Should Christians Be Observing A Sabbath?
by Rev. Bryn MacPhail

No one would dare to argue with the notion that Sabbath observance is central to the Jewish life, but one is likely to find vigorous debate if this notion of Sabbath observance was put forth as central to Christianity. This essay would concur with the objection that Sabbath observance is not central to Christianity. This essay would even acquiesce to the view that Sabbath observance is not mandatory for the Christian. However, it is the thesis of this essay that Sabbath observance, while not mandatory for the Christian, is necessary for leading a fruitful Christian life. In what sense then, is the Sabbath command authoritative for Christians? The principles of the Sabbath are what is authoritative for Christians today. In light of the necessity of Sabbath observance for the Christian, this essay will endeavour to examine the origin, meaning, and purpose of Sabbath observance while seeking to understand how to observe the Sabbath principles in a way that refreshes us in our relationship to God in Christ.

Debate Over the Origin of the Sabbath
The question of the origin of the Sabbath has been debated vigorously throughout Christian history , particularly in this past century(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 70). Samuel Meier is quick to point out that "there is no clearly articulated single reason in the Bible for the observance of the Sabbath"(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 4). Samuel Bacchiocchi maintains that the main reason the origin of the Sabbath has attracted so much attention is that it is closely tied to the question of whether the practice of Sabbath keeping is binding upon Christians(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 70). Those who believe that the Sabbath was established by God at creation accept its observance as a creation ordinance binding upon all, Jews and Christians. Those who hold that the Sabbath originated at the time of Moses, however, regard the Sabbath as a Jewish institution not applicable to Christians(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 71).

The Relevance of Sabbath Observance for Christians
Thomas Hamilton is one of those advocates for the permanence of Sabbath observance. While no one would argue that the Jews were the first to meticulously observe the Sabbath, Thomas Hamilton does not want us to forget that the Sabbath command was first given to "the father of the human race" and "not to Abraham, the father of the Jews"(Hamilton 25). Therefore, Hamilton argues, the Sabbath was intended for every human . Based on this argument that the Sabbath was intended for the entire human race and that it was an "original institution", Hamilton has a convincing argument for the permanence of Sabbath observance. Since the Sabbath was necessary in a time when there was no sin or "harassing toil", how much more is it needed by a world "steeped" in sin(Hamilton 31).

Thomas Hamilton is right. Sabbath observance is "necessary" for humanity's well being. But what is "necessary" and what is "mandatory" is significantly different. John Calvin spends very little time addressing the origin of the Sabbath since, for him, the fulfillment of the Sabbath is what dictates our response to it. Calvin argues that "there is no doubt" that by Christ's coming, the ceremonial aspect of this commandment "was abolished"(Inst. 2, 8, 31). Calvin argues this on the basis that Christ is "the true fulfillment of the Sabbath"(Inst. 2, 8, 31). Calvin goes on to conclude that "Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days"(Inst. 2, 8, 31). This "shunning" of the observance of the Sabbath by Calvin, however, must not be confused with a total disregard for the Sabbath Day. Although he argues that the ceremonial aspect of the fourth command has been "abrogated", Calvin insists that "there is still occasion for us" to follow the principles/purposes of the Sabbath(Inst. 2, 8, 32). John Primus, who also argues for the abrogation of the Sabbath, insists in the spirit of Calvin, that "although the Sabbath commandment as law has been abrogated, it is not irrelevant for the Christian community"(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 100).

After arguing for Sabbath observance based on creation, Thomas Hamilton goes on to argue that a study of Jesus reveals that a Sabbath should still be observed. Hamilton insists that it is "as important" to note what Christ "did not say, as what He did"(Hamilton 134). Hamilton accurately observes that when confronted with plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath, Jesus did not respond by telling the Pharisees that the Sabbath was abolished. Jesus did not even say that it would soon be abolished. Nor did Jesus say that "The Sabbath is now relaxed", instead Jesus attempts to return Sabbath observance to its original and proper understanding(Hamilton 135).

It is true that Jesus observed the Sabbath, but Craig Blomberg wisely reminds us that Jesus obeyed the Torah because "he understood it to be binding for the period of history in which he lived"(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 124). Blomberg goes on to assert that "most" of Jesus' teachings regarding the Sabbath "simply do not address the issue of how to behave at this later date"(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 124).

For the clearest statements on the mandatory/voluntary nature of the Sabbath for Christians we must turn to the letters of Paul. Paul is aware that "one man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike"(Rom.14:5) and that is just fine, Paul says, as long as that day is "observed for the Lord"(14:6). In Colossians, Paul warns against anyone acting as a "judge" in regard to a "Sabbath day" in that it is only "a shadow of what is to come"(Col.2:16,17). We see quite clearly in Paul's letters that he did not advise either forsaking or following the Sabbath, but rather reminded his readers of its relative unimportance when compared to the Kingdom of God(MacArthur 281).

We reiterate our thesis:Sabbath observance is not mandatory for the Christian, but it is necessary. Since Sabbath observance is necessary for our spiritual well being, it is important that we look now to the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath, and to the many ways we can observe the Sabbath in our present context.

The Meaning and Purpose of the Sabbath
What does the Sabbath mean? It is well known that the Hebrew word, Shabbat , means "to cease" and "to rest"--but what was intended by the Sabbath? What is the resting and ceasing for? R.T. France defines the Jewish Sabbath as " a witness to God's creation, a sign of Israel's special covenant relationship with God"(France 202). France goes on to say that the Sabbath was designed "to make Israel more holy", and that it was, "in theory, a blessing not a burden"(France 202). Along similar lines, Hughes Oliphant Old argues that the Sabbath was a day in which "a memorial was held celebrating God's works of creation and redemption"(Old 29). God rested after He had completed His creation and He "sanctified" the seventh day(Gen.2:3). For this reason, we are asked to observe this sanctified day. The command in Deuteronomy connects the Sabbath, not only to creation, but also to redemption, "Observe the Sabbath Day . . . You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord commanded you to keep the Sabbath Day"(Deut.5:12-15).

The Sabbath Day was a day in which God commanded His people to "remember". This means a great deal more than "Don't forget the Sabbath". It also means much more than "Hold a service of memorial on the Sabbath". We more clearly understand what it means to "remember" the Sabbath when we read the fourth Commandment in Deuteronomy, "Observe the Sabbath Day"(5:12). To remember the Sabbath Day means to observe the day, to celebrate the religious rites appropriate to the day(Old 29).

The Jewish Sabbath was not only a day of remembrance and celebration, it was also a day of rest. Old argues that these themes are "intimately related to one another"(Old 30). In order to celebrate God's work in creation and redemption, we must first refrain from our human works(Old 30). Marva Dawn rightly draws our attention to the fact that the Sabbath day is "to the Lord"(Lev.23:3). That is to say that "it is a ceasing in order to honour the covenant God"(Dawn 6). John Calvin says much the same when he states that the purpose of the Sabbath commandment is that "we should meditate on the Kingdom of God, and that we should practice that meditation in the ways established by him"(Inst. 2, 8, 28).

After stating the general purpose of the Day, Calvin goes on to note three intentions of the Sabbath day. The first was for "believers" to "lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them"(Inst. 2, 8, 28). The second intention was to provide a "stated day" for the people of God "to assemble to hear the law" and to "perform the rites"(Inst. 2, 8, 28). The third intention of the Sabbath, according to Calvin, was to provide "a day of rest to servants and those under authority" so that they may have "respite from toil"(Inst. 2, 8, 28).

When speaking of the Sabbath in terms of "respite from toil", we must never minimize Sabbath keeping to "taking a day off" --it is about being recalled to our knowledge of and gratitude for "God's activity in creating the world, giving liberty to the captives, and overcoming the powers of death"(Bass; CT 42). Calvin then, would have us do this by assembling together and performing the rites suitable for worship on this day. Our "day off" is a ceasing from one activity(toil) for the purpose of engaging in another(worship).

Many arguments have been put forth in recent years advocating the pragmatic advantages to Sabbath keeping--how we can be refreshed for our six days of toil. While renewed strength for work may be a natural outcome of Sabbath keeping, this is not its intention. Abraham Heschel is convincing in his refutation of this notion that the Sabbath is "for the sake of gaining strength for new efforts"(Heschel 14). Heschel insists that the Sabbath is not intended for "enhanced efficiency", but for the "climax of living" found in union with God(Heschel 14).

