One of the Ten Commandments American Christians struggle the most to keep was given in Exodus 20:8-11: Keep the Sabbath holy.
Unlike the previous commandments, which the Bible seems to list and then move on to the next one, the writer (Moses) pauses here and gives an explanation about Sabbath:
- People work six days a week. (Exodus 20:9)
- On the seventh day, no one should work. Not your daughter, son, cattle, etc. (Exodus 20:10)
- God, when creating the world, took a day off to rest, so why can’t you? (Exodus 20:11)
We’ll dive into the significance of Sabbaths, how the idea of this got skewed during Jesus’ time, and what it looks like for Christians today to take a day off weekly.
Sabbath Definition in Hebrew
As the reader might have already derived, a Sabbath means a day of rest. What did it mean in the original Hebrew?
Sabbath comes from the word Shabbath which essentially, as listed above, means “a day of rest.” The word Saturday appears to come from this word, which could point to the Israelites taking a Sabbath on Saturdays.
Why Did God Give Us the Sabbath?
God seems to mandate a Sabbath for a number of reasons:
1. God wants us to trust Him. When the Israelites wandered the desert before they reached the Promised Land, God would make manna, a type of bread-like substance that would give them sustenance, and quail rain from the sky (Exodus 16).
Every day they would go out and collect that day’s rations and only that day’s rations. Any extra they tried to collect would end up full of maggots in the morning. But on the sixth day, God commanded them to gather twice as much so they wouldn’t work to get their food on the seventh day.
Like the Israelites tended to do in the Old Testament, some didn’t listen, and they wound up hungry on the Sabbath because they didn’t collect enough the day before. God wants us to trust Him. He will provide for us, even if we don’t work one day of the week.
2. We fall apart if we don’t rest. There were also practical reasons God commanded rest on the Sabbath. Those who work without taking a day’s break will encounter “physical exhaustion and breakdown,” according to the American Association of Christian Counselors.
We are not meant to work nonstop. When we work seven-day weeks, we exhaust our brain so its creative functions cannot work properly. We become more stressed and wear ourselves out to the point we become susceptible to more illnesses.
3. We avoid idolatry when we take a Sabbath. If we work and do nothing but work, we run the risk of placing it before God in terms of importance.
How did the Sabbath get so complicated by the Pharisees' time?
The Pharisees got so stringent about not working on the Lord’s Day that they tried to condemn Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath (Mark 6:1-3). And when his disciples even plucked a head of grain (Mark 2:23), Pharisees claimed they were working on the Sabbath.
Essentially, the Pharisees took the commandments of the Old Testament and created hedges, their versions of the commandments, around those commandments, just to avoid sinning.
Think of it this way:
- Drunkenness is wrong.
- Someone with a Pharisaical mindset would first say you cannot drink any alcohol at any time (a hedge around the commandment against drunkenness).
- They might create another hedge: any product that has alcohol content (soy sauce, for instance) is now banned. That’s a hedge around another hedge.
- If they see you dipping your sushi into soy sauce, they’ll say you’ve sinned.
They became so obsessed with the rules; they lost the point. They warped God’s gift of rest into a burden.
A Sabbath does not mean you get a day off from helping someone in need. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, after all. A Sabbath means concentrating time and giving it to the Lord, acknowledging He’ll provide for needs and finances via other means.
Saturday Sabbath or Sunday Sabbath?
Sabbath isn’t necessarily synonymous with Sundays.
Some people may work on Sundays (retail, food service, etc.), and they may have to dedicate a different day to Sabbath. Because I transcribe sermons for a pastor on Sundays, I take Saturdays off.
Even some church denominations have designated a different Sabbath day than Sundays. For instance, Seventh-day Adventist Churches take Sabbaths from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
Does Sabbath Still Matter Today? Is it Even Possible?
Writing this, I know I have to work 45-55+ hour weeks to make rent and living expenses. I work hard. And those reading this might have large families and even larger bills to pay, and you might not know if you will be able to pay it all this month. Some of you may work round-the-clock jobs that require you to be available seven days a week. It’s difficult to take a whole day off in our society, which expects us to run at full capacity all the time.
Sabbaths might look a little different for us. It might just mean avoiding checking emails on weekends to avoid that extra stress. For those who work round-the-clock jobs, this might mean concentrating on a set number of hours and dedicating them to rest, even if, at this current time, you can’t designate 24 hours at once. Maybe designate 24 hours for the whole week and space it out.
Ultimately, it matters that we dedicate 24 hours a week (whether spaced out or at once) to rest, rejuvenate, and trust God to provide when our work hours cannot.
A Prayer to Observe the Sabbath and Keep it Holy
Lord of the Sabbath, I admit that I have not always observed the Sabbath as I should have. You created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. I should do the same. I acknowledge that you have a plan for me and that tomorrow's workweek can wait. I know that no matter what happens, the tasks will get down if I steward my time well and observe periods of rest. Help me to withdraw from a workaholic mindset that my culture perpetuates. Although it is important to work hard and do everything as if I was working for you, I should also withdraw and rest in your presence as well. Jesus, you withdrew from the crowds to spend time praying. May I do the same with my work and my work week. Amen.
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a recent graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 350 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 3,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released June 2019 and the sequel releases a year from now. Find out more about her here.
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