Last week, in “Rest and the Biblical Case for Taking a Day Off”, we took a look at the practical value of rest and the ways in which a regular pattern of rest can influence us both physically and mentally. We explored the pattern of rest which God established in Genesis and considered Jesus’ declaration that, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) So what exactly is the Sabbath?
According to Exodus 20:9-10, the Sabbath was to be a special day set apart from all others – a day in which those who followed the God of Israel were to do no work. Starting with this understanding, we can begin to construct an idea of what it means to rest… or at least what it doesn’t mean.
So what qualifies as work? According to rabbinic tradition, to work was to engage in creative action. It was labor with the intention of bringing about something new, in similitude with God’s act in creating the heavens and the earth. While it’s obvious that men can’t create something out of nothing as God did, we’ve certainly proven ourselves capable of transforming one thing into another – and it’s this type of labor which is forbidden on the Sabbath. If the rabbis are correct (and many Christians argue that they are), those who wish to observe the Sabbath must cease from any task which results in the production of something else.
But even this definition leaves us with some gray areas. For example, most of us would agree that building a house, baking bread, writing a poem, and painting a picture are creative (or at least transformative) activities. But what about an activity like walking which results in the “creation” of muscle mass or eating which results in increased energy? Are these creative acts and, if so, who is responsible for the creation? Is it God who originated the process by which the thing is created or the men who provide the material with which to create?
In an attempt to answer this question, the rabbis established a number of rules concerning everything from how to prepare Sabbath meals (an activity performed a day in advance) to how many steps one could take between sunset and sunrise. It wasn’t long before these rules dominated everyone seeking to observe the Sabbath, turning the day of rest into a burden rather than release. The rules which had been created to aide in the enjoyment of the day had resulted in the same type of legalism which Jesus condemned in Matthew 23:1-4.
The Apostle Paul (unlike the rabbis) was quick to note that it wasn’t the actual activities which occurred on the Sabbath which made it a day of rest, but rather the attitude with which those activities were performed. Addressing the Church in Rome (a congregation made up of both Jews and Gentiles), he asked, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord…” (Romans 14:4-6)
So where does this leave us as we seek to observe a day of rest? Quite honestly, with a great deal of freedom.
Next week, we’ll take a closer look of the practical issues surrounding the Sabbath as well as some ways in which regular observance of this day of rest can better prepare us to share the Gospel with others. Meanwhile, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment box below!