By Dr. Mark Scott
God is dead serious about rest. He did it (Genesis 2:2). He commanded his people to do it (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-17). He gave it to the land and animals (v. 14; Leviticus 25:1-7). He gives it to his followers now (Matthew 11:28-30) and eternally (Hebrews 4:9, 10). Heaven is a rest of sorts (Revelation 14:13). Rest has several nuances in the Bible.
Dr. Matthew Sleeth has written a book entitled, 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life. In it he argues for the Sabbath principle in light of the Old Testament Sabbath observance. One sure way to know if you were an Israelite (besides your diet, your law, and circumcision) was whether or not you rested every seven days.
Christians must remember two things: 1. The genre is law, and Christians are not saved by works of the law (Galatians 2:16). 2. The covenant is Mosaic, and Christians are under the covenant of freedom (4:21-31). But neither of these things cancels the obedience of the Sabbath for the Israelite and the principle of the law (i.e. a law that reaches its fruition, Matthew 5:17) for the Christian.
Moses wrote for the Israelites what God had revealed (even inscribed) to him on the mountain (Exodus 31:18). God called Moses to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage (1-4), which he did through a series of plagues (5-11). God redeemed Israel from Egypt and began leading the nation through the wilderness (12-17). God prepared Israel for the giving of his law (18-20) and even gave his own commentary on that law (21-24). God gave specific instructions to Moses about the nature of the priesthood and the building of the tabernacle (25-31:11). One item remained for Moses before he went down the mountain and found the Israelites involved in idolatrous worship (Exodus 32). That item concerned the importance of the Sabbath observance.
Three times in our text (vv. 13, 14, and 16) the Lord commanded the Israelites to observe the Sabbath. This word is used 468 times in the Old Testament and means “keep,” “heed,” “guard,” “watch,” or “preserve.” Four reasons underline this imperative. First, it was a sign. It indicated that Israel and God were in a binding agreement with one another. Second, it was wrapped up in the Lord’s identity (so you may also know that I am the Lord) who works salvifically to make his people holy.
Third, the day itself was sacred (holy, the normal word for set apart for God’s use). Fourth, it followed the Lord’s own example (v. 17). On the seventh day God rested and was refreshed. God does not get tired, but “refreshed” is a form of the word “spirit.” It means to “take a breath.” It is a holy pause.
Exodus 31:14b, 15
Again, God is dead serious about the Sabbath (vv. 14, 15). The punishment for desecrating (the word means to “pollute,” or “profane,” or “defile”) this commandment was death. Consider Numbers 15:32-36 for an actual time when this was carried out. God’s commandment was to be taken seriously.
Besides death, the other punishment for breaking the Sabbath was being cut off. Excluded and put out are never good things since God’s purposes are so often expressed corporately.
Israel was not only to cease from their 24/6 labor on the Sabbath. (By the way, do not forget the other teaching in the text, “For six days work is to be done,” and for those people work consisted of 12-hour days.) Israel was also to celebrate the Sabbath. The word “celebrate” is a common Hebrew verb. It occurs 1,333 times in the Old Testament and means “make,” “commit,” “offer,” “execute,” or “work.” Israel was “to work” the Sabbath.
This celebration (or “doing” Sabbath) allowed Israel to make their offerings in worship to the Lord and gave them time to assemble (Numbers 28:9, 10; Leviticus 23:3). While Christians must be careful of turning Sabbath commands into imperatives for Sunday, there is something to be said for pausing for corporate worship. It is good to celebrate corporately by bringing a sacrifice of praise to the Lord (Hebrews 13:15). That being said, Jesus taught that he was the Lord of the Sabbath, and that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27, 28). Since it is a gift from God and made for us, it should be celebrated.
The Sabbath observance might not be the command of God for us, but it is the Word of God for us.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.