Sabbath

Preaching and Worship Resources about Sabbath

An antidote to various forms of restlessness, God's gift of a sabbath is meant for relief from work, for replenishment, for worship, and for kindness to the poor.

In Scripture

"On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation" (Gen. 2:2 - 3).

"Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it" (Ex. 20:8 - 11).

"Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest" (Ex. 34:21).

"Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. . . . Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day" (Deut. 5:12, 15).

"You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths" (Ezek. 22:8).

"He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, 'Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?' so that they might accuse him. He said to them, 'Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.' Then he said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other" (Matt. 12:9 - 13).

"After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, `Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay'" (Matt. 28:1 - 6).

"One sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, `Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?' And he said to them, `Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.' Then he said to them, `The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath'" (Mark 2:23 - 28).

"Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths" (Col. 2:16).

"So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God's rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs" (Heb. 4:9 - 11).

Points to Ponder

Rest from work The Sabbath day is, first of all, for rest from work. That's the point of the commandment in Exodus 20:8 - 11. Anchored in the creation sequence (God worked six days and rested on the seventh), the Sabbath is our duplication of God's seventh day, intended for relief, refreshment, and re-creation. It's important to note that the Sabbath was and is intended not only for householders, but also for their children, their slaves, their animals, and for any resident aliens who may be about.

Release from bondage As Deuteronomy 5 reveals, the backstory here is the Israelites' history of being slaves in Egypt, where Pharaoh made them work all seven days. When God commands rest, God is undercutting Egyptian tyranny by mandating relief — pointedly, for the Israelites' own slaves. From a vantage point in the twenty-first century, we naturally wonder why the people of God had slaves at all. Isn't slavery inherently evil? Yes, and mandated rest for slaves is a first step toward the eventual dismantling of slavery by Jews and Christians. For Christians, its centerpiece is that in Christ "there is no longer slave or free" (Gal. 3:28).

Subversion of tyranny God's sabbath intent to subvert tyranny is profound. God "hallowed" the Sabbath, "consecrated" it, made the Sabbath "holy." God's seriousness about the Sabbath may be gauged by the fact that the commandment to honor it is one of the two longest in the Decalogue.

Trusting God's provision Exodus 34:21 specifies that Israel must rest on the seventh day even during harvest. If Israel trusts God by resting while their grain is ripe, God will provide. Even outside agricultural societies, Jews and Christians have always treated the Sabbath as a testimony to the sober fact that the welfare of the world doesn't depend on our going to work on the Sabbath. For this one day in seven, we may safely suspend our "work and worry."

Sabbath as communal celebration But what if you are scraping by and can't afford to take Sunday off? Here's a situation in which it's important to note that the celebration of the Sabbath is a communal event. Communities of believers may financially support members who believe they need to work on Sundays, supplying what they had hoped to earn and freeing them to join the community in celebrating God's gift of sabbath.

Recovery from existential angst St. Augustine understood that, above all, we need sabbath to recover from existential angst. He could speak with authority on rootlessness, aimlessness, and the anxiety that stems from do-it-yourself forms of life, with its ceaseless oscillations between pride ("I'm making it!") and despair ("I'll never make it!"). Accordingly, in his most famous prayer, Augustine addressed God from the deepest chambers of his heart: "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Sunday as Christian Sabbath (Lord's Day) Sometime in the first century Christians began to gather on the first day of the week for worship including the Lord's Supper, the reading and preaching of Scripture, and the gathering of alms. Their idea was to celebrate the first day of creation and especially the day of Jesus's resurrection. For most Christians then and today, the Sabbath is Sunday, but not so for Seventh Day Adventists — serious Christians with serious objections to the historical switch from the seventh day to the first.

Sabbatarianism Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians have long entangled themselves in fussy Sabbatarianism: no cooking; no washing; no shaving; no tennis; no radio, television, or Internet, etc. The intent here is laudable: The Sabbath should be notably different from other days. But it should not be different by being grim. In the gospels Jesus defends various forms of Sabbath replenishment, including mercy for the sick and food gathering for the hungry. In Answer 103 of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the confessional gems of the Reformation, God's will for the Sabbath is characterized as "the festive day of rest" intended for worship including Word, sacraments, prayer, and gifts for the poor.

Giving to the poor A main way to celebrate the Sabbath is to offer gifts for the poor! Not only should the poor not have to work on the Sabbath, but what they would have earned should simply be given to them. It is not hard to see here that the Sabbath is a form of what Walter Brueggemann calls "resistance" to the culture of anxiety, coercion, acquisition, and exclusion based on (for example) race and class. From Exodus to the present, God's sabbath is a kind of holy subversion of tyranny.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.