It’s Friday afternoon, and the typical Jewish house is a tornado of activity. Tensions are high as every family member races against the clock to get his or her tasks done.
A younger child is sweeping; another sets the table and prepares the candles. Someone is in the shower, and the little ones need help getting dressed in their best outfits. Savory aromas from the kitchen waft through the house. Chicken and seasoned potatoes are roasting in the oven, and a slow cooker on the counter is starting to bubble. One helper inspects leafy greens and makes a salad while someone else is finishing up the dishes.
Golden sunbeams stream through the western window at a low angle. “Time to light candles!” The girls rush to their mother’s side. As usual, they didn’t cross out every item on the to-do list, but the essential tasks are done. Mother takes a deep breath, lights the candles, and intonates the Shabbat candle blessing. With gentle breaths, she whispers a prayer for her family’s peace, health, and success.
Urgent preparation is necessary because Shabbat (the Sabbath) is a day of rest. For traditional observant Jews, all work stops when the sun goes down on Friday. No cooking, no cleaning, no shopping, no homework. Orthodox Jews even abstain on Shabbat from certain activities that are not strenuous or unpleasant at all. While knitting a sweater or journaling may be relaxing, an Orthodox Jewish person refrains from these kinds of creative activities on the Sabbath day. Have you ever wondered why?
Here is another mystery: While Shabbat begins the moment the sun sinks below the horizon on Friday evening, it is a universal custom not to keep working until that moment despite the frantic rush of preparations. Instead, observant Jews accept the restrictions of Shabbat a little bit early—commonly at least eighteen minutes before sunset.
A Taste of the Kingdom
Life is busy. It’s a constant race against time. We spend much of our lives exchanging our time for money, and yet time is our most limited resource. One who gives it away will never receive it back.
Most of us hope that by pushing through our busy seasons, we will occasionally arrive at a point of rest. We want to relax and enjoy life; we yearn to relish tranquil moments with loved ones. But stress-free enjoyment of life always seems out of reach. Before we resolve one urgent matter, a new one arises.
In a small sense, the weekly Shabbat is a chance to experience rest. The demands of earning a living give way to the priority of experiencing the moment. Although worries do not stop existing when Friday night comes, we can put some of them on hold and know true rest is coming. According to Jewish teaching, the weekly Sabbath is a small foretaste of the rest awaiting us in the kingdom of heaven.
A Song for the Sabbath Day
Psalm 92 begins, “A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath [Day].” Though some Bibles format this as a heading, it is included in the sacred Hebrew text, and Jews consider it the first verse. The Levites recited a psalm corresponding to the day of the week as a part of their service in the Temple. “A Song for the Sabbath Day” reflects the fact that in ancient times they recited Psalm 92 each Shabbat.
The contents of this psalm do not seem related to Shabbat. Rather, the psalm provides a telescopic view of God’s faithfulness. The wicked seem to succeed, but their success is momentary. The righteous, however, will experience long-lasting fruitfulness. What connection is there to Shabbat in Psalm 92?
The early Jewish sages explained that the “Sabbath Day” of this psalm is the Messianic Era. They call it “the day that is completely Sabbath and rest for everlasting life” (Talmud). The whole Messianic Era can be called a day since “a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (Psalm 90:4).
In this light, the Sabbath is more than a one-day reprieve from work each week. The seven-day week is like a scale model of the cosmic timeline: first labor, then rest.
A second-century teacher named Rabbi Jacob explained it this way: “This world is like an entryway before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the entryway, so that you can enter the banquet hall” (Pirkei Avot). In other words, our current era is our opportunity to prepare. The World to Come is when real life will begin. Just as we prepare during the week to rest on the Sabbath, so we also prepare during this life to enter the kingdom.
Rabbi Jacob’s perspective raises an important point concerning the Sabbath. There are two ways in which one might view the distinction between rest and labor. According to one view, the purpose of a day of rest is to regain strength to get back to work. Labor is real life; rest is preparation for life.
However, this is not the Jewish view of the Sabbath. Rather, labor during the six days of the week is preparation for life. The goal of work is to arrive at a place of rest, enjoy the fruit of one’s labors, and give thanks.
Our labor is not just our effort to make a living. The labor of our current era is the exercise of our free will to serve God and to repent. Our faith, repentance, and service toward God in this world are preparation for eternal life. Jesus alluded to this concept when he said, “The one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life” (John 4:36).
The Most Abundant Resource
Rabbi Jacob had another teaching along this line: “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is more precious than all the life of the World to Come. And one hour of satisfaction in the World to Come is more precious than all the life of this world” (Pirkei Avot).
On Shabbat one gains satisfaction from all the work done throughout the week. But to experience this satisfaction, one must stop working. Despite all the riches Shabbat has to offer, it is missing one precious resource: the opportunity to prepare, produce, or earn anything new.
