Having a Sabbath?

Most Christians look at the Bible as a sort of “rule book” by which to guide their lives. They see a command in the Bible and assume it is for them to obey. Never mind who the command was originally spoken to, when it was spoken, or why it was spoken (the circumstances). If it is a command then it needs to be obeyed. Right?

But, as odd as it may seem, most biblical laws really are not clear. They may work as general guiding principles, sure, but when God says, “Thou shalt not,” you are really hoping for some specifics.

But readers from ancient time have always understood that keeping a law means more than “doing what it says”; it means deliberating over what the command actually requires in the here and now in which we live.

Discerning how a law is to be obeyed, in other words, is something each generation of believers and every individual believer needs to determine. The Bible is for thinking people who are not afraid to question what is written and why and if it is still applicable today.

Pick any law out of a hat — maybe something from the Ten Commandments. The 4th commandment say, Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). Remembering the sabbath means to observe it, which means, as the following verses explain, to cease from all work (sabbath means “rest” or “cease” in Hebrew). This goes for all who live in the household, from the head on down to children and servants. Even the animals take a day off.

I suppose at first glance this seems clear enough. Just knock off work one day a week as God said. How complicated could that be? Plenty complicated. For one thing, what exactly constitutes “work”?

In the average Christian culture (is there really such a thing these days?) not working might mean not going in on Sunday to that place that gives you a pay cheque. But is work only what we get paid for or is it any task that requires some exertion? Ancient Israelites didn’t collect a pay cheque, and yet they had this command to follow. What about cutting the grass, painting the trim, washing the car? And does it make any difference whether I might actually find cutting the grass relaxing? Is it all relative? How do we know? Will God smite me for emptying the dishwasher or organizing my underwear drawer on a Sunday afternoon?

And what if your Sunday leisure causes others to work? If you go to a movie or eat out, are you contributing to someone else’s sin? It’s easy to get paranoid. To be on the safe side you might just want to try standing still and practice shallow-breathing for twenty-four hours.

And what about those who don’t “go to work” in the conventional sense with clearly defined work hours? What if you are, say a collage professor, who only teaches four hours a day, two days a week, but has to prepare whenever they get a chance, which usually involves reading.

To make my point, as a teacher of the Word and an author, reading is part of my job. Should I therefore not read on Sunday? Should I just play it safe and watch television? Although someone has to find the remote and press the button. Is that work? And what do I do when the news ticker crosses my screen and I’m tempted to read it? Do I avert my eyes?

I’m getting silly, I know. But more seriously we are not even getting into whether police, firefighters, surgeons, disaster-relief workers, or Apple customer service should have Sunday off — not to mention whether single mothers who need to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads can afford the luxury of “keeping the sabbath.”

To complicate matters further, although some Christians believe that observing the sabbath is still binding (because it’s a “clear” biblical command), others argue that it’s not, taking their cue from “clear” New Testament passages like Colossians 2:16-17 (sabbaths are a thing of the past) and Matthew 12:1-8 (Jesus Himself “works” on the sabbath by plucking grain). So maybe for Christians sabbath keeping isn’t a thing at all. It’s really not clear either way, though that hardly keeps some Christians from almost coming to blows over it.

I’m not belittling sabbath keeping. I actually think the practice is spiritually and emotionally healthy, and I try to keep at least a different pace on the day I choose to celebrate sabbath. I do respect those who are more intense about it than I am. I’m only pointing out that how (or whether) to keep the sabbath isn’t clear. 

There’s a lot at stake here, but rather than clarity we get ambiguity. The law as written leads its reader to ponder what it means and how to obey it here and now. In other words, we need to be practical and apply the passage to the here and now bringing it into our current culture and circumstance applying it with wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is hard to be black and white when it comes to many of the “laws” in the Bible. They were meant to be interpreted and applied and not just read as hard and fast rules and applied.

We need to not be afraid to question the truths we read in the pages of our Bibles. Christians need to be thinking people who are working hard at understanding and applying the principles and practices of the Scriptures applying them in real and practical ways to the world in which we find ourselves.