Observe the Sabbath day,
to keep it holy,
as the LORD your God commanded you.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The divine origin of the Sabbath is well-attested in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, it is the only commandment that appears also in the creation account and it is also the longest commandment—an indicator of emphasis. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5) and performs several miracles specifically on the Sabbath. Why all this attention to the Sabbath?
A Biblical Understanding
A key to understanding Sabbath is found in Hebrews 4, which list four aspects of Sabbath rest: physical rest, weekly Sabbath rest, rest in the Promised Land, and heavenly rest—our return to the Garden of Eden.
Physical rest is underrated by many Christians. Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) How are we to love God and love our neighbors when we are physically exhausted all the time? Sabbath rest allows us to build the physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity to experience God and to have compassion for our neighbors.
We see a clue to this interpretation of Sabbath when we compare the Exodus and Deuteronomy renderings of the Fourth Commandment. Deuteronomy adds the sentence:
“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:15)
Free people rest; slaves work. Sabbath rest is a symbol of our Christian freedom.
The Promised Land, promised rest (Ps 95:11), heaven, and the new Eden (Rev 22:2) all display and reinforce Sabbath imagery. The image of our Divine Shepherd is one who gives heavenly rest: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” (Ps 23:2) Sadly, this poetic image of rest only seems to come up at funerals.
The 24-7 Culture
Postmodern culture refuses to rest. Sunday is fast becoming just another day where the malls are open and employers seldom offer overtime to those required to work it. So why does Moses insist on honoring the Sabbath?
Under penalty of death (Num 15:32-35), the prohibition on work on the Sabbath provided a cultural alternative to Pharaoh’s relentless pursuit of wealth. Brueggemann (2014, xiii-xiv) writes: YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharaoh, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh. Sabbath rest appears in the creation accounts because God balances work and rest. Egyptian gods, by contrast, never rested.
By honoring the Sabbath, Moses created room for the Hebrew people to reflect on their lives and on God, the gateway to keeping all the other commandments.
The link between rest and worship goes beyond occurring primarily on Sundays. Marva Dawn (1991, 1) observes: “To worship the Lord is—in the world’s eyes—a waste of time…the entire reason for our worship is that God deserves it.” To see this link, consider the ancient practice of offering burnt animal offerings in the temple rather than human sacrifices. Listen to the words of Aaron during the Golden Calf incident:
“And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4)
No doubt Aaron was simply practicing worship in a manner that he had learned in Egypt—worshiping a Golden Calf (think of the Wall Street Bull) could be thought of as an ancient form of the prosperity Gospel!
Sacrificing a bull (or some other animal) on the alter could therefore be another way for a Jew to demonstrate his allegiance to God, not to foreign gods. Because many of these foreign gods were crafted in the form of animals, sacrificing those same animals on an altar would be a gutsy, in-your-face type of activity for a Jew.
For us today, devoting our Sundays to worshipping God is to pledge our lives to him alone and not to the god of 24-7. In the same way, donating money to the church’s work is to worship God, not the god of money. Jesus speaks plainly on this subject:
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt 6:24 KJV)1
Because time and money are the reigning deities in our culture, offering God our time and money is our sincerest worship.
1 The King James Version transliterates the Greek (μαμωνᾷ), while other translations simple say money loosing the inference of deity more accurately that honors the text.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2014. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Dawn, Marva J. 1999. A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor fo Worshipping God and Being Church for the World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
A Worshipping Community
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.