As the Spring of 2020 unfolds, much of the United States is trying to figure out how to deal with COVID-19 as stores have reduced hours and restaurants are closed. There is a desire to quarantine and have people self-quarantine in order to prevent the future spread of the virus. This has brought out no shortage of political fodder as some see the quarantine as not enough and others as a direct violation of their liberty. While the political scene fires shots across the bow, those of the religious community scramble to make adjustments, knowing that their regularly scheduled services and activities are either on the verge of being canceled, or have indeed been canceled. And, sadly, there is no shortage of shots across the bow in this arena either. Some, who have chosen to remain open, have taken this occasion to accuse those who have closed as having little faith (which is utter nonsense). Perhaps I’ll write about this very issue in a future post, however, for today, I want to think about how everyone is scrambling to find how to maintain a sense of normalcy for fear of people developing new routines that may or may not interfere with their church or religious routines that they now are not able to partake in. While I recognize that there is value in keeping your community together during a time of heavily encourage social distancing, I think we should also take some time to stop and see what this is actually allowing us to benefit from. When is the last time you rested?
This post isn’t designed to wade into the waters of debating if the Sabbath is on Saturday or Sunday (a largely irrelevant debate anyway), but to simply recognize what we see from the scriptures as the purpose of the Sabbath and then compare to what we have established in our lives as “routine”. Do we allow Sabbath Rest in our lives as believers?–this is the question we must ask ourselves.
We find in Genesis that God had created the world by bringing light to darkness and stability to chaos. Darkness was over the face of the deep and it was tohu va bohu – Hebrew for wild and waste. God said to let light shine forth to dispel the darkness to its proper place and He brought stability to the chaotic waters by bringing dry land out of them – likewise putting chaos in its place. God continued to bring forth life and order to replace the emptiness and darkness that existed. God said that everything was good and the 7th day, He rested from all He had made. There is temple imagery at play here in Genesis 1. It wasn’t uncommon in the Ancient Near East for a deity or a king to ascend to the throne of his kingdom/rule after a 6 day procession. It was the 7th day when the deity/king would be enthroned. The Hebrew authors of Genesis describe the God of the Universe having His own procession – 6 days of life genesis and then resting on the 7th day, enjoying the good world He had made. This 7th day becomes very important. God will later desire Israel to keep a 7th day of rest unto themselves. 6 days they should work, but the 7th will not be a day of work.
Exodus 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 20:9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 20:10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 20:11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
The sabbath day was to be kept holy. Holy isn’t a synonym for “sinless” (as we often think of it today), but simply means “distinct” or “set apart”. It is akin to another biblical word, sanctification. Were the previous 6 days full of sin and the 7th was to be sinless? I think you see the point in how our typical modern definition for holy as sinless breaks down. The point was that 6 days were for working and toiling, but the 7th was a day that was distinct – it was separate in purpose and nature from the other 6 days – it was to be holy. The 7th day was a day where Israel would not work as it mimics the creation account from Genesis. Just as God worked for 6 days then rested to enjoy the fruits of His labor, so too was Israel to model this in their own lives. The sabbath day was absolutely a routine. Every week, there was a sabbath day. Every Friday evening at sundown, the sabbath would begin. This even calls back to Genesis – Jewish days begin at sundown because this mimics the creation – darkness existed first and then God brought light to it. Every day for a Jew is a reminder of God’s handiwork and His rule over His creation. The sabbath would be no different. The family would sit down together at a meal and enjoy the meal in each other’s company. Giving of thanks, playing games, singing–it was a time to reset from the week’s burdens. It was a time to enjoy God and each other. This would carry forward into Saturday until sundown. Saturday wasn’t a day of work, but to be a day of rest. It should be noted as well that this doesn’t mean it is a day of sitting around in utter silence and inactivity. Did God stop running the universe on the 7th day of creation? No–He simply stopped creating and enjoyed what He had. (By the way, this is a topic for another post as well – we have God that knows when enough is enough. Do we trust Him in that?) The sabbath doesn’t demand inactivity – it encourages refocused activity as a day that is distinct from the other 6.
Later on in Israel’s history, the prophet Amos confronts Israel that they are so consumed with getting back to work because it was how they were exploiting the poor that their attitude was that of “can’t wait until the sabbath is over.” To them, the sabbath stood in the way of their greedy gain and injurious treatment of their fellow man.
Amos 8:4 Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, 8:5 Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? 8:6 That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat?
Israel was in a dark place where they had forgotten their God and forgotten the purpose that sabbath. The sabbath, as we’ve noted, was a day to refocus on the blessings of the grace of God, which included your fellow man. Israel had literally created a system where it was one law for the poor and another for the rich and exploitation was the order of the day. The very sabbath that should have caused them to stop and give thanks for all of their countrymen and women was nothing more than a pesky inconvenience to their wicked gain.
So, what does this mean for us today? Again, I’m not interested in trying to establish what the “Christian Sabbath” day is, but to demonstrate that God instituted this day of rest for a real purpose–humanity needs it. In the world we live in where technology keeps things very instant and we have our days filled with agendas and even those spill into the weekends. Those who work 8 to 10 hours a day Monday through Friday find themselves doing “house work” on Saturdays and Sundays. Work literally never stops. Those who attend a church or religious service on the weekends may find that as their only time of reflection. Yet, even in those scenarios, it isn’t uncommon to find folks not resting while at church. Depending on what is required of you from a ministry perspective, you may feel like your Sunday is every much as cluttered and clouded with obligations that your Monday is at your secular job. Instead of a time of sharing, church can often become the over-burdensome preparation of a few in order to shower it on the masses. However, in these days of COVID-19, perhaps we have the opportunity to stop (shabbat) and reflect on our rest? Perhaps God is allowing this to happen to give believers the opportunity to rest and to remind us of our need for it? Do we need a 100-year pandemic to remind us of God’s goodness and grace? Do we need time of self-quarantine to have the distractions of agendas and calendar commitments put into proper perspective? The sabbath was designed to keep humanity from ultimately running on fumes. It was a way to fill up the tank through enjoying the fruits of God’s creation was we rest from our creations through labor.
While maintaining our sense of community is very vital for the believer, even when we are to be social distancing ourselves, let’s not be in a mode of scrambling to keep ourselves busy. Let’s not convince ourselves that rest is bad or that God isn’t interested in rest for our lives. Too often, we are trying to “work for God” – when is the last time you rested for God? Do you think God is honored by a continuous stream of labor that never stops to rejoice in Him with friends and family? In John chapter 1, we find that Jesus Christ, a new Genesis/Creation, shined into the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not. In Him was Light; and He is the Light of men! Our community in Christ is ever important and our service to one another can’t be hampered by some wimpy pandemic. God is certainly at work in all of this, but likewise, He is at rest wanting us to experience sabbath in our lives. Jesus Christ became our sabbath rest and promised that those who come to Him would find His burden light and His yoke easy and therein, we would find rest for our souls. COVID-19 or not, how’s your rest doing? Does your rest look distinct from the days dedicated to labor? Is it holy? Selah.
John 1:3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 1:4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 1:5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Matthew 11:28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Curious about how Jews approach sabbath? I found this link a very good overview (2.5 min) –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjmjZWHXKFY