What is the Sabbath? It the practice of observing one day in seven as a time for rest and worship. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Hebrew “rest.” Applied to the days of rest in the great feasts, but chiefly to the seventh day rest (Exodus 31:15; 16:23). Fausset’s Bible Dictionary
The Sabbath — The Example Established
Genesis 2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. 2 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
—Characteristics of God’s Sabbath Example—
1. God worked six days.
2. On the seventh day, the last day of the creative week God “ended” His work and rested from His creative activity.
3. God considered the day special, blessed and sanctified it.
4. The uniqueness of God’s Sabbath example is seen in Fausset’s Bible Dictionary:
The meaning therefore of Gen 2:3 is, God having divided His creative work into six portions sanctified the seventh as that on which He rested from His creative work. The divine rest was not one of 24 hours; the divine Sabbath still continues. There has been no creation since man’s. After six periods of creative activity, answering to our literal days analogously, God entered on that Sabbath in which His work is preservation and redemption, no longer creation. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary.
Clearly, God’s Sabbath example is not exactly like the future Sabbath Israel would maintain, but rather an example of the eternal Sabbath all believers will enter into. With our work done here on earth, we will pass into glory and enter into our eternal Sabbath rest.
Nonetheless, it is here at the very end of His creative work, where God established the concept of rest. God would later use this special event as a springboard to help others understand and embrace a time of rest as well.
The Sabbath — The Commandment Established
Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
Characteristics of the earthly Sabbath God established for Israel
1. Man worked six days.
2. On the seventh day, the last day of the week man was to rest and relax.
3. Man was to consider the day special, blessed and sanctified.
4. The Sabbath God established for man was unique in that it consisted of a day
in duration, whereas the first Sabbath began in the Garden and continues today.
—Israel’s first contact with the Sabbath concept as defined by God—
During the desert journey God directed Israel to begin practicing the Sabbath principle. Exodus 16:5 And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.
—The purpose of the Sabbath—
Exodus 23:12 Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed.
1. The Sabbath was to provide the people, the animals and the land an opportunity to rest and refreshment.
2. It was to show Israel’s dedication to God.
3. It was to distinguish Israel from all other peoples and nations.
The Sabbath — The Commitment Established
Exodus 31:12-15 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 13 “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
Clearly God was very serious about Israel accepting and keeping the Sabbath commitment. This is bore out by the special conditions surrounding the new commandment. The most serious by product resulting from the breaking of the commandment was the penalty of death directed toward all those who failed to uphold it.
As intimidating as the punishment was, the commandment produced some practical benefits for the people. The most practical of the benefits is that it forced Israel to rest, rather than become slaves to their own self interests. In many parts of the world were days of rest are minimized, we see people becoming slaves to self, slaves to work, slaves to governments, etc. When God forcefully demanded Israel to rest, He did so because He understood that anything less would be an open door for potential neglect and self-deprivation on the part of Israel.
The commandment also acted as a mark of Israel’s favor among all people. This unique practice set them apart from other nations. Also God established the Sabbath commandment as a means of developing a way of life for His people Israel. Remember, this was a new nation with few customs and bonds to hold them together. The Sabbath would work to forge a bond that would last on into the 21st Century.
God would also use the Sabbath commandment as a means of establishing other special Sabbaths. For instance, during the seventh month of each year the people were commanded to have a special Sabbath.
Leviticus 23:23-25 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a Sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. 25 You shall do no customary work on it; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD.’ “
—Year Long Sabbath—
Leviticus 25:3-12 “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. 5 What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land. 6 And the Sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, 7 for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land–all its produce shall be for food.”
—Fiftieth Year Sabbath Jubilee—
Also, every 50 years a special Sabbath called the year of Jubilee where the land was allow to rest and land ownership was returned to its original possessor.
8 ‘And you shall count seven Sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven Sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. 10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. 12 For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field.
The Sabbath — The Commitment Explained
We have seen the Example Established by God after creation, the Commandment Established through the Israelites, and the Commitment Established when God shared the importance of keeping the Sabbath. Now let’s shift our attention to the Commandment Explained and who better then to explain the Sabbath than Christ.
In Mark 2:23-28 we see an example of Jesus taking the opportunity to establish His views on this important matter. There it says, “Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath? ” 25 But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: 26 how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” 27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
In Luke 13:14 Jesus broke ranks with the religious leaders of His day when it came to acts of goodness, “But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath.”
There are several things Christ teaches us about the Sabbath through His ministry here on earth.
First He established that the Sabbath was His day by allowing His disciples to pluck heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath.
Secondly, to establish His thoughts concerning the issue, Jesus refers to the Old Testament example of David while on the run from king Saul, having gone to the Temple and eating bread dedicated to the priests. In doing so, He used the well respected man of God to destroy the argument of the Pharisees.
Within the passage Christ makes a very revealing and startling statement when He pointed out His unique position as it relates to the Sabbath by proclaiming that He was the “Lord of the Sabbath”.
As the Lord of the Sabbath, He proclaimed to the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. In doing so, Jesus pointed out that for certain humanitarian needs, that the life of a man was more important than the maintaining the commandment.
