I’m not sure which was more stressful: the fact that I was 35 years old and connected to an electrocardiogram machine, or the dawning realization that my body was finally screaming “Enough!” and forcing me to slow down. Either way, it was not a good time. What it became, however, was a necessary time.
Less than 10 years earlier, God had graciously opened my eyes to see the wonder of his Sabbath, and I had rearranged the practical realities of my life to reflect his priorities. Not surprisingly, my wife and I began to reap the relational, spiritual, and physical benefits of the Sabbath rhythm gradually shaping our lives.
But here I was again, pushing myself to “make the most of my time,” and my body and mind were finally pushing back. My return to being a borderline workaholic (an often socially acceptable addiction) had been subtle, but the effect was the undeniable: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion. Although each activity I was involved in was actually “good” (church, work, school, etc.), the cumulative weight had taken its toll, and I now found myself lying on a hospital bed, absently watching the blur of activity around the emergency ward.
How did we get to this point?
Assuming that the frustrating tension between work and rest is not mine alone, I wonder how we got here. Why do we so often run from rest? Why do we reject the gift of Sabbath?
Throughout the history of God’s people, the nature and purpose of the Sabbath has caused disagreement and confusion. For some today, it provokes nightmares of legalism: Do I eat at home or in a restaurant? Do I observe it on Saturday or on Sunday? For others, Sabbath is a vague concept that became irrelevant and outdated centuries ago. In the lives of God’s followers described in the Bible, however, Sabbath played a fundamental role, and its influence is evidenced by its frequent appearance in both the Old Testament and the words and actions of Jesus.
The biblical concepts of creation, God, and humanity are profoundly interrelated, and they form a unified and holistic understanding of life. Not only does Sabbath directly relate to the human–divine relationship, it also speaks to the biblical ideal of acceptable human–human relationships. Sabbath encourages a rhythm of spiritual, physical, and social balance.
The necessity of rest…for ourselves
It’s almost impossible to have a discussion about the Sabbath without considering the first chapters of Genesis. They describe six days of God’s creative activity followed by a seventh in which God stopped¹ from all his work (Genesis 2:2–3). God did not work “24/7.” Although the creation account itself does not explicitly describe what stopping or resting looked like for God, it was understood as an example God-followers were to live out to express their covenant relationship with God (Exodus 31:16–17).
Of course, this doesn’t imply that work is necessarily wicked or bad (although it may feel like that some days!); rather that we humans have a tendency to narrow our focus to work at the expense of relationship with God and others. This change in focus can be so gradual at times that we don’t notice it has happened until relational damage has been done. Often, our struggle is not with the activity of work, but with the oppression of work (which can sometimes be self-imposed).
As most of us have experienced, the ongoing reality of work cannot be avoided. The practice of Sabbath must be externally imposed to ensure a necessary rhythm of rest. By default, we lean toward work; therefore, we need a limit set upon us, to call us back to a sustainable pattern of spiritual, physical, and social health.
The necessity of rest…for others
The weekly discipline of Sabbath started during pre-Promised Land times and continued throughout Israelite history. For a new people, soon to be living in a new land, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue invited both an evaluative look back and a prescriptive look forward. The Israelites were not to be like the Egyptians from whom they were delivered. Sabbath was fundamental to the covenant, and it served as a socially and economically liberating paradigm for Israelite life. Just as the Lord would not permit perpetual oppressive labour under the Egyptians, so too the Israelites were to resist subjecting their own slaves and animals to unending work.
The Sabbath’s message of social justice is clearly carried over into the prophetic writings of the Old Testament as well, for the Sabbath stood as a powerful representation of restoration, health, and wholeness for Hebrew society. Just as the Law clearly identified Sabbath as a means of relief from oppressive labour and slavery, so too the prophets continued to defend the rights of the poor and others unable to defend themselves from economic and social injustices.
When the ancient Israelites slipped into managing their lives and country through their own self-sufficiency rather than trusting God to protect and provide (as he promised he would do), they rejected the Sabbath rhythm (among other social and spiritual violations), causing the defenceless to cry out to God for deliverance. Ironically, those who had been set free had now become the oppressors.
Fast-forward to today. Does our obsession for continual work stem from an unconscious belief that God is no longer sovereign over our modern communities? After all, If I don’t ensure that others are working hard to meet society’s material needs (including my own, of course), who will?
This is exactly why we need Sabbath today. The Sabbath not only relieves me from my own experience of oppression, but also prevents me from oppressing others in the same way. Again, Sabbath is a clear call to bring the spiritual, physical, and social parts of our community into a healthy, God-honouring balance.
What did Jesus say?
Not surprisingly, Jesus’ words and actions are at the centre of the New Testament controversies concerning the nature of Sabbath. In the six Gospel passages where Jesus’ (non)observance of the Sabbath is explicitly stated, the Pharisees demand that Jesus “stop” in order to meet certain legal expectations. After all, it was the Sabbath. However, on each occasion, Jesus steps in on behalf of those in need.
As we look at the stories more closely, it appears that all Jesus’ Sabbath controversies are in the context of social justice, resulting in the intentional liberation of oppressed people (economically, physically, etc.). Jesus seems to have the Old Testament sabbatical concept of social justice and liberation in mind when he says: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Did Jesus misinterpret the Old Testament concept of Sabbath? Or, rather, did he simply (and radically) reflect his Father’s desire for freedom and deliverance, as expressed through a rhythm of spiritual, physical, and social balance?
ECG or Sabbath?
The message of both the Bible and modern history indicates that, left on our own, we will eventually, self-centredly, concentrate on our own work (and kingdom) at the expense of others and ourselves. Thus, God’s example, and corresponding legal establishment, of the Sabbath was an intentional safeguard against this unjust pattern of life. Israelite life was intended to be lived before God in its entirety, not just in a separate realm of religion.
For God’s people today, focusing on the precise legalities of what can or cannot be done during Sabbath observance (think of the Pharisees) should not be the primary goal of understanding the Bible. Yes, we need to know the “letter of the law,” but we also need to live the “spirit of the law.” In other words, priority must be placed on practically living out the Sabbath paradigm for the sake of the holistic liberation of all humanity (ourselves and others). Inevitably, Sabbath liberation is subversive – no realm of life is left untouched. After all, that is the example God himself set before us.
So…what about you? Are you worn out by your current lifestyle? Are you ready to take a risk and embrace a new rhythm in your life that reflects God’s priorities? Are you ready to do less in order to experience more? If you hunger for a vibrant relationship with God, are you open to reorienting your life around a refreshing rhythm of spiritual, physical, and social balance? If you are willing, Sabbath offers hope, and it is a gift God wants you to receive!
Don’t wait until you are looking up at the ceiling in a hospital. Build a pattern of seventh-day rest into your family’s life now. Don’t go to the office. Empower others to do “your” ministry. Turn off your computer and cellphone. Leave the car in the garage and stay at home with your family.
God knew what he was doing when he created the Sabbath. Trust him.