Restored normalcy is a human goal for anyone who feels his or her life has been upset by family breakup, disease, economic crisis, natural disaster—or any disruption large or small. Yet seeking this homeostasis in the midst of our daily routines is not easy. God foresaw this reality and established an oasis in time, a place of communion with him. How could all humans, from all walks of life and from anywhere in the world, gain equal access to such a temple? Only through God’s establishment of a temple in time: the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is a weekly appointment between God and human, a respite from turmoil. It can take place in the confines of incarceration or a hospital bed just as well as in the liberty of health and freedom. In its ideal rendition it is shared with the family of God at home and at church, and through outreach to society. This article will explore several attributes of the Sabbath as it contributes to the restoration of our relationship with God, family, others, our churches, and with our world.
RESTORING HOLINESS THROUGH SABBATH
Evil is pervasive and seemingly ever-present. How can humans avoid evil and find holiness when we are so fragile and full of sin? There are those who seek justice by keeping the law and showing their good deeds as a sign of holiness—salvation by works. The heart of the law, however, makes this evident: We pursue holiness when we take 24 hours every week for personal rest as an act of worship to God. Even from the time of the Old Testament, the key to holiness was not salvation by works but, instead, was made clear in a commandment to rest in God.
The fourth commandment demands that we include all family members in this rest, but it does not stop there. We are also required to seek out our neighbors, to embrace the employees under our care in this rest and, in addition, to be ecologically minded and include the natural world in this rest with God! The words of Exodus 20:8–11, in effect, expand the rest promoted by this commandment into ever more encompassing concentric circles: from self (in the text, the male head of household), to family (male and female), to employees (slaves in the Old Testament context), to neighbors (the “alien” within our spheres), to the animals in our care.
Sabbath-keeping is about restoring justice in the home, within our families, within our communities, and within the church. A superb presentation of what is expected of Christians today was developed by John in the fourth chapter of his first epistle: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Many evangelicals have tied holiness with morality because in demanding particular behaviors, the Bible seems to tie them together. How then shall we best help one another to remember the Sabbath as a holy time for worship?
Perfect justice, if there is any on earth, comes through time distribution. Since we all get the same number of hours in a day and the same number of days in a week, we are all accountable to the same demand to devote our time toward Sabbath and cultivating holiness. In a cycle of seven days, we are called to one 24-hour period for Sabbath rest and worship. Of course, I am not talking about those who are trapped in any kind of indentured service, who do not control their time. But as evangelical churchgoers living in freedom, most of us control our time and what we do with it. It may feel like we do not control our time when we are obligated to complete assignments for school or tasks at work. But fundamentally, we are in control of our time. Sabbath keeping is about resistance, confronting the economics of work and accomplishments with the outlook of peace and rest.1
What shall we do with our time within the inner circles where we exercise most control in order to resist evil and promote justice at home, family, and church? We must make it a priority in our lives to keep the Sabbath, and in so doing, to seek holiness through rest and restoration.
SABBATH AS TESTIMONY
As the church seeks to follow Jesus Christ as Lord, it finds itself in an oppositional place vis-à-vis the world and the government of its land and country. It was so declared by Jesus:
If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18–19)
On the other hand, as he prayed for the church, Jesus said, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Evangelicals are thus in opposition to the world but should not seek to leave the world. Instead, they must seek to avoid the sins of the world while engaging with the world through the sharing of their testimony. One of the testimonies to be shared is the way one spends his or her time, by radically setting aside a holy time for God, to be in communion with him.
God calls all his followers to set aside this weekly temple in time to come and rest in him—rest that is the very opposite of working for one’s salvation. Sabbath is a weekly 24-hour reminder of the righteousness by faith that comes from a God who is both creator and liberator. These two roles of God are enshrined in the fourth commandment as recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy, while the New Testament book of Hebrews marries the Sabbath to righteousness by faith. To more fully understand the Christian Sabbath as expressed in the New Testament we must read the epistle to the Hebrews, specifically chapters three and four.
Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline
But there is something in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: A true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God.
SABBATH AS A SIGNPOST OF FAITH
In the book of Hebrews, Sabbath becomes the anti-works commandment: salvation is by rest in faith! In this book the Israelites’ Sabbath is presented as a signpost of faith, with rest afforded to those who are saved by the grace of God. The author of the epistle indicates that the Israelites who left Egypt died in the desert and did not enter into God’s rest in the promised land because they lacked faith: “And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:18–19). The argument that Sabbath rest can only come to those who have faith and can only be experienced in grace is brought to its climax in chapter four:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. 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 4:1–11)
These passages from Hebrews define Sabbath rest as only achievable by those who have faith in the gospel message of Jesus as Savior of the world. Faith allows you to enter his rest; Sabbath is about rest, not about obedience to the law as a way of salvation.
We are invited to enter Sabbath rest, so do not harden your hearts, says the author of Hebrews. There is a Sabbath rest for us all: Will I enter that rest, or continue to work away at my salvation? Contrary to those who seemingly sought to achieve their salvation by seeking good works, God invites us every week to show that we are saved by faith and to embrace the righteousness Jesus offers us by keeping Sabbath rest in our community of faith.
The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul By Restoring Sabbath
Sabbath is both a day and an attitude to nurture such stillness. It is both a time on a calendar and a disposition of the heart. It is a day we enter, but just as much a way we see. Sabbath imparts the rest of God—actual physical, mental, spiritual rest, but also the rest of God—the things of God’s nature and presence we miss in our busyness.
RESTORING SABBATH THROUGH RELATIONSHIP, NOT CONFRONTATION
As Eusebius documented, Romanus, a deacon martyr in AD 302, was a zealous Christian seeking to dismantle the Roman Empire through his own power.2 This type of power fixes its eyes on what we can do, on what worldly propositional logic can accomplish with a righteous view of the Christian God. Romanus sought to force God into action through his own might, attempting to stop the daily pagan sacrifices of the Roman Emperor Diocletian by erupting into a verbal diatribe condemning Diocletian during a popular Roman festival at the public plaza. Romanus was arrested and a year later he was executed.
Today we evangelicals have a similar choice—one made clear by theologian Robert E. Webber: “Thus creation has the power to choose to be in union with God, to work in harmony and in concert with God, or to break away from God and to move in a direction that asserts independence.”3 Webber further indicates that there are epistemological differences between the old traditional and the new contemporary evangelical leaders and missionaries. The propositional logic of past evangelical missionaries and church leaders often focused on confrontational approaches that separated the church from the world—like Romanus going to the public square and decrying the Roman emperor’s pagan sacrifices as rituals offensive to the true God.
Many accomplishments came about historically through the work of evangelical missionaries following propositional truth, and for these undertakings we salute and celebrate them; we indeed stand today on the shoulders of giants. But the age of propositional logic they inhabited is gone. Says Webber, “Because the younger evangelical is turning away from theology as ruled by reason and scientific method toward theology as a reflection of the community on the narrative of Israel and Jesus,” new questions are emerging as central.4
The three questions proposed by Webber are all seemingly central to the Sabbath rest commandment: “(1) How are we to interpret the Genesis account? (2) How are we to view the stewardship of creation? (3) How is truth known?”5 A “new normal” has emerged for evangelicals—a normal that accounts for the limitations of historical models of doing church based on more of a rational approach. Youth now demand a logic of “doing”: how does it work, what does it do for me, how does it feel? This is radically different from the propositional truth of the old paradigm of Christendom, but it is nevertheless full of new possibilities.
The Sabbath commandment helps us respond to Webber’s first question about our interpretation of Genesis. Instead of addressing evolution-creation paradigms, Sabbath rest addresses the more fundamental question of “so what?” As creator, God provides for a relational rest that builds a community of faith interested in the ecological issues of the day. We’re not to fall into an “us versus them,” evolutionist-versus-creationist argument, but instead, as believers, to follow a God who calls on the powers of modernity to stop in its tracks once a week and acknowledge him as redeemer of our mess.
I dream of a community of faith that takes it further, impacting not only a renewed day of rest, but also impacting a way of living the other six days; the oikos of God being transformed one household at a time, one church institution at a time. It is a change that makes the kingdom of God on earth a kingdom based on love, not greed. This is the invitation of stopping in your tracks for 24 hours—moving toward a whole life of living out love as a community. Why 24 hours? Because the liturgy of God in Scripture invites us to be radical, and as difficult as this may be, the failure of our human efforts are overturned with the blood of Christ. “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs” (Heb 4:11). This is the rest that comes from accepting our failures by submitting to the love of the gospel, a gospel that wants to change society. I call it the gospel message of a Sabbath rest, a Sabbath of the blood of our Savior—a paradigm to live and see the world as God does. We find ourselves in an ecological and personal mess that only a relational God can address to satisfaction—a mess that’s never addressed satisfactorily by declarations of dogma among ourselves.
The question proposed by Webber about creation’s stewardship can also be addressed by the only one of the ten commandments that involves the environment. The ecological niche we inhabit is to rest with us once a week; animals within our oikos (household) are to rest. The Sabbath thus forces a weekly accounting of our relationship with nature, even one as simple as how we view our pets. This kind of posture is not about the propositional truth of a set of commandments, but about a relational God who placed us in a web in which we are intertwined with nature, others, and God himself.
The last of Webber’s questions deals with a new definition of truth—one that points to Truth with a capital “T,” as in the person of Jesus: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). Truth in a relational epistemology is about a triune God relating within the human web of relations, a personal God who defines Truth as a person. It is a Truth that came to be human and meets with us daily, particularly during our Sabbath rest. Are we keeping the appointment with him and with the natural world he created?
We humans live in a web of relations that cannot be disowned. The worldwide web of irreducible, inscrutable relational approach- es for accomplishing the missio Dei has replaced the propositional approaches of the past in the Christian West. The South comes to evangelize the North; the West comes to convert to Christianity the East; and, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, we all are now “irreducibly, inscrutably interrelated.”6
Remember the invitation in Hebrews: “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). The justice we are seeking in this world will come via our rest—a sabbatical rest of faith and grace, of Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath.
Legalistic Sabbath-keeping places the emphasis on practices; God-fearing Sabbath-keeping places the emphasis on our relationship with Jesus—a relationship based on embrace: acknowledging his embrace and embracing one another, even those who offend us.
When we make space in our week to celebrate a narrative of creation, ecology, redemption, and faith in an irreducible, inscrutable relational community, then, as Brueggemann expresses it, the Sabbath commandment “provide[s] for rest alongside the neighbor. God, self, and all members of the household share in common rest on the seventh day; that social reality provides a commonality and a coherence not only to the community of covenant but to the commandments of Sinai as well.”7 We follow this commandment in fulfillment of God’s mission: to restore in all humans whom he loves an attitude of embracing rest for self and the other for life!
1. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Westminster John Knox, 2014).
2. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, History of the Martyrs in Palestine, trans. William Cureton (Fort Worth, TX: RDMc Publishing, 2015).
3. Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 85.
4. Ibid., 87.
6. Walter Brueggemann, “Irreducibly, Inscrutably Relational,” from Fuller Seminary Payton Lectures, May 1, 2015, unpublished manuscript, p. 14.
7. Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 1.