Honoring the Sabbath Like a Command
Why observing Sabbath still matters.
It seems that, as Christians, we still take the Ten Commandments seriously. Murder, stealing, adultery, idolatry, lying—all of these are named in that list God gave to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 20), and, by and large, we still acknowledge that to break these commandments is wrong.
But what about the fourth commandment—the commandment about observing the Sabbath?
“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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and 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. (Exodus 20:8-11)
It’s one of the original Ten Commandments that God gave to his people—an order to remember the day that God rested and obey Him by doing likewise. God didn’t offer this repetitive rest as a suggestion that might be good for us—He gave it as a commandment. It’s something God valued so much that He set it in stone.
We aren’t under the law anymore: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection freed us from the burden of having to fulfill the law. We don’t have to live in perfect alignment with the law in order to have right relationship with God. However, that doesn’t nullify the goodness of the commandments in the first place. Christ came to fulfill the law for us, but not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17). The rules written in stone were good gifts from God to His people—and they still are.
And, let us also remember that our freedom from this burden of having to fulfill the law—a freedom purchased with the costliest price of Christ’s life—doesn’t give us license to live however we please (Romans 6). We live under grace; we live as God’s people. So here’s why, I think, we need a re-imagining of the call of God to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” in our lives—and why we still need to take this commandment seriously.
When we take one day out of every week to rest, we are acknowledging that God is God and we are not. Ultimately, our ability (or our inability) to rest shows us how much we trust (or don’t trust) that God is in control. When we press the pause button on our striving and realize that the world continues spinning just fine without our work, we are tangibly acknowledging that God is the maker and sustainer of our lives. And if we struggle to close the computer or stay away from the office, we can then see more clearly where we have a hard time trusting Him—and where we struggle to recognize that we really aren’t in control of the world, or even in control of our own lives.
I started observing the Sabbath nine years ago, while I was in college. Now, as a wife, mother and teacher, there is always another load of laundry, always another class to prepare for. And certainly, there is always something “productive” that I could choose to do on our Sabbath. But this pattern of working and resting, week after week, has formed in me a sense of trust and peace that I did not experience prior to engaging in the discipline. It has helped me release my death grip on control.
I look forward to the Sabbath now—not as a day to play catch-up—but as a day where I can focus on being grateful simply to be alive. I spend time with my family without an agenda. I take a nap. Sometimes I walk, sometimes I read. Mostly, I do things that I love, things that help my soul unwind and attend to God’s presence in my life. And I have experienced a deep freedom in learning to say no to the continual pressure to work and produce.
God’s command to His people to keep the Sabbath holy was given out of the deep love He has for His children. He knows how we are formed (Psalm 103:14), how much work we can handle and how we need time to “be” rather than “do.” The Sabbath is a reminder that my days are ordered by God, not by me. It is a reminder that while there will always be more to do, there will not always be more time on this earth. It is a reminder that I am finite, that I need rest, and that God cares for me enough to help me rest.
There’s a wrong way to go about this, of course. If we make observing the Sabbath all about rules and regulations, as the Pharisees did, we are going to miss God’s heart behind it. Jesus pronounced that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), and so we keep the Sabbath holy because the Sabbath is a gift to us from God, not because we are trying to please Him. Christ has already done that on our behalf. He did the greatest work of reconciling us to God through His sacrifice on the Cross, and therefore we don’t have to work our way to God.
When we cease from working one day a week, it points us to the deeper truth that in Christ, we can cease from our striving. We can trust in all that He has done for us.
And we can rest.