Is there such a thing as the Christian Sabbath?
Should Christians keep the original Sabbath? Does this even matter anymore for New Testament Christians?
Is it wrong for a Christian to run a race, or a business, on Sunday? How about mowing the lawn, going out to dinner, or watching a football game? How do Christians keep the Sabbath? To answer that we need to take a brief stroll through the Old Testament.
The Sabbath In The Old Testament
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3)
This is the first mention of a Sabbath pattern. God works for six days to create the world. His work is good and glorious – but it’s not an end in itself.
When the work is done, God rests from his work, blesses his world, and enjoys his creation. You cook the turkey and bake the stuffing not so you can spend all day in the kitchen, but so that you can sit down with family and enjoy the fruit of your labor.
That’s the pattern God weaves into his creation by blessing the 7th day and making it holy: purposeful work and sacred, delightful rest. Until sin intruded.
In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve have rebelled against their Lord and the goodness of his commands, God’s curse falls upon them, and with them all of creation. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:18, 19).
The blessedness of both work and rest is destroyed. Work and rest are now both under the curse.
The Creation Pattern
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….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 20:8-9, 11)
The fourth commandment picks up on the pattern of creation and establishes it as a law for Israel. But there’s a difference. What was before the right of all creation (purposeful work and rest) is now given only to God’s covenant people.
Even more, the gift of rest comes after the gift of redemption. When the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy 5, Moses makes this explicit:
Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you…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. (Deuteronomy 5:12, 15)
Without the shedding of the blood of the Passover lamb, Israel would still be in slavery: endless toil with no enjoyment of their labor. In other words, rest is a gift for the redeemed.
The Incomplete Sabbath
But even here there’s something incomplete. In Eden, rest and blessedness weren’t experienced one day out of seven. All of life, work and rest, was under God’s blessing. Toil and weariness didn’t exist.
The rupture sin brought into creation means that now even the redeemed only experience rest as a temporary, fleeting gift. The Sabbath comes once a week, because slavery is over and God’s gift of life is about more than mere survival; but only once a week, because this is no longer Eden. Thorns and thistles grow even on the Sabbath.
That’s the Sabbath’s Old Testament backstory. But there’s one more key development that occurs before the New Testament.
After returning from exile, somewhere along the line, a change occurred. Instead of the Sabbath being a weekly reminder that God’s people were waiting for something more, the Sabbath instead became a rule to be kept.
Or, more precisely, rules: forty minus one, according to Jewish writings. It was as if, wearied with the continual battle against toil and the curse, God’s people took the easy way out.
Rather than hoping, year after year and generation after generation, that God would somehow, someday give them true and complete Sabbath rest, Israel settled for a checklist of Sabbath regulations: cook the food this way, not this way. Do this, not that. The day of rest became a source of even more burdens. But hey –if you make rules, you can feel good about keeping them and look down on those who don’t.
The Rabbi Who Turned Over Everything
Then an obscure Jewish rabbi from Nazareth upsets the whole apple cart – and on the Sabbath, no less. On the Sabbath, his disciples were caught snacking in the grain fields (a total of four Sabbath fouls). The Pharisees rebuke him.
His response: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5). On the Sabbath, he heals withered hands (Luke 6:6-11) and crooked backs (Luke 13:10-17), bringing the wholeness and healing that the sacred day pointed towards. He shreds the Sabbath rulebook and yet promises the same rest the Sabbath once represented.
And that’s the point. What the Sabbath represented, Jesus fulfills. He is Sabbath rest in human form. Only he can give what the Sabbath was meant to give. As the Lord of the Sabbath, he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
Rest is no longer found on a day; rest is found in a Person.
So if that’s true: how does the Christian actually keep the Sabbath? What does Christian Sabbath look like?
Christian Sabbath #1: We keep the Sabbath by trusting Jesus
As the writer of Hebrews says, “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God rested from his” (Heb. 4:10). That rest is both future (complete rest in the new heavens and new earth), but we also experience it now through faith in Jesus.
It’s not passivity or inaction; we “strive to enter that rest” (4:11). But we do so completely dependent on the grace that our merciful high priest gives us (4:14-16).
How do you keep the Sabbath? Stop living as though the things you do – giving money to the church, coming to Sunday worship, making your kids watch Christian cartoons – or the things you don’t do – cheating on your taxes or your spouse, watching R-rated films, cursing your kids – are enough to save you.
Stop acting as though salvation is a do-it-yourself project, and rest in the finished work of Jesus. We will never earn our way to rest – but Jesus has earned it for us.
Christian sabbath is about the person of Jesus and what he has accomplished on our behalf.
Christian Sabbath #2: We keep the Sabbath by embracing created rhythms
Don’t panic – this doesn’t involve sacred drumming or moonlight rituals. Remember, the concept of rest is tied to the created order’s daily and weekly rhythms of morning and evening, of work and rest. These rhythms were the harmony that sin destroyed.
The Sabbath day pointed back to what was lost in Eden, but it could never actually restore it.
Now Jesus comes to make his blessing known far as the curse is found. And that means that slowly, always in part this side of heaven, we re-receive the blessings of God’s good creation as Jesus remakes us in his image.
We’re not bound by a law to keep one day with strict boundaries and guidelines (see Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17). Jesus frees us from that, because he gives what mere cessation of activity can never give.
But we’re also freed from the tyranny of believing that our lives consist in the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15), from the bondage of living as though our worth is measured by our productivity or performance reviews, and from the fear that the only way to be in financial control is to take one more contract or work one more weekend.
Our ability to stop working daily for sleep, and to take a day off in a weekly rhythm of work and rest, tells us something about our hearts: can we actually trust God enough to stop working? Or do we live as though our lives will crash into fiery ruin without our constant management?
Don’t get me wrong. Certainly, other factors may be at work – economic hardship, a difficult boss, a season of parenting many small children. In our fallen world, pure, untarnished rest doesn’t exist. But if the wearied, hurriedness comes from inside you, then perhaps you need to come again to your burden-lifting Master and receive his easy yoke.
Christian Sabbath #3: We keep the Sabbath by longing for Jesus’ return
This flows from the last point. Even as we daily return to Jesus to receive his gift of rest, we realize we still live in a world of toil and weariness. Followers of Jesus still grow faint and weary. Thorns and thistles still choke our work and our rest.
And so we long for Jesus to return and make all things new. This is a healthy, wise longing. It keeps us from being taken in by hucksters, religious and secular, who shout at us, “Buy this book, eat this diet, pray this prayer, and your life will be transformed!”
As we follow our crucified Lord, we come to realize that the Sabbath road to perfect rest, though lit with resurrection glory, still passes under the shadow of the cross. It’s a long road. At times, it’s a weary road. There is refreshment along the way, to strengthen us for the journey. But we’re not there yet. So we long. We hope.
And we await the everlasting Sabbath that our Lord will one day bring.