The 'Above All' Commandment of the Sabbath
When most of us think of Lent, we immediately think about giving something up—sugar, TV, radio, you name it. Although this season is marked by abstinence, it also can be the busiest time in the church calendar. In many traditions, Lent is packed with special services and religious practices to help us focus on the life of Christ—more prayer, more devotional reading, more church services. But for what purpose?
One obvious answer: These activities help deepen our devotion to Jesus Christ. But if we're honest, we also do these things in part because we believe that they contribute to our sanctification. After all, in order to become more like Christ, you have to imitate him, right?
Amid all the devotion, however, the last thing we think of adding to our Lenten disciplines is observing the Sabbath. This is surprising, since the Bible seems to teach that rest may be the most significant and transformative activity of all.
An 'Above All' Command
It is difficult, and ironic, to imagine rest as the most transformative element in the Christian life. For evangelicals especially, transformation and sanctification are closely linked to activity. We appropriately begin with the idea that our works do not merit justification (being declared righteous by God). We can do nothing to earn our salvation. But most of us imagine we must play an active role in our sanctification, the ongoing process of becoming more like Christ. Sanctification, we assume, involves work and effort on our part.
This is good news to evangelical ears. We like activities. We conduct Bible studies, participate in small groups, and attend prayer meetings. We engage in worship services and outreach. We like inspirational books that teach us how to become better Christians. We have a sense of duty that compels us to evangelize and demonstrate Christ's love to those around us. Indeed, these activities are good and find their foundation in biblical teachings.
And this is precisely why we find it so difficult to imagine rest as the most transformative feature of the Christian life. We love those verses that emphasize disciplined activity. Yet most of us probably have never even considered that the Sabbath may be the most important "discipline." Consider this:
And the Lord said to Moses, "You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, 'Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.'"(Ex. 31:12-13, ESV used throughout)
We may debate how the Sabbath should be observed, but we all recognize the value of taking a day of rest. However, this passage suggests features of the Sabbath we typically overlook.
For example, this passage says that the Sabbath is an "above all" command. It is as if God said, "This is the most important one!" A careful look at the context in the Book of Exodus reinforces the point.
In chapters 25 through 30, Moses received many instructions regulating Israel's worship: how to build the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, and other tabernacle furnishings; how to celebrate festivals; the duties of priests; and so forth. However, the last command Moses received from God (in chapter 31) concerned the Sabbath.
Chapter 32 then describes the incident with the golden calf; after severely chastising the people of Israel, Moses went back up Mount Sinai, where he interceded for the people and received more instructions from God. When Moses asked for God's mercy, God answered, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (33:14).