What is the Sabbath Day For?
NCW 75, April-June 2002
Second Edition, 22 January 2013
Q. I am very confused over what the Sabbath day is actually for? Some Messianics say that it is a day of rest at home and nothing more, others that it is a time to gather for worship with other believers. Many sabbatarians I know just use the Sabbath for leisure activities. What do the Scriptures say the Sabbath is to be used for?
A. This is indeed a valid and interesting question! I know of some sabbatarians who use the Sabbath to purely rest at home and gather together with other believers for worship and fellowship on other days of the week like Sunday and Saturday. In a society which basically acknowledges a 5-day working week with weekends off, this does, on the surface, sound a plausible arrangement. However, we did not always have a 5-day working week and Yahweh has specifically commanded that we work 6 days and rest on 1 - the Sabbath. Though he does not specify what the nature of that work necessarily should be, the picture is of six days used in labouring for one's bread and one in resting. The question therefore naturally becomes: what is "resting" to Yahweh?
There is no doubt that we are supposed to physically rest from toil and labour one day in seven so that our bodies can rejuvenate. Political systems which have tried to change this seven-day cycle - Soviet Russia, Revolutionary France, and newly independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka) - soon discovered how physically and psychologically destructive lengthening this cycle is. But there is more to "resting" than physical abstention from ordinary toil. Lutheran theologian Marva J. Dawn comments:
"All the great motifs of our Christian faith are underscored by our Sabbath-keeping. Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of His grace. Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope - the Joy of our present experience of God's love and its foretaste of the Joy to come" (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting - Grand Rapids, 1989, p.203).
Though Dawn is not a sabbatarian in the physical sense (following Sunday observance) she has certainly captured the Sabbath's spiritual import. The Sabbath, as another Lutheran writer commented, "is a sanctuary in time. In fact, it is a time in which we can begin to experience eternity and its peace" (Judith Fielder Flinn, The Lutheran, 16 March 1983). As one considers the inner meaning of the Sabbath, the more it becomes plain that the Sabbath is also a spiritual exercise in drawing closer to Yahweh. It is not simply cessation from physical labour. The Hebrews never did, in any case, regard a human life as having different components -- inner and outer, spiritual and physical - but treated it as one single whole or echad. This means that the essence of the Sabbath embraces the whole of what being a human is - body and spirit, that is, the whole soul. When the Sabbath is being properly observed, everything is focused on 'rest'. Our spiritual rest, as the New Testament teaches so plainly, is the Master Yah'shua (Jesus). Accordingly, the Sabbath is both for resting from physical work as well as resting in our Master and Saviour by turning our thoughts and inner being towards Him. And if this is the case (as it must be), how does one do this practically?
The inner man, if I may call it that, interacts on four primary levels: (a) Man to Elohim (God) (private prayer and meditation); (b) Man to family (worship, prayer and study at home); (c) Man to the wider Body of Messiah (corporate worship, prayer and study); and (d) Man to the wider Society (taking care of others' needs). It seems to me, then, that a proper use of the Sabbath utilises all four of these activities, and at least the first three (the fourth being an exception clause). Time spent alone with Yahweh, time spent with the family, time spent with one's local congregation, and time spent ministering to others would all seem to be to be essential ingredients in Sabbath keeping.
In our fellowship, we do all these things. We celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sabbath evening (some congregations do this on Sabbath morning before the main worship service if there are distance problems), we gather every Sabbath morning for corporate worship, prayer and study, and we use the rest of the day for quiet family activities or ministering to the needs of our neighbours near or far.
The word 'Sabbath' is mentioned 75 times in the Old Testament and 60 in the New, along with a plural form which exists another 35 Times. It's purpose throughout is to provide a day for Yahweh's people to rest from their labours and to spend time in fellowship with Yahweh and each other. Furthermore, the Sabbath was given as a sign between Him and Israel of the covenant (Ex.31:12-17) and as a visual aid of the kind of relationship we are supposed to have with Messiah, for Yah'shua (Jesus) is the spiritual fulfilment of the Sabbath, being as He gives the redeemed a greater rest in their spirits (Mt.28:30; Heb.4:9-11).
