The Command to Rest
Traditional Christian interpretations notwithstanding, nowhere does Jesus suggest riding roughshod over the Sabbath.
As many begin to question the necessity of ongoing lockdown by claiming that the health issues we are facing are greatly exaggerated, it’s worth being reminded of one of its greatest benefits – giving us the chance to switch off.
For my wife and I, it’s been a time of rest, routine, healthy exercise and the chance to de-stress our busy lives. We know it has benefited family life elsewhere, while at the same time appreciating the hardships it has placed on the lonely as well as those trapped in harmful relationships or facing redundancy.
Having for so long virtually ignored God’s fourth commandment (keeping the Sabbath) in favour of an open-all-hours culture, we are all now being forced to rest. Perhaps this is to remind us that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. And he commands us to follow this pattern, to keep the Sabbath ‘holy’ (i.e. special, and dedicated to him). If God needed to rest, his creation surely does.
Jesus spoke much about the commandments given to Moses (including the Sabbath), and is perceived by many to have cast a negative light on them. But he made it clear that he had come, not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. (Matt 5:17)
In the case of the Sabbath, the religious leaders saw it as an opportunity to police strict adherence to man-made rules they had added, which is why Jesus exposed their hypocrisy by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27f)
In other words, it was meant for our blessing, though Jesus nonetheless has ultimate authority in the matter, declaring himself “Lord of the Sabbath” – thus enhancing, far from belittling it. It is a day “to do good” and “to save life” (Luke 6:9). It should not become an idol, or excuse for not doing good. So if your car is stuck on the roadside, or your child is very sick, by all means call for help. But nowhere does Jesus suggest riding roughshod over the Sabbath.
For a man who was suffering, it was right to heal him (Mark 3:4). But the religious leaders were so infuriated by Jesus’ action that they plotted to kill him (Mark 3:6). They cared more about religious rules and regulations than about people. They liked to think their lack of action demonstrated their holiness, but it only showed up hearts that were far from God.
So whether you are hungry or require healing, the Sabbath should not prevent your need being met. Jesus shocked his critics by saying that even the consecrated bread in the house of God was, so to speak, not sacrosanct. It’s the Sabbath that is holy, not the food used for worship. (Matt 12:1-8)
Not only that, he is also our ‘Sabbath-rest’ (Hebrews 4:1-11), bringing peace, healing, salvation and restoration to our restless souls.
Is lockdown God’s way of asking us to examine our standing with the Lord in this regard? I believe our round-the-clock culture is an affront to God. We rush around with non-stop activity, hardly giving the deeper life a second thought as stress levels go through the roof. A desperately sad statistic I dug out recently shows that, on average, 109 people a week killed themselves last year – higher than the Covid death figure for the last week in August. But it has to be admitted that, for all the benefits, lockdown has exacerbated mental health problems.
Sunday opening forces people to work when they should be at home with their families. And it makes no sense anyway, considering the extra staff and upkeep required, alongside a limit to the public’s spending power.
Meanwhile Israel continues to shine a bright light of sanity in this domain, borne out by its adherence to the Sabbath (so, one area where they have certainly not turned from the Lord’s commands). Everything stops there on the Sabbath, including buses and trains and Jewish shops. It’s a blissful experience to walk up a deserted main street in Jerusalem on a Friday night when Shabbat begins.
And yet this six-day-a-week nation is now among the most productive of all in various fields including hi-tech, the military and agriculture, proving that God blesses those who keep his commandments, and in this case know how to rest from their labours, giving renewed energy and thought for the week ahead.
I realise that Sunday was never meant to be a Sabbath; there are no New Testament verses explicitly stating this to be the case. It’s more to do with cutting off our Hebraic roots than anything else. But I go to church on a Sunday (though not during lockdown) because I live in a Western society where that has come to be the norm, and it’s simply more practical.
I love the poster found in a church in France, which translates: “When you enter this church it may be possible that you hear ‘the call of God’. However, it is unlikely that he will call you on your mobile. Thank you for turning off your phones. If you want to talk to God – enter, choose a quiet place and talk to him. If you want to see him, send him a text while driving.”
Isn’t it time we quietened ourselves until we hear the still, small voice of God above all the noise and clatter of our restless world?
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International; and King of the Jews, also available from Christian Publications International.