Keeping the Sabbath

In the 1980s, when spending extended time in space became a reality, NASA studied how many days you could work in a row at maximum efficiency. They could have just asked God. But instead, their study found the same result that God taught in the first two chapters of the Bible. Working seven days a week at maximum long-term efficiency is impossible. We need a sabbath. We need at least one day of rest each week. And for those who don’t keep this sabbath practice voluntarily, life itself makes us take time off.

“If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our sabbath – our accidents create sabbath for us.” Wayne Muller

Do you feel that too? We live in a culture that breeds chaos in our day-to-day lives. We feel hurried, distracted, busy, and suffocated by our schedules. We often have no margin to catch our breath. And in this constant busyness, often, the only place we can find rest is an illness, accident, or crisis that forces us to stop and rest.

The Bible opens by describing the creation of the world. Genesis 1 was written in the form of a poem. In Hebrew culture, it would have been read as a poem or sung as a song.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1:1-2

The first three days of creation are about God forming the formless. The Scripture tells us the earth was without form until God separated three things.

He separated:

-The light from the dark

-The land from the water

-And the earth from the sky.

And then, days 4-6 are about filling the void. God populates the earth with three things:

-Plant life

-Animal life

-Human life.

Then we get to the seventh day.

By the seventh day, God had finished all the work he had been doing. So on the seventh day he rested from all his work, then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Genesis 2:2-3

Most scholars say Genesis 1 is a massive setup highlighting the seventh day. The whole thing builds to this crescendo that it reaches on the Sabbath. And there are two reasons for that.

The first reason that tells us that the Sabbath is the highlight of creation is the change in cadence. The first six days all follow a familiar cadence. If you read the whole account, it jumps out. At the end of the first six days of creation, it has this poetic phrase:

There was evening, and there was morning the first day. There was evening, and there was morning, the second day. There was evening, and there was morning, the third day.

It goes like this six times over until the 7th day. And then it reads as follows:

By the seventh day, God had finished all the work he had been doing. So on the seventh day he rested from all his work, then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Genesis 2:2-3

That change in cadence matters because the creation account of Genesis 1 is written in Hebrew poetry. In a poem, rhythm is essential. So the rhythm form of the poem that is Genesis 1 goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7, 7.

For most of human history, the better part of the world was illiterate. There was an oral tradition before there was a written tradition. There was verbal learning before there was written learning. The Scriptures were learned orally before they were understood by reading. Most of the early Hebrews would have known Genesis 1 as a poem. They would not have understood it by reading it on a page. They would have learned it by hearing it recited or read aloud like a poem or as a song set to rhythm.

The creation story is a song, and Sabbath is the chorus. Everyone knows the chorus in most songs, and everyone forgets the verses. So Sabbath is the hook of Genesis 1. It goes like this. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath. That’s how Genesis unfolds rhythmically. Sabbath is the part that gets stuck in your head.

So the change in cadence is the first thing that tells us that the Sabbath is the highlight of creation. The second thing that tells us that the Sabbath is the highlight of creation is the change in writing.

The account of the Sabbath is written down. Repetition in Hebrew is like an underlined, italics, or bold type in English. It’s a way of screaming from the written page, and this part is super important. It’s why Jesus is constantly quoted in Scripture as saying – “Truly, truly I say to you.” That is a different catchline than that Jesus liked to use a lot. It is a very Hebrew way of saying – pay attention! I’m about to drop say something important. You don’t want to miss it!

The phrase “the 7th day” is named three times in one verse, which puts it in an incredibly rare biblical company because three is the biblical number of completeness. God in 3 persons, blessed trinity. Three days in a tomb and then resurrection. Theologians speak of the three parts of man as body, soul, and spirit. Scripture tells us to love God in three ways – heart, mind, and soul. The song being sung in God’s throne room is holy, holy. And creation ends with Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath.

That’s like bold, underlining, italics, and all caps. It’s almost obnoxious in the Hebrew language. So as the story unfolds, this 7th day becomes known as Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew, which translates as quit, stop, take a break. So in Hebrew thinking, the Sabbath – the day of rest – also means seventh.

