A Foretaste of the Kingdom
Yeshua said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
(Mark 2:27) He was referring to the fact that we were not meant to be
burdened with so many rules and fine-print regulations that we spent
more time worrying about what we could not do on the Sabbath and
never got around to what we are supposed to do, enjoying the whole
day as a respite from our labor.
It's unfathomable that so many people who live for the weekend view the idea of the Sabbath—a day when no one is allowed to work—as legalism! But maybe they get this from the fact that what Yeshua was addressing there was indeed a type of legalism that had grown up around the commands that YHWH gave. He was reprimanding people for foisting man-made laws on people about what was or was not legitimate to do on the Sabbath and claiming that those commands had actually come from YHWH. That is something that we absolutely must sort out.
Scripture itself often tells us not to do any work on the Sabbath, but is pretty sparse in terms of specific commands:
-Have your food already prepared in advance (Exodus 16:23-26) -Don’t kindle a fire (35:3) -Don’t even gather kindling wood, i.e., make preparations to start a fire (Numbers 15:32ff) -Gathering with other Israelites is implied but not explicitly commanded. (Exodus 35:1; Leviticus 23:3) Learning from holy men was also a common custom. (2 Kings 4:23)
“YHWH has given you the Sabbath; that's why He is giving you two days' worth of bread on the sixth day. Each one of you remain in his place; don't let anyone leave his place on the seventh day." (Exodus 16:29) Per the context, this may have been a command for only one occasion or for in the wilderness when they would normally go out to gather manna. But an elaborate system of determining the limits of “one’s place” was developed around this one concept. Also, the concept of a “Sabbath day’s journey”—2,000 cubits or about a kilometer—came from this idea (see Acts 1:12) put together with the distance from the Levitical cities within which their animals were to be kept. (Numbers 35:5ff; compare Joshua 3:4) Beyond that is where the crops were, and no one was to tend his crops on the Shabbat, but could certainly go to feed his animals if needed.
Some also see in the juxtaposition of Exodus 35:1-4 with verses 5 and following the strong suggestion that none of the things done toward the construction of the Tabernacle should be done on the Sabbath. Because even the holiest of work must cease on the Sabbath (with one major exception to which we will return), how much more the equivalent types of labor which are used toward mundane pursuits? There is certainly some merit in this, and everyone is free to take on additional disciplines for himself. Still, when making rulings that apply to others, we should not get more specific than YHWH does. (Deut. 4:2)
A major part of the Sabbath, which the prophets had to address because people apparently missed it, was that we need to not just stop working, but also allow everyone else around us the same break. (Compare Isaiah 58:6-9 in regard to Yom Kippur, which is called a “sabbath” of a different kind.) Some should not be privileged to keep the commandment while others are not.
The liturgy that welcomes the Sabbath calls this special day “a reminder of the exodus from Egypt”. How is it so? Because it is a much-needed rest when even slaves are not to be made to work. (Deuteronomy 5:15) Obey YHWH, and who needs labor unions?
The modern concept of “Shabbas goy”—a Gentile who is enlisted to turn on light switches for us so we don’t have to do it ourselves—really violates the spirit of this command. Aside from the fact that a light switch does not light a fire, but only completes a circuit (if a spark is created, there is already something gravely wrong with the wiring and it should not be used on any day), making someone else work so I don’t have to is missing a big part of the Sabbath’s purpose: “On it you shall not do any work—neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, neither your male nor female servants, nor your animals, nor the traveler/guest who is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:10)
My children often ask to do some things on the Sabbath for which they have to pay. “We’re not working!”, they say. This needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis, because if one is paying by machine, for example, it may not be requiring anyone else to work. Recreation is a valid thing to do on the Sabbath, because it is meant to be a time of leisure and refreshment. But if someone else has to work to facilitate our relaxation, it is highly questionable. “But”, my children say, “they are going to work anyway, whether I come or not!” But they will only provide a supply where there is a demand; if we do not contribute to the creation of the demand, they might eventually cease, which would at least be doing the right thing, even if for the wrong reason.
