Though I have written on this topic once previously, I thought I would again post some thoughts about the Sabbath since it is a very relevant topic in discussions on eccelsiology. This has led to many heated debates, but let’s try and get into Scripture, for that might be the most helpful decision.
So, what is the Sabbath?
The Sabbath In The Old Testament
In the opening chapters of Genesis, we read that God set a pattern for humanity by resting Himself on the seventh day:
1 Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 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. 3 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 He would never truly need rest (see Psalm 121), He chose to set a pattern for the human race.
Later on, after He had led them out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, God would command the Israelites about the Sabbath rest. This is found in what we refer to as the Ten Commandments:
8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God… (Exodus 20:8-10)
Later on, God reconfirms this command:
1 Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do. 2 Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. 3 You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:1-3)
This was obviously important for God and He expected it to be dear to the hearts of His people, even to the point of commanding the people to put to death the Sabbath break.
We see the set aside time of the Sabbath rest as 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 while not becoming enslaved to creation.
Though we could pick any number of other Old Testament passages to consider, look at Isaiah 56:2 to, once again, hear God’s desire for Israel that they continue 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.
This sounds pretty serious, as it did in Exodus 35:2! God equates not keeping the Sabbath with doing evil.
The Sabbath In The New Testament
Yet, as with any Biblical truth, if we stopped with 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:
It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:12)
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working. (John 5:17)
In the passage above 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.
In regards to the Sabbath rest, what many Christians can try and do is unequivocally live by the Law. So, with noble heart, you will hear many say, ‘Remember the Sabbath, keep it holy.’ What this statement usually means is, ‘Go to church on Sunday and don’t work on Sunday.’ (Also, I’ve tried to show that, Biblically, church is about people not a place we go to.)
But, in the attempt to obediently walk out the Law, what many do not realise is that the statement and action of ‘going to church and not working on Sunday’ is not an actual fulfilment of the Law’s prescription of the Sabbath. For, if one really wanted to get down to obeying the detail of the Law in regards to the Sabbath, they would have to avoid working from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, not to mention that they would need to gather together on a Saturday as a local church. That is what the Israelites were to called to in the old covenant.
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.’ But this becomes very unhealthy, even laying a burden on the shoulders of Christ’s ekklesia.
So, as mentioned previously, we cannot stop in the Old Testament in developing our theological understanding. This stands true for the Sabbath as well. We need the full story! We need the ending, Christ and the new covenant!
Thus, one of the main things 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 high priest – pointed to Christ, the great High Priest (Hebrews 5:5)
- The priesthood – pointed to the church as God’s 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)
- The temple – pointed to Christ, the great temple (John 2:18-22), and the church as God’s temple (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5)
The same stands true of the Sabbath rest. That day of rest, on the seventh day, pointed to something greater in the new covenant. Paul’s words in Colossians proves 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. (Colossians 2:16-17)
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)
Of course, we must also learn to physically rest. We are finite human beings. Most church leaders especially struggle to take days off or holidays. But, in regards to walking out the directives 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!
In the end, the Sabbath is not about Sunday’s or Saturday’s. For God, it really does not matter 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 that third day, a Sunday. But God’s heart is that we ultimately enter His rest through faith in Christ.
But going back to God’s Sabbath rest that we read about in Genesis 2:1-3, why is such a pattern set ‘in the beginning’ concerning the seventh day?
Many of us will know that the number seven is significant in Hebrew understanding. It is a number meaning fullness or completion. Therefore, when God set the pattern of rest on the seventh day, He did this as a declaration of completion. The creation work had been completed.
Thus, when we come to Christ and the new covenant, we see Him as that complete, full and eternal Sabbath rest of God. And, through faith in Him, we enter into to full and complete rest that God offers to humanity. This is good news!