Exodus 31:12-18

the-sabbathExodus 31

12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” 18 And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

Earlier this year an effort was instigated by something called “the Sabbath Manifesto” that was quite interesting.

The National Day of Unplugging and its guiding project, the Sabbath Manifesto, invites us to join their eighth observance from sundown Friday, March 3 to sundown Saturday, March 4. Sabbath Manifesto’s aim is not just to promote one day of unplugging from technology, but a lifestyle change, explains spokesperson Tanya Schevitz.

“The expectation that you are always reachable, that you will respond immediately to those beeps, buzzes and rings coming from your phone—it’s created a society of people who are on edge, overwhelmed and disconnected from those around them,” says Schevitz. “It’s important that people take control of their technology so that it doesn’t control them.”

The National Day of Unplugging draws from the Jewish tradition of Sabbath rest and has resonated with people around the world. Individuals in more than 200 countries, including remote locations such as Bhutan, the Aaland Islands, and Mongolia, are signing up to unplug.

“Our hope is that by taking the time to pause and reflect on their use of digital devices such as phones and computers, people will be more aware of their impact and find a healthy balance,” says Schevitz. “We hope that with this new-found awareness, people will try to put their digital devices aside more regularly, for an hour, for the length of a family dinner or a romantic walk, for however long it takes to recharge themselves and to reconnect with those around them.”[1]

It is an interesting project and one that I suspect we all likely see the need for. It also has an intriguing name, the Sabbath Manifesto. Here is how they describe themselves:

Way back when, God said, “On the seventh day thou shalt rest.”  The meaning behind it was simple: Take a break. Call a timeout. Find some balance. Recharge.

Somewhere along the line, however, this mantra for living faded from modern consciousness. The idea of unplugging every seventh day now feels tragically close to impossible. Who has time to take time off? We need eight days a week to get tasks accomplished, not six.

The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit as the Slow Movement, slow food, slow living, by a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living. The idea is to take time off, deadlines and paperwork be damned.

In the Manifesto, we’ve adapted our ancestors’ rituals by carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and get with loved ones. The ten principles are to be observed one day per week, from sunset to sunset. We invite you to practice, challenge and/or help shape what we’re creating.[2]

While Jewish in origin, the Sabbath Manifesto is apparently enjoying support from both religious and non-religious folks across the spectrum. That is most telling. Apparently many people have come to understand (a) that our lives have become too hectic and (b) that there is wisdom in making intentional efforts to have consistent Sabbath rest.

That, of course, makes sense since God instituted the Sabbath and since He did so knowing it was best for us. We were made to observe Sabbath rest. Put another way, if we consistently avoid observing Sabbath rest we will not live the kinds of lives we are supposed to live.

It is a bit disconcerting, however, that some in the church might actually need nonbelievers to remind them of the wisdom of this. It is disconcerting but also telling, for it speaks of the deeply intuitive nature of the Sabbath and the need we all know we have for some kind of intentional and consistent rest.

However, the Sabbath is more than mere rest. It is an act of worship. So the people of God should understand it more deeply than mere intuition can explain. We should understand its true nature and be able to explain its significance. When we ask why the Sabbath is there, why it is in the original week of creation, we can turn to texts like Exodus 31:12-18 for help and understanding.

The Sabbath is there to remind us that God is the true source of our lives.

In our text, the Lord explains to His children why it is that He created and instituted the Sabbath, this pattern of six days of work and one of rest.

12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.

The first reason is because the Sabbath “is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” That is, the Sabbath imparts certain knowledge about God and His relationship with man. Specifically, it is “a sign” that reminds us time and time again that God “sanctifies” us.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary makes the interesting observation that “[w]hile the individual’s sign of participation in the covenant is circumcision, the sign of Israel’s corporate participation in the covenant is the keeping of the sabbath.”[3] That is a helpful way to think about it. Israel demonstrated covenant participation and solidarity in part through its keeping of the Sabbath. Understood rightly through the interpretive lens of Christ and His Sabbath observance, we can appropriately say that this should mark the church today as well.

Perhaps we can all agree that the Sabbath is the odd cousin at our family reunions, the one we do not quite know what to do with. Maybe that is so because of our long neglect of it, but note that the Sabbath teaches us about God’s sanctifying love for us. To “sanctify” is to keep something as holy, to set something apart as holy. Thus, we are to sanctify the Sabbath because, through it, we are reminded of the sanctifying love of God for us.

Patrick Miller writes that “[s]anctifying the Sabbath means setting aside on a regular basis some time that is consciously intended to celebrate the glory of God— what Abraham Heschel has called “a sanctuary in time” (Sabbath)…”[4] That is beautifully said: “a sanctuary in time.”

I would propose that this image of a sanctuary in time might be a very helpful addition to our minds and heart. If the church building is our sanctuary in geography then the Sabbath is our sanctuary in time. If going to the church building requires us to leave our homes and travel to another place then observing the Sabbath requires us to leave our routines and travel to the sanctuary in time.

And what do we learn in the sanctuary in time? We learn that God loves and sanctifies us! By keeping it holy we are reminded that He is keeping us holy! What a marvelous truth!

This revelation that God teaches us through the Sabbath is significant because it means that our neglect of the Sabbath means neglect of the instruction that God wishes to give us. It is not just, then, that we are tired if we neglect the Sabbath, it is also that we are uneducated if we neglect the Sabbath. We are not learning what He wishes for us to learn about Himself if we neglect the Sabbath!

The Sabbath is a sanctuary in time in which God reminds us time and again that He loves us and is setting us apart as holy.

The Sabbath is there to grant us solemn rest.

It is also, of course, a time of rest.

14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.

The fact that the death penalty was connected with Sabbath violation in the Old Testament should tell us that what happens through a proper observance of it deserves more attention than the casual posture we normally take.

The Hebrew word for “Sabbath” is šābat which literally means “stop.”[5] Consider this: built into our hectic work weeks is a day that is literally called “Stop!” From what are we to stop? From “work.” We are not to work. We are to rest.

Of course, this calls for interpretation. What, after all, is work? Throughout the gospels Jesus was condemned by the Pharisees for allegedly violating the gospel when he would heal on the Sabbath. But should healing and doing good be seen as work? What of necessary work? What of things that others might consider work but that you do not consider work?

These kinds of questions have led to great disagreements over the years. Again, this is evident in Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees but it has also been evident throughout Christian history. It is evident in ways both significant and humorous. Jerusalem Jackson Greer passes on one such example of the disagreements surrounding this question.

Keeping the Sabbath is one of those spiritual disciplines that for years seemed antiquated, elusive, and somewhat misogynistic to me. My first impressions were formed by a little story in a children’s biography of the missionary Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the early 1900s. The story I remember most vividly is of Lottie breaking her family’s strict no-work-on-Sunday Sabbath rule. This rule prohibited any cooking, the result being only cold sandwiches or leftovers from the larder could be served. Lottie, thinking the rule was old-fashioned and silly, feigned illness and stayed behind from church one Sunday in order to prepare a large, hot, delicious meal for her family. Of course Lottie’s choice landed her in a lot of trouble, but I thought it was magnificent. After all, what did God care if one cooked on Sunday or not? Wouldn’t God be more in favor of you serving your family joyfully rather than being miserly and falsely pious? Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath. Why were religious people always trying to make extra rules?[6]

Those are good questions and important ones at that. In a sense, though, do they not miss the point? The reality is that any follower of Jesus Christ, if he or she is honest with himself or herself, will know whether or not he or she has truly set aside the work that has so dominated his or her life in order to observe Sabbath rest. Legalism could be avoided if we were honest with ourselves and gracious to others who were similarly trying to honor the intent of the Sabbath.

Setting aside those questions, can it be denied that in our hectic pace of life we frequently neglect the rest to which we are called by the God who made us? These legalistic debates are diversions to the greater point and we know it.

Are you keeping the Sabbath as you should? That is a question that you can answer when you consider your own heart and your own motivations and intentions. Would you say that you are honoring the Sabbath?

The Sabbath is there to stop us from the act of creating so that we can remember the Creator.

Of course, the Sabbath is part of the original week of creation and in our text the Lord turns to that fact once again.

16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” 18 And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

The Sabbath is therefore not only a sanctuary in time in which we learn of the sanctifying love of our great God, it is also a covenant sign that reminds us that God is the Creator above all creators and that He too “rested and was refreshed” on the Sabbath.

It is interesting to think that in the Sabbath we are called upon to cease our own creative activities, our work, in order to stand before and acknowledge the supremacy of God’s own creative activity. If we consume our lives with our own creative efforts without ever stopping to worship the God who alone is the true Creator then we risk making our own efforts and lives and agendas bigger than they need to be. The Sabbath is a reorienting day intended to bring perspective to our lives.

What is more, it is the way of Pharaoh to work harder and more. It is not the way of God. The way of God is work leading to God-honoring rest. Patrick Miller explains:

When Israelite slaves in Egypt sought time off to worship the Lord their God, when the people sought release from the service of the Pharaoh for the service of God, the forces of human tyranny and oppressive economic exploitation of slave labor were set against this request for time that is sacred and holy and restful, demanding for more work. Pharaoh said: “They cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them” (5:8– 9). The service of God is rejected in behalf of a secular exploitation of human life and human work. That is what triggered the Lord’s gift of the Sabbath. What is required is what is needed to make and to keep human life human— and not inhumane, as it was in Egypt.[7]

Consider the tragedy of the child of God who today allows work to dominate his or her life: he or she is willingly returning to the ways of slavery in a foreign land and is forsaking the merciful provisions of the God who has set him or her free!

On occasion the old debate about when exactly the Sabbath day is for the church rears its head once again. The Westminster Shorter Catechism sums up the majority view of the church on this issue.

From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be a weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since . . . which is the Christian Sabbath.”[8]

I believe this to be true and right. Why do we essentially observe Sabbath rest on the first day of the week instead of on the seventh? It is because of how the resurrection of Jesus redefined that day. Consider:

Matthew 28

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

Mark 16

2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

Luke 24

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.

John 20

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

Acts 20

7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.

1 Corinthians 16

2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.

The first day of the week is now the Lord’s Day. It is our Sabbath in the Lord. Thus we see the church from its earliest days gathering to worship and rejoice on Sunday. What, then, should we do and not do on Sunday? Here I would like to defer to the wise counsel of J.I. Packer, who wrote:

…if the Lord’s day is the Christian Sabbath, how do we keep it holy? Answer—by behaving as Jesus did. His Sabbaths were days not for idle amusement, but for worshiping God and doing good—what the Shorter Catechism calls “works of necessity and mercy” (see Luke 4:16; 13:10–17; 14:1–6). Freedom from secular chores secures freedom to serve the Lord on his own day. Matthew Henry says that the Sabbath was made a day of holy rest so that it might be a day of holy work. From this holy work, in our sedentary and lonely world, physical recreation and family fun will not be excluded, but worship and Christian fellowship will come first.[9]

There is wisdom here: “by behaving as Jesus did.”

This is the way out of the theoretical scenarios and arguments that dog our attempts to understand what honoring the Sabbath does and does not mean: do what Jesus did on the Sabbath!

And what did He do? He worshiped. He did good. He loved. He rested. He proclaimed. He rejoiced. He fellowshipped.

In Matthew 12:8 Jesus made one of His most provocative statements by saying that “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Not only was this a startling declaration of deity, it was also a revelation of the way forward. How do we enter the sanctuary in time that is the Sabbath? How do we rest on the Sabbath? How do we set aside our own creative efforts in order to worship the true Creator? Simply put, we follow the Lord of the Sabbath!

Honor the Sabbath by honoring the Sabbath’s Lord. The Sabbath is a most sacred and joyous day in which we are drawn time and time again deeper and deeper into the love of the God who created heaven and earth.

Honor the Sabbath.

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/march/lent-unplugged.html

[2] http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/about

[3] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.115.

[4] Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (p. 132). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[5] Miller, p.122.

[6] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/devotions/2017/life-giving-pace/first-impressions.html

[7] Miller, p.130.

[8] Quoted in Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Locations 562-563). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[9] Packer, Kindle Locations 570-575.

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