Why The Sabbath?

Why the Sabbath? I wish I had asked this question earlier, but until now, it has escaped my attention. I recently stumbled into a surprising discovery that the Sabbath is not on the periphery of my life as a Christian; rather, it is at the core.

As a practical matter, for most of my life as a Christian, “the Sabbath” has equaled Sunday worship service. As a UBF chapter director, there was never enough time on Sunday to engage in activities other than those directly related to the worship service, such as message preparation, prayer, worship service program rehearsals, driving students to and from the service, visiting those in need, and so forth. I often tried to squeeze in one or two one-to-one Bible studies before dinner. My Sabbath was as, if not more, hectic than any other day of the week.

The two Bible passages that have long shaped my view on Sabbath are both about Jesus’ response to the legalistic Jews who had accused him of breaking the Sabbath Law by healing the sick on the Sabbath day. Jesus countered their legalism head-on, saying: “[m]y Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too, am working” (Jn 5:17), and “[t]he Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27,28). The legalistic Jews were preoccupied with the dos and don’ts of the Sabbath Law and lost sight of God, the Law Giver, and his original intent that they rest in him. The result back then was disastrous; the Sabbath Law was reduced to a political tool to maintain authority over people who were harassed, and true rest was not had on the Sabbath. Reading these and other relevant Bible passages led me to focus on avoiding legalism as I considered such Sabbath questions as doing homework on Sunday, playing basketball with Bible students after the worship service, or going grocery shopping for Sunday night dinner. After all, I reasoned, Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. I believed that as long as I tried to keep Jesus at the center of my activities on Sunday I was set, and since I never missed a Sunday worship service, I was being faithful to the Sabbath. Or so I thought.

It wasn’t until May of this year, when I attended the Emotionally Healthy Leadership Conference at New Life Church in New York, that my view of Sabbath faced a serious challenge. I realized that while I was trying to avoid legalism and to keep Jesus and his mission as the focus of my Sunday activities, I did not pay a close attention to the more basic question of why the Sabbath exists in the first place. What a pleasant shock it was to learn that the Sabbath was God’s precious gift to me! Revisiting Genesis 1 & 2, Exodus 16 & 20 and Deuteronomy 5 not only confirmed that wonderful truth but also exposed the imbalance between work and rest in my life as a Christian. I was engrossed in what and how much I do for God, but largely neglected being with God. As a pastor and a missionary, this was an embarrassing and painful discovery about myself. Diligent personal Bible studies, prayers, fellowship meetings, and many, many missionary activities should keep me close to God, right? Not necessarily. Visible activities for God can and often do disguise the invisible world within where God is crowded out. Being with God does not come naturally. Left alone in my sinful nature, I choose to stay as far away from God as I possibly can so that I can be my own god. I have mastered a fair amount of skills to shun God while being engaged in “God’s work.” It is the great mercy and infinite wisdom of God that he gave his people the Sabbath so that they might cultivate the appetite for the pleasure of being with him. As Pastor John Piper of the Desiring God Ministry has succinctly put it, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him.”

Sabbath is God’s gift to me so that I may experience the truth that I am loved by God without any accomplishments on my part to gain his favor. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know that I have not been a good receiver of God’s gift of the Sabbath, and I have paid dearly for the neglect. I have found that I am almost bankrupt in my emotional content. Now I know that I have been running on an empty tank for too long. The creative energy for my work as a pastor in the American campus ministry is the outflow of the powerful experience of my being with God. In practice, this takes a serious level of discipline and spiritual formation. I am amazed to realize how much I must work to learn how to rest!

