How to keep the Sabbath

 
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As a kid, I always found the ads in the back pages of comic books as interesting as the adventure stories themselves. One time I sent an order for a fistful of plastic finger rings that promised true red-blooded-boy fulfilment. One ring had a tiny mirror, presumably for reflecting sun-blinks to your friend. Another produced an ominous siren moan when you blew through it.

But the ring I found most fascinating was the “decoder ring.” If you and your friend adjusted your rings’ alphabet-wheels exactly the same, the two of you could write each other coded messages that nobody else could decipher.

Recently I wondered, “Does God’s Sabbath need decoding? Have we scrambled it so badly, encrypted its meaning so completely, that we’re missing what it has to offer?” After all, Sabbath has often been portrayed as a dull, lifeless relic of legalism. It’s been shifted from the seventh day to the first and then shrunk from 24 hours to an impatient hour-and-a-half before the football game begins. At least one occult-themed rock band has included “Sabbath” in its name, and according to the dictionary I keep at my desk, the word sabbatical is little more than “a period of time during which someone does not work at his or her regular job and is able to rest, travel, do research.” Sabbath’s reputation has been so badly diluted and even twisted that people who aren’t familiar with their Bibles don’t even go near it. They think, “What’s the use?”

But those who do base their lives on what the Bible says are tantalised by the seventh day’s beauty and its promises. Next time you’re looking for books on Amazon.com, do a search on the word Sabbath and you’ll discover all kinds of thoughtful volumes that are written by theologians from many denominations. And these books make it into print because publishers sense that people have an overwhelming hunger for spiritual rest.

The Bible, of course, is the Sabbath’s most dependable decoder ring. Following are some Bible truths that, for me, reveal the Sabbath’s life-changing secrets and tell me how to keep it God’s way.

The Sabbath is God’s first gospel parable. Jesus told many “good news” parables about grace for those who need it: a prodigal son, a lost sheep, even lilies who neither toil nor spin yet revel in their God-given beauty. In the same way, God gave the Sabbath to Adam and Eve, not as a reward for a week of toil but as a gift of grace. God has done the “heavy lifting.” He’s reminding you that your first priority is to rest in Him.

The Sabbath means God takes responsibility for my day-to-day survival. Nowadays many people work two jobs, sometimes three, yet barely scrape by. In Exodus 20:8–11, God reminds us to “remember” how He rested on that first Sabbath and how we are to refrain from work during that time as well. And in Isaiah 58:13, 14, He promises blessings to those who honour His Sabbath.

Carving out 24 hours of Sabbath rest can be a breathtaking idea if you’re just hanging on financially by your fingernails. Yet God gives you permission (and if you need it, a gracious and insistent command) to keep your laptops shut on Sabbath, keep the world news turned off, even leave the yard tools in the garage. “I’ll take care of everything you need for these 24 hours,” He says, “and this will give you practice in trusting Me from Sunday through Friday. Just relax. I’ll work things out for you.” Millions who have accepted God’s challenge to honour His genuine seventh-day Sabbath have discovered how true this is.

In the Bible’s less liberated cultures, the Sabbath must have been especially refreshing to women, because the fourth commandment insists that not just men but female servants, and even work animals, deserve a Sabbath rest. Cooking and cleaning and other ordinary weekday duties should be done on earlier days so that the Sabbath can be special.

The Sabbath is God’s date with me. Couples date to get to know each other better, and often these dates end in a lifelong love relationship. God knows that many of His children ignore Him, distrust Him or worry about what He thinks of them. Sabbath is a perfect day to have a date with God and restore your relationship with Him. Genesis 2 and Exodus 20 firmly link the Sabbath with Creation, and millions of people use that day to ponder His creative works and enjoy them. And they’re humbled and heartened by glimpses into His lavish, astonishing, good-humoured creativity.

However, some people are puzzled by what Isaiah 58 says. Verse 13 tells us to “turn away our foot from the Sabbath” (stop trampling on it) and “call the Sabbath a delight.” But later in the same verse it advises against “finding your own pleasure” on the seventh day. At first glance, this seems to take all the fun out of the day we’re supposed to be calling a delight. Is this a contradiction?

In my teens I read as many detective-mystery books as I could get my hands on, especially those by one particular author. A couple of decades later I noticed one of this author’s books in a library, so I checked it out and settled down for the same thrilling “read” I’d experienced as a teen. But instead, the book seemed like drinking flat Fanta. What had seemed so witty and well-plotted before was now blasé, and I got no further than 10 pages, because I no longer cared. My literary tastes had matured.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ time had legislated most of the joy out of his favourite day.

When you think of it, a lot of our usual pleasures have to do with either competition (engaging in sports or watching other people compete) or voyeurism (vicariously living the lives of others through movies, books or other media).

But the delightful pleasures of the Sabbath are centred on the stunning realities gifted us by a creative and caring God. When my wife, Shelley, and I walk along the bush track near our neighbourhood and see crows or chickadees or the rarely glimpsed pileated woodpecker that we can hear slamming his beak into a dead tree, we see them not as randomly evolved life-forms competing with us for survival but as what they are—gifts from our Maker, for our enjoyment. Every fellow-hiker’s dog that sniffs curiously at my knuckles is a message of love from above, reminding me of a future restored Eden when all creation will again be in harmony.

Sabbath-keeping has evolved over the years. I grew up in a culture where conscientious parental efforts at Sabbath reverence backfired. After warning kids not to play, Dad would doze off on the living room couch, leaving the kids to try to figure out some kind of “holy” diversion. No wonder we kids thought of Sabbath as long and dull and counted the minutes till sundown.

Thankfully, this has changed. Nowadays parents deliberately plan Sabbath activities to make them joyful. They schedule hikes, stock up on rainy-day nature videos (to be watched only on Sabbaths to keep them special), purchase zoo passes ahead of time and deliberately sidestep any activity that involves stores, sports events or anything else secular.

These days, Sabbath-keeping dads roll off the couch and get down on the floor and play with their kids. Do an online search for “Sabbath-keeping ideas” and you’ll find lots of websites from a surprising spectrum of denominations. 

Jesus teaches us how to celebrate Sabbath. Sabbath was always one of Jesus’ busiest ministry days. He lived a sinless life (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22), which means that He violated none of His Father’s commandments, including the one about the Sabbath. Sadly, the religious leaders in Jesus’ time had legislated most of the joy out of His favourite day, and He went head-to-head with them about this on many occasions. In Matthew 15:6, for example, He told them, “You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (NKJV).*

What did Jesus do on the Sabbath? First, He made it His custom to attend and participate in worship (Luke 4:16). Some of His most powerful teaching moments took place in synagogues, and in Matthew 18:20 He urges us to remember that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (NKJV). Jesus’ advice to you and me is to attend a Bible-believing church regularly.

Second, Jesus often healed on the Sabbath. Sabbath-keeping doctors, nurses and other medical professionals understand that their life-enhancing work is a valid Sabbath activity. So is helping someone in need. The first Sabbath-keeping church I attended was on the South Dakota prairies, and if we saw someone stuck in the snow while driving to church, we promptly stopped and helped push their car to freedom.

Does the above help decode the Sabbath puzzle? I hope so! And now it’s your turn to experience true Sabbath joy!


* Bible quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.