The Seventh Day

I am intrigued by the fact that God blesses the seventh day (Ge 2:3), because it doesn’t actually exist: the seventh day is an abstract concept, like the number 7 — a concept describing a certain pattern or collection.

It isn’t that abstractions aren’t real, perhaps in some sense they’re more real, more permanent than what they represent. And the fact that God blesses this abstract concept of the seventh day, and how He actually does it, fascinates me.

The first sabbath day, the seventh day of time, is unique since it’s the very first day in which God doesn’t create something new and amazing; He rests, or ceases from creating, not because He’s tired, but because He’s finished: His work is complete, and it’s very good. (Ge 1:31) This first sabbath is indeed special.

To commemorate the 7th day, to help us remember the day God rested (Ex 20:11), God sets apart every 7th day, sanctifies each one until the end of time, making them distinct and different. But how does He actually do this?

You see, the very next day, the 8th day of existence, is just like the 7th day in every respect; from the 6th day on God doesn’t make the days materially different from each other — no special cosmic event marks any particular day. It’s only in the conscious mind where these sabbath days can possibly be distinguished, so that’s where God must sanctify them. We aren’t told explicitly how God does this, but there’s a clue in why He does it.

Christ, as Lord of Sabbath (Mk 2:28), reveals that sabbath is made for Man (27): God designs sabbath for the welfare of Mankind. This includes Adam and Eve, and every one born since.

However, if Adam doesn’t start keeping track of which day it is, starting on the 7th day, counting how many days have elapsed since the first sabbath, he won’t know when the next sabbath day is, or any sabbath after that. The fact God makes the sabbath for Man implies God tells Adam about the first sabbath and commands Adam to start keeping sabbath, to rest from his work every 7th day. Adam must understand that he’s to start counting the days and keeping track of them, else the sabbath will be lost. This he evidently does.

In other words, God’s sabbath command actually depends on unfaithful Man keeping track of which day it is, or the sabbath will be lost and God’s design in vain. So, what does Man do with this gift?

Man begins to defy God on every level imaginable (Ge 6:5), yet by the time Noah boards the ark, he not only knows what day of the year it is, he records exactly which day it is (Ge 7:11), and exactly what day the earth is completely dry. (Ge 8:13-14) Noah’s concern with time, keeping track of what day it is and telling us about it, indicates (to me, at least) that he’s stewarding sabbath, keeping it alive for us, along with the animals.

And by the time Israel’s being delivered from bondage hundreds of years after Noah, God doesn’t have to explain to Moses what day of the week sabbath falls on; He just tells Moses to remember sabbath, as if Moses already knows what day this is. (Ex 20:8) Evidently, Man’s unwittingly been keeping track of sabbath for God ever since He sanctified it, observing a 7-day week as a pattern of organizing life, even though, for the most part, he hasn’t been observing sabbath.

God does according to His will in Heaven and in Earth; no one can thwart His purposes. (Da 4:35) As He’s built so much of nature on mathematical patterns, He has imbedded the 7-day concept into the very fabric of civilization.

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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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I Will Have Mercy

One Sabbath day the disciples were hungry, so Jesus went through some corn fields so they could eat. (Mt 12:1) This was part of God’s social safety net (De 23:25), but the Pharisees began accusing them of breaking the Sabbath, looking for a way to find fault. (2)

In reply, Christ asks the Pharisees what they thought of David eating the shewbread as he was escaping from Saul (3-4), something they’d never allow. Why hadn’t God called David out on this? And why had God commanded the priests to continue their priestly duties on the Sabbath, something the Pharisees would consider profane in others? (5)

Christ concludes by noting that He’s greater than the temple (6), as reality is greater than its shadow (Col 2:17), and Master of the Sabbath, being its Author and knowing perfectly well how to apply it. (8)

Further, Christ declares the disciples formally innocent; they’d not actually broken Sabbath at all, only burdensome Pharisaical extrapolations of sabbatarian precepts, and identifies the root cause of the Pharisees’ error in their ignorance of a very basic principle of Torah: God prefers a merciful heart to overly strict ceremonial observance. (7)

If the Pharisees had honored the spirit of Torah, loving mercy and humility as well as justice (Mi 6:8), they’d not have been adding burdensome regulations to Torah, and passing off their man-made doctrine as if it were God’s. (Mt 15:9)

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