Why Keep the Sabbath?

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Have you ever thought about what improvements you would make if you ruled the world? That is the task Prospect Magazine, a British general-interest periodical, sets for itself each issue. In a column entitled “If I ruled the world?” authors are invited to express their views, and it often makes for stimulating reading.


In the August 2013 issue, Jonathan Sacks, the now-retired Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, provided a thought-provoking piece titled “Bring Back the Sabbath—It Holds Society Together.”

He began by modestly saying, “If I ruled the world I would resign immediately. It’s hard enough, individually and collectively, to rule ourselves, let alone others. But if offered an hour before I resigned I would enact one institution that has the power to transform the world. It’s called the Sabbath.”

But how would observing the Sabbath transform the world? And is the Sabbath a day Britain and the entire world really should observe? The answers may surprise you.

Transforms Society

Rabbi Sacks offered several reasons for keeping the Sabbath each week. He pointed out that the Sabbath “introduces into a culture the idea of limits.” It is a good thing to set aside a day to rest from our labors and restrict the all-too-human proclivity to produce, consume and deplete our resources. Additionally, it establishes a day in which values are not determined by money or its equivalent, because it is not a day for buying and selling or for regular employment. It is a day to concentrate on relationships, which Sacks believes are determined by “kinship, belonging and mutual responsibility.” Finally, it renews social capital. “It bonds people into communities in ways not structured by transactions of wealth or power.” Originally, Sacks notes, the Sabbath even served as a moderating force on slavery. It was a day in which even slaves in ancient Israel were to rest as part of the family (Exodus 20:10).

Brings People Together

Today we need liberation from many other forms of “slavery”—from computers, electronic games, television, business-related phone calls, and from all the pressures of our modern consumer society. Imagine a day without the usual texts, tweets and e-mails. A day without shopping! Imagine a day devoted to family, community, study and collective expressions of gratitude.

As Sacks observed, we live in an age of individualism in which most are preoccupied with personal pleasure and materialism; the result is a breakdown of community. He concludes “A once-a-week sabbatical that is public, not private, rest would renew the social fabric, the families and communities that sustain our liberal democratic freedom today.”

Rabbi Sacks makes a compelling case that British society and the world at large would be much better off if it kept the Sabbath. However, a closer examination of Scripture reveals altogether deeper reasons and purpose for keeping the seventh-day Sabbath each week.

The Seventh-Day Sabbath Honors God

God instituted the seventh-day Sabbath at the very beginning of human history. In the creation account found in Genesis 2:3, we learn “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” The Sabbath is here described as holy time, something to set aside each week to honor the God who introduced it. Quite apart from any social good that the Sabbath undoubtedly brings, we should rest on the seventh day because God Himself set the precedent to rest on that day. Resting on the seventh-day Sabbath would enshrine God at the very center of human life and activity.

When we honor the seventh-day Sabbath, we become mindful that God created the universe, brought into motion all its amazing laws, and created planet Earth with all life upon it. Yet, how many people today believe—or know—such things? A world that has forgotten God needs desperately to be reminded about the true God—and keeping the seventh-day Sabbath would play a major part in fulfilling that goal.

Genesis 2 makes it clear that God originally intended the seventh-day Sabbath to be observed by everyone—not just by the twelve tribes of Israel, and certainly not just Judah. This is reinforced by Jesus’ own words in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man” (Greek anthropos, “humankind”). Indeed, Jesus Christ is “Lord of the Sabbath,” which means that all followers of Jesus Christ should be keeping the Sabbath (v. 28).

Today, many who profess to follow Christ do know that they should keep the Sabbath, yet they try to do so on Sunday! But, according to the Bible, Sunday—the first day of the week—is not the Sabbath! That name is properly kept for the seventh day of the week, beginning each Friday at sunset. That is the day on which God rested, and is when the first Christians rested from the very beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry. History documents that it was not Christ who instituted Sunday-keeping; this change was formally codified by the Roman church in the fourth century ad.

What has been the consequence of this change—of human preference taking precedence over God’s will for our day of rest? Without God’s authority behind it, is it any real surprise that Sunday-keeping has largely become a pale imitation at best of obedience to God’s fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8)? As Sacks points out of his own nation, its day of rest “was deregulated and privatized. Holy Days became holidays, sacred time became free time and rest became leisure. The assumption was that everyone would benefit because we could all decide for ourselves how to spend the day. This was, and remains, a fallacy.”

Anticipates the Future

The Apostle Paul taught that a rest, or “a keeping of the Sabbath” (Hebrews 4:9, Gr. sabbatismos) should be very important for Christians, because it looks forward to the coming millennial rest when Jesus Christ will return to reign over the entire world. Observing the seventh-day Sabbath in its intended spirit and as God commanded keeps Christians in mind of this incredible future.

Jesus Christ promised that He will return to planet Earth at its moment of greatest peril, in order to forestall the destruction of all life (Matthew 24:21–22). He will establish a thousand-year reign (Revelation 20:4), together with the resurrected saints, with headquarters in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:8–9). This will become an eternal kingdom that will last forever.

Can you imagine the day when Britain will wholeheartedly keep the Sabbath, on the right day and for the right reasons? According to Bible prophecy, that day is coming. When Christ and the glorified saints rule the world, everyone will gladly uphold all of God’s Sabbaths!

Keeping God’s seventh-day Sabbath day each week makes possible a radical recalibration of our use of time. It requires that we think differently and reorder our priorities in harmony with the way God thinks. Physically, the Sabbath rest revitalizes the body, while at the same time it refreshes the spirit. Truly, what a difference a day makes!

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