To be or not to be, that is the question,” declares Hamlet in one of Shakespeare’s most influential and popular tragedies.
Adventists often transform the English bard’s iconic quote into “To do or not to do, that’s the question,” as they reflect on “keeping the Sabbath holy” in a world in which holiness is not easily recognized and time is of the essence.
Should we buy a bus or train ticket on Sabbath? Is it OK to cut one’s fingernails on Sabbath? What about cooking a meal for the invited guest of honor? Can we go to the beach or a baseball game on Sabbath? And how should we deal with those who write a check on Sabbath (including a check destined for the offering plate)?
For millennia rabbis, pastors, parents, children, and many others have mulled over similar questions. What does keeping the Sabbath holy really encompass? What does it mean when Scripture tells us to “remember the Sabbath”? How does Sabbath rest affect busy people living in a busy world that is in the “on” mode 24/7?
In order to find answers to these kinds of questions, it’s good, for just a moment, to stop dead in our tracks and change tack. Instead of making the case for or against buying a ticket on Sabbath, we may pause just long enough to listen to Scripture’s take on Sabbath. After all, that’s where we first hear about
Shabbat, the weekly 24-hour rest period built into creation that helps us recharge, refocus, and regenerate. As we begin to unpack Sabbath biblically, let's look at five key reasons for remembering and keeping it holy. A number of questions at the end of each section will offer opportunities to think about these issues individually or as part of a larger community, so that we can uncover the underlying biblical Sabbath principle for ourselves.1
“In the beginning” is a powerful way to start a story. Right from the outset, Scripture reminds us that time is part of God’s creation mix. He speaks
in time—and creation happens in time. Evening and morning make day one, day two, day three, until we reach day six (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). God is thrilled with His handiwork, and the biblical narrator tells us that after the creation of humanity on day six He looked and “it was very good” (verse 31).
God, however, is not yet done. Thrilled as He is with what He sees before Him, there is one more day that awaits completion. The seventh day of Creation is unique—in verbal forms used and focus offered. God finishes the work, He rests, and in His resting He blesses and sanctifies (Gen. 2:2, 3). It represents the climax of Creation and an invitation to rest—side by side—with the Creator.
God’s rest communicates that “it is done,” that His perfect creation is complete and perfect—and all we need. Wholeness is a key characteristic of God’s creation before the Fall. This wholeness covered relationships, including Adam and Eve’s or the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation, as well as their relationship with the Creator. God’s Sabbath rest is also an expression of His passionate love; He wanted to spend time with His creatures. In Eden God gives Himself every seventh day exclusively to fellowship with humanity.
Jump forward to Sinai. The Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 is not only the longest commandment employing a distinct syntactic structure, but the opening invitation to “remember” echoes Genesis 1-2 and the holiness that comes from fellowship with the Creator. God’s presence makes the Sabbath holy. Creation reminds us of His hallowing activity and our yearning for unlimited community. This is true in all cultures and at all times. Ultimately, it is this divine creation activity that forms the rationale of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy (Ex. 20:11), and it covers everyone, including family, livestock, even the stranger.
The Sabbath is not only closely connected to Creation; the Lawgiver Himself helps us understand an even bigger dimension in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. We find Moses exhorting Israel on a plain in Moab following 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (Deut. 1:1-5). His retelling of Israel’s history is a teaching tool, helping a new generation to remember and to understand. Intriguingly, the rationale for Sabbathkeeping in Deuteronomy 5:15 focuses not on Creation but on God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt.
Redemption is an integral part of the Sabbath package in Scripture. In fact, Deuteronomy 5:15 represents a conscious contextualization for a new generation, making the implicit explicit.
2 God’s creation did not divide the world into master and slave, but offered equality. All creation was equally dependent on the Creator and derived life from the divine Maker. Both man and woman were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27); and following the Fall, both man and woman (together with the rest of creation) required redemption.
God is still around—and every new Sabbath becomes a sign of His presence, grace, and future.
Sabbath is the great equalizer, where we all sit around the table of God’s grace and enjoy the fellowship of the redeemed. Social, gender, and ethnic differences become irrelevant, because it is God who has brought us out of “Egypt”—and He did so with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15). Israel’s new generation is to remember Egypt and slavery and God’s mighty acts. As they enter the Promised Land, they become God’s “new creation.”
Imagine what would happen if we could remember every Sabbath that we have been brought out of our Egypts and Babylons full of addiction, hatred, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness. “I’ve been redeemed” would become so much more than a familiar hymn. The Sabbath liberates us from our misguided attempts to produce righteousness and holiness within ourselves. Can we hear Scripture’s good news whispering in our ears that we can truly rest in Him?
Creation and liberation are foundational principles of a biblical Sabbath theology. But what about the stranger? Exodus 23:12 may provide a helpful answer. Scholars have called the larger context of this passage the book of the covenant, as it details a number of laws governing human relations. These laws concern the altar, slaves, violence between human beings, property, restitution, equality before the law, Sabbath years, and annual feasts (Ex. 20:19-23:33). Exodus 23:12 speaks specifically about the Sabbath, and includes an important reference to “the stranger.” In a section dealing with practical issues affecting God’s people, why would God include another reference to the Sabbath that specifically mentions the “stranger”?
The Sabbath effect described in Exodus 23:12 may give us a hint. People and animals should rest so that they would “be refreshed.” The Hebrew verb used here describes refreshment coming from catching one’s breath while resting. In fact, the noun using the same root means “life” or “living being” and has already appeared in Exodus 23:9. We all need to catch our breath and become, again, “living beings.”
