Few doctrines or ideas are more are closely connected to the Seventh-day Adventist church than the doctrine of the Sabbath. It is certainly a part of our identity, even referenced in our name. And even those who know little about us generally understand that we observe Saturday, the seventh day, rather than Sunday.
But strangely, I believe it is one of the most misunderstood doctrines, both within and without the denomination. I count myself among those who, for most of my life, misunderstood the meaning and importance of the Sabbath. I say that because for most of my life I thought of the Sabbath mainly in terms of two checklists of activities: permitted and prohibited.
In my younger days, these lists were direct and separate; there was no overlapping, none at all. Either an activity was permitted, or it was prohibited. And then life intervened. I began to read the Bible—really read it—not just searching for instruction, but to experience it, to put myself in the place of those relating to God in its pages. And I ran into things like the sheep/ox in the pit (Matt. 12:11, Luke 14:5).
I actually read the gospels, and discovered John is my favorite. And as I read the Gospel of John, it became increasingly clear to me that Jesus repeatedly and intentionally “violated” the Pharisees ideas on the Sabbath. And as I read the Gospel of John, I realized, to my chagrin, that I had more in common with the Pharisees than I did with Jesus.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose; after all, we are sinners, and we scarcely recognize it in ourselves, thinking we are “pretty good people.” That’s more or less the description of a Pharisee. As the Spirit wielded its sword, it cut deeply into my cherished ideas. I read, and truly contemplated, that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. I realized that most of my life I had spent serving the Sabbath, that is, acting as though I was created to serve the Sabbath. The idea that the Sabbath had been created to serve essential needs of my own revolutionized my understanding.
I had always read the text that said Jesus was “Lord of the Sabbath” as a proof text, establishing that the seventh day was the Sabbath, that only Jesus could change it. And while I still think that is true, it is a very limited understanding. Jesus is supposed to be my Lord, too. In other words, my Lord made the Sabbath for me, as a day of celebration, not privation. At first, I thought this notion was fairly radical, and when I submitted an article to this effect to Signs of the Times, I thought it might be rejected on those grounds. Imagine my surprise when it was published, and then republished several years later. (Here’s the more recent one.)
The more I studied the Sabbath, the richer the idea became. Even from the very beginning, from the creation narrative in Genesis, the Sabbath is about rest. But this is not the rest of simple inactivity. It is the rest of release from obligation, of liberation from the mundane, of freedom to celebrate, to enjoy. Above all, the Sabbath is about cultivating relationships: our relationship with our Creator, yes, but also our relationships with each other and with the planet–with nature.
On the sixth day, God created humankind, gave them to each other, and gave them dominion, stewardship, over the rest of creation. And no sooner had he done that than He created the Sabbath, a time to explore and develop those relationships.
This is far richer, far more complex, and far more nuanced than my earlier list of things prohibited and things permitted. It’s more challenging, as well. In order to build relationships with people who are not believers, there are some things I do on Sabbath for them that I would not do for myself. There are things that were ordinarily on my prohibited list before which, if the focus is to build relationships, are not only permitted now but in some cases are necessary.
This is hinted at in the episode where Jesus and His disciples are walking through a field on the Sabbath, and as they do they take the heads off wheat stalks and roll them between their fingers in order to separate the wheat from the chaff and then eat the grain. No one suggested that as a Sabbath activity they should go out to the nearest wheat field and harvest a little grain. That was not the point at all. But as they were on their way with Jesus, they did this to satisfy their hunger.
The Pharisees–at an earlier stage in my life, I’m sad to say I would’ve been among them—considered this to be “not a proper Sabbath activity.” And, if that had been the purpose of their Sabbath day excursion, it probably would not have been appropriate. Jesus answered the Pharisees with examples of how things which were inappropriate in one set of circumstances were appropriate in others. And He concluded by quoting Hosea 6:6:
But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent (Matt. 12:7).
Context matters, not just for texts and interpretation but the context of actions as well. Clearly, both from the context in Genesis, and for the many examples in the Gospels, the Sabbath is primarily about relationships. That is the context within which we are to understand the Sabbath.
Genesis tells us that on the Sabbath God rested from all the work that He had made. This is not about an omnipotent God wearing out and needing rest. This is about God ceasing from a task because the task is completed. And that is the final irony concerning my list of permitted and prohibited behaviors. To enter into Sabbath rest for us means to cease from our everyday tasks, but also to cease from the task of attempting to be good enough, to earn our salvation.
The only 24-hour period Jesus spent in the tomb was the Sabbath. As He had rested from His completed work of creation at the end of creation week, Jesus rested from His completed work of redemption at the end of redemption week. For us to attempt by our behaviors and activities to earn merit toward salvation is the greatest violation of the Sabbath imaginable. On the Sabbath we rest in His completed work of redemption, of salvation. On the Sabbath we celebrate our creation, our relationships, and our redemption. That is the truest way of observing the Sabbath.
What a privilege it is, therefore, that the Sabbath is an inherent part of our identity as Seventh-day Adventists.