June 22, 2022

Biblical Foundations for Sabbatical

In my work with PIR Ministries I’ve helped several churches plan a sabbatical for their pastor. As a church develops its first sabbatical policy, someone usually objects saying, “Sabbaticals aren’t biblical!” Whenever someone says “that’s not biblical” I cringe. Many times they use the bible to control others and aren’t truly interested in knowing the biblical basis for what they are opposing. So, in this article I don’t want to convince the objectors but to comfort those disturbed by their efforts to control.

The Hebrew word sabbath means “rest” and from it we derive the word sabbatical. To take a sabbath is to rest from our productivity so that we can have closer relationship with God, self, and others. The principle of sabbatical comes from the biblical concept of sabbath, it’s an extended sabbath based on the biblical command of the Sabbath Year. When thinking of the principle of sabbath most people think only of the weekly Sabbath commanded in the ten commandments. However, God commands multiple sabbaths in the Old Testament—the weekly sabbath, 7 sabbaths connected to Festivals, the sabbath year, and the year of jubilee.

The Sabbath

The first and most known sabbath in Scripture is the weekly, seventh-day sabbath from Exodus 20:8-11.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Here we find the principle of ceasing from work for a day and making that day holy to the Lord. To make a day holy is to set it apart from all the other days— it’s a completely different type of day. Instead of working for our provision, on this day we rest from our work. We trust God to provide even though we are not working on this day. It’s a reminder that all our provision comes from God—that he is in control, he loves us, and he will provide for our needs.

The religious leaders of Jesus day took the phrase “you shall not do any work” far too literally. They created all sorts of rules that made the sabbath day one of prohibition rather than the refreshment God intended it to be. Exodus 23:12 says,

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.

Somehow those religious leaders lost sight of the idea that the sabbath is for refreshment and that’s what sets it apart from the other (exhausting) days of the week. The sabbath is a day of refreshment— physically, mentally, and spiritually— in the Lord.

Additional Sabbaths

In addition to the weekly sabbath, God commanded several more sabbaths as part of the festivals of Israel. Leviticus 23 lays out the various festivals of Israel. The first festival mention is the weekly sabbath day, followed by a sabbath day during the festivals of Unleavened Bread, Trumpets, and the Day of Atonement and two sabbaths during the festival of Tabernacles (first and eighth days). These were holy observances that often included feasting. So, sabbath rest not only includes refreshment but celebration.

The next sabbath observance we find is a year-long observance. This sabbath year is described in Exodus 23:10-11:

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

Israel was a predominantly agricultural society in those days. When they are told not to plow, sow, or harvest for a full year, that would have had a profound impact on the entire economy. Everyone in the whole nation would have had a slower more restful year. Anyone could take food from any field, vineyard, or olive grove during the sabbatical year but they couldn’t harvest and store up food. Leviticus describes the sabbath year and adds in the final sabbath observance for Israel. Every fiftieth year was the Year of Jubilee, an additional sabbath year. That means both years forty-nine and fifty were rest years. So, clearly, God is not opposed to extended times of rest, refreshment, and celebration.

When we don’t sabbath

The sabbath was serious business to God. Failure to observe the sabbath was a capital crime in Israel. In Exodus 31:13-17, outlines the punishment of death for anyone who does any work on the Sabbath day. In Leviticus 26:33-35 God further outlines how Israel will be taken captive if they fail to observe the sabbath years.

I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.

This is exactly what happened. We have no record of Israel ever observing the Sabbath Year or the Year of Jubilee. For 486 years Israel ignored these commands. That means they missed approximately 70 Sabbath years (the same length of time in exile).“The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.” (2 Chronicles 36:21)

Sabbath in the New Testament

Jesus observed the Sabbath differently than the religious leaders of his day. Matthew records a showdown between the two parties. Jesus clearly shows that it was lawful to do good on the sabbath then proceeds to heal a man on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-13). Mark records a similar encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. Here Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Some have taken this to mean that the sabbath commands are no longer useful for us today.

However, Jesus kept the whole law and fulfilled it for us. He called the law good and said that he was not here to abolish the law. The phrase “The Sabbath was made for man,” suggest that the sabbath is good for us. We no longer have to keep the law because Jesus kept it for us. However, the sabbath is still a good principle to incorporate into our lives.

In my article Searching for Shalom I tried to show how rhythms of work and rest are good for us. Rest helps us recover from stress and open up our creativity and compassion for others. Sabbath rest that includes refreshment and celebration is even better. I developed a Sabbath Planning Guide designed to help you make your sabbath the most refreshing, life-giving day of the week.

Is Sabbatical Biblical?

So far, I’ve outlined the biblical principle of Sabbath. Since a sabbatical is simple an extended period of sabbath, I believe this practice is in line with scripture. Rarely does a sabbatical last as long as a sabbath year. A three- to four-month sabbatical is well within a church’s ability to offer. When people object to the practice of sabbatical by saying it’s not biblical, they are really imposing their own cultural standards onto the scriptures. They are twisting the scriptures to match their own experience and encouraging us to follow the example of disobedient Israel. Instead, we want to follow Jesus who says the sabbath is for us. A sabbatical, when done well, is a source of life, health, intimacy with God, and an investment for future ministry. How could that be bad?

In my next two articles, I will show practical ways a sabbatical is good for the pastor and why it’s good for the church.

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