Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
I was heading for a burnout. I was living at a crazy pace working on my doctorate, being present for my wife, raising teenage daughters, leading a thriving church, trying innovative approaches to ministry, and getting heavily involved in the larger church ministry called the Presbytery. I have great energy, but not unlimited energy. I knew I needed help and if I didn’t get it, I was going to crash and burn.
I reached out to my fellow pastors and asked, “What are the best books you have read on Sabbath-keeping?” If this sounds new, the Sabbath refers to the fourth of the Ten Commandments and is one that most Christians I know do not practice, and neither did I. Furthermore, there was biblical reason to question whether Christians should practice Sabbath-keeping, since our Sabbath “rest” is now found in Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 4). But something needed to change, and I suspected the key was in the Scriptures and in the Sabbath.
It’s Not Just Me
In her book Sabbath-Keeping, author Lynn Baab tells the story of one woman who said, “I didn’t know I was allowed to rest.” That woman was a mother of preschool- aged children who, along with other mothers, was learning about the Sabbath. Those mothers “talked about the seven-day-a-week pressure they feel to keep countless balls in the air. They drive their kids to activities, keep the home front organized and clean, fix meals, shop for food and kids’ clothes and toys and school supplies, and try to give their children a significant amount of undivided attention. Many of them also work part time or full time for pay. They multitask continually, and they find it exhausting.” Like many other people when first considering the topic of Sabbath-keeping, their response was somewhere between longing for it on the one hand to saying things like “that’s cute…but there’s no way” and dismissing it on the other hand.
Something is terribly wrong if a person hears about this rhythm of slowing down and stopping certain activities for a day and responds, “I didn’t know I was allowed to rest.” Maryann McKibben Dana in her book, Sabbath in the Suburbs, tells the story of how she was part of a petition that was going around to demand that the busses that took their students to and from school follow a certain order of dropping off students because some students were spending too much time on the bus. The parents not only signed a petition, but also began a letter-writing campaign to the school administrators. After three weeks of phone calls, letters, and updates at the bus stops, they finally won, and the bus schedule was changed. The busses began dropping off their children to keep them from staying longer on the bus than needed. Maryann Dana said that all of that was done so their children would get home four minutes sooner. FOUR MINUTES! As she wrote, “The parental blitzkrieg for the sake of four minutes of afternoon time struck me as ridiculous . . . I didn’t want to live the kind of life in which an extra four minutes were so crucial to my family’s schedule that I would petition the county government to get my way.” It revealed to her and to others the insanity of a life lived in which time was treated as a scarce commodity to be hoarded. There are so many people in our country consumed by time—being efficient with it, gripping tightly to every four-minute chunk of time, maximizing every moment, and doing 20 things at once as if our lives depended on it.
Between my own story of near-burnout and those stories above, we need to see that Sabbath-keeping is needed. It is time we all see it
The Old Testament and Sabbath
In the Old Testament, Sabbath has several emphases. In the book of Genesis, God rested on the seventh day of Creation from his work. He rested because his work was complete, it was time to delight in it (see Exodus 31:17), and God intended that day to be sanctified. At Creation, Sabbath has the basic principle of resting. In the book of Exodus, Sabbath takes on a different emphasis. There it was about liberation. The people were slaves, and the freedom God brought was to give them a rhythm of six days of work and one day of liberation from the tyranny of slavery.
The Gospels and Sabbath
In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples observed the Sabbath. Luke reports that it was the custom of Jesus to be at the synagogue on the Sabbath day. This was not an isolated practice. Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath as we see in Mark 6:2 and Luke 13:10. Even during the six times Jesus clashed with the Jewish religious leaders over the Sabbath, he did not dispute the significance of the Sabbath day. Instead, he focused on what is appropriate Sabbath behavior, or to look at the bigger issue, the question of what the Sabbath reflects about God to the people who observe it.
The Epistles and Sabbath
After the Resurrection of Jesus, Jewish Christians continued to observe the Sabbath. In addition, they met on Sundays to celebrate the Resurrection. As the Gospel spread to Gentiles, serious questions arose that they needed to answer. For example, did Gentile Christians need to obey Old Testament laws? The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 dealt with this question but noticeably missing was any language about Sabbath or Sabbath-keeping. They didn’t need to become Jews first and obey the laws, but nothing specific was said about the Sabbath.
The Apostle Paul, in his travels throughout the Roman world, continued to worship on the Sabbath. He often spoke about Jesus in synagogues far from Jerusalem. He also met with Christians on Sundays to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday gained a new name, “the Lord’s Day.” That title appears once in the New Testament in Revelation 1:10 and then more frequently in early Christian writing beyond the Bible.
In the book of Hebrews, the writer talks about how Sabbath rest is found in Jesus alone. The writer warns about those who do not see Jesus as the fulfillment of all of the hopes of Israel in the age yet to come—the future kingdom of God. Those who miss that, who don’t believe that, who reject that fact are like the people who were set free from slavery in Egypt long ago AND YET missed entering into the Promised Land because of their disobedience and blindness to the truth. That is what Hebrews 4:8–9 is driving at, that there is a Sabbath rest available for those who follow Jesus. It will happen in the future when Jesus returns, but we also get to experience it NOW. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.”
