I don’t think I have ever received Christian teaching about Sabbath. Jesus knew what the Sabbath was, and wasn’t: Sabbath was made for us, we were not made for Sabbath. To have something made for us, something bespoke, is to have something that is a perfect fit. I recently set about broadening my understanding of this time called Sabbath.

In the beginning…

The Jewish creation myth is theological: it tells us more about God, and our relationship with God, than it does about the science of the Universe. In this beautiful story, the Creator-God has an attention to detail, a passion in the creative act, infinite joy poured into the infinity of the fabric of space and time. I heard an anecdote (about genuine Artificial Intelligence) that evolution is the mechanism to put enough distance between programmer and program, in order that the original code has no influence. Free-will from hands-off parenting I guess. How much further hands-off can we be than the 10-20 billion years between “in the beginning” and now.

In the beginning when God created… light and dark… waters above and below… land and sea… plants… sun, moon, stars and seasons… birds of the air, fish of the sea, creeping things that creep, and whatsoever moves across the face of the earth… and God saw that it was good. Humankind was the final addition to this good paradise: on the sixth* day, God created humankind, blessed them and saw that everything was very good.

On the seventh day God ceased from work, and made the time holy: Six days of creating things which are good, then one day of creating time which is holy. Sabbath. Possibly from the verb sabat – to stop, to cease. God’s Sabbath. God’s time after work to kick back, crack open a beer, watch the sunset, and have time with friends.

A gift in creation

And God invited humankind into God’s rest.

I can’t think of a more generous and beautiful gift than to have a bespoke home made for me. To be handed the keys, and asked only to tend to the home – to care for it as though it belonged to me. A home given freely, at no cost to myself. More than that though, for this home to be a place of rest; with those I love and those who love me.

Something happened. The story of Adam and Eve is a metaphor for something about being created in God’s image, and yet being dissatisfied with that. Somewhere in our evolution we had a chance to be in paradise but it was rejected. Whatever happened, here we are today, in a world of violence, hunger, thirst, suffering and death. Here we are in not-paradise: here is the opposite of that bespoke place of love in which to rest.

“I’m God: take a day off”

The next step in the evolution of humankind’s relationship with God was the creation of a society built on non-competitive sharing: loving our neighbours as we love ourselves. God demonstrates authority by leading an exodus from Egypt, demonstrates that humans like Pharaoh are not gods, and based upon this authority and provision, sets the rules for a new community: the commandments from Sinai.

So God says: I’m God. Other gods are not gods – don’t be fooled. Don’t go making oaths in my name, because I’m God, not you. Take a day off. Literally. Sabbath: cease. I did, you shall. It is holy time for everyone. If you have everything you need from me, then you no longer need to compete. Time is not money: time is a sacred gift. Chill. By taking time off you demonstrate that you trust me, and you demonstrate to the world that I’m worth trusting.

First a gift, then a commandment

Sabbath is important to God. In my Christian search for the meaning of Sabbath, I learned that it was first a gift in creation, and later a commandment. The gift was given to an innocent humankind: a chance to dwell forever in a bespoke creation, at ease with our loving-Creator-God who made all things in order to share freely the joy and beauty of all things. Paradise. I learned that this Sabbath was more than a gift though; it is a freedom. In a world that demands we compete to succeed, Sabbath is an act of rebellion. The overarching story of humankind is “survival of the fittest”, whether education, business, sport, healthcare or even the environment – only the most competitive can survive, or win. Taking a day off in humankind’s not-paradise world, is to let others win: in our world only losers take a day off. And yet God asked an entire nation to do this, in order to prove that God’s provision would be sufficient. Sabbath is important to God because through Sabbath God wants to liberate us from our own tyrannical nature.


Even on their first Sabbath, several people went out to collect wood anyway.

There is a huge difference between enforced “do nothing” and liberating “you don’t have to do anything”. People want to know what the boundaries are. What do you mean rest? What, do nothing? That sounds boring… can I play games? Can I go outside? Can I go on the internet? Can I sell some second-hand clothes? Humankind once again wants to know what we can get away with: a classic case of missing the point.

Missing the point. The whole point of Sabbath is that God does provide – we don’t have to compete with each other, we don’t have to acquire food, wealth, status – because none of these things has any meaning in God’s economy. Love, sharing, rest, joy, peace, justice, righteousness: these are the treasures in paradise. Sneaking out to collect wood on that first Sabbath happened because a few people wanted to get ahead of the game. They did not believe and trust in God.

