Oftentimes we tend to define the Christian life more by what we don’t do rather than what we do do.
It’s understandable, as God often does the same. At Sinai He told Israel not to kill or commit adultery. On another mountaintop Jesus went even further. He commanded His disciples not to be angry or lust (Exodus 20:13, 14; Matthew 5:21-28).
Likewise, when Paul or Moses instruct God’s people to not behave like the nations around them, to not be conformed to this world, it is easy to draw our lives in not-shaped ways (Leviticus 18:1-3; Romans 12:1, 2).
But let’s face it: A life lived merely by negation isn’t much of a life — how much more the Christian life.
Don’ts and do’s
The Sabbath is the same way. Typically, conversations surrounding our observance of the day focus on the nots, what we don’t do. I don’t want to diminish the importance of that. After all, as we are able to not work, we become able to act in sacred time. That not-do creates holy space for the can-do.
This brings us to something special about the Sabbath command itself. Of the Ten, it is the first of two commandments that are declared by YHWH positively, as a do commandment rather than a do-not. This observation will liberate our disposition toward the Sabbath if we let it. It frees us to explore what it might mean for us to sanctify the Sabbath by actions that draw us more fully into its blessing.
With this can-do focus in mind, what better way to begin (and this is just a beginning) our investigation than by examining Sabbath activity in the book of Acts. Four core activities set our course.
Act of Sabbath rest (Acts 18)
Yes, rest is an act. And for our restless souls, true rest is a skill. The ceaseless striving of today’s world with its false promises has usurped God in countless ways. Rest is essentially the ability to be still, but our ambitions rob us of sacred stillness. As it does, divine blessing slips through our fingers. But as we are able to cease (the root meaning of the word Sabbath), to rest and recover stillness, we make room for the movement of the Spirit. Sabbath offers us the opportunity to practice this weekly as we take part in the rhythm of divinely ordered work and rest.
Paul illustrates this work-rest rhythm evocatively in Acts 18. This last reference to Sabbath in Acts is our first because it follows the Divine work-rest pattern laid out in Genesis 2 and Exodus 20.
Paul has come to Corinth and is staying in the home of Aquila and Priscilla. The three have something in common: “So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (vv. 3, 4).
The subtlety of this passage is lovely. Paul makes tents. No doubt it is hard work. On Sabbath he does not make tents; he does something else. His habit of ceasing from tent-making makes room for habits other than tent-making — Sabbath-habits. But these habits begin only with the habit of rest from work.
Let’s back up one chapter to see one of these Sabbath “habits.”
Act of Sabbath missions (Acts 17)
Following Paul on his missionary journeys, we are quick to discover how important the Sabbath was for him as a vehicle for reaching souls for Jesus Christ. In Acts 17 Paul has come to Thessalonica and finds a Jewish synagogue:
Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ” (vv. 2, 3).
“Going to church,” as it would have been understood in a first century Jewish synagogue context, was for Paul an opportunity for missions — not just for reaching Jews for Jesus, but Gentiles as well (18:4). Our context is different from Paul’s, but I’ve learned from my own congregation that mission begins in the local church and moves out from there and back again. Sabbath time is redemption time.
Following Paul’s example, we must note that central to his gospel missions on these Sabbaths was his reasoning from Scripture in such a way that demonstrated that Jesus is Christ. So Sabbath missions is about striving to share Jesus through Scripture. This leads us to our next critical Sabbath act.
Act of Sabbath study(Acts 13)
Our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples of all nations are directly dependent on our own discipleship to the story of Scripture. Biblical illiteracy threatens authentic discipleship and mires the church in mediocrity. The act of Sabbath study is a simple yet profound antidote to this.
Acts 13:13-52 offers an exciting example. Paul comes to Antioch, enters a synagogue on Sabbath, and sits down. After a reading from the Law and Prophets, he is invited to exhort the congregation. The sermon that follows is remarkable for its breadth and brevity. Paul roams across Scripture expertly as he builds toward the climax of Christ as Messiah. He speaks of Abraham, the Exodus, King David, and the prophets, and he quotes 1 Samuel 13; Psalm 2, 16, 89; Isaiah 55; and Habakkuk 1 along the way.
The response is transformative:
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God (vv. 42-44).
Sabbath creates the critical time and space to be immersed in the Word of God in a communal setting. Those Gentiles who heard Paul on that Sabbath “begged” for more preaching like that the next.
Do we beg for more Bible study, to learn more about our Lord and His kingdom? Do our preachers provide it? To read and listen, to teach and be taught from the entirety of Scripture in community, is critical to the life and health of the people of God and their mission. Eat the Book. Sabbath is when we eat best.
Act of Sabbath Prayer (Acts 16)
In Acts 16 Paul arrives at Philippi:
And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul (vv. 13, 14).
This passage is idyllic and personal. It is Sabbath by a riverside; it is a place of prayer. Fellowship leads to an opened and believing heart. There is a sweet intimacy here that I recognize from my own Sabbath experiences. God moves when we humbly enter into each other’s lives through prayer and fellowship. Praying in community each Sabbath is life sustaining and secures us in our shared journey to God.
Each Sabbath after the Word is preached and before our fellowship lunch, our tradition in Jasper is to close the service by forming a circle and praying, hand in hand. This last Sabbath prayer of the day is a reminder that though we separate to our own homes we know that we never pray alone, we are always God’s people and pray “Our Father” wherever we may be. This gets to the very heart of Sabbath.
It is this securing and nurturing of community that Sabbath does best. When I sanctify the day as the Lord commands, it becomes a blessing for my brothers and sisters. When they sanctify it, I am blessed.
Sabbath day’s journey (Acts 1)
Acts 1:12 tells us that the distance between the Mount Olives, where Jesus spoke His final commands to His disciples before ascending, and the upper room in Jerusalem to which they now went, was a Sabbath day’s journey. The Jews determined this distance to be the limit between the can-do and the cannot-do of Sabbath travel. It was not a commandment of God but a communal judgment arrived at over time. Perhaps it is beneficial to meditate on the implication of this “ distance.”
I sit now and ponder that Sabbath day’s journey — not in the literal, traditional Jewish sense of physical distance, but in that metaphoric sense that every Sabbath is a journey to God and neighbor that strives to find that delicate distance, the blessed balance and limit between the can-do and not-do. This sense allows us to enter into the sanctity and blessing of God’s Sabbath for the mutual benefit of God’s people.
This journey through Acts considering the acts of Sabbath cessation, Sabbath mission, Sabbath study, and Sabbath prayer does not suggest that these particular actions are confined to the Sabbath day. Rather, it suggests that God has blessed a day when we can put down our tent-making tools and join as a people who cannot risk resting, mission, studying, or praying in isolation, alone.
These four key Sabbath acts are but the beginning of learning where our “Sabbath day’s journey” may take us. The Sabbath is a delight, so it follows that its acts must be varied and delightful as well. What we discover from the first four activities that guide us forward to others is that all of them presuppose that we are the church, that we are a gathered community in Jesus’ name by the grace of God. Sabbath simply means that through the Holy Spirit God has given us all the time we need to do all we can together.