Based on a sermon from Singapore
The Sabbath commandment is one of the foundational tenets of our church. Today, our churches all over the world have a spectrum of activities from Friday evening to Saturday evening in observance of the Sabbath. But what is the Sabbath really about?
Over time, we may have forgotten the meaning of Sabbath rest, so it is good to realign our thinking regarding the Sabbath day.
Sabbath and Blessing
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…. Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
God Himself instituted Sabbath when He rested on the seventh day, blessed it and sanctified it. This three-fold act reveals the very significance of the Sabbath day.
The word “rest” here does not mean recovering after exerting yourself, as if after a marathon. God does not need to rest—He has never stopped working. Isaiah tells us that He neither faints nor is weary (Isa 40:28). Jesus Himself said that His Father has always been working (Jn 5:17). Thus God never stopped working even on the first Sabbath.
What does it mean then that God rested? Genesis 2:2 says that He ended His work, which He had done. In short, God rested when He stopped the work that He had been doing during the previous six days.
After resting, God blessed the Sabbath day. Since that time, the Sabbath has been a day blessed by God. What does it mean when God blesses time? His primary objective was not to bless time itself, but to bless human beings through time. For this reason He chose to make the Sabbath for men.
But how do we receive this blessing? This relates to the final part of God’s three-fold act: He sanctified the Sabbath day. To “sanctify” means to set apart for a holy purpose just like the holy vessels in the temple were set apart for God’s use. For six days in a week, we can do whatever we wish but the Sabbath should be set aside for God.
When we rest from our work and set aside this day for God, we will be blessed.
Sabbath and Salvation
Sometimes the question arises: Sabbath has to do with blessing, but what does it have to do with salvation? Why is it included in our five basic doctrines? Baptism washes away our sins. Footwashing ensures we have a part with Jesus. Holy Communion gives us life. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee of our heavenly inheritance. Yet what is the role of the Sabbath in our salvation?
In order to understand, we must realize that blessings are not just good wishes. The Sabbath blessing is directly related to abundant life.
If you turn away your foot from
From doing your pleasure on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the Lord honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,
Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words,
Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;
And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,
And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.
The mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Sometimes we have many work-related and personal commitments on the Sabbath day. We think that this is acceptable as long as we keep the spirit of the Sabbath, but in reality it is just an excuse to do whatever we wish.
The prophet Isaiah, however, tells us about the true spirit of the Sabbath—if we truly keep the Sabbath, we do not do what we wish, but rather what God wants us to do. If we take God at His word, we will not only receive an abundant life; we will be fed with the heritage of Jacob. Hebrews 11:8–16 tells us that the inheritance of the patriarchs was actually the heavenly kingdom. The blessing of the Sabbath does pertain to eternal life. If we honor the Sabbath, the blessing of eternal life will follow.
How shall we keep the Sabbath?
Our Sabbath observance is influenced by our perspective of the Sabbath for New Testament believers. Our understanding is often self-centered because the focus is on us—Sabbath is for me to rest. In fact, the focal point of the Sabbath should be God, not us.
We may quote Jesus and say that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27), hence we can do what we like. The Sabbath was made for man, not to do what he likes, but for him to be blessed through following God’s example of rest.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
This commandment tells us that we should do all our work for six days in a week, but the seventh day is for God (v9–10). Quite often we may feel that we never seem to have enough time to do all our work. No matter how much effort we make, there always seems to be more things to do on the weekends.
In fact, we just have to do all we can in six days, and stop on the seventh to come before God to worship Him, as if all work had been completed. We must cease from the thought of work itself. Amos 8:5 criticizes the failure of the Israelites who kept the Sabbath with their bodies but not with their mind. They eagerly awaited the end of the Sabbath, so that they could restart their work to cheat more people—a double sin indeed. To set apart the day for the Lord, we must cease from doing and thinking about work, for God demands our body and our mind.
Very often, Sabbath seems to come earlier than we expect. Sometimes we feel disappointed for not being able to finish what we started. Yet God wants us to stop for three reasons.
Firstly, it is a forceful reminder of our limitations. Secondly, ceasing from all our work and entering His Sabbath rest gives our week a sense of completion. If we never stop to work, life would seem very meaningless and exhausting because we would be chasing deadlines after deadlines. By stopping every week, there is a sense of completion. Thirdly, stopping work as if everything were done shows our trust in God’s grace and providence—that His grace will be sufficient for us.
Therefore when the sun sets on Friday, we should try our best not to think about work anymore.
But what is work?
This begs the question: what is the definition of work? Is it the physics’ definition of work? Is work how the Jews classify it to be? Or is work referring to just what we do to sustain our livelihood? If we take a look at the divine example set by God, He was not doing what He needed to sustain His livelihood. However, creation was what He was doing in relation to the world.
Hence, we could say that whatever we do in relation to the world constitutes work. If we are working adults, we work six days, and rest one day. If we are students, we study six days, and rest one day. The Sabbath is set apart for God, not for our personal use (Deut 5:13–15). Consequently, we should not be anxious about anything if we stop our secular “work” on the Sabbath, for God will take care of everything.
Why once a week?
Human beings are by their very nature forgetful. Thus the Sabbath serves as a weekly reminder of our relationship with God. Any relationship, in order to be sustained, has to be consistently nurtured. Otherwise, it will gradually die.
The Sabbath is our weekly encounter with God. It is set apart – one entire day – for us to establish our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It is also our weekly realignment of our allegiance, whether it is to the world or to God. Matthew 6:24 says that no one can serve two masters. You can only love one and hate the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.
We are only part-time employees in this world, but we are full-time Christians. However, as we live in this world and mix with people of the world, we spend most of our time thinking about how we should discharge our secular duties. As a result, there are times we forget that we are not of the world.
Therefore, staying focused is very important for us Christians. Matthew 6:22–23 states that the lamp of the body is the eye. Depending on whether our eye is good or bad, the light in our body will be bright or dark. If our eye is focused on God, our entire life will be illuminated. If we lose our focus on God, we will inevitably look on the things of the world and gradually sink into darkness, drifting further away from eternal life.
The weekly Sabbath is an important regulator of our lives, timed perfectly for us to be realigned with God.
High up on the hills
Among the blessings of the Sabbath stands God’s promise to “cause us to ride upon the high hills of the earth” (Isa 58:14) if we keep the Sabbath holy. If we set apart our Sabbath for the Lord, we shall soar. If we are just at the foot of the hill, we cannot see very far. However, the higher we go, the further we can see. Before Moses rested from his earthly labors, God asked him to go up to Mount Nebo where he viewed the entire plains of Canaan. This is symbolic for us—if we truly keep the Sabbath, God will raise our spirituality, which peaks as we enter everlasting rest, with our eyes fixed on our heavenly home.
There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.
For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.
Each and every week the Sabbath reminds us of our eternal rest. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest by keeping the Sabbath according to God’s will. Let us set that day apart for God to nurture our relationship with Him and to refocus on the significance of the Sabbath rest.