I taught a class last week on how New Testament Christians should understand the Old Testament law, and I knew the first question that would be asked as soon as I was done. Sure enough: “What about the Sabbath? Does that commandment still apply to us today?”
For some modern American Christians, that’s a silly question: Of course it doesn’t. Jesus abolished the Sabbath requirement, as verses like Colossians 2:16 make plain. For other Christians, it’s a silly question for the opposite reason: Of course we should keep the Sabbath. It is a command of God, rooted in his work of creation and redemption, making it one of the commandments which Jesus warns against discarding in Matthew 5:17-20.
For other Christians, the question of the Sabbath is a matter of confusion and guilt. You are not sure what to think, but you suspect you may be displeasing God and missing some blessing which could come from using Sunday (or is it Saturday?) differently.
In the next few weeks, I am going to be writing a series of articles laying out what I believe is a biblical understanding of the Sabbath and its place in the life of New Testament believers. Not all of you will agree with me, either at the beginning or after reading what I have to say. And that’s okay. A right understanding of the Sabbath can help us to glorify God and enrich our own lives, but we must also recognize that God in his wisdom has left the question less than black-and-white. I believe there is a best, most biblical understanding of the Sabbath, but I also recognize that there are good, Bible-based arguments in other directions. Even when we end up disagreeing, I pray that we will remember Paul’s gentle advice: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions… Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:1,4).
Whatever conclusions you may reach, I hope you will find this series challenging and useful, even as I have been blessed and enriched by teachings about the Sabbath from a number of perspectives. We will start our survey were the Bible starts, in the Old Testament.
The Sabbath in the Old Testament
It is natural to assume that the Sabbath was first instituted in the Fourth Commandment, given by God on Mount Sinai, but in fact the first reference to Sabbath observance comes before God gave the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 16, shortly after Israel’s escape through the Red Sea, as they embarked across the wilderness fed by manna from heaven, God told the people to gather double supplies of manna on the sixth day of each week because the seventh was to be “a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.”
When Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, this Sabbath commandment was incorporated into the ten commandments which Moses received on the mountain. God declared (Ex 20:8-11),
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.
We should notice two points in particular about God’s words here. First, the command is not just for the Jews. It also applies to alien residents of Israel, and even to livestock. Secondly, God explains this command by referencing his own conduct, which should turn our eyes back to the first chapters of Genesis.
After recounting the six days of creation, Genesis 2:1-3 says,
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And 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.
Obviously, the all-powerful God did not need to rest after six days of creation because he was tired. His resting is often explained as a concession to human physicality and weakness; he rested because he knew we would need regular rest from our labors. And that is doubtless partially true, but understanding the Sabbath in terms of merely physical relaxation and recharging misses the deeper, beautiful significance of the rest which is at the heart of the Sabbath.
Hebrews 3 and 4 lay out the meaning of Sabbath rest in the brighter light of New Testament revelation. Referencing Psalm 95, in which God declared that those who rebelled in the wilderness “shall not enter my rest” in the Promised Land, the author of Hebrews offers his readers the same choice that Israel faced on the border of Canaan: Believe, obey, and enter God’s rest, or turn aside in unbelief. He declares, “the promise of entering his rest still stands… 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. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”
What the author of Hebrews is saying is that God’s Genesis rest was part of something far larger and grander—the state of perfect peace and joy which he enjoys in Heaven, of which the idealized Promised Land was a foreshadowing. The Old Testament’s physical rest from labor pointed toward our heavenly hope. It was a sign, a reminder, and a foretaste of what is to come. (We will return to this idea next week!)
Moving on, in Deuteronomy 5, Moses reiterated the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, but, interestingly, he changed the Fourth Commandment slightly—not the commandment itself, but the reason for it. Moses told the people,
Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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 or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
So in Exodus the Sabbath is linked to the very beginning and to the very end of God’s work—to his rest after creation and thus, by extension, to the final rest for which we wait—and in Deuteronomy the Sabbath is linked to God’s redemptive work which makes rest with him possible. Exodus tells God’s people to understand the Sabbath as an entering into the rest of God, while Deuteronomy tells his people to enjoy their Sabbath rest as only freed slaves can.
The importance of the Sabbath in the Old Testament can be seen in how often the prophets rebuked God’s people for breaking the Fourth Commandment. Passages like Isaiah 58:13-14 and Ezekiel 20:18-21 called Israel to honor the Sabbath and treated failure to do so as a serious sin. In fact, II Chronicles 36:21 speaks of the Babylonian exile as a Sabbath for the land, giving it the rest which God’s people had so often refused.
It is hard to find a better verse than Isaiah 58:13-14 to sum up the Old Testament picture of the Sabbath:
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;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Plainly, the Sabbath was of utmost important to God in the Old Testament and he desired his people to feel the same way. But why was it so important, and does that importance extend into the New Testament age? And if so, how? We will explore those questions next week.