Sabbath Rest

Jesus had a way of making religious people angry. One of His favorite methods was to heal people on the Sabbath day. This made the Jewish religious leaders so enraged they plotted to have him killed. (Mark 3:1-6) They considered “healing people” to be “work” that was prohibited on the Sabbath by the Law of Moses. But Jesus was trying to teach an important lesson about the Sabbath and about God’s heart for people to those who thought they were experts in the Old Testament scriptures.

The Jewish traditions regarding the Sabbath had become so burdensome to the people that Jesus had to clarify God’s attitude about it by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) This flew in the face of the teachings of the Jewish religious leaders of that era. They had added to the fourth commandment, a long list of rules that if violated, meant the rule-breaker was in jeopardy of being stoned to death. And they were vigilant to openly shame any violators!

Even today’s Orthodox Jews continue to observe the Sabbath using modernized versions of those same rules revised by their Rabbinical leaders. The Orthodox Union (USA) has published a document to help observant Jews avoid breaking the Sabbath. It is entitled “The Thirty-Nine Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law” and can be found on their website.

That list explains that actions such as boiling water, driving a car, tearing a piece of toilet paper, or swatting a fly (among many others) constitute a violation of the Sabbath law prohibiting work. That is an example of extreme legalistic thinking and a complete lack of understanding of the spirit of the 4th commandment. Jesus rebuked the religious scholars of His day for exalting their traditions over God’s word when He asked them, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” (Matthew 15:3 NLT)

There is no doubt that the Sabbath’s original meaning has been muddled by the religious traditions of men. But the Sabbath has also become a subject almost ignored by much of the modern Christian church. God intended the Sabbath rest to be a blessing for people and not a religious burden. Let’s consider God’s original intent when He introduced the concept of Sabbath.

In Genesis we find the account of God finishing His work of creation and choosing to rest on the seventh day. This was an example that preceded the eventual command for people to do as God did – and rest on the seventh day.

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. (Genesis 2:2-3 NASB)

The concept of a Sabbath rest for God’s people was introduced in the Book of Exodus. Imagine how astonishing this idea must have seemed to the Israelites who had worked seven days a week as slaves in Egypt. Now they were told to only work six days and rest on the seventh, setting it apart as holy to the Lord. Here is the text of the 4th commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave, or your cattle, or your resident who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; for that reason, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 NASB)

Commanded to Rest?

Why would God COMMAND people to take a day of rest? I believe the answer to that question is multi-faceted. But one facet begins with the simple fact that God created man and He knows what human beings need. Rest is something that is a physical need of the human body to maintain good health. But rest also helps maintain our mental health as well. It is very hard to think clearly, make good decisions, or remain emotionally steady when you are constantly exhausted. When Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” He was saying that God instituted the Sabbath to be a blessing and help to mankind.

People who do not rest on a regular basis open themselves up to physical illness from the continuous stress of non-stop work and family responsibilities. Without consistent rest, your immune system will be weakened thus making you susceptible to sickness. (If you wonder why you are sick all the time with every cold and flu that passes through town – consider whether you are violating God’s design for you to have a Sabbath rest!) Observing a Sabbath rest day will be a blessing to both your physical and mental health. This is one of the secrets you will discover when you embrace God’s gift of Sabbath rest.

My Own Story

Early in our ministry I did not have this understanding that God wanted His people to rest. In fact, I was quite sure it was my duty to work seven days a week to serve God. My husband was equally certain that God wanted us to have a day of rest. At that time, we had just recently founded a church in California and worked hard to take care of our fledgling congregation.

I remember the specific day when I realized I needed to find out if the Sabbath was still something God intended for New Testament believers. My husband and young teenage son got up and told me they were going to the beach. I was incensed – telling my husband, “How can you go to the beach when we have so many things we need to do?” He insisted, “This is our day to rest, and you need to rest also.” I refused, quite smugly certain that was not what I should be doing. As they left the house, I felt miserable. I finally cried out to God to show me whether my husband was right about the Sabbath being more than just an Old Testament commandment that didn’t apply to the New Testament church. The Lord made it abundantly clear to me with Jesus’ own words in Mark 2:27 – “The Sabbath was made for man…”

Though I became convinced by the scriptures that the Sabbath rest was God’s will, I quickly found out that it would take faith and grace to obey! It would be impossible to rest if I could not surrender the “to do list” in my mind to the Lord. It took faith to stop worrying about not accomplishing everything that I felt was so vital and time sensitive. This may have been the hardest part of embracing the Sabbath rest for me. I had to learn that I could trust God to take care of those things. Surrender became a weekly exercise for me every time the Sabbath rolled around!

