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Should a Christian keep the Sabbath? Luke 13.10-17

Luke 13.10-17

We are very quick to turn what is meant to be a blessing into a curse.

Click here to listen to the audio of the talk

That is what happened with the Sabbath

The Sabbath was the seventh day of the week in the Jewish calendar.

According to Genesis, God created the world in six days and he rests on the seventh. So he blessed the seventh day and made it holy.

For the Jewish people, the Sabbath – the day of rest (Sabbat means rest) – was/is Saturday.
Although according to the Hebrew calendar, the day began/begins on the evening of the preceding day, so the Sabbath began at 6pm on Friday and finished at 6pm on Saturday.

And one of the ten commandments is about observing the Sabbath:

Exodus 20.8-11
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So the Sabbath was to be a day of rest – but it also became a day to celebrate freedom, to remember how God had rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, where they had been an enslaved refugee people.

And the very fact that the people of Israel were able to celebrate the Sabbath was an act of freedom. Whey they were slaves in Egypt, they had not time to celebrate the Sabbath.

And in the Old Testament, there were not only sabbath days, but also sabbath years:

Every seventh year, the land was to rest.

Leviticus 25.4-5
.. in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

But it was not just the land. It was also a day when debts were forgiven and people who had sold themselves into slavery were set free (Deuteronomy 15.1,12)

And indeed, there is reference in the bible, not just to the sabbath day or the sabbath year, but also to the daddy of sabbaths, the sabbath of sabbaths.
Every 49 years, leading into the fiftieth, was to be a year of jubilee; ‘You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10)
.. land will revert to its original owners
.. debts will be cancelled
.. slaves will be set free

So there are two themes woven together in the idea of the sabbath.

There is the theme of rest and the theme of freedom

People will be able to rest from their work – including slaves and animals and even the land
And in the sabbath year you trusted God that the land would produce its own fruit

And there is the theme of freedom
Debts were forgiven, and slaves were freed.
The Sabbath was the day when people could remember how God gave them freedom, and they could celebrate, no – to practice – freedom.

In other words, the Sabbath was a gift from God to us to allow us to glimpse the Kingdom of Heaven; it was a breaking in of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth into our time.

It was meant to be a blessing, but it had been turned into a curse.

We see that in our reading today, and in other passages in the New Testament.

Rather than focussing on what the Sabbath was all about, you ended up focussing on what you could not do on the Sabbath
Sabbath observance, rather than being a joy, had become a burden. It weighed people down.
It had become hedged about by laws saying what you could do or could not do; what was work or what was not work.
And while there is great wisdom behind many of the laws: a principle that you can do what preserves and maintains life, but you cannot do anything creative – if you turn it into a system of law it becomes burdensome and at times downright ridiculous

And that is what Jesus is rebelling against in our reading

He heals a woman who has been crippled and bent for 18 years.

She has come to the synagogue on the Sabbath
She was bent over and when Jesus touches her, ‘she stood up straight and began praising God’.

And when he, and those who come to him for healing, are criticised by the leader of the synagogue, Jesus points out that untying your ox or donkey and taking it to a well to drink is not considered to be work – for both you, or the animal (provided the animal was not made to carry anything).
And the language he uses is significant. He speaks of ‘loosing’ your ox so that it can go and drink. And he adds, ‘Ought not this woman, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years , be ‘loosed’ (it is the same word) from this bondage?’ (Luke 13:16)

That is what Jesus came to do.

At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares his manifesto
He has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.

And it is what the Sabbath is all about.
It is about setting people free, it is about letting God loose the burdens that crush us, untie the ropes that bind us, so that we can stand up straight and praise God.
It is an anticipation of the Kingdom of heaven.

So what about us? Should we celebrate the Sabbath? How should we celebrate the Sabbath?

Well, this takes us into deep theology, and we’re only going to skim the surface.

The early Christians changed the day of worship from the last day of the week (Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday).
That was because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, on the Sunday. Matthew tells us (Matthew 28.1) that Jesus rose from the dead ‘After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning’.
And Luke writes in Acts about Paul’s visit to Troas, ‘On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread’ (Acts 20.7)
And Paul writes in 1 Cor 16.2, ‘On the first day of the week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn … in order to give
(John in Revelation speaks of the first day of the week as ‘the Lord’s day’ - Revelation 1.10)

And we also celebrate on Sunday, the first day of the week, because we are now part of God’s new creation.
The old creation began on that first day in Genesis 1, when God said ‘let there be light’
The new creation began on the 8th day (as John put it) or on that first day of the new week, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

The point is that with the resurrection of Jesus, it really is true that the life of the Kingdom of Heaven has begun on earth, and in heaven there will be no special ‘sabbath day’, because every day will be a sabbath day.

And as the people of God, we have been set free from sin, we are forgiven, the curse of Genesis 3 has been taken by Jesus onto himself and dealt with, we have now entered the rest, the ‘sabbat’ of God. Every day for us can, by faith, be a Sabbath day.

And so Paul in Colossians challenges both those Christians who say that we should keep certain days special (including the Sabbath), and he challenges those who condemn others for keeping those days:

Colossians 2:16
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.

But we are not yet in heaven – we still do live in this world.
And if God said to the ancients that it was good to have a day of rest, if it was wise for them, it is also wise for us.

It helps us to remember both the creation of God and the intention of God for this world. It reminds us of rest and freedom.
And it helps us to have a rhythm in life – and it helps us to have a day a week when we can anticipate the freedom of heaven, and a day when we can rest.

I was quite legalistic about Sunday when I was younger.
I don’t think I ever went shopping on a Sunday (Sunday trading only began in the UK in 1994)
I very rarely didn’t go to church on a Sunday (still true)
As a student I tried to keep Sunday free from work, even just before my exams
When I began working in Christian ministry, I was very protective of my day off
And I am grateful for that – because it was and is a good pattern to get into.

But perhaps I did, a bit like the ruler of the synagogue, occasionally miss the point.

The observation of a day of rest is not primarily meant to be an exercise in obedience, although we do need to remember that it is a Christian duty.

Rather it is a blessing, a gift from God. Not only a time for simply remembering that God has set us free, but a day to anticipate heaven by living in that freedom.

And even if we cannot have a day of rest - and I am aware that some of you are not able to do so (although if it is your choice, I would challenge you to think about trusting God for his provision – he told the ancient Israelites that the land would produce its own crop in the sabbath year – in other words, if they did no economic work, then they would not go hungry) ...
(By the way, if you are an employer, never compel your employees to work 7 days a week, unless it is an exceptional circumstance)
But even if you cannot take a day off, I beg you to take some time out to worship God with others (preferably on a Sunday).

The early believers would meet early on the first day of the week:
Not only because it was when Jesus rose from the dead, but because many of them were slaves who did not have a day off, and that was the only time that they were free to meet together.

And it is important.

You see as we go through the week, we get weighed down by the experiences of the week: we take the burdens of the world onto our shoulders, and we begin to lose perspective. We look down. Our world becomes very little. We think that we are responsible for the woes of the world. And we are tired.

And then, as we come to church – perhaps initially out of a sense of duty – we suddenly begin to refocus. We remember that there is a God, who loves us and died for us; we are able to confess our sin and receive the assurance of his forgiveness; we again entrust ourselves, those we love, the situations we are in into God’s hands, and remember that God is in control, that there is hope. Maybe even we discover God’s physical healing as we come to the Lord Jesus.

And we, who were stooped and crushed, discover that in Christ we already have rest, and we are set free.

And we stand up straight and we praise God.


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