Monday, April 13, 2009

Sabbath-keeping in a New Testament world

Note: If you read things in the Alive Minsitries website (, then you will also read this same entry there. I originally wrote it for that site, and then felt that I wanted to share it with readers here as well. This is a copy of what I wrote for the Alive Ministries blog, with no editing from that form, so the style it is written in is also a little bit different than I normally write here.

When you hear something about the Sabbath, what do you think of? Do you see it as something from the Old Testament that has no value for us today? Does it seem to be an ancient, out-of-date practice? Or do you see it as something we should be doing today? Do you think that it has value today?

The idea of keeping a Sabbath comes out of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the fourth commandment given, God has these words to say:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11, NIV).

And then again in Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments are repeated as a reminder:

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall do no work . . . Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a might hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-14, NIV).

From these passages we can quite obviously see that keeping the Sabbath was incredibly important to the Old Testament Israelites. But, does it have any importance for today? We are not bound by the laws of the Old Testament, so is the Sabbath something we should still be keeping today?

This is something I have spent a lot of time wrestling with in the past few weeks. It kept coming up in things I was reading, until it ultimately made me take the time to study what Scripture has to say about keeping a Sabbath. I was really looking to determine if keeping a Sabbath was something that we should still be doing today. And, I ultimately came to the conclusion that, yes, it something we should still be doing today. Let me present some thoughts on this to you for your own study.

One of the main arguments I have heard against the idea of keeping a Sabbath still being something we should do today is that Jesus does not specifically say that we should do so in His teaching. The other nine of the Ten Commandments, Jesus does repeat as something we should still be living by. Jesus even repeatedly angered the religious leaders of His day by the things He chose to do on the Sabbath. From the point of view of keeping a Sabbath as a day with very strict rules about what you can and cannot do, Jesus definitely did not tell us that we need to keep a Sabbath.

But, as I looked at the arguments and reasons behind God commanding the Israelites to keep a Sabbath in the first place, I started to see things a little bit differently. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had reduced the Sabbath to little more than a list of things you were not allowed to do. In doing so, they had lost the entire purpose of the day in the first place. When God gave the command to Israel the day was to be a day of rest and remembrance, not a day for just following rules because you had to. I think that upon looking at the concept originally behind the Sabbath, we can say that Jesus still saw the importance of keeping a Sabbath.

Jesus modelled a life of constantly taking time out from the busy-ness of His life to rest and spend time with the Father. Even when the crowds were large and pressing Him for more, He would withdraw to pray and just be with His Father – receiving strength, encouragement, rest. Through my study I came to see this as being what the Sabbath was supposed to be, and it was something that had been lost in the religious rule following of Jesus’ day.

Based on this, I would say that for Jesus to simply restate the commandment to keep the Sabbath would have meant that it remained nothing more than following rules. With this commandment, I honestly believe that Jesus rather modelled what keeping a Sabbath should look like. That means that as we seek to model our lives after His, we should be including this in our lives.

Once I determined that keeping a Sabbath was something that we should still be doing, I started studying and thinking about how to put that into my life. What does keeping a Sabbath look like today? Is it a specific day of the week? How long should it be? How do I make this a practical part of my life? Those were just some of the questions that were going through my head.

When we read the passages out of Exodus and Deuteronomy (above) about this, we can see that it was to be set aside by the Israelites as a time of rest and remembrance. A time to rest from the busy-ness of life and from work. A time to remember God’s faithfulness in the past.

I think that keeping a Sabbath is also about creating space in your life to hear from God. It is about slowing down enough that we can actually hear God’s still, small voice whispering to us – that voice that we so easily miss in our busy-ness and the noise of our culture. I think this is more than just having a half hour, or whatever time it is for you, set aside each day – although that is important. As I have been seeking to understand this better, I have come to see that keeping a Sabbath requires that we give a larger chunk of unscheduled, un-busy time to God for His purposes. This may be a whole day, or it may be an afternoon, or it may be an evening. I think the key is that it is a larger chunk of time than we may normally be able to give in a day. And, to do this, will probably require us to be intentional about it. The pace of life in our culture does not lend itself well to these times just happening – we may have to actually sit down and in our schedule block out regular chunks of time where we will not plan or schedule that time full.
I think the other important thing about keeping a Sabbath is that we leave the time open to God’s purposes. As I have sought to begin to put this into practice in my life, I have discovered that it can be very different each time. Sometimes it may be just spending extended time in prayer and the Word. Or it may be just reading a good book. Or it may involve spending time with friends or family. Or maybe it will be sleeping. All of these things can be God’s purposes for our Sabbath. He knows what we need most in that time, and, if we are open to it, He will lead us into that during this time.

Keeping a Sabbath definitely goes against culture and how we are taught to live. But, I honestly think that it is key to having a healthy life as a follower of Christ. Without it I think we are in serious danger of ending up burnt out on life, on work, on ministry, on relationships.
As I close, just some questions to think about in your own life:
-When was the last time I had an unscheduled block of time that I left open for God to work?
-Do I see the importance of having a regular Sabbath in my life?
-If I have a regular Sabbath, is it helpful to my walk with God?
-If I don’t have a regular Sabbath, are there things in my life that I feel like I’m missing when I speak with other Christians who have this practice in their lives?
-How can I make room in my schedule for a regular Sabbath?
I encourage you to spend some time thinking about these questions in relation to your life and to take some time to look at what Scripture has to say about keeping a Sabbath and Jesus’ example of regularly taking time out to spend with the Father.

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