Similarly, something will be absent from the Messianic Era and the World to Come, when we will rest and enjoy the fruits of our repentance and good deeds. Despite all its riches, the World to Come will lack one precious resource that is abundant in our current time: the freedom to choose God willingly.
When a child’s parents are watching, and the consequences are immediate, the child is likely to be on his best behavior. When the child is alone, his or her true obedience is tested.
When God reveals his presence in the future world, our choice to serve him will no longer reveal our essential faith. God’s hiddenness in this world gives meaning and value to our choice to serve him. Every “hour of repentance and good deeds” becomes a precious delicacy that we can enjoy when our work in this world comes to an end.
Unfortunately, not everyone will take advantage of this opportunity. There is an old Jewish saying: “One who makes an effort to prepare on Friday will eat on Shabbat, but if one did not make the effort on Friday, from where will he eat on Shabbat?”
A Completion of the World
The pattern of the seven-day week imitates the work God did in creating the world. The commandment for Jewish people to abstain from work on the Sabbath imitates the way God ceased from his work of creation:
On the seventh day, God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
The English word “work” makes us think of strenuous labor. But the Hebrew word the Bible uses for the work God did at creation, melachah, does not imply this. God was not exhausted at the end of his six-day work week. He did not stop to catch his breath; he stopped because it was done. His world was complete.
The Hebrew word for this kind of work describes creative or constructive activity. It might be easy or difficult, a small project or a large one. The bottom line is that God rested not from exertion but from creation.
In imitation of our Creator, we spend our week creating, shaping, and manipulating our world. In effect, we construct the world that we will live in on the seventh day.
God first introduced the Sabbath to Israel when he gave them manna. Each day they gathered a portion suitable for the day. On the sixth day, they each gathered twice the usual amount, but they didn’t understand why. So Moses explained to the Israelites,
Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning. (Exodus 16:23)
Gathering, baking, and boiling took place on the sixth day since the Israelites could not do these things on Shabbat. Because of this, the New Testament calls the sixth day “Preparation Day” because of its special role related to the Sabbath.
When the seventh day came, Moses told them to eat what they had prepared:
Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none.
God did not need six days to create the world. He created the world in this way to depict for us its ultimate destiny. He embedded this pattern into the universe. The author of Hebrews promises that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). He is not speaking of the Sabbath at the end of the week but of the Messianic Era and the World to Come at the end of time. He warns that “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10).
Just as God built his world in six days and rested, so too, will we rest once we enter our eternal rest; at that time there will be no more opportunity to prepare. The writer of Hebrews encourages us, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). In other words, today is Preparation Day. We should prepare by doing our work today in anticipation of the kingdom.
Jesus taught us how to do this: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
By faithfully serving God without reward in this world, we acquire treasures that will be waiting for us in the kingdom. This is how we gather our “manna” in preparation for the future world.
Our Lamps Are Already Lit
The holiness of Shabbat sets in each Friday at sunset, whether one is ready or not. But in the Jewish community, we do not passively wait for it to take effect. We rush to welcome it like an honored guest. Eighteen minutes before the last glint of the sun vanishes, our candles are already burning. They are ready to illuminate our way on the day of honor and delight.
This, too, provides a glimpse into the coming kingdom. There will come a time when no one can deny God’s kingship. As Isaiah prophesied, “By myself, I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me, every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance’” (Isaiah 45:23). Zechariah foretells that in the Messianic Era, “the LORD will be king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:9).
For many, this revelation will come as a surprise. But not for us. Our knees are already bowed; our tongues have already sworn allegiance. God’s kingdom is already within us, and our Sabbath lamps are already lit.
Time is our world’s most precious resource. One might have hordes of wealth, but without time one has nothing.
Time is the essence of freedom. When others control your time, you are their slave. When you are the master of your own time, you are a free person.
This is one reason why Shabbat is a foretaste of the World to Come. It’s the day of the week when we stop rushing around, fighting the clock, and exchanging time for wealth. We rest and let time pass without fear
If time is equated with freedom, then ultimate freedom will come in a world where time itself is an unlimited resource. The only way to achieve this is with eternal life—a life that transcends time.
The whole world has something to learn from the Jewish community’s faithful testimony over the millennia. Recognize this world for what it is: a time of preparation. Use your time in this world to build your future world.
Celebrating Shabbat is like sneaking a delicious morsel of food before it is served for dinner. The seven days of the week provide us with a prophetic timeline of God’s universe. Just as one must prepare during the week—especially on the sixth day—for Shabbat, we must also prepare in this era for the coming kingdom of heaven. We do so by faith, repentance, and good deeds.
Are you ready to get started? Start by doing some kind deed today for which you will get no reward in this world. It could be an anonymous donation or an act of service for someone who cannot pay you back. As you do it, imagine setting aside the delights of this world to enjoy them in the Sabbath of the Messianic Era.