The Sabbath means different things to different people. To the legalist, the Sabbath is primarily a commandment that must be observed in order for him to be saved. He views the interruption that the Sabbath brings to his life like a bitter medicine that must be swallowed in order to get well. Consequently, to the legalist the Sabbath is not a day of gladness and exultation because of the divine accomplishments memorialized by this day, but rather a day of gloom and frustration because of the things that cannot be done. He counts the hours of the Sabbath like the astronaut counts the seconds preceding the firing of his spacecraft: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. Sunset! -- Take off to some exciting activity to burn up the energy repressed during the Sabbath.
To the materialist the Sabbath (or Sunday for that matter) is a day of "solemn" rest, not to the Lord but to himself. It is a day to seek personal pleasure rather than divine presence. The story is told of a pastor calling upon a materialistic member who had missed church services for several weeks. The pastor asked him, "What keeps you away, friend?" To this the member replied: "I'd rather be in bed on Sabbath morning thinking about church than in church thinking about bed. At least my mind is in the right place."
For the materialist, the right place to be on Sabbath is not in God's sanctuary, but in the sanctuary of a bed, a boat, a car, a recreational park in order to relax. The sad reality, however, is that such leisure per se fails to regenerate the total being. At best, it provides a temporary evasion, but leaves an internal spiritual emptiness which is at the very root of much exhaustion and tension.
To the antinomian, Sabbath-keeping is a sign of bondage to the law. He interprets the freedom of the Gospel as freedom to keep the Sabbath on any weekday (pan-Sabbathism). But the theory that each weekday is a Sabbath in practice results in each Sabbath being a weekday. Ultimately no real worship is offered to God because nothing really matters.
To the Christian who loves the Saviour, His Sabbath is a day of joyful celebration. It is a day to celebrate the goodness of God's marvelous accomplishments both in the world and in one's personal life. It is a human desire to wish to celebrate and share with others the good news of unusual achievements. Players and fans celebrate the winning of a game. A father celebrates the birth of his newborn. Students celebrate their graduation. A couple celebrates with their friends their engagement or wedding. A Christian celebrates on the Sabbath the good news of what God has done, of what He is doing and of what He will do for His people.
In Hebrews 4:2-6 twice the Sabbath rest is presented as the "Good News" or the Gospel (same verb -- evangelizo) of God's rest for His people. Yet for some persons the Sabbath is not good news but bad news. It is not a day of celebration but of frustration. Why? Why is the Sabbath viewed and experienced differently by different persons? Principally it is because of different understanding and acceptance of the message of the Sabbath. Obviously a person cannot joyfully celebrate the Sabbath if he or she does not know what there is to celebrate.
I landed in the United States on July 4, the day when Americans celebrate the signing of their Declaration of Independence. I needed to clear my car through customs but everything was closed. I spent that day in a motel not enjoying the spirit of celebration but rather in a mood of frustration. Why? Primarily because I did not fully understand and accept the significance of the event. Frankly, I was more interested in the signing of my customs declaration than in the American Declaration of Independence. In the same way, to a person who does not understand and accept the good news of the Sabbath, the day will not bring rest, peace and jubilation. Rather, it will bring restlessness, tension and frustration. It is needful therefore to grasp and accept the good news of the Sabbath in order to celebrate joyfully and meaningfully the divine accomplishments memorialized by this day. For the sake of clarity and brevity mention will be made of three basic glad tidings of the Sabbath. The reader is referred to my newly published book, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness, for a more comprehensive study of the good news of the Sabbath.
The Lord CreatedThis World Perfectly
The first good news the Sabbath proclaims is that God has originally created this world and its creatures in a perfect and complete manner. This message is declared in a most emphatic way in the creation story, Genesis 1:2-2:3, by means of three effective literary devices: (1) the use of the number seven, (2) the use of forceful verbs and (3) the imagery of God at rest.
The number seven is used both to structure the creation story in seven parts, that is, according to the seven days of creation, and to relate many of the details of the story. For example, in Hebrew there are seven words in Genesis 1:1 and fourteen -- twice seven -- in verse two. The name of God (Elohim) occurs 35 times, that is five times seven; earth (Ceres) 21 times, that is, three times seven; light occurs seven times in the account of the fourth day, Genesis 1:14-18; the expression, "it was good," also occurs seven times (the last time is "very good" -- Genesis 1:31).
