Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Writing just a little distance away from Mt Sinai, where God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, enables me to appreciate the context of the Sabbath commandment. God had just liberated them from the slavery of work, under Pharaoh Ramses II, in Egypt. He commands them to refuse the slavery of constant work in their own land. God makes the Sabbath rest foundational to the identity of Israel as His people.
Beyond being a Judeo-Christian religious observance, the Sabbath rest reflects sound wisdom for the ordering of human life. It is believed to increase both productivity and morale. American theologian Walter Brueggemann observes that both sleep and Sabbath are acts of humility. They force us to admit the limits of our indispensability, and to see the world in terms of gift and blessing instead of utility. Sabbath rest is a way of enacting the belief that it is God who is in control, and it is God who provides.
Sabbath is not, therefore, simply an act of withdrawal, but an instrument for social justice; to work for a richer and fairer life together. It is outward-focused, whether on family and friends, meeting with fellow believers.
Sabbath is a pause that refreshes and transforms. It is linked to the rhythm of in Leviticus 25:9 as the sabbatical year after seven cycles of seven years (49 years). The fiftieth year, also known as the Year of Jubilee, was to be a time of celebration and rejoicing for the Israelites.
Yet, for whatever reason, many of us find ourselves back in Egypt. Work has become our master. We need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The Gospels proclaim Jesus as the king, appointed by God, to put right everything that has gone wrong following the rebellion of humanity. Jesus’ leadership extends to every aspect of life, including work. In Luke 6:1-5, Jesus and His disciples are hungry. They pluck heads of grain in a field, rub them in their hands, and eat the kernels. Some Pharisees complain that this constitutes working on the Sabbath.
According to Jesus, keeping the Sabbath is grounded in understanding God’s heart. By meeting human needs on the Sabbath, the commandment is fulfilled, not abolished.
Market economies connote exchange and accumulation of privately-owned wealth, as an end in itself. Many of us are driven by worry to labour in jobs we do not like, keeping hours that detract from our enjoyment of life, neglecting the needs of others around us. Jesus wants people to recognise that their lives are defined not by what they have, but by God’s love for them and His call upon their lives. Our work will be transformed by our encounter with Jesus.
The Sabbath echoes the rest that God took after creation. To be called to rest after our work is one of the clearest marks that we are made in the image and likeness of God. It invites us to always be in communion with God in order to develop the world, under His reign. Ultimately, the Sabbath is meant to reflect eternity, which Hebrews 4:1-11 describes as “God’s rest.” It points to that idea most famously expressed by Augustine, who prayed, “O, Lord, thou hast made us, and our spirits are restless until we rest in thee.”
Christians observe the Sabbath in reference to the Resurrection of Jesus, the redemption of creation. On a daily basis, we should take advantage of other moments of quiet. Taking time off for a spiritual silent retreat can be an excellent way to rest in God, and a great antidote to stress.