3/06/2005

The Sabbath was made for Man

"8Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but 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. 11For 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." Ex. 20:8-11

Of all the ten commandments, Sabbath keeping is the only one that is regularly ignored. The reason usually given for this is our status as Christians under the new covenant as commonly understood – we are supposedly no longer bound by the stipulations of the Mosaic law. Examining the extent to which this is true would require another post, but it is at least a good reason to think that breaking the sabbath is not sinful, so long as it does not violate conscience (cf. Rom 14:5). It is a good thing that there are no Sabbath Nazis in the church who run around condemning people for not keeping it.

However, the non-binding character of the Mosaic Law is a horrible reason for not keeping the Sabbath. Freedom in Christ is often taken to mean that Christians can ignore the Mosaic law (except those portions explicitly repeated in the New Testament, which is not much different than saying Christians can ignore the Mosaic law) without a second thought, as if God’s commandments contained therein were relevant only to a particular time and place and not to human nature as He created it. This is, of course, true of a good portion of the Mosaic Law. The sacrificial rites have been fulfilled in Christ, and the cleanliness laws are either universally recognized (things like "wash your hands") or no longer necessary to prevent disease, etc. However, I don’t think it is true of all of the Law – it is pretty easy to find examples of actions not specifically condemned in the New Testament which are nevertheless obviously sinful (see Lev. 18 for starters).

Therefore, I think the Sabbath should be kept unless there is a good reason not to keep it ("my conscience doesn’t bother me" is not a good reason). Despite the fathoming-God’s-inscrutable-purposes difficulty, I think it’s generally possible to determine why a particular command was given. I think the reasons I cited above regarding the sacrificial rites and cleanliness laws are fairly uncontroversial. So why did God command the Israelites to keep the Sabbath? Luckily enough, we are told in Ex. 20:11 – because God himself rested on the Sabbath day, and sanctified it (almost a direct quote of Genesis 2:3). Notice that the reason for keeping the Sabbath is not grounded in the Mosaic law but in the pattern of creation1. What is needed to justify ignoring the Sabbath is an explanation of why the pattern of Sabbath rest which God instituted at creation should not be adopted into our own lives.

I confess that I can’t think of any reasons why this might be so. I can, however, think of several reasons why the opposite might be true. In Mark 2:27 Jesus, rebuking the Pharisees for their legalism, says "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." The emphasis in this verse is usually put on the second half (rightly so, since this was Jesus main point), however the first half is no less true. The Sabbath was made for man. It wasn’t an irrelevant element of creation. It wasn’t designed for a particular people-group in a particular time. It was made for man. The pattern of sabbath rest was established by God for our sakes – it is an example of how to live best from the Author of life. Furthermore, our sabbath rest on earth is a foreshadowing of the rest we will enjoy in heaven (cf. Heb 4). Violating this pattern may not be sinful, but it is foolish.

I recently heard Peter Kreeft give a lecture. He spoke in part of the tyranny of technology, the worshiping of time which robs us of our time. Our culture moves at an incredibly fast pace. Where is all the time that microwaves and computers were supposed to have saved us? Gone, somehow. It’s enough to make one suspicious that maybe Satan doesn’t want us to rest. Why else would God have to tell us to do it? Doesn’t it seem strange that we should be so resistant to not working? The very fact that resting is so hard to do is a powerful argument for its necessity.

The most convincing argument for sabbath rest, however, is experience. Try it – take two months or so and make sure you work a little harder during the week so that you can take Sundays completely off. If you’re not completely satisfied that life is better when you do this, you can have your money back. But I think you’ll find that taking a sabbath is a much better way to live.



1I am indebted to O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants for this observation.