John Primus has an even different approach to "respite from toil". Primus makes the careful distinction that "what the Sabbath really forbids is not work, but trust in human work". Primus goes on to say that the aim of the Sabbath is nothing more than a "complete and total surrender to God"(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 119). Primus' approach buttresses the argument that this essay has presented, that the principles behind Sabbath observances is what Christians should be paying close attention to.

Marva Dawn gives us a helpful articulation of "Sabbath resting" when she calls it a "foretaste of eternal life"(Dawn 62). John Calvin says exactly the same thing when he insists that Christians focus on the holiness of our "everlasting Sabbath rest" rather than the "ascribed intrinsic holiness of a particular day"(Inst. 2, 8, 34). Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel , also buttresses this notion when he writes that the seventh day is meant to give us a taste of "the world to come"(Heschel 19). How desperately our culture needs a "taste" of this "world to come"!

Our Need For Sabbath Rest
Marva Dawn accurately describes how most of us work five days a week and then spend the weekend trying to do everything that needs to be done around the house and yard. Consequently, the Sabbath day is not a day of cease from work(Dawn 5). Dawn is careful to qualify her statement by reminding us that "to advocate a complete day of ceasing from work . . . does not mean, of course, that work is wrong". Dawn also points out that "our work is worship" when we do it "to the glory of God"(Dawn 5). This is true. Work can be worship. The trouble is, for most of us, work has become our idol.

If we are honest with ourselves, we might wonder how anyone can possibly rest when there is so much to do(Dawn 53). As Dorothy Bass puts it, "We need the Sabbath, even though we doubt that we have time for it"(Bass; CT 40). The Puritans had a strong sense of "needing" the Sabbath. They lived by the slogan, "good Sabbaths make good Christians"(Bass; CT 43). Our present problem, of being perpetually busy, stems from our desire to always "be in control of our lives". The observance of the Sabbath, however, reminds us that "God is the master of time"(Dawn 57). Dawn talks about the Sabbath in terms of remembering that we must "cease trying to be God" and that we must "put our lives back into his control"(Dawn 76). If we "concentrate on God's Lordship" in this way, Dawn maintains that we will be able to "return to His sovereign hands all the things that are beyond our control and terrifying us"(Dawn 76). When we do this, Dawn insists, that "our emotions can find truly comforting and healing rest"(Dawn 76).

Because the world we live in is so hectic and busy, John Primus writes that "The Sabbath is a most precious resource of life in a world of death"(Eskenazi, Harrington, Shea 120). The Sabbath helps us to face the negative dimensions of the world with a "realism" born out of our understanding that "God is still Lord over everything that seems so crazy"(Dawn 80).

Sabbath keeping helps us by reminding us that we are incapable of providing for ourselves. If we are to "feast spiritually", as Dawn puts it, "God must provide the manna" (Dawn 158). The Sabbath is a time for grace. Where human work ceases, God's work continues. Far from being "a dry duty" or an "oppressive obligation", the Sabbath is a delight, "a feasting on that which is eternal rather than a scrambling after the ephemeral success" that we think will grant us permanent happiness(Dawn 164). Instead of trying to create our own security, Dawn wants us to return to worship "the One who is our security"(Dawn 164).

The Sabbath as Detachment from Things
Abraham Heschel, almost always, speaks of the Sabbath in terms of being a "realm of time"--a realm of time where the goal is not to "have", but to "be"(Heschel 3). Emphasizing the realm of time, Heschel argues that the Sabbath was intended to free us from "space" and from the "enslavement to things"(Heschel 6). This emphasis of "time" is born out of Heschel's conviction that "the Bible is far more concerned with time than with space . . . (it) pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things"(Heschel 6).

Marva Dawn maintains that one of the reasons for refraining from buying or selling on Sabbath days is that it "puts the focus on all the wrong things"(Dawn 38). Buying and selling, Dawn argues, causes us to "think about what we want instead of what God wants"(Dawn 38). On a day which we should be "longing for the presence of God", buying and selling inevitably causes "possessions" to "dominate our desires"(Dawn 38). Like Heschel, Dawn argues that on the Sabbath "we embrace time instead of space, people instead of things"(Dawn 145).

