The notion of “sabbath” is mentioned 172 times in the Bible, and 60 of those occurrences are in the New Testament. Why do you suppose that of all the 613 laws, Sabbath-keeping gets so much attention? Here is my theory. I believe Sabbath matters to God because it is like a stake in the ground for people freed from slavery. Sabbath is a call to rest, and rest is not the right of a slave. It is the habit of a free person. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, Sabbath became an every-week opportunity for an Israelite to proclaim his freedom. It was also how God’s people got in rhythm with God’s heart for the least, the last and the lost.
Should we still care about Sabbath-keeping today? Not as legalists … no. But as beings made in the image of God, Sabbath is central to our design and worth our attention.
Sabbath-keeping restores us to our factory settings. Remember that Sabbath-keeping is the fourth of the ten commandments. When God gives the Israelites the ten commandments the first time, he pairs it with creation. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rests on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” Sabbath-keeping reconnects us with the rhythm of creation and God’s creative nature. It aligns us with holy work. Remember that work was part of the Garden of Eden before the fall. In the same way that God worked to build creation, we were given creative work to fill our days and give us purpose. Work at creation was good, and rest wasn’t required. It was designed. A good, perfect and loving God designed rest as a mark of completion in the work of creation. At the conclusion of creation God rested, and we lived inside his completion. Rest for God was completion, not weariness. And when we rest, we are putting faith in God’s ability to finish the work and make it holy.
Sabbath-keeping is an act of worship (love God). Notice this, in Genesis 2:3. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it, he rested.” This is the first time the word “holy” is used in the Bible. Holiness — to be whole — is first used in the Bible to talk about rest. That teaches me something about what it means to be whole. It means being at rest, at peace. It turns out that holiness means we have the right to put our work down and rest, because God — not our work — is what makes us whole.
There are two other Hebrew words that strike me as being related to the notion of Sabbath. Shalom means peace, or wholeness. When Jews are approaching Sabbath day, they say, “Shabbat Shalom.” The common meaning is “Have a peaceful Sabbath.” But the deeper meaning is something more like, “May you find wholeness as you cease your work.” This is what happened with God in creation. When he finished, he rested.
The other Hebrew term is shema, the Hebrew word for “hear.” It is the first word of the greatest commandment: “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema is the first and last word of a Jewish Sabbath.
Now, go with me on this for a minute. The last thing God created before he rested was us. Which means our first day on earth was God’s Sabbath. Which means the first thing we did as creatures was to take a day off with God! Not because he was tired (or us), but because that’s what he called whole, holy and good.
As I contemplate this profound idea of Sabbath being the first whole day of humanity, the image that comes to my mind is of the birth of my own child. When our baby was born, the doctor lifted her from my body and handed her directly into my arms. I immediately laid her on my chest, so that the first thing my child heard (shema) was her mama’s heartbeat and her mama’s voice. And her whole job in that moment — the whole job of a newborn child — was to listen, rest and attach. Which is to say that on our first day on earth when God ceased his work — Shabbat shalom — our whole job was to listen (shema), rest and attach.
And that is still our sabbath work today. My, how beautiful is this gift of Sabbath (and we thought we were just getting a day off)!
Sabbath-keeping teaches us not to “harvest to the margins” (love others). This idea seems woven into the fabric of Leviticus. It begins as a habit of the harvest. The Israelites are told not to harvest their fields to the edges (Leviticus 23:22), so there would be food enough left for the poor to come along behind and glean. Leave room at the edges of your field so people who don’t have can eat, too. In Leviticus chapter 25, where we get a more detailed description of Sabbath years and Jubilee years, all through is sprinkled a reminder to take care of the poor. This, I believe, is what distinguishes someone who just wants a day off (or who doesn’t even want a day off and resents the time they have to take for others) from someone who has laid his head next to the Father’s heart — who has heard God’s heartbeat for the least, the last and the lost. It is that there is room in their lives for others.
Hear this: When we harvest to the margins, we have no energy left for the poor and the ones who require extra grace. When we harvest to the margins, it is hard to be present to the people in front of us. When we harvest to the margins, there is no patience left, no bandwidth for the things that break God’s heart. Jesus himself said it is okay to do good on the Sabbath, but we can only do good when we have room left at the margins when those moments for mercy emerge. Sabbath gives room to be present to people.
Sabbath-keeping is an invitation to resist the culture of Egypt. The ten commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament, and the one about Sabbath is the only one with an explanation attached — both times (almost like, “Okay, we know why we shouldn’t kill people, but we’re not really sure why we need a day off”). The first time, the Sabbath is explained as part of creation and the second time it is explained as a freedom principle. God tells his people they must not do any work on the seventh day. “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 has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Sabbath by this definition is a memorial and a mark of freedom. We get a Sabbath because we are not slaves. The daily grind is not what we were created for. It is a call not just to cease working, but to take on the mindset of a free person — not just the behavior of Sabbath-keeping but the spirit of it.
Sabbath-keeping is how we practice Heaven. While our human tendency is to want to escape, the Kingdom call is an invitation to rest. In other words, rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. Paul told the Colossians that sabbath is a shadow, a vague glimpse, of what is ahead for us in the Kingdom of God. Which means that when we practice it well, we are practicing heaven. By practicing Sabbath we find what is most real … namely Christ. And when we practice Sabbath, we are proclaiming what is most real to us … namely Christ. It is the practice of becoming whole … the practice of listening to the heart of God … the practice of freedom.