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The Heidelberg Catechism: Keeping Sabbath by Making Sabbath

This is the forth post in our Justice and the Reformed Confessions series. Subscribe here to make sure you don't miss a post and to view the other posts in the series

Jesus’ Sabbath Troubles

Have you ever noticed how often Jesus got into trouble on the Sabbath? The gospel accounts point out numerous times that Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the Sabbath. Consider some of these examples:

  • healing a man with a shriveled hand (Mt. 12, Mk. 3, Lk. 6) after a direct confrontation about whether or not it was okay to heal on the Sabbath.
  • preaching and fulfilling Isaiah’s good news to the poor passage in Nazareth and almost being thrown off a cliff (Lk. 4).
  • directly confronting Jewish leaders through the healings of a crippled woman (Lk. 13) and of a man with abnormal swelling (Lk. 14).
  • healing a lame man by the pool of Bethesda (Jn. 5) and a man born blind (Jn. 9) both of which angered the Pharisees.

Mark particularly mentions how the healing of the man with the shriveled hand provoked the Pharisees to plot how they could kill Jesus.  

As I read these stories, I wonder: “How could Jesus have such a seemingly difficult time with the Sabbath?” and, “Is there something about keeping the Sabbath that I’ve been missing?”

Israel’s Sabbath Troubles

If we read the Old Testament prophets, we hear that Israel got into trouble over their Sabbath practices, as well – but for opposite reasons than Jesus did.

  • Isaiah (1:10-17) declares how Israel’s worship became meaningless and they need to instead defend the oppressed and attend to the fatherless and widow.
  • Ezekiel (22) piles up the sins of shedding blood, neglecting parents, oppressing immigrants, and mistreating orphans and widows alongside desecration of the Sabbath.
  • Amos (8:1-6) condemns Israel for impatiently longing for the Sabbath to finish so they can go back to their dishonest scales and selling the poor in the market.

Even through these few examples, the prophets clearly convey that God is rejecting Israel’s Sabbath practices because their worship has become disconnected from how they treat the most vulnerable throughout the rest of the week.

Recognizing that God’s people have repeatedly missed the point about the Sabbath, I find myself wondering: What am I missing about Sabbath?

A Two-Fold Sabbath

The Heidelberg Catechism describes a two-fold approach to God’s will for us in the fourth commandment. The first emphasis is on submitting ourselves to God’s authority. Our response in Q & A 103 begins with:


that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained,
and that, especially on the festive day of rest,
I diligently attend the assembly of God’s people

        to learn what God’s Word teaches,
        to participate in the sacraments,
        to pray to God publicly,
        and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. 

Instead of focusing on “thou-shalt-nots,” the Catechism teaches us what we are to do on the Sabbath day. In short, we need people who can teach us the gospel and we need to gather with God’s people to be immersed in that gospel.

The first response outlines how the assembly of God’s people itself is designed to form us into a particular type of people. Through worship, the Spirit cultivates us to be students of God’s Word, to be recipients of God’s sacramental grace, to be children publicly petitioning Our Father together, and to be co-participants with the Spirit through our offerings. Keeping the Sabbath through our communal worship nurtures us in our identity as the redeemed people of God that culminates in our care for the poor.   

But the Catechism doesn’t stop there. Spilling out from our identity forming worship, the second aspect of Q & A 103 turns our attention toward how we are to live a Sabbath lifestyle throughout the week.


that every day of my life 

I rest from my evil ways,
let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, 

and so begin in this life
the eternal Sabbath.

Sabbath keeping, according to the Heidelberg Catechism isn’t just for Sunday. Sabbath is an everyday practice of embodying the eternal Sabbath God has promised to all of creation. Revelation characterizes this eternal Sabbath as including people from every ethnic community (Rev. 9) and as excluding those who diminish, pervert, and destroy the well-being of others (Rev. 22). In so doing, beginning the eternal Sabbath thrusts us into a lifestyle that works daily so that others might experience God’s shalom here and now.  

Sabbath Making

Listening to the Catechism teaches me to align my Sabbath practices with the very things that got Jesus in trouble on his Sabbath days. In resting from my evil ways, will I also join Christ among those who are ostracized and marginalized (Mt. 25)? In resting from my evil ways, will I pour myself out on behalf of the poor (Is. 58)? In setting aside one day, will I also dedicate myself to making Sabbath every day for those whose circumstances are marked by oppression, hatred, violence, exploitation, and injustice?  


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