Observing the Sabbath... but not as we've known it
by Lynette Woods
(Updated November 2008)
"Then some of the Pharisees said, This Man Jesus is not from God, because He does not keep or observe the Sabbath." John 9:16.
For those of us who have grown up in Christianity, we know that one of the ten commandments is to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Only two generations ago it was accepted that on the Sabbath (whether a Sunday or Saturday) no respectable person worked, children could not play outdoors, the only book you were allowed to read was the Bible and everyone must go to church on that day. My great uncle told me that when he was a child they had to stay indoors on Sundays and were only allowed to play with "Biblical" toys like Noah's ark and were allowed to read only the Bible. Not surprisingly, he grew up not wanting anything to do with Christ or Christianity.
Today we may pat ourselves on the back for recognizing our freedom from such legality and strictness. We know that we live under grace and not the law and believe ourselves to be living in real freedom since we may believe we are free to even play (or watch) sports on Sundays, go shopping on Sundays, work on Sundays and, of course, go to church on Sundays. However, in the process of patting ourselves on the back, our burgeoning pride may blind us to the Truth that Jesus so clearly gave to the religious leaders in Matthew 12 when they accused His followers of working on the Sabbath: "I tell you, Something greater and more exalted and more majestic than the temple is here! And if you had only known what this saying means, 'I desire mercy rather than sacrifice', you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
In both the strictest keeping of the law and even in our "freedom" we may still completely miss the meaning and intentions of God and be like the Israelites in the wilderness who knew the acts of God but did not know the ways of God as Moses did.
Observing the Man
The Sabbath, as given in the Law of Moses, is completely fulfilled in Christ Himself. This is why He could boldly claim that He was the master of the Sabbath and that He was far greater than their holy day. As Paul said to the Colossians: "God disarmed the principalities and powers that were ranged against us... Therefore let no one sit in judgment on you in matters of food and drink, or with regard to a feast day or a New Moon or a Sabbath. Such things are only the shadow of things that are to come, and they have only a symbolic value. But the reality of it belongs to Christ." (Col 2:15-17). He IS the Sabbath personified! He IS the evidence of God's Perfect Work and the evidence of God's Rest and Satisfaction on the seventh day - He is THE Sabbath, a Holy Day!
He is Holiness personified and this Holy Man broke the Sabbath here on earth time and time again! It was one of the key reasons why the Jews wanted to kill Him: "...the Jews began to persecute Jesus and sought to kill Him because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, My Father has worked until now, and I, too, must be at work. This made the Jews more determined than ever to kill Him; because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but He actually was speaking of God as being His own Father, making Himself equal with God." (John 5:16-18, see also Matthew 12; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:14; John 7:19; 9:16). Why did He break the Sabbath so many times? To reveal that the Greater, the much greater than the temple (religious or church system) had come! He was revealing and exposing the fact that they were holding onto their religion, their temple/church, their tradition, their 'holy day' and the letter of the law rather than accepting the whole Word of God Himself revealed personally among them. He said: "you are nullifying and making void the Word of God through your tradition" (Mark 7:13).
Do we still see this happening today? Absolutely! This one law was a bone of contention for the religious people not only two thousand years ago, but today also. Just as Jesus was accused and persecuted for not doing what they thought He should do on the Sabbath, so also His brothers and sisters today are often accused of the same thing: not going to church or not setting aside Sunday as a holy day! This is because His disciples, both then and now, find their real Life in Christ rather than in traditions or in religion; they see and know that Something far greater than a mere day or a building is here! (Matt 12:6-8).
Observing the Eternal
Regardless of whether some "break the Sabbath" as the disciples of Jesus did or "observe the Sabbath" as the Pharisees did, all of that is merely temporal, outward, external observances and judgments or 'measuring the outer courtyard' of the temple and as such is comparatively unimportant to the eternal, internal Truth of Christ and His Life dwelling in us! (Gal 2:16, 3:2,3) What is vital is the eternal. God is always concerned with the internal - the sanctuary of our heart - for the heart is where worship of either Self or God originates.
The shift from the external, symbolic observances of the law of the Old Testament to the internal experience of the New Testament has to take place within us - God With Us, living, resting in us and us in Him. His Word is written in our hearts as we in turn rest and live in Him in our daily experience. Paul wrote much about this to the Galatians, encouraging them not to be bound by the law again (Galatians 4:9-11, 5:1,4-6).
