Confused about the Sabbath? So was I.
Growing up I attended a few different church denominations, all of which seemed to teach something different when it came to the Sabbath.
When I was a young kid we never talked about the Sabbath in church, except for having to memorize the Ten Commandments in Sunday school. As a teenager I remember talking about the Sabbath with my friends, and deciding it didn’t apply to us because it was an “Old Testament thing.” Then I went to college, where I was a part of a church that emphasized literally observing the Sabbath as a day of rest once a week dedicated to the Lord – though I could choose the day of the week and what “rest” meant to me (as long as devotion was included). After college I attended a church that taught the Sabbath as a reminder that we need to have “breathing room” in our life, and take time to assess whether we’re balanced or stressed – because, it was assumed, Christians who are rested are better able to love God and others. Needless to say, I was totally confused.
Maybe it’s time we take a closer look at how the Sabbath is revealed in the Bible (as part of God’s story of redemptive history). Seeing how it reveals truths about who God is, how he relates to his creation, and how Christ’s fulfilling sacrifice on the cross brings the Sabbath to life will clear up confusion.
The Sabbath’s Beginning: Creation
God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day he rested. In Hebrew, “seven” and “Sabbath” are practically the same word. In Genesis 2:2-3 we are told:
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.
He had completed the work of creation and declared it good.
This is the first glimpse we get of the Sabbath. What happened on the eighth day? Did God go back to creating? Certainly not! He had completed the work of creation and declared it good. A new era of creation was inaugurated on the first Sabbath. To paraphrase theologian A. G. Shead, on the seventh day God stopped creating his creation, and started being with his creation.
But, alas, this rest was shattered when Adam and Eve rebelled, and through their rebellion chose a life of toil rather than rest (Gen. 3:17-19).
Sabbath in the Time of Moses
The “seventh day” isn’t mentioned again until the time of Moses, after the Lord miraculously brought his people out of Egypt and gave them manna from heaven. The people collected twice as much on the sixth day, for the seventh day was a day of “solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (Ex. 16.23). A couple chapters later, in the Ten Commandments, we’re given a more detailed explanation of the Sabbath linking it to the seventh day of creation:
“8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:8-11)
The observance of the Sabbath day in the Law of Moses did not merely point back to creation; it also pointed forward to the fulfillment of the Sabbath.
By this explanation of the Sabbath we see that there is a distinct commandment in the Law of Moses regarding the Sabbath, but also that the Sabbath goes all the way back to how and when God created the world. It’s a special time to live differently as an expression of faith and remembrance. However, the observance of the Sabbath day in the Law of Moses did not merely point back to creation; it also pointed forward to the fulfillment of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath Fulfilled: Jesus
We know Israel’s story. They broke the law given to them by the Lord. They kept neither the Sabbath nor the rest of God’s commands. But even though they failed, they could put faith in their Messiah, their future redeemer, who we now know is Jesus.
Jesus is saying that he, in fact, is LORD of the Sabbath. He is claiming to have authority like that of Moses, or even greater. You see, the only Lord of the Sabbath is the Lord himself. So whoever is Lord of the Sabbath, is also Lord over the entire Law of Moses.
But Jesus didn’t come to break the law, he came to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). How did Jesus fulfill the Sabbath?
Hebrews 4 talks about the rest of God, and how Israel was unable to enter this rest due to their unbelief. None of their plