On the Sabbath

As we remember the sabbath (Ex 20:8) in the midst of a fallen culture, we find ourselves questioning what kinds of activities are allowed. This isn’t new; even in Torah-keeping cultures there’s controversy here. It’s one of the chief obstacles Jesus Christ Himself faced. (Jn 9:16)

God says we’re to stop working on sabbath (Ex 20:10), and do all our work the remaining six days (9), but He never defines work, and for good reason — it’s evidently related to our motives, which are context-specific. He does, however, give us some helpful examples.

Gathering manna on sabbath was forbidden (Ex 16:29), as well as cooking and preparing it (23), gathering firewood (Nu 15:32,35) and kindling a fire. (Ex 35:3) Conducting business as usual, in manual labor and routine commerce, violates sabbath (Ne 13:15-17), and carrying burdens profanes the sabbath. (Je 17:21-22)

Jews extrapolate from this to extremes, forbidding us to operate elevators, microwaves, stoves, light switches, or tear off pieces of toilet paper, drive a car, or lift anything heavier than an infant.

In light of our modern conveniences, is there perhaps a balance here which honors the spirit of sabbath without perverting it into a burden (Mt 23:4), especially in cultures which are ignorant of sabbath?

For example, is it OK to go to a restaurant, go shopping, warm up some left overs, or to go for a hike or a jog on Saturday? Perhaps this depends on what we do for work the other six days, to provide for ourselves and those we care for.

Perhaps we should each take the time to define what work means for us; maybe whatever that is should be off limits for us on Shabbat, without neglecting our duty to ourselves or others. If our work requires shopping during the week, then maybe we should avoid going on Saturday; if we’re manual laborers, then prioritize physical rest; if we make a living straining our brains, best forget problem-solving on Saturday.

It’s perfectly consistent with sabbath to engage in needful, useful activity, even if it happens to be difficult. (Mt 12:12) The key appears to be related to both our weekly routine and what it means to love each other. We ought to do our best to set the day apart, and not impose rigorous work on others, but when people are working anyway, how do we integrate this into our own observance? Must we isolate ourselves and disengage, or might it be wisdom to leverage their voluntary sabbath violations to make our own more peaceful, joyful and restful?

These questions get at the heart of obedience, yet we may not have definitive answers until our Lord returns. Meanwhile, each of us must do our best to honor Him as our conscience directs in our particular circumstances, enlightened by the Word, and the Spirit of the living God.

Keeping the spirit of Sabbath in mind, that it’s sanctified by our Father for our benefit in rest, what can we do to set this day apart and make it more of a delight? This perspective will lead us on a journey to discover sabbath, to orient our lives around God’s appointed times of rest, teaching us, as each sabbath evening draws on, to rest in what He’s allowed us to accomplish for the week, and to worship Him as our Fountain of eternal rest.

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Remember the Sabbath Day

One of the Ten Commandments is: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Ex 20:8) God’s telling us to remember a specific day of the week and set it apart, keep it special, dedicated for His intended purpose: this day is for rest. (Ex 20:11)

Noting the correct day is where we must begin; God sets apart the seventh day, Saturday, and calls it the sabbath day. (Ex 20:10) So, working on Saturday breaks the command; it’s inappropriate except under extenuating circumstances, where basic necessities, health or safety are at risk. (Mt 12:12) But God is calling us beyond simply resting on Sabbath: He tells us to remember it.

Remembering the sabbath is being systematic, intentional and deliberate about setting it apart; God’s telling us to think about it, anticipate it, prepare for it (Mk 15:42), plan for a complete change of pace. This is where the spirit of the command is critical: God hasn’t formally defined work, and this is no accident; what’s work for one soul isn’t for another.

Work varies by context, so we must careful and prayerful to get this right. For example, a consultant should intentionally forget about work on sabbath; going for a swim or a run, taking a hike or gardening a bit might be quite restful for a working mind on sabbath, but a manual laborer should focus more on physical rest. One who seldom cooks might enjoy making breakfast on sabbath, but a homemaker might prepare sabbath meals ahead to improve her sabbath rest.

While we must not be careless with the sabbath, treating it like any other day and doing whatever we like (Is 58:13), we also need to be careful not to make sabbath a burden, as did the Pharisees of old. (Mt 23:4) Becoming preoccupied, rigid and judgmental about what can and can’t be done on sabbath can destroy its spirit and purpose. Specifics are generally going to be a matter of individual conscience, and this is by design; we should each be careful to please our own master here. When the sabbath is no longer a delight, a true day of rest and peace unto our spirits and souls, we’re missing the whole point.

As a general rule or precept, we should stop laboring, pushing ourselves, doing what we normally do to provide for ourselves and those under our care. The daily grind, the routine, mundane chores and demands of life — these should be off-limits — so long as we aren’t violating the law of love: keeping sabbath shouldn’t cause us to neglect those in need. (Lk 13:15) Whatever facilitates rest and comfort for our selves, families and communities is within the spirit of sabbath.

Creatively obeying from the heart is how we find God’s heart in sabbath; He’s for our total health and well-being, and that’s why He made it. (Mk 2:27)

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