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Sabbath-keeping and the Spiritual Life

Dr Alex Tang

 

 

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? This is a controversial topic that has divided Christian through the ages. There are a few references to the Sabbath in the Bible. Most of the verses commanding us to keep the Sabbath is found in the Old Testament.

 

  • Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. (Exodus 20:8-10a)

  •  Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor in order that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Exodus 23:12)

  • For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 31:15)

  •  Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. (Deuteronomy 5:12)

  • You shall keep My sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 26:2)

 

The context of these verses is that it was given to the Israelites to set them apart from the nations surrounding them, and to grow them into the people of God that God intended. It was the custom of the Jews to come together on the Sabbath, which is Saturday, cease work, and worship God. Of the 10 commandments listed in Exodus 20:1-17, only nine of them were reinstituted in the New Testament. (Six in Matthew 19:18, murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, honor parents, and worshiping God; Romans 13:9, coveting. Worshiping God properly covers the first three commandments). The one that was not reaffirmed was the one about the Sabbath. Instead, Jesus said that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8).

 

With regards to the Sabbath in the New Testament, there seems to be a difference in emphasis. No longer is it a particular day of rest to be observed religiously but instead the concept of Sabbath-rest come into being.

 

  •  One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5)
     

  • Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. (Colossians 2:16)

 

When it comes to the Sabbath, we have always fixate on a particular day, usually a Saturday. However we never quite agree on when does that Saturday begins. Does Sabbath begins on Friday sunset or Saturday midnight? Other may think that for Christians, it is a Sunday. By Sunday, they usually means the Sunday morning service after which they are free to do yard work, read the papers or go shopping with the family. What seems is common to different camps is that during the Sabbath, we should not do any work. Work here refers to what we do the rest of the week in our workplace.
 

I believe we get this concept of resting from our work from the Genesis account in chapter 1 and 2. “By the seventh day God has finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work” (Gen. 2:2 NIV). I am very curious about God being ‘tired’ after creating for six days. Why would God get tired? He is after all God and should be tireless. A word study of the Hebrew word for ‘rested’ is yiš·bōṯ' which means ‘ceased’. This seems to imply that God did not stop on the seventh day because he is tired but that he stopped because he has finished what he set out to do. Genesis chapter two seems to bear out the idea that God did not stop to rest on the seventh day but instead he has completed/ceased his creation and wants to enjoy his creation on the seventh day. God wants to celebrate with his creatures (which includes human beings) and his created order. God delights, enjoys and meets with his completed perfect creation in the Garden of Eden. This shalom place, as distinct from the chaotic state before creation, is a holy place; a place to enjoy and delight with God in the completion of his creation. Unfortunately this perfect holy place of rest became threatened by the Fall and the concept of Sabbath became imprisoned by religiosity.


 

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

 

And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”

 

 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”


 

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrows; it judges the thoughts and attitude of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Heb 4:1-13)

 

The day God chose for the Sabbath is ‘Today’ (Heb. 4:7). The passage from Hebrews 4:1-13 is aptly entitled “A Sabbath-Rest for the People of God” (NIV). This sabbath rest (sabbatismós) which remains for God’s people will be “the perfect sabbath of heavenly blessing toward which the pilgrim community is moving and which will mean cessation from its own labors”. [1] The author of Hebrews implies that entering the Sabbath rest is not by doing or by observing a special day but by faith and obedience to the revealed word of God. This rest from work is not just rest from our workplace but also from our struggles with our sinful natures. The tense of the Greek implies that this rest is not only an eschatological rest but one in which we can experience in the present time. Hence, today, not only are we to rest from our labors but also to celebrate, enjoy, and delight with God in his creation of which we are a part of.


 


 


 

[1] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G. & Bromiley, G.W., 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p.992.

 

 

 

| 30 March 2014 |

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