The Value of a Sabbath RestMay 04, 2020
There is no question that this season has taken a toll on everyone’s physical and mental health. We are all in this together, whether you are a governing official making major political and economic decisions, a first responder or healthcare provider at the frontlines of the crisis, a worker logging countless hours on the computer or the phone from home, an unemployed person depending on financial assistance from the government, or a parent or family member home-schooling the kids. The last word that we might use to describe this season is “restful.” Yet what many of us need right now is sufficient rest. We need a Sabbath.
The fourth commandment in the Decalogue forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath day. According to Exodus 20:8–11, the Sabbath was instituted because God chose to rest on the seventh day after completing the work of creation and declared the seventh day to be sacred in Genesis 2:2–3. According to Deuteronomy 5:12–15, the Sabbath commemorates how God liberated the Israelites from their harsh labour when they were slaves in Egypt. Jesus was a first-century Jewish person who obeyed the Sabbath law, even though he disagreed with some of the Pharisees and other legal experts about what the Law of Moses actually permitted on the Sabbath. Indeed, there are multiple accounts recorded in all four Gospels about how Jesus’s teachings or actions on the Sabbath offended his opponents.
Now, it is regrettable that the Pharisees have been unfairly caricatured as unmerciful legalists. The Second Temple Jewish and later Rabbinic sources are clear that some exceptions to the prohibition against working on the Sabbath were permitted, such as in cases of self-defence or providing medical aid in a life-threatening emergency. I have little doubt that most of the Pharisees would have agreed with Jesus’s positions that it was permissible to rescue a helpless animal that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath (cf. Matthew 12:11–12; Luke 14:5) or that the Sabbath was a gift to humankind (cf. Mark 2:27). One of their main complaints was that Jesus seemed to heal individuals whose lives were not in any immediate danger and who could have requested to be healed on another day. Although there are no specific biblical commands against healing on the Sabbath, the Pharisees did not want to even risk the possibility of breaking the Sabbath law, so they developed their own oral traditions about how to properly observe it.
Regardless, Jesus had a different perspective about how to observe the Sabbath. Yes, this was a day that was set apart to rest from one’s labours. But Jesus also insisted that it was lawful on the Sabbath “to do good” and “to save life” (cf. Mark 3:4), to set others free from what binds them (cf. Luke 13:16). The Sabbath is a reminder to be compassionate to our neighbours. When the good news about Jesus was being spread to the rest of the nations after Easter, the non-Jewish believers who received Jesus as Lord were not required to adopt the Law of Moses given to the Jewish people, for the Holy Spirit was instead putting God’s righteous standards on their hearts. For them, the Sabbath was optional (cf. Romans 14:5–6; Colossians 2:16–17). Rather than worship on the Sabbath, the early Christians shifted their day of worship to Sunday, the first day of the week, in honour of Christ’s resurrection.
If you are interested in learning more about the Sabbath, you may want to sign up for one of the foundational units on the Bible or the exegetical units on Genesis or the Fourth Gospel offered next semester at Vose Seminary. In the end, though, the principle of taking time to rest remains a valuable one for Christians. It would be to our physical, emotional, and spiritual benefit to regularly turn off and unplug the electronic devices, quiet all of the noise, entrust our cares and anxieties to God, and spend a certain amount of time in worship and reflection. Whether for a half-hour or for a day, I hope that we are able to carve out some space for a Sabbath rest.
- Dr. Michael Kok
To read more from Vose Faculty, click here.