The Sabbath — The Commandment as it relates to the Church
To understand how the Sabbath relates to the Church, we must refer back to the establishment of the commandment in Exodus 31:12-13. There the Lord said to Moses, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
To define the longevity of the commandment we must inquire as to who was the commandment meant for? Exodus 31 says, “it is a sign between Me and you”. The “you” spoken of here denotes Israel and its offspring.
It is important to note that scripture does not mention nor infer any reference to the body of believers God will call into His great assembly one day. God could have made some sort of prophetic reference to the coming Church it in Exodus 31:12-13, but He didn’t.
To argue that God would not reference the Church because it did not yet exist isn’t the strongest argument. Why? We see in passages such as Genesis 12:3 God promising that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through Abraham. “all the families” surely is a reference to the great gathering yet to come.
Clearly the passage defines who the commandment is directed at–Israel. God says it is a “sign between Me and you,” and nowhere in the Old or New Testament does it add the Church to this list.
There are some who believe that somehow through inference God made a new Sabbath–the day of the week that Christ was resurrected from the dead. But why would God make such an important change through inference, when it was His practice to share clear and detailed instructions when establishing other essential truths and practices in the Bible?
It is difficult to believe that God would be so vocal when establishing the Sabbath day commandment with Israel, and so very quiet when transferring the new Sabbath day to the Church. Why the silence? The Sabbath was a sign between God and Israel–God and Israel alone!
For those who believe the Sabbath has been transferred from Saturday to Sunday, or those who believe the Church is commanded to follow the Sabbath commandment as directed toward Israel, look at Acts 15:6-29.
In this passage, Scripture makes it very clear as to what God expected of gentiles entering church and how they should approach their new found faith.
Acts 15:6-29 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” 12 Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. 13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: 14 Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: 16 ‘After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; 17 So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.’ 18 “Known to God from eternity are all His works. 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. 23 They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised and keep the law’–to whom we gave no such commandment– 25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
Notice, when the apostles had the opportunity to share the basic standards the gentile church should follow, in Acts 15: 20 the Sabbath was mentioned in reference to the teachings of Moses being preached in “every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath,” but maintaining the Sabbath was not included in the list of requirements shared with the gentile Christians. This omission, especially given the fact that the Sabbath was mentioned in the passage speaks volumes.
In the Old Testament, failure to maintain the Sabbath bore a stiff penalty–death. Exodus 31:15 says, “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.” It is inconceivable that the apostles (who were Jews) would warn the gentile Christians in Acts 15:29 to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality,” but not warn them to keep the Sabbath, if the Holy Spirit were leading them to.
Acts 15 makes it perfectly clear that the Holy Spirit indeed took an active role in crafting the guidelines as it notes in verse 15, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.”
The apostles didn’t instruct the gentile church about the necessity to keep the Sabbath, because it was and is a sign between God and Israel (Exodus 31:13 – “it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations”), and the Church is not Israel and because God Himself chose not to place this “burden” on the gentile church.
Now lest we think that God doesn’t care if we cease working in order to gather for worship, the Bible clearly encourages us to do so.
In Hebrews 10:23-25 it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
Gathering for worship is not optional. It is a necessity. Staying at home and watching a service on television does not cut it (unless one is not physically capable of attending church) on a regular basis. The Bible commands us to “stir up love and good works” among each other. You have to be with your brothers and sisters in Christ in order to “stir” them.
More importantly the Bible say, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” That means, regardless of the day we gather for worship, supporting the gathering is a command and not an option.
Why didn’t God command the Church to embrace the Sabbath?
As we already noted, the Sabbath is a “sign” between Israel and God–not the Church.
Practically speaking, when Israel was a closed society, it had greater control over how it used its time as a people.
As a fledgling nation, Israel began familiarizing itself with the Sabbath while wondering in the wilderness 40 years. As a result, once in the Promised Land, it naturally upheld the practice of Sabbath keeping.
Unlike Israel, during the days of the early Church, when people came to Christ, they found themselves in various situations and conditions. Some were wealthy and others poor. Some were free and others slaves. In other words, new believers may have or may not have had control over the use of their time. Some could have upheld Sabbath, while others who were beholden to a master may not have the ability to do so.
In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 scripture gives practical guidance concerning this issue saying, “But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. 18 Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. 20 Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. 22 For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.
How does one under the bondage of a slave master, free themselves up for a Sabbaths day rest, when their master commands them to work? Paul instructs them not to worry about such things as what is in their heart is far more important. Thus, the Bible grants a degree of flexibility to those believers who wish to be faithful to the Lord, but must contend with bondage to another.
Most likely, Jewish Christians continued to maintain the Sabbath day, and worshiped as a church with other believers on the Lord’s Day. God afforded greater flexibility in the new era of the Church. Why did He do so? Simply put, there was no simple way to deal with large numbers of people in various countries, various towns, maintaining various backgrounds, with varying degrees of personal freedom.
Nevertheless, the Church is encouraged to rest, commanded to gather together for worship, and strive to minister to others on behalf of Christ, be it on the Sabbath day, the Lord’s Day, or some other appointed time. Reaching out to all nations demanded flexibility, and the Holy Spirit helped the Jewish believers make certain it happened.