Applying the Sabbath Part 1

On Sunday I said a bunch about the Sabbath commands, but I didn’t explicitly talk about how we should be obeying them these days. Below is a talk I did for Badger Cru that is meant to give some framework for how to think about them now.

Why does God want me to rest?

After God made an agreement in Exodus 19 to be the God for his people,  in chapters 20 and following he explained to them what it would look like to be his people. These commands didn’t make the Hebrew people the people of God, rather God gave them these commands after they became his so they would know what it would mean to be his people and how they could live like it. This part of Scripture starts with the 10 Commandments.

10 Commandments

No Gods but God

No copies of God’s image

No using God’s name non-sacredly

Rest on the Sabbath day

Honor father and mother

Do not murder

Do not commit adultery

Do not steal

Do not give false testimony

Do not covet what belongs to another

The same commitments are re-given in Deuteronomy 5 – just before they entered the land God was giving them.

In both lists the Sabbath command is the longest command.

It is also the only command that has a theological explanation in it that changes in the two lists.

Here are the 2 places this command is directly given:

Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11 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.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

by Gideon Cohn

Three Levels on which to apply this:

1. As a Command

2. As a Loving Purpose of God

3. As an Expression of God’s Character and the Gospel


1. As a Command

As a command, the Sabbath Commandments are the most ignored of the 10 Commandments – except for perhaps the one about using God’s name in vain. And yet, is one of the most oddly important – important to God, that is. Look at how strongly God emphasizes this command in the passages below:

Exodus 31:13-14 13 “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. 14 “‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.

Ezekiel 20:19-20 19 I am the LORD your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 20 Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.”

Leviticus 19:2-3 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. 3 “‘Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.

Isaiah 56:4-5 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant– 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.

There are 4 parts to this command:

  1. It commands you to work. It presumes a strong work ethic.
  2. It commands you to rest. Your rest ethic should be as clear as your work ethic.
  3. Commands you to let disempowered people rest. It requires a strong justice ethic.

    Deut 5:15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

  4. It commands you to let animals rest. It supports the basis for an animal rights ethic.

In other places there is an expansion on what the Sabbath day is for besides sheer rest. One of those things is a sacred assembly:

Leviticus 23:2-3 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies. 3 “‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.

It is important to recognize that although a sacred assembly is commanded, that doesn’t mean that the assembly wasn’t any fun. Most of the sacred assemblies are also called “feasts.” That means a party. God commands the actions of happiness. Which led Jeremy Taylor, the 17th-century Puritan to say somewhere, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.”

Peace and joy are often connected in the New Testament to mature faith. A mature Christian is by definition someone who is at peace and possesses a stable joy in God. Is someone who has the capacity to rest and celebrate, the two inherent realities of the Sabbath. The ability to rest and rejoice must be part of the covenant relationship between us and God, and therefore it makes perfect sense that he would command it.

A present corollary: You should go to church

The gathered church worship service is meant to be the sacred assembly of peace and joy in the one who has given it to us. And it is in these assemblies that we build each other up in peace and joy. This is likely why the author of Hebrews said:

Hebrews 10:25   25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


2. As a Loving Purpose – a Gift to You and Me

If we believe that God is a loving father,  we need to ask: What is the loving purpose in this command? One of the things parents should say to their young children when they are forcing their children to do something they don’t want to do is, “Sweetheart, you can trust daddy. I know you don’t think that this is best for you, but you can still trust me.” And when we delve into the divine loving logic for the Sabbath command, it doesn’t take all that much meditation to realize how much we need it.

Penn Clark,  a pastor from my youth once said, “If you don’t take a Sabbath, you’re not wicked; you’re just stupid.” What he meant is, that he didn’t think that the Old Testament Sabbath command is a necessary command for all Christians today. But because rest is built into the very fabric of reality, the fact that we are not legally obligated to observe it doesn’t mean that we no longer need to observe it.  It gives us time for reflection instead of reaction. It gives us a moment to trade our anxiety for peace. Relationships can have the time they need. We have time for non-urgent things that are restorative. We have designated moments for worship, prayer, rest, sacred study, meditation and remembrance. It allows us to take deep enjoyment in things we would pass by, and it gives us an opportunity to serve others. It gives us time to encourage linear and developed thinking, especially about our God, our lives and our priorities.

It is meant to be a gift of life and health from God to humans, not a way we earn God’s favor. Jesus said it this way:

Mark 2:23-28 23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

God made the Sabbath for us, not us for the Sabbath. We observe it to live and live to the fullest. This does not necessarily make observing it optional. But whether or not we believe that the Old Testament commandment is a legal necessity prescribed for obedience, or whether we believe it is still a practical necessity because of the makeup of reality, doesn’t really take away from the fact that we need it. It doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a gift of God. And it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a necessary dictate of justice and of worship.

If you don’t Sabbath, you might not be wicked, but you’re probably stupid. And I mean that in a really nice way.


3. As an expression of God and of the Gospel

#2 is still pretty shallow. It’s still about us. But the command isn’t really all about us. It’s about God being God, and us accepting that and being glad about it. But it’s also about the fact that our lives become a successes or failures on the basis of the generosity of God, and not our sheer abilities. And so a failure to believe in and observe the Sabbath points to a failure to believe in God and the gospel. Look at this principle in Psalm 127:

Psalm 127:1-5 A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. 2 In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat, for he grants sleep to those he loves. 3 Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. 4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. 5 Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.

Failure to observe Sabbath (rest) is evidence of practical atheism.  The inherent question is, Who is God? Is God – or are you – the efficient reason (the reason that really makes it happen) for your success? The person who works seven days is making a statement  in answer to this question. The person who rests is also making a statement in answer to it.

To legalistically observe the Sabbath is to do it for moral performance. It is to believe that if we observe the Sabbath God will love us. The truth is that the Sabbath itself is evidence that God loves us, and observing it is accepting God’s love for us.

But we can also seek our self salvation by not observing the Sabbath, by not giving rest and sacred assembly their place in our life. In this way we tried to save ourselves not by keeping the rules, but by making our own. It is an equal idolatry, just as much a means of self salvation.

The one who trusts God is able to rest. And this is why the author of Hebrews could say that Jesus is himself our rest, that he is the true and greater Sabbath rest (read Hebrews 4).

In the present age accepting the Sabbath means accepting the rest that God provides. That rest is provided first and foremost in Jesus, the one who did all the working and performing on our behalf so that we could enter into God’s rest. But in pointing to creation (Exodus 20), salvation from slavery (Deuteronomy 5), and the redemption of the cross (Hebrews 4), we choose to live a lifestyle of rest in which we demonstrate that we are not God, and that we can assemble before him in thanks for what he has provided and in trust for what he will provide.

For “…he grants sleep to those he loves.”

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