Lord Of The Sabbath
Without a doubt, keeping the Sabbath is the most prominent religious characteristic of being a Seventh-day Adventist. It’s the first part of the name, it ties into beliefs about Creation, and Adventist interpretation of prophecy says that the Sabbath will be one of the ultimate tests of faithfulness during the End Time.
It’s also the aspect of the denomination that non-Adventists are most likely to notice and be surprised by, which this clip from popular TV show Family Guy dramatizes in a very silly way:
The Sabbath ties us to the ancient Israelites – after all, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy” – is one of the Ten Commandments that God gave them in the desert (Exodus 20:8 NIV). It also connects us to contemporary Jews, who also keep Sabbath as a rest from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, often with stricter rules of observance than we do.
“The Sabbath was made for man,” he says, “not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28 ESV).
With that in mind, it’s surprising that Jesus – ideally the model for all our behavior – was often accused of not respecting or keeping the Sabbath. In John 5, Jesus heals a paralytic at the Pool of Bethseda and is chided by the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath. In another instance (Matthew 12:9-13), he heals a man in the synagogue who has a deformed hand. Immediately, the Pharisees pounce, asking “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” In both of these instances, which you can read more closely, Jesus defends his actions as falling within Jewish law, arguing that Moses set a precedent of healing or protecting life on Sabbath.
In the encounter we're looking at today, however, Jesus does more than defend his actions: he makes a statement that gets at the core of what the Sabbath is all about. In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain on Sabbath and pluck some grains of wheat to eat because they’re hungry. Immediately, the Pharisees pounce, hoping to catch them in “harvesting” and thus working and breaking the Sabbath. Jesus counters by appealing to one of the most respected figures in Judaism, King David, who did something much more drastic: eating the consecrated Bread of the Presence in the temple, which even priests were not allowed to eat.
Then he outlines what the Sabbath is for – and claims it as his own! “The Sabbath was made for man,” he says, “not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28 ESV).
Jesus appeals to his Messianic title from Daniel 7:13-14 - “The Son of Man” - who receives kingly power and authority from the Ancient of Days. Jesus is the figure assigned and authorized by God to rule over a kingdom that “shall not be destroyed”, and whom “all nations will serve”. In essence, is the One who receives authority from the Ancient One who established the Sabbath to rule over creation. And with that authority, he seems to be saying that the Sabbath should a blessing for any person who keeps it, not a curse. If Sabbath-keeping prevents them from being nourished or helping others, then they are not staying true to the spirit of the Sabbath.
What, then, is the spirit of the Sabbath? Is it simply taking time to rest and relax? This would be suggested by many writers who speak about keeping Sabbath rest, often on Sunday. American poet Emily Dickinson, for example, writes that “Some keep the Sabbath going to church, I keep it staying at home, with a bobolink for a chorister, and an orchard for a dome.” Others would argue that relaxation is not enough – the Sabbath must be set apart, sanctified, as something mandated by God. The Color Purple author Alice Walker argues that “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
Some Adventists talk about the Sabbath as being a kind of special holiday, one that occurs every week. British essayist Pico Iyer suggests that this status of the Sabbath as a holiday for celebration and rejuvenation is essential when he writes, “It’s no coincidence that the word ‘holiday’ suggests a holy day, or that the longest book in the Torah concerns the Sabbath. If you wish to advance in any sphere, the best way is to take a retreat.”
For some people, however, it often feels like the Sabbath can also resemble a holiday in the way that it becomes a burden – a source of stress or a cause to just go through the motions. Some children dread Sabbath because their parents would just go home and nap all afternoon, leaving them counting down the minutes until sunset. Other people such as pastors or church leaders may find that the Sabbath is the least restful day of the week, filled with meetings and programs, teaching and counseling.
Following Jesus’ example, then, how should we be keeping the Sabbath? Is there one right way? As a group of believers defined by our Sabbath-keeping, what does our approach to Sabbath keeping say about our approach to life?
Adventists have a tendency to focus on the Sabbath as something that sets us apart. It prevents us from working or going to school events, it prompts us to seek religious liberty exemptions, and it features prominently into our understanding of the end times. Do you think we have a tendency on fixating on the Sabbath as an institution so much that we forget to enjoy it?
What’s more important on the Sabbath – keeping it holy or resting? Or are those two things one in the same?
Is it proper Sabbath-keeping to do activities that are religious but require effort, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or going to a choir rehearsal?
Is it breaking the Sabbath to skip church and go to a classical concert in the park?
Did you have any Sabbath traditions growing up? Did they feel limiting or special? How has your Sabbath-keeping changed?
The Sabbath has been a controversial topic in Christianity, especially since Adventists are in the minority on advocating for Sabbath observance specifically from Friday night to Saturday night. The following is a list of verses that have been used to argue against Sabbath keeping. We will also attach some helpful articles on the Sabbath for you to refer to.