So that is the background of the Sabbath in Scripture, taught in the first two chapters of the Bible – Genesis 1 and 2. It seems like a concept God wanted to emphasize from the start. So here are some quick reasons to practice Sabbath.

Why should we keep a sabbath – a day of rest?

1. We keep a sabbath because it is kept in creation.

God’s creation story includes rest. God’s continued work of creating the image of Christ in us also provides rest. Enough said about that.

2. We keep a sabbath because it is kept in the commandments.

You go from Genesis to Exodus, and we find the ten commandments. God’s top ten list, if you will. Here is the fourth commandment.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Exodus 20:8

That’s straight out of the ten commandments. The 7th day is the only day of creation to which you and I are invited. We get to participate in creation by participating in recreation, keeping the Sabbath, and letting our souls rest. It is the only part of the creation account in Genesis that becomes a command for how we should live. Exodus says – rest because God rested, and as you rest, you enter into the work of God.

3. We keep a sabbath because Jesus keeps it.

Jesus affirmed the Sabbath with his life. All the historical evidence strongly suggests that Jesus observed the Sabbath himself. Jesus went to the temple every Sabbath that we recorded.

We are followers of Jesus. We do what he did. We obey what he taught.

4. We keep the Sabbath because the early church keeps it.

Sabbath is mentioned six times in the book of Acts – the early church’s history. They shifted their Sabbath from Saturday, the Hebrew day of rest. To Sunday – to celebrate the day Jesus was resurrected.

These are good reasons to keep the Sabbath! But how do we keep the Sabbath? Here is a hint from Jesus.

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27 (NIV)

The same verse in another translation:

The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. Mark 2:27 (NLT)

Between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, in that 400-year gap, the rabbis added 440 specific rules to the ten commandments, most of which were about how to keep the Sabbath.

Jesus says the Sabbath is not about requirements and rules but about rest and relaxation. We need a day off! We need a day to rest! We need a day to worship! Society used to help us keep a Sabbath. When I was a child, nothing was open on Sunday. Nothing. Everyone followed the Chick-Fil-A model. First, they were closed on Sundays. Then “essential” stores were allowed to be open on Sundays. Next, pharmacies and gas stations, but “blue laws” meant only necessities could be sold on Sundays. After that, Sunday was for worship at church and rest at home.

But as society drifted away from God, we also drifted away from the Sabbath. How do we get back there? How can you and I practice Sabbath as a regular rhythm? By including four essential elements of a great Sabbath:

1. Stop

Stop all your work. All your striving. All your accomplishments and accumulation. Turn off your slack channels where your boss can ask you questions on your day off, don’t check your email, and disconnect yourself from your work. Turn off your phone for the whole day.

Stop and set aside a whole day where you can be intentionally unproductive.

2. Rest

Do what is restful to you. Sleep in or get up early. Exercise or take a day off. Go for a long leisurely walk or stay inside all day.

Whatever is restful for you, do that. Cook an elaborate meal to share with friends, or take a day off cooking and warm up a TV dinner. Play board games with your family. Pour a glass of wine in the evening and light candles around the house. Crack open a novel, memoir, or poetry book and sit by the fire. Go to the movies. Rest.

3. Delight

Do something you love doing. Do something that replenishes your soul. Do what makes you grateful and happy and puts a smile on your face. Get lost in something you love.

4. Worship

Make sure that at some point in the day, you are unhurried in the presence of God, just enjoying him and letting him enjoy you. Worship him because the Sabbath is about God.

Warning – do not buy into the “I can just worship alone in nature” idea. It’s true. You can. You can worship alone in nature, at the lake, or on your back porch, but that is not sabbath worship. So instead, we see Jesus headed to the synagogue every Sabbath for worship.

Give God your Sabbath by gathering with his people. We can escape the busyness and chaos of the week with a weekly practice of sabbath rest.

What part of your Sabbath needs to change?

Mary Southerland

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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