The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
The Sabbath is a gift to us from God. It is meant to be a blessing. Yet for many it can seem like a burden; a religious duty to be performed, but not necessarily enjoyed. What makes the Sabbath a burden, and how can we be freed to enjoy it as a blessing? In the next three devotions we will consider three answers to these questions.
The Sabbath Becomes Burdensome When We Major on the Minor
Sabbath instruction contains the command to do no work. ‘On [the Sabbath] you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:10). This raised questions. What qualifies as work? If I make my bed, is that work? What about mowing the lawn? What about walking 100 metres? What about 101 metres? And so amongst the Jews of Jesus’ time, this negative command became the focus of discussion. We have already seen some of the traditions that were formulated to give answers to these questions in precise detail. The focus of the Sabbath got skewed by majoring on the minor.
The question that should have been the focus was ‘why’? Why shouldn’t we work on the Sabbath? Is it so that we just sit there doing nothing for a day? No, the whole point of not working is so that you can do something.
God’s Sabbath law contained a positive directive as well as a negative one. ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (i.e. set apart for God)’ (Exodus 20:8). This positive decree pointed to God as the main purpose of the Sabbath, not cessation from work.
‘You shall not work’ is not unimportant, but it is also not an end in itself. It is simply the means to an end; namely delighting in God. Stop working so you can be free to enjoy God. The problem of focusing on the means, as the Pharisaic tradition did, is that you minimise the end. The focus moves away from the blessing of enjoying God to the burden of making sure you don’t slip up on some technicality.
Consider this illustration. According to Jewish tradition, you were only allowed to travel about 2,000 cubits on the Sabbath. Enter Jesus and a Pharisee.
The Pharisee walks along and his mind is completely focused on not walking more than 2,000 cubits. “Oh no, how many cubits have I walked? Let’s see, if I cut through the grain field, I can save 100 cubits and be able to make it home again. How far is it from the Synagogue to Jacob’s house?” And so on…
Jesus’ approach is different. Cubits are the last thing on His mind. As He walks, He is meditating on God. He is praying. He is talking with His disciples about the sermon they have just heard. He is singing God’s praises. In other words, He is free from the silly trivialities of man-made tradition and focused on the true purpose of the Sabbath. He has temporarily ceased His carpentry to contemplate God.
God is saying to us by His Sabbath command, “Once a week, I want you to take a break. Just for a day, stop from your regular work and spend some time with me. I want you to draw near to me and enjoy me.” That is what the Sabbath is about. It is a gift from God to you.