And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” –Mark 2:27-28, ESV
“Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel
If you run in Christian circles, you know that Sabbath is a notoriously loaded word. Somehow, in the “New Covenant” of Christ, many Christians dismiss the Old Covenant altogether, effectively throwing the baby (or, more appropriately, babies in this case) out with the bath water. We are even warned not to disregard the Old Covenant by Jesus himself:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. –Matthew 5:17, ESV
Despite that warning, much of modern Christianity engages in various forms of supersessionism, a $100 word for the belief that the Christian Church has become the new recipient of God’s covenant and that Christians, therefore, are now God’s chosen people (as opposed to Jews). This kind of thinking often results in unfounded and wholly inappropriate anti-Semitism, as well as a blatant disregard for the texts of the Old Testament. If I have learned anything in my personal study of scripture over the past few years, it is that the New Covenant is irrelevant without the Old Covenant. To put it simply, Jesus doesn’t make any sense outside of the context of God’s story as preserved in both the Old and New Testaments.
Sabbath is one of the ten words (or, more commonly, commandments) that God gives to the people Israel. The word Sabbath is derived from the Hebrew word ‘shabbat’ (שבת), which means to cease, or stop. The practice of Sabbath is, when performed literally, the cessation of labor. Sabbath is scripturally defined as a day in which humans are instructed to pause in the midst of lives that seem always to be moving at an unmanageably fast pace.
The scriptural model for Sabbath is the well-known story of creation. On the seventh day, the text tells us that God completed God’s work by resting. My Old Testament professor said it best: “None of us could possibly be more necessary to the function of this world than God.” And so we rest.
Or at least, the ancient Israelites rested. But we are members of a new covenant, the New Covenant in fact, a different covenant than that of the Jews. We don’t need rest, right? Just as we no longer abide by the dietary laws of Torah, we also don’t have ‘stop’ anymore.
I wholeheartedly disagree. “But,” you say, “Jesus broke Sabbath all the time!” I would actually argue that Jesus did not ever break Sabbath. There is a particular text that comes to mind that I would like to briefly explore:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. –Mark 3:1-6, ESV
Here, we come upon Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He and his disciples had just eaten from a grain field, having been judged by Pharisees then, too. Jesus had only just rebuked them, saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27-28, ESV).
It appears that the Pharisees, having completely ignored his earlier rebuke, are now attempting to convict Jesus based on his actions. But Jesus isn’t having any of it. He knows these men are legalistic to a fault, and he uses that legalism against them in order to, I would say, truly live out Sabbath by healing this man. Indeed, Sabbath was made for human benefit, not the other way around. As is common for Jesus, his remarks result in the Pharisees plotting his death.
These kinds of stories are a dime a dozen in the gospels. Jesus performs a miracle, usually one of healing, on the Sabbath. The Pharisees or even members of the crowd react poorly and question his obedience to Sabbath and ultimately to God. Sometimes, these stories even occur one right after the other, suggesting that no matter how many times Jesus explains himself, the people are not listening to him.
Fast forward two thousand years, and we find a church very confused about Sabbath practice. You would probably be hard pressed to find many Christians who practice literal Sabbath as instructed in the Ten Commandments. Slightly more common but still hard to find are those who practice some alternate form of Sabbath, usually by taking a day off each week from work and responsibility.
The remaining majority of Christians (myself included) seem to ignore Sabbath altogether. To us, Sabbath seems antiquated, a practice intended only for maximum utility in an agrarian society established upon physical labor. In our fast-paced, largely urban lifestyles, Sabbath has no place.
Don’t worry; I am not about to say we need to cease all work every Friday at sundown, although that could be an extraordinarily helpful practice for some of us. I am not even about to say that every Christian must find a full 24 hours to set aside from work every week.
However, I’m also not going to suggest that Sabbath is unnecessary, that it should be disregarded, or that it is a useless remnant of history. Yes, Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant, and Christians are indeed given more freedom in worship and daily life. But, Sabbath is one of God’s ten words to human beings, which I don’t believe were solely attached to the covenant. These are rules meant to govern human life at all times.
For example, I don’t think Jesus would ever say that the command “You shall not murder” is no longer relevant since he fulfills the law. Jesus still doesn’t want us to murder. In fact, he adds more on to that commandment:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. –Matthew 5:21-22, ESV
Murder is still unlawful. And, according to Jesus, anger is too. As it turns out, the condition of our hearts is as important as what we say and do.
So here’s my interpretation of the practice of Sabbath through my Jesus goggles [AKA the lens by which I interpret scripture]: You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.’ But I say to you that everyone who believes themselves to be more vital than God will be subject to crashing and burning; and whoever says, ‘The Sabbath doesn’t apply to me anymore’ will be liable to fail miserably.
Friends, Jesus does fulfill the law and in doing so frees us from being servants to the law. But Jesus does not free us from being human beings. We are still flawed, broken and weak. We still depend on God and God alone for all things. And so we must learn to depend on God in those times when we have to rest as well.
The busyness of our modern world would completely baffle Moses. Can you imagine the look on his face if he could somehow watch a 24-hour news cycle? Or if he could somehow use electricity to see after dark [and therefore be able to work at all hours of the day and night]? Our world is totally different than the one into which Sabbath was introduced. As with many of these ancient texts we call scripture, there is some translation that has to happen on our part.
Listen, Sabbath is hard. There are people for whom Sabbath is a laughably unattainable luxury. The single mom who works three jobs just to pay the bills and keep her kids in school is not going to be able to take 24 hours, let alone one night, off. The dedicated son caring for his sickly, elderly father is not going to be able to get away for a day, let alone for thirty minutes. The man who is imprisoned is not able to dictate the way he spends his time, and is often manipulated into legalized slavery. There are countless individuals in our society whose time is not their own.
So, if you are privileged enough to be able to take a few hours of rest here and there, be grateful and please do it. Let those hours of quiet and calm be Sabbath for you.
At the same time, please look around you. I promise if you do that you will find people in your life for whom Sabbath rest has not been a reality for years. Here is where we come in. Christians are supposed to be ‘little Christs’, the aroma of Jesus in the world. How can we then, even in the smallest of ways, provide Sabbath rest for those who cannot quite grasp it for themselves?
Maybe this looks like babysitting the neighbor’s kids for a few hours. Or maybe it looks like giving your busiest employee the morning off. Or maybe it looks like protesting on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. Or maybe it simply looks like holding one another accountable to be human, and to rest, and then helping each other to do that in the best way we can.
In the nonstop nature of our modern world, it is too easy to forget the call of the God whom we serve. Jesus, who knows our deepest struggles and our desperate need for rest, calls to us and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Come to the one whose burden is light, and I promise you will here find rest for your souls.
Grace and peace,