Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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 or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord 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
There is often a question as to why the Sabbath day command is not discussed much in the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to be included in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount where he lays down the principle of the matter. What the ambiguity has meant however, it that we do not take the purpose of the law seriously at this point. The thing is this: although the stipulations of the law have been fulfilled in Christ and are not a burden in our age, the teaching of the law is principled. It has meaning because of who it is that spoke the laws. Because of the nature of Yahweh, there is nothing evil or crooked in what he has spoken, and so the stipulations for how Israel was to live contain goodness, truth, and beauty.
So when we consider the Sabbath command we ought to readily recognize these things in the command. Since it is a part of the 10 words/commandments, it is a major piece in the summary of God’s instruction to Israel. For a self-reliant American, to find a command like this requiring rest is absurd. Work, productivity, and efficiency don’t usually leave room for a full day of rest. At the root of the command is this: God ‘worked’ for six days, but rested on the seventh, and this is an example for us. Work is good, and it is a gift of God to man, but it ought to be coupled with times of rest. Throughout the bible we get different perspectives on this seventh day. There is this cosmic perspective that God rested on the seventh day, but then we get this pedestrian perspective of a weekly day of rest being set apart. We also have middling perspectives. The seventh year is a year of release from slavery, and the 50th year of jubilee is an image of rest with even broader scope. In a way, there is this ongoing theme of freedom from bondage. There is also a social aspect to the Sabbath rest: Moses relates the Sabbath with the Israelite’s release from captivity in Egypt, and the author of Hebrews correlates this further so that the Sabbath is directly related to the entrance of God’s people into the promised land: both literally and spiritually. I would also suggest that the tithe in Deuteronomy is associated with the Sabbath command. One of the peculiarities of the tithe command in Deuteronomy is that at least a portion of the tithe is supposed to be reserved for the person offering the tithe to celebrate with their household in the temple precincts (Deuteronomy 14.22-27). This seems to be related to the following: supporting the Levites every three years and celebrating the 7th year.
So what we see from this listing of sabbatical images is that the idea of rest is essential to the economy of God’s people, and we can see that there is an essential value attributed to the Sabbath that we can accept today. I am not suggesting that we have blue laws or the like, but I am saying there is goodness in the idea. Humans were created with a need for rest. The command in Deuteronomy talks about the weekly rest as an opportunity for both the Israelite and the servant to enjoy rest. You could also say that humans were created with a need for work. When a human, created in the image and likeness of God lacks both work or rest, many unnatural things occur. Complete and full leisure is very problematic both physically and spiritually to a human. On the opposite side, full work also wears and tears at the mind and body. Very few people are able to keep to a 7 days a week, 10 or 12 hour a day work week and none can avoid the consequences of such a busy work-life on every area of life that define us as humans.
So, we ought to consider what this looks like in our context. What does it look like for a Christian to appreciate properly the sabbatical principle laid out in scripture? We can say that there is a narrow scope we can look at and a broad scope we can see as well. Jesus teaches us about how we should live and this too is essential in applying the principle. The broad scope is that enjoying the Sabbath rest ultimately points to our eternal life in Christ when we receive our incorruptible bodies. It is a picture of a rest that is yet to be had and one that will be perpetual and full of joy. In this life, then, I think of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Do you see how both labor and rest are intertwined in the rest of Jesus? In following Jesus’ teaching and way of life, we have fulfilling work and rest in our current life. Thus we ought to pay attention to how we live our lives. This looks like living in faith, casting our anxieties on him, asking and trusting in him for our daily needs, and seeking his kingdom first. We see much of this detailed in the sermon on the mount or in many of the letters of the New Testament. Do we live in accordance with Jesus’ teaching? There is also the very practical balance of the specific work God has given us. Do we make time for rest?
Perhaps one last note about a regular rest. A regular time for rest doesn’t just mean that you sleep in and once you wake up you sit on your phone all day long. In the picture of the tithing, worship is very much a necessary aspect of that rest. Studying God’s word has almost always been associated with this rest as well. It is not unintentional that church congregations have had morning and evening gatherings on Sundays (since the earliest reports of church gatherings). In a way, we have a built in rest day on Sunday. It might be the only day that we can meditate intentionally on the law day and night like the psalmist teaches us. It might be the only day when we can drink so deeply from God’s word. This filling then is something that shapes the rest of our lives and the rest of our weeks. It teaches us what it looks like to experience God’s rest and to take Jesus’ yoke upon us. May we find rest for our souls as we consider what it looks like in our lives.