by Jerran Jackson
Pat was concerned. Her Bible study leader mentioned that since we live under Christ’s new covenant, we are not bound by the Ten Commandments. Pat didn’t like the sound of that. She had been taught the Ten Commandments from childhood. Moreover, Pat wanted to hold on to the Sabbath commandment to convince her husband, a company vice president, to take time off for rest.
The concept of Sabbath rest can be confusing. Is it okay to work on Sunday? Which day is the Sabbath? Even if we do not keep the Ten Commandments, should we rest one day a week like God did?
The Origin of Sabbath Rest
Genesis records, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (2:2, 3).
God was not tired; he did not need rest. The Hebrew word sabat means “cease” more than “rest.” Thus these verses read, “On the seventh day he ceased from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he ceased from all the work of creating he had done.”
By ceasing, God announced that he had completed creation. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31). God stopped to rejoice over what he had made. His “rest” was more of a celebration.
The Sabbath in Israel
The word Sabbath first appears in the Bible when God gave Moses the law. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:8, 9). God prohibited work on the Sabbath, and he was serious. “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death” (31:15).
While the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, God trained his people by providing a double portion of manna on the sixth day and none on the seventh day. When a man was found gathering sticks to burn on the Sabbath, “the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses” (Numbers 15:36). God expected Israel to keep his Sabbath law.
Sabbath observance set Israel apart from all the nations around them. The peculiar practice of not working one day each week was a sign of Israel’s covenant with God. However, Sabbath keeping became difficult for Israel to follow. “I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading on donkeys” (Nehemiah 13:15). “They shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them” (Ezekiel 22:26). Breaking the fourth commandment became one of the reasons God sent his people into exile.
Jesus and the Sabbath
Jesus claimed lordship over the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). The Pharisees and teachers of the law repeatedly urged Jesus and his disciples to keep their Sabbath rules. But Jesus refused. “Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away” (Luke 14:3, 4). The Sabbath was made for people, Jesus said (Mark 2:27).
Jesus viewed the Sabbath as a gift to mankind, not a restriction. God gave it to be a blessing, not a burden. However, the legalistic mindset of the Pharisees saw Sabbath keeping as required, not as refreshing. Therefore, Jesus purposefully healed on the Sabbath. He allowed his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath. Jesus proclaimed release for the oppressed on the Sabbath in order to restore joy to this day (Luke 4:16-20).
The Sabbath in the Early Church
My brother Jeff was calling men from his church for a Saturday workday at the church building. One man told Jeff he could not come because he would be keeping the Sabbath. Jeff thought the man was kidding, but he wasn’t. He didn’t do any work on Saturdays for God.
The New Testament repeats all of the Ten Commandments except for keeping the Sabbath holy. In fact, the New Testament specifically says, “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (Galatians 4:10, 11). “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16, 17). As followers of Jesus, we are not called to keep the Sabbath. Our Sabbath rest is in Christ.
After Pentecost, Christians began to worship Jesus on Sunday (Acts 20:7). Sunday did not become a Christian Sabbath; it was a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Nevertheless, Paul’s customary practice was to gather with Jewish brothers and sisters on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). Paul didn’t go to Sabbath gatherings to follow the law or to rest; he went to evangelize.
Sabbath Rest Today
Hebrews 3 and 4 contain the New Testament’s most thorough discussion of the Christian’s Sabbath. Hebrews teaches that disobedience and disbelief kept the Israelites from entering God’s rest (3:18; 4:2), and that belief now enables us to enter God’s rest (3:3). Our rest is like God’s rest at the completion of creation (4:3, 4, 10).
When God completed creation, he didn’t cease to work. God’s “rest” was more of a celebration. Ben Witherington comments, “The idea of a day of rest is seen as yet another type on earth of God’s ultimate rest—which means not so much an absence of activity, though that is a component, but the presence of joy, a sense of fulfillment, and completion.”
Sabbath rest for the Christian is a time of rejoicing over what God has completed. The Lord has ushered us into his kingdom. He has given us his Spirit. God has forgiven us. The Lord lets us commune with him. We have his Word. We have the sure hope of eternal life. Christ has given us his body, the church. The list goes on.
Giving Thanks for What God Has Done
Sabbath rest for the Christian is giving thanks for what God has done. We can do this now just as we will do this in Heaven. This is why Hebrews speaks of entering God’s rest both as a future event (4:6) and as a present reality (4:10).
Taking Saturday or Sunday off does not make you holy. I cannot use “Sabbath rest” as an excuse to watch TV instead of helping my neighbor or doing needed work. Paul allows for observing special days as a form of personal worship (Romans 14:5, 6). For the Christian, though, we already have the privilege of living each day in God’s Sabbath rest; Jesus has saved us. He also has given us work to do. “As long as it is day, we must do the will of him who sent me” (John 9:4).
Celebrate what God has done for you. You can set aside time to give thanks to the Lord. You also can devote all week to serving the Lord. Both honor Jesus. So give every day to him, because every day is a Christian’s Sabbath.
Jerran Jackson is a freelance writer in Clarksburg, Indiana.
Randomness on Rest
• Do you sleep as much as a pro athlete?
• Calming colors are supposed to help people sleep. This home might have the opposite effect.
• Perhaps you often spill when trying to eat and relax on the couch simultaneously. Then these pillows are for you!