How are we meant to honor the Sabbath in modern Christianity? Surely our day of rest is meant to consist in more than going to church, having lunch with friends, and spending the remainder of the day doing laundry. Over the years, with the help of Scripture and mentorship, I have developed a way of observing the Sabbath that has been quite helpful. While I don’t believe this is the only way to observe a day of rest, I do believe it can serve as a starting point for those wishing to discover the Sabbath.
I often see concepts in a scientific or mathematical way, and I picture Sabbath rest as an outcome, as a byproduct, rather than the observance of Sabbath itself. I have in my mind a sort of ‘Sabbath equation’ to help me stay on track during my day of rest. In this formula, there are five components, and they proceed from each other in the following way:
REFLECTION -> REPENTANCE -> REMINDING -> RESTORATION -> REST
- REFLECT … I look inward at myself
- REPENT … I give my sin to God
- REMIND … I look outward at God
- RESTORE … God gives Himself to me
- REST … the result
In this way, a perspective on myself (P) and a deposit of sin (D) on my end meet with a perspective and deposit on God’s end to create an equilibrium that we call ‘rest’:
P[self] + D[sin] = P[God] + D[God]
Reflection + Repentance -> [REST] <- Reminder + Restoration
I also sometimes picture these various components as elemental, but again, that is likely because of my way of seeing the physical world as a biologist:
- Reflection: Water
- Repentance: Fire
- Reminder: Air
- Restoration: Earth
We start observing the Sabbath by reflecting on ourselves and our lives. This is usually an easy place to start, at least, it is for me, because our natural state tends towards a perspective focused on the self. In this discipline, we invite the Holy Spirit to give clarity as we consider our thoughts and actions. It might be helpful to journal about the previous week, to praise God for what is good and to identify and bring before Him what is not. It might also be helpful to remove distractions in order to slow down and see things clearly. Still waters reflect an image better than tumultuous waters, and in slowing down we may see things we didn’t know were there before. One discipline I’ve benefited from over the past years is to have a ‘black screen’ day in which I refrain from turning on my phone, computer or television. As a single woman without kids, this is easier for me than it might be for others, but there are always steps we can take to muffle the noisy distractions of daily life once each week.
Reflection is an essential starting point to engaging the Sabbath. Before the priests entered the temple, they would pause at a bronze laver to wash their hands and feet (Exodus 30:17-20). We know from the Scriptures that this laver was made from the mirrors the Hebrew women had brought with them out of Egypt (Exodus 38:8). Thus, as the priests bent over the laver to wash themselves before entering the tent of meeting, they were forced to look at their own faces. Like the priests, we reflect on ourselves as a first step to entering the presence of God. Spending time in the Word helps us greatly in a time of reflection, and the Word is described in the Bible as a pure and cleansing water that washes over us (Ephesians 5:26). The Lord often uses Scripture to reveal hidden things in us as we reflect, because Scripture is like a clear mirror that reflects back to us who we really are (James 1:22-25).
Repentance is the natural outcome of self-reflection under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we take stock of our thoughts, actions and feelings, the Lord may bring certain things to the surface that He wants to deal with. As gold is heated and purified, the impurities rise to the surface where they can be scraped off. Our faith, which is “more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7), is often purified in times of Sabbath if we open our hearts to repentance. We can be sure that our conviction is not meant to condemn us, but to save us. Godly repentance leads to newness of life, while earthy guilt leads to more spiritual death and decay (2 Corinthians 7:10). I recently heard a sermon by a pastor who had gone away on Sabbatical. It was the first sermon he had given since his long time away, and he wept through much of it. He told his congregation that he had gone on sabbatical with the intention of reading through certain books of the Bible, seeing friends, etc., but the Lord had other plans. This pastor ended up completely broken before the Lord, and he went through a grueling season of repentance. He came to the end of his time away feeling not so much rested as restored. The Lord had put him through the crucible and had revealed sins in his life he needed to repent of. God often invites us to step into the crucible again, and it takes much faith to allow God to reveal in us our “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). But we can trust the gentle hand of our surgeon Lord who “breaks so that He can heal” (Job 5:18).
Commenting on the importance of repentance in observing the Sabbath, John Piper writes,
People whose hearts are set more on the pleasures of the world than on the enjoyment of God will feel the sabbath command as a burden not a blessing…. The measure of your love for God is the measure of the joy you get in focusing on him on the day of rest. For most people the sabbath command is really a demand to repent. It invites us to enjoy what we don’t enjoy and therefore shows us the evil of hearts, and our need to repent and be changed.
The Sabbath is an invitation to slow down, take stock of what is inside, and bring our brokenness to the Lord. The Sabbath is a day when we turn to see God’s open hand, and we hear His voice gently instructing us to pass over our sins and start anew.