The Sabbath reflects the beautiful rhythm that God has placed in human life. Every seventh day, we are called to stop our toil so that our minds, hearts and bodies can be poured into experiencing the presence of God. When God first instituted the Sabbath during the wilderness wandering of the Israelites, he provided them two days’ portion of manna on the sixth day so they wouldn’t have to gather it on the seventh day. The Israelites continued this reliance for forty years. My wife, Grace, and I recently began practicing resting on the Sabbath for twenty-four hours, from Saturday, around dinnertime to Sunday dinnertime. We have found it a difficult practice to keep. Life’s habits are hard to break. Yet we remain hopeful that we will grow to be better receivers of the gift of the Sabbath. We will keep trying to practice the four basic principles for the Sabbath that Peter Scazzero, the pastor of New Life Church in New York, suggested: stop; rest; delight; and contemplate. I am beginning to catch on to the rhythm of life – a rhythm in which Sunday is no longer for the sake of good weekdays; rather, weekdays are for the sake of a good Sabbath. The Sabbath is God’s precious gift during my remaining journey, after which an eternal Sabbath awaits. Jesus’ words resonate in my soul: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

23 comments

  1. Ben Westerhoff

    Mark,

    This is an awesome piece. Dutch people have a good view of the Sabbath. From midnight to midnight Sundays are devoted to the Lord. No TV, movies, no work, no lawns being mowed, no cars being washed (housework and homework too) no restaurants, no buying of anything (so that others don’t have to work). Even reading is limited to the Bible or Christian books.

    I too have experienced Sabbath burn-out. Jamming Bible studies in before and after worship service, playing music during the service, running off to a family dinner afterward. On those days, instead of feeling refreshed, I feel harried and cranky. No more!

    One of the best Sabbaths I’ve ever spent was with you in Boston. We had worship service at your dining room table, then went to a service brimming with college students near Fenway, and later in the afternoon I went to Park Street Church with my wife and saw Philip Ryken, who is now president of Wheaton, speak on Zechariah 3. Better than any conference I’ve ever been to.

  2. Dr. Bill

    On a closely related (if not identical :) note, here’s an interesting article on the ’emerging’ house-church movement:

    http://www.onenewsnow.com/Church/Default.aspx?id=1100148

    Makes for an interesting read!

    Bill

  3. Thanks to Dr. Bill for posting this website. I believe that the fatigue of the megachurch resonates with many who are looking for a richer experience in their Christian life. Whatever we do on the Sabbath, it can feel like a punishing chore after the 999th time we’ve done it. It is easy for devotion to become wooden, and I personally struggle against this. This article makes an appeal to let go of our anger and let Jesus be Lord of the Sabbaoth.

  4. I love Mark’s article and really identify with his experience. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, and the command to rest and enjoy one’s life is a message that many of us desperately need to hear. Pastors and UBF shepherds are some of the worst Sabbath breakers. Recently I have learned the importance of keeping the sabbath, not as a law but as a gift from God. Until I read this piece, however, I never connected the sabbath to the gospel. But it makes sense. God doesn’t need us to serve him. Our position before God is one of receiving, not giving, and refusing to accept this weekly gift contains more than a hint of false pride and inflated self-importance on our part.

    But I am puzzled by some aspects of each of the three comments above.

    Ben’s description of the Dutch sabbath doesn’t sound very appealing to me — a series of no’s and do not’s. Why not read a “non-Christian” book? The separation of activity into holy versus
    secular seems artificial.

    The article that Bill linked to, and which Andrew mentions, is interesting but not closely related. The emerging house-church movement is a lot bigger than people realize. There are aspects of it that seem helpful and aspects that are disturbing to me, for reasons that I might lay out in a future article. House church ministries are fine as long as the leaders make an effort to articulate their ecclesiology (view of the church) in a positive way. But — and I speak from experience — house church leaders can be notorious sabbath breakers too. The relative merits of mega- versus micro-churches are worth discussing, but that’s another topic.

    • Ben Westerhoff

      Joe, yeah the Dutch Sabbath can be stringent–it seems to work only in the Netherlands, according to a few Dutch profs I had. It works there because entire communities participate. One prof told me he felt guilty riding the subway once in New York on a Sunday because of the way he grew up in Holland. That’s a bit extreme. But I like what they try to do.

