The Sabbath and Education

The Sabbath and Education

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

“Sabbath” is one of those words which has vastly different connotations to different people. To some it is a bitter memory of strict regulations. To some it is just a quaint Jewish custom. To others it conjures an almost militantly enforced holy day, about the same idea as Ramadan, the Isalamic fast. It takes some them back to a time when Puritanical people ruled the earth and you could not buy beer on Sunday. For many conservative Christians it's quite a long list of what you can and cannot do—mostly cannot.

Let us gain a fresh taste of the Biblical idea of sabbath in order to relate it to education. Is the taste of the sabbath bitter or sweet? Back in Genesis, we first find the idea of sabbath. “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Gen. 2:2-3). Right away it appears that this is God's example for our benefit.

It is surprising to think through the creation pattern. Adam's first day was a day of rest. He was created on the sixth day, thus his first full day of life was not a day of labor, but a day of sabbath. Unlike the day of sin when they “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God” (Gen. 3:8), after the first man and woman were created, they awoke to a day in their Maker's presence.

I believe this is a clue to the purpose and full meaning of the sabbath. No one works to earn rest in the presence of God. It is a gift before one labors. Originally it was not a six-then-one day pattern for Adam, it was a one-then- six pattern. This should remind us of the structure of salvation. It is redemption then service. The order is always grace then faithful obedience—not works, then grace. The sabbath gift was certainly not a meritorious reward of rest for Adam's works. At this point we may need to adjust our thinking. Many of us believe that Sunday is the last day of the week, though on the calendar and in our theology it is the first day of the week. Sunday for Christians should not be the last day of the weekend, but the first day of a new week in which to have dominion in the world. We are to be future thinking people, not those who cling to passing hours, begrudging a coming week of fruitful labor.

Later in the Old Testament, the sabbath commandment was expressed in the fourth commandment. It is striking that among many, “Thou shalt nots”—the form of this command is, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy”(Ex. 20:8). The Jewish sabbath observance included their synagogue convocations. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings” (Lev 23:3). That is, they were to gather in congregations. This seems to be the origin of the Jewish synagogue. But it is important to note that there is an explicit connection to celebration. The next verse says, “These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times” (Lev. 23:4). It goes on to reference, Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, both of which begin with a day of sabbath celebration. The sabbath was for instruction in the presence of God and His people. This has a very congregational sense, but notice it applies to homes, “in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:3). It is not enough to go to church, but the character of our homes is to be rest from labor and celebrate God's presence.

Here too, we may have reason to repent. The sabbath is not about rules. The very heart of the sabbath is “remembering.” The word here (zakar in Hebrew) means “call to mind” or “recall.” What do we recall? This is a little clearer in the second giving of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy. The sabbath was a memorial occasion for the emancipation proclamation of Israel. They were to remember their release from bondage by the power of God. “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). This release from bondage even applied to the land, which also was to be given sabbaths (Lev. 25:4). It applied to debtors in the cycle of restitution, the Jubilee, which is called a sabbath (Lev. 25:8-10).

Perhaps the more important lesson for us is to see that the fullness of this rest and release from bondage is the work of Jesus. Jesus is our sabbath rest. We can see this in the anticipation of His coming. The very paradigm of time leading to the “fulness of time” (Gal. 4:4, coming of Messiah) is a sabbatical pattern (“seventy sevens,” Dan. 9:24). After doing works of healing and restoration on the needy, Jesus was accused of sabbath-breaking. But it was the Pharisees who misused the sabbath (Mark 2:24-28). The sabbath, ironically, had become a kind of slavery. What was meant for the celebration of freedom, was made into a yoke of bondage. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is just because of this that the True Man, the Last Adam was “Lord of the sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

The Pharisaic accusations did not end with minor infractions of permissible sabbath activities. Their zealous bondage created murderous hostility to the Life-giver and Healer. After healing a man, we read, “For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:16). ’Jesus answer to this charge is very interesting. “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working....For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will” (5:17-21). In other words, the Lord is working for our redemption and that redemption is in the resurrection. He became a slave so that we might be free. He died so that we might live. Jesus is our sabbath. We were slaves, but now we are free. Does this sound legalistic?

The very heart of this is rejoicing in the grace of God and the reality of new life. Like the Jubilee, we need a fresh start. We need the weekly renewal of taking to heart our freedom and life in Christ. Our children need this, too. It does not take much imagination to find ways to grant release to our captive children after a long week. I attended a seminary which mandated that no work (even Bible research) could be done on the Lord's Day. We all bucked against it as legalistic sabbatarianism. But given the workload of “two hours outside of class to every one hour in class”—and this was carried out with Pharisaical precision, believe me—not doing class work on one day a week was a slowly realized blessing. The purpose of a day of ceasing from labor to enjoy the presence of God and His people is not a bitter pill. God has not commanded us to eat green persimmons. He tells us to taste and see that the Lord is good.