To repent means literally to reorient, and as we turn to face God, we begin to remember why we started following Him in the first place. It is no small thing that the commandment begins “Remember the sabbath…” (Exodus 20:8) Repentance is a profoundly uncomforting thing, but remembrance of God refreshes our soul just as deeply as the cut of grief has sliced us. As the Lord reminds us of Himself, we recount our reliance on Him. In Exodus 31:13, the Lord explains to Moses how the Sabbath is meant to remind us of our total dependence on Him: “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.’” It is easy to forget we are breathing when we rush through our busy days, but when we stand still in a silent place, we immediately become aware of our breaths. Our lungs were working all the while, but we needed to slow down to truly remember their function. The Sabbath is a day when we remember our dependance on God, and we are reminded that we need Him more than the air we breathe.
I have had the privilege of having three mentors over the past two years who have each taught me much about Sabbath. Specifically, all three of them view this day as one that refocuses us on God and renews our heavenly perspective. One once wrote to me,
Nothing says more about us than how we manage space and time. By following God’s call, it centers us in a transcendent way of living to anchor our values in a higher realm. The rhythm and focus of Sabbath set us apart.
Another man told me that the Lord challenged Him to stop striving to bring others to faith as if it were up to him. This man had been travelling all over the globe and was away from his family almost 200 days per year speaking. As an act of obedience and reliance on God, he brought his speaking and traveling days down to 100. Amazingly, he saw the number of people who received Christ at his talks increase from 1,000 per year to 10,000 per year. For him, this was a Sabbath reminder that he was totally reliant upon God to see the fruit of salvation he so earnestly prayed for. Another of my mentors recently reminded me,
Without Shabbat, there is no shalom. This entails the reciprocity between being and doing, between attitude and action, and between belief and behavior. A word for that reciprocity that captures the whole process is respiration.
To invite the Lord to step back into the center of our lives is to take a deep breath of heavenly air. As we shift our focus from ourselves to Him, He begins the process of restoration.
As the Lord takes His rightful place on the throne of our hearts, we are restored. He takes away our sin and shame, and in return He gives us Himself. Like a garden rid of weeds and briars, the Lord steps in to sow His Spirit where sin had taken root. As Piper rightly commented, the Sabbath is a day of joy as we are changed. After we are reminded of our dependence on God, we find the joy of our salvation restored into our hearts, and our spirits upheld. (Psalm 51:12). Isaiah paints a lovely picture of the Sabbath, where we refrain from doing our own pleasure and instead focus on the Lord. The result is utter delight in Him as He lifts us up to “ride on the heights of the earth” (Isaiah 58:13-14). We can’t live forever in the crucible of conviction; we are meant to move from repentance into restoration. We hand over our sin to God, and in exchange He gives us more of Himself. When Peter spoke to the crowds at Solomon’s Portico, he exhorted them to
Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time of restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:19-21)
As we observe the Sabbath, we understand that we are only restored in part, but it is a reminder to look forward to the full restoration to come when Christ returns.
A Sabbath is an opportunity to turn our faces toward God, to allow Him to enter into and change our hearts. He always changes them for the better. Repentance is often raw and frightening, and many weeds don’t come out easily. But we don’t have to fear the sound of ripping roots or the smell of upturned earth. The Master Gardener knows how to make our hearts green and flourishing.
My friend told me about a medical procedure she had to have. She was terrified, weak, and her very life was on the line. While she was at the hospital, the doctor came into the exam room with several other nurses. They examined my friend without looking into her eyes or speaking to her. When it was time for a blood transfusion, the nurse did not speak a word to her, and spent much of the time on her phone. My friend said, “I felt like some sort of animal. It was dehumanizing.” When she told me this story, I was immediately furious. How could they have spent so many hours with her, yet not found a single moment to say something kind or at least look her in the eyes? Yet, not much time later, I realized that I was like these medical personnel.
As someone in ministry, I thought I had a good handle on what it meant to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Sadly, I was using it as a day to serve myself and my own agenda. One Sunday, I had spent all day busy with volunteer work and various projects for the kingdom. As I came to the end of the day I turned to the Lord in prayer. “You’ve spent all day reading about Me, writing about Me, and talking about Me. Do you have time to speak to me?”… My mind went back to my friend. I suddenly realized how I’d ignored the Lord on the very day I was meant to focus on Him. There He was, on His Sabbath rest, inviting me to join Him. Yet I had been moving about Him, taking His vital signs so to speak, without ever looking Him in the face or addressing Him.
It is easy to miss the Sabbath, either by rushing through it or by wasting in on lethargy. We meticulously take the fingerprints of the world around us without looking it in the face, or we go bleary to it by the blue light of a TV screen. The Sabbath is not complacent. It is an invitation to do something daring. It’s an open door that beckons us into a deeper trust in God. Colossians 2:16-17 reminds us that the Sabbath is so much more than a day of rest. It is a shadow of things to come, reminding us to look forward to the ultimate rest we will receive from Jesus when we at last hear His voice shouting into our graves, “Come out!” As we reflect on ourselves, give our sin into His hands, look into His face, and receive Him anew, we find the respite we so need in our lives. No form of rest is more profound or wholesome than the one we find in Him. He is a kind and patient God. His desire for us is to find the reflection, repentance, remembrance, and restoration that culminate into a deep and spiritual rest. May we find rest, clarity, and joy in Jesus today as we honor His Sabbath!
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.1 John 5:3
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 John Piper, Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy. (1985) Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/remember-the-sabbath-day-to-keep-it-holy