  5. Joe Schafer

    An intersting article in the NY Times on Sunday
    about the reluctance of pastors to take vacations and sabbaths to the detriment of their physical and emotional health:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?pagewanted=2&ref=general&src=me

  6. Susan Hong

    Thank you so much for this article. One person gave me some advice a few years ago. He said that no matter no busy I am and no matter what sacrifices I make for God, there is one sacrifice I should never make, which is personal time with Him. This article is a refreshing reminder to enjoy God and receive His gift of the Sabbath.

  7. Maria Peace

    Mark, I want to thank you for this article. Last Sunday we studied Mark 2:23-28. Actually our message was going to be to Mark 3:12 but after studying the passage we decided to just give the message on the Sabbath. Your article helped us a lot to prepare the message. We also did a discussion after the Service about the meaning of the Sabbath for each of us. We based it on Tim Keller’s message that Ben gave a link to. I really like your comment about the rhythm of life where we need to rest in God. That Sunday Worship Service was one of the best and most satisfying and rested Service I have been to for a long time. I think I’m going to be enjoying our Sabbaths from now on.:)

  8. Charles Wilson
    Charles Wilson

    I hope it’s okay to comment on old articles. I appreciate this article because I am facing my own personal conflicts in regards to the weekly worship service, and the article gives me some things to think about.

    Here are some of the conflicts in the worship service that came to mind while reading the article:

    rest vs work
    giving vs receiving
    people vs God
    worship vs service
    legal requirement vs freedom

    The article mentions, at a basic level, the first one I listed: rest / work. I find this related to the name of the activity, which I currently find as an oxymoron: worship service. We put a lot of work into a Sunday worship service. But am I there to worship or to service? What then is it to worship? What is the purpose of the work we’re doing on this day of rest?

    giving / receiving: to and from God? or to and from people? Sometimes, I heard the worship service or the message called a bible study. Is studying, even the Bible, a form of worship? Is it appropriate for that time? Especially, when this study is written to instruct people to do this or that, to encourage campus evangelism, or to give a practical “one word”?

    I have also observed that the message has become like an idol. It is so closely scrutinized and the messenger criticized along with his message. No other area of the worship is given such attention and critique. In my opinion is like an idol and the worship service is very out of balance. Or, people have become demanding in regards to the message. I likened it to the worship being a restaurant where people want to be fed by a certain food, rather than a time to worship God.

    legal requirement / freedom: I have begun to question why I go to a worship service once a week, every week. Why am I and others expected to come for worship like this without fail? I understand that Christian churches meet for worship every Sunday. It’s part of joining in the church body I have to concede to in order to participate. But how about when there are other meetings? How about if numbers of your service are counted? Why are people not free (that is, without being shamed or guilt tripped later or having their commitment questioned) to come, say, only 3 out of 4 Sundays of the month? I have heard stories of people missing their sibling’s wedding, for example, because they couldn’t miss the Sunday worship in their chapter. I think there is an underlying fear that if we let people be “free” that they won’t come. But I don’t think that would happen at all. Instead, we’ve become so binding.

    Paul did many different activities on the Sabbath depending on where he was and what the circumstances were. Is it necessary to turn the weekly Jewish Sabbath into the Christian worship service? Until the synagogue system was in place, did Jews gather every Sabbath? Is it right to call our worship time on Sunday as a Sabbath? Are we not giving proper attention then to the Rest that Jesus brings his people into, like that described in Hebrews 4:1-11?

    I have been told that my viewpoint is somewhat unbalanced or skewed because I haven’t come for a worship service just as person who just sits throughout the service. Instead, I prepare music, messages, environment, AV equipment, and so on.

    • Joe Schafer

      Charles, it’s perfectly okay to comment on old articles. This article was published years ago, but if you’ve just read it, it’s new to you.

      This article has been very influential in my life. The idea that the Sabbath is intrinsic to the gospel was new to me at the time. But it’s what the New Testament teaches in several places. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath and the fulfillment of the Sabbath. The whole Christian life is not an endless striving to earn God’s favor, but a posture of resting in God’s favor through the finished work of Christ. The Lord’s day is not a re-appropriation of the Jewish Sabbath, and as far as I can tell there are no Christian laws that need to be obeyed in this regard. But it is important to establish a healthy weekly cycle of life that includes a significant period of rest.

      Back in the 1980’s, I recall SL giving announcements at Chicago UBF about Sunday worship service. He emphasized the word “service” and talked about how we are supposed to be diligently serving God every Sunday by striving to bring lots of sheep to the Sunday worship. He told heroic stories of shepherds driving around the city for 4-5 hours each Sunday to bring people. In short, SL made Sunday (like every other day) into a day of hard labor. And on Monday there would be no rest either. Those who didn’t have full time jobs would gather at the Chicago center for all day message writing and message training. Taking a day off was verboten because it would make you lazy. This endless weekly cycle of work, work, work took a heavy toll on people. No one can sustain that kind of lifestyle for long without getting burned out.

      Please don’t let anyone tell you that your viewpoint on this is unbalanced or skewed because you’re a leader rather than a pew sitter. Your experience is precisely that, your own experience, and it’s the only experience you’ve got. If you sense that something has gone awry and your weekly schedule is not spiritually healthy, trust your instincts; stand firm on that conviction and, for the sake of your emotional health and your family’s health, make whatever changes are necessary to your pattern of life. Accept your finiteness and be willing to say “no” to things that are not necessary. If you fear that you can’t stop doing so much on Sunday because if you don’t do those things the church and the world might fall apart, sit back and realize that for many thousands of years the world has gotten along fine without you. If something is truly essential then God can raise up someone other than you to do it, and if he doesn’t, then it apparently wasn’t essential. For two millennia the church has survived without preachers using spiffy Powerpoint presentations, and if there is no Powerpoint presentation on any given Sunday, so what? Perhaps the worship environment would be better off without it. Certainly we can do without the stress that all these activities can create. In my experience, the need to continually work, work, work is not an expression of faith but of fear and lack of faith. In many cases, it takes more faith to rest than it does to work.

    • Joe Schafer

      It’s a mystery to me why someone would have clicked “dislike” for this article.

    • Charles, it’s not only ok but a great idea to sometimes comment on old articles. Many articles here are very important and well written and deserve to be re-read or re-reflected from time to time.

      You are bringing up very good food for thought concerning the Sunday worship and Sunday rest in general. My personal problem with Sundays (in the 90s in Germany) was not only the worship service, but the whole Sunday activity that started in the morning and ended in the evening from preparing music and food, office work like proof-reading, correcting, printing and copying the Sunday message, and the day was stuffed with group activities like prayer meetings and fellowship meetings and staff meetings and sogam sharing meetings like no other day in the week. Even if the sun was shining, I often did not see it, because I was in the UBF center the whole day. In the evening I usually had headache from all this sitting in the stuffy rooms, but headache was not considered an acceptable excuse for not attending the Sunday evening sogam meeting.

      In my time, there was also a lot of emphasis on having an “absolute attitude” and “absolute obedience”. You had to demonstrate this absoluteness by attending meetings, particularly the SWS, but also daily bread and other prayer meetings, without fail. This went so far that you had to take it more important than any obligations in social or family or work life. Not going to a wedding or a funeral of a close family member in order to attend a SWS or conference is the typical example. You always had to prove to God and others that your faith was genuine and sufficient, and it was only considered genuine and sufficient if you showed this attitude of “absoluteness”.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      @Joe, thanks for the reply. Yes, learning to say No has been empowering. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole Sunday gathering business. Why does the word Sabbath even come up? If we do use that word, the attribution brings a lot of baggage. Why do we (if we do at all) consider that Sunday gathering and its activities as a dutiful, weekly, rest? and so …

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      @ Chris, sunshine is important! I have not understood why people wants lights off during music and blinds closed during the message. You wouldn’t know if it was day outside, although it’s 11am at the start of service! I make a personal effort, and ask those also attending to practical “environment” of the service to make sure lights are on and blinds are open. Let the light in, because we have come to worship God and Jesus who is the light of the world. :)

  9. Charles, I’ve heard numerous pastors say that Sunday is never their own personal Sabbath because they are so busy preparing for their sermon and for the church service. So they take their Sabbath on another day, say Mon.