Why are the structures as well as many of the details of the creation story based upon the number seven? The reason is simple: Both for the Israelites and for many ancient people, the number seven signified totality, completion and perfection. Thus its repeated use heightens the role of the seventh day as the memorial of God's complete and perfect creation.
The same meaning and function of the Sabbath is emphasized by the verbs used to describe what God said and did to establish the Sabbath, Genesis 2:2,3. The story states that "once" God created all His works, "once" He finished all His works on the seventh day, and three times it is stated that all His work was done. Through these emphatic verbs the seventh day proclaims the good news that God's original creation was finished and completely done. To dramatize the importance of this good news, the Scripture tells us that God did something also. Twice it says in Genesis 2:2,3 that God rested. Why? Was God tired? Obviously not! God "does not faint or grow weary," Isaiah 40:28.
In fact, the Hebrew verb (shabbat) does not mean that God took a rest to recover from exhaustion but rather that "He stopped or ceased creating." Why? To testify by this dramatic action -- by desisting from creating -- that God regarded His creation "very good" and perfectly satisfying. There was no need of additional touches to improve His workmanship, because all came up to His expectations. This is then the first glad tidings the Sabbath proclaims. It is a message of reassurance from God telling us that this world and all its creatures came into existence, not in a deformed state by chance but in a perfect way by the personal act of God.
Is this message of the Sabbath good news? Thousands of Americans, captivated by the book and film, Roots, by Alex Haley, are searching for their ancestral roots in counties and libraries' archives across the country. Such a search could well reflect the need to overcome the inner sense of disillusionment and meaninglessness through the reassurance that one's ancestral roots are good. The Sabbath provides us such an assurance each week! It reminds us that our ancestral roots are indeed good and noble because they are rooted in God from creation to eternity.
How are we to celebrate on the Sabbath this first good news of God, our perfect Creator? Let us consider two suggestions. This celebration involves first of all a renewing, each Sabbath, of our faith in God as our perfect Creator. Faith in God as Creator is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. It constitutes the first article of the "Creed" that most Christians accept: "I believe in God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth," as well as the opening declaration of the Bible, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
Why is such a belief so fundamental to the Christian faith? Basically because it is only to the extent that we are able to accept God as our perfect Creator that we rightfully can worship Him. To worship basically means to acknowledge and praise the worthiness of God. Would God really be worthy to be praised if He had created us and this world by means of an impersonal process of spontaneous generation left to the survival of the fittest? Do we praise a company that produced a defective product without offering assistance and warranty? In the same way it would be impossible to find reasons to praise God if His original workmanship had not been perfect. The Sabbath invites us weekly to renew this faith in our perfect Creator. By surrendering for one day our right to gainful employment we acknowledge God's claim over our lives and thus renew our faith in Him as our perfect Creator.
A renewed faith in our perfect Creator makes it possible to celebrate the Sabbath in a second way -- by taking delight, Isaiah 58:13,14, in the beauty and perfection of God to be found in the worship experience, in our lives, in the lives of others and in the world around us. It is difficult for the members of one church to understand the joys, the intimacies and paradoxes experienced by those of another. To a true Sabbath-keeper, on the Sabbath, as expressed by Maltbie D. Babcock, "All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres." The divine service seems richer; the people seem friendlier; the food tastes more delicious; the ladies, gentlemen and children seem more beautiful, internally and externally. Why? Basically it is because the Sabbath offers not only the time but also the spiritual resources to enjoy God, people and things perceptibly.
By renewing faith in a perfect Creator and Redeemer, the Sabbath enables the believer to view things not merely as they are, but as they will be again ultimately. It is like putting on for 24 hours a pair of those spectacles that make flat pictures look three-dimensional. The Sabbath offers the opportunity to look at the world through the window of eternity. The first glad tidings, then, that the Sabbath proclaims, is that God is our perfect Creator. We celebrate this good news by renewing our faith in Him and by taking delight in the beauty and perfection of God's creation.
