A Biblical Basis
Because the Sabbath is so important, yet so poorly practiced by many leaders, and, because it has such potential benefits for leaders in particular, a biblical foundation is needed.
The word Sabbath is from the Hebrew word Shabbat, meaning “cessation” or “time of rest.”[i] The text of the creation account provides the basis of all decrees for the practice of the Sabbath:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1–3)
No command for us to rest is given in this passage—only the fact that God rested. The word Sabbath is not even used. However, the seventh day is set apart and made holy because it is the day when God rested from his work. It is distinguished and sanctified by God himself.
The first occurrence of the term 'Sabbath' and the first command for Israel to observe a Sabbath practice of any kind is found in Exodus 16:22–30. Here, Sabbath is mentioned in the context of manna provided by God in the wilderness wanderings. God provided twice as much on the sixth day and commanded his people to rest on the seventh day. Manna was not to be gathered on the seventh day because it was a “Sabbath to the Lord” (vv. 23, 26). Therefore, that which God did at creation is now transferred to his children. They are to rest on the seventh day.
Exodus 20 contains the Ten Commandments given to Moses for the people of Israel. The fourth command crystalizes the desire of God for his children to rest and restore on the seventh day. The command is clear and compelling:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8–11)
It is interesting that the Israelites are not called upon to sanctify the Sabbath, but to protect it from becoming unsanctified. It was made holy by God at creation, but the way God’s children conducted themselves by way of laboring on the seventh day could profane it before God.
The main idea for the Sabbath is the cessation of work. The all-inclusive language (“you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner”) signifies how important the termination of labor on this day was and is to God. The rest that was commanded here would eventually make way for worship to occur on the Sabbath (see: the religious celebrations commanded in Leviticus and Numbers). In time, worship would become a part of this holy day – worship made possible because work was absent from it.
Why the correlation between the absence of work and holiness?
Though, by nature, work is difficult in a sin-stained world (Genesis 2:17–19), it can be personally fulfilling as well as an extension of our worship to God. We may be called by God to certain professions and employ those callings through God-given gifts and abilities. These bring the possibility of nobility and godliness to labor. Some love work for these reasons.
However, the very qualities that give work such potential for good may also bring harm. Work becomes harmful when love for it is taken to an extreme and when we lose the ability to step away from it. We then work too much, becoming preoccupied with work and what it produces. “There is happiness in the love of labor; there is misery in the love of gain.”[ii] Part of Satan’s ploy is to take this good gift from God and pervert it. Work encroaches on every other dimension of life, not allowing us to separate from it. When this occurs, work even stands in the way of worship. Working on a day that is set apart for godly rest is the worship of work. In other words, we may worship work or worship God, but not both.
The principle of the Sabbath is God’s ingenious command to help us draw boundaries around labor and live a healthy emotional and spiritual existence. The Sabbath means that once every week, for twenty-four hours we drop everything—every concern and every thought of every concern. When practiced properly, Sabbath allows the mind, body, and spirit to be restored and replenished.
True spiritual maturity requires the imitation of God. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). When we “sabbath,” we do as God did. This is the essence of godliness.
[i] E.J. Young and F.F. Bruce, “Sabbath,” in D.R.W. Wood, I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 1032.
[ii] Abraham Joshua Herschel, The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux Publishers, 2005. 3.
Editor's Note: Part 1 of this two-part series from Mike Ayers can be found here.