In Hebrews 3 and 4, the writer used a more general word for “rest” – katápausis – to depict God’s rest with the emphasis on rest from their work of coming into the Promised Land. They will get to the Promised Land, and they will rest from the battles and settle down. That’s what Joshua couldn’t give them and why God said there was another day yet to come. This is where verses 8 and 9 differ. In verse 8 it is the general word for “rest” that is used. In verse 9 it is a specific word used – sabbatismos – and the writer chose that word on purpose. Theologian Joseph Pipa writes, “The uniqueness of the word suggests a deliberate, theological purpose. He selected or coined the term sabbatismos because, in addition to referring to spiritual rest, it suggested an observance of that rest by a “Sabbath-keeping.” In other words, YES, the Jews missed the ultimate rest when they entered the Promised Land. And YES, our ultimate rest will come in that “eternal Sabbath” yet to happen in glory, but the writer of Hebrews wants Christians to know that as we eagerly await the future eternal Sabbath rest, we anticipate it now by CONTINUING TO KEEP THE SABBATH. That is the answer to whether or not to keep the Sabbath. YES, we are, but most don’t, which is why I am writing this article.
The Protestant Church and Sabbath
The early reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, insisted on the value of a day of rest and worship, but they did not regard Sunday as the Christian fulfillment of the Sabbath. In fact, many Reformers stressed that Christians should worship God every day. For Luther and Calvin, keeping a day of rest was following Thomas Aquinas’s concept of natural law: it is self-evident in our nature that we need rest. They viewed Sunday rest as a civic institution established by human authority that provided an occasion for bodily rest and public worship.
Yet various statements of faith called confessions written by the Protestant Christians, including those of our Reformed understanding of faith, reveal the following teaching.
- The Reformed (Presbyterian) believers did not teach that the Sabbath has been abolished or even that the Lord’s Day had been abolished. The Heidelberg Catechism comes close to that when it says that no day is holier than the other, but it then describes the Lord’s Day as an expectation for Christians.
- Similarly, the Reformed believers rejected the Dominical theories of the Sabbath that taught that the Lord’s Day is not a Sabbath nor a successor to the Sabbath. It is in no way dependent upon the fourth commandment for its basis, and the day is primarily for physical and mental rest and recreation. The Westminster documents speak of it explicitly as a Christian Sabbath. The fourth commandment is the grounds for much Reformed thinking on Sabbath-keeping, and rest and recreation alone are not what the Reformers taught. Worship and acts of mercy are added to the day.
- None of the confessions embrace a seventh-day Sabbath. Each connects the Resurrection to the Sabbath and call for the day to be on Sunday.
- The Reformers taught that Sabbath observance is universal and perpetually binding because Sabbath is a Creation principle established and shown by God himself. Later Reformers such as the Puritans took this to new levels of practice, but the roots were in the early Reformers who wrote the confessions.
What to Stop, What to Start
If Sabbath-keeping has new meaning and is still to be kept, the questions remain of how to do that in a day when people say things like, “I didn’t know I was allowed to rest.” There are two basic questions for the practice of Sabbath-keeping, reviewed below. Note that families with children at home have different types of conversations about this. Many find ways to make the day special not just for the parents, but the children as well.
What Will I Stop?
Here, the possibilities are endless. The point of the day is to make it different from the other six and to do restful, liberating practices. The most basic thing to stop is work. Just. Shut. It. Down. I realize that is nearly impossible for some, which is a problem in and of itself, but many who have ongoing responsibilities seven days a week have been able to throttle back or offload some of the work to make the day special.
Besides ceasing from work, one of the most enjoyable parts of Sabbath-keeping for some is the freedom to focus on only one task at a time and not to worry about finishing it. For others, they feel the freedom in shutting down all technology—in some cases that means television, phones, computers, and anything else that can invade the sense of rest. Still others cease from shopping, students stop doing homework, and a few stop talking. They make it a day of silence. The key is to decide what to stop doing.
What Will I Start?
This is where it gets interesting. It is not enough to say what you stop doing, the question is what will you then do? What will you add? Or what will you continue in new ways?
The possibilities are endless. For most, worship is a central act, whether that is private devotion or worship in church with others. For others, breathing and listening is the priority to the inner renewal. For still others, it is about prayer. And for others it is about playing. Writer Don Postema describes the dual nature of what we are called to do on the Sabbath: “Good Sabbath-keeping includes both praying and playing. Prayerful Sabbaths without play or playful Sabbaths without prayer are only half-Sabbaths. Prayer without play can degenerate into dutiful and cheerless religion. Play without prayer can become mind-numbing escape.”
One rabbi reports that his congregation wanted specifics about what they should and shouldn’t do on the Sabbath. He used three questions to determine whether an activity was suitable. They are good criteria for us as well:
- Does it promote rest and/or relaxation?
- Does it bring delight and enjoyment?
- Does it give you a sense of holiness and sanctity? In other words, does it add to your sense of Sabbath?
In Isaiah 58:13-14 we read, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Did you catch the results God promised the people when they keep the Sabbaths? You will find “joy in the Lord” and you will be triumphant in your life and you will “feast” on all that God gives you. May Sabbath-keeping be so for you.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.