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When Jesus stated that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, it was considered blasphemy by the religious powers-that-be. This is not surprising, given how fanatical they were not only about keeping the Sabbath, but about forcing their views on others regarding precisely how to keep it. Stiff penalties were imposed on those who violated their dictates. As a result, the Sabbath became a heavy burden of restrictions and obligations, which was the opposite of what God had intended when he handed down the Sabbath law through Moses.
A whiff of that same fanaticism can be found in some Christians today. Yes, sanctifying the Sabbath is a Commandment, but I’m firmly on the side of Jesus in believing that God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit, not for his. If we love God and make him the center of our lives, spending a day only with him and his Word is pure pleasure and rejuvenation, in the same way as spending time with someone we deeply love is pleasurable and rejuvenating. There is no burden in being with those we genuinely love and who genuinely love us in return. There is no grudging sense of obligation or feeling that we’re missing out on something, or that we’d rather be somewhere else. If we love God, we look forward to the Sabbath each week, we don’t dread it.
As I’ve mentioned throughout this blog, I’m a relatively new believer. I was raised an atheist, so keeping the Sabbath was never ingrained in me as a child. I had to learn it as an adult, after I was reborn. But that learning process was slow. Initially, the Sabbath for me just meant going to church on Sunday morning and then doing whatever I pleased on Sunday afternoon, including working. I didn’t see it as a day of rest and rejuvenation or a time to spend with God. That understanding only came later when I noticed that far from being rested on Monday morning, I was still tired from the previous week’s labours. Technically, I considered the Sabbath only as a church day, and nothing more. The “day of rest” part escaped me.
As I my faith grew and I started to get to know God as my Dad (which only happened after I’d left Catholicism, three and a half years after my rebirth), I found that I wanted to spend more and more time with him and his Word. In fact, I was taking time off from my work to spend with God, as being with him and reading the Bible were such pleasures. However, as much as God wants us to put him at the center of our lives, we still need to work. The Sabbath law not only stipulates one day of rest, it also stipulates six days of labour. In taking time off from work to spend with God and his Word, I was shirking the part of the Commandment about labouring. Just like working too much, not working enough became problematic for me.
But growing in faith is a learning process for born-agains. Babies don’t come out of the womb diaper-trained and fully able to walk and talk. It takes time and lots of boo-boos. Learning about God’s Sabbath and how to keep it as Jesus taught us to keep it was a very long learning process for me, mainly because I didn’t take it seriously enough. Seriously, yes, but not seriously enough to consider exactly what Jesus meant when he said the Sabbath was made for us.
I am happy to report that I am now out of the diaper stage with regard to the Sabbath, and that the worst of the messy boo-boos appear to be behind me. The Sabbath for me is now something I look forward to all week, not something that happens every day. I labour for six days, as required, and completely rest on the seventh (I don’t even do the dishes!). Sometimes, on rare occasion, I am called to work on a seventh or an eighth day in a row, but I never purposely schedule work. If an emergency arises, I deal with it, but then I take my Sabbath afterwards. This is what Jesus taught us to do in scripture.
The result of adopting and living what I believe is the spirit of the Sabbath Commandment is that I LOVE SABBATH! It is by far my favourite time of the week, and I look forward to it the way I used to look forward to Christmas when I was a kid. In fact, I love Sabbath so much, I start it already on Saturday evening, after sunset. (I believe that is biblically sound, for you purists out there.) During Sabbath, I keep meal preparation to a minimum, and as I mentioned, I don’t do dishes or any housework at all, including making my bed. I am a completely lazy slob for a whole day, and I love it! Even just the sight of my messy bed makes me smile, because it’s a clear sign that it’s Sabbath.
As for being with God, there is no greater pleasure than spending an entire day with him without feeling like I’m shirking my work duties in some way. It took me a while to get there, but I’m now like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, enjoying his company and learning from him, rather than like Martha, running around doing all kinds of unnecessary chores that only make me tired, cranky, and frustrated.
If your day off is not a pleasure for you, if it is not restful and rejuvenating, if it is not deepening and strengthening your faith and your relationship with God and his Word, you might want to reconsider how you’re keeping your Sabbath.
Now when Monday morning rolls around, I’m ready to face the work week again. I don’t dread it; I’m ready for it, and I look forward to whatever the week may bring. This, I think, is proof not only of the importance of keeping the Sabbath, but of keeping it as God intended and as Jesus taught us.
I was “baptized” a Roman Catholic when I was three weeks old, but I was raised an atheist. I mention this because, when I was born again at age 36, I had no idea whatsoever what it meant to be a Christian. I wasn’t, as they say, “raised in the faith”. Everything I’ve learned about being a follower of Jesus has come from the Bible, my conversations with God and Jesus, and my own experience as a born-again.