Inevitably, rules began to coalesce around the Sabbath. The whole point gets lost behind a morass of laws.

Sabbath for humankind / not humankind for the Sabbath

Jesus comes along and trespasses all over the laws of Sabbath, healing those who are hurt, feeding those who are hungry: the Sabbath is a time of free gifts, and of trusting in God. Everyone is upset by Jesus’ couldn’t-care-less-ness about Sabbath laws. However, I think Jesus totally understood Sabbath: a time in which we don’t have to compete, for healing, for rest from suffering, and a break from the slavery of endless work.

A time of liberation from hunger and sickness. A time of liberation from this not-paradise. Time once again to be welcomed into God’s rest – when the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Holy Saturday

As Jesus’ initial ministry drew to a climax in his death on the cross, we reach the ultimate expression of a human desire to remain slaves and to reject the one who comes to liberate us. In this bloodstained moment, as Jesus takes the sins of the whole world once and for all, he knows the complete absence of God. Fully human: Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As he breathed his last, as Jesus’ suffering ceased, he said, “It is finished.”

Good Friday, before sunset, Jesus the Son of God finishes his work here on earth and enters into God’s rest. There is a lot of theology about Holy Saturday, about Christ entering the lowest depths of hell and preaching to the souls that dwell there. It is a day in which Jesus’ friends could do nothing except mourn. Jewish Sabbath laws stopped them from going to the tomb. Holy Saturday is the day the church does nothing – the day between death and resurrection. The day between lost and found. A day of desolation.

However, I find myself wondering if it was a day when Jesus could be with his Father in heaven. A moment when the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit posed for Andrei Rublev’s family portrait. The Sabbath: when the work was done and Christ entered into paradise once more.


Christians have a strange relationship with Sabbath. Early church teachers such as Origen of Alexandria wrote extensively to distance Christian faith from Jewish faith. Sabbath is a defining characteristic of Jewish community, and the early church was a mishmash of Jew, Gentile, and those who didn’t even know the difference between Jew and Gentile. So the day of resurrection, that “first day of the new creation” began to become the Christian day of worship; Sunday became our holy day and we forgot the Sabbath, the last day of creation.

Christians understand themselves to be liberated from Jewish law by Christ’s sacrifice – but seem to have forgotten that the law doesn’t pass away. Christians are looking forward to the return of Christ, not back to the paradise-lost. We rarely think of Sabbath as something that applies to us. Yet Sabbath existed before religion, as a gift in creation. Sabbath was and is, liberation. Sometimes it feels like humanity would rather compete for our place in the world rather than share our place in paradise. Humanity seems to prefer slavery to freedom, even to the point of making Sabbath look like slavery and slavery look like freedom.

Orthodox Jewish faith sees the Sabbath like a bride and groom relationship. Sabbath-observing Jews eagerly anticipate the arrival of Sabbath like a loved one waits impatiently for their lover. Sabbath starts earlier than sunset and lingers into the following night.


I came to faith as a Christian late in my life. I have come to this teaching about Sabbath even later. Maybe I needed a lifetime of slavery to fully understand the gift of Sabbath. Maybe I can only be set free when I have come to see the bars of the prison I’m held within. I’m a priest in the Church of England, how can I honour the Sabbath and keep it holy? I appear to be beginning a new spiritual discipline… from Friday evening until the end of Sabbath I shall put down my smartphone. I shall stop answering emails instantly and updating social media with my every move. I shall cease efforts to acquire status and influence, and I shall stop looking for it in others. I shall step back from consumerism and the gain of stuff: I don’t have to go shopping on a Sabbath. I am still a parish priest, and I still have a flock to tend to… so I may have to celebrate love as couples marry, and I may have to offer healing where there is suffering… but I don’t need to be a slave to social media, consumerism and emails any more.

I may even go for a bike ride.


I am grateful to the 1950s work of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the poetic, loving, imaginative expression of Sabbath from the American world-view of a post-war Jewish community. Brother John of Taizé explores the concepts of the end-times, Sabbath and Holy Saturday from the perspective of a person rooted in peace and reconciliation. Walter Brueggemann writes that Sabbath is an act of resistance in a world of slavery, and helped me to understand how Sabbath came to be the most important commandment after affirming the providence of God in the wilderness. Judith Shulevitz has the most down to earth reflection on the realities of Sabbath: the complexities of Jewish law, the ambivalence of Christianity, and the yearning for the freedom that humankind shares.