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The Sabbath

The intentional observance of the Sabbath as a Christian discipline has gained increased attention in the Church in recent years. Part of the reason no doubt is our attempt to push back against our culture, which erodes “the Lord’s Day” with, for instance, pressure to continue business and entertainment as usual to the detriment of biblical and churchly traditions. But culture has also exerted a positive influence, as sociology and psychology have affirmed the fundamental health of the Sabbath—or at least one of the gifts that it offers, namely, a regular reflective break from routine for persons, families, and society. What are the biblical and theological issues we need to understand in discerning a healthy place for the Sabbath in the Christian Church?

The Sabbath is of course an Old Testament ordinance, appearing as the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15).  This commandment is much more detailed and elaborate than any of the others, except for the commandment against idols, and it is the only commandment which incorporates a rationale for its observance. We are told not just what to do, but why. The essence of the Sabbath command is that Israel set aside one day of the week to observe as a “holy” day. The practical side of this is that Israel interrupt the weekly business routine with a day of “rest” that embraces men, women, slaves, and even cattle. Coming on the heels of the first three commandments, it is clear however that “rest” is not the principle part of keeping the day “holy,” but that the “work” of worship in some sense must be done. This is a day on which the supreme activity of Israel is to turn to her God.

The rationale for Sabbath observance given in the OT has a number of dimensions. In the Exodus passage, is related to “God the Creator;” Israel is called to pattern itself after God’s own pattern of activity and rest in creating the world. The genius of the 7-day week, so accommodating to human creatures and their limitations and now accepted in societies throughout the world, has its root in this gracious command by the author of creation itself. In Deuteronomy, however, the reason for Sabbath observance is related to the history of Israel as slaves in Egypt; apparently it is the release from ceaseless bondage that is to be remembered. Here we may find equally rich applications for the Sabbath as the command of “God the Redeemer.” Thirdly, references to the Sabbath in the Prophets highlight the theme that the Sabbath reasserts Israel’s own identity as the people of the covenant God, as the people called and set apart by God for God’s purposes: “I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I, Yahweh, sanctify them” (Ezekiel 20:12; cf. Isaiah 66:23). Here we can explore the command as given by “God the Sanctifier” whose concern goes beyond “mere” humanity and even “mere” deliverance, to an ongoing process of development in obedience.1 

The preeminent recent interpreter of the Jewish Sabbath is probably Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose small book is frequently quoted in Christian writing and preaching and can be read profitably by all.2 Heschel suggests that Judaism has always been oriented more to time than to space; he memorably depicts Sabbath as the creation of hallowed time, or “a palace in time”(15). “’The day of the Lord’ is more important to the prophets than ‘the house of the Lord’”(79). He sees the Sabbath command rooted in the nature of humanity as created beings, a gift of wise respite from the Creator who knows our limitations better than we know them ourselves (20-21).  Sabbath also impacts the other six days. To “remember” the Sabbath day means that the Sabbath is to be remembered throughout the week (117, n. 13). It permeates the week with its own testimony to eternity and final rest (73-76). “Judaism tries to foster the vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives” (90-91). It is Heschel as much as anyone in recent decades who has fostered the vision of the Sabbath as the cornerstone of a weekly pattern of work and rest.

In the Gospels, Jesus affirms the sanctity of the Sabbath at the same time as he challenges the traditions concerning Sabbath-keeping that had developed in Pharisaism. We find him gathering with those who gather at the synagogue on the Sabbath, ready with the teaching that was a traditional feature (Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 4:16), but also prepared to heal those whose needs came to attention at such times (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 4:31-37; 13:10-17; 14:1-6). It is his “work” of healing that incites the Pharisees. They accuse him of breaking the Sabbath, but he counters that their response is inadequate to the human reality of the situation, implying that by misconstruing the human reality they show they misconstrue the divine reality as well (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 14:1-6).

Beyond the synagogue, too, Jesus shows his less-constrained understanding of the Sabbath, for instance in his refusal to accept that eating grains of wheat constitutes a violation (Mark 2:23-28, par. in Matthew and Luke). The Pharisees’ challenge on tis occasion prompts Jesus’ pithy reply that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” and its enigmatic corollary, “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (the first is in Mark alone; the second appears also in Matthew and Luke). Whatever other nuances may be heard, Jesus is certainly establishing that his own understanding of the Sabbath, and of the love of God, trumps the particular tradition represented by the Pharisees. The stories of sabbatarian conflict in the Gospel of John are also of this sort; events unfold on what happens to be a Sabbath day, and Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, does not find that it should interrupt the ministry at hand (John 5:9-10; 9:14).

The other major way that the Sabbath emerges to the forefront in the Gospels is with the timing of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. With his condemnation and execution purposely rushed so that the Sabbath might be “kept holy,” Jesus rises on “the first day of the Sabbath,” that is, the first day after the Sabbath Day (usually translated “the first day of the week;” Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). The later Church would affirm weekly worship for God’s people, but would redate “the Lord’s Day” to Sunday, the day of resurrection.3 

In Acts, we find Jesus’ practice of preaching in synagogues on the Sabbath extended by Paul. Beginning in Pisidian Antioch, Paul introduces the gospel to a new city by gathering with those who are gathering for the Sabbath, ready to bring a teaching himself (Acts 13:14; 42; 44; in Philippi, 16:13; in Thessalonica, 17:2, in Corinth, 18:4). His success with some members of each Jewish community provides a base for a Christian church and for further outreach to the Gentile population. If he indeed participated in the historic shift to a regular Sunday worship, it is only hinted in two references. Acts 20:7 reports that a group of Christians in Troas were gathering “on the first day of the Sabbath” in order to break bread. If this was a Sunday worship service, the evidence is teasingly vague. 1 Cor. 16:2 evokes the same sort of speculation, as Paul, planning to arrive and collect a contribution to the Jerusalem Church, suggests that until he gets there contributors can be putting by small amounts for convenience sake “on the first day of every Sabbath.”

Lastly in regard to NT themes, the author of Hebrews has a particular development of the Sabbath that points in an eschatological direction. As Heb. 4:1-11 develops it, Psalm 95 implies that the worshiping faithful (95:6-7) can expect a future Sabbath rest (95:11). As this is applied to the Church, it is understood that an open promise of rest (Heb. 4:1, 6, 9) is presently extended to both the Jews and Gentiles of the author’s mixed audience. Scholars disagree whether this rest is available only in the eschaton, or whether it exists as a part of Christian spirituality—that is, whether Hebrews intends the “rest” as purely a part of the hereafter, or something enjoyable now also, as a foretaste of the blessings to come.4 Either way, this passage lends to the Sabbath a forward-looking aspect, rooted in creation but oriented toward the new creation.

In Christian theology, the implications of the Sabbath have been especially developed in the Reformed tradition. John Calvin led things off with a thorough piece of theological reflection (Institutes II.8.28-34). In it he finds three elements of Sabbath-keeping.
(1) Imitating God, we ought to rest from our works, for the purpose of considering God’s work in us. Calvin’s emphasis here is not simply on “rest,” but the gaining of perspective on all we do, all week long, including the perspective of the urgency of the Church’s work given the shortness of our time.
(2) The Sabbath enjoins upon us both public assembly and worship to God, and private meditation in piety. For Calvin the public gathering must include worship, the proclamation of the gospel, and the celebration of the sacraments.
(3) As Christians we ought also ensure a day of rest for whoever may be under our authority, as servants or in any other respect. The concern is not simply the quashing of all activity, but rather the humanitarian release of hard workers from forced daily labor, as a Christian service.

In Calvin’s wake, much of the Reformed tradition began to develop more and more particular requirements for Sabbath-keeping. The strict “sabbatarianism” of Scotland, celebrated in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” in which the 1924 Olympic Scots athlete Eric Liddell refused to compete on a Sunday, is an example of this trend. Through the Puritans it also became part of the culture of North America, where Sunday Laws were a part of small-town life well into the Twentieth Century.5 The general cultural revulsion against this sort of legalism in our day is clear. Surely it is one of the factors that has prompted the contemporary interest in re-exploring the theological rationale of Sabbath-keeping, more so than Sabbath-keeping practices. There may be a sense that the older prohibitions that our grandparents lived with—no shopping, no movies, no partying, etc.—tended to obscure the blessings of Sabbath rather than to enhance them. In light of this later “sabbatarian” tendency, Calvin’s Sabbath guidelines sound positively restrained.

Karl Barth is another theologian whose treatment on the Sabbath is worth reading in full.6 A brief summary cannot do justice to his treatment, but his emphasis may be given in this way: in the Sabbath, the work of humankind must accept a “continually recurring interruption,” a necessary reminder that any real work that humanity performs is not in scale to the truly strategic and truly effective work of God. At the same time we are reminded that the time is short, and that we cannot afford to be distracted to work out what are merely our own goals, or our own ideals. Rather, each Sunday challenges us to ask about our connection with the more basic and more serious work of God, as well as with the vanishing of another week in the urgency of the coming of the last day.

Any pastor or teacher wishing to present a series to a Christian community on the Sabbath and Sabbath-keeping will find rich resources indeed for reflection, spiritual challenge, and practical application. In light of the suggestion made at the outset of this essay that it may be that our culture presses for us to reconsider this matter with both negative and positive contributions, it perhaps should be said that any Christian presentation of the Sabbath must inevitably be essentially counter-cultural. Whether in how we work, or in how we rest, we must find our way not in avenues that seem broadly to comport with contemporary common sense, but in harkening to the command of the God of Creation, of Redemption, of Sanctification.

—Theopulos



1 Christian theology has sometimes expounded the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, which gives this three-fold rationale for Sabbath in the OT a certain segue for Christian consideration.

2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 1951).

3 The two earliest references, both usually dated early in the second century, are Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1, and Barnabas, Epistle 15:8-9; see Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Text and English Translations (3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), pp. 209, 428.

4 For instance, Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICTC. Grand Rapids: Eermans, 1993), p. 257, argues from the language of Heb. 4:10 that the promised rest is in the future. Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 2006) leans on the present tenses of 4:3, and on the broader context of the book’s theology: “…Hebrews makes it clear that this is a matter of hearing, trusting, and obeying a gift already given through Christ,” p. 130.

5 See, for instance, Winton Solberg, Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).

6 Karl Barth, “The Holy Day,” Church Dogmatics III: The Doctrine of Creation, Part 4 (ET Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), pp. 47-72.