When challenged about what his disciples are doing by picking and eating corn on the Sabbath, Jesus says:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”Mark 2:27
At the time Jesus was speaking, the Jewish Sabbath was in force. Jews observed Saturday as a day of rest from work remembering that God rested on the seventh day having completed his works of creation. Christians moved that day to Sunday beginning the week with corporate worship remembering that Jesus rose from the grave on the first day of the week.
You only have to go back as far as my childhood to find a time when protestant evangelicals still had quite a strict observance of Sunday Sabbath. In fact, not only were Christians following it but the rules were written into the law of the land. Shops, factories and offices were closed, even Sunday sport was rare. Indeed, the pressure for shops to open came because this was seen as a day distinct from the rest of the week. Why couldn’t people use the opportunity afforded to them of a day off from work to head to the garden centre or the mall?
For evangelicals, the expectation was that the day was to be used in a spiritually profitable way. It wasn’t a day for noisy games and TV but for church and reading worthy works. Some churches provided two or even three opportunities to get together. Some families were careful not even to cook on the Lord’s Day.
Now, there was a problem with all of that, a problem that our generation has been keenly aware of. Just like the old Jewish Sabbath it risked becoming legalistic. We called it a day of rest but imposed such a heavy burden of rules that it became anything but restful. However, if our generation have been alert to legalism on a range of things from what do you do on Sunday through to is it okay to listen to popular music, go to the cinema, have a glass of wine with dinner, we have perhaps been a little blind to the danger the other way. We end up falling into licence. We acts as though it doesn’t matter what we do.
So, it’s worth making two points here. First of all, Jesus didn’t announce that he was abolishing the Sabbath. He said that the Sabbath was made by God for man. The day still exists but we are meant to see it as being for our good. God requires us to take a weekly day of rest not because he wishes to impose a burden on us but rather because he loves us and this is beneficial for us. I think we can see the truth of this oh so clearly as we find ourselves in a frazzled, over-stimulated, stressed, anxious and exhausted 24/7 society. Indeed, the point is this. So often we think of sin as being this attractive, enjoyable thing that God wants to stop us from doing. We see holiness as being about sacrificing the good things in life. Yet, rather, sin is something that is harmful and destructive. There is something joyful about turning your back on it.
The second point is this. Jesus doesn’t just say that the Sabbath was made for man. He goes on to say:
28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”Mark 2:28
This is important because I want to suggest that it gives some specificity about who the man is that God made the Sabbath for. It isn’t just humanity in general. Rather, the Sabbath was made for The Son of Man, for Jesus. It’s his day, he is Lord of it. It is made for us in so much that we are in Christ. Jesus is the one who gets to decide what we should do with the day.
And the big point that Jesus makes in Mark 2-3 is that the day is to be used in order to bring life. We need to read Mark 2:23-3:6 together. Jesus announces that the Sabbath is made for man and his Lordship over it then immediately we are shown how he intends it to be used. Jesus uses the Sabbath to heal, in order to bring life. This is contrasted starkly with his opponents using the day to plot murder destruction, death.
So, whilst it might be tempting to offer a list of things you could do with your Sabbath and things not to do, I’m not sure that would be helpful. Instead I would encourage you to do two things. First, because the Sabbath is for us as we are in Christ, I do believe that it is essential that we enjoy it together with God’s people. So, yes being part of a church gathering on Sunday does matter!
Secondly, I would encourage you to ask the following questions about what you’ll be doing today whether that’s with others at church, on your own or with your family.
- Will what I do and don’t do bring glory to Christ?
- Will what I do and don’t do contribute to the rest, recover and restoration of myself and others?
- Will what I do and don’t do be a source of joy and happiness both for me and for other members of God’s family?
- Will what I do and don’t do be life giving and help others to heal (physically, mentally, spiritually)?
- Will what I do and don’t do help others to find eternal life in the Gospel?