By Alicia Johnston, 04/10/2017       

Have you ever wondered what on earth the purpose of the Sabbath is? Maybe it’s easier for us who have grown up in the Adventist church to take for granted the importance and practice of Sabbath. It’s certainly easier for those who don’t have a Sabbath work conflict to not worry too much about it. When it doesn’t interfere with your ability to provide for yourself and your family, the Sabbath is very nice. It’s a pleasant addition to a person’s life. I particularly like the way it provides obligation to enjoy myself instead of obligation to get more and more done like I experience the other six days of the week.

This commandment spends more time talking about how we treat each other on the Sabbath, than how we love God or our personal experience of the Sabbath. Even the animals were included.

But for some people the Sabbath does interfere with work or activities that are very important to them. One of the things we require in the baptismal vows is a commitment to keep the Sabbath, and for many people such a commitment is very costly. Before I was a pastor, I used to trade vacation days in order to get Sabbaths off. I’d trade Thanksgiving or Christmas for Sabbath. Such a sacrifice is nothing compared to sacrifices people make in faith who don’t know how they are going to get by financially when they begin keeping the Sabbath. Explanations about keeping the Sabbath for the purpose of our own relaxation and enjoyment of life don’t work so well for people who don’t know how to pay the bills.

The other reason we give for keeping the Sabbath is that we are following God’s command, a sign of loyalty to God. I’m all about following God’s commands. What I don’t like is when we talk about God’s commands as if they are arbitrary. God’s commands exist for a reason. The law is intended to progress the Kingdom of God and to deepen the love we have for God and for one another. That’s a goal that is worth sacrifice. So how does that Sabbath accomplish such a lofty goal?

The Purpose of the Sabbath

We’ve probably all heard the traditional division of the Ten Commandments into 4+6. The first four commandments, including the Sabbath, are about loving God. The second six commandments are about loving others. It’s something most of us has accepted and don’t really question. But let’s read the fourth commandment with the specific question in mind, does this commandment speak about how we treat each other?

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath to the lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11, ESV)

The answer is startlingly clear. This commandment spends more time talking about how we treat each other on the Sabbath than how we love God or the personal experience of Sabbath. There is a long list of people to whom the Hebrews were commanded to extend the grace of not working on the Sabbath. Even the animals were included. This amounts to a command to extend the grace of the Sabbath to all living creatures in our sphere of influence. This is clear in both English and the original Hebrew. It’s also true of the Hebrew version of this commandment that the Sabbath has the most words dedicated to it, and that when you line up the whole of the Ten Commandments and look at what is in the middle, it’s the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is right in the center and it connects the first and second halves of the Ten Commandments. A better way to conceptualize the purpose of the Sabbath is that it’s 3+1+6 with the fourth commandment providing the connecting link. The Sabbath is reaching one hand up to heaven in acknowledgement and honor of God’s creative act, and reaching the other hand out to our neighbor to extend grace and rest to God’s creation.

The Importance of the Sabbath

It’s difficult to imagine a culture in which such a message is more important than ours. We have a consumer economy. Consumerism is the toxic fume we breath in with each highly-targeted google-add in our sidebar, and with each desire we find in ourselves for more, more, more. Few things are more difficult for us than refusing to buy something we want for the sake of someone else. Each and every day we are encouraged to spend our resources on ourselves, and to to work harder, longer, and smarter so we can have more resources to spend on more of the things we want.

The more we have, the better neighborhoods we can live in. Good neighborhoods mean we are separate from people who have less than us. We don’t have to see them, engage with them, or understand the realities of their lives. We can eat at better restaurants, drive better cars, go on more luxurious vacations, send our children to better schools—the list goes on and on and on. In the final accounting, consumerism results in broken communities. It’s the age-old separation between the haves and the have-nots, because some people are able for one reason or another to do a better job of accumulating goods than others. Some of us are contemplating taking a nice vacation while others are wondering how to get food on the table or hoping they can get by without healthcare.

The Sabbath doesn’t fix all this, but taken seriously the Sabbath does force us to take a big step back for one day out of seven. Refusing for one day to participate in this broken and fallen system is good for the soul, particularly when we understand it as a day for healing relationships broken by consumerism.

Sabbath rightly understood is a great day to share what you already have with someone who occupies a different strata than you do in the economic hierarchy. It’s a day for some of us to realize that what we already have is beyond enough, and for others who don’t have enough to experience the provision of a community that cares about all people. That sharing should extend beyond sharing material goods and into sharing time, stories, and our lives for each other. Such experiences can be transformational. And when all was functioning as it should, they were part of the experience of the early church (Acts 2:44; 1 Cor 11:17-22).

Beyond the Seventh Day

In the Hebrew scriptures the Sabbath is extended beyond the one-day-in-seven observance in the fourth commandment to the one-year-in-seven sabbath year, and even beyond that to the year of Jubilee which happened every seventh sabbath year. All these observances, which are described in Leviticus 25, were about restoring economic access to those who were the most vulnerable.

Every seven years the land was to lie fallow for the sabbath year—no one was to work the land. Whatever the land produced during this year was not to be sold. It could be used for the family who owned it, but also for the servants and for the temporary residents who may not have had any other resources. Every seventh Sabbath year (the year of Jubilee) was even better. In that year all the slaves were freed and all the land was to revert to the original owners, which meant to means of production in the economy were re-distributed in an even way throughout the community every 49 years.

Another way of putting this would be that the weekly Sabbath was both a practice and a principle, and that principle should extend far beyond the simple keeping of the seventh day. The Sabbath is a day for restoration of relationships that are inevitably torn apart by the economic systems that seek to control us. Understanding this about the Sabbath and bringing this understanding into the way we observe the Sabbath is only supposed to be the beginning. The lessons of the Sabbath and the experience of sacrificing for and celebrating it should permeate our lives, our communities, and our relationships. Otherwise, we are just taking a day off.


Alicia Johnston serves the Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as the pastor of Foothills Community Church. She is an obsessive reader, a poor guitar player, and a lover of sunshine.

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