For some reason – possibly Superbowl Sunday – the past few weeks have seen a flurry of articles relating to the Sabbath being published online. As pastors across the US braced themselves for a major drop in attendance at their evening service [if they actually had one] it again raised the question of how much weight Christians attach to the Bible’s teaching about the Sabbath.
The questions that surface perennially at this time of year are nothing more than a spike in a pattern that has steadily engulfed the church over the past three decades or so. Growing numbers of Christians have been abandoning any kind of meaningful belief in a day of rest that has been instituted by God.
The debate over the Sabbath is far from new, nor is it in any sense simplistic. (Though often its proponents have failed to wrestle with the nuances of how this theme is handled in the flow of redemptive history). Nevertheless it is a debate that must continue in the church for a host of reasons.
Perhaps the main one, curiously, comes not from a Christian theologian or scholar, but from a Jewish former US Senator. In 2011, Joe Lieberman published a book entitled, The Gift of Rest and subtitled, Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. It turned out to be hugely popular and clearly struck a chord with the reading public in America – not just in the Jewish and Christian communities, but across the nation.
It was not Lieberman’s theology of the Sabbath that struck me when this book appeared, but the fact that it resonated with a very real felt need in today’s world. Indeed, the Jewish community in Britain sounded a similar note with the Shabbat UK initiative that encouraged Jews throughout the UK to observe the Sabbath, even if they had fallen out of the habit of doing so. Here too it captured the imagination of the wider public and made the national news headlines.
In both instances it struck me as more than a little ironic that while Sabbath-loving Christians were struggling to convince their fellow-believers of the value of this God-given institution, their Jewish neighbours succeeded in doing for two great nations. Despite widespread indifference and even disdain for the notion of a day of rest that is clearly prevalent in both the Christian and Jewish communities at large, there is still something deep within the human psyche that cries out for it.
That in turn raises the question as to why the church has been so unpersuasive on this issue with its own people, let alone with the weary masses among whom they live.
The answer in part may lie in the way the church has tended to teach the Sabbath and encourage the faithful to observe it. It seems to me that almost invariably it has reversed the order of biblical logic in its efforts to do so. That is, it has tended to teach the Sabbath law before teaching the Sabbath principle.