The ancient Hebrews bring us an utterly unique idea called “Shabbat.” Shabbat is so unique that we could never come up with a better English word to describe it, to capture its fullness, so since the beginning it still goes by the name Sabbath. And its beginning is the very beginning, in Genesis 2 when God rested on the seventh day and made it holy. Christians usually treat Sunday as their Sabbath time, the “day of rest” when the church doors are open, the liquor stores (and Chick-fil-A) are closed, and grandma always said you shouldn’t be out in the yard doing any labor. Sundays, when some of us eat a big lunch and have afternoon naps, or watch golf, or have 12 hours of the NFL. Rest. We get it.
But is it Sabbath? I think it’s a starting point, but there’s more.
The “rest” on the seventh day wasn’t about God needing some shut-eye; it was an intentional break with what otherwise would’ve been a non-stop week. Whatever was going to come next, however busy Creation was going to be (and it was), it was time to stop and be still, in the present.
Later, Scripture gets at deep rest even more when God institutes not just a Sabbath day but a Sabbath year (Leviticus 25:1-7), so that one year in every seven the land would go unworked and unplowed – the people would still live off of its produce, but only what was growing wild. The land needed time for its resources to replenish so that the other six years would be more productive (sound familiar?).
Then God takes it all one step deeper with not just a Sabbath year, but a Sabbath of all Sabbaths, the super-Sabbath. He called it the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-13), when in the 50th year, after seven full seven-year cycles, the whole Hebrew nation would reset. All land would revert to its original clan ownership, all debts would be forgiven, and all excess would be returned. Imagine if Visa or your mortgage carrier pulled a Jubilee.
There’s rest and stillness, but also reset and rejuvenation, not just for people but for the whole earth. Sabbath.
And the Jubilee year brings up a second quality of Shabbat worth naming – remembrance. Why should the people rest one day in seven? Why forgive each other’s debts, and set prisoners free, and live this radical kind of reset? Because, if you remember, they had once been prisoners and slaves in Egypt who were set free (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). When God reinstituted the Sabbath day for the Hebrews, they had just escaped from Pharaoh but realized that life was going to be tough because they were leaving civilization behind.
So God had mercy and started sending them Manna (bread type stuff) every morning for the first six days of the week. They couldn’t keep any until the next day, couldn’t put some away for an emergency. And they had to collect a double portion on the sixth day so that on the seventh day, the Sabbath, everybody equally rested (Exodus 16). And it was to be an everlasting observance. Why?
Because God was molding a people who had been beaten down by several centuries of slavery, a people of great and ancient promise, into the nation that he was going to use to serve and redeem the whole world. He was teaching them to trust and obey, daily. He was teaching them who He was – the God who gives and provides. He was teaching them who they were – a new and different kind of people, who could rest from their labor and never forget what they’d been delivered from.
Sabbath was, and is, about remembering the true identity of God and ourselves.
Those first two truths, resting and remembering, are huge and excellent. But as humans we have a knack for selling them short, or even totally corrupting them. Rest can turn into just “R&R” time, where the weekend belongs to me for whatever good pleasure or purpose I see fit, because I earned it by slugging it out all week. Remembering our identity in God can sometimes become self-righteousness or superficiality, where I check Sunday morning pew-sitting off the list and call it good for the week.
Last, Jesus showed us that, above all, the Sabbath day is, very simply, the Lord’s day. And he is the Lord of it. When he was alive, before they killed him, Jesus constantly took the Sabbath as an occasion to tangle with the church leaders who were getting it so wrong. He saw it as the day for doing battle with evil, oppression, sin, death, illness, and more. Over and over he serves other people on the Sabbath, as if it was something to celebrate, even though the religious folk thought he was law-breaking. Just read the famous episode of the “bent woman” for a taste.
Jesus upheld Sabbath. He was in church, preaching and teaching and fulfilling the Law and God’s word. But he was doing it with his whole self, by being about his redeeming work. Sabbath is for rest and reset, and for remembering our identity in relationship to God, but above all it is about the redeeming work of Christ Jesus. That means forgiveness and healing, expressions of true love, putting ourselves behind another’s needs, giving sacrificially, going into deep and dark places, lifting up the “least of these.”
Challenge: Shabbat Glass
I’d argue that all three factors are present anytime real Sabbath happens. And I’d argue that if you don’t go looking for them, hard, then real Sabbath will never happen. Because, like some of our guys have shared, our circumstances make it easy to grab one piece of Sabbath or another, here and there.
Sometimes life is slow, so we rest. Sometimes a sermon or book or song or friend remind us who we are in God. Sometimes we participate in redeeming life in Christ. But, all three? At the same time? Very often? Negative. Not unless we make it so, commit to it, observe it, and keep it holy. Not as a life suggestion, but as a mandate from the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Not just because he commands it, but because he loves us and knows exactly what we need to LIVE.
So for whoever accepts it, with nobody watching but you and God, here’s a challenge for taking moments of Sabbath every single day. And hopefully on Sunday, too, for sure, but also beyond that, all week. Call it a challenge to drink deeply of life, fully. If you will, we’re going to each create a Shabbat Glass together. Here’s what you do:
The Shabbat Glass is about a little something to try to be intentional. You won’t get a gold star for it, or a trip to the front of the line at the Pearly Gates. But give it a shot…er, a Shabbat. See what it means for you, and for those around you, and for the Kingdom of God.