Christian Sabbath – Kingdom Time In the Now

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Written by Cindy Shomo North, Olathe, Kansas, USA

Do you take sabbath time or receive it? Do you look forward to a special sabbath experience every week, or does the idea of sabbath conjure up dark joyless legalistic days? Maybe you have been moved by someone else’s sabbath renewal experience – but believed it was unattainable for you?

Current Christian literature is ripe with descriptions of sabbath keeping, sabbathing, sabbath renewal, sabbath time, sabbath celebration. In a broader secular context, the term sabbath is even being used to describe a “day off” or “vacation time.”

How do we define sabbath?

Sabbath is…
time altering,
a delight,

but most important of all sabbath is…

a commandment.

This fourth commandment “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12b-15), is probably the commandment most often broken today among the Christian community. Within western Christian cultures, a sabbath time has inadvertently morphed to mean attending a church service on Sunday morning while the rest of the day is utilized for running errands, tidying up loose ends from the previous week, and preparing for the week ahead. Sadly, this is most accurately described as sabbath breaking.

Exodus 16:21-31 discloses the provisional event when God commands the beginning of sabbath practice (prior to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments). The Israelites had complained to Moses about their lack of food and God responded by providing “manna” every morning. The “manna” was to be gathered and eaten before evening. Any “manna” left over was spoiled by the next day. The food for each day, therefore, had to be gathered each day. In establishing sabbath time, God’s instructions included gathering enough “manna” on the sixth day to satisfy the hunger of the seventh day without having to labor. The life lesson for Israel included working adequately for each day (not hoarding) and trusting God to provide enough for sabbath (without laboring). The key question then for Israel – “Would they trust God to provide their sustenance for the seventh day while they rested from all labor?”

God’s gift of sabbath was time itself.[1] Freedom from worry over how to get the next day’s provisions and freedom to rest. The children of Israel had just come out of slavery. They didn’t know life apart from working every day. God wanted them to understand a different reality­—freedom through redemption, rest from labor, and trust in God to provide.

Sabbath is altered time. Time is not a commodity which one can hold, manipulate, or control during sabbath. Dorothy Bass reflects that “we are not so much using time as permitting time to use us”[2] We are called to reorder our perspective during sabbath for this is holy time—set aside to give meaning to all time. According to the Old Testament, “our relationship to this special time determines our relationship to all time.”[3]

Admonitions abound in the sabbath command to observe and remember (observe the creation – Ex. 20:8-11; remember the redemption from Egypt – Deut. 5:12b-15). These sabbath themes of holiness (creation in the image of God) and social justice (freedom from captivity and oppression) intermingle and display the shalom of God.[4]

Sabbath’s significance to Israel became its public sign of covenant with God. (Ex. 31:12-13, 17) This hope-filled weekly practice to trust in God often set Israel at odds with its surrounding cultures. Israel was mocked and sometimes thought to be “lazy” because of its sabbath observance.

The years in exile yielded reflection and discernment for Israel – that their own rebellion against God had prevented them from entering God’s rest. “The seventh day of rest no longer was a sign of the completion of creation, but of a rest yet to be completed.” [5]

Sabbath, in Jewish context, is not just considered another day in the week. Sabbath is the central focus of the week. The three days following sabbath are days to reflect on God’s blessings from the previous sabbath time, and the three days prior to sabbath anticipate the beauty of the coming sabbath. Sabbath offers a “sanctuary in time” where humans wait with God and listen.[6]

Many early Christians celebrated sabbath on the first day of the week because this was resurrection day—when Christ’s redeeming work of Salvation was completed. Jesus Messiah rested from the work of Salvation on this day as His new creation was made fully known. The early Church fathers began referring to Sunday as the eighth day [of creation].[7] Now the themes of creation, redemption, and new-creation (rest) in Christ are complete. Christian sabbath celebration came to reflect the “already” and “not-yet” quality of the kingdom. The holy time of sabbath stands still and takes in all that has come before and all that will come after.

