The meaning of Sabbath has been on my mind much lately as I was able to take some down time due to the Christmas. The more I consider what it may mean to keep the Sabbath the more I have turned toward the human body and the doctrine of sanctification. A connection between Sabbath keeping, the body and sanctification has been emerging in my mind more and more. I am convinced and thus would suggest that it is sound to even think of Sabbath keeping as sanctification. To explicitly connect these is new to me and I will attempt to clarify why I think they should be linked.
The connective points in my mind begin with a remarkable comment made by the writer of Hebrews which I have pondered for many years. In a section on God’s interactions with the ancient Israelites (see chapters 3-4:11) the writer states this:
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (Hebrews 4:8-11, NRSV; italics added)
I will not attempt to comment on or explain the fuller context or the full argument that the writer built prior to making this conclusion and admonition. That would require another essay altogether. However, the general points which lead to this specific application he makes are obvious—actual entry into Sabbath rest is contrasted with the people’s unbelief in God’s promises and thus God’s inability to do the spiritual and tangible work of bringing his promises to pass at that time and in them. And even in the case of the next generation that did enter the land to live there it is obvious that they did not attain to this promised “rest” either. For later, through the psalmist, God spoke again and invited the people to turn from unbelief to the living God. The promise of rest to the people of God as well as God resting after creating and ordering the universe obviously refer to more than physical realities.
This is the first point which has been impressed upon me. And what I take from this is that whatever I conclude about Sabbath keeping, I must not think it is merely about the physical world and God acting in his creation in obvious and tangible ways. There is quite another and deeper dimension to God’s purpose for us as individuals and as God’s people in regard to the Sabbath.
The next connective point which has been deeply impressed upon my mind is that somehow the practice of Sabbath keeping uniquely symbolizes the disposition of the human heart towards the Creator. In the prophesy of Jeremiah there is a remarkable statement regarding the utmost importance to God of Sabbath keeping (Jeremiah 17:19-27). As I understand the message, Jeremiah was to convey to the ancient people that if only they would keep the Sabbath day holy God would make the city of Jerusalem a blessing and destination to which all peoples of the earth would be drawn and blessed.
“But it will come about, if you listen attentively to Me,” declares the LORD, “to bring no load in through the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but to keep the sabbath day holy by doing no work on it, then there will come in through the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and this city will be inhabited forever.” (Jeremiah 17:24-25, NASBU)
God notes that the people will not listen and are so stubborn in pursuing their own ways that God is actually prevented from bringing his shalom upon them and the city (see Jeremiah 16:5, 10-13). This promise appears to be connected with the promise to David, and thus to God’s covenant with Israel. What is especially noteworthy to me is that keeping the Sabbath day holy is specifically mentioned and integrated into the promise to relent from the horrible punishment which God has been announcing through Jeremiah.
What is it then about keeping the Sabbath, and thus ceasing from the normal routine of labor, that is so important? What is a refusal to do this simple act of ceasing for one day from the normal routine of work and business have to do with relationship with God? I think that the answer is to be found in God’s will to completely set his people apart for himself—that is, to use the more familiar theological term, to sanctify them for himself.
To obey this simple command to cease and to devote a full day to resting is to open oneself up to the living God. The act of keeping the Sabbath day holy is a mirror of the disposition of the heart toward God. For if I am unwilling to stop and intentionally take a day to not do normal labor this reflects a willingness to trust God who gave me my life and who is able to order my days for my good. To continue to labor to produce wealth and gain material things continuously reflects the fact that I think that I am responsible for protecting myself and gaining control over resources to establish security for myself.
This leads me to my main conclusion thus far: The command of Sabbath keeping is basically part of God’s design to sanctify his own people. This practice opens them up to God’s spiritual work. A spirituality shaped by biblical teaching requires obedience precisely because God’s supernatural actions in the human persons involve the whole person. Sabbath keeping is by definition a physical activity by which God’s people respond to God’s command to listen to his voice—to obey his revealed word. When considered from this vantage point, the meaning of this command and why it must be practiced because very clear. And the opposite refusal is made plain for what it is—an act of unbelief and defiance of God’s good purpose for human beings.
This may seem obvious but given the contradictory assumptions of modern people about reality this becomes necessary to observe and point out. As I have argued in past essays on this blog, American (and modern) notions of religion and spirituality are primarily gnostic in shape and form. People tend to disassociate the physicality of their lives from the actual practice of spirituality. The biblical command of Sabbath keeping calls that notion out as absurd, for true spirituality requires the full engagement of the whole person.
The biblical world-view asserts that God created and formed the world in every aspect and is the One who keeps it moving. God is the source, in the sense of the beginning of and also of the present life of all things that have been made. This doctrine is intimately connected with the commands to keep the Sabbath holy.
Think through this with me. For since the keeping of the Sabbath day is necessarily a cessation of physical and intellectual activity it therefore involves one’s use of the body. To keep the Sabbath one must do something distinctly different with one’s body and focus one’s intellect on matters that are very different from what one does in the normal activities of life.
The implications of this are profound and I think they may help us to understand why Sabbath keeping as sanctification is the key to understanding what God’s primary concern for human beings is: Namely, that we are willing to freely give our wills (and thus their bodies) to God the Holy Spirit and to conform themselves to the Lord’s ways. Unbelievers cannot do this because they think they own themselves—even those who may acknowledge (in some vague sense) the Creator as the One who made them. For believers it is necessary to give themselves fully to the living God. Whatever else we may think about how to work out the practicalities of Sabbath keeping, at its core this is the purpose of the Sabbath.