Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex. 20:8-11).
This commandment has provoked much debate in the church over the centuries. What is the Sabbath? How does it apply to the church? There is also the ongoing discussion of whether we are to worship on the Sabbath or on Sunday, or whether those two things are the same thing. In this post we will look at some of those questions.
The Sabbath and Creation
The first thing we should take note of is the meaning of the word. Sabbath (or sabbat, or shabbat) means “rest, cease, intermission.” It literally, then, comes to mean a time (whether that is a day, week, year, etc.) of rest. It’s applied variously in Scripture to both people and the land. Israel was required to give the land a sabbath rest every 7 years (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7). In both cases (the seventh day and seventh year), the Lord would provide enough food for Israel in the previous day or year. (One reason that the Lord sent Israel into exile, He tells us, is that Israel failed to keep the sabbath year.)
Second, we should notice that the Sabbath is linked directly to creation. God tells Israel that the seventh day is “holy” (set apart) because He rested. Because God rested, He set the example and principle of a day of rest. (Of course, God needs no “rest,” in the sense that He gets tired or weary; He set the example for the benefit of mankind.) Because this is linked directly to creation, whatever principles are to be drawn from it are universal principles (i.e., the idea of Sabbath-rest is not restricted to the law of Israel).
When we look at the creation account, then, we see that God intended all mankind to have a time of rest (and since He set the example of one day in seven, it follows that He desires us to do the same). We must be quick to add, though, that He did not command Sabbath rest until He gave the law to Israel in this passage.
The Law of the Sabbath
When God gave the law to Israel, He was very serious about honoring the Sabbath. Anyone caught working on the Sabbath was to be stoned to death (Ex. 31:14). In fact, He dramatized the seriousness of it. We read in Numbers,
While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses (Num. 15:32-36).
Why was the punishment so harsh (from the human perspective)? Firstly, because the punishment is not tied to the “degree” of the sin but is rather tied to the majesty and holiness of the One who was sinned against. Secondly, it the nature of fallen humanity to do things our own way and to overlook some things as small (“Oh, that doesn’t really matter that much”). The example of discipline is meant to remind Israel (and us) that there are no “small” sins, and we are to be diligent to do things God’s way instead of our own.
The Sabbath in the New Testament
Jesus had much to say about the Sabbath. It seemed He was often coming into conflict with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. By this time, the Pharisees had added things to God’s law, even to the extent of how far a person could walk without breaking the Sabbath (hence the term “a Sabbath-day’s journey”). No doubt the early interpretations were done out of pure motives to protect the Israelites from violating the law. Yet, the Sabbath became the opposite of what it was intended. It became a burden instead of a rest. We instantly see the contrast between the Sabbath regulations and the statement of Jesus in Matt. 11:28-30, where His yoke is said to be light.
Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath
In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus has two separate but related confrontations with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. We read there,
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
In the first encounter, Jesus’ disciples were picking grain from fields as they walked along on the Sabbath. The Pharisees challenged their right to do this—not because it was a violation of Old Testament Law, but because it was a violation of the 39 types of “work” that the Jews had added to the Sabbath. The incident with David that Jesus references here is found in 1 Sam. 21:1-6. David and his men had gone to the priest of Nob (while on the run from Saul) and had lied to the priest about his purpose in being there. The priest gave him the consecrated bread, which was only supposed to be eaten by the priests. Yet, Scripture does not condemn his actions, and neither does Jesus. The comments about the priests profaning the Sabbath are referring to Num. 28:9-10. The priests were required to do “work” because of their Temple service yet were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath.
Jesus was not just correcting the Pharisee’s interpretation of the law or the fact that they added their own regulations to the law, but He was correcting their very approach to the Law. The Law was never intended to be a burden, and provided room to show that God is gracious, merciful and compassionate (Ex. 34:6-7). In the parallel passage, found in Mark 2, Jesus lays down another principle of the Sabbath: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Jesus was teaching that the Sabbath was given for man’s benefit, not to place more burdens upon him, as the Pharisees were doing.
Most importantly, Jesus declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” Not only is this a reference to “Lord” in the sense of the Sovereign God of the universe, but it also refers to the fact that Jesus, as the Lord of all creation is the One who rightfully interprets the meaning and proper observance of the Sabbath.
It Is Lawful on the Sabbath
In the second encounter of Matthew 12, Jesus is in the synagogue shortly after the first encounter. In the synagogue was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees asked Him whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath (in a parallel passage, He asks them, and they remain silent). He uses a simple analogy: if a man has a sheep that has fallen into a ditch, will the owner not rescue the sheep? Likewise, in Luke 13, when there was a woman unable to straighten her body, Jesus defended His actions by stating,
You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day? (Luke 13:15-16)
Therefore, as Jesus stated in Matthew 12, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. What is in view here is that the Sabbath is to be a day where normal “work,” the busyness of life, is set aside. That does not mean, however, that nothing can be done. From these and other similar passages, it seems that the idea is that the Sabbath rest is to be a day of focusing on the Lord, resting in Him and ministering to others as He gives opportunity.
