Of all the commandments, I suspect that the third commandment may be the most challenging for Christians to understand and follow.

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

What the heck does this mean for us as Christians in the 21st century? How do we make sense of the claims of groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists, who insist that in changing the Sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday, the Church has committed a grave infraction against this commandment?

Martin Luther maintained that we were free in the grace of Christ to honor any day as the Sabbath, as long as there was consistency of practice. His contemporary, Andreas Carlstadt, disagreed with him on this point (as on several others). The Jews honor the Sabbath beginning in the evening on Friday and concluding at evening on Saturday, while the practice of the early church was to observe the Sabbath beginning at the break of day on Sunday.

But timing might be the least of our concerns now. While arguments about when the Sabbath should be observed may seem academic, the issue of how it should be observed hardly should be academic, as it drives to the core of our Christian practice on a weekly basis. What do we do to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy?

Such musings led me to pick up The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man the other day. It is a short read at just under 100 pages, and the tone is meditative and often poetic in nature. Abraham Joshua Heschel is a 20th century writer I hadn’t encountered before, but will be looking for more of his works in the future. As with one of my other favorite Jewish authors, Chaim Potok, Heschel is able to provide a window into Jewish life and thought and practice that is fascinating and informative for me. I think it is also useful for Christians, reading through the lens of their Christian world view and understanding of Scripture, to appreciate the Sabbath through the eyes of another people who are bound up in it. While we may not agree with what the author says, we can learn through the process of unpacking it.

Heschel’s basic idea is that the God of the Bible is the God who created everything. Unlike the pagan deities, the Biblical God is not bound to any particular aspect of creation because it all comes from him. Unlike the idols of the Old Testament or Greek and Roman mythology, Heschel argues that the Biblical God is not associated with any particular place – no Mt. Olympus, no sacred grove, no special type of tree or body of water. All belong to him. All are created by him. Our God is a God who transcends any single location in all of creation. Therefore, God has not sanctified spaces or places.

Rather, Heschel states, God has sanctified time. The first thing that the Lord blesses is not a place but rather a time – a day of the week. The Sabbath, according to Herschel, is therefore a cathedral in time, not place. It is observable by anyone, anywhere. It requires no pilgrimage other than that of the heart. It stands as a repudiation of mankind’s constant efforts to control spaces and places by taking place in the one arena man has no control over – time.

How do you observe the Sabbath? For many people, perhaps we see Sunday morning worship as our obligatory observance of the Sabbath, leaving the rest of the day for ourselves. In some ways, there is some truth in that. The Sabbath is given to us as a day of rest and enjoyment! But we need to take that seriously as well. If the rest of the day is taken up with obligations, fulfilling things and people and not refreshing ourselves, I suspect we are not honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy. If there is no joy to be found in this one day of the week given to each individual by their God as a tangible means of linking them to their God, I suspect we are misunderstanding the commandment and allowing our culture to dictate to us – once again – that we are masters of all things, including time, and including time that God has deliberately delineated as sacred.

The world has no shortage of demands to place on us, and many of these we take on ourselves.

Homework, upkeep of the house and yard, time with significant others, spouses, children, family at large, chores that need to be done and a host of other things – all of these challenge the third commandment’s hold on our lives. But I believe – even if I don’t practice it very well yet! – that we can make changes in our lives so that one day a week we still have free to celebrate in the joy of the Lord with the people we love, free from the worries and fears of grades and paychecks and to-do lists. The Lord re-affirmed the Sabbath to a people just rescued from slavery. If we think that our culture is too hard to resist, imagine what the Israelites around Mt. Sinai were going through! If God thought it was a big enough deal to
command this of them, who are we to assume that it isn’t a big enough deal for us today?

Of course, the tone in the book is distinctly Jewish. It is full of references to Jewish scholastic and meditative traditions. But it was helpful for me to see the reverent side of the third commandment. That God gives us this command not to complicate our lives but to make them better – something that all the commandments have in common but that in our sinful, selfish state we often see as quite the contrary. Books like this I think are useful because they call us to think again about the things we all say we believe, but all too often find easy to let slide in the crush of daily and weekly life. I pray it will be a blessing to you as you continue to seek to be faithful to the commands of our God – not because doing so will make him like you more, but because you want to out of gratitude for how much He already loves you in His Son – His Son who is the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath.