Remember the Sabbath, to Keep it Holy

Exodus 20 ties the command to remember the Sabbath directly to the Genesis 1 story of creation.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (8-11)

Deuteronomy 5 adds to our understanding of this commandment, but does not tie the sabbath to the creation week. Rather the Sabbath is tied more directly to the rescue from slavery in Egypt.

Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (12-15)

These passages raise a number of questions.

What is the significance of the connection with the creation week of Genesis 1? There are many Christians who hold that this passage in Exodus demands that we understand the creation as six literal 24 hour days. Otherwise the Sabbath makes no sense. Churches and organizations supporting young earth creationism will often bring this up.

How are we to keep the Sabbath holy? Many different rules have been put forth for keeping the Sabbath in both Jewish and Christian contexts. High on the list is the definition of work.

When should we as Christians observe the Sabbath? For some the question becomes simply should we observe the Sabbath? The commandment to keep the Sabbath may or may not be one of those abolished with the coming of Christ. Some have been abolished. Few of us worry about mixing fabrics. However, the commandments in the Decalogue are not generally among those considered abolished.

I started thinking about this because the summer sermon series at the church I attend is working through the Ten Commandments and this one was the subject of a recent sermon. The importance of Sabbath was upheld, but new insights were provided. A few of the thoughts below come from the sermon, but others from other sources.

The focus on six days of creation, on rules for work, on a day off (for rest) … it seems to me that all of these miss the point.

Remember the Sabbath to Keep it Holy. To remember the Sabbath means to observe the Sabbath as a day holy to the Lord. To understand this it can help to turn back to Genesis 2:1-3 and to New Testament passages such as Mark 2:23-28.

Thus the heavens and earth were completed and all their hosts. By the seventh day God had completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which he had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. (Gen. 2:1-3)

Jesus was called to task for violating the Sabbath, not an unusual occurrence. He responded to his accusers … “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

What does it mean to claim that the Sabbath was made for man?

In Genesis God does not rest to replenish his strength and prepare for the next week of work. A day of rest may help us replenish for the week ahead, but it seems unlikely that this is the reason for the Sabbath. Viewing Sabbath as a generic day of rest (i.e. a day off) is a misuse of the term and concept. I recall a sermon years ago where the preacher claimed his Sabbath was some other day of the week and endorsed the idea that church employees (especially the pastoral staff) are called to observe the Sabbath on some day other than the weekend. Churches should provide a regular day or two off for all personnel (Sunday is not a “day off” the way it is for many of us) – but these are probably better left unconnected with “sabbath.”

Some have argued that the seventh day in Genesis 2 should not be understood as a “day” but as a continuation of time following creation. N.T. Wright has made this argument.

If we understand the Genesis story as a temple narrative, with God preparing creation as a temple for his presence, then God takes up residency in his temple on the seventh day.

Concerning Genesis 1, John Walton has noted that “what is happening is that people and God are moving into the home they will share. It all begins to function when people in God’s image come on the scene and when people “move in”—as an origins account, this is the story of the origins of the home, not the origins of the house. So it is more than just praise—it is inauguration of sacred space.” (See here.)

This connection with God taking up residence in his temple with his creation – including humans created in his image – may help us understand the Sabbath in a more useful fashion. Perhaps observance of the Sabbath to keep it holy should be understood as taking up residence in the presence of God. We are called to enjoy God, to enjoy his presence, to enjoy his creation and our relationship with others in this creation. Perhaps the point is that the Sabbath is made for man to enjoy the presence of God in community with each other. This isn’t just for the upper levels of society, but for everyone. Even for the beasts of burden.

It is entirely appropriate to gather for worship on the Sabbath. But we gather as a community and observation of the Sabbath is a communal activity focused on God. One of the most unfortunate developments in the church is the elimination in some organizations of the Sabbath (i.e. Sunday) as a day of worship for church employees, pastors and others. The implicit message is that their task is “work” providing a service for others rather than participating in a communal day of worship.

It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, to preach and teach and sing is good for the church. This is work, but to be effective it must also be worship for all involved, not primarily or solely for the audience.

Why go to church? At Jesus Creed Scot put up a couple of posts recently, the first Church: Seven Reasons Not to Go to Church, and the second 10 Reasons to Go to Church. This is a question I have pondered often over the last seven or ten years. The lists didn’t really touch on the issues I find most compelling.

  • I am part of a church because this is a community of the people of God.

Most of the 10 reasons from John Pritchard’s book Why Go to Church? seem to fit into this category.

  • I go to church (i.e. a worship service) because celebrating God in community and as part of a “Sabbath” kept holy is an important sacramental act of remembrance and worship.

It isn’t the teaching and preaching … although this can be good.

It isn’t the music (worship and music are not synonyms … although some seem to have forgotten this).

It is worship in many and varied forms.

The seeker sensitive movement sent me digging deeply into this question, in existential angst over the importance of “church” to a Christian. If the purpose of the service is evangelism, there is really no need for a Christian to attend except to bring others – and this isn’t worship. (It certainly isn’t “Sabbath.”) In my view this is the major problem with “seeker sensitive” church … it moves the focus of gathering away from worship. Evangelism is an essential function of the church – but shouldn’t usurp the place of worship in our gathering.

How do you understand Sabbath?

Why do you go to church?

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1 Response to Remember the Sabbath, to Keep it Holy

  1. pneumabiologos says:

    1. While I ustd & appreci8 the principle & ongoing value of the Sabbath to collectively honour & worship God as the creator in the temple of his creation, & to renew life to his kingship by his covenant & gathered people, I also realize Sabbath keeping is a sign of the old covenant which is now abrogated by the new covenant. As new covenant people we have the creation-deliverance-oldcovenant motifs & realities plus the messianic-already & not yet kingdom-new covenant motifs & realities to celebrate and embody.
    2. Why I go to church then is to realize & anticipate all of the aforementioned as the new covenant-Spirit-filled & gathered-serving people of the crucified-risen Messianic King, as a present model people in training & transformation to the world of the new humanity in Messiah, and as a preparation for our future glorious gathering & revelation at his second coming & in the new creation he will inaugurate. But, sad to say (to use the book title), most of us r like ‘Cinderella with Amnesia’, and we do not know our calling, privilege, resource or status as the elect people/bride of God.

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