The Lord Cares for His Creatures
A second significant message of glad tidings the Sabbath proclaims is that God constantly cares for His creatures. A basic human concern is, "Does God really care for me?" "How can I know that God is really interested in me?" The Sabbath is designed to help us overcome the sense of God's absence from the world and from our life, and to experience the reassurance of God's care. How? First, by reassuring us that God is available for us. The Scripture tells us that the last creative act of God was the creation of His rest for mankind, Genesis 2:2,3. We noted that with regard to humanity, however, God's rest symbolized His commitment to be available to His creatures. By taking time out on the first Sabbath to bless the first couple with His holy presence, God gave through this day a reassurance to His creatures of His availability to them. One of the finest compliments anyone can receive is, "He/she took time for me." The Sabbath represents God's commitment to have time for us and to sanctify us by His holy presence, Exodus 31:13.
It is this divine commitment that makes prayer possible.
Second, the Sabbath expresses God's concern for us through the ordained pattern of six days of work and the seventh for rest, Exodus 20:8-11. Both work and rest correspond to two genuine human needs. A workless person feels worthless. We need work to experience self worth, to develop our creative abilities, to reflect the image of our active Creator. But if work is not balanced by rest, it degrades human personality, it destroys the equilibrium between body and spirit, it turns a person into a brute, into a slave of greater personal gain.
Because God cares for our physical and spiritual well being, through the Sabbath He has given us both work and rest. How did God establish this human pattern of work and rest? Was it through a divine command? No, it was through a divine example. Why did our omnipotent God who could have spoken this world into existence in a moment, choose to create it according to the seven-day week established for His creatures? The answer is to be found in God's concern to give a divine perspective, quality and dimension to all our work and rest.
One of our greatest satisfactions is to be the imitators of great masters. The Sabbath reminds us that when we work and rest we are imitating the greatest Master Craftsman of the universe. We are doing in a small scale what God has done and is doing on a greater scale. By giving us as a model His own divine example, God enables us to identify with Him. We then are able to view our work and rest as a reflection of His. Through this divine perspective, the Sabbath enables the believer to perform even menial tasks, not grudgingly but joyfully.
A third way in which the Sabbath expresses God's care is through the blessing and sanctification promised to God's people through this day. The Scriptures say: "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it", Genesis 2:3. God's blessing is not just a good wish -- like our human blessing -- but a concrete assurance of a happy and abundant life. For example, God blessed the first couple, saying: "Be fruitful and multiply," Genesis 1:28; cf. Numbers 6:24. God's blessings assured them of fullness of life.
Similarly, by blessing the Sabbath God made this day a permanent symbol of His commitment to give abundant life to His creatures. To substantiate such a promise, the Scriptures tell us that God did something dramatic. He "hallowed" or "sanctified" the seventh day by entering into this world with His glorious presence, the very source of life. For six days God filled this world with delightful creations. On the Sabbath He filled it with His glorious and life-giving presence.
As a result of disobedience, our first parents found themselves separated from the presence of God, their life source. But when Eden was lost, the Sabbath remained as the good news of God's assurance to restore to His creatures full and abundant life. From the symbol of God's initial entrance into human time, the Sabbath became a symbol of God's future entrance into human flesh to become "Emmanuel -- God with us." In the fifth chapter of Divine Rest for Human Restlessness we have shown that both in the Old Testament and in later Jewish literature the experience of rest and liberation provided by the weekly and annual Sabbaths, served to nourish the hope in the future rest and redemption to be brought by the Messiah. This helps us understand and appreciate why Christ's saving ministry in the Gospels frequently is associated with the redemption promised through the Sabbath.
It was on a Sabbath day that Christ inaugurated His public ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth by quoting a sabbatical release and liberty to the oppressed. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted; to preach deliverance to the captives, . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord," Luke 4:18, 19.
Most commentators rightly recognize that "acceptable year of the Lord" refers to the sabbatical (7th year) or jubilee year (49th year). At those times the Sabbath became in a real sense the liberator of the Hebrew society by granting freedom and release to slaves, debtors and land, Deuteronomy 15; Leviticus 25.
Christ astonished the congregation of Nazareth, Luke 4:22, when He affirmed briefly but emphatically: "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears," Luke 4:21. This means that Christ presented Himself to the people as the very fulfillment of their Messianic expectations which had been nourished by the vision of the Sabbath years.
In His subsequent Sabbath ministry Christ confirmed His inaugural proclamation, liberating on this day those whom Satan had bound physically and spiritually, Luke 13:16; 4:35; 6:6-11; John 5:2-18; 9:1-38. A careful study of Christ's Sabbath ministry reveals how the Saviour made the Sabbath a memorial of His redemption -- the day on which believers can experience through physical rest the greater spiritual rest of forgiveness, peace and communion.