This is not something we are good at. Dorothy Bass rightly observes that most of us need to be reminded of this very thing, that our "greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things"(Bass; CT 43). Eugene Peterson takes this "detachment from things" one step further by explaining why we need this: "(we need)uncluttered time and space in which we can distance ourselves from our own activities enough to see what God is doing"(Peterson 55).

Now "detachment from things" should not be confused with escapism. Marva Dawn describes how the Sabbath "is not a running away from problems", but the opportunity "to receive grace to face them"(Dawn 24). Heschel is also careful to point out that expressing our faith on the Sabbath day does not entail a rejection of the world, but it is a day where we learn to "surpass civilization"(Heschel 27). The Sabbath helps us to adopt a proper attitude towards external things. The Sabbath helps us to appreciate the things we have, while teaching us how to do without them(Heschel 28). This is surely a perspective Christianity is overdue to reembrace. While insisting that a rejection of the world does not take place on the Sabbath, Heschel does speak of the Sabbath as a day of "detachment from things" and of "attachment to the spirit"(Heschel 29).

Developing the Sabbath Habit
Marva Dawn writes that, "To keep the Sabbath means to cherish it, to honour it as the Queen of our days, in consort with the King of the Universe"(Dawn 203). But how? How do we "cherish" the day? How do we observe the Sabbath in a way that strengthens us in our relationship to God?

Dawn is quick to admit that Christianity "does not provide an elaborate set of rules to follow for keeping the Sabbath"(Dawn 109). And for this reason, Dawn argues, that we must not be legalistic and should not "legislate for others how to keep the Sabbath"(Dawn 207). We must also bear in mind that it is the principles of Sabbath observance we are looking for and not a literal mimicking of traditional Jewish or Christian Sabbath practices.

Marva Dawn, for example, has learned her own Sabbath "preparation" from the Jewish tradition. The Jews welcome the Sabbath by cleaning the house and preparing the special Sabbath foods so that no cooking needs to be done on the festival day(Dawn 14). Using the same principle of "preparation", but applying that principle differently, Dawn talks about her own habit of putting her books and writing projects away hoping to "put the work out of mind" also(Dawn 14). By her example, Dawn articulates how we don't necessarily need to clean our house or put away our books, we need only to prepare in a way specific to us that will help facilitate our own Sabbath keeping.

To the eyes of outsiders(often Christians), Jewish observance of the Sabbath can often seem like an arduous set of restrictions, a set of laws that don't bear any good news. This is far from the truth. Consider that in observant Jewish homes, the Sabbath begins each Friday night at sundown as a woman lights the Sabbath candles. It is a festival time; people dress up, the best tableware and food are presented, guests are welcomed(Bass; CT 41). One could almost say, that Sabbath time is party time! The best of everything is used. This is not a time of fasting and repenting, this is a time of feasting and celebrating God's goodness in creation and redemption. The Sabbath is not intended to bring displeasure, on the contrary, the Sabbath is intended to "delight (our) soul with pleasure"(Heschel 19).

Consider also the fact that, at these celebratory meals, Jewish families sit around the table singing, arguing points of Torah, and sharing wine and good food--activities which draw people more intimately together. In addition, rabbinic guidelines include an injunction that married people should have sex on the Sabbath"(Dawn 192). Far from being arduous and restrictive the Sabbath invites us to have "festival fun, to play, to enjoy our guests and our activities, to relish the opportunity for worship, to celebrate the eternal presence of God Himself"(Dawn 202). Surely the Sabbath, when regularly kept, will bring joy to our lives and not sorrow. Surely it will bring us closer to others and, more importantly, closer to God.

In speaking of the celebratory nature of the Sabbath, this essay must, at the same time, acknowledge that there are some principles in the Sabbath which guide what we should and shouldn't do on that day.

