Remember the Sabbath?
In the ten commandments, God instructed the Israelites to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). In the past this Sabbath rest was built into the regular cycle of our working weeks. Shops did not open for very long on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays. Nowadays Sunday trading has become a norm and the boundaries between work and life have been stretched out further and further. More and more people are increasingly busy, and time for rest, time for God has slipped down the list in importance.
When Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath he made the very important point that the ‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. The intention behind the creation of the Sabbath by God was to be a blessing to us. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had turned the Sabbath into a set of rules and regulations; they had turned the blessing of God into a legalistic prison. Sometimes the rhetoric around why there needs to be Sunday trading seems to suggest that not being able to shop on Sundays, and not allowing people to work on Sundays is an inappropriate restriction of our freedoms. But this misses the heart of what God was trying to do when he gave us the Sabbath. The Sabbath was designed to be a blessing for us.
The Sabbath Reminder—We Are Not God
The Old Testament provides two reasons for the Sabbath. The first is that God himself took a Sabbath rest after the first six days of creation (Genesis 2:2). When we talk about creation we talk about seven days, which means that the rest of God on the seventh day completed the process of creation. Rest is something that God built into the fabric of creation. The Genesis account also tells us that God set the Sabbath apart and made it holy. Holiness is about being set apart for a special purpose, it is not a pious evacuation from reality, it is placing a special emphasis on something because it is valued in a special way by God.
When we stop and rest on the seventh day, in recognition of God’s rest from his work of creation we recognise him in his role as creator. It can be easy in modern westernised society to look around at our largely man-made environments and forget that we are not the creators of our world. We carry terrible burdens when we try to do everything in our own strength. When we spend so much time emphasising what we can have because of our work it becomes more difficult to remember that God is the one who made the world and everything in it. Everything we have comes from him. Anything we do, any contribution we make to the world is derivative of God’s original creative genius. We are just very fortunate that God does not hold onto his intellectual property rights and demand we pay him royalties when we trade upon his copyright.
Stopping to rest on the Sabbath and observing that the world continues to go on as it has since God created it is a reminder that we are not God, we are not the Creator. It all continues on under his guidance without our input! Our contribution to the world is limited. This is particularly important to remember as westerners. We have so much more power, wealth and opportunity than other people and it can become easy to forget that in the grand scheme of things we are still ultimately powerless. This is what the Sabbath gives us time to remember. When the busyness of the week stops, and we are left only with our own thoughts and with God, then it becomes increasingly apparent how limited we really are. This knowledge is a blessing! There is no point in trying to be God, or putting the entire burden for the world on our own shoulders. God is good at his job, and he does not need us to try to be him. He just needs us to play the part he has appointed us.
The Christian Rest
The other reason the Old Testament gives for observing the Sabbath is that it is a reminder of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. In Deuteronomy 5:15 it says, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day”. Does this also apply to Christians? Yes, as the Exodus is a signpost in the Old Testament that points forward to the redemption that would become available through Christ. As God delivered Israel from Egypt and the oppression of Pharoah, so God has delivered us from a life of sin and bondage under the oppression of Satan.
The Sabbath then is not only a reminder of God’s role as Creator, but also God’s role as Redeemer. Like creation, redemption is not a job God needs us to help with. It is entirely God’s work that leads to salvation. He is the Saviour and Redeemer, we are the saved and redeemed. Yes, there is a role for us to play in helping others come to know God, but ultimately it is God himself who does the saving. Sometimes we forget that our acceptance by God is because of the finished work of Jesus, it can become easy to think that we impress him with our religious observance, our faithful witness, or our eloquent prayers. This is something that it is regularly worth taking time out to remember. We are accepted in Christ because of Christ, and our good works while good, do not bring us any closer to God. In fact Ephesians 2:10 tells us that the good works we do now, God prepared in advance for us to do! Again the initiative lies with God.
This is what Hebrews 4 talks about; entering into the truth that the Sabbath points to, is done by faith and obedience to Christ. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also rest from their own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (verses 9-11). And verse 3, “Now we who have believed enter that rest”. The practice of the Sabbath reminds us then of the greater rest from our works that we have already entered into by faith in Christ. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy is a worthwhile practice in a world that believes in the self-made man, and that we have ultimate control over our lives and our world. The truth is, we are not God, and the Sabbath reminds us of that.