Is snorkeling a proper Sabbath activity? Is there anything wrong with playing soccer on Sabbath? Should you buy and pay for food on the Sabbath? These and other issues have been the major topics of discussion in some Adventist circles.
In reaction to discussions about proper Sabbath behavior, some have begun to emphasize the experience of the Sabbath. Busy people are encouraged to experience rest on the Sabbath. They are promised the possibility of recharging their batteries and refocusing on the real priorities in life. They are offered “meaning” on the Sabbath. One example of this emphasis is the title of Tuesday’s lesson: “Experiencing the Joy of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is a “commemoration” of freedom from every kind of slavery.
Along with this shift in emphasis from behavior to experience has come a corresponding shift in actual Sabbath practice. In the past, it seemed that the only thing one could do without the danger of breaking the Sabbath was to take a nap. Now, when the emphasis is on experience, it seems that almost anything goes as long as it enhances the “Sabbath experience.”
Wednesday’s lesson contrasts the frustrating Sabbath of rules and regulations with an experience of truly enjoying God’s Sabbath. There is nothing wrong with experiencing peace, joy, and rest on the Sabbath. But the Bible does not focus on the Sabbath experience but on the quality of the Sabbath activities. For example, when asked about the lawfulness of plucking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus turned the tables on his interlocutors and began talking about the priority of merciful activity over ritual activity (Matt. 12:6, 7). When asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus replied with a statement that highlighted how lawful it was to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1012).
A focus on the lawfulness of Sabbath activity will result in a set of guidelines and standards that enable a person to judge their behavior and that of others. This would be true whether the question comes from a legalistic desire to avoid breaking the Sabbath or from an approach oriented toward enhancing one’s experience of rest, peace, or joy.
If, in contrast, the focus is on the quality of the activity, the question becomes, “How can I live out the rest, deliverance, and healing that I have found in the gospel on this day?” Instead of a list of dos and don’ts the result would be an open door to any activity that conveys grace, mercy, or peace to another human being.
Jesus’ example is worth investigating. Almost every mention of Jesus’ Sabbath activities includes a healing. None of the healings were emergencies. One man had a withered hand (Matt. 12:914; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:611). Another had edema (Luke 14:16). A woman suffered eighteen years from a severe spinal condition (Luke 13:1017). Other non-emergency situations included a man who had been crippled for thirty-eight years ( John 5:18) and another man who had been blind from birth (John 9). All were suffering from chronic conditions that Jesus could have healed on another day.
In each instance Jesus took the initiative in healing the person. He called each one to him, often going out of his way to find them. He did it all very deliberately and publicly. He did not tell the people healed to keep it secret. Why did Jesus heal people on the Sabbath who were chronically ill, why did he take the initiative to do it, and why did he do it all publicly?
The answer is found in Jesus’ desire to keep the Sabbath holy. Holy means something is separate and distinct, principally because it is related to God. The person who keeps the Sabbath moves from the common realm into the holy realm. He enters what Abraham Joshua Heschel described as a “cathedral in Time.” The Sabbath keeper’s activities should therefore be characterized by holiness. So the question now is, “What is a holy activity?”
Is spectating from church pews a holy activity? Is sleeping? Are bird watching or other “recreational activities?” No. They involve rituals, passive inactivity, and interaction with inanimate objects. By and large, these are not activities motivated by God. In some cases, they are not even associated with God in any significant way. Not that they are bad or wrong or inappropriate. But if we want to follow Jesus’ example in performing holy activities on the Sabbath we will do as he did, performing deeds of mercy, justice, healing and witness.
These activities are relational rather than ritualistic, practical, effective, and productive rather than passively inactive, and they involve personal interactions rather than impersonal involvement with the inanimate. Just as Jesus took the initiative to do these kinds of activities in the face of stiff opposition, so will we.
In the context of his Sabbath works, Jesus spoke about how he only did what he saw his Father do (John 5:19). What his Father did was always holy, so Jesus’ acts of Sabbath mercy were also holy. On the Sabbath, Jesus performed concrete acts of love and if we are to follow his example, we will too. It is not enough to have just an experience of joy, peace, or rest. That is far too passive. In Deuteronomy 5, the rationale for the Sabbath is the work of God to bring Israel out of Egyptian bondage. The Sabbath can become a day whereby we, too, may bring other men and women out of bondage through our acts of mercy, justice, healing, and witness.
Edward Allen is a professor of religion at Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska.