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Spiritual Disciplines: Sabbath & Work, Part 1
Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. (Exodus 31:15) As we examine the spiritual disciplines, it is important to remember that some disciplines are contemplative, while others are active. The contemplative disciplines replenish our spirit, renew our mind, and reorient our focus. The contemplative disciplines prepare us to be more effective in the practice of our active disciplines. In this article we will examine the contemplative discipline of Sabbath and the correlated active discipline of work. We will learn that, from the early pages of Genesis, God has modeled for us a rhythm of first labor and then rest to enjoy the fruit of that labor. Scripture also tells us that heaven is an eternal Sabbath (Hebrews 4:9), which means that when we Sabbath we are practicing in faith for our eventual entrance into God’s eternal kingdom.
To Sabbath is to rest from one’s labor. The first Sabbath day was a Saturday: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2). The first recorded command for humans to Sabbath is in Exodus 16:23, and the Sabbath is listed as the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8–11. In regards to the purpose of the Sabbath, it does indeed have benefits for all people. Workers and animals are permitted to rest as an act of justice and compassion to ensure the dignity of God’s creation. Both rich and poor are invited to stand in equality for one day as they rest from their labors, knowing that our sovereign God is on our side and is able to hold the universe and our lives together even when we rest and sleep.
Saturday or Sunday?
In regards to the day of the Sabbath, some have maintained that it should be celebrated on Saturday like the Hebrews did, the final day of their week. However, the early church abruptly changed the day of worship to Sunday to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus from death (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1–2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1) on that first day of the new week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). Sunday remained a work day in the early church until Emperor Constantine instituted it as an official day of rest in AD 321. In America, there was a debate as to whether the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday or the Christian Sabbath of Sunday should be recognized and the compromise was to keep both, which is why we have two-day weekends.
The True Sabbath
Legalistic attempts have been made to rob the Sabbath of its worship and joy by carefully mandating what can and cannot be done. However, Jesus seemed to have intentionally lived in public view to serve as a contrary model of the Sabbath than that given by other legalistic teachers. For example, Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–14, John 9:1–17), taught on the Sabbath (Mark 6:1–2), and promoted evangelism on the Sabbath (John 7:21–24). Jesus demonstrated that the Sabbath is not to be enforced legalistically, but that it exists for worshipful fun and rest. Furthermore, our true Sabbath is not in a day but ultimately in a saving relationship with Jesus where we can rest from trying to earn our salvation and rest in His finished work (Matthew 11:28–30; Romans 4:5; Colossians 2:16–17). Therefore, the Sabbath is not a law for believers to obey, but instead a grace to enjoy. In conclusion, by setting aside a day, we are showing that we are a people who are set aside (holy) and who rest in Jesus. Worshiping is our primary objective and our weeks are purposefully ordered around worship. Then, our worshipful work can be rightly undertaken.