Our weekly holiday… and a command we regularly violate.
Believe it or not, we Christians actually have a holiday every single week. You likely forgot about it because it’s so regular.
It’s Sabbath. It’s the day God mandated (in the Ten Commandments, you know) that people take off. We’re not to work on it. We have the other six days of the week for that.
Exodus 20.8-11 KWL
- 8 “Remember to separate the day of Sabbath.
- 9 Work six days, and do all your work. 10 The seventh day is Sabbath.
- It’s for me, your L
ORDGod. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
- your sons, daughters, male slaves, female slaves, animals, or visitors at your gates.
- 11 For six days, I the L
ORDmade the skies and the land, the sea and everything in it.
- The seventh day, I stopped, so I the L
ORDblessed a day of Sabbath. I made it holy.”
And once again, in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 5.12-15 KWL
- 12 “Keep separate the day of Sabbath, as your L
ORDGod commanded you.
- 13 Work six days, and do all your work. 14 The seventh day is Sabbath.
- It’s for your L
ORDGod. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
- your sons, daughters, slaves, ox, donkey, animals, or visitors at your gates.
- Because your male and female slaves will rest like you:
- 15 Remember, you were a slave in Egypt’s territory.
- Your L
ORDGod got you out of there with his strong hand and extended arm.
- This is why your L
ORDGod commands you to do the day of Sabbath.”
Note God said it was ’cause he rested on the seventh day, but Moses said it was ’cause the Hebrews used to be Egypt’s slaves. It’s one of those little contradictions people like to pretend the bible doesn’t have. But really, there’s no reason we can’t accept both interpretations. After all, real life is messy like that.
Sabbath comes from the word shabbát/“stop.” God stopped creating the earth on the seventh day;
Which day is Sabbath?
For the Hebrews, Sabbath was on the seventh day. They never actually created names for the days of the week. (They have ’em now, but in bible times it was “first day,” “second day,” “third day,” etc.
Most Christians, who wanna honor the fact Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday morning, put our Sabbath then: The first day of the week. (Although in Spanish-speaking countries, the calendar is rearranged so Sunday is the last day of the week.) Pastors, who gotta work Sundays if that’s when they hold worship services, tend to take their own Sabbaths on Monday. Or Saturday. Or whenever they can take a spare day.
But technically the scriptures don’t say Sabbath has to fall on the seventh day, whether that’s Saturday or Sunday. The L
My own personal practice is to rest on Saturday. I have the day off; I’m nearly always busy with church stuff on Sunday, so that’s not gonna work. So Saturday, I try to get out of any commitments and just stop. And rest.
I kinda irritated a Seventh-Day Adventist some years back. They’re called “Seventh-Day” because they insist Saturday is Sabbath—so that’s when they hold their worship services. What irritated him was I agreed with him that Saturday is Sabbath… but, I pointed out, worship services are work. You’re ministering to one another. That’s work—good work, but still work. You still need another rest day! He really didn’t care for that interpretation. But it’s true; and it’s why a lot of Christians burn out when they’re in ministry, but never bother to spend another day of the week as Sabbath.
Yeah, I realize some folks simply find it impossible to rest. Their bosses, their spouses, their parents, their young children—together they conspire to snatch away to take away our free time, and whenever they catch us taking a break, they call it “laziness.” My mom’s like that. She was raised with a strong “Protestant work ethic” (odd, ’cause she was raised Catholic) wherein any idleness is treated as if it’s evil. She really can’t bring herself to rest; she’s always gotta be doing something. Even her video games are busy.
But there’s a purpose to rest: It’s to enjoy life. It’s to enjoy the world God made. Life isn’t about work! Work is actually the curse of humanity.
So don’t do that to yourself. (Or your employees.) God’s actually ordered us to be lazy. On Sabbath, we’re not to do anything. Everything that needed to be done that day, you were to do the other six days. Everything else can wait. Stop. Rest. And if other people don’t like it, tough. They get us the rest of the week. God, and God alone, gets us for Sabbath… and he gave us the day off.
The Hebrews and Sabbath.
You’ll notice in the New Testament, the Pharisees were rather strict sabbatarians. They had a lot of customs about what you could and couldn’t do on Sabbath. And Jesus broke a lot of those customs. On purpose, sometimes.
But Jesus never broke the Law. Seriously. ’Cause here’s what’s in the Law about how regular people are to keep Sabbath.
Exodus 31.13-16 KWL
- 13 “When you speak to Israel’s sons, say, ‘Yes! Keep my Sabbaths:
- It’s a sign between me, you, and your descendants.
- I, the L
ORD, made you holy. 14 Keep Sabbath, because it’s holy for you.
- Breaking it is death, death: When anyone does work on it, cut that life off from the people.
- 15 Do work six days; the seventh day is Sabbath rest, holy to the L
- When anyone does work on the Sabbath day, they die, die.
- 16 Israel’s sons will keep Sabbath.
- They’ll make their descendants do Sabbath as our permanent covenant.”
Exodus 35.2-3 KWL
- 2 “Do work six days. On the seventh day, it’s a holy Sabbath for you.
- Rest for the L
ORD. All who do work on it: Die.
