The writer of Ecclesiastes’ wisdom declares, “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, NASB95) Interestingly, two of the major rhythms of life are absent from the list of “a time to…” items. Missing are eating/fasting and work/rest. And yet, the work/rest rhythm of our lives is even a part of the Ten Commandments.
The fourth commandment reads, “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 of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the 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, NASB95)
From day one, theologians and faithful followers have struggled to determine what “remember the sabbath day” looks like. What is permissible? What is not? How do we define work? An endless stream of “what about this” kinds of questions have been asked over the past several thousand years.
In the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) there are only a few named restrictions concerning the Sabbath. For instance, you couldn’t kindle or start a fire. Neither could you bake or broil food but had to make the sabbath’s day meals in advance. By the time Jesus enters the picture, there are many more named restrictions. Travel was limited to about 3/5ths of a mile, a sabbath’s day journey. Medical care seems to have been limited based on the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. So, let’s not go down the road of making rules but look at this commandment from a different angle.
Early in Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus and the disciples were passing through a grainfield. While walking, some of the disciples picked some of the ripe kernels (probably wheat or barley), rubbed the hard covering away, and ate the kernels. No problem, except it was a Sabbath day and threshing grain was considered work. The religious leaders challenged Jesus about it. Jesus responded, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:25–28, NASB95) Of all the Ten Commandments, Jesus often challenged the understanding and religious practices concerning what it meant to “keep the sabbath.”
God instituted a day of rest for our benefit. It is not a litmus test of faith, but a day to rest, refocus, and recharge. There is plenty of bendability in this commandment. Including doing things that may count as work in a general sense but provide a loving benefit for others. For instance, Jesus healed on the sabbath on several occasions. When we try to draw bright lines of what is and is not permissible the focus changes from honoring God to simply obeying the rules.
Keeping this commandment means striking a balance. We should honor and keep God’s commandment, but neither should we become enslaved to a set of rules for what that means. There is a time for everything under heaven, including a time to work and a time to rest.
Side note: For those wondering if the 7th day is a Saturday or Sunday check out this article – https://lambchow.com/2021/03/exploring-galatians-a-matter-of-conscience/