What Is a Sabbatical Year?

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What is a Sabbatical year? When did it occur? What New Testament events took place during these special periods?

God commanded ancient Israel to observe what is known as a Sabbatical year (Exodus 23:10 - 11, Leviticus 25:1 - 7, 19 - 23). It was also known as the land Sabbath (Leviticus 25:2 - 6) or the year of release (Deuteronomy 31:10).

And you shall sow your land six years, and shall gather in the fruits of it. But the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie still, so that the poor of your people may eat. And what they leave, the animals of the field shall eat. In the same way you shall deal with your vineyard and with your olive-grove (Exodus 23:10 - 11, HBFV).

The Sabbatical year, like the weekly Sabbath, was created as a holy period designed to bring rest, renewal and rejuvenation to both the people and the land.

The start of a Sabbatical year is not directly stated in God's word. Although a few commentaries believe it began, like the Jubilee, on the Day of Atonement (Tishri 10), evidence seems to favor it beginning on Tishri 1 (the first day of the Hebrew civil year, see the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article on the subject).

Holy Behavior

God commanded this Sabbatical period be kept through the following actions.

Israelites were commanded to let their land lie fallow and rest. No crops were to be planted. Vineyards and olive trees were to be left unattended. The poor of the land, including those who were not Israelite citizens ("strangers"), were to be allowed to take whatever grew wild in the fields.

The entire law of God was to be read publically during the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31:10 - 13). Lastly, all debts, except those of foreigners, were to be forgiven (Deuteronomy 15:1 - 11).

Israel's obedience would be further encouraged by the Lord providing a bumper crop prior to the Sabbatical year that would sustain his people until the next cycle of planting and harvesting (Leviticus 25:20 - 22).

How Important Is It?

God warned Israel he would bring severe consequences on them for disobeying his law and for not observing the Sabbatical year.

And if you will not for all of this hearken to Me, but will walk contrary to Me . . . you shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters . . . And I will scatter you among the nations, and will draw out a sword after you. And your land shall be a desolation, and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy its Sabbaths . . . (Leviticus 26:27, 29, 33 - 34).

Sabbaticals After Birth

Jesus was born in the fall of 5 B.C. The Sabbatical years after his birth are below. It is interesting to note that the Lord, in 25 A.D., turned 29 years old less than three weeks before this rest started. In 26 A.D. a Jubilee year began on September 11 (the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur), the same day Jesus' ministry started.

Sabbatical Years
After Jesus Born

4 to 3 B.C.
4 - 5 A.D.   53 - 54
11 - 12 60 - 61
18 - 19 67 - 68
25 - 26 74 - 75
32 - 33 81 - 82
39 - 40 88 - 89
46 - 47 95 - 96

Notable Events

Some of the notable events that took place during Sabbatical years in the first century A.D. are the following.

32 - 33 A.D.
Saul, who would later be renamed Apostle Paul, was converted in the spring of 33 A.D. He would become, next to Christ, the greatest champion of true Christianity.

46 - 47
Paul and Barnabas, in the fall of 46 A.D., complete Paul's first missionary journey. The pair then reside in Syrian Antioch during (and after) the Sabbatical period.

53 - 54
Paul, in late 53, is revisiting the churches of Galatia (Derbe, Lystra, Iconium) at the beginning of his third missionary tour that began in the summer. It will become his longest evangelistic trip, at roughly 4 3/4 years in duration, of his five journeys to preach the gospel.

60 - 61
Paul, in the fall of 60 A.D., is a Roman prisoner in Caesarea. His appeal to Caesar (Acts 26) earns him a boat trip to Rome escorted by a centurion (27:1 - 3). The ship he is on reaches Crete shortly after the Sabbatical period starts on Atonement (Acts 27:7 - 9). He then spends the next several months on the treacherous Mediterranean where his ship is forced to run aground on the island of Malta (28:1). He ultimately makes his way to Rome in the early spring of 61 A.D.

67 - 68
In May or early June of 68 A.D., during a Sabbatical year, Paul is martyred in Rome at the age of roughly 66.

95 - 96
The Apostle John is living on Patmos in 95 A.D. due to his banishment by the Romans (Revelation 1:9). He will spend the entire Sabbatical year, which begins on September 28, on the island. Shortly after Emperor Domitian's death on September 18, 96 A.D., which takes place three days after this holy period ends, the apostle is released.

Modern Times

Sabbatical years starting in the middle of the 20th century going forward almost one hundred years include 1950 - 51, 1957 - 58, 1964 - 65, 1971 - 72, 1978 - 79, 1985 - 86, 1992 - 93, 1999 - 2000, 2006 - 2007, 2013 - 2014, 2020 - 2021, 2027 - 2028, 2034 - 2035, 2041 - 2042 and 2048 - 2049.

List of All Terms in
Dictionary of Biblical Words

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