Bible: High-stakes Sabbath

September 17 — Exodus 31:12-18; September 24 — Ezekiel 36:22-32

Sep 11, 2017 by

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At my ordination interview, I didn’t give the best answer when the committee asked me about my practices of self-care. “One day each week I take a sabbath rest,” I said brightly. And then for good measure I added, “I don’t pray or read the Bible or anything on that day.”

Brad Roth


At the time, I thought it made sense: If my work was to traffic in the things of God, then surely my rest would mean taking a break from those things — maybe even from God. No doubt that room full of elders was less than impressed with my answer, though in the end, they had enough patience (Lord, have mercy) to ordain me in spite of it.

I’ve grown a little since that interview, learning along the way that Sabbath is not so much about taking a break from life as about being reoriented to God, the source of life.

When God gave his people the covenants and the law, Sabbath was part of the package. Sabbath is a generous gift, a sign between God and his people that patterns life as God intends it (Ex. 31:17). Sabbath is rooted in God’s fundamental acts of creation and salvation, modeled on the way that God rested on the seventh day and simply was, as well as on God’s liberating act of rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:11; Deut. 5:15).

God’s people were not to work on the Sabbath, but rather to worship and be refreshed. The beloved medieval rabbi Rashi writes: “The idea is that one calms his soul and takes breath when one reposes” after ceasing one’s labor.

There’s more than a passing connection between taking a breath and being refreshed on the Sabbath. The Hebrew word used in Ex. 31:17 for “refresh” contains within it the word nephesh, which literally means “that which breathes” and is usually translated as “soul,” “life” or “living being.” Sabbath refreshment is about taking a breath and tuning in to what is real and life-giving.

This is why the Sabbath prescribes not merely rest, but “solemn rest” — and why Sabbath is guarded with such deadly seriousness (Ex. 31:14-15). The stakes are high: the very shape of life itself. The risk in failing to observe the Sabbath is enslavement to the world’s production-line values. Sabbath points toward God’s renewed vision of creation and nudgingly reorients those who keep it toward God’s will and ways.

Jesus and the early church reaffirmed Sabbath observance, though without the elaborate set of rules governing it that later rabbis would develop. The church followed a different track, seeing Sabbath as a sign of God’s creative and redemptive acts brought to completion in Jesus’ resurrection.

This conviction explains why early on the church transferred the sundown-Friday-to-sundown-Saturday Sabbath to the first day of the week, the “day of the Lord” (see Acts 20:7 and Rev. 1:10). Sabbath became a sign of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection.

That new creation was foreshadowed by the prophet Ezekiel. God said he would sprinkle his people clean and transplant their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). This inward spiritual renewal would lead to the outward qualities of abundant life (Ezek. 36:27-30).

In our day, the problem may be less hearts of stone than hearts of aluminum and silica, hearts etched with the jittery circuitry of modern life. Those beguiling screens keep us too busy to observe anything resembling a Sabbath.

Or so we say.

Our problem, it seems to me, is not so much that we have so many things to do. Keeping busy is neutral, and can even be positive. The real problem is that the frenetic sort of life that we label “busy” is in fact a life disoriented from what matters most — not least God. What we need is Sabbath.

Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Mound­ridge, Kan. He blogs on encountering God in the everyday at His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, will be released Sept. 19 by Herald Press.

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  • Ryan Richard

    You stated the truth except the seventh day Sabbath which God had blessed and made holy, is still the seventh day, Sabbath. There is not Biblical proof that the sanctity of Sabbath was transferred to the first day, Sunday. Don’t read into the text what is not there, let’s stay in context. Thank you

    • Bradley Roth

      Thanks for your comment. I would point to Acts 20:7, where Luke doesn’t bother to explain why they gather on the first day of the week for worship (word and table) in Troas. Gathering on Sunday was already established practice in the time of the apostles, a practice we see continued in the post-apostolic church, for instance by Justin Martyr in Rome, in his first Apology ch.67. But more importantly, the NT affirms the character of life shaped by Jesus, which includes a Sabbath rest and Sabbath worship (Hebrews 4:9; 10:25). It was the unfolding understanding of the Jesus-shaped life that led the early church to understand the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, as the fulfillment of the OT Sabbath. You’re right that there’s not a chapter-and-verse rule about the Sabbath in the NT. Instead—especially in a book like Acts—we see the apostles and others living out their understanding of the Jesus way. The NT doesn’t lay out a new Torah detailing everything Christians need to do (and not do) to be faithful. Instead, we’re given examples of what faithfully living out the Jesus way looks like—including the example of worshiping on the day of resurrection.

      • Ryan Richard

        I am not referring to a questionable principle to be sought out by extra-biblical sources. I am referring to the unchangeable law of the Ten commandments. Jesus kept His Father’s commandments even the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. The apostles broke bread and met daily and Christ never commanded his apostles to honor him by keeping Sunday, that is just tradition. The Seventh day Sabbath remains binding, just like the other 9 commandments… God’s word cannot be broken.

  • Julia David Alleman

    “Jesus and the early church reaffirmed Sabbath observance. . .” I wonder where you find this. The healings and meeting of human needs on the Sabbath critiqued his contemporaries practices, I think. “The Sabbath was made for man. . . ” constitutes reaffirmation? –David

    • Bradley Roth

      Yes, I would take Jesus’ words in Mark 2:27-28 as his definitive statement affirming the Sabbath. Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath,” which means that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Jesus. It points toward him and honors him. And “the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath,” which means that the Sabbath is meant to foster human thriving before God. We also see Jesus’ respect for the Sabbath in the ways that he joins others for worship and Scripture study (eg—Mark 1:21).

  • Bruce Leichty

    I’m missing here the recognition that the Sabbath was humanity’s first labor law. The Sabbath was designed for protection of the laborer, to ensure that no one was working every day, just like Jubilee was designed to ensure that no one was perpetually indebted. Some of us changed it into something unrecognizable (my father — and that included his Roth relatives! — wasn’t allowed to play basketball or softball, for instance). There was certainly virtue for our own souls in keeping the day a Day Set Apart for Rest, but like you suggest, we should look to the spirit rather than the letter and certainly not to the accretions of tradition. Across America, our fellow citizens and some of us have dishonored the spirit of Sabbath in multiple ways by the poor treatment of the least among us who keep the stores open for the consumer’s whim every day and sometimes every hour of the day.

    Incidentally, I’m glad you’ve written a book on hope for the rural church. S. Roy Kaufman sounded the alarm about its demise at the MCUSA Conference in Orlando this past summer, but there seemed to be few takers. In truth, it’s probably liberal Mennonites who are most floundering at keeping our agricultural heritage alive. Or — not incidentally — who have by their brash confidence borne of a surprisingly narrow “higher education” driven those among us most connected to the land into the embraces of other groups. Some of our forebears saw it coming.

    • Bradley Roth

      Thanks for reading and highlighting the justice aspects of Sabbath! Our family practice is to avoid shopping on Sunday, precisely for the reasons you mention.

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