The prophets and holy leaders of Israel, however, did have certain expectations, and they spoke for YHWH:
“I noticed in Judea some people treading out winepresses on the Sabbath, bringing sheaves and loading up donkeys [with] wine, grapes, figs, and all [kinds of] burdens, and bringing them into Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) on the Sabbath day! So I solemnly warned them on the day they sold foodstuffs. And people from Tzur…brought in fish and all [kinds of] merchandise and were selling to the descendants of Yehudah and in Yerushalayim on the Sabbath.
“So I complained to the nobles of Yehudah, and said to them, ‘What [kind of] evil thing is this that you are doing, and profaning the Sabbath day? Didn’t your ancestors do the same thing, so that our Elohim brought all this misery on us and on this city? Yet you’d bring still more wrath on Israel by treating the Sabbath as if it was just any ordinary day?’
“So when the gates of Yerushalayim began to grow shaded before the Sabbath, I ordered that the gates be shut, and ordered that they not be opened until after the Sabbath, and I stationed some of my young men around the gates, so that no burden should be brought in on the Sabbath. And all the traders and sellers of merchandise spent one or both nights right outside Yerushalayim. Then I protested against them and said to them, ‘Why are you staying right in front of the wall? If you do [it] again, I will let a hand loose against you!’ From that time [on], they did not come on the Sabbath. And I told the Levites that they should purify themselves and come as the guards of the gates to set the Sabbath day apart.” (Nehemiah 13:15-22)
His ideas of what was appropriate to do on the Sabbath may have been derived from one extracanonical but highly-revered writing, of which more copies than any other book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; it should at least be taken into consideration. It lists the following as things we should not do on the Sabbath:
“Whoever desecrates that day, whoever lies with (his) wife, or says he will do something on it--that he will set out on a journey thereon in regard to any buying or selling--and whoever draws water thereon which he had not prepared for himself on the sixth day, and whoever takes up any burden to carry it out of his tent or out of his house must die.
“You must do no work whatsoever on the Sabbath day, except what you have prepared for yourselves on the sixth day, so as to eat, and drink, and rest, and…to bless YHWH your Elohim, who has given you a day of festival and a holy day--and a day of the holy kingdom; for this day is for all Israel among their days for ever. For great is the honor which YHWH has given to Israel that they should eat and drink and be satisfied on this festival day, and rest thereon from all labor which belongs to the labor of the children of men, except burning frankincense and bringing oblations and sacrifices before the Lord for days and for Sabbaths.
“This work alone shall be done on the Sabbath-days in the sanctuary of the Lord your God; that they may atone for Israel with sacrifice continually from day to day for a memorial well-pleasing before the Lord, and that He may receive them always from day to day according as thou hast been commanded. And every man who does any work thereon, or goes a journey, or tills (his) farm, whether at his home or any other place, and whoever lights a fire, or rides on any beast, or travels by ship on the sea, and whoever strikes or kills anything, or slaughters a beast or a bird, or whoever catches an animal or a bird or a fish, or whoever fasts or makes war on the Sabbaths…” (Yovelim/Jubilees 50)
Again, the degree of authority of this document is uncertain, but when appealing to some who wanted to find cause for accusation among his disciples, Yeshua also gave credence to the idea that in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), certain work could be done that could not be done anywhere else: “Have you not read in the Torah how on the Sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?” (Mat. 12:5)
What may be lost in translations is that there is a distinction between two types of work in Hebrew, which leaves room for this distinction and can help us understand why these rules are here. The command is not to engage in mal’akhah. That word is related to mal’akh—a messenger, one who represents someone else. It is therefore related to work that we do for someone else, i.e., for which we are paid, as opposed to avodah, which means “service” to others—“deeds of mercy”, as my father likes to say. No one should be forced to do this kind of work on the Sabbath either, but it can be done voluntarily for the benefit of others. Yeshua exemplified this by healing some people, bringing them relief—a big part of what “rest” is about.
