Are the redeemed of the Lord to keep the Sabbath? I would argue that the answer is yes. However, Yet the questions of how to do this and more importantly why we are to do this is the more pressing. Why would I do anything that expresses faith and piety toward God without seeking to understand why I was doing it? I for one need to ask and get some answers to this question. I think the answer basically involves the experience of resting in God.
The challenge of Sabbath keeping is not a matter deciding how to best define what “rest” and “work” are because these distinctions will always have some degree of subjectivity to them. And thus it seems unwise (to say the least) to press our definitions into binding requirements upon ourselves or other people. Indeed, the great error of the devoted Pharisee was (and is) to try to relate to God as though the Almighty God judged the piety of a person based upon whether or not he or she executed specific acts of devotion in the correct way. The Lord condemned the religious leaders among the Jews of his time for mischaracterizing God’s intentions for and requirements of human beings. The practice of Sabbath keeping became the occasion for our Lord to comment on this because they had made this a basic criterion of godliness.
The secret to true Sabbath-keeping is only found in knowing and being known by the living God. If we do not desire this then we will devise ways to superficially observe outward acts that appear to reflect devotion to God; all the while the inward disposition of the heart will remain indifferent or even hostile to God. And over time people cannot maintain such merely outward acts because the inner disposition and experience of devotion must eventually come to line up with the outward behavior of a person. People will eventually cease religious practices if their internal perception of them is not meaningful. Thus, I would suggest, that the inner perception of faith must be experienced as authentic if one is to continue to press on in outward practices of devotion. And the only way that Sabbath keeping practices, whatever forms those may take, can be authentic before the living God is if a person is resting in God.
I have found remarkable help from St. John of the Cross’ writings for understanding how to discern the inner terrain of the journey of the soul toward God in Christ. I think that his insights speak directly to the phenomena of blockage within the self that keeps people from entering into authentic Sabbath rest.
In his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel, he addresses the ways in which the person seeking spiritual union with God must identity and renounce all that hinders the progressive steps toward full union. One of his basic and often repeated principles is that created things, whether they be good or evil will be an impediment to spiritual union because we humans tend to take joy in (that is, try to find fulfillment in) created things rather than in God who created them. And while created things can inspire and point us to turn towards the One who made all things, this inward sight and spiritual disposition that can look through created things to God must be learned by faith because of our tendency toward idolatry. And that learning process requires continual confession, renunciation and obedience as the Holy Spirit powerfully operates within the soul.
“Spiritual joy directed to God at the sight of all divine or profane things follows from the eye already purged of the enjoyment in seeing things. Resulting from the purgation of enjoyment in hearing things is a most spiritual joy, a hundred times greater, directed to God in all that is heard, divine or profane; and so on with the other senses already purged. In the state of innocence all that our first parents saw, spoke of, and ate in the garden of paradise served them for more abundant delight in contemplation, since the sensory part of their souls was truly subjected and ordered to reason. The person whose sense is purged of sensible objects and ordered to reason procures from the first movements [within the soul] the delight of savory contemplation and awareness of God.” (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 3, chapter 26, paragraph 5; cited from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. & Otilio Rodriquez, O.C.D [ICS Publications:1991], p.314.)
The person who treats devotional acts of the mind and body as adequate for and pleasing to God is deceived. For he or she has not understood that God delights in the whole human person and seeks to bring wholeness within the life of a person—the spirit, soul and body. Such persons are like Nicodemus, who may be well educated in Scripture and tradition but who could not comprehend the meaning of the Lord’s words, “You must be born from above.” For he did not understand the absolute necessity of inner transformation of the soul by God in order to make one pleasing to the Father. And this was so even though the Scripture testifies to this work of God and he had spent his life studying Scripture and Jewish tradition!
Paul’s statement to the believers at Thessalonica reflects this truth: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, NRSV) A person must be wholly set apart to the Holy Spirit and thus for the living God. Nothing short of that will be adequate if we want to experience authentic Sabbath keeping and then be able to take joy in God in all things.
Resting in God fundamentally changes how I see myself, others, my circumstances, the mixture of both bad and good aspects of human experience and indeed every aspect of the created world that I can perceive. Again, John of the Cross has a helpful comment.
“In the pure [soul], therefore, all things, high and low, engender greater good and purity. In like manner the impure soul usually derives impurity from things, whether high or low. But anyone who fails to conquer the joy of appetite will fail to experience the serenity of habitual joy in God by means of his creatures and works. . . . If the soul through mortification of the animal life lives a spiritual life, it must obviously, without contradiction, go to God in all things, since all its spiritual actions and movements will flow from the spiritual life. Consequently this person, now of pure heart, finds in all things a joyful, pleasant, chaste, pure, spiritual, glad, and loving knowledge of God.” (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 3, chapter 26, paragraph 6; cited from The Collected Works, pp.314-315.)
The value for us of Sabbath keeping is directly related to our perspective of and thus what we take to be the purpose of those devotional practices. Why one seeks to do these things is rooted in the spiritual or unspiritual disposition of that person. And if the inward gaze of the soul is not turned by faith toward the living God then outward acts are of no eternal value or worth before God—for they were not done from faith.
Consider the sheer psychological gravity of this inward movement of the will to find satisfaction in enjoying things for themselves alone. Is that not a dead end? Anyone who has come through recovery from addiction to anything can attest to this. But more than that, these comments echo and make application of our Lord’s simple but profound warning regarding the worship of created things.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:20-24, NASBU)
I again want to return to the question I began with. Are redeemed persons to keep the Sabbath? Yes, indeed! But not according to a merely outward and fleshly pattern. That is, not from the motive to present one’s devotional acts as sacrifices which will bring God’s favor. No, the message of grace teaches us that God loves us not because of anything we have or may do; rather, his embrace of us comes from his character and goodness and thus has been expressed in his promises (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). The basis for hope held out to us in Scripture is the love and grace of God given to us through our Lord Jesus and no abilities or actions we can perform for God. If we understand this then we must view the question of Sabbath keeping through the truth God’s grace and love.
Our Lord declared that the “sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV) God’s design for human beings, which is revealed in the broader affirmations of Scripture, are the grid through which to seek to grapple with questions regarding Sabbath keeping. And that multi-faceted testimony shows that the practice of faith is the focal point toward which rest is designed to lead us. Thus I would propose that authentic Sabbath keeping is resting in God the Father, through Jesus the Anointed, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, in growing relationships with the redeemed of the Lord. And that necessitates obedience but kind of freedom within the commandments of God the Psalmist knew (see Psalm 119:32) and not the deceptive path the Pharisees adopted.