Growing up in the Catholic church, I was trained that Sunday is church day, and unless I was both bleeding and not breathing, church attendance was non-negotiable. I was taught it was my obligation, and to miss church on Sunday was a sin, because it broke the 4th commandment. And as a good Catholic, I was terrified of sinning!
But as a child, I had some questions: What on earth is the “Sabbath?” We didn’t call Sunday the “Sabbath.” I was raised in New York City, where there was a huge Jewish population; I knew THEY called their church day the “Sabbath,” but it was Saturday. And they didn’t go to “church.” They went to “temple.” So, why did WE have to keep this commandment? I was confused. Then, in the 70’s, the Catholic church approved Saturday mass as an appropriate substitute for the Sunday obligation. That REALLY threw me into a tizzy. Saturday isn’t Sunday. I never got comfortable with that Saturday thing. I felt like Sunday was reserved for church!
Fast forward almost 30 years. Today, as a born-again Christian, I still go to church on Sunday, but it’s a different experience for me now. Sunday church is one of my greatest pleasures. I don’t HAVE to go. I GET to go. I get to spend time with God’s people, learn from God’s word, and worship in God’s presence. I understand better the concept of “Keep the Sabbath holy.” It’s not just about going to church on Sunday.
There are 3 primary scriptures directly addressing this commandment. Two of them are the actual statement of the commandment, and one isthe referenced background. From these 3 scriptures, I see 3 aspects to this commandment, and why we can consider the Sabbath as holy.
God created the world in 6 days, and on the 7th day he “rested.” It says in Gen 1:31- 2:3 “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
The Hebrew word for “rested” here is “shabath” which means to “rest” or “to cease from exertion”. God did not rest because he was tired. He didn’t even rest because he was done with all working. He rested because he was finished with the work of creating. He’s never done working. He worked to create, and when that was done, He moved to the work of redemption (via Jesus); when that was done, and he continued to the ongoing work of sanctification (via the Holy Spirit). When he was done creating, he rested to survey what He created, and enjoy the fruit of his labor. He liked what He did. He saw it was “very good.”
We can do the same thing. Since we are created in the image of God, and He is a creative being, we too are creative beings. We create in many ways. Maybe you are artistic, or musical, or technical. Maybe you like to cook,or organize,or clean, or cultivate a garden. Maybe you like to decorate, dress fashionably, write, act, dance, build, assemble, rearrange, reorganize, visualize, explore, or dream. Whatever is your creative outlet, it’s a reflection of God’s glory in you. When you complete something, chances are you enjoy the feeling of “Hey, I did that!” It’s not a prideful emotion. It’s exactly what God did when he surveyed creation and said “It is very good.” That’s what happens in a Sabbath rest. You stop the work, and get the chance to step back, survey and savor what you did. It’s a holy moment where you can celebrate the image of God’s creative nature in you.
It’s not limited to just the things you like to do, or the activities where you are creating or using your gifts. It could even be in the mundane or difficult or unpleasant tasks that are your responsibilities. You may or may not enjoy the process of laboring or working, but the real prize is in feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. I hate cleaning, but I love having a clean house. I feel terrific when I can stand back and see what my work has accomplished. I feel significant. And THAT is a touch from the mighty hand of God. A holy Sabbath.
This is a more practical aspect of the. In Exodus 20:8-11, we read “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
In contrast to God who needs no physical rest, we sure do. Work is hard and exhausting. When God gave the commandments to Moses, the Israelites had just come through the most physically challenging and exhausting period in their history. As slaves in Egypt, they were brutally and callously overworked. They never got a day off. When God told them they were now to rest on the 7th day, it was a colossal gift to them! No doubt, they welcomed it with unbridled enthusiasm! While God drew the comparison to his 6 days of creating and one day of rest, the practical pattern He sets up for a day of rest from physical labor surely reflected his awareness that we need rest.
In college, I had a summer job as a waitress at a Friendly’s restaurant. I needed the money, so I worked as much as I could. At one point, I went almost 3 weeks with no day off. I spent long hours on my feet, carrying heavy trays of food, working to maintain a pleasant demeanor, dealing with difficult customers. I loved the job, the money and the ice cream, but when I finally got that day off I was JUBILANT!
Take a regular sabbath from your work. A rest is a time for you to relax, recharge and regroup. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and as such, you have the responsibility to care for it properly. That means not overworking it. Get some sleep. Give your body the rest it needs. Rest is a holy gift. Ps 127:2 says “He grants sleep to those he loves.” The world will not go off axis if you take a rest. God’s got it covered.
In the 2nd giving of the 10 commandments, found in the book of Deuternomy, God adds another phrase to the text, as I highlight below:
Deuteronomy 5:12-15: “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
God miraculously and spectacularly delivered the Israelites from their dreadful captivity in Egypt. The way He did it…with the 10 plagues, the grand exodus out, the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of the Egyptian army…was beyond comprehension! Can you imagine living to witness and experience all that?
But while the method of deliverance was amazing, the fact that they were delivered is even more amazing. There was NO WAY the Israelites could have freed themselves. They had, after all, been in bondage for centuries. They were trapped, without escape. It took nothing short of God’s mighty outstretched arm to release them.
As a Christian, I know I too have been released from bondage by nothing short of God’s mighty outstretched arm. Two of them actually, stretched out wide and nailed to a tree. Jesus died on the cross for me, to eliminate my sin and recapture my soul. He died so that I may live. His death released me from the prison of sin, from the bondage of trying to weigh my good against my bad, and from an eternity in hell. I don’t have to earn God’s favor with my good behavior. His good favor toward me is His free gift to me.
When I contemplate, really contemplate, what Jesus did for me, I enter a profound state of worship. Where would I be if Jesus had not died for me? Where would I be if I had not responded to his invitation to come to Him? Where would I be if I had not accepted Him as my savior? I cry out, “Oh God! Thank you for saving me!!!” I exclaim “It is well with my soul!” I am moved to pour out my deepest cries of praise to the one who gave up his life for me so I could live with Him for eternity. “Thank you Jesus!”
I worship. I have a holy experience of standing in God’s glory, in His presence, in His love. I feel His nearness. I hear His voice. I stand on holy ground.
The Sabbath commandment is teeming with so much more rich meaning than just “Go to church on Sunday.” I challenge you to rethink how you view this precept, and see if it doesn’t magnify your view of a gracious, generous and magnificent God. You can have a holy Sabbath on any day, at any time, in any place.