I had the great honor of asking Dr. Rob Muthiah (Professor, Department of Ministry, Asuza Pacific Seminary) a few questions regarding the role of the Sabbath in the lives of Christians. Rob Mutthiah is the author of The Sabbath Experiment: Spiritual Formation for Living in a Non-Stop World.
My questions are in bold.
As Christians not under the old covenant, there are many commandments we don’t keep: circumcision, refraining from eating pork or shellfish, etc. Why is the commandment to observe the Sabbath any different than the above mentioned commandments?
Rob: I approach Sabbath first as a gift, not as a command. It is a weekly practice that shapes an amazing rhythm of life. It is a practice that roots us in the worship of God, blesses our relationships, reminds us of the beauty of creation, and calls us to pay attention to some specific justice issues. God offers this gift to us and says, “Here’s a rhythm and form that will allow you to live the fullest life possible, a life structured dramatically differently than what the dominant culture calls for.” So, I don’t approach the Sabbath as a commandment or a salvific mandate. Can you be a Christian without observing the Sabbath? Yes, I think so. But would keeping the Sabbath help us to live more Christianly? More faithfully? More fully? I am convinced theologically, culturally, and experientially that the answer is yes.
If a person wants to explore the command dimension of Sabbath, I’d say to begin by considering its context: the Ten Commandments. You’re right that we don’t keep many of the commandments given under the old covenant. But historically, Christians have continued to embrace the Ten Commandments. For example, there’s widespread agreement that Christians should have no other gods before YHWH, should not commit adultery, should not murder, and so forth. Whatever we do with the other nine commandments and however we locate them within our Christian faith should be applied to the Sabbath commandment also. It’s worth pondering why Christians generally embrace only nine of the Ten Commandments (guess which one gets ignored? Why is that?).
While we can learn a lot from looking at the various places in the OT where Sabbath is commanded, I suggest that the starting place is to understand Sabbath as a gift.
Is it important what day our Sabbath falls on? Does the Bible give any indication of a specific day of the week?
Rob: Building on Genesis 1, Sabbath in scripture is observed on the seventh day of the week. Christians eventually moved their Sabbath observance to the first day of the week to connect it to Christ’s resurrection (Seventh Day Adventists are an exception to this pattern). Some pastors set aside a week day for their Sabbath. I see room for flexibility on this. A more important question for me than the day on which you’re observing Sabbath is whether you are celebrating it at all.
What does a typical Sabbath day look like for you and your family? Are there certain practices you participate in? Are there certain things you refrain from?
Rob: As a family, we begin our Sabbath observance with the evening meal on Saturday. We start by lighting a candle and reading a liturgy before enjoying our evening meal together. A highlight of that for me has been when my wife and I lay hands on each child and take turns praying a blessing on them (we’re down to one at home these days). Sometimes various family members are going to events on Saturday night and our regular practice gets interrupted, or sometimes we do the liturgy in the car on the way to a Saturday night event – everyone in the family has it memorized because our kids grew up doing it weekly. Most weeks, though, we do this together around the dinner table.
I choose to not check emails, text, or surf the web on the Sabbath. I use these sorts of technology every other day of the week, but I value this space where those technologies are not allowed to intrude. I also do my best not to use money on the Sabbath – no shopping or going out to eat. Once in a while, I put aside the not-going-out-to-eat part because others are choosing to celebrate the day in this way, and eating food with others is very much in the spirit of Sabbath. I try to be fairly strict in my practices but I also try to have some flexibility. Too much flexibility, and the day loses its essence. Too much strictness and the day loses its spirit.
I love to garden, but yard work gets put aside on Sundays, as does laundry, housecleaning, and repairing things. Of course, this means the work for which I get paid gets put aside for the day, also.
A regular highlight of my Sabbath is worshipping with our church family. We’re usually at church not less than three hours, including social time, worship time, more social time, cleaning up, and so forth.
Another regular part of my Sabbath is an afternoon nap! Love it.
On Sundays I often try to call family and friends who live in other places. Sabbath has a relational quality to it. I see the time as not just for my own rest, but also for relational connecting. Both are good and part of my theology of Sabbath.
Some who grew up in the church did so with a certain view of Sabbath as being a somber day; a day in which sports or watching television were not allowed (the Sabbath basically being a list of don’ts). Is this the biblical picture of Sabbath?
Rob: We can learn significantly here from our Jewish brothers and sisters for whom the general approach to Sabbath is quite celebratory. It’s rather ironic that, in comparison to Christian Sabbath practices in the U.S., Jewish Sabbath practices are much more prescriptive and at the same time much more joy-filled. The structure of the day and the joy of the day are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are connected.
In terms of the biblical picture of Sabbath, imagine that you and your people have been in slavery for centuries. You’ve been rescued from slavery and you are told that in contrast to the oppressive economic system under which you lived, now you are to structure your lives so that everyone gets one day a week off. Would that make you somber? I think not! We need to reclaim the spirit of the day along with the structure of the day.
In your experience, what are some of the most common objections to Sabbath observance?
• I’m too busy – I have too much to do to set aside 24 hours each week for Sabbath.
• My children/family will never go for it.
• I don’t want to be legalistic about my faith.
I interact with these as well as others objections in the book.
For those who want to take the first steps and intentionally practice Sabbath, what advice would you give them? Are there any pitfalls to avoid, or things they could learn from your own experience?
Rob: For starters, I’d suggest choosing one thing to add and one thing to delete from the day. Maybe you add a favorite food to the menu for Saturday night to celebrate the arrival of Sabbath (if you have kids at home, let them suggest their favorite food as a way of involving them in the celebration). The quickest way I know to free up time in the day is to do some version of a technology fast. These Sabbath Experiment Guidelines have some ideas related to that.
Thank you for your time!
Dr. Rob Muthiah is the author of The Sabbath Experiment: Spiritual Formation in a Non-Stop World. His blog is dedicated to being a resource center for questions about Sabbath. Muthiah is also the author of The Priesthood of All Believers in the Twenty-First Century: Living Faithfully as the Whole People of God in a Postmodern Context (Wipf & Stock).