Inside: Do you feel fried and frazzled? Learn why the Sabbath is important and relevant to you as a modern-day Christian in this 3-part series.
When was the last time you had an entire day off?
No, not the Sunday when you heroically prepped all your weekday meals for the diet that lasted one week. Or the one where you acted as an unpaid Uber driver, chauffeuring your kids to a record number of sports activities. Or the one when you tried to rein in your burgeoning e-mails to Inbox Zero—only to conclude that it couldn’t be done.
An entire day off with no commitments, obligations, or chores. Can’t remember? Well, you’re not alone.
Pastor and author Eugene Peterson once called an activity-filled day off a “bastard Sabbath.” A bastard Sabbath is a day off from work that’s used to get all our personal stuff done. It’s what the typical American Sunday looks like.
And it’s nothing like Sabbath was intended to be.
What is the Sabbath?
The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb sabbat, meaning “to stop or to cease.” In the book of Genesis, God ceased all His creative work after creating the world in six days.
Genesis 2:2-3 says, “By the seventh day God had finished 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, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (NIV).
God doesn’t get tired, so He didn’t need to rest. But in resting on the seventh day, God established a cycle of work and rest for mankind. The Sabbath was “made holy,” meaning it was set apart from the other six days not only to rest but also to honor and worship God.
After the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the Sabbath served to remind them that God had brought them out of Egypt where they couldn’t rest from the relentless burdens of slavery (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). It also offered much-needed rest and renewal for the people of Israel, their slaves, and animals so that they could all be “refreshed” (Exodus 23:12).
In the Old Testament, the Sabbath has roots in both the creation and redemption story. It also shows how deeply God cares about our physical, mental, and spiritual rest.
How Does the Sabbath Point Us to Jesus?
The Old Testament was a mere foreshadowing of the rest that Jesus would offer, however. When Jesus came, He became the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest that the Old Testament could only point to.
Now Jesus gives us rest from the ceaseless striving to earn our salvation. And He gives us peace with God in this life and the next. The author of Hebrews tells us that we must only believe through faith and then be diligent to enter that rest (Hebrews 4:1-11).
By Jesus’ time, Sabbath had become fraught with hair-splitting legalism rivaling the current IRS tax code. If applied today, Sabbath rules would prohibit you from sharpening a colored pencil for your daughter, opening an umbrella in a downpour, or watering a vase of flowers that your spouse bought you for your anniversary.
Jesus sought to free us from these burdens that had made Sabbath a back-breaking commandment. This was the original context of the well-known verse from Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Why Don’t All Christians Observe the Sabbath?
Traditionally, the Israelites celebrated Sabbath on Saturdays, the seventh day of the week. Christians tend to observe the Sabbath on Sundays (the Lord’s Day) instead because that was the day that they gathered to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.
A debate exists among Christians about whether they should observe the Sabbath today, however.
In the New Testament, we see that the Apostle Paul grouped the Sabbath with the Old Testament ritualistic foods and festivals. He then stated that Jesus already fulfilled all these requirements, implying that believers were no longer required to observe the Sabbath.
Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Paul says that observance of the Sabbath should be determined by God-given conscience (and without judgment on other believers). He writes, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5).
Observing the Sabbath, then, is a personal decision that Christians should make between God and themselves.
8 Powerful Benefits of Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy
The Sabbath is not a day to refrain from enjoyable activities but a day to refrain from our to-do list. Why would we voluntarily choose to do this when our lives are already so busy?
Here are eight benefits of keeping the Sabbath day holy:
1. It brings your focus back to God.
The rest of the week might be a blur, but on the Sabbath, we get to slow down to worship and delight in God. We remember and celebrate His goodness and kindness to us. As we take a break from worldly labor, the world and its concerns pale in comparison.
We often miss out on these blessings altogether due to the non-stop pace of our lives. Eugene Peterson wrote, “Sabbath is that uncluttered time and space in which we can distance ourselves from our own activities enough to see what God is doing.”
2. It will be a source of joy.
Practiced regularly, Sabbath will become a welcome day of respite that we eagerly anticipate during the week. God’s original intention was for this special day to be a source of delight.
Isaiah 58:13-14 says, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord.”
If you lack joy in your life, observing the Sabbath will teach you how to delight in God.
3. It gives you guilt-free rest.
Do you know that guilty feeling you get when you try to take a break? Or that knawing feeling that you should be doing something productive? Many people feel guilty when they stop for a break. They feel that they must “earn” or “deserve” their rest. Not so with the Sabbath.
The Sabbath gives us permission to cease working. It’s a gift based on the day of the week, not on how much we’ve accomplished. It represents God’s gracious invitation to cease striving.
If you feel overwhelmed or burned out, establishing a Sabbath rhythm might be just what you need.
4. It teaches you to trust God more.
The Sabbath teaches us to release control of our to-do list. He’s in control, not us. We are not greater than the God who rested on the seventh day.
We may work for six days, but God provides for us seven days a week. The degree to which we’re able to cease our work reveals our level of trust in God—and the degree to which we reap the benefits of Sabbath.
5. It clarifies your identity.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “You’re not what you do.” If you’ve ever nodded silently in agreement and then let it go out the other ear, the Sabbath will help with this truth.
As we learn to stop completely, we learn that our identity lies not in what we do, but in God and what He’s done for us. We are not defined by our productivity (or lack thereof).
6. It gives you the restorative rest you need.
The modern secular day off (i.e., bastard Sabbath) doesn’t give us the rest that we crave, and neither do many vacations. That’s why we can end up being more tired at the end of a weekend or vacation.
A God-centered Sabbath will refresh you more than any distraction or entertainment will. Plus, the more rested we feel, the more prepared we’ll be for the rest of the week. And the less we’ll experience the Sunday Scaries.
7. It teaches you rest in Jesus during the other six days.
Most of us know that we are to rest in Jesus intellectually but can’t conceptualize what this looks like practically. On the Sabbath, we intentionally set our problems aside to rest for a day.
When we “practice resting” once a week, it becomes easier to give our burdens to God during the other six days of the week.
8. It will strengthen your relationships.
The Sabbath isn’t meant to be celebrated in a vacuum between you and God. It’s best enjoyed in community. One study of pastors showed that Sabbath-keeping has a positive impact on social relationships.
If you’re having trouble making time for your friends or family during the week, Sabbath frees up a whole day’s worth of unhurried time to enjoy with them!
Embracing a More Balanced Rhythm of Life
We as Christians don’t have to Sabbath, but we get to Sabbath if we choose. Although taking a whole day off will take practice (and discipline) in our modern life, the benefits are well worth it.
So consider incorporating a Sabbath rest day into your week. And when you do, make it a real Sabbath, not a bastard one.
What do your Sundays look like? Do they leave you refreshed?
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