Throughout the Bible we learn that there are different Sabbaths which Yahweh calls "holy convocations" or "assemblies" (Heb. mikrah). In the Old Covenant these Sabbaths were rehearsals for the coming of the Messiah. Ten different Sabbaths are mentioned in the Old Testament: (1) The Weekly Sabbath (Lev.23:3); (2) The First Day of Unleavened Bread (Lev.23:7); (3) The Last Day of Unleavened Bread (Lev.23:8); (4) The Feast of Pentecost (Lev.23:21); (5) The Feast of Trumpets (Lev.23:24); (6) The Feast Day of Atonement (Lev.23:26); (7) The First Day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev.23:35); (8) The Eighth Day at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev.23:36); (9) The Seven-Year Sabbath (Ex.23:10-11; Lev.25:1-7); and (10) The Year of Jubilee Sabbath (Lev.25:8-55; 27:17-24).
The keeping of these Sabbaths under the Old Covenant was in effect the acting out of a drama of redemption as a dress rehearsal in preparation for the Messiah who would embody the true meaning of these Sabbaths in His own life and ministry. These Sabbaths were given as a "delight" and not as a burden. Disobedience to them provoked Yahweh's wrath because they form the basis of the whole structure of worship and recognition that Yahweh is an Elohim (God) of covenant in both creation and redemption (see Jer.17:19-26). Sabbath-observance is the guarantor of the Theocratic State for which we are preparing in the Millennium when the Kingdom of Israel is once again restored. Our obedience to the Sabbath statutes therefore indicates not only our obedience to Yahweh but our desire to be a part of the Millennial world to come (see Jer.17:27; Ex.35:1-3; Ezek.22:8,26). Repentance from apostasy always includes return to Sabbath observance (Neh.9-10). The Sabbath is a test of our ability and willingness to keep our promises, to which are attached great blessings (if honoured) and great cursings (if not) (Neh.13:15-18). If Yahweh is the same yesterday, today, and forever then the nature of His covenant institutions have not changed.
Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) was, as we know, Sabbath-observant (Lk.4:16). And indeed the first Messianic passage which He read out in His ministry was one about the Sabbath (Is.61:1-2). Yah'shua's (Jesus') appointment by Yahweh was to set the people free from sin, demonic oppression, sorrow and heartache, despair and loneliness. He would give them rest of their souls. His message was that he was the ultimate reality of the Sabbath, its living epitome, and that he would accomplish this by becoming Yahweh's Passover Lamb. By sharing His life with us, we can find our inner rest to accompany the outer Sabbath rest (Mt.11:28-30; Heb.4:1). We attain that rest by trusting Yahweh (Heb.4:2-8), obtaining spiritual peace by not trying to save ourselves through our own works. We are now able to rest our souls in complete confidence that the work of salvation has been accomplished for us.
The New Covenant Sabbath, like the Old, is not an end but a means. When we reverse the purpose of the Sabbath, it becomes a burden instead of a blessing. It's purpose is to rest the body and focus us as individuals, families, and congregations on the Messiah, until we have become perfectly sanctified. For when that blessed state has been attained, we enter into a 7-day (as opposed to a "7th day") Sabbath, which is the condition that obtains in the Millennium. Whilst we will still rest our bodies 1 day in 7, we will have attained that perfect spiritual rest and abide in it 7 days a week. For now that state has not been fully realised - it is available to us if we will but appropriate it through obedience. But we do have to "go and get it", as it were.
That the Sabbath is not an end is illustrated by Yah'shua's (Jesus') teaching that if a conflict arises between legitimate human needs and legalistic rulings to control people's behaviour, Yah'shua (Jesus) would always give His priority to helping people. This was not to negate rules but to prioritise human needs such as hunger and healing (for examples, see Mt.12, Mk.2 & Lk.6).
All kinds of excuses have been advanced not to observe the Sabbath outwardly (and not a few to ignore the inward needs as well). Romans 14:5,10,12-13 is a favourite misapplied Scripture. The key to understanding it is the direction we approach the Sabbath (and indeed the Festivals in general) from, and that direction must always be ahavah (love), which is the true interpretation and fulfilment of Torah (Rom.13:10). This means that we should not go around judging people who do not observe Torah correctly but rather reveal to them the ahavah (love) of Yahweh that lies behind it so that they can see what they are missing.
As always, there must be a two-pronged approach to the mitzvot (commandments) - an inner one (the most important, rooted in ahavah/love), and an outer one (rooted in obedience), "putting the clothes of righteousness on", as it were, to create godly habits. A family and a local congregation must, for harmony's sake, impose the godly standard - and then people can be free to choose the congregation or assembly according to their conscience. But we cannot go around condemning other churches and assemblies - which are free associations based on conscience - if they do not observe the Sabbath. We are rather to strictly teach the Scriptures by warning people what they require, set an example, reveal our simcha (joy) and blessedness, and invite them to obey by the force of attraction.
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This page was created on 16 June 2004
Last updated on 22 January 2013
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