Keeping the Sabbath holy is not merely an opportunity to rest and recuperate from the week that has been. The Sabbath “was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) so that we could rest from our normal pursuits and be reminded of God’s grace. The Sabbath was given by God so that we could set aside one day in seven to worship; to be empowered and energized for the week ahead; to actively refocus our minds, hearts and souls on God; and to be reminded of our role as God’s representatives in the world. Keeping Sabbath rest in a world that never stops refocuses the world’s attention on God who provides and sustains life. Sabbath rest, therefore, is active rest.
Mark 2:23-28 describes an event in which Jesus and his disciples were walking through a cornfield on the Sabbath. As they walked they grew hungry and picked some cobs of corn. All of a sudden a group of religious leaders (It is a worthwhile exercise to think of these men not as Pharisees but as leaders of the established religion and then put ourselves in their place – as members and/or leaders of the established Christian church, how would we act in a similar situation?) popped up from among the cornstalks and challenged Jesus: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
Sabbath law is mentioned many times in both Old and New Testaments. Here we look at the implications of this law as recorded in the book of Exodus (chapter 31:12-17), where God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites to mark the Sabbath day (the seventh day) by resting from all their ordinary labours in order that they would remember that it is God who created life; that it is God who brought them out of slavery; that it is God who fed them in the wilderness and that it is God who formed them into a nation to be God’s representatives. The Sabbath, in other words, was “given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Ex. 31:13). Keeping the Sabbath day holy reminded the Israelites of their position in culture as God’s representatives. Keeping the Sabbath also served as a sign of their covenant relationship with God and so served to reveal God’s covenantal faithfulness, provision and protection to the broader culture. This, therefore, allowed the people in the broader culture to observe God’s goodness through Israel.
If Israel failed to keep the Sabbath holy, they effectively misrepresented God. The implications of this were that the broader culture would not have the opportunity to be drawn into relationship with God. Therefore God issued the harsh command: “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people” (Ex. 31:14). Anyone who worked on the Sabbath implied that they didn’t trust God to provide their needs for the day (recall the Israelites’ collection of manna in the wilderness in Ex. 16:22-30). To break the Sabbath was to break trust; to break trust was to misrepresent God. It would be better that you were not a member of God’s people – that you were not in a relationship with God – than to misrepresent God to the world. But, though the command was to rest from their work, Sabbath rest is not a passive rest.
In Exodus 31:16 God elaborates on the command by instructing the Israelites to observe the Sabbath throughout the generations. “Observe” is an active word. Keeping the Sabbath involves resting from your daily work while actively refocusing one’s mind, heart and soul on God. In this way we are not only refocused and energized but we engage in activities that reveal God’s presence in the world around us.
Returning to the story in Mark, we read that the religious leaders have just reminded Jesus and his disciples of the gravity of their actions. It seems they have broken the Sabbath law and misrepresented God. And so the leaders challenge Jesus: “Why are your disciples openly and unashamedly breaking Sabbath law?” Jesus responds by reminding the leaders of their own history in which none other than David ate the bread of the Presence right off of the temple altar. Surely if it was acceptable for David not only to break the Sabbath law but to eat the bread meant for an offering, it was okay for Jesus’ disciples to eat a few cobs of corn! Then Jesus reminded the leaders that the Sabbath was made to serve humankind and not the other way around (Mark 2:27). Or, to use the words spoken to Moses, the Sabbath is “given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” (Ex. 31:13). The Sabbath is a gift so that we can actively refocus our lives on God; human beings are not created to serve the Sabbath by insisting on any particular method for Sabbath-keeping.
Holy, active and reoriented
Throughout the history of the church Christians have understood Sabbath-keeping in several different ways. During the first few centuries, Christians decided that keeping the last day of the week as a day of holy rest was no longer necessary in light of Jesus’ rising from the grave on the first day of the week. Jesus’ resurrection signalled, among other things, the beginning of God’s New Age. Therefore Sunday (known as the Lord’s Day) became the church’s holy day. However, our reforming forefathers found it necessary to combine elements of Sabbath with their Lord’s Day practices. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1641 describes the Christian Sabbath as a day to be “kept holy unto the Lord, when men, [sic] after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe a holy rest all the day from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the publick [sic]and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (Westminster Confession of Faith. VIII). By combining the day of holy rest with the day of worship and duties of mercy (note that this direction requires action, not passivity) the church stands as God’s counter-cultural representatives. When the rest of the world goes on with its business the church stops, turns its attention to God and remembers that God-in-Christ is the source of life and hope. On the Lord’s Day we take a Sabbath rest, but we do so to actively reorient our lives to God’s mission in Christ.
Is Sunday still the Lord’s Day? Do we as Christ’s church, as God’s representatives in the here-and-now, keep the day “holy unto the Lord”? Do we keep active Sabbath rest? Do our activities on Sunday remind us of God’s call on our lives? Do they serve as sign posts that point the world around us to God’s grace revealed in the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of our Lord Jesus the Christ? Or do they simply serve as a temporary distraction or an opportunity to take some time off?
Keeping the Sabbath holy – keeping the Lord’s Day holy – is not a passive pursuit. It is resting from our weekly tasks in order to actively remember God’s goodness through Jesus’ resurrection. It is actively refocusing our hearts, souls and minds on our Lord. It is engaging in activities that remind us that we serve the One who rose from the grave, the One who has begun the new creation in our present reality, the One who reigns over the church and will reign over the perfected world. Keeping Sabbath rest is a call to actively reorient our lives to God and thereby represent God-in-Christ to the world around us.