How shall we celebrate this amazing good news of the Sabbath? The example of Christ suggests at least two appropriate responses to this manifestation of God's love; that is, (1) service to God and (2) service to needy fellow-beings. In the first place, the Sabbath is the day on which we celebrate the good news of creation and redemption by serving God. This service is rendered through the participation in the communal worship, as exemplified by Christ, Luke 4:16, 31; 6:6; Matthew 12:9-14.
In a wider sense we serve the Lord on the Sabbath by living like Mary did on this day, as if Christ is our honored Guest. To enter into the sacred hours of the Sabbath means, in a special sense, to invite Christ's presence in our lives. It means to acknowledge His presence in all our activities: while worshiping, fellowshipping, and talking, walking, reading or sharing in wholesome, restful activities. In a world where material and secular values tend to overshadow spiritual realities, the Sabbath offers the opportunity to rediscover the sense of the sacred by inviting us weekly to meet God in time.
The Sabbath is also the day when we celebrate the love and the presence of Christ, not merely by seeking personal delights but especially by providing a living, loving service to needy fellow humans. Christ's example teaches us that the Sabbath is the day "to do good," Matthew 12:12, "to save," Mark 3:4, "to loose" physical and spiritual bonds, Luke 13:13, a day to show mercy rather than religiosity, Matthew 12:7-8. The service that we render to others on the Sabbath will enable us to celebrate the good news of salvation in our own lives.
The Lord Will Restore This World to Its Original Perfection
A third significant message of glad tidings the Sabbath proclaims is that God "is working until now," John 5:17, to restore this world to its original perfection. Christ declared this good news emphatically when healing on a Sabbath day a paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. He explained to those who charged Him of Sabbath-breaking, that God on the Sabbath ended His act of creation but not His action in general. In fact, Christ said, because of sin, God "is working until now," John 5:17, on the Sabbath to restore this world to its original perfection. Later, in another significant Sabbath pronouncement, Christ invites His followers to become participants in this divine restoration program, saying: "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work," John 9:4. On the Sabbath God not only reassures us that He is working for the restoration of this world, but He also invites us to participate in accomplishing His restoration in our lives and in the lives of others.
In an age when the forces of chaos and disorder appear to prevail, when injustice, greed, violence, corruption, suffering and death seem to dominate, God through the Sabbath reassures us that we need not fear these destructive forces, because, as written in Hebrews 4:9, "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God." God's people need not fear the threat of nuclear or population explosion because the Sabbath reassures us that God is still in control of this world, working out His ultimate purpose.
The Sabbath tells us that God has conquered death at the cross and that now He is working to establish a new world where "from Sabbath to Sabbath all flesh shall come to worship before God," Isaiah 66:23.
In that final Sabbath, as eloquently expressed by Augustine, "we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise." Today we have been offered the opportunity to celebrate the good news of that eternal Sabbath by experiencing a foretaste of its peace, happiness and rest on each Sabbath.
Is the Sabbath then good news or bad news? Is it a day of celebration or frustration? We have found in the Scriptures that the Sabbath expresses not just good news but God's best news to the human family. The glad tidings is that the Lord has created us perfectly, that He has redeemed us completely, that He loves us immensely and that He will restore us ultimately. Today is offered, to each of us, the opportunity to celebrate and to share joyfully the good news of the Sabbath -- the good news of life, peace and rest the Son of man offers us now and, in a greater measure, in the world to come.
-- written by Samuele Bacchiocchi
Originally published as Study No. 9.
Why the Sabbath is Important, Part 1
When Does Your Sabbath Begin?
Keeping the Sabbath in a Non-Sabbath World
The Sabbath and Ecology
How to Keep the Sabbath Holy
The Sabbath and Service
The Truth About Sabbath and Sunday
Jubilee and the Sabbath Year
The Sabbath: A Divisive Issue?
A History of the Saturday Resurrection Doctrine Among Sabbath-Keepers
Chronology of the Crucifixion and Resurrection According to Ancient Texts
A Look at The Pope’s Pastoral Letter, "Dies Domini"
Review: The Sabbath Under Crossfire
Main Holy Day Menu
Written by: Richard C. Nickels
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