why we should keep the sabbath

Last night at Bible study, someone (not me) made a profound observation on Exodus 20.8-11:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

What was the observation?

God tells us to keep the sabbath because that’s what he did.

I’ve often heard it said that we should down tools one day a week because we’re not God and taking time off is a concrete way of saying, ‘The world will keep turning without my input — at least for 24 hours’.

This sort of argument tends to get wheeled out when touting the wisdom of sabbath-keeping for Christians now. I know I’ve done it.

But the logic of the commandment runs in the opposite direction.

We’re to rest one day a week because we’re like God.

Brilliant! Right?

What’s more, I think it sheds light on the reason Jesus gives in defence of his notorious sabbath behaviour: ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).

Likewise with the whole ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’ discourse in John 5 — which includes a cryptic reference to Jesus being the Son of Man.

How are these illuminated by the logic of the sabbath command?

Because Jesus doesn’t heal and do his Father’s work on the sabbath in a divine breach of the commandment but in a human fulfilment of it!

Jesus shows us what the sabbath was always for: entering into and sharing the fullness and joy of God in creation.


  1. Story time!


    A man, say his name is Ming, saw his pastor in the shopping mall on Wed morning. Ben asked, “what are you doing here pastor?” “I am having my day off”, said pastor.

    Ming was really surprised and concerned, so he asked another qn, “but, but, Satan does not have day offs, right?”

    Pastor paused for few seconds, agreed, “Satan takes no day offs. So I MUST take day offs, otherwise, I will be like Satan.”


    I was told this by the pastor of my home church few years ago. The context was we were in a discussion of how sometimes (Chinese) church members can expect pastors to be working non-stop, especially there are souls (and bodies) to save and Satan is always doing blah blah….

  2. Hi Chris

    “because it’s what God did” is a good observation from Ex 20. But I’m confused by your later point – how is Jesus fulfilling the sabbath by breaking it?

    I’m an amateur at this stuff, but I’ve always been pretty unconvinced about using the sabbath concept to convince Christians to rest. Your “world will keep turning” logic applies nicely to rest without having to invoke an old covenant category.

    I could be way off the mark, but my theory on the sabbath is that it was to be an identity marker for Israel. “We belong to the God who had finished creating the whole world by day 7”. “Our God is powerful and good enough that we can afford to work less than full time”. Must have contrasted with the surrounding nations in that hand-to-mouth context.

    1. Hi Tom,

      Thanks — yes, reading it again I think it was confusing. I was obviously trying to cram way too much into one short post!

      I too am unconvinced about appealing the sabbath to get Christians to rest. Unless I’m totally mixed up (which is possible), that’s part of what the observation from Exodus 20 undermines.

      I guess where I headed later in the post was trying to work out what Jesus does with the sabbath. He certainly breaks the Pharisees’ traditional strictures about it.

      But does he actually break the sabbath commandment? His ‘explanations’ suggest that he doesn’t see it that way.

      Jesus seems to think he’s using the sabbath according to its purpose, being thoroughly God-like in enjoying the fullness of life in the creation (and inviting others to share in that experience too).

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