by Bruce Billington
The Sabbath In Context
What is Work?
Ecclesiastes 4:4-8 – v6 states the importance on rest. It is contrasted with such nonstop activities in labour which robs a man of himself by pursuing gain or achievement which is never satisfied. It constantly sets goals for bigger and better achievements, so it never ceases to strive.
It is supporting balance – a fool doing nothing is destroying his life and strength with idleness, but, on the other hand, a work balance with rest is better than the endless labour and effort that is urged on by rivalry yielding no rest.
Background and Heart
The first principle of the Sabbath is seen in Genesis 2 when God rested after His creation work. The Sabbath wasn’t instituted until God made His covenant with Moses recorded in Exodus 16:23–30.
The Hebrew root for the word means, “to desist,” “to cease,” or “to rest.” The reasons given for Sabbath observance in the Law of Moses included a memorial of creation, a memorial of the Exodus, a sign of Israel’s sanctification or setting apart as a nation, and a sign of the Mosaic Covenant.
Failure to keep a sabbath rest suggests that we honour our work more than the Lord’s. It also suggests that we don’t trust Him for our provision.
It is our work for worldly gain that has to be suspended; and hence the restrictive clause is prefaced with the command. “Six days shall you labour and do all your work;” for so only could the sabbatical rest be fairly earned.
It was for God’s people, their servants and all the animals and the whole emphasis of it was that it would be a time of joy, refreshment and mercy, arising from remembrance of God’s goodness as Creator and as the Deliverer from bondage.
Why Then Such a Severe Penalty?
God reminded Moses that obedience is also a religious duty. The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant that made Israel a theocracy. It was a test of the nation’s commitment to God; failure to keep it a holy day would result in death (i.e., separation from the community which would probably result in death).
This command, as stated in Exodus 20:8, was based on God’s resting after His work of Creation in six days (Exodus 31:17).
WHAT DOES THE SABBATH MEAN FOR US TODAY?
Exodus 31:17 tells us that God ceased from labour and was refreshed. This means He detaches Himself from His work and puts aside His role of being Creator. What is He doing? He is taking joy in what He has created.
God is not just active, He is also passive; He is not only creative but also at rest; He not only speaks but also listens; He not only gives, but also receives. So – in the beginning He created and at the end He rests.
During the sabbath, time is abolished. We can take pleasure in what is around us, our family and friends, our possessions and all other things, just to enjoy them all for what they are.
This makes all these things more loveable and joyful because we cease to weigh them up on the basis of who and what they are rather than their use or practical value.
We cannot purchase the peace of this day. We don’t make the Sabbath happen – we have to properly position ourselves, then it comes to us. It comes to teach us the joy in God’s creation and the wisdom that is found in stillness and quietness. It is about God resting Himself and the tranquility that comes to us from Him in this way.
Jesus made it clear that the Sabbath was made for man, not God (Mark 2:27) and we ignore it at our peril.
The Deeper Meaning
One of the ways we can be constantly in a place of rest today, is knowing that all we do is commissioned by God. If we know that God has called us into all that we are doing, we see ourselves as cooperating with Him not doing it in our own strength.
This means the burden of the work is His not ours. This is so important and what is referred to in Zechariah 4:6 which says, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the LORD of hosts. There is great rest to be found in this.
The Key Issue
For us to ignore the Sabbath and keep on working suggests we do not trust God to be able to govern and preside over the work He has given us. We are actually saying that we are more important than Him and if we rely on His work schedule, we cannot get our allotted tasks done.
It gives no testimony or witness of the age to come in our lives. Non-believers see us working in the same way they are and are not able to gain any witness to the power of God in the working world.
This is one of the very things that caused God to impose such severe penalties about them working on the Sabbath – it gave no indication that life with Him was any better than those under other so-called gods or regimes.
Sabbath Day Activities
We are able to do anything on a Sabbath day that brings rest to us. In Old Testament times it was about a memorial of creation, a memorial of the Exodus, a sign of Israel’s sanctification or setting apart as a nation, and a sign of the Mosaic Covenant. Taking this into life today it suggests 3 things.
- Appreciating the world around us. All its beauty and its testimony to the glory of God.
- Considering what a privileged people we are – that we are a royal priesthood and a holy nation.
- Thinking about where we have been and where we are going.
Here we find a strong element of worship; thanksgiving; meditation and evaluation. Each of us should set some time aside every week of our lives to do this. I want to suggest it can’t be done unless we draw aside, relax and allow the Holy Spirit to minister to us.
The chief enemy of these people is that they have been caught up in the world and they are not putting God’s ways first.
God’s promise is that they will ultimately find that all their efforts are coming to nothing. What a terrible waste of energy.
Note that this discipline is reserved specifically for God’s people – the believers. It is not a judgement that is brought upon the world. They don’t know anything about God’s temple (the Kingdom of God) so they can’t be expected to respond to this.
Conforming to the World
If we are claiming that this cannot be done in the 21st Century or in our particular lifestyle, so we will improvise, what we are doing is trying to make Jesus conform to the world we live in.
This is contrary to God’s Word which says,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).