What sort of image does the word ‘Sabbath’ evoke? Maybe one of the early scenes in the film Chariots of Fire, where we see the devout Christian athlete Eric Liddell telling off some young boys for playing football on a Sunday. (As the film also showed, he himself refused to run a Sunday heat in the 1924 Olympics, thus forfeiting an almost certain place in the 100m final). For most people, the Sabbath has only negative connotations: no work, and no play either.
Originally the Sabbath was the most sacred day of all, because it belonged to God. It had to be a day of complete rest; all forms of work (even the preparation of food) were forbidden (Leviticus 23:3). But it also became a day for worship and for study of the Law. It was intended as a ‘sign’ – one of the things that made Israel distinct from all other nations (Ezekiel 20:12). This would have been especially obvious during the ‘Sabbatical year’ every seventh year, when no agricultural work was to be done at all and the land itself would have a chance to rest (Leviticus 25:1-7).
The Sabbath was also a prophetic sign (Colossians 2:16,17); it was a foretaste of life in the age to come (Hebrews 4:9,10), pointing forward to the ‘rest’ that all believers will enjoy in Christ. It was a regular reminder that our lives are ultimately not in our own hands, but in God’s – and thus it is a rebuke to all ‘workaholics’, secular or spiritual (Psalm 127:1,2). To keep the Sabbath requires us to ‘lose’ a day’s labour and income, to resist the pressures of commerce and the lure of overtime. This makes it not a negative exercise but an positive act of faith in God – the God who will look after those who honour Him.
The Christian Sunday is not exactly equivalent to the Jewish Sabbath. It began not as a day of rest but as a day of celebration – a weekly reminder of the Resurrection. The first day of the week (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2) was the day on which the early Christians met together (if they were Jews, they usually went to synagogue as well, the day before – Acts 18:26). In time, the day of rest was moved to join the day of worship. But there is no New Testament ‘rule’ about this. Even in the early Church, there were differences of opinion – and Paul urged believers to be ‘relaxed’ about it (Romans 14:5,6).
So should we Gentile Christians observe a Sabbath? I think we should. Firstly, when Jesus declared, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5), He was surely affirming the Sabbath, not abolishing it – and if we observe it, we do so in His honour. Secondly, human nature has not changed since God created us, and our need for physical rest and refreshment is as great under the New Covenant as under the Old. Why do people complain so much about busy, stressful lives? If you work continuously with no Sabbath break, then you are a slave.
So yes – we need a day off once a week, and for the same reasons that the Israelites did: it’s good for us, it’s a witness to unbelievers, and it gives us opportunity to cultivate our relationship with God. And it gives us space in an otherwise full week to have meaningful interactions with other people (especially our families).