The Sabbath gift
Only a few months after giving my life to Christ, I set out from southern California on a 9-year adventure to Idaho where I would earn MS and PhD degrees in Microbiology from the University of Idaho. I knew heading into this that graduate school was going to be the most demanding experience I had yet faced, and I wasn’t wrong.
In the morning I’d ride my bike to the lab, no matter how icy the roads were, where I would work on my thesis research until 6 or 7 pm, interrupted a couple times for classes. At home in the evenings, I would study and work on class projects until 11 pm or midnight, and start all over again the next day. There were conferences to attend and poster presentations and seminars to give. There were experiments to run and journal articles to write. And there were proposals to present and qualifying exams to take. The pace was intense and it was often all I could do to keep up.
But as a new Christian I knew that the ten commandments included something about the Sabbath.
When I looked for it in the Bible, here’s what I found: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Exodus 20:8
So I purposed in my heart that I was going to find a church, faithfully attend Sunday services, participate in the life of the congregation, and keep Sundays (the day I have chosen to treat as the Sabbath) free of work – in my case, school work and research.
But the more I read about the Sabbath, the scarier it seemed and the more I realized that modern Christian churches do not keep the Sabbath in the way it is described in the Old Testament law.
Under what is sometimes called The Old Covenant, the agreement between God and man before the coming of the Messiah, keeping God’s laws to the very letter was imperative. In fact, the consequences that God set before the Israelites for breaking His laws (not only the Big Ten, but also the various and sundry laws set forth in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) were often very severe. For example, the penalty for not keeping the Sabbath holy was death (see Exodus 31:14-15), most likely by stoning. Some Christian theologians argue that this was to set the standard high, to show the people that God’s ways are not man’s ways, and, ultimately, to point them to the need for a savior. Scary stuff for a new believer.
But when the Messiah did come, and we entered into a New Covenant with the Creator, he did something no one expected. He turned the law on its head without actually doing away with it (Matthew 5:17-19). He taught that the spirit of the law was what God really wanted, because the spirit of the law gets at the heart. One can keep the law, follow the rules, without any heart change. But God is concerned with our hearts more than our behavior. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took well known commands, like do not commit adultery or do not murder, and turned them upside down. He said that what God really wants from us is a heart that is sexually pure toward women and a heart that keeps anger under control (Matthew 5:21-22).
One of the more striking proclamations Jesus made, a statement that certainly would have angered and shocked religious leaders at the time, was that keeping the Sabbath holy did not mean following the letter of the law at all costs (Mark 3:1-5). You see, He wanted us to understand the principle behind the Sabbath, that God intends it to be a gift for us (Mark 2:23-28). In fact, He made the audacious claim that He Himself was the very Lord of the Sabbath!
So when we consider the foundation for the Sabbath, that the Creator rested after six days of working, and Jesus’ teaching that the Sabbath is for the sake of man, and not the other way around, the conclusion is that, although it is stated as a command in the Old Covenant, God’s intention for the Sabbath is that it act as a gift to us, a day of rest that we will use to honor and glorify Him. A day to simply be still and know Him (Psalm 46:10).
Do you remember my commitment to keep Sundays free from work when I started grad school? I stuck to the plan and God honored it with a nearly 4.0 GPA (I got one lousy B+ in Advanced Biochemistry), even when I had boat loads of work to do on weekends or a Monday morning exam. And in the ensuing years, I have stuck to this simple Sabbath principle of protecting Sundays from my routine work, and God has continued to honor it. You see, our God is faithful, whether or not we are.
Take-home point: The Sabbath is a gift given to us because God loves us.
Take-home verse: Exodus 20:8 Keep the Sabbath holy.
Questions for thought
What do you do to keep the Sabbath?
Is your Sabbath a day of rest and worship? Or do you make excuses for working on your own agenda that day?
If you find that you are often tempted to work on the Sabbath, what would be the actual consequences of protecting that time and keeping it work-free?
How do you handle the Sabbath when you are out on your adventures? Do you find a way to keep the day holy and set apart for the Lord? Or do you give yourself a free pass?
Father God, you are Lord Sabaoth, the Lord of the Sabbath. We are so grateful for the gift of rest you have established for us. In your wisdom you knew that we would work too hard, maybe play too hard, and forget to rest and turn our hearts toward you. Lord, forgive us for neglecting so great a gift. Teach us to trust you in this matter, and to honor you with a day of rest each week where our hearts are given to praise and worship. In your Son’s mighty name, Amen.