Do you ever feel hurried or overwhelmed? I know I have. I remember taking a break from what felt like constant tasks and to-do lists to actually breathe for a moment. There I thought to myself: “I cannot sustain this pace much longer.” That’s when I knew I needed a fresh encounter with God’s gift of Sabbath—which led me to a spiritual practice that is now a staple in my life.
What is the Sabbath? When asking this question I have heard a variety of responses. The one that is most common is something like: “Isn’t the Sabbath just a day off work?” To stop there would miss out on so much of the meaning.
A theology of Sabbath begins at creation, where the capstone of the week is a day of cessation (Gen 2:1–3).
God was the Founder and first being to savor Sabbath.
If God Himself experienced sabbath rest, then the purpose of it cannot have been for detachment (a sort of unconscious rest), but attachment (a type of conscious rest). After all, God does not need sleep for refreshment (Psalm 121:4). In Genesis, God ceased working on the ongoing project of the world and the plan for it and simply enjoyed what was there. The 7 days of creation don’t reflect a project that never has more ambition, but a project that is functional and therefore, able to take a day to step away from further progress. Taking a queue from God, Israel learned to see the Sabbath as the ultimate sensation of being present in the moment—specifically, present with God.
The next most pivotal Sabbath teaching is found in the Exodus narrative, specifically Exodus 20:8-11.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Consider also Deuteronomy 5:15, which recaps this commandment, but with a specific twist.
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
This is famously known as the “fourth commandment.” Notice how it is the only commandment that starts with the call to “remember.” Why is that? Because if we don’t remember Sabbath, we won’t remember our story of freedom and we will fall into the mindset of slaves.
The ten commandments were given to the Israelites, who at this point were ransomed slaves from the clutches of Egypt. They were delivered and given a new identity under the new ownership of Yahweh, part of which includes the privilege of rest (i.e. Sabbath). Slaves do not receive days off, so this speaks volumes to their newfound hope as God’s covenant people. Labor is necessary for life, but the seventh day became a distinctive for Israel among the nations—a merry memorial of the people’s redemption.
It would be impossible to Sabbath without remembering the twin-pillar themes of God’s activity in creation and in redemption.
God as Creator and Redeemer can also be found elsewhere in the Old Testament. Theologically, the day reminds Israel that Yahweh is Creator and Redeemer and Lord of all. Observance of the day at least implies an acknowledgment of God’s Lordship and care.
Many more verses in the Old Testament speak of Sabbath, but moving to the New Testament we see Jesus speak of it, drawing people to Himself as the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). In other words, He is saying that He is the one who provides Sabbath rest, directly identifying Himself as Yahweh—the God of Israel—while also offering people the Sabbath rest they desire.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 11:28-30)
The kind of rest Jesus offers is Sabbath rest.
The quality of life provided to the recipients of such rest does not compel one to escape this world but to engage it.
Sabbath rest is not the equivalent of a nap (though it may involve restful sleep). Rather, Sabbath was actually about a cessation of something (primarily work) for the participation in something else (primarily that of enjoyment).
While Jesus certainly gives us rest when we meet Him in the day-to-day rhythms, the ancient practice of Sabbath is equally biblical and beneficial.
Sabbath is the art of halting the never-ending project of working on life, to entering in to simply enjoy the life that has been constructed. Not all kinds of rest are created equal. Taking a day off is not necessarily practicing sabbath.
The Sabbath is not a reaction to work (like a day off would be). Rather, the sabbath signifies the superlative meaning of life.
Days of work are a necessary and important part the weekly rhythm, but they are not the end goal. The Sabbath is a day in which (ideally) the world stops in its tracks. Humanity’s daily toil ceases to embrace the paradoxical 24-hour entrance into eternity. Here the striving ceases so that delight can ensue. No work; all joy! It is a day in which people join God in sheer delight. Sabbath exists because God loves His creation and invites it to participate in a day where the normal demands of life are laid aside for a day.
But what about the meaning of the Sabbath today? Wasn’t Sabbath simply an Old Testament commandement?
While we cannot make a case that Sabbath is a mandatory practice for Christians, today, we can make the case that it is part of a thriving life. Remember, Sabbath existed since day seven of creation. Sabbath precedes the Law of Moses. It has always been more than a distinctive of ancient Israel; it is a rhythm of rest that is interwoven into the fabric of creation. In other words, God is beckoning all of creation to thrive by partaking in Sabbath rest.
The practice of Sabbath is not legalistic law that you must obey; it is life-giving wisdom that you are invited to enjoy!
Slaves don’t get Sabbath. Free people do. Our culture is obsessed with hurry and the hustle, but all that really tells is that people are enslaved to the endless ambitions of this world—which always come up empty anyway. Who is the real slave? The one who works all days and hours? Or the one who has a day where it is no work, all joy? The answer is obvious. The question is, does our spiritual rhythm reflect that we are slaves? Or that we are sons and daughters of God and His sacred paradigm of time?
We practice Sabbath because we are free. We even Sabbath because Sabbath is an expression of eternity (Hebrews 4:1-11).
Because Jesus liberated us from sin and death, we are invited to find rest in Him. Is this limited to a specific day of the week? Absolutely not. But practicing a 24-hour period where we Sabbath is a wise way to live, and it reflects the heart of God harkening back to creation itself.
In summary: Sabbath is a reminder that our value comes from who we are, not in what we do. It restores our humanity by reminding us that our personhood, not our production, provides our worth. Here is a single, rhythmic day where we are reminded that we do not need to seek out affirmation from our performance review. God loves us. God loves us so much that He invented and even mandated the weekend!
Yes, you worship the God that delights in a day where we remember that life is more than work. Will you take Him up on His offer?