But sometimes the two terms are combined: mal’akhath avodah, as seen in Exodus 36:
“…every contribution that the descendants of Israel had brought for the work of the service in the Holy Place…” (36:3) This is the kind of work that Yeshua said the priests could keep doing—indeed, were required to—on the Sabbath, for the lights on the menorah were to be kept burning tamid--all the time (sometimes necessitating the kindling of a fire), and some offerings are to be brought every day (another meaning of tamid). (Numbers 28:6-8) In fact, there are even a few special offerings brought only on the Sabbath in addition to those brought every day, because it is a day when the Kingdom, rather than the mundane, is being served. (Numbers 28:9-10) This is also reflected in the fact that the Bread of the Presence/Faces, which represents the twelve tribes of Israel in unity, is only set in order on the Sabbath. (Leviticus 24:8)
Notice the peculiar phrase cited above in Jubilees 50: the Sabbath is called “a day of the holy kingdom”! What does that mean?
Rabbi Peter Winston (in Moshiach and the World Today) tells of a common, long-held Jewish tradition: “History will last only 6,000 years (Talmud - Sanhedrin 97a). This is because the six millennia are based upon the six days of creation, as hinted to in the following verse: ‘For one thousand years in Your [Elohim's] eyes are but a day that has passed.’ (Psalms 90:4)”
The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 31a) also tells us that this world, as we know it, will last 6,000 years, “with the seventh millennium ushering in the cosmic Shabbat, the Messianic Era. Six days a week we work, and on the Shabbat we rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor.” Thus, the Sabbath is, among other things, a prophecy about this seventh "day", the 1,000-year period when Satan will be bound (Revelation 20:2ff), the Messiah will rule the whole world, and even carnivorous beasts will be at rest, no longer killing other animals. (Isaiah 11:9; 65:25)
The fact that there will be no war then either (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3) suggests another derived meaning of “you shall kindle no fire on the Sabbath”:
“Consider how large a forest a small fire can set ablaze. And the tongue is [such] a fire—a world of unrighteousness! This is how the tongue exhibits itself among our members, ruining the whole body, [discoloring it], and igniting the cycle of life, and it is [itself] set on fire by Gey-Hinnom.” (Yaaqov/James 3:5-6)
We can “start fires” through what we say on the Sabbath, so we must, on this day even more than others, refrain from “the evil tongue”, for “every idle word that men shall speak, they will give an account of on the Day of Judgment.” (Mat. 12:36)
The bottom line is that by resting on the Sabbath, we are meant to join in YHWH’s own rest:
“Thus the descendants of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, in order to carry out the Sabbath for [all] their generations…because in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:16-17) He wants us to experience the same thing He enjoyed on that original Shabbat. The idea is to stop making and sit back to enjoy what you have made—as YHWH did.
The same passage says, “It is a never-ending covenant.” That means that even if “the Son of Adam is master of the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:8), he will never do away with it or replace it, even with a day on which we might want to celebrate his resurrection. That can be a supplementary celebration (like Purim or Hanukkah), in addition to but not instead of the Sabbath, and not something required of anyone. The Sabbath is not just for the Jews, but for anyone who recognizes YHWH as Creator, for He established it as a set-apart day all the way back at creation—long before Mount Sinai. (Exodis 20:11)
Imagine what a relief it will be both for YHWH and for earth’s citizens when “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Master and of His anointed [Messiah]”! (Rev. 11:15) But though “there remains yet a rest for the people of Elohim” (Hebrews 4:9) in its fullest sense in the Kingdom, YHWH lets us "enter His rest" even now (Heb. 4:10-11)—on the Sabbath, but also every day in that we cease striving for what He has already provided for us, which includes the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23; Eph. 5:9)—part of which is His shalom even in the worst circumstances (Yochanan 14:27), for even if the Kingdom has not fully arrived, He is already with us.
“If you restrain your foot because [it is] the Sabbath (turn away from doing whatever you please on my set-apart day) and call the Sabbath a delight and YHWH’s holiness something to be honored, and shall honor him, not engaging your own affairs, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you will take exquisite delight in YHWH; and I will cause you to [mount and] ride upon the Land's ridges, and feed you with the heritage of Yaaqov [Jacob] your father: for the mouth of YHWH has spoken it.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 58:13-14)