For others, fear of not having enough money to pay the bills keeps them working seven days a week. Fear is a tool the devil uses to keep people in bondage. If you work seven days a week you will eventually not be able to work at all. Physical or mental breakdown will rob you of your ability to earn a living. So don’t allow the lie, “I have to work seven days a week to make ends meet!” drive you to a physical breakdown. Just like tithing – taking a Sabbath rest each week – takes faith. The ancient Israelites worried about the same issues we do today and had to be told, …even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest. (Exodus 34:21) Many farmers will tell you they can NEVER take a day off during harvest or planting season. Yet God told the Israelites they had to rest even then. That requires faith!

You must trust that God will provide for you as you obey His word even if it seems like obeying will put you in a worse financial condition. God will honor you for honoring His word (about the Sabbath or tithing!) and make a way where there seems to be no way. But you must take the first step of obedience and then God will move on your behalf. An inability to take time off from work reveals what you really believe about God and about yourself. It says you can’t trust God to provide for you and that you believe you are the sustainer of your own life.

Practical Steps

Different religious groups debate which day of the week should be honored as the Sabbath. Some say it should be Saturday like the Jewish tradition, and others say Sunday. If you review the scriptures mentioned above, you will observe no specific day of the week is stated. Instead, we are commanded: For six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God… Also – the naming of the days of the week wasn’t done until centuries later and the Romans named them after their false gods. For example, Saturday was named for their god Saturn. So, I don’t believe the day of the week is the issue in the mind of God. The issue is working six days – and resting and honoring the Lord on the seventh day. People’s work schedules vary and your “seventh day” may be different than mine. For example, a pastor’s Sabbath day should NOT be Sunday – as that is probably his busiest day of the week!

Regarding what is allowable or not on the Sabbath day, let’s consider the meaning of the word. W.E. Vines Expository Dictionary tells us that the Hebrew word which was transliterated into the word “Sabbath” has the meaning “cease, or to desist.” Another Bible scholar explains the meaning of “Sabbath” to be a “cessation of activity related to work.” If you apply this meaning to your day of rest, it will help clarify what would be acceptable to the Lord for your Sabbath activities. Should you fold the laundry? Shop for groceries? Wash your car? Answer work emails? Mow your lawn? Probably not – sounds like work to me! The key to success is planning ahead, and preparing meals, etc. the day before, so you are FREE TO REST and spend time with the Lord on your Sabbath day.

What are we to do on the Sabbath besides rest? Prayer, worship, reading the Word, speaking with others about the Lord are activities the Apostle Paul engaged in on the Sabbath as we can read in the Book of Acts. Then we see Jesus healing people on the Sabbath and proclaiming in Matthew 12:12, “So Then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” All these things keep our focus on the Lord and fulfill the command to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” setting it apart for God. (Exodus 20:8)

Spiritual Secrets of the Sabbath Rest

Not only does the Sabbath provide the physical blessings of rest and renewal, but there are also tremendous spiritual blessings promised to the person who will call the Sabbath a “delight.”

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, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 58:13-14 NIV)

The promise of the spiritual blessing of “finding your joy in the Lord” if you consider the Sabbath day a delight is a weighty one. Many people seek the Lord out of religious obligation but few experience the joy God has for them in enjoying personal fellowship with Him. This is a precious promise of spiritual blessing that cannot be overstated. If you have longed for a closer relationship with God, this is a secret to experiencing that desire of your heart!

Additionally, this passage of scripture includes a promise of promotion and victory in your life (I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land…) as well as increase and blessing (and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob).  

God clearly desires that the Sabbath day be a day of blessing and spiritual renewal for His people. I encourage you to embrace the gift of the Sabbath rest day and as you honor the Lord you will experience the secrets of the Sabbath rest – both spiritual and physical blessings which God longs to pour out on your life!