ONE of the greatest joys of studying scripture in depth is that, no matter how many times you go back to a particular verse or story, there is always something new that emerges. The beauty of scripture is that it’s an active voice that continues to speak to our world as it draws us into its world, where the divine drama of God’s movement unfolds before our eyes.
Years ago, when I was in the thick of writing a commentary on Exodus, the theme of sabbath kept cropping up in unexpected places. The story of the manna in the wilderness offers a sabbath framework for six days of gathering and one day of rest.
The fourth commandment given on Mount Sinai reminds us that sabbath rest is a command for God’s covenant people to imitate the example he sets in the creation story. Further sabbath commands offer two distinct markers before the sin of the Golden Calf and before the building of the tabernacle. The sabbath is also described as an everlasting covenant that will sanctify God’s people and help them to draw near to his holiness.
What I found so remarkable about this emphasis on the sabbath was its prominence in the Exodus story — the archetypal story of salvation in the Old Testament — and how much it shapes our vision of the gift of rest.
The transformation from death to life in the Exodus story is about physical release from the unjust and brutal structures established by human beings. But it does not end there. For God’s people to grow in holiness, to experience his divine presence in their midst, to flourish in the blessing of his salvation, they must follow him into the hallowed sanctuaries of time. They must follow his rhythm and cease from their work on the sabbath, breathe in deeply, and celebrate the gift of resting together as his covenant community.
THE movement towards rest, wholeness, and completion is a movement that is woven into the two great stories of creation (Genesis) and redemption (Exodus) in the Old Testament. Holy rest is the gift of God to his people. The clearer this became to me, the more I began to think about Jesus’s own practice of the sabbath and his confrontations with the Pharisees.
Having seen the nature of sabbath as a gift to the world and to Israel, Jesus’s words in St Mark’s Gospel began to make more sense. In a briefly described confrontation with the Pharisees over sabbath restrictions, Jesus replies, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2.27-28).
Jesus is not dismissing the importance of sabbath rest, but he is reminding these teachers of the law that sabbath is a gift of God to help lead us into restoration, refreshment, and wholeness. Sabbath regulations are always held in the light of God’s movement towards healing, restoration, and wholeness.
Instead of disregarding the sabbath, Jesus’s actions become visible signs of God’s sabbath rest’s breaking into the world. We see this in John’s account of Jesus healing on the sabbath a man who had been ill for 38 years.
This led to another confrontation with the Pharisees, about work on the sabbath. But Jesus responds, “My Father is still working, and I also am still working” (John 5.17). We know that God ceased from work on the seventh day; so why does Jesus say that he is “working” on the sabbath?
This was a topic debated by the rabbis long before Jesus’s time, but his response points to the notion that sabbath is an ongoing movement towards God’s wholeness in creation. God’s life-giving breath sustains and transforms all of creation, and the sabbath is a sign of that transformation. Healing on the sabbath is not a form of “work”, but it is an expression of the very goal of sabbath rest.
IF THE sabbath is part of God’s kingdom and reflects his ongoing consecration and restoration of all things, then how can Christians participate in this gift through Christ? This was the question that I kept asking myself during my research, until finally I decided to put my studies into practice.
About two years ago, I decided to restructure my life around a sabbath day. I am a lecturer at St Mellitus theological college, and I am also the Vicar-Chaplain of St Edward, King and Martyr, a small city-centre church in Cambridge. Although Sundays are the great celebration of the Lord’s day and the resurrection, they tend to be more work-focused for me; so I decided to hold to the traditional Jewish practice of resting from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
I do not consider myself an expert on sabbath rest — in fact, I think I’m quite terrible at it. But I hope that these reflections might help to bring to light some of the issues that the Church faces today when considering a day of holy rest.
THE first thing to say is that rest requires a lot of work. I started my sabbath practice thinking, naïvely, how blissful it would be to have a full, uninterrupted day off each week — but I was woefully wrong.
I needed to plan to be able to rest well without worrying about things left undone. What I found, however, was that the lure of being online, or using social media, was among many of my distractions. Week after week, I failed to protect my day of rest, until I realised that this was not going to be as easy as I thought. I began to plan in advance, made sure I completed all my tasks, and turned off my devices for a complete digital rest.
The transformation did not come all at once; but, slowly, week after week, I began to experience a different kind of refreshment and rest on the sabbath. And, as I began to feel that rest, I realised that it was also breaking into other areas of my life and work. I began to feel human again. The more I disconnected from the digital world on the sabbath, the more I felt that I was regaining control of my life.
As I began to disconnect fully on the sabbath (i.e. no screens at all), I also began to see the beauty of this gift that God has given to us. I read about the land’s participation in sabbath rest, and how this was critical to Israel’s fulfilment of the covenant. The land was also to share in the joy of rest by being left fallow on the sabbath and in the seventh year. Even animals are commanded to rest as part of the covenant community.
In an urbanised world so disconnected from the rhythms of creation, I knew that part of my sabbath needed to include reconnecting to the natural world. This might be going for a walk or a bike ride. It might be tending the garden or cutting the grass. Rediscovering the beauty of creation each week not only connects me to the rhythm of the seasons, but has also led me to reassess my own impact on the environment. Ceasing from activity one day a week can remind us that, as human beings, we are intimately connected to the rhythm of God’s creation and charged with giving it rest.
THE sabbath also reminds us of our humanity, and that, to flourish as human beings, we must be connected to one another. Screens are isolating and distracting. They live in our pockets, by our bedsides, in our offices. We have no break from the constant distractions that, sadly, break our connection with those around us. Although we have called it “social media”, our online interactions are often anything but “social”.
One of things that we try to do every sabbath evening in our family is sit down together for a meal. I light a few candles, as a sign and reminder that the sabbath rest of Christ is breaking into the world and that we are now deliberately entering into that rest.
The joy (and often frustration) of sitting together as a family reminds me of how critical community is to our growth. This principle spreads out to the wider family of the Church and our need to be present with one another as we experience God’s rest. The social aspect of sabbath reminds us that rest in God’s Kingdom is not an individual enterprise: it is a gift for all humanity.
Our digital society is in desperate need of rest, and to rediscover what it means to live as human beings in relationship with one another and with creation. It might seem outlandish that ceasing from work one day a week and partaking in God’s holy rest would achieve anything. Yet this is the ever-unfolding beauty of the sabbath: what begins in each of us as a small grain of mustard seed grows into the tallest tree in the garden that offers the world a place to rest (Luke 13.18-19).
The Revd Dr Mark Scarlata is a tutor and lecturer in Old Testament Studies at St Mellitus College, London.
Sabbath rest: The beauty of God’s rhythm for a digital age is published by SCM at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).