Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, would agree that we should follow the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-21). In fact, the Ten Commandments are often referred to as foundational for all civil and moral law. Edwin Louis Cole once wrote, "The Ten Commandments have never been replaced as the moral basis upon which society rests." An atheist might dismiss the first three commandments, since they directly tie to one's belief in God, but the other seven are rather fundamental for the ongoing durability of society.
We know we should honor our father and mother. We know we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. And for those of us who do believe in God, we know we should have no other gods before the one, true God, and we know we should not have any idols in our lives.
But there is one commandment we very quietly ignore and hope that God doesn't notice: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). Perhaps we believe that since the Ten Commandments were given specifically to the Hebrews, Sabbath keeping was intended for Jews only. Fortunately, for the good of society, we don't apply that logic to the rest of the Commandments.
In the Hebrew, the verb form for sabbath, shabat, is almost identical to the noun, shabbat, and it means "to cease, stop, be at a standstill." So the Sabbath is a day set aside to cease and desist. But do we? The Sabbath is not the same thing as a "day off." I don't know about you, but when I take a day off, that's when I catch up on my "honey-do" list, run errands, and work on other projects. That's a far cry from what the Bible calls a sabbath rest.
The biblical context for the Sabbath is found in the creation story where "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested [shabat] from all his work that he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3). Why would God rest? Not due to fatigue but due to completion. God completed His creative work, and He ceased. In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, the reason given for observing the Sabbath is consistent with the creation account. We are to cease our work as a reminder that God ceased. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the reason to observe the Sabbath is different. We rest in celebration as we remember how God delivered the Hebrews from slavery.
Both reasons to observe a Sabbath are still needed in our own spiritual formation. We may not observe the Sabbath on Saturday (although some might), but setting a day aside to cease and celebrate connects us to the very structure God orders in the rhythm of creation and freedom. In Romans 14:5-6a, the Apostle Paul writes, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day [whatever day it may be], observes it in honor of the Lord." Whichever day it may be, Sabbath keeping reminds us that our lives are not defined by our work. Our identity is not in our activity. Through Sabbath keeping we enter a weekly rhythm that requires intentionality in our action (work) as well as our inaction (cessation/celebration).
In describing the high value of Sabbath keeping, Eugene Peterson writes, "[The sabbath] is uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week we take ourselves far too seriously." Sabbath keeping affords us the opportunity to "quiet the internal noise so we can hear the still small voice of God" (Peterson).
So how do we "keep the Sabbath"? By keeping it simply. Don't make it complicated and wearisome. If you do, you're not going to be keeping it for long. Notice that the two biblical reasons for Sabbath keeping (to cease and celebrate) form the parallel sabbath activities of praying and playing. In Exodus, the Sabbath directs us to the contemplation of God which leads us to pray. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath directs us to the celebration of God which leads us to play. That's right, Christians can and should play! Unfortunately, if we do keep the Sabbath, we either become puritanical and eliminate play, or we become secular and eliminate prayer. Both are needed.
Here's the good news. There is no legal prescription of how to set aside a day in order to keep the Sabbath. What I challenge you to consider is to get into a weekly rhythm where you commit a half-day (and eventually a full day) where you pray and play. Don't make it complex. Once you set time aside--weekly--then PROTECT it, because your instincts and habits will try to force their way in to your emptied time and space. You will feel unproductive and wasteful, because we are taught that time is money.
There are no rules to preserving the sanctity of time. There is only a commitment to set aside time for being, not using. Enjoy the God-ordained rhythm of work and rest, and in your rest don't worry about "getting things done," only be responsive to what God has already done.