The Sabbath: A day of delight, a day of freedom
I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior at the age of eight or nine. The gospel had such an overwhelming impact on me, and its power liberated me not only from what I considered as great sins but also my fears and apprehensions. I rejoiced in the strength of the gospel. The forgiveness experience was so real that I did not hesitate to share Jesus with my friends, teachers, and neighbors. I observed Sunday faithfully, went to church in the morning, and the praise hour in the evening. Although our pastor’s sermons, delivered in a thunderous tone from a high and lofty pulpit, were often boring and sometimes frightening, I never missed a Sunday morning service. I was a faithful Sunday keeper.
Then one summer, a young evangelist pitched his tent in our town and preached hitherto unheard of truths, such as the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, the soon coming of Jesus, the conditional immortality of the soul, tithing, and the Sabbath. Each truth leaped from the Bible, and nothing preached went unsupported by the Scripture.
Thus it was I chose to join the first seventh-day Sabbath keeper. I knew Him before, but now it seemed as if I knew Him more fully. But immediately I became a laughingstock of my friends and an object of scorn for my Anglican pastor. “Aren’t you foolish to miss classes on Saturday?” asked my friends and teachers. “You are a legalist, a slave to the law, and you can’t have the joy of the gospel,” said the pastor, who had never said any such thing when I observed Sunday just as faithfully.
Some six decades later, I can confidently and enthusiastically say that I may have been a fool in the Pauline sense, but certainly not a legalist. My fellowship with God increased, not decreased, because I chose to follow Him and His Son (Luke 4:16) and His apostles (Acts 13:14, 42) in keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. The joy of the gospel has only increased with the discovery of Sabbath. I could embrace the gospel as fully as ever and keep the seventh day holy without losing the joy of freedom or succumbing to the perils of legalism.
I say this for four biblical reasons: (1) the Sabbath tells me who I am;
(2) the Sabbath reminds me that Jesus died for my sins; (3) the Sabbath provides me fellowship; and (4) the Sabbath points to my eternal rest in God.
The Sabbath gives me identity
Let us begin at the beginning: “And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all His work which He had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2, 3).1
The seventh-day Sabbath shows that God is my Creator. A scientist may say I am “an accidental collocation of atoms.”2 A philosopher may trace my life to a first principle. A poet may say that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”3 But I cannot, and shall not. For I am made in the image of God, and the Sabbath continually reminds me of that magnificent fact. And it invites me to enter into God’s rest, even as it invited Adam and Eve. Sabbath is to join the Creator to celebrate the joy of life and to recognize forever that life comes not as a result of our work but as a gift from God’s grace.
The One who made us also made the Sabbath. He rested on it. Not that He was exhausted and needed rest (Isaiah 40:28), but He chose to establish a day, sanctify it, and make it holy, in order that humanity would escape from the tyranny of material preoccupation and enter into the holiness of rest, worship, and fellowship. It is not a day of drudgery, but one of delight, an experience of supreme joy that can come only when one communes heart to heart with one’s Creator. Was that not the case with Adam and Eve, when they along with “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7), and bowed before their Creator in worship and adoration on that first Sabbath?
Could worship, praise, adoration, and fellowship be anything but a joyful experience, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Creator on the one hand and our identity as members of God’s family on the other? Nowhere is this relationship between Sabbath and joy, between obedience to God and delight of the soul stated more eloquently than in Isaiah 58:13, 14: “‘If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
Mark this passage. It is addressed to God’s people. They did not become God’s people because they were keeping the Sabbath. They were God’s people because God had created them and chosen them. To acknowledge that choice, to cement the relationship that arises out of it, God calls upon us to keep the Sabbath. Thus Sabbath is no legalistic stricture. It is a point in the line of time through eternity to remind us continually of our special relationship with God. And it is “a ‘delight in the Lord.’”
Sabbath reminds me God is my Redeemer
Sabbath not only gives me identity but also reminds me that I am part of God’s redeemed family. When we Christians recite the Ten Commandments, we normally begin with the words, “‘You shall have no other Gods before me’” (Exodus 20:3). But the Jews do it differently. They begin with the prologue from verses 1 and 2: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’”
Catch the difference. God did not choose the Israelites because they were good people, obeying God’s law. No, God chose them out of His mercy, out of His love and grace. When they were slaves in Egypt, when they had no dignity, God remembered them, redeemed them, and made them His own. To protect that close, reconciled, redeemed relationship, He gave them the law as an expression of His eternal moral nature, and He invited them to become part of His family. There is no legalism here, only liberty, eternal liberty, initiated and preserved by His grace and grace alone.
Thus the Ten Commandments were principles outlining God’s redemptive lifestyle for the human race. The fourth commandment, in a way, is unique. It charges God’s people to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), for in six days the Lord completed the work of creation “and rested the seventh-day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11). Six days are there to do our work, but when the seventh comes around, it’s time to remember that we are not our own. We belong to the Creator and the Redeemer. Six days of work must not be allowed to minimize or ignore the magnificence of one unique day of worship, fellowship and rest. “The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization”4 and experience the mystery of God’s commonwealth.
If Exodus provides Creation as the reason for Sabbath observance, Deuteronomy supplies a complementary reason: “You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day”(Deuteronomy 5:15).
Sabbath observance is a continual and clear reminder that we are not our own. We are God’s. Without Him, we are nothing. He created us. He sustains us. And then we are in an Egypt of our own: sin’s oppression, loneliness, despair, drudgery, and death. Out of this Egypt we cannot on our own march out to freedom. We need the “mighty hand” and “an outstretched arm” of God. Hence the cross: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). The breath of God created us; the blood of Jesus redeemed us. And both mighty acts are to be remembered by the keeping of the Sabbath. Each week we celebrate Sabbath in recognition that “the power that created all things is the power that re-creates the soul in His own likeness.”5 Hence the shout of Ezekiel: “I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them” (Ezekiel 20:12).
