Keep the Sabbath or Lose your Vision

With Murray Dixon

Recently, a guest addressing our leadership team at Pierrepont made a poignant statement: ‘People can lose their vision in six days!’ He was not suggesting losing our physical eyesight, but rather our spiritual eyesight. I immediately thought, Shabbat! [Hebrew for ‘Sabbath’].

On this seventh day we need re-envisioning, and that is really what Shabbat is about: re-envisioning ourselves in God. The church has passed down a legacy which says that observing the Sabbath is legalistic and ‘brings us back under the law.’ I want to shed a different light on Sabbath observance.

We find the Sabbath first appears back in the second chapter of the Bible [Genesis 2:2-3]. This was centuries before the law [Hebrew: Torah] was given. God was the One who observed the first Sabbath. God Himself set the pattern for us all. Sometimes English has its limitations, and in this case ‘rest’ is a limited translation of the Hebrew word for ‘Sabbath.’

God created us to have fellowship with Him as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Sin came into the picture - complete rebellion against God - who decided to deal with the situation by flooding the earth. Being a gracious God, who loves the people He created, He planned a rescue operation. While Noah was building the ark, the only means of escaping God’s intended flood, possibly over a period of 100 years, people were given the opportunity to repent and turn to God. It was a time of opportunity to respond to God’s invitation to escape destruction and to enjoy His fellowship.

Further down the path of history, we discover that God decided to create an entire nation that could have fellowship with Him. They were a people who had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. The miracle the Bible describes as ‘the Passover’ protected this chosen people from destruction beginning a series of miracles known as the Exodus, as God commenced establishing this people as a nation. God expressed His extraordinary love to these people whom He named: ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn.’ [Exodus 4:22] In fact in antiquity these events have been described as God’s ‘Love story.’

Once the Israelites passed through the sea that opened before them, they found themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai where God further demonstrated His grace. Often we miss the point that God planned them to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ [Exodus 19:6]. God commanded all His people to come further up the mountain where He could speak to them. The mountain was trembling; the ground was shaking beneath their feet; thunder pierced their ears while lightning lit the sky. It was an awesome experience. It was frightening. Fearfully they cried out to Moses their refusal to obey God’s command to come closer up the mountain. ‘They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die!”’[Exodus 24:7] This refusal was Israel’s first great sin and possibly their worst.

God wanted to envision this people equipping them to fulfil His purposes – for them to fellowship with Him. Their failure to approach God resulted in only one tribe chosen to be priests to Israel. Following Moses’ meeting with God he wrote what God had spoken to him in ‘the Book of the Covenant’ which he read to the children of Israel. The scene in Exodus 24, is as the reading of the marriage covenant [the Ketubah] by the bridegroom to the bride according to the ancient Jewish ceremony. Israel responded: ‘All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient.’[v. 24] The Ketubah, the basis of the marriage covenant, is the bride’s assurance from her bridegroom of protection and provision for their lives together. The ancient rabbis understood this to be God taking Israel as his bride. That relationship is confirmed in Jeremiah 31:32 and is the theme of Hosea.

God declared to Moses His intention to dwell with His people although His intention had been to dwell within them. Moses was given specific details, by God, of a tabernacle that Israel was to build wherein God would dwell and meet with them. God’s intention was clearly to be a relational God.

The Ten Commandments God had given Israel focus intently on this relationship, especially the 4th commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” [Exodus 20:8-11]

Do you realise God set us the example of keeping the Sabbath? At the completion of creation He kept the Sabbath and sanctified it, made it holy. The Hebrew word for holy is kadosh. Kadosh simply means to put a line down, to remove something out and make it special, or to separate it from everything else. We need to understand that it is not that God does not like work. In fact, God instructs us to work for six days. In antiquity, certainly in Jesus’ day, Jewish understanding was that our work is an act of worshipping God. On the seventh day God required his people to cease their work in order that they focus entirely upon God as their Creator. This day serves to re-envision us as to who we are and what our relationship with Him is. The importance of keeping the Sabbath was stressed by God when he commanded that even work on His holy sanctuary had to stop. How often have we believed that it is okay to be working for God instead of keeping the Sabbath? It tells us that there is nothing that demands desecrating the holiness of the Shabbat.

