“Tell the Israelites: You must observe my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, so that you will know that I am the Lord who consecrates you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When was the last time you truly took a day off? I guess a better question than that may be this: What does it even mean to take a day off? A day off from what? From work? What kind of work? Maybe you’ve taken a day off from your paid work, but spent the entire day running errands and doing chores around the house. That doesn’t seem like much of a day off. Perhaps you took a day of absence from work to spend the day volunteering with a charitable organization. That felt good, but you’re just as tired as if you’d spent all day at your “real” job. How are we supposed to get any rest if we don’t even really know what it means to rest in the first place?
Getting rest is actually something built into the very fabric of creation. When Moses relates the big picture creation story in Genesis 1, the whole thing is very formulaic in its structure. An analysis of that will have to be for another time, but after a very much patterned creation process, on the seventh day, God rests. Right there in the beginning God set in place for us a pattern of work and rest. This pattern eventually became ensconced in the law by way of the fourth entry in the Ten Commandments. It looked there like this:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.Exodus 20:6-11
Now, from a very legalistic standpoint, the people were to not do any work on what we know today as Saturday. They considered Sunday the first day of the week. They worked for six days, and Saturday they didn’t do anything. As they were led through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, God provided manna every day for the people except on the seventh day. Instead, on the sixth day, they were to collect twice what they normally collected, and it would stay good through the seventh day so they didn’t have to do any work on it. If they tried to keep leftovers any other day, they would be rotten by morning. Eventually, scribes and teachers of the law defined 39 categories of work, each with several sub-categories, so the people could know exactly what they could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath.
The trouble with this whole line of thinking is that it completely misses God’s point in instituting the Sabbath in the first place. Yes, God didn’t want them to do any work on the Sabbath. Yes, He made that abundantly clear to them in the law. Yes, He held them pretty strictly accountable when they didn’t do it. But the point of the Sabbath was never ultimately about their not doing any work. Much more so than that, it was about two other things. (Well, it’s significantly about a third thing too, namely, worship, but that’ll have to be a conversation for another time.) These things may not seem like they have much to do with each other at first, but the truth is they are intimately connected. You can’t really have one without the other.
The first thing God was aiming for in putting the pattern of Sabbath in place for the people was to give them a day of rest. While laziness is certainly a problem among some people, overwork and busyness are far greater maladies. Now, the truth is that there are many things we have to do in order to get along in life. None of us is short a laundry list of work that needs to be done. We can try to put things off for a little while, but eventually the pile grows to the point that it will collapse on us, and then we have to do twice as much work cleaning up the mess our neglect created. So, we work. Hard. All the time.
But we go beyond that too. Sometimes we do actually find ourselves in the rare position of having no work to do. Things at the office are all completed, we have all the chores done around the house (at least all the pressing chores), all the errands are run, and no one has asked us to do anything else. We rest in those moments, right? Well…not so much. You see, when life settles down a bit and we are left with nothing but our thoughts, that can take us into some pretty scary territory if we’re not careful. So, when we get to one of those settled places, we often look to make ourselves busy to hide from the quiet. In other words, we never rest.
The trouble with never resting, though, is that our bodies (not to mention our minds and spirits) weren’t meant to go forever without a break. After a season of running at full tilt all the time, eventually we wear out. We wear out and start to drop things. Our work quality suffers. We become too exhausted to invest properly in our most significant relationships. Everything gets harder. Finally, our fuses burn all the way down and we either explode on everyone around us, or else we turn out to be a dud and we sit there, incapable of doing anything for anyone, including ourselves.
God doesn’t want that for us. He didn’t make us for that kind of an end. But we aren’t so good about avoiding it on our own, so He gave us the command. The Sabbath command was never about restricting our lives and telling us what we can’t do. It was always about creating margin in our lives so that we can do even more.
But there’s something else here. This was the other thing God was aiming at with the Sabbath command in the first place. While part of the reason we stay so busy all the time is to hide from our insides, a bigger part of the reason is our belief that if we don’t, we’ll miss out on something. It may be an experience, a desire, or a genuine need, but whatever it is, laying our hands on it depends entirely on our efforts. If we don’t do, we’ll not have. We don’t want the latter, so we throw ourselves into the former.
In all of this rat race running, though, a glaring truth begins to become harder and harder to avoid: If we are living as if it all depends on us, then we are living as if there is no god interested in or available to help. That is, we are making a statement about God’s existence or character, namely, that He doesn’t actually exist or else that He doesn’t really care about us. The trouble with this is that it isn’t true. At all. If we live like that, we’re creating a fantasy world for ourselves that will not have a happy ending. God doesn’t want that for us. The Sabbath command, then, is not only about rest. It is about our trusting in God. And the thing is, unless we trust in Him, we won’t rest.
What God was trying to accomplish in commanding the Sabbath was to get the people to trust in Him. They were to not work for a whole day – a whole day! – during which time they would have to throw themselves entirely on God’s promise to provide for them. They would learn that He is able to provide for them even when they don’t do anything. His ability to provide is not affected by their ability to produce. He doesn’t need their help to care for them. Now, He certainly invites them into that process so they don’t become either lazy or entitled, but He doesn’t want them to think they are not still dependent on Him.
This is what God was getting at in His rehashing the Sabbath command with the people here in Exodus 31. Significantly, this was the last thing God said to Moses before giving him the stone tablets and sending him back down the mountain to deal with the people who were already in open rebellion against the law they had just agreed to live under. Even more importantly for us, though, this is the lens through which we can understand how the idea of the Sabbath applies to us.
The idea of the Sabbath is chiefly about our trusting in the Lord and honoring Him as such. Because that’s what lies at the heart of it and not simply taking a day off, observing it can take many different forms. For instance, modern followers of Jesus who insist that no work should be done on Sundays are not correct in their theology. Originally, the day for not working was Saturday and that never changed in the New Testament. More than that, Jesus fulfilled that Sabbath command, and we don’t see any evidence of His followers keeping it in the New Testament. Yes, the earliest believers observed the Sabbath, but that was because they were still thinking of themselves as faithful Jews and behaving like it. As that thinking gradually faded away, so did their practice of a Jewish Sabbath.
Now, this doesn’t mean that taking an intentional day for worship and rest isn’t still a good and wise thing. But we must absolutely not be legalistic about it. For instance, as a preacher, Sunday is a workday for me. By what measure could I tell people to not work on Sundays while I’m actively doing work on Sundays without being a raging hypocrite? Instead, what we must pursue with greater and greater intentionality is placing our whole trust in Christ and not in ourselves or what we can accomplish by our own efforts. Such a transition is a key part of the process of salvation and sanctification. Rather than worrying ourselves about whether we are taking a day off every week, our energies should be directed toward resting in Christ through trusting in Him rather than ourselves. When we do that, we will find the rest we need. Some seasons will find us working at and even beyond our limits. Others will find us with more downtime than we know what to do with. But if our trust is always in Christ and not in ourselves, we will always have enough rest. We will be enjoying the eternal Sabbath Jesus has made available to us. That’s a prize worth having.