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The Mystery of the Sabbath


Christians have had a long and interesting history of thinking about the Sabbath.  The original idea of a seventh day rest goes way back to the second chapter of Genesis and the seventh day of creation.

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” (Genesis 2:2-3)

Everything seems simple enough on the surface: God spent six days working, creating the universe, and then rested on the seventh, thus providing a pattern for the concept of a week - a pattern which has persisted for over six thousand years all the way down until today.

Later on, when God graciously rescued the children of Israel from their long Egyptian bondage, one of the very first things that He did for them was to reinstate this day of rest, essentially giving them one day off per week - something that they had not had in hundreds of years.  And when God codified His Law for His people in the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the Sabbath day’s rest was prominently featured in those commands.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

And attached to this command were several others that fleshed it out and even prescribed penalties for neglecting to rest on the seventh day of the week.

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:2-3)

We even have an example of someone breaking these very commands, as well as a description of the judgement and sentencing.

“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.  And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.” (Numbers 15:32-36)

So clearly the Sabbath command was a very serious part of God’s Law, as a person could even lose his or her life through neglecting to rest on the appropriate day.  But, on the other hand, there are also glorious blessings promised to those who do keep God’s Sabbath.

“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

There is so much written about the Sabbath in the Old Testament that many Christians even today still want to believe either that we are under the same command and threat of punishment as the Israelites in regards to the Sabbath, or else that there are still great blessings to be had from Sabbath observance.  For some, like the Seventh Day Adventists, this observance is still to be held on the actual seventh day - Saturday - while others believe that in the New Covenant period, Sunday - the first day of the week, the day that Jesus rose - is to be substituted for the Sabbath.  But what does the Bible say about all of this?  One would expect that there would be some clear teaching on the subject, and I believe that there is.

First there is the example of Jesus in the Gospels.  Jesus had a very interesting relationship with the Sabbath.  He was constantly being accused of being a Sabbath breaker, but most of those cases were fairly spurious - like the one where he told the man with the withered hand to hold out his hand and it was healed (Matthew 12:9-14).  On at least one occasion, though, Jesus does seem to be permitting an activity that should have been expressly forbidden on the Sabbath.

“At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” (Matthew 12:1-8)

Take notice of a very important facet of this passage: Jesus does not say that the Pharisees are wrong when they accuse His disciples of doing that which was not lawful on the Sabbath.  Instead, He offers an example of something else that was done unlawfully and recorded in the Scripture.  His point in so doing was to show how much more important He was than David, or the temple, or even the Sabbath.  And that is certainly an important lesson, but it also does some damage to the enduring strength of the Sabbath command.

Jesus Himself does not break the Law (He was perfect in respect to the Law), but He allows His disciples to do so.  We are told that they were hungry, but we have no reason to believe that they were starving like David’s men.  Thus, it can’t be realistically claimed that Jesus was saving lives through allowing His disciples to break the command.  At the same time, Jesus teaches in another place that those who weaken the commands of God are least in the Kingdom of Heaven.  There is thus only one possibility: something about the Sabbath commandment was changing at the time of Christ’s first advent.

This becomes more noticeable when we look at all of the other things that Jesus commanded His disciples.  He brought clarity to the confusion that men had created around many of the Law’s commands.  In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, He began many of His instructions with, “Ye have heard that it was said...but I say unto you...” (see for example Matthew 5:21-48).  There had been much perversion of the Law by sinful men to justify their own wicked actions and rob the Law of its intended purpose, and Jesus purged this thinking the same way that He purged the temple of the money changers, but He didn’t offer any correction to the way people were observing the Sabbath, other than to shine a light on their excesses through His example (see again Matthew 12:9-14).  This also shows that something was changing about the Sabbath commandment at the time of the first advent.

Then we come to the New Testament epistles, and we find a statement that should be quite shocking to all of us.

“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)

Just so it is abundantly clear, let me repeat the key phrase here: “Let no man therefore judge respect of the sabbath.”  Paul, in the midst of a longer section dealing with how we as Christians should act - and whether we should submit ourselves to all kinds of rules or not - blatantly, boldly, and unashamedly tells Christians that the Sabbath was a shadow of something to come (namely Christ), and that we should not let anyone judge us if we decide to celebrate it or not.  Don’t let the immensity of that declaration pass you by!

Remember that in the Old Covenant, violating the Sabbath meant receiving the death penalty.  Remember that God punished Israel as a people for neglecting His Sabbaths, and remember that He promised all kinds of blessings to the person who would keep them.  So something very big must have happened to change this expectation!  And something very big did happen!  Christ came in the flesh and offered rest to all of those who would come unto Him.

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

This rest that Christ offered - this rest of finished labor, resting in what Christ has done on our behalf - is the substance of what was only shadowed in the old Sabbath commandment.  This is the rest that is spoken of by the author of Hebrews:

“There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” (Hebrews 4:9-11)

And it is because this perfect rest of God has been revealed in Christ that the Old Covenant Sabbath command no longer holds the same place in our pursuit of obedience to God’s commands.  It’s not as if the Sabbath command has gone away (Jesus said that no jot or tittle would pass away from Law), but it is fulfilled in Christ in the same way that all of the sacrificial system was (see Hebrews 8:4-5 where the sacrificial system is also called a “shadow of heavenly things”).  He is the reality to which all of those commands were pointing.  In the case of animal sacrifice, to continue the practice it after Christ has offered the perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice would be a disgrace and a denouncement of the efficacy of Christ’s atoning death (Hebrews 10:26-31).  And while continued seventh day rest observance does not carry the same disgraceful insult to Christ’s rest (for we are not told that it does), it is just as unnecessary now that the substance of that rest has been revealed in Jesus’ finished work on our behalf.

So by the authority of the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and fully in line with what the book of Hebrews tells us about the shadows of Christ in the Law and the true rest into which we must enter, I can confidently say once again that the old Sabbath command of a seventh day rest does not have any binding on Christians.  Let no man judge you in regards to such a thing.  If someone does so, then that person is standing in stark contradiction to the clear revelation of the Word of God.