Sabbath is not inactivity. Our rest from labor leads us to celebration, feasting, and delight in relationships and beauty. Sabbath’s experience is play (play is practice for our future). We pretend that the fullness of God’s rest, as we will experience in the final eschaton, has already come to pass. We live sabbath in the peace of the promised future where the lion will lay down with the lamb. We live sabbath in the feasting like we will know at God’s banquet table. We live sabbath in reconciliation between our brothers and sisters. We live sabbath in celebration and delight of creation and of all God’s provisions. We live sabbath in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses as we remember our redemption stories.

For ministers, a true Sunday sabbath time may not be possible. When sabbath is actually observed does not appear to be the issue for Paul as we observe in Colossians 2:16-17:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Of major consequence here is the substance… is our sabbath celebration centered on Christ?

In sabbath time, we are reminded that God is our sanctifier. As holiness people, called of God, sabbath is significant to our transformation (Ex. 31:13). Sabbath calls us weekly to remember whose we are. The core of our experience in sabbath is renouncing faith in ourselves and what we can achieve under our own power.[8] As servant ministers of Christ, this may be our greatest need. So easily we fall into the trap of thinking the work of God is “our ministry.” How can “our sheep” make it without their shepherd’s constant availability?

Reflecting on the master shepherd’s example, even after Jesus receives word that Lazarus is ill – he does not rush to his side. John expresses the oddity in Jesus’ actions… “although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days” (John 11:5-6, NLT). Urgency does not dictate Christ’s response. God controls the timing.

The key question now needs to be revised. Will we, the children of God in Christ and ministering servants, trust God to provide our sustenance for the sabbath while we rest from our labor? Can we leave our ministry in Christ’s hands for 24 hours since it is his anyway and follow this command?

How do we do that? Most of us reside in a 24/7 world. More than any other factor, the industrial revolution has chained us like slaves to the clock. Many of us also live in a western culture which promotes and honors workaholics.

“Boasting about work is a national pastime. The one who works harder, against greater odds, and with fewer resources to gain the greatest ground wins. We are proud that we shoulder such immense responsibility and push our plow with the pride of aristocracy. Sabbath yanks us off our high horse, and for that reason alone few wish to dismount….”[9]

While the needs may be great, the sin of pride may be affecting our inability to keep the fourth commandment. In our inexhaustible desire to control time – we lose the ability to receive time as a gift.

Sabbath time is not just a day off. Our frenzied pace often leads us to utilize “down time” for diversion activities which do not bring true delight and joy. Sabbath must be intentional or it will succumb to the realm of the mundane.[10]

Let’s consider the following for re-ordering towards true sabbath practice…

1. Reflect on the following…

Are you defined by busyness or solitude? Which do you desire?

Does the “pressure” of your surrounding culture push you to work more jobs to provide for the demands?

God has not called you to do everything. What are you most called to do and what can you let go of to simplify?

How can you identify and implement parameters which would signify entering a “sanctuary in time” for sabbath celebration?

2. Choose activities that will enable sabbath keeping for you…

• “What intrigues, amazes, tickles your fancy, delights your senses, and casts you into an entirely new and unlimited world is the raw material of Sabbath.”[11]
Taking sabbath walks/hikes have brought wonder of God’s creation and facilitated deeper discussions about our spiritual journey.
• Spiritual rest comes through creative forms of praise to God through music, art, and meditation on His word.
• Feasting on the beautiful in art, music, and foods allows us to celebrate God’s blessings. Feasting on sabbath also calls us to live more simply the rest of the week. Our wonder of God’s provisions in sabbath come in direct proportion to our fasting.[12]
Feasting on beautiful memories. Remembering well allows us to reconnect with our calling. This may involve sharing the redemption stories of the saints, missionaries, and martyrs of the church. Our family sabbaths have been very enriched by these stories.
• Feasting on relationships (family, friends, community and the body of Christ) means valuing the time just to be present with the other and listen. Prayers of special blessing may be offered up for children or special family members. Offering the gift of hospitality may also nourish fellowship during sabbath.
• Embracing ‘giving’ instead of ‘acquiring’ – releases us from burdens.
• Playing encourages laughter, spontaneity, and delight to the heart. Highly competitive play, however, would steal from sabbath peace.
• The Jewish sabbath begins at twilight and continues until twilight the next day. The start and ending times may vary but rituals, such as lighting sabbath candles, may help delineate the beginning time. The intentionality of sabbath will necessitate planning ahead, purchasing items needed and preparing items in advance such as foods.
• Some ministers may be able to enjoy sabbath on Sundays or include some part of Sunday in their time. If preaching or teaching brings delight (and all preparations have been completed) it may be considered as part of the sabbath for you. Tedious tasks will, however, hinder sabbath rest.

