The Ten Commandments are a foundational building block of Western culture. Like it or not, they are ingrained into our ethical framework. Some of us may reject the concept of divine commands, but no one can deny the influence of these commandments on our society’s development. By in large, the commandments make sense. Take the last six for example. Honoring parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying, and not coveting our neighbor’s possessions are all reasonable tenets for establishing a stable society. The first three also make sense if God is the sovereign creator giving the law. Place no other gods before the true God. Do not make idols to replace God. Do not take the name of the LORD in vain. These make sense to the religious without having to think too much. Then there is the fourth commandment: “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It probably does not make immediate sense to us as the other nine commandments do. It is the one commandment Christians are most likely to disregard as ceremony and thus inconsequential (though the disregard is often unconscious). What is the need for the Sabbath? Though it may not be obvious, the Sabbath is both practical and a time set apart for theological reflection.
Jesus had a lot to say about the Sabbath. It could be argued that no commandment caused more conflict between Jesus and his opponents than the Sabbath command. Chapters 2 and 3 of the Gospel of Mark contain helpful examples of this conflict. Near the end of chapter 2, Jesus and his disciples walk through a wheat field on the Sabbath and pluck a few grains (the context suggests they were gathering them for food). The Pharisees saw this as “work” and took exception. In the beginning of chapter 3, a man with a withered hand is brought to Jesus for healing. His opponents watched to see if he would heal the man, which would run afoul of their conception of the Sabbath. Jesus heals the man and his opponents begin to conspire to kill him. In Mark, Jesus’s teaching on the Sabbath brings his enemies together and sows the first seeds of his crucifixion.
Jesus’s response to his opponents in these two conflicts reveal important aspects about the Sabbath. First of all, Jesus in no way disregards the Sabbath. It is important. He only challenges his opponent’s conception of the proper practice of the Sabbath. In verses 2:27, Jesus teaches that “the Sabbath was made for the sake of man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath serves a purpose for us. Jesus’s opponents had set up fences and rules that served as a master over them rather than letting the Sabbath serve its true purpose, which is “for” the betterment of humankind.
In Mark 3:4, Jesus asks an important question regarding the Sabbath. “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to do evil; to save a life or to kill?” Healing the man was not a violation of Jesus’s conception of the Sabbath. It was not work. It was life.
Semantics get in the way of our understanding of the Sabbath. The word “rest” implies a cessation of all activity. In Exodus 20:8-11, the Sabbath command is linked to the creation account in Genesis 1-2:3. Do we really think that God ceased all activity on the 7th day? That would imply a deist worldview.1 The “rest” of God on the 7th day means that God’s ex nihilo creative work is done. It is also is the start of God’s relationship with his creation.2 It is a relationship that leads to life. God has not ceased all activity. On the 7th day, God is actively living with creation. Sabbath rest is not about whether you should cut your grass on a Sunday. It is striving to live a life in harmony with God.
As noted above, Jesus teaches that the Sabbath was made for man. It has benefit for us. It is not empty ceremony. The concept of Sabbath as physical rest is beneficial even for the non-religious. This Atlantic article highlights a secular need for Sabbath to disengage from the constant capitalist struggle and recenter ourselves and society. Medical experts have argued that the concept of Sabbath has health benefits such as a decrease in depression and anxiety (see this CNN interview with Dr. Matthew Sleeth). Considering its benefits, the Sabbath starts to make sense to us. It really does belong among the other nine practical commandments after all.
The Sabbath has practical benefits for everyone, but that practical benefit does not exhaust the meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath has spiritual and theological purpose. Any theologian worth studying has examined the Sabbath and its meaning. The 16th century reformer John Calvin is a good example.3 Calvin discusses the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath in Book II:8, §§ 28-344 of his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin believes that physical rest is a good practical purpose for the commandment much like the modern scholars noted in the previous paragraph. Calvin specifically argues that Christian employers have a special responsibility to give their employers time off from their labors.5
However important that practical rest is, more important is his third use of the Sabbath (largely treated as an afterthought by modernity). For Calvin, the primary reason we practice the Sabbath is that we rest from our labors in order to allow God to work in and through us. It has a spiritual purpose directed toward the worship and service of God. As such, Calvin believes that the Sabbath should not ultimately be limited to a single day. Christians should try to “aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.”6
Although Calvin believes that the Sabbath should be an ever-present reality for the Christian, he also recognizes the practical need to set aside a time for rest and worship. Therefore, Calvin’s other purpose of the Sabbath is to establish a time for the meditation, worship, and study of God and his Word. This time should be both in private devotion and in public worship services with a congregation. The Sabbath is for theological reflection.