No doubt, Sabbath rest is part of God’s therapy for stressed-out, overworked, and worried workaholics. Yet Exodus 23:12 does not really focus upon them. The text focuses on animals, the “son of your female servant,” and the “stranger” (NKJV).3 Exodus 23:12 tells us that God cares for the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the stranger. In a time in which refugees and “strangers” are ever-present in many regions of the world, we do well to remember God’s special care for them and the close link to the Sabbath.
Biblical authors highlight the close link between the Sabbath and the commitment to serve others. This particular element of Sabbath theology, however, is often forgotten or even ignored. In fact, this is not a new problem. Israel’s prophets wrote about the disconnect between keeping the Sabbath and abusive practices aimed against those who are poor and afflicted (Amos 8:5, 6). Somehow Israel had forgotten that God’s justice is intricately connected to His creation and redemption that involves all.
Isaiah 58 highlights another important element of the Sabbath in Scripture. The chapter juxtaposes false and true worship. The prophet, echoing God’s voice, wonders about the disconnect of seeking God and drawing near to God, yet ignoring righteousness and oppressing society’s marginalized (Isa. 58:2, 3). Fasting and praying are not good replacements for humble service and unselfish giving. Sabbath worship, it seems, cannot be a self-centered pursuit of happiness, but should focus upon God’s dreams and His will for this world.
Pursuing our “pleasure” (verse 13, NKJV) (or our “own interests,” as the NRSV translates here)
4 is equivalent to “trampling the Sabbath” (NRSV). Human agendas are not part of God’s Sabbath ideal. Rather, we are invited to look out for those who struggle, who are captives, who are hungry and naked and walk in darkness, whose names no one seems to remember. In fact, if we are honest and take a good look into the mirror, that’s what we ourselves really are. Revelation 3:17 tells us that we think we have got it all together but in reality are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. We think we are doing well, yet are blindsided to our true condition. We are grace-starved and self-propelled.
What happens when we recognize the Sabbath’s implicit invitation to serve others? Isaiah 58 mentions twice the notion of “delight” (verses 13, 14, NKJV). The Hebrew term is not used often in the Old Testament. Poetic texts often link delight in the Lord with divine blessings and “the desires or your heart” (Ps. 37:4). Isaiah 58:13 contrasts human pleasure to God-centered delight. Instead of pursuing the siren-breathed whisperings of iSociety, God invites us to experience the sheer delight of discovering His sustaining and creative grace as we serve society’s downtrodden.
In an age of smartphone apps and GPS we tend to pay less attention to signs and maps. Yet signs still matter (and not just when the satellite is down or we don’t have coverage). Signs identify locations; they highlight important events; they point to something beyond themselves.
Exodus 31:12-17 concludes the Lord’s seventh speech of the sanctuary building instructions. Its unique contribution to a biblical Sabbath theology can be seen right from the outset: “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13, NKJV). Sabbathkeeping is not an optional recreational activity. Rather, it’s a divine command and represents a sign between God and His people helping humanity to understand true sanctification. Scholars have long recognized the close link between the Sabbath and the sanctuary. Both emphasize divine-human fellowship and community—in space and time (cf. Ex. 25:8). Both were given by God and reflect divine characteristics.
But there is another dimension to the Sabbath sign in Exodus 31:12-17. Sabbath is a sign for a perpetual (or eternal) covenant (verses 16, 17) that is rooted in creation. Scripture mentions three covenant signs in the Old Testament (the rainbow [Gen. 9:12, 13, 17]; circumcision [Gen. 17:11]; and the Sabbath [Ex. 31; 13; 17; Eze. 20:12, 20]). Of these three, Sabbath is the least physically tangible and involves a consistent human response. The Sabbath sign helps us to “know” (Ex. 31:13) the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. It’s like a flag that gets raised every seven days and functions as a mnemonic device, as we tend to forget.
Adventists have always recognized the message of the first angel of Revelation 14:6, 7 as pointing to the Sabbath. The language of the text is clearly the language of the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:11). In a sense, the Sabbath becomes the subtext of God’s story set in contrast to the dragon’s story in Revelation. The loving Creator is set against the angry accuser who wants to sow doubt about the character of God. In the first angel’s message, “the Sabbath,” writes Sigve Tonstad, “conveys the message of God’s enduring and faithful participation in human reality.”5 God is still around, and every new Sabbath becomes a sign of His presence, grace, and future.
Our study of key dimensions of the biblical Sabbath is nearly complete. Creation and redemption lie at its very foundation; mission, service, and the public declaration are additional nuances reflecting the perfect character of the Lawgiver.
Yet our search is not yet over. Too often we become sidetracked by the intricacies of the do’s and don’ts of appropriate Sabbathkeeping and overlook the foundational Sabbath principles that challenge us to ultimately “rest in Him.” Instead of living Sabbath principles 24/7, we have frequently specialized in establishing a catalogue of appropriate Sabbath behavior. Imagine what could happen if these principles really affected our lives, not just our Sabbathkeeping?
Hebrews 4:1-6 speaks of another rest. It’s rest from our own righteousness; rest from our poor attempts at holiness; and rest from our self-centeredness. As we begin to see more clearly the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), we too are drawn to Him who came to save the lost, the weary, and the broken.
I reckon He came especially for me.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who longs for the ultimate Sabbath rest in Jesus.