Sabbath provides fellowship
To the fact that Sabbath reminds us of God as our Creator and Redeemer, we must quickly add one more. It is a day of fellowship and worship, when God’s family comes together in an absolute sense of unworthiness before their Maker, and of unity and equality between one another. “Before God’s throne,” writes Ludwig Koehler, “there will hardly ever be a greater testimony given on your behalf than the statement, ‘He had time for me.’”6
The commandment enjoins the believer to remember the Sabbath as a great leveler of people: the son and the daughter, the professor and the student, the banker and the barber, the stranger within the gates must all be embraced by the rest of the Sabbath. Thus “the Sabbath,” says Heschel, “is an embodiment of the belief that all men are equal and that equality of men means the nobility of men.”7 Is this human equality not what the gospel proclaims (Ephesians 2:11-16)?
We cannot observe the Sabbath without seriously taking the social responsibility that comes with it. Worship is not enough; fellowship must follow. We must become responsible for our neighbors. Did not Jesus Himself point to this social obligation of life in His Sabbath sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19)? Even as He observed the Sabbath “as His custom was,” He did not fail to point out that such observance has meaning only as it is bonded “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” For the year of the Lord has come!
Sabbath points to eternal rest
There in Nazareth in His inaugural speech of the kingdom of God, Jesus connected the observance of the Sabbath with the proclamation of the good news. The gospel sets us free from the bondage of sin. As free beings, not as slaves, we come to worship and praise God as our Creator and Redeemer. This acknowledgement is no doubt a continual and daily task, but on Sabbath, it becomes an extraordinarily special task; we cease all work, reaffirm our self-abandonment, come to the Creator in total surrender, and enter into His rest. This entering into His rest is symbolic of entering into the eternal rest that Hebrews speaks about: “[T]here remains a sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
The continuation from the present to the future, from current reality to future hope, cannot be missed. Just as sure as the kingdom of grace and the blessings of salvation are a present experience and a future anticipation, so are the blessings of Sabbath a present experience and an indication of the future entry into rest in God’s kingdom of glory. In that light, Isaiah’s prophecy takes on a special meaning: “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord;… from Sabbath, to sabbath all flesh shall come to worship before me” (Isaiah 66:22, 23). Thus, the Sabbath links the joy of today with the hope of tomorrow; it is a day that celebrates the gospel and acknowledges God’s sovereignty; it, as Karl Barth says, points to “the God who is gracious to man in Jesus Christ…. It points him away from everything that he himself can will and achieve and back to what God is for him and will do for him.”8
Embracing the gospel and observing the Sabbath
But is insistence on Sabbath observance, particularly the biblical seventh-day, legalistic? We might as well ask the question: can biblical insistence on a particular lifestyle – compassion, love, going the second mile, the Beatitudes – be legalistic? The answer is yes and no and is dependent on the motivation. A legalist keeps the law or follows a particular lifestyle as a way of salvation. But no amount of keeping the Sabbath or any other commandment can save a person. Salvation is possible only in the gospel of Jesus Christ, for “it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Romans 1:16). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God –not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the law because He healed on Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11; Mark 3:3-6; John 5:1-16, et. al.), and Jesus’ answer in each case was consistent with the meaning of Sabbath that it is a day to bring glory to God and not to indulge in self. The miracles of Jesus showed the real purpose of His coming: to restore and redeem life. The Pharisaic obsession was legalism; the attitude of Jesus was grace in action. Ellen White has said it well: “God could not for a moment stay His hand or man would faint and die. And man also has a work to perform on this day. The necessities of life must be attended to, the sick must be cared for, the wants of the needy must be supplied. He will not be held guiltless who neglects to relieve suffering on the Sabbath. God’s holy rest day was made for man, and acts of mercy are in perfect harmony with its intent. God does not desire His creatures to suffer an hour’s pain that may be relieved upon the Sabbath or any other day.”9
Christian discipleship is not achievement of a moral status, but reception of Christ’s calling; it is not moral perfection, but a constant abiding in Him. It is a love relationship with Jesus. Once that abiding is established, fruits follow as a natural course. The principle is a simple one: first love, then its fruits; first grace, then obedience. Obedience does not produce love; love produces obedience. Obedience does not bring about forgiveness; grace does that. Any attempt to distort the order inevitably leads to legalism. And in rejecting legalism, any bid to deny obedience its role in discipleship turns to cheap grace. Christian discipleship has no room for either the heresy of legalism or the luxury of cheap grace.
Thus Christians, who love their Lord and who are saved by His grace, will obey their Lord. The embrace of the gospel is the first step; the observance of the Sabbath is an inevitable follow-up, a delight in the Lord. For the Sabbath is an “exodus from tension, a sanctuary in time, a palace in time with a kingdom for all,” and its observance “the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time.”10
We can come to that wonderland only when we accept God as our Creator and Redeemer.
John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate Director of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the editor of Dialogue. E-mail: email@example.com.
- All Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the Revised Standard Version.
- Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (New York: Doubleday, 1929), p. 45.
- Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, 5, 17.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: The Noonday Press, 1975), p. 27.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 350.
- Ludwig Koehler, “The Day of Rest in the Old Testament,” Lexington Theological Quarterly (July 1972), pp. 71, 72. Quoted in Sakae Kubo, God Meets Man (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publ. Assn., 1978), p. 29.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1959), p. 417.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh:
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1898), p. 207.
- Heschel, The Sabbath, pp. 29, 21, 18.
T & T Clark, 1961), vol. III, part 4, p. 53.