Sabbath-Day vs. Sabbath-Rest
In talking about the Sabbath, we must distinguish the Sabbath day (which was the seventh day of the week) from the principle of Sabbath rest. The question has to be asked, “When God rested on the seventh day of the week, did He intend for all men to rest on that day of the week?” We also must be aware that the Jewish calendar, which the Law was based on, was not in existence at the time, so it’s an assumption to say the Lord started creating on Sunday and rested on Saturday.
The “law” of the seventh day was given to Israel, and no Gentile was ever put under the law. Paul and other New Testament writers consistently taught that the Gentiles were not under the law of Moses. How then should the church view the Sabbath? There are three primary passages that should guide our thinking:
All Days Equal, or Not?
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord (Rom. 15:5-6).
The first passage finds Paul writing about matters of conscience. In the section he talks about things that are amoral—being neither inherently wrong nor right. The two issues he mentions are observing kinds of days and eating meat (probably meat that had been sacrificed to idols; he takes a similar issue in 1 Cor. 8-10). Regarding special days, Paul says that some may conclude that certain days are better or should be special or more important, while others judge all days the same. He then says, “Let each be convinced in his own mind.” The one who observes certain days does so in honor of the Lord; likewise, the one who doesn’t observe a day does so by faith in the Lord. At the end of chapter 14, Paul echoes his earlier warning about each being convinced in his own mind.
He writes, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23). Though he specifically mentions meat here, the same principle necessarily applies to observing specific days, since he uses the same reasoning.
A Shadow of Things to Come
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16-17).
In the second passage, Paul is dealing with a (mostly) Gentile church that is suffering from Jewish legalists and other false teachers trying to bring works alongside faith. His words are similar to the counsel he gives the Romans. Here, however, he specifically mentions observing a Sabbath day, in addition to other special days (some taken from Jewish tradition and some from pagan). Some might argue that Paul is only condemning the extra-biblical regulations concerning the Sabbath, but the context denies that. Particularly, Paul says, “These [and this includes the Sabbath] are a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Earlier in the discussion (vv. 13-15), Paul reminds the Colossians that the record of debt they had accumulated as a result of breaking God’s law had been cancelled by Christ’s death on the cross. And in vv. 20-23, he concludes his argument by calling all these things “elemental spirits [or spirits] of the world.” Since the believer has died to these things in Christ, Paul is asking why the church would put themselves back under them. This seems to be a clear argument that the “law” of the Sabbath day is binding on the church.
A Sabbath Rest
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Heb. 4:8-10).
In our final passage, the writer of Hebrews is encouraging his readers to continue to press forward, not becoming complacent. He begins the chapter by stating, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it” (4:1). The idea is that there is a fixed time period for entering God’s rest (meaning one day, there will no longer be the opportunity). He reminds his readers that many have heard the message yet failed to enter the rest because of disobedience to the message.
Then, he makes this statement: “For we who have believed enter that rest” (v. 3). Thus, to enter the Sabbath-rest (God’s rest) requires faith, and those who believe enter that state of rest. He concludes his argument when he tells his readers, “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (v. 10). What does this mean? The writer is contrasting works and rest in terms of the gospel and salvation. Those who rely on works cannot be saved, but those who turn in faith to Christ and renounce their own works find rest, Thus, the Sabbath is a picture of the gospel, just as Paul said in Col. 2:16-17.
Rest in Christ
What does all this mean for us who are in Christ? Firstly, the Sabbath is neither a specific day nor a specific time to rest. Primarily, the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Christ. He is our rest. In Him we cease from our attempts to earn our righteousness. The Sabbath for believers, then, is a state of being. Just as grace is not just something given, but a realm in which to live, so also is Sabbath rest.
Secondly, like many things in the New Testament, we do many things to honor Christ. The church meets on the Lord’s Day (Sunday, the first day of the week) to honor Christ’s resurrection. Thus, we can take a time to rest in Christ in honor of His work being completed. Many use Sunday as that day (or at least that is the thinking), but often the busyness of even church life belies our claim of the day being a day of rest.
Finally, one need not see Sunday as “the Sabbath” to honor Christ. As Paul says, let each be convinced in his own mind. The important thing is that we do take time to rest in the work of Christ, reflecting on what He has done for us, for in Him we have found our ultimate rest (Matt. 11:28-30).