The Old Testament is full of real life pictures and examples which we can learn from. Abraham, Jacob, Saul, David and Moses were all tested on this issue of not going ahead themselves but resting and waiting for GOD. The challenge and test for us is to trust and have confidence in God even when we do not see any evidence suggesting that we should do so; to simply trust and rest in Him and to not move ahead and do things ourselves even when it appears as though God is not doing as He promised or is too slow according to our timetable. "For he who has once entered God's rest also has ceased from the weariness and pain of human labors, just as God rested from those labors peculiarly His own. Let us therefore be zealous to enter that Rest of God, to know and experience it for ourselves, that no one may fall or perish by the same kind of unbelief and disobedience into which those in the wilderness fell." Hebrews 4:10,11.
Failing to wait patiently and steadfastly is failing to believe. Failing to believe is failing to trust. Failing to trust God is to have Self on the throne as lord and king and believing in your Self instead of God. Belief is not something we just acknowledge in our heads, it is something that must be in our hearts. If we simply believe from the head, our own emotions will easily control us and we will be tossed about by the winds of different teachings and the games of men (Eph 4:14). The bottom line is do I REALLY totally believe and trust God from my heart, no matter what? This was the test of the children of Israel in the wilderness, they wanted to enter the Promised Land, their place of rest, but could not do so because of their unbelief. This is exactly the same issue for each of us as His children today for Christ IS our Promised Land and Christ IS our Place and Day of Rest, our Sabbath:
"God’s promise of entering his place of rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to get there. For this Good News - that God has prepared a place of rest - has been announced to us just as it was to them. But it did them no good because they didn’t BELIEVE what God told them. For only we who believe can enter his place of rest. As for those who didn’t believe, God said, “In my anger I made a vow: They will never enter my place of rest," even though his place of rest has been ready since he made the world. We know it is ready because the Scriptures mention the seventh day, saying, “On the seventh day God rested from all his work.” But in the other passage God said, “They will never enter my place of rest.” So God’s rest is there for people to enter. But those who formerly heard the Good News failed to enter because they disobeyed God. So God set another time for entering his place of rest, and that time is TODAY. God announced this through David a long time later in the words already quoted: “Today you must listen to his voice. Don’t harden your hearts against him.” This new place of rest was not the land of Canaan, where Joshua led them. If it had been, God would not have spoken later about another day of rest. So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. For all who enter into God’s rest will find rest from their labors, just as God rested after creating the world." (Hebrews 4:6-10 NLT).
Our Father is grieved when we do not cease from our own work or activity of trying to please Him and simply REST in Him and His accomplished Work in knowing the Word of Christ as our Home or Resting Place. He LONGS for His children to enter into His Rest... the Rest that He has freely provided to all at such cost: His Son Jesus Christ as Lord of the Sabbath.
Observing the Stop Signs
The Hebrew word for Sabbath is "shabbathown" and is usually translated as "cease" or "rest". The root word "shabath" means:
to cease (STOP!), desist, rest; to cause to cease, put an end to; to exterminate, destroy; to remove; to cause to fail.
This is so simple and basic that it is hard for us to accept it: in order to rest in Christ we have to stop doing things ourselves. So often what we think God would want us to do (or "What Would Jesus Do") leads us into bondage instead of freedom because it is instigated and implemented by our flesh (through our reasoning and what we think is best) instead of by the Spirit. Jesus Christ brings us FREEDOM and not bondage. When we work with Him, in Him, and through Him, then there is an abundance of death-defying Life in operation:
"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with Me and you'll recover your Life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with Me and work with Me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (Matt 12:28-30 The Message).
One of the meanings of 'shabath' is to destroy or to cause to fail. Yes, God certainly does this with us! So often our discouragement and trials are because HE is working to cause all that is of our flesh to fail and be destroyed so that we may enter more fully into Him as our Rest! We do not like to fail or be destroyed and we will readily blame everything and everyone rather than accepting God's verdict upon our flesh and letting it die so that we may enter into His Rest. It is only when we truly Rest In Peace that the Spirit can come forth and be released from our body to live in and from the heavenlies where our true Life is.
Observing the Rest
In order to prevent us from fully apprehending Truth, our enemy will often try to push us to one extreme or the other and so twist things to his advantage. With this issue of rest, when God has opened our eyes to see and know Christ as our Sabbath Rest, satan may then try to discredit God's work by deceiving us into so-called "resting" which means doing nothing (perhaps better described as sleep or spiritual death) and so bring to a halt what God does want us to be doing. The truth is that resting in Christ is a place of real Life, activity and growth; but not as we have ever known it because it is largely unseen by man! If we know that there is no Life and no internal growth in us, then it may be the sleep of death we are in rather than Rest. If that is so, we need Christ to breathe His resurrection Life into us.
The other extreme in reaction to this is to be deceived into fighting God's true rest by viewing it as an attack: 'the enemy is trying to shut me down' and so we encourage ourselves to courageously battle on in the strength of our flesh even while zealously and sincerely believing we are doing the work of God... We fail to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit trying to shut down our flesh and that we are in fact fighting against God.
In any kingdom there can be only one king. In the kingdom of our individual lives, if Christ is not King and governing us, then we are still the lord and king of our own lives and we will be kept busy actively defending and maintaining our position and territory at all costs instead of just resting and letting THE King defend that which is His. Either we know God IS God and we relinquish all control of our lives to Him and rest and grow in the knowledge of Christ, or we retain control of ourselves and live in anxiety and unrest. Resting in Peace is an amazing thing, it is letting go all control to God - allowing Christ to be Lord of ALL - the Lord of our Rest, our Sabbath. It ought to be the most obvious and easy thing to do since He IS God - and yet we find it so hard to do because we have to first give up on ourselves, stop trusting ourselves and really start trusting and believing God! The encouraging thing about knowing Him as our Rest is that we can DO nothing to bring it about except submit to Him and rest; we simply have to know Him, yield and rest in Him and allow Him to do it all!
Observing a Warning
In speaking of His return, Jesus said, "Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath." (Matt 24:20). Obviously He didn't say this so that people wouldn't 'work' or exert themselves on a holy day because He Himself had worked on the Sabbath! Instead, this was just part of the picture He was seeking to portray of being prepared to receive Him and follow Him no matter what; being ready to leave whatever thing occupies us and being ready to run after Him at any moment.
Winter weather is a time of little growth and difficult outward circumstances which hinders any escape. This may refer to our circumstances, the things around us which say "you cannot and should not"! Of course Jews were not allowed to travel at all on the Sabbath so He says to pray that your escape won't be on a Sabbath or in winter. That's very practical. But rather than thinking literally, let's think spiritually about how this may apply to us today because Jesus was always saying spiritual things which people took naturally and literally instead of spiritually and so they often missed what He was really saying!
So, what was it that Jesus was saying they were to run and escape from? From idolatry in the holy place, ie anything and everything which takes the place of Christ in His temple of our lives: "When you see the appalling sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the Holy Place - let the reader take notice and heed this. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains..." (Matt 24:16). Judea may represent Judaism - religion. Those who are still bound by their religion and bound by keeping the Sabbath, cannot or will not leave it all and follow ONLY Christ. They want it to be Christ AND... Christ AND their religion. Christ AND the Sabbath. Christ AND my church. Christ AND what I'm comfortable with. Pray that we will hear His call to escape all the religious things which bind us, and instead discover the freedom which is in Him! Otherwise we may find that we are so entrenched in our religion that we will not leave it even for Him. The whole passage is a picture of urgency; running away from Judea (Judaism/religion), leaving everything and going up into the mountains. The mountains in the Bible are symbolic of the high places of God and being close to Him - the heavenlies.
One of the Greek words for rest is also translated as Liberty - we are free to rest, He is free to work! This is HIS work, and His choice and His desire for us and we simply must yield to Him: "For the Lord has chosen Zion, He has desired it for His habitation; This is My Resting Place forever, says the Lord, here will I dwell, for I have desired it. I will surely and abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread. Her priests also will I clothe with salvation, and her saints shall shout aloud for joy." The Provision of Christ! (Psalm 132:13-15). He provides all we need - bread, clothing, rest, joy - all is found in Him!
Oh, the wisdom of keeping and observing our Sabbath... of not working or doing our own works, but instead resting and knowing the Liberty and Holiness of Christ and keeping our eyes fixed on Him as our Sabbath... May He exterminate and destroy the restless flesh within each of us and always cause it to fail; for then we will come to truly "observe the Sabbath/Rest" Who is Christ!
When God reveals more of Who He is and who we are and we give up on ourselves and cease from our striving and doing, we can rest and relax into Who He is and He does it all! To be reduced to Christ and only Christ, is to really be enlarged to Everything! He becomes Everything: our Sabbath Rest, our Source of Life, our All. We are often still so alive to our own situations, our flesh and the big M.E. (My Earth) instead of being dead and buried with R.I.P. (Resting In Peace - i.e. Christ) carved into a tombstone above our piece of earth - ME. Yet it is only when we truly do Rest In Peace that the Spirit can come forth and be released from the body to be with Him and live in and from the heavenlies where our true Life is.
"I tell you, Something greater and more exalted and more majestic than the temple is here! And if you had only known what this saying means, 'I desire mercy rather than sacrifice', you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." Matthew 12:6-8.