I’ve noticed a trend lately among evangelical Christians - the rebirth of Sabbath observance. Taking one day a week off and dedicating it to worship and rest. It’s beautiful! And for me, it’s familiar. Back in college (almost two decades ago) a small group of friends and I started experimenting with observing Sabbath. I for one had absolutely no background in this kind of practical faith walk. We just started reading and studying the Bible together and asking out loud if some of these practices we had considered to be outdated had any sort of relevance for our lives in the present. We actually became curious enough to give it a try!
Eighteen years or so later, my husband and I, along with our four kids, are still holding to some measure of Sabbath observance. And so are many of our friends from that group. We’re not as orthopractic as some people we know, but we’re more so than others. We have ebbed and flowed a lot over the years. And while God isn’t upstairs scratching tally marks next to our names for each of our efforts, I do think He roots us on when we attempt to learn something new about Him by pursuing His word in thought, word, and deed.
In that spirit, here are six things I’ve learned from observing Sabbath:
1. Sabbath is Peaceful – But peace doesn’t always come easily. There’s always something to worry about or something you think you can do about it. Sabbath is a good day and way to let our worries go and embrace the peace God has for us.
In the Jewish community, the traditional greeting for the Sabbath is “Shabbat shalom!” The phrase literally means Sabbath peace. But, it’s actually so much richer than that because of the multi-faceted meaning of the word shalom. Shalom is used for hello and goodbye. It also carries the connotation of wholeness or being complete. The very first Sabbath came at precisely the moment when God was finished with creation (Genesis 2:1-3). What He made was whole. He had completed His work. And His first order of business when He was done? Peaceful rest. With the Sabbath of that first week, He said goodbye to the work of creating and hello to the act of fellowship with His creation.
2. Sabbath is a Gift – One Sabbath afternoon, Jesus was headed through some fields with His disciples when they plucked off some heads of grain for a snack. He became the target of rage when some of the religious leaders perceived the disciples’ actions to be in direct disobedience to God’s laws about the Sabbath. But as per His usual, Jesus set them straight! He retold a story about how King David and his men had done something even more controversial (eaten the forbidden showbread from the Temple) when they were tired and worn out. Then He stopped the conversation with this now famous quote: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2:27).
The Sabbath was made for man. The Sabbath was created by God as a gift for man. Early on in my journey though, I concentrated more on the responsibility I felt to do things the right way rather than focus on the present itself. Kind of like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. For me, it felt like being depressed instead of excited after getting a brand new car because of the foreseeable maintenance schedule. Yes, the car needs to be cared for, but it shouldn’t take away from enjoying the gift as a whole.
"THE SABBATH IS A GIFT FROM GOD WHERE THE BLESSINGS FAR OUTWEIGH ANY PERCEIVABLE BURDENS."
3. Sabbath is About Rest – When we first started delving into Sabbath observance in our college lifestyles, it actually felt a lot more like work than rest. Even though I socialized plenty and played more than I care to admit, there was still a part of me that always felt like work was hanging over my head. I had homework to do and exams to study for. I had to go to the laundromat and do dishes. I had group projects. And making time for rest - making time to do essentially nothing - felt like work.
But what I learned was that planning for the rest is not only part of the process, but it’s part of the enjoyment. When I started preparing early in the week and building my schedule around resting for a whole day, it not only made the resting easier, but my anticipation grew. I began to get excited about taking the day to rest instead of being anxious about what wasn’t getting done. My kids now feel the same way. When we start cleaning up the house for Sabbath, they know rest and relaxation is on the horizon.
4. Sabbath is Holy – Holy sounds like a church-y word, but the definition is simple: to set apart. The Sabbath is intended to be a day that looks different from every other day of the week on your calendar. Honestly, I struggled with this at first. I went through a period where I felt like doing my best to observe Sabbath somehow made me “holier than thou” and I acted that way at times. But Jesus seemed to tire His own voice out communicating to us that we can’t make ourselves holy. Only He can do that.
So, go ahead and make the day look different. It’s okay to do that. Some people choose to take the day off of social media or checking work email. Some families don’t cook; instead they eat leftovers or go to a restaurant. In Jewish tradition, it’s common to set aside the day by eating a nice family meal together, complete with special bread, candles, and blessings said or sung aloud together. Just remember that the day and we are both holy and set apart because God said so, not because of anything we do to earn that title.
5. Sabbath is for Worship – God gave us the Sabbath as an act of His love and a perfect response is to worship Him. But this is one of the places where this whole Sabbath thing can get really tricky. When do you worship? Sunday? Saturday? Wednesday? Whole denominations have formed from disagreements about this very question and some people left to their own convictions can get pretty dogmatic. After all these years, I submit to you when doesn’t matter as much as how. Jesus Himself said in John 4 that the day is coming when it won’t matter which mountain you worship on as long as you worship the Father in spirit and in truth. In fact, He said God is seeking worshipers just like that. I don’t think He’s seeking worshipers who argue and insist they’re right about the details as much as He’s looking for people who seek Him first.
6. Sabbath is for Healing – If Jesus was known for anything among the religious leaders in His day, it was disrupting the status quo. And hardly anything drew more attention than His healing encounters. Just for fun, take a quick look back through the gospel accounts and search “heal” in your favorite Bible app. Are you surprised to see how many of those healing moments happened on the Sabbath? And how many times the religious leaders became furious at Him because of this?
They were angry because they insisted He was doing “work” on the Sabbath, which was against the regulations they had in place. But He wasn’t concerned about their chastisement. It was most important to Him that people became well, whole, and healed and I think He saw the Sabbath as the perfect platform for that kind of miracle. After all, the Sabbath is an earthly picture of entering into God’s eternal rest, even beginning with our salvation (Mark 11:28-30, Hebrews 4:9-11).
Well, there it is. I’m no expert. No theology degree. Just a couple of decades into trying to walk this faith thing out by following Jesus and doing what I can to imitate Him. The bottom line is, observing Sabbath doesn’t need to be intimidating. It also doesn’t need to be overly-religious or rules-laden. The Sabbath is a present our good Father gave us to enjoy with Him. Shabbat Shalom!