Thoughts on Sabbath
“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, NASB).
In one of His conflicts with Pharisees, Jesus made the above statement.
Perhaps it is not always easy, especially for those of us raised careful to honor Sunday, to see how carefulness about what we do or do not do on the Lord’s day is a gift from God — but this, Jesus tells us, is the purpose of Sabbath.
I think we can easily get the sense that Sabbath observance focuses on rules:
- don’t work,
- don’t play except in certain ways,
- don’t buy,
- don’t sell,
- wear uncomfortable dress clothes,
- sit in services and classes for hours.
Often Sundays are days of scurry, especially if we have the large, expansive Sunday dinner.
I think these things have reasonable roots in honoring God, but they may obscure the heart of Sabbath. Scripture is clear: Sabbath is rest. It’s the rest God takes in Genesis 2:2-3, and it’s cessation of labor in Exodus 23. It’s the set-aside day throughout Exodus and Leviticus.
But why? Why the emphasis on what we do not do on this day? I see two important aspects of Sabbath as God’s gift.
First, it is freedom and relief and release. Interestingly, Pharaoh mentions the concept in Exodus 5:5, complaining that Moses wants the people to stop working. It’s as the people leave Egypt’s bondage that God gives the gift of Sabbath. It’s the opposite of the constant work slavery meant for them. Just as Jesus promises an easy yoke and light burden, so God quickly shows Israel that He is not like Pharaoh, but He gives the gift of rest.
However much we may have shrouded this aspect of Sabbath by emphasizing elaborate meals, dressing to the nines and packing the day full, God created Sabbath for rest, for renewal.
Second, and more deeply, Sabbath is dependence. Humanly, it just doesn’t make sense to take time off working — there are things to do, there’s money to be made! God hits this in Exodus 34:21, where He emphasizes that even during the crucial farming times of planting and harvest, the rest is to be observed. Why? Because results — whether good crops or productivity at the office — depend on God’s blessing, not our efforts alone.
The weekly reminder of dependence on God fits a scriptural pattern. In Deuteronomy 17, God forbids Israel’s king from multiplying horses — in other words, Israel was deliberately to avoid some key human means of defense, because God was their greatest security.
Repeatedly, God’s covenants with Israel connect their prosperity not with sophisticated agricultural techniques or incredible dedication to work or excellent soil, but with a maintained, obedient relationship with Him. The same is true of their protection from other nations.
In fact, God orders all males to attend annual festivals in a single place (Ex. 23:17, Deut. 16:16), leaving the land highly exposed to invasion — except that God promises to keep that from happening (Ex. 34:24). Throughout the Old Testament, God gives illustration after illustration that He is the source of provision and security — that He is Israel’s sufficiency.
That, I think, is the heart of Sabbath. Refraining from labor is a spiritual discipline, a way of reminding our bodies as well as our minds that we do not live by our own wits and resources, but in dependence on our Father in heaven.
Sabbath rest, God’s good gift, weekly shows our need for Him, and His willingness to provide.
 My purpose here is to explore the idea of Sabbath as God’s gift, rather than to discuss the connections between Sabbath and Sunday. For most of the Christian world, Sunday is understood as the day we honor the Sabbath commandment from Exodus 20. For that reason, I focus on Sunday in the discussion of Sabbath as a concept.
Aaron Profitt is a husband and father of three, whose teaching is in literature, leadership, statistics and worldview.
He also speaks at churches and presents at schools on topics like assessment, parental involvement and planning for college. He serves as an accreditation evaluator for the Commission on Accreditation of the Association for Biblical Higher Education, where he has participated in evaluator training.
He enjoys writing and has contributed devotionals to Opening the Word, articles to the God’s Revivalist and online posts to BetterCollegeStudent.com.