Sabbath Rest: Legalistic or Liberating?

Sabbath Rest: Legalistic or Liberating?

Sabbath has always been part of my life, but it hasn’t necessarily been restful. My dad began working for a church two weeks before I was born, so I literally can’t remember a time when church schedules or biblical principles weren’t setting the pace for my family. Ironically, Sunday was often the busiest day of the week—except for the long pause in lunch at the dining room table when I wouldn’t eat my vegetables. After the evening’s second round of church activities, I remember Sunday nights being a fun time together watching TV or listening to records.

Here’s the gist of what I learned about Sabbath while growing up as a staff kid:

  • Sunday is for church—a lot of it—not other activities.
  • God modeled a Sabbath day off (Gen. 2:1–3).
  • God commanded a Sabbath day off (Ex. 20:8–11).
  • Keeping a sabbath day is a counter-cultural act of worship.
  • Sunday lunch was served on fancy dishes.
  • Sunday night we could finally relax.

I wasn’t entirely off-base with my understanding, but Sabbath fell into the category of being told to tuck my shirt in and sit still at church. As a kid, this was a rule that was almost entirely about respect and obedience.

So, should we still observe Sabbath or is that an old practice? Is it legalistic? Is it a blessing? How is it related to my identity? I have to check my motives and perspective every now and then. Maybe the following thoughts and questions can help you self-reflect too.

Biblical Foundation

My parents and Sunday school teachers were right about the Old Testament roots for Sabbath—God gave His people an example and a command to follow and obey.

So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed. On the seventh day God had completed his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it he rested from all his work of creation. Genesis 2:1–2:3

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. Exodus 20:8–11

  • Are you keeping time set aside as holy?
  • When do you actually rest from your work?
  • What does your Sabbath look like?

Is Sabbath Legalistic?

Whether I’d like to admit it or not, my observation of a Sabbath day was usually a habit of legalism, not of holiness to the Lord. For me, it meant no organized sports or planned activities as a kid and not cutting the grass or taking shifts at my part-time job as a teenager. While abstaining from things like that can certainly be intentional acts of worship, my behavior was motivated by “don’t” rather than “do.” I wasn’t doing certain things because they were prohibited, maybe even “bad” on Sunday, not because I was enjoying God and His goodness.

Jesus addressed this kind of rigid “don’t” mentality and legalistic motivations among religious leaders 2,000 years ago:

On the Sabbath was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to make their way, picking some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

He said to them, “Have you never read what David and those who were with him did when he was in need and hungry—how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the bread of the Presence—which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests—and also gave some to his companions?” Then he told them, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. So then, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23–28

  • Do you have a “don’t” mentality when it comes to Sabbath?
  • What “don’t” you do on Sabbath—why not?

Is Sabbath Liberating?

Genesis and Exodus were both recorded for the Israelites as they were being shaped into a new covenant people. I’d known that since I was a kid reciting the 10 Commandments at VBS, but someone pointed out something as an adult that was a game-changer for my perspective on Sabbath.

The Israelites had just been set free from slavery in Egypt, right? So, how would they have received the command to take a day off from labor? This wasn’t a legalistic restriction. This was a revolutionary act of love! This was a constant reminder of the true identity of God’s people. They were free. They had a good Lord who did not require constant work from them. In fact, he had done work for them. His people were set apart from the nations around them. The Lord was superior to other gods and systems. The Israelites were no longer forced to build with bricks made of mud and straw every day. God had created the heavens and earth—including humanity—in six days and then blessed the seventh day as holy for rest.

In our own rise-and-grind culture that glorifies hustle, we need to “remember” the very real blessing and gift of Sabbath rest. Our value isn’t determined by our productivity. Our God is a faithful provider for all our needs. He’s sufficient. His work is “very good.”

  • Is your identity defined by what you do?
  • Are you slave to the hustle mentality?
  • Where do you feel pressure to be productive?
  • How would life be different if you found freedom in Sabbath rest?

Sabbath in Today’s World

So can Sabbath become legalistic? Of course. Is it actually a blessing and invitation to know God and yourself more holistically? Absolutely. When your identity is defined by who God says He created and redeemed you to be, not measured by how much you can do, you’re liberated from the grind and can enjoy God’s good gifts.

As you reflect on your motivation for a Sabbath and how it relates to your identity, I want to be sure you also have some tangible ways to evaluate and implement holy rest. The following resources provide practical application—especially as ministry leaders.

Check out our past three highly-practical blog posts:

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