Is the Sabbath just about resting?

On another Sabbath day, a man with a deformed right hand was in the synagogue while Jesus was teaching. The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.
But Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” So the man came forward.
Then Jesus said to his critics, “I have a question for you. Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?”
He looked around at them one by one and then said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! At this, the enemies of Jesus were wild with rage and began to discuss what to do with him. —Luke 6:6-11 (NLT)

In the South of my youth, Blue Laws made Sunday shopping nearly impossible. Restaurants could be open for business, but many were closed and, either by choice or by law, most other stores could not conduct business on Sundays. These sorts of laws carried over from England into colonial America, and were especially focused on prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays, a restriction that is still enforced in many counties and states today.

The original intent of these laws was to encourage church attendance, but over the centuries they became more of a reflection of a long tradition than an incentive to worship. Today, with the exception of Chick-fil-A and a few other hold outs, the legal tussles have shifted to questions of how to accommodate religious employees who prefer NOT to work on their Sabbath day.

Earth as seen from the surface of the moon

Some early cultures observed that the moon cycles through its phases roughly every 28 days, and on that basis built their societies around a 7-day week. Long before that, the Jews adopted a 7-day week because of Moses’ account of God’s 7-day creation of the universe, the earth, and life as we know it. In Moses’ telling, found in Genesis 1 and 2, God created the world in 6 days and then “rested” on the seventh. Later, as God gives additional laws and instructions to Moses, among them is a command to observe a Sabbath day of rest and to dedicate that day to God.

So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation. —Genesis 2:1-3 (NLT)

Interestingly, that Hebrew word which we translate “rested” is “shabbath,” the same word we know today as Sabbath. I wondered why God rested after six days of creation; he brought the universe into existence by merely speaking a command, so it’s not like he would have broken a sweat. But shabbath more literally means to cease all activity, to stop what you’re doing. It’s like the command a teacher gives to students to “put down your pencils” when you’re taking a timed test. God finished all that he had planned to do in six days, so the seventh day, Sabbath, marks a day when God stopped to look back on all he had accomplished with, I imagine, a smile of satisfaction. Job well done.

Going back to Jesus healing the man on the Sabbath, Jewish interpretations of God’s intentions for a Sabbath rest had focused on ceasing all activity, even to the point where meal preparations were made the evening before. The only work permitted was walking to the synagogue to worship. Their “don’t work” legalisms had lost sight of what God himself did on that first Sabbath, which was to reflect on and appreciate God’s goodness, generosity, benevolence, and bounty as expressed in the act of creation.

So Jesus pushed back by engaging himself in the generous and kindly act of restoring a man’s hand. In fact, Jesus’ entire mission and ministry was focused on restoration—the restoration of humanity’s broken relationship to its Creator and heavenly Father.

On the Sabbath, whether we go shopping or not, whether we work for an employer or take the day off, it is important to honor the intent of that day by spending some time in grateful praise and worship to this God, the God of the whole week, the God to whom we owe our lives, the God who imagined and created this world so that we could enjoy the blessings of life and the blessed opportunity to know him.

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