The question of what it means to “observe the Sabbath” as a Christian has always intrigued me. Judaism seems to have very clear guidelines about this observance; basically anything that can be construed as work is not to be done. “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death” (Exod. 35:2, NIV).
If I were Jewish, I suspect my own observation of the Sabbath would vary greatly week to week, depending on how I felt like defining work. Washing dishes—definitely work. Gardening—not work when I’m in the mood to garden; if I’m feeling lazy, it’s classified as work.
Isaiah 58 brings us a pretty vivid description of God’s intention for the Sabbath, and it doesn’t involve a bunch of self-made rules. One of the ways people of the day would observe the Sabbath was by fasting. Here they cry out to God to notice their self-denial.
His response? “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isa. 58:3b-4).
The Lord makes clear that he is not interested in empty rituals, which promote self-righteousness and self-absorption. So what is God after when it comes to observing the Sabbath? The answer here is pretty interesting, and one I hadn’t thought of before:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (58:6-7)
God was asking the people to act in ways contrary to their human nature, just for a day. He wanted to provide rest from the chaos and injustice of the fallen world. He is not trying to make us miserable by calling for Sabbath observance; it’s his desire that we participate in healing, rest, and renewal in the midst of this sin-stricken life.
That is exactly the work Jesus performed every day, including Sabbath days. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It’s our opportunity to turn away from ourselves, and outward to others. It’s a day set aside to revel in the selflessness of God’s great gift to us, and to allow love and generosity to pour forth out of thanksgiving for such an undeserved gift.
“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness” (Isa. 58:10).