The Modern Sabbath: Separating fact from fiction
One of today’s marks of a good Christian is one’s attendance of Church on Sunday morning.
Stay with me on that one. Why is attendance on Sunday even a benchmark of faith? Well, because of the fourth Commandment: Honour the Sabbath and keep it holy (Deuteronomy 5:12).
That means we have to go to Church on Sundays to sing songs, listen to someone talk for a while and throw some loose change into the bag before real life resumes around lunchtime. Penance paid, duties completed. Hey, maybe God will bless me with a bonus or good grades if I keep this up.
If you’re nodding your head – I hope it’s because you like sarcasm.
But seriously speaking, to properly understand the biblical concept of the Sabbath, it’ll be helpful to first consider some of the church’s misconceptions and disagreements over it for the past two millennia.
SABBATH ≠ “WORSHIP DAY”
In Mosaic Law, the Sabbath, or shabbat, was introduced to the Israelites as a holy day on which no work was to be performed following six days of work (Deuteronomy 5, Exodus 16, 31, 35, Nehemiah 13, Jeremiah 17).
In our terms, it actually falls on a Saturday, and till this day it begins on Friday night and ends after nightfall on Saturday. Their “first day” of the week is what we know as Sunday.
There are certain instructions given for a “holy convocation” or gathering to occur on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23), with special rites being performed (Numbers 28). The Sabbath was kept as a sign of God’s sanctification of the Israelites as they journeyed in a foreign land (Exodus 31:13).
However, in this post-captive Israelite community, worship was continually performed by the tribe of Levi, who continually made sacrifices on behalf of the wider community of Israelites. This worship wasn’t just on the Sabbath.
So while the Sabbath could well be an aspect of Jewish worship, they were not entirely the same thing.
For Gentile believers, we do not live by the same covenant. In the New Testament, Christians were recorded meeting in synagogues, not to worship, but to evangelise to the Jews who were gathered there, just as Paul did in Acts 18:4.
Early Christians met often – some every day – to study the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). Unlike the Jews who met on the Sabbath, the Bible tells us these Christians met on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2, Acts 20:7), and were not bound to worship on the Sabbath day.
But even though the early Christians didn’t officially keep the Sabbath, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should follow suit.
Discernment is key.
SO WHAT’S UP WITH SUNDAY SERVICE?
The Sunday worship tradition practiced by most churches today honours Christ’s resurrection, which took place on the day after the Sabbath (Matthew 28:1) – remember, the Sabbath falls on our Saturday – and was sealed in tradition by the authority of the Church over centuries.
There’s also a theory that examines the politics of the Roman Empire – some 300 years after Christ. In those days, Egyptian Mithraists set aside Sundays for their worship of the sun-god.
Sunday. Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?
As Christianity grew and became secularised by politics, Church leaders wanted to attract some of these pagans into their ranks, and incorporated some pagan customs into Christian church ceremonies.
To differentiate themselves from Jews and win pagans over, they decided to appropriate the pagan festival of Sunday and turn it into an official Christian and civil holiday.
As Christians, we honour Christ’s resurrection by baptism – not Sunday-keeping.
Over time, the Catholic church assimilated this practice into their official doctrine, and subsequent generations of believers simply took their word for it.
“The Lord’s Day” soon replaced the concept of Sabbath entirely, reducing it to a kind of personal discipline similar to tithing or fasting.
So traditions have nothing to do with the biblical concept of the Sabbath. Neither Christ’s death and resurrection, nor the Catholic Church’s convenient strategy should’ve made a difference to God’s original blessing (Mark 2:27).
As Christians, we honour Christ’s resurrection by baptism – not Sunday-keeping (Romans 6:3-6).
So, since I’m not Jewish, should I even bother about the Sabbath? Hold that thought – but prepare it for the gallows.
THE SABBATH IS NOT JUST A JEWISH THING
The concept of Sabbath actually predates Judaism entirely. Meaning “rest” in Hebrew, Sabbath follows a period of work, as seen from the account of Genesis.
Clues of its origins can be found in various languages worldwide, most of which are unrelated to Hebrew.
In over 100 diverse languages throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa, many unrelated to ancient Hebrew, “Sabbath” refers to Saturday, which was a designated day of rest. For example, in Ancient Babylon – which existed centuries before Abraham and the Hebrew race – the seventh day of the week was called “sa-ba-tu”.
Jesus – the Lord of the Sabbath himself – kept the Sabbath throughout his life. If His likeness is your life’s pursuit, the Sabbath is for you.
Despite the evolution of language over time, the original word for “rest” is still fairly recognisable in modern variants of these tongues.
And if you’re tempted to believe you can read the New Testament without the Old, here’s food for thought: Jesus – the Lord of the Sabbath himself (Luke 6:5) – kept the Sabbath throughout his life.
Jesus understood the importance of the Sabbath when He customarily read Scripture in the synagogue (Luke 4:16). He even honoured the Sabbath in the grave.
If Jesus is your Lord, and His likeness is your life’s pursuit – the Sabbath is for you.
THE SABBATH IS NOT SIMPLY “ANY DAY”
In the creation story, God rested after six days of work.
Now wait a minute. Why does God even need to rest? Does that imply a certain lack of strength or ability on God’s part? Of course not – that would go against His omnipotent nature.
After seeing that His work was good (Genesis 1:31), God set aside a full day (literal or allegorical) for the purpose of rest, blessing it and calling it holy. On Day Seven, God simply basked in the enjoyment of His creation.
And He still invites us to be a part of that practice.
The Sabbath is a gift from God for our enjoyment and welfare – not a yardstick of our personal holiness.
This seventh-day Sabbath is what the Jews were called to obey in Scripture as part of their Mosaic covenant. The Bible says it carries the special blessing of God.
Remember the hundred over ancient languages we talked about earlier? Among all the languages which used the word “Sabbath”, none of them designated a rest day apart from the seventh.
Perhaps seventh day rest extends far beyond the timeframe and locality of Jewish culture, given the plethora of cultures which point to the seventh day for rest.
THE SABBATH IS NOT AN OUTDATED RULE
In Mark 2:27, after being rebuked by Pharisees for letting his disciples “break” the Sabbath law, Jesus speaks of how their great king David was no different.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
The Pharisees had missed the point. The Sabbath is a gift from God for our enjoyment and welfare – not a yardstick of our personal holiness.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”
It precisely because of this law that Jesus’ disciples were able to be fed physically. If our practice of the Sabbath prevents us from exercising kindness and compassion, then we also have missed the point.
The Sabbath is intended for our ultimate redemption in the new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 66:22-23). It is part of God’s blueprint for a joyful, fulfilling and meaningful existence.
When you find yourself running on empty, losing the joy of living, or simply going through the motions of a bleak and meaningless existence – slow down.
Take a deep breath. You could use an injection of some Sabbath essence in your life.
THE SABBATH IS NOT “DOING NOTHING”
Practising the true Sabbath imbues in us a profound sense of responsibility towards ourselves, our fellow humans and the entire world we live in.
It’s more than a day each week – it’s every day. It’s more than a Jewish thing – it’s for everybody. It’s not an outdated way of living – it’s past, present, and future reconciled God’s way.
And it’s actually more than making God happy. It’s about trust, gratitude, and true rest expressed through the unforced rhythms of grace.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)