full spiritual blessing from being given and our attempts to construct theologies of sin management are tangled obstructions to the Spirit’s work. The Lord tell us to be “perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, NRSV) And further, he plainly said that the greatest persons in the Kingdom would be those who actually obey all of God’s commandments and teach others to do the same (see Matthew 5:17-20) These statements alone drive me back to consider the question, “What is the heart of Sabbath?”
In the Christian communities I have been apart of the general tendency has been to downplay or even disregard the importance of God’s commands. This was exhibited in the selective use of Scripture and the avoidance of moral questions over certain kinds of behavior. I suspect that every Christian community (or even tradition) could be charged with this kind selective reading and teaching of God’s word. I cannot comment any further due to my own ignorance of other churches and traditions but in comparison with past generations I think it is fairly obvious that this current generation is very lax about instructing professing Christians regarding their actual behavior.
The question of Sabbath-keeping appears to me to be one of the most glaring examples of selectively reading Scripture and thus ignoring those sections one does not want to do anything with. Surely there are different possible motives that could help explain this. Perhaps we are simply ignorant because no one taught us about Sabbath-keeping. Perhaps we are reacting against what appears to be a religious legalism that denies the primacy of God’s grace. Perhaps we were taught that Sabbath-keeping was part of the Law that is no longer in effect because of the cross of Christ. These are understandable but the fact remains that they keep us isolated from the heart of Sabbath, which is to say, communion with the living God.
I do not want to get sidetracked into a long assessment of people’s behavior regarding the Old Testament or the Sabbath. I think I have said enough to convey my observations and concerns regarding that matter. Rather, I want to know what it means to keep the Sabbath.
Since the Sabbath was made for the benefit of humankind it appears to me that we must return to a consideration of human beings. To those of you who have earnestly attempted to practice spiritual disciplines and conscientiously press forward into learning to understand the whole council of God in Scripture: What is the core obstacle which keeps us from entering into God’s own rest (sabbath)? We are when we persist in cherishing sin. What then are we to do with ourselves?
To turn some routine of Sabbath-keeping into a system of sin management (legalism) or to simply flout this command altogether is merely to continue to sin. The only alternative I have found that reflects genuine faith is to learn the heart of Sabbath by learning the way of the Master who gifted us with this command. Only then can we begin to keep the Sabbath in a way that honors God and brings God’s shalom to us and to all who we encounter in daily life.
There is much more that is needed to be said about this. The current issue of the Journal address many angles of inquiry into Sabbath-keeping. My intention is to delve more deeply into the theological and practical considerations of Sabbath without every ceasing to ask the fundamental question, “What is the heart of Sabbath?”