The Origins of the Sabbath

In my life I’ve heard 3 basic approaches to understanding the idea of Sabbath. The concept of Sabbath, of course, is present in Scripture right from the creation account:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)

So what does this mean to us today?

The Legal View

Many Christians approach the topic of Sabbath the same way they do many topics: legalistically. In the simplest form: it’s in the 10 commandments so we should keep doing it. There’s some variance about what exactly is allowed and what isn’t, whether it has to be on Saturday (the original 7th day of the week) or Sunday (to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection), but the general idea is maintained that we still need to keep it as strictly as possible. The way I most often hear this is as a defense of why you should go to church – you have to have that dedicated holy day because the Bible says so! – which I think is definitely a stretch.

The Principle of Rest

Others – most, in my experience – take the same legal start point but then point out that Jesus broke the Sabbath, so clearly it has been over-ruled like many of the other Old Testament laws (but unlike any other of the big 10). Jesus even says that Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Most take this to mean that the idea of Sabbath must still be binding, just in a way that is primarily about helping us through rest and/or worship rather than as a strict rule to honour God one day a week. In other words, we must still embrace the principle of rest/worship as good for us and are usually encouraged to do some kind of discipline to act it out. But it isn’t about the law or “having to” take a Sabbath; it’s about reasonable self-care.

Sabbath as Signpost

I don’t disagree with that, but I do want to push beyond that though by looking how it should be understood what it meant for God to “rest.” It does not mean that he did nothing. It is more a rest of how a King settled into his throne after doing a lot of hard work getting his Kingdom established. So “rest” may not be what you’re thinking – kicking back and watching TV, letting your brain and body turn to mush for 24 hours – but is instead more of a statement that things are as they should be.

With that in mind, it is valuable to pull in the most complete understanding of Sabbath that I have ever encountered, courtesy of N.T. Wright. I’ve unpacked this some more in my second post reviewing Scripture and the Authority of God

Sabbath, then, becomes a signpost of the Kingdom to come. God rested, content that the world was as it should be, before we separated ourselves from her. She then instituted that we set aside a time once a week to remember when she was able to sit back on the throne, with the world as it should be under her reign, and to look ahead to when it would happen again. The other 6 days were an acceptance that God’s Kingdom was not on earth yet – as many of the other laws demonstrated as well – but on that Sabbath the Israelites were told to remember and partake in that state of existence. This signpost of God’s Kingdom stuck around for a couple thousand years (depending on how you date the writings of Genesis and the establishment in Jewish religious tradition).

We then have to fast-forward to Jesus and his declaration of the Kingdom. If the Kingdom has come, what Jesus referred to as the Gospel, that means that God is at work returning things to how they should be. We’re all invited to join in this life, not in an acceptance-of-abstract-thought kind of way but in a very practical life-giving kind of way, and accepting this invitation is what we call being a Christian. No longer do we need to mark signs remembering what it was like and what it will be like again when God’s rule is complete. No, the signpost has led us to the reality. Like Scripture is only meaningful inasmuch as it points us to the relational Truth of Jesus (John 5:39-40), the Sabbath is most meaningful precisely because it points us to the Kingdom life that it represents.

This changes things drastically from either of the previous approaches. Sabbath is no longer a set aside time for rest or for honouring God. It is not even a principle of taking care of ourselves, although that is a good thing. It was a signpost pointing to a greater reality, a reminder that we are called to embody the Kingdom in all we do. Now, the Sabbath does not need to settle for the signposts as a set-apart day or a good self-help principle. Now, we’ve reached the reality to which the sign pointed and everyday should be a Sabbath in the life of the Christ-follower, celebrating and embodying the Kingdom.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Deborah Ferber

    I really love this. Sabbath is a topic that I have been really exploring over the past several years, and like you, I’ve come to believe that it’s not about legalism, but about the spirit behind it. Personally, ever since I started taking Sabbaths it has been sometime to look forward to and I have been more productive throughout the week. One thing I am questioning, though, is what it means to take a Sabbath when you are working. In school, Sabbath keeping meant not doing any homework and spending that time doing things I wanted to do or reading books I wanted to read that weren’t assigned for class. Now that I am starting full time work and am no longer a student I’m wondering what that will look like.

    • I’m working through similar: finished school in August, spent a few months looking for work, now working and mostly settled in new city. I definitely don’t want to do as simple as “no work on Sundays” as I think that is missing the point. But how exactly do I make sure that I am honouring the real point of Sabbath as a signpost for something greater? It probably does still mean some form of set-aside time, but I’m still not completely sure what that even would look like.

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