Imagine, if you will, a world with no weeks. There would be no cycle, no repeating pattern of Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday, no weekend, no finish to a set of workdays or start to a new set. Imagine just day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day….
Why a Seven-Day Week?
But realize that there is nothing in natural cycles to cause a 7-day pattern. There are monthly patterns in the phases of the moon, or annual ones in the earth’s orbit around the sun. But nothing similar gives a reason for a weekly cycle. That reason comes from God. He set that pattern in His covenant with Israel:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.Exodus 20:8-11
The First Sabbaths
Imagine being one of those first Israelites. They had been slaves in Egypt. Now they were traveling through a wilderness on their way to a new homeland. All they knew was day after day of hard work. Now they were being commanded to simply put on the brakes, and stop. And they were to continue to pause and reset every seventh day. Would they have been thrilled? Confused? Annoyed?
We get some hint from even earlier than the commandment quoted above. In Exodus 16, we read how God provided bread-like manna to feed the people each day. Every morning, they could gather enough for just that one day. If they tried to keep some until the next day, it would spoil. But on the sixth day, they could gather twice as much and it would last, giving them food for the seventh day when no fresh manna was provided.
They had to depend on God’s provision day-to-day, and had no choice but to rest from gathering on the seventh day. They did not find that to be easy. Like me, they wanted to hoard extra “just in case” and had trouble relaxing and trusting in Him.
Sabbath in Jesus’ Time
During the first century when Jesus was here, the rules for what one could and could not do on the Sabbath had grown ridiculous. Instead of “do no work”, it was defined as “don’t carry anything over a certain weight” and “don’t walk over a certain distance”. Those who defined and insisted that everyone follow their legalistic rules were appalled that Jesus had the nerve to actually heal the sick on the Sabbath! (John 5:1-18, John 9, Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, Luke 6:1-11) In one of these instances (Mark 2:27), Jesus responded, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.“
Sabbath in Today’s World
In the U.S. today, we have no trouble taking weekends off…in a way. We don’t expect to work at our paid occupations for seven days (or more) in a row. We usually expect two days off each week, and some even have gone to only a four-day work week. But, we still expect our world to continue straight through without stopping.
Even if I’m not at work on Sunday, I expect the stores and restaurants to be open so that I can go about my business without interruption. When I was a child, that was not so much the case. On Sundays, we went to church and then stayed home with family…because there wasn’t much choice: nothing else was open. I would have trouble with that now.
I have always been troubled by a tale I once read. A man at a gas station on Sunday morning chided the teenager who waited on him, “Son, you should be at church today”. The boy replied, “Sir, I would be if people like you didn’t buy gas on Sundays.” How often has my selfish shopping kept someone at work who would rather be worshipping God?
Keeping the Sabbath
So, what was God’s intent for the Sabbath? How does He want us to observe it in today’s world?
- He intended it to be holy. That means special, separate, set apart, reserved. It is not to be just another any-old day.
- He intended it to be restful. That means relaxing, rejuvenating, renewing. It is not to be trading paid occupational work for exhausting work elsewhere, not just exchanging one kind of work for another.
- He intended it to be a reflection of Himself. That means resting because He rested, honoring the day because He did. Therefore it is to be a time for remembering and honoring and enjoying Him.
Does keeping the Sabbath mean “Be at church when the doors open, and stay sitting quietly at home otherwise”? Maybe. Or does it mean “Put your normal busy life on hold, trust God that the other six days will be enough to do everything that needs to be done, and spend time enjoying Him and thanking Him for His blessings”? Definitely.
In any case, I confess that I don’t honor the Sabbath as I should, and therefore don’t get the benefits that God intends for me. He’s giving me a gift, and I’m not appreciating it as He deserves. I can’t commit to “sit quietly at home”, but I do hope to improve at “enjoy God especially on the Sabbath, and trust Him to provide for me every day of the week”.