Though you might already have your theology set out concerning the Sabbath rest, and would, therefore, find this article uninteresting or unhelpful, I would ask that you give me a few moments to lay out a brief, yet relatively full, Biblical understanding behind the topic of the Sabbath rest. My hope is that you will be encouraged in reading this.
In the opening chapters of Genesis, God set a pattern of rest for humanity by resting Himself on the seventh day:
Thus the heaven 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. (Genesis 2:1-3)
Though God is the all-sufficient Creator, and we could pretty much imagine that He would never truly need rest (see Psalm 121 when it says God never sleeps nor slumbers), He chose to set a pattern for the human race. He would later go on to command His people, the Israelites, about the Sabbath rest. This is found in what we refer to as the ‘Ten Commandments’:
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. (Exodus 20:8-10)
This was obviously important for God and He expected it to be dear to the hearts of His people. We see the set aside time of the Sabbath rest pointing to:
- Trust in God – to provide for the full seven days when only working six days.
- Relationship with God – serving and walking with Him and not becoming enslaved to creation.
Though I could pick any number of other Old Testament passages to quote, I have chosen Isaiah 56:2 to show God’s heart for Israel to follow the pattern of His own rest:
Blessed is the man who does this and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.
Sounds pretty serious. God equates not keeping the Sabbath with doing evil. But, if we stopped at the Old Testament, we would not have a fully developed theology concerning the Sabbath. We need the end of the story – the New Testament. So, moving into the New Testament, and stopping specifically in the Gospels to begin with, we read statements like these from the lips of Jesus:
Matthew 12:12 – It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Mark 2:27 – The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.
John 5:17 – My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.
In this passage from John’s Gospel, we get the idea that maybe God really isn’t resting every seventh day. And it isn’t that He is looking to break His own commands, but it is the fact that something bigger was meant by the pattern set in the beginning.
You see, in regards to the Sabbath rest, what many Christians can do is try and live by the Old Testament Law (for time sake, I won’t be able to get much into the relationship of the Law to the new covenant believer). So, with noble heart, you will hear many say, ‘Remember the Sabbath, keep it holy.’ What they mean by this is, ‘Go to church on Sunday and don’t work on Sunday.’
But, in their attempt to obediently walk out the Law, they don’t realise that their statement and action of ‘going to church and not working on Sunday’ is actually not fulfilling the Law. For, if we really wanted to get down to obeying the detail of the Law in regards to the Sabbath, we would not work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and also gather together on Saturday’s as local churches. Thus, if you really want to live by the Law concerning the Sabbath, you might have to be willing to sacrificially lay down your Friday nights.
Yet, there are some today who understand that the Old Testament Sabbath was Friday sundown to Saturday sundown and so, they get very zealous in proclaiming, ‘If we really want to obey God, we would be meeting on Saturday’s.’ And, all of a sudden, a heavy burden and difficult yoke is laid upon Christ’s followers. This becomes very unhealthy.
How is this burdensome and unhealthy? Well, I just mentioned a few paragraphs back of the importance of not stopping in the Old Testament in developing any theological understanding. And this stands true for the Sabbath as well. As W.G. Scroggie said in his book, Know Your Bible:
‘The New is in the Old contained, and the Old is in the New explained. The Old commences what the New completes…Without the New Covenant the Old is a start that has no finish; and without the Old the New is a finish that has no start.’
We need the full story! We need the ending! The main thing to realize about the Old Testament is that there are many things that foreshadowed, or pointed to, greater things to come in Christ and the new covenant. For example:
- The temple – pointed to Christ, the great temple (John 2:18-22), and the body of Christ as God’s temple (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5)
- The high priest – pointed to Christ, the great High Priest (Hebrews 5:5)
- The priesthood – pointed to the body of Christ being the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)
- The Passover Lamb – pointed to Christ, the great Lamb of God (1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:19)
And I believe the same to be true of the Sabbath rest. That day of rest, on the seventh day, pointed to something greater in the new covenant. For this, we can find Paul’s words in Colossians 2:16-17 very helpful in defining the Sabbath in the new covenant:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Did you catch that? Everything from the dietary laws (food and drink), to the festivals and feasts of the Old Testament, even to the Sabbath rest, all pointed to Christ. They were a mere shadow of things to come. And as the NIV puts it, ‘The reality, however, is found in Christ.’ Christ is the full reality of what all those things pointed to in the Old Testament. Thus, Christ is our Sabbath rest. He is the one who brings ‘rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29). And, the writer to the Hebrews concurs by stating:
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:9)
Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that we need to learn to physically rest. We need days off. We need vacations/holidays. But, in regards to walking out the commands of God, for those of us who are in Christ, we have entered God’s Sabbath rest. And that is good news; that is gospel! It is not about Sunday’s or Saturday’s. God does not really mind which day of the week your local church meets, or what day of the week you take off from work. Traditionally, Christians have met on Sunday’s in remembrance of the resurrection of Christ on a Sunday. But, God’s heart is that we ultimately enter His rest through faith in Christ.
And as I pondered these things this past week, I believe God showed me something. He revealed to me why He had chosen to rest on the seventh day. Most of us know that the number seven is a significant number for Hebrew understanding. It is a number meaning fullness or completion. And so, God helped me see that for us who are new covenant believers and have entered God’s rest through Christ, we can see that He is the great seventh day Sabbath rest. Christ is that complete, full and eternal Sabbath rest of God that we are to enter into. That was the significance of God’s rest on the seventh day.
For me, it was amazing to see this correlation, this connection between what God started in the beginning and ended in Christ. We, as those in Christ, have truly entered God’s rest through Christ. And now, the challenge is to walk this out in daily life. In spite of the busy life, the long to-do list, and maybe not getting that vacation this summer, we are to learn to enjoy this soul-rest that Christ brings into our lives. Thus, I will end with Eugene Peterson’s words from the Message version of Matthew 11:28-30:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.