    Perhaps this might be helpful for you. All people need to practice the principle of the Sabbath in their own lives.

    I heard Rick Warren once say something to the effect that we human beings need to divert daily, withdraw weekly and abandon annually.

    In my opinion UBF lacks a balanced or a proper theology of rest, probably because of an over-emphasis on “hard work.” This leads to burn-out, tiredness, lethargy, discouragement, and it causes people to go through the motions without much spirit, enthusiasm, zeal or joy. Yet, because some want to give the image of faithfulness to others, legalism, duty and performance righteousness prevails.

    But if one understands and applies the principle of the Sabbath and indeed find rest, they are the ones who work the best and who work tirelessly with love, joy and peace, etc.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Ben, thanks. Your comment reminded me of the church my parents attend. They have a worship service on Wednesdays largely in part to provide a service for those that are working hard to provide a good service for others on Sunday but miss out because of their work. There is no crossover between those serving the Sunday and Wednesday worships. It’s still cringeworthy to me that someone carried the name Work Hard. It was eye-opening to see how there was a concern for rest for others in their community, especially the workers, and they took action to support it. I also want to find ways to do the same.

    • Charles,

      “It’s still cringeworthy to me that someone carried the name Work Hard.”

      Yes, but I am happy to know that the “Work Hard” man I know (maybe there are others with that name?) now took the name Joshua and is no longer “working so hard” but is a redeemed man who has a solid Christian vision, and is working to form a redeemed ubf chapter.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Brian, I know him too. :) But that name! Joshua is much better.

  10. Yeah, the 1 dislike on 6/2/14 is quite baffling! If I were to posit an explanation, it is that some Christians “fear” that rest only leads to sin, because an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

    The lack of rest in Christ, God, the Holy Spirit is what causes life for some Christians and their influence to be totally stifling, constrictive, oppressive, uninspiring, boring, predictable, demanding, unkind, self-centered, and lacking compassion and understanding, all the while thinking (deluding themselves) that they are the top notch Christians and laborers for the Lord in the whole wide world whom everyone else should look up to.

    • “The lack of rest in Christ, God, the Holy Spirit is what causes life for some Christians and their influence to be totally stifling…”

      Precisely the crux of my epic journey the past 3 years Ben! This topic is exactly what lead me to write my book, Rest Unleashed. When we follow Jesus, He leads us out of the “epic battle against sin”, which is filled with so much activity, and into the “epic surrender to grace”, which is filled with so much peace.

      The irony is that when I surrendered to grace (love with no conditions whatsoever) I found FAR MORE energy than ever! Every day is a Sabbath rest in my soul, which is happy and more at rest than ever before!

  11. And Charles, I love it when someone tags an old article for new discussion!

  12. Because of what I have posted and commented, some people have accused me of being ABCDE: aggravating, bitter, combative, divisive, discouraging, destructive, explosive, etc.

    Well, OK, I guess the way I write and express myself may cause others to somewhat legitimately think that I am writing out of some disquieted tormented tortured soul.

    But I know of the rest I have found in Christ. This is what I wrote a friend a few days ago:

    “I am very happy and thoroughly content with my life and my lot, maybe even too happy because of God’s endless grace to me. Every day I am just simply amazed to be alive and to be able to live the life that I am living. I am unashamedly living a charmed life, and yet with awe, fear and trembling. My life has been nothing but pure grace, mercy and unconditional love extended to me freely and limitlessly, none of which I deserve!”