The Sabbath as a time for theological reflection is a compelling concept. At this point, I want build on Calvin’s conception and expand the theological reflection to include the two versions of the Sabbath command found in the Pentateuch.7 Exodus 20:8-11 contains the first reference to the Sabbath commandment. In 20:11, the reason for the Sabbath is tied to the first Genesis creation account. It reads, “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.”8
In the book of Exodus, keeping the Sabbath holy follows a pattern established by God in the creation of the world. It reminds us of how God has provided for us in creation. He has given us a place to thrive. The Sabbath reminds us that God is the creator and we are the contingent created beings. Let me give you a visual illustration of the relationship:
It is vital to keep this relationship straight. The sin of Adam and Eve was a violation of this matrix. They sought to be like God. They sought the knowledge of good and evil for themselves rather than relying on God. They wanted to inhabit the center of their universe rather than orbit around their gracious creator. They were not satisfied with existing as dependent created beings.
If we get this relationship straight, it unlocks much fruitful theological thinking. It helps to explain why God is transcendent and always just beyond our full understanding. It gives us the proper conception that God is not merely a being among beings, but God is that which brought being about.9 It helps to illuminate the meaning and purpose of being the image of God on the earth. As created beings, we reflect the care and concern of our creator. Being a reflection of the pattern of creation, the Sabbath is an opportunity to reflect on all that God’s act of creation means for us.
The second giving of the Sabbath commandment is found in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 Here, the command to rest found in Exodus 20:8-11 is reiterated. However, Deuteronomy 5 connects the command to the exodus from Egypt rather than the creation account. Deuteronomy 5:15 reads, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” Deuteronomy gives us a second matrix to reflect upon on the Sabbath. God is our savior. We are the saved. Here it is illustrated:
Deuteronomy is more explicit than Exodus in calling the Sabbath observer to “remember” that God is our savior. Sabbath is a time to admit that we do not save ourselves. Instead, we are the saved. While we are incapable of saving ourselves, God has graciously provided salvation for us in Jesus. The Sabbath is an explicit opportunity to acknowledge this salvation and give praise for it.
Considering the two primary instances of the Sabbath commandment in the Old Testament, the Sabbath is a time for humans to reflect upon and worship God as the independent creator and savior while also acknowledging that we are the dependent created and saved ones.
It is apparent that the Sabbath is both practical as physical rest and important as time set apart for explicit theological reflection. There is not one single meaning or purpose for the Sabbath. It is a multivalent concept. Modern non-religious thinkers have found it beneficial. Calvin examined its practical and theological meanings, but in no way completely mined its theological depths. A number of purposes for the Sabbath have been given here, but there are many other valid purposes that have not been touched. When considering the Sabbath, we must always have the criteria that Jesus set in Mark 2-3 in focus. Is the purpose of the Sabbath FOR humans rather than dominating OVER humans? Secondly, and most importantly, does the purpose of the Sabbath lead to life rather than death? The purpose(s) that we ascribe to the Sabbath must ultimately lead toward life in harmony with God.
1. Deism does not deny the existence of a god, but suggests that god is distant and unconcerned with our existence. The well-trod metaphor of God as a clockmaker is often used to explain deism. He made the clock and wound up the gears. Then, he stepped away.
2. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. J.W. Edwards, O. Bussey, and H. Knight (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2010), III.1:217. See also Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 385. Childs argues that the creation account is “not to be understood merely as a ‘constitutive relationship’, or an expression of ‘a mode of being’ characterizing creator and creature.” It is to be understood as the beginning of a history with God. I believe this implies a false trichotomy and disagree. It can be all three at once. See also Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 1128-1129. Erickson is examining “rest” in heaven, but hits upon the idea that the biblical concept of rest is “not merely the cessation of activities, but the experience of reaching a goal of crucial importance.”
3. I choose Calvin because he is both well-known and his work is widely accessible on the internet. You can follow this link to read the relevant passages in his Institutes from CCEL.org.
4. Do not be intimidated by the weird citation. Calvin’s Institutes is broken up into four “Books.” These books are further broken up into chapters. So, Book II:8 means that the passages are in the 8th chapter of the 2nd book. Each chapter is then broken down into sections (sometimes called paragraphs). Book II, chapter 8 is broken down into 7 separate sections, which are indicated with a § symbol. Many older works are referred to with this type of notation because there are many different published versions and this form of citation makes finding the relevant passages possible across different versions.
5. Calvin speaks in terms of master and servant. In our society, the concept is easily transferable to the employer/employee relationship.
6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2008), 253 (Book II:8 §34). For this quote I am using Beveridge’s English translation of the original Latin.
7. “Pentateuch” is a technical term for the first five books of the Bible. It literally means “5 books.”
8. All Old Testament quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
9. The famous phrase of the theologian Paul Tillich is that God is “the ground of all being.”