Can pastors keep the Sabbath?

How does the work of pastors during the week differ from their work on Sabbath? How is Sabbath a rest day for them?

J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

This editorial will raise more questions than it answers. I want you to help me with the answers.

The fourth commandment says: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work"(Ex.20:8- 10, NKJV). How does this commandment apply to pastors? Sabbath is often the busiest day of the week for ministers. I remember many Sabbaths when, after preaching three times, traveling among churches, teaching a Sabbath school lesson, counseling with any number of people, I collapsed exhausted at the end of the day. Was I keeping the Sabbath?

What did Jesus mean when He inquired: "Have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests, in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?" (Matt. 12:5 RSV). How does the work of pastors during the week differ from their work on Sabbath? How is Sabbath a rest day for them? Are ministers unique because their work is spiritual work and there fore there is no substantive difference between what they do during the week and what they do on the Sabbath?

If pastors are unique and they do "profane" the Sabbath every week, when do they take time to rest? Should they take some other day of the week for their "sabbath"? Much has been written on how to keep the Sabbath, but not as it relates to the minister.

Eugene Peterson, pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, wrote: "I started by keeping a sabbath myself. Sunday is a workday for me, and so unavailable for a sabbath. I decided to keep a Monday sabbath. My wife joined me in the observance. We agreed that it would be a true sabbath, and not a 'day off.' We didn't have much to follow in the way of precedents since few of the Christians and none of the pastors of our acquaintance kept a sabbath."1

Is Peterson correct? Is it impossible for the pastor to keep the Sabbath? When God blessed the seventh-day in particular and sanctified it, did He bless it for everyone but pastors? Or should we as pastors rethink our whole concept of what the Sabbath is for?

Meaning of the Sabbath

The Hebrew shabbath means "rest [day], a cessation." After God had finished creating the earth, "he rested on the seventh day from all his work" (Gen. 2:1, 2 RSV). This rest was not because of weariness or fatigue (see Isa. 40:28), but because the task was complete and the world perfect. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Many people have misunderstood the meaning of the word rest. They believe that the Sabbath is a time for relaxing and making up for the excesses of the week. To put it colloquially, it is a time to "crash."

When the commandment says "In it you shall not do any work" (Ex. 20:10, RSV), it cannot mean all work, but only a certain type of work. Jesus made it clear that "it is lawful to do good on the sabbath" (Matt. 12:12, RSV). The sick still need to be cared for, the animals must be fed, and worship services must be planned and carried out. Crime and suffering do not holiday on the Sabbath; fire, ambulance, and police are 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations.

So what work is excluded on the Sabbath? Isaiah gives us a hint: "If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; . . . then you shall take delight in the Lord" (Isa. 58:13, 14, RSV). What is the meaning of the word pleasure?

"Recent lexicographers have suggested that the best rendering of the term hepes [pleasure] in our text is 'business, affair,' which has found support in word studies. Man is not to engage in his own pleasure in the sense that he seeks his own business or affair on the Sabbath." 2

Several modern translations give this meaning: "If you refrain from sabbath journeys and from doing business on my holy day" (REB); "If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, and doing business on the holy day" (Jerusalem); "If you do not tramp upon the Sabbath by doing your business on My holy day" (MLB).

Everyone works at some trade in order to survive. God says, "I give you six days each week to conduct your business affairs; one day each week you are to give to Me. You are to trust Me on that day for your daily bread." In ancient Israel God not only told the Israelites to refrain from economic gain once a week, but every seven years they were to leave the land fallow and live off the natural fruits it might produce. And every 49 years (seven times seven) they were to trust God by leaving the land fallow for two years.

Thus, the Sabbath is not only a remembrance of Creation, but an acknowledgment that we belong to God. On the seventh day of each week we withdraw from the busy activities of earning a living to spend time in building our relationship with God and with each other. Works of necessity and mercy that are not part of our economic livelihood are appropriate on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath for pastors

How does this apply to the pastor? The Levites were the only tribe that did not receive an inheritance of land when the Israelites entered Canaan. They were devoted to the priesthood and the support of the Temple and the worship services. They worked for God, not for themselves or for others. This meant that they were dependent economically (through tithes and offerings) on the generosity of the other 11 tribes. While the other 11 tribes worked six days (for their living) and trusted God one day (for their living), the Levites worked seven days in the service of God and trusted Him all seven days (earning a living); every day was the same. In some ways they worked harder on the Sabbath than on the other days.

On that day they offered double the normal number of sacrifices (see Num. 28:9) and every Sabbath the shewbread was changed (see Lev. 24:8). This is probably what Jesus meant when He said that on the Sabbath the priests "profane the Sabbath." The priests prepared all week for leading the people in worship on the Sabbath. Are pastors just as unique a group today as the priests were of old? Are there any portions of the pastor's work that should not be done on the Sabbath?

To what extent should the Sabbath be reserved for the pastor's family? If the spouse helps in ministry, who cares for the children? Should the pastor's children run free on the Sabbath while the parents go about the work of the Lord?

Ministry desires your answers to these questions and reactions to this editorial. We will pay $25 for each response published. If what you send is of article length (1,000 words or more), we will pay at our regular rates on acceptance. Address your reply to: Sabbath Editorial, Ministry, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904, U.S.A..

1. Eugene H. Peterson, "Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker," Christianity Today, Sept. 2, 1988, p. 26.

2. Gerhard F. Hasel and W.G.C. Murdoch, "The Sabbath in the Prophetic and Historical Literature of the Old Testament," Kenneth Strand, ed., in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), p. 48.

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J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

March 1994

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