A Sabbath rest for the people of God?
Is Sunday a special day or does anything go? Thoughts on the Sabbath in the modern age.
Growing up, I carried a slight dread of Sundays. After returning home from the church where my father worked, the afternoon stretched in front of my MK siblings and I, full of forbidden pleasures. We squirmed until dinner time, not being allowed to play sports or “non-Christian” games, while my tired dad often took a nap. After dinner we breathed a sigh of relief and settled into the more interesting routine of eating popcorn while a parent read us a Christian book.
After leaving my conservative upbringing, I encountered the Sunday culture in the broader US evangelical world. Sports were normal, even organized competitive ones. Everyone went out to eat after the service. And megachurches offered worship on various days of the week. Startled by the variety of views on what for me had been a special day, I began to wonder: What gives? Is there a middle ground somewhere between burdensome rules and “everything goes”? This article proposes a theology of the Sabbath, some reasons for the Sabbath, and practical applications for how to spend the day.
A theology of the Sabbath
While some Christians observe a Sunday Sabbath, to rest from normal work and focus on God, others believe such a requirement does not exist for New Testament believers. In trying to develop an understanding of the issue, I have come to believe that, while it must be freed from legalism and abuse, a Sabbath rest does remain. The following considerations have shaped this conclusion.
For one, the Sabbath is related to our position in redemptive history. While it is true that Christ has given us rest (Matt. 11:28), in another sense we do not have complete rest. With Paul in Romans 7 we struggle with the old man of sin, and creation itself groans in the pangs of childbirth until Christ comes again (Rom. 8:22). So by moving the Sabbath to Sunday (from the Old Testament’s Saturday) to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we honor the “now” aspect of our redemption. However, because we do not yet have complete rest from our sins or the effects of sin on creation, the command to rest a day in seven remains.
Second, it is problematic to eliminate one of the 10 Commandments. In seminary, a fellow student joked that he “believed in all 9 of the 10 commandments.” He was making a point that, as Christians, few would say that idol worship, murder, stealing, or disrespecting your parents are okay. They are part of the respected “decalogue”. But many believers minimize the fourth commandment though it belongs in the same list. Why?
A common argument against keeping the Sabbath is that Jesus repeated all the other nine commands in the New Testament, but not the Sabbath. However, Jesus did mention the Sabbath—in his clashes with the Pharisees—but the issue he addressed was how to keep the day, not whether to. Furthermore, he mentioned it positively in Mark 2, where he said, “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Here, Jesus did not revoke the Sabbath but rather positively restored it as a day for refreshment and not burdensome rules.
In sum, observing a weekly Sabbath appears to be more than just optional, practical, or traditional. Due to our position in redemptive history of “now, but not yet”, and due to the importance of the 10 Commandments (of course in no way connected to our salvation), taking a weekly Sabbath is a matter of obedience to God.
Reasons for the Sabbath
God does not give arbitrary commands, so let us note some benefits to the Sabbath rest. One reason to “do Sabbath” seems to be that, as humans, we need a day in seven for physical rest. Theologian John Frame, in his book on the Christian life, remarks how by Sunday afternoon his body seems to wilt.1 Perhaps you too have experienced this: getting tired after six days of work in a row.
Another reason the Sabbath is important is that we need mental rest. This is one danger of the Japanese work culture: it does not give its workers the space to mentally decompress. Shelly Miller, in her book Rhythms of Rest, states that one purpose of resting on the Sabbath is to “notice what bubbles to the surface of our thoughts.”2 In order to survive and keep going, many of us submerge psychological trouble, be it relational or spiritual, throughout the week. However, these hidden problems can become the grain around which the dark pearls of unforgiveness, depression, rage, and even mental illness form. To process our issues, resting weekly helps.
Lastly, in doing Sabbath, we prioritize God. Whether or not you agree with Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire for not running in the Olympics on Sunday, you have to admit, it was gutsy. And it gave Eric a chance to testify that love for God came before Olympic medals. When we take the time to worship on Sunday morning, perhaps skipping work or sports practices or community meetings, people notice. And when someone asks, we explain: I have a God to worship, and he is more important to me than all these things.
Finally, let us take up the question: If God wants us to set aside a day in seven, what does that look like, particularly as missionaries?
The shape of the Sabbath
First of all, let’s be honest: Sunday is not restful for most of us. Preaching, hospitality, youth groups, and church meetings fill the day, and, if you are a parent of young children, childcare doesn’t stop. So, if Sunday involves work for you, the first principle is to ask yourself, when is my Sabbath? My wife struggles with this, and as I wrote this article, I also realized that I am really only taking a half day a week to completely rest. I need to find at least another half-day somewhere or try to take a full day off. We need it, and God designed it for our spiritual, mental, and physical well-being.
Second, the Sabbath should be restful. In the more than 150 biblical passages that speak of the Sabbath, over 80% speak of rest as the purpose of the day (author’s own research). How this looks varies from person to person. Get some exercise, watch a movie, go on a date, take a nap, spend some extra time with God. Do what is refreshing and restful for you. If you lead other Christians, encourage them to rest from work on their Sabbath and trust God with the outcome.
Third, the Sabbath should include some time of worship (Lev. 23:3, Rev. 1:10). Since many of us in ministry roles worship on Sunday but take our Sabbath on a different day, our situation is unique. But it can be refreshing to spend extra time with God while resting: listen to a sermon, worship, or talk with a friend and pray with them. If you are a leader of Christians, feed them spiritually on their Sabbath day.
Finally, let us remember the Sabbath was given for our blessing and not burdensome rules (Mark 2:27). This does not mean we forego the weekly day, but keep it as children of God, knowing that Christ has rested perfectly for us.
1. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2008), 541.
2. Shelly Miller, Rhythms of Rest: Finding the Spirit of Sabbath in a Busy World, (Bethany House Publishers, 2016), 61.