Would you like a break?
Don't you wish you had time for the more important things in life? Don't you wish you had more time with God in prayer and in the Scriptures, more time with your family and friends? We all want more time for real rest.
For most of us, this kind of time is only found when we're on vacation. But what if God has a better plan for us? What if He has already cleared our calendars for the rest we really need? The fact is that God has designed our weeks to give us rest, and He does so through the 4th Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy..."
Before we dive into what God's rest looks like from the 4th Commandment, let me tell you where we're going with this. I had to divide this discussion up into two posts. This post will take a look at what the Sabbath commandment is, and the next post will ask how we should live it out today as Christians.
What is the Sabbath and what is it for?
In the Sabbath commandment, God is teaching us what real rest is. He is forcing us to keep our weekly labors in perspective by putting them on the shelf for a day, and He is calling us to turn to Him and his many blessings. He's calling us to a feast, to celebration, to life. The Sabbath is a day for us, each week, to revel in our God and his goodness. This is real rest.
If we were to look at the 4th Commandment as it is given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, we could see four basic activities that the people of God are to be engaged in on the Sabbath:
1. REST from daily work: God says in the giving of the 10 Commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy that "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." (Ex 20:9-10). The prohibition seems to be related to regular, daily work. (And this is implied in other places as well.) Everyone is commanded to rest: the rich, the poor, the kids, the adults, even the animals. We cease from our labors on this day, but we do not do so at the expense of others by making them work.
2. REMEMBERING God's work of creation and redemption: The remembrance is the heart motivation for observing the commandment, and though the command to rest does not change, the motivation for the commandment evolves over time.
The first time the Sabbath is commanded among the 10 commandments (Ex 20:11-12) God gives the following motivation for the command: "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." Here God is telling his people to observe the Sabbath day because of the pattern He set down in creation. It was a day of rest with God's creative works in mind.
The second time this commandment is given among the Ten (Deut 5:15), the circumstance and the rationale have changed. Instead of being at Mt. Sinai just after being taken out of Egypt, God's people are on the plains of Moab about to enter into the Promised Land. And now, the LORD commands them to keep not just his creative works in mind on the Sabbath, but also to remember God's works of redemption: "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." (Deut 5:15) We are to remember on the Sabbath that God redeemed his people from slavery, and this is another reason to rest.
We will discuss this later, but it is important to note that the reason for the commandment is always the work of God. As God builds upon his great works by doing more work, the reason for the commandment becomes more multi-faceted.
3. WORSHIPPING GOD with the covenant community: We are to "keep [the Sabbath] holy" (Ex 20:8). What is implied in this statement is what is said explicitly in Leviticus 23:3, that the Sabbath day is a "holy convocation" (that is an assembly) to the Lord. An essential part of the Sabbath is that it is not spent alone, nor is it spent with non-believers: it is spent with God's covenant community. And it is not just spent with members of the covenant community, but it is, in part, spent with members of the covenant community in worship proper directed to God.
4. ANTICIPATING the fulfillment of God's promises: The commandment for the Sabbath, indeed the whole of Exodus and all that follows, is set in the context of God's promise to Abraham. Without God's promise to Abraham, there would be no people to receive the 10 Commandments. God made a covenant with Abraham and promised him that through his seed all the nations would be blessed. God promised Abraham an inheritance, both of children and of land. (For God's covenant with Abraham, see Genesis 12, 15, 17). Just as Abraham became God's man by believing and anticipating the fulfillment of God's promise, so God's people are a people because they believe God's promise and anticipate it's fulfillment (Rom 4:23-25; Gal 3:7-9; Heb 11). On the Sabbath, we gather with our people, God's people through faith in the promise, and we anticipate the fulfillment of the promise in which we hope.
So, in brief, that is what the Sabbath is about. It's a day in which we stop our daily work in order to feast upon God by remembering his work, gathering for worship with other believers, and anticipating the fulfillment of our hope in his promises.
Do you love what you really need?
It is only because we love other things more than God that we do not enjoy celebrating the Sabbath. We love our leisure more than God, so we want to sleep or play rather than worship. We love acceptance among family or friends more than God, so we treat it like any other day. We even love our work more than God, so that we cannot even cease from it for a day, or even half a day. It is tragic that something as good as the Sabbath is hard for us to live because of the idols in our hearts. Unless God changes us, we choose stupid things (sleep, TV, sports, work) over the greatest things (God, intimacy with him, rest for our souls, time with family in deep things).
But, perhaps you're thinking: "This Sabbath stuff is Old Testament! This doesn't apply to Christians today? And if it does, why don't we meet on Saturday instead of Sunday?" In the next post, we will deal with some of these questions.