- 3 Don’t burn a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”
Leviticus 23.3 KWL
- “Do work six days. On the seventh day it’s Sabbath rest, a holy assembly.
- Don’t do any work. It’s a Sabbath for the L
ORDin all your dwellings.” Numbers 15.32-36 KWL
- 32 Israel’s sons were in the wilds, and found a man foraging trees on the Sabbath day.
- 33 Those who found him foraging trees went to Moses, Aaron, and the whole assembly.
- 34 They put him in “jail”—it wasn’t clear what to do to him.
- 35 The L
ORDtold Moses, “The man must die, die.
- The whole assembly: Stone him with stones outside the camp.”
- 36 The whole assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him with stones,
- just as the L
Seriously, you got the death penalty for breaking Sabbath. God wasn’t kidding around about its importance. Kinda makes you think about how unimportant our culture so often treats it.
There were particular rules for priests: They’d offer special sacrifices on Sabbath,
And lest they come even close to violating Sabbath, the Pharisees created a list of rulings about what one can and can’t do on Sabbath. We find ’em in the Mishnah, in the section (or “tractate”) called Shabbat/“Sabbath.” The whole section nitpicks all sorts of specific ways one can violate Sabbath, but in the middle of it, Shabbat 7.2, it lists 39 melakhot/“works,” activities which break Sabbath.
The [number of] principal Melakhot is forty minus one. [The forbidden Melakhot are]:
1 Sowing,2 plowing, 3 reaping, 4 binding sheaves, 5 threshing, 6 winnowing, 7 sorting, 8 grinding, 9 sifting,10 kneading, 11 baking, 12 shearing wool, 13 whitening it, 14 combing it, 15 dyeing it, 16 spinning,17 weaving, 18 making two loops, 19 weaving two threads, 20 separating two threads, 21 tying[a knot], 22 untying [a knot], 23 sewing two stitches, 24 tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches, 25 hunting a deer, 26 slaughtering it, 27 skinning it, 28 salting it, 29 curing its hide, 30 scrapingit, 31 cutting it, 32 writing two letters, 33 erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, 34 building,35 demolishing, 36 extinguishing a flame, 37 lighting a flame, 38 striking with a hammer, 39 carryingfrom one domain to another. These are the principal Melakhot—[they number] forty minus one. Mishnah, Shabbat 7.2
These are the rules Jesus violated when he “broke Sabbath.”
Notice “curing the sick” isn’t one of the melakhot. The Pharisees stretched the meaning of “no untying” to include not freeing someone of their illness. As Jesus pointed out, if you’re gonna be that anal about it, the Pharisees broke Sabbath too:
Luke 13.15-16 KWL
- 13 In reply to him, the Master said, “Hypocrites. On Sabbath,
- doesn’t each of you untie your ox or donkey from the trough, and lead it to water?
- 14 Satan bound this woman, who’s a daughter of Abraham, for—look!—18 years.
- Yet it’s not necessary to loose her from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
To Jesus, the Pharisee rules weren’t just optional; they often violated the Law themselves. So he broke ’em. Deliberately, just to make a point. It made the Pharisees nuts.
Jesus’s interpretation of the Law was simple: On Sabbath, rest. Do no work. But if there’s a dire need, and your works are gonna be good works, that’s a valid exception. It doesn’t break the Law to help people on Sabbath.
Matthew 12.11-12 KWL
- 11 Jesus told them, “Who among you people has a single sheep?
- And when this sheep falls into a ditch on Sabbath, won’t you grab and pull it out?
- 12 So what difference is there between a person and a sheep?
- Therefore it’s permitted to do good on Sabbath.”
Mark 3.4-5 KWL
- 4 Jesus told them, “Ought one do good on Sabbath, or do evil? Save a life, or kill?”
- They were silent. 5 Looking round at them in anger, hurt by their closed minds,
- Jesus told the person, “Stretch out the hand.” He stretched, and his hand was restored.
Jesus didn’t do away with Sabbath. What he was trying to do away with, was sabbatarianism.
Actual work on Sabbath is kinda obvious: Don’t go to your workplace; don’t use the day to catch up on your errands or chores. Stop. Rest. But if you wanna visit family members, there shouldn’t be a custom prohibiting you to only travel a kilometer and no further. If you wanna bring a picnic lunch, there shouldn’t be a custom prohibiting you from carrying things from one place to another. If you wanna care for the sick, there shouldn’t be a custom—really, an excuse—keeping you from doing it.
The reason Jesus’s disregard for Pharisee custom irritated them so greatly, is ultimately ’cause their customs were loopholes. They were how Pharisees could get away with not doing good deeds on Sabbath. They’d cleaned themselves up for synagogue; they didn’t wish to risk touching unclean beggars, or doing anything for possibly-unclean needy people… on the one day of the week when they’d be off work and might actually see these needy people. Sabbath was their excuse to be selfish jerks, and disguise it as piety.
That’s always the motive behind sabbatarianism. It’s not devotion to God, his Law, or the Ten Commandments: It’s trying to evade our duty to love our neighbors. It’s hypocrisy. That’s why we always need to beware it.