3. Experiment, be flexible, and extend grace to yourself and others when the sabbath experience seems to fail. It will take practice to learn a rhythm and then maintain it.

4. Boundaries will be needed to experience true sabbath time. While the potential for rigidity and legalism in sabbath keeping is great – the need for intentionality still remains.

“Keeping Sabbath is much more than a personal discipline: it is an act of faith and an act of resistance—or better, an act of faithful resistance. We resist the small gods of culture on behalf of the true God of grace.”[13]

5. As ministry leaders we have an opportunity to affect the culture of our local body. How might your church community be encouraged to celebrate sabbath time?

Choosing to honor and implement sabbath observance and celebration may be met with great struggle, but keep in mind, the reward of this command is “rest” in Christ himself. There are no easy formulas, and sabbath isn’t an addition to our already overburdened culture and time demands. Choosing sabbath will mean simplifying and letting go of other things. If we are living out authentic sabbath time, the transformative kingdom of God in Christ will be very visible in our midst and the outgrowth will be a sign of hope in God’s “now but not yet” kingdom.

Psalm 37:4 enjoins us to “[t]ake delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires” (Psalm 37:4, NLT). This verse is a prescription for and fulfilled in true sabbath time. Sabbath, fully lived, will bring us to embrace our complete and utter dependency on God. When we can say from the depths of our being, “Lord, it all belongs to you and comes from you,” we will be taking our delight in the Lord and our heart’s desire, which is found in Christ, will be fulfilled.

Further recommended resources for creative sabbath time:

Dawn, Marva J. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
—. The Sense of the Call: A Sabbath Way of Life for Those Who Serve God, the Church, and the World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
Edwards, Tilden. Sabbath Time. Nashville: Upper Room, 1992.
Mains, Karen Burton. Making Sundays Special. Waco, TX: Word, 1987.
Schaper, Donna. Sabbath Keeping. Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1999.

[1] Bass, Dorothy C. Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. p. 13, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000
[2] Ibid. p 2
[3] Andreasen, Niels-Erik. The Christian Use of Time. p. 28, Nashville; Abingdon, 1978.
[4] Bass, Dorothy C., “Christian Formation in and for Sabbath Rest.” Interpretation 59.1, p 29, (2005):25-37
[5] Edwards, Tilden., Sabbath Time. p 21, Nashville: Upper Room, 1992
[6] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. p. 29, 1951. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
[7] Barnabas, “The Epistle of Barnabas.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. I. Church Fathers. Computer software. Ver. 2.1. CD-ROM. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997
[8] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. English ed. Vol. 3, Pt. 4. Ed., p. 59, T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961.
[9] Allender, Dan B. Sabbath. p. 20, Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 2009
[10] For further study and understanding please see… North, Cynthia Shomo, Sanctuary in time: The effect of Sabbath keeping in the lives of missionaries. Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2010. Wilmore: UMI, 2010. 3424423.
[11] Allender, Dan B. Sabbath. p 48, Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 2009
[12] Marva Dawn’s key themes of ceasing, resting, feasting, and embracing wonderfully enrich Sabbath understanding. Dawn, Marva J. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
[13] Schaper, Donna. Sabbath Keeping. 80, Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1999

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