Admittedly, what should and should not be done on the Sabbath is a matter of continuing debate. One classic answer is "whatever requires changing the natural, material world"(Bass; CT 41). An answer to what should not be done on the Sabbath is almost always going to be "work". What does it exactly mean to refrain from work? One classic answer is "whatever requires changing the natural, material world"(Bass; CT 41). Now this can be, and is, taken by some to the extreme. Orthodox Jews, for instance, refrain from turning on lights and driving their cars on the Sabbath. It is not the purpose of this essay to judge such practices, but only to highlight the diversity in how the Sabbath can be, and is, observed.

In our present context, work is often something we depend on. We put a significant amount of trust in our work and the results it produces. The Sabbath, in its call for us to refrain from work, is calling us to stop depending on our work for a moment(a day) so that we can learn anew what it means to depend on God. Dorothy Bass rightly insists that "to act as if the world cannot get along without our work for one day in seven is a startling display of pride that denies the sufficiency of our generous Maker"(Bass; CT 43). When we work, we most often pay attention only to what we are doing. When we cease from work, we are afforded the opportunity to see what God is doing in our midst. This is our guiding principle: whatever type of work that distracts us from the work of God, we must cease. Whatever activity awakens us to what God is doing, we should engage in.

This raises the question of: What is good on a Christian Sabbath? Marva Dawn wisely insists that one of the "necessary tools" for spiritual resting is the Word of God(Dawn 57). Dawn reminds us how the Torah was the focus of the Sabbath day for the Jews, who spent part of the day "immersed" in the study of it(Dawn 57). This is a a neglected practice in the Christian tradition. Too often we are content to hear the Word of the Lord read or proclaimed in Sunday worship, and leave it at that. Dawn rightly calls Christians to return to the practice of studying and meditating on the Scriptures to aid and nourish us on the Sabbath day.

Dorothy Bass uses the term "communion" to describe necessary Sabbath activity--communion with the risen Christ, and with our fellow members of His body, the church(Bass; CT 43). While "studying the Word" and "communion" doesn't sound like a lot of options, it actually is. Communion with Christ can happen in so many ways--from public worship to private prayer. Communion with others can be anything from a family meal, to recreational activities with others, to a walk with a friend.

The Sabbath and Community
Another aspect of the Jewish Sabbath that Christians need to revisit, is the belief that the Sabbath requires that we live in harmony and peace with all people(Heschel 31). Christians who revisit this approach would be encouraged to understand their individual piety only in the larger framework of the covenant community. And for the Jew, that is exactly what the Sabbath represents; " a sign of the covenant between Israel and God"(Heschel 54). The Sabbath is not merely a day for improving one's personal piety. The Sabbath day reminds the Jews, and should remind the Christian, that it is the people--not the individual--that are united to God in a covenant.

Dorothy Bass is quick to point out that none of us should think that we can sustain Sabbath keeping "all by ourselves". Rather, Bass insists, "we need mutuality in this practice"(Bass; CT 42). Marva Dawn also makes this recommendation. She encourages us to spend our time, on the Sabbath day, "in company with others committed to God" for the purpose of "celebrating our oneness in His grace"(Dawn 113). Dawn goes on to argue that "to be a Christian community together we need time together"(Dawn 118). Dawn contends that the Sabbath day gives us this opportunity to spend time together and to "deepen the bonds of our community"(Dawn 118). Sabbath keeping is not easy, nor is it natural. We need others, and others need us. Coming together as a worshiping community helps us to better remember the works of God. Coming together strengthens us in our resolve to cease from work. Marva Dawn is right, "We cannot keep the day alone"(Dawn 207).

The Sabbath is not mandatory for the Christian, but it is necessary. We need the Sabbath. It is for our own good that we observe it. How we observe it will differ, but our guiding principle will remain the same: Any work that distracts us from the work of God should be avoided, while any activity that facilitates or worship of God should be engaged in. That being said, we must not become legalistic with our Sabbath observance. For the Sabbath is not about doing, but about being(Dawn 96). Its more than just ceasing to do, but it is about becoming--becoming one who reflects the glory of our Creator and Redeemer. This is the ultimate goal of our Sabbath: To remember the works of God in Christ and to allow ourselves to be further molded in His image. The Sabbath is our "one day that, week after week, anchors a way of life that makes a difference every day"(Bass; CT 43).


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