Now, let us jump ahead to Jesus’ time. We find that Jesus totally supported keeping the Sabbath holy. The problem He faced was how the people were keeping it. By then Sabbath observance had widely become legalistic, no more than a religious tradition rather than re-envisioning, and life giving. Our word translated ‘rest’ comes from the Hebrew word, nefesh. Nefesh is a rich word meaning more than ‘rest’, it means resurrection life. In Ezekiel 37, in the valley of the dry bones, God breathed His nefesh into the bones. The Sabbath is not only about rest, it is about building up our relationship with Him so that after the Sabbath we are better equipped for the next six days. It puts the life of Jesus into us giving us fulfilment and satisfaction in all that we do. It has been said that we can only effectively minister out of the overflow of God in our lives. I believe the Sabbath, in its biblical sense, is what that’s all about.

How do we keep that Sabbath? Even secular Jewish people in Israel observe the Sabbath as a separate day. Those Jewish people who are faithful and believe the Bible to be the Word of God, keep a Sabbath meal on Friday night where the family usher in the Sabbath praying for each other, reading the Bible together and honouring God’s presence. You may have seen the film, or stage production, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ which presents us with a window into Jewish life in a poor village in Russia during the early 20th century. It shows families coming together on Friday evenings in their best clothes, whether or not they were fashionable clothes, they were the best they had. Mother had prepared the Sabbath meal, for which she would have saved the best food during the week ensuring that this significant meal was the high point of their week.

Frequently, as Christians we go to church for worship services and special occasions: our Christian life is centred on the church. The biblical pattern is celebrating the Sabbath and the Feasts of the Lord [Leviticus 23] in the home. Going to synagogue or the temple was, and is, complementary: discipleship was in the home. Biblically we see the source of Godly life in the home where the husband and father is ‘priest’ to the family. His wife will have prepared a special loaf made with honey: the challah loaf. Mother then opens the ceremony by lighting the two Sabbath candles. If you live in Jerusalem you will hear the siren ushering in the Sabbath at sunset. Mother lights the candles, singing in Hebrew the Sabbath blessing: praying the light of God into the home. After father chants the blessing of thanksgiving for the wheat from which the loaf is made and thanksgiving for the fruit of the vine, the loaf is shared around the family, each person sprinkling salt upon it: a reminder that the bread symbolises God’s covenant with His people. Then the cup of red wine is passed for all to drink: symbolising the blood of the covenant. It is similar to Communion. Father begins blessing each member of his family: his wife first. He chants the words of Proverbs 31 – the virtuous wife – over her. He prays over his sons: ‘May you be as Joseph and Ephraim;’ and over his daughters: ‘May you be as Rachel and Leah.’ Each member of the family has a sense of belonging and worth as they have this time of rich blessing together. It is not a religious activity; it is simply knowing and honouring the Lord in the family.

How can we as Christians keep the Sabbath to be re-envisioned? I delight to read God’s Word, perhaps listening to biblical exposition on a cd or reading a carefully selected inspirational book expounding the Scriptures. And drinking in the presence of the Lord through a worship cd. We sometimes share Communion together.

Frequently, while living in Israel, I have witnessed devout Jewish men pulling their prayer shawls over their heads like a tent, shutting out the world while communing with the Lord. Positioning ourselves on the Sabbath to allow the Lord to re-envision us is biblically what the Sabbath was designed for. It is all about making a sanctuary, a tabernacle – not made of fabric and timber, but ‘a sanctuary of time’ in our lives. On that seventh day God wants us to take time apart, unlike our quick devotions in the morning while we’re eating breakfast and getting to work on time: quality time being with, listening to, and enjoying His presence. In this world there is so much to interrupt us and divert our focus, but this observance of the Sabbath can revolutionize our lives if we would only use the time wisely. I want to say again that it is not a religious habit; rather it is an opportunity to be refreshed in the resurrection life that the Lord wants to impart into us if we will stop and give Him some time.

There is a story told of a carpenter and a rabbi. Remember, the rabbis are acknowledged as spiritual leaders. It says that if a rabbi comes to visit a carpenter’s shop, it is honourable for the carpenter to carry on working because his work is also his worship. It even says his work is as important as the rabbi’s work. The point is that God is in all of our life, vitally interested in every aspect. It does not matter whether we are cooking or cleaning the loos.

This does not mean we shouldn’t go to the park or play with our children. Simply, we need to be in a state of focusing on God wherever we are. When we observe this Sabbath and dedicate it to Him, we can participate with God more clearly and more functionally the rest of the week because we’ve had time just to listen to Him and to tell Him how much we love Him and worship Him. In doing this we receive nefesh, that resurrection life He wants to impart to us.

Murray Dixon