This is why I’m always a wee bit surprised when I come across doctrinal arguments that have already been dealt with and resolved by Jesus in the gospels. If Jesus has already resolved these issues, why are people who call themselves Christians still arguing about them?
One favorite issue that rigid legalists like to bring up again and again is the concept of “keeping the Sabbath”. They argue over which day is the ‘real’ sabbath day. They argue about what is and is not permitted to be done on that sabbath day. And then they warn that if you don’t strictly adhere to their interpretation of “keeping the sabbath”, you’re going straight to hell, do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect 200 dollars.
What did Jesus have to say about the sabbath?
He said: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
He said this in response to some rigid legalists (in this case, Pharisees) who were peeved that he and his disciples had picked and eaten a few ears of corn while walking through a cornfield. Jesus used as a justification how David and his men had eaten food offerings from an altar when they were hungry and had no other food source. In eating the food that was meant only for priests, David was breaking a rule. Jesus’ point here was that expediency and urgency of human need are greater even than altar rules. Jesus and his disciples were hungry; the corn was there; they ate it. End of story. Just like David and his men were hungry; the food was there; they ate it. God had put the food there not to tempt them but to satisfy their need.
Jesus reiterated his stand on how human need trumps the rigid rules around “keeping the Sabbath” when later the same day he healed a man in the local synagogue (I’m using Mark’s gospel here, the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3). The same Pharisees were there to witness this “Sabbath violation” and it set them off on the warpath to “destroy” Jesus. Even after Jesus had explained to them in simple terms that it was better to do good than evil on the sabbath and better to save a life than take it, they still didn’t get it. All they could see was their beloved rule and that Jesus had broken it.
Jesus was totally exasperated with their “hardness of heart” and their inability to grasp even the simplest concepts of who God is and how we are to serve him. This kind of rigid legalistic interpretation of “keeping the Sabbath” persists to this day, despite Jesus having dealt with it once and for all. And not surprising, the same type of people who gave Jesus grief all those years ago are still giving Christians grief about the sabbath today.
As I mentioned, everything I know about being a follower of Jesus, I learned from the Bible or directly from God and Jesus. Regarding the sabbath, I usually take one day off a week, and it’s usually Sunday, but not always. If I end up having to work on Sunday, I take the next day off that I can. I know that if I don’t get my ‘day of rest’, I’ll be a nightmare to be around, just like I’ll be a nightmare to be around if I don’t get my 8 hours’ sleep. I’ve tried splitting my sabbath day into two by taking two half-days off, but that doesn’t work as well. I don’t get the same level of rejuvenation as I do when I take a whole day to ‘do nothing’.
Because I’m a follower of Jesus, I prefer to spend my entire day off just hanging with God and Jesus and the holy rellies (you know, that cloud of witnesses Paul was talking about). If I had my druthers, I’d spend every day doing nothing but just hanging with God and Jesus and the holy rellies, but that’s not advisable, since we do still have work that needs to be done. God loves it when we just spend time with him for no other reason than that we love him, but we can’t do that 24/7. We still have work to do during our time here, just like Jesus had work to do during his time here.
I’m not telling you what to do or not to do on your sabbath. That’s up to you to decide. As for me, I look to Jesus and my own conscience as to how I spend my weekly day off. Jesus states quite clearly that the sabbath is meant for our benefit and that it’s not so set in stone that it can’t be altered if the situation calls for it. I’ve worked through days that I should have taken off, and I’ve suffered for it by getting tired and cranky. I look forward to my ‘day of rest’ once a week, but if an emergency comes up that can’t be put off (and I get clearance from God to deal with it), I deal with the emergency. I don’t think twice about it, and neither does God.
For any of you legalists out there reading this and tearing your robes – lighten up. Get to know God and Jesus better. Read the gospels. Jesus said that “the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath”. Anyone who’s a born-again follower of Jesus is a “Son of man”, meaning a prophet (meaning, a revealer of God’s truth). If Jesus could dictate what could and could not be done on the sabbath, so can we. Jesus didn’t arbitrarily and just for the sake of it do whatever he wanted to do on the sabbath – no. But if circumstances were such that he had to do something that could not be delayed, he did it, and so should we.
And yes, I do know the commandment about keeping the sabbath day holy. Nothing I’ve said here violates that, any more than anything Jesus said or did violated the holiness of the sabbath day. As a born-again, you should live EVERY day in holiness, not just one day in seven. Jesus certainly did. Living in holiness just means keeping your will aligned with God’s so that you make the right (God-inspired) choices. This isn’t possible without consciously being in God’s presence, through his spirit. So, in a sense, born-agains, who by definition always have God’s spirit with them and should always be conscious of his presence, “keep the Sabbath day” all week long, and every day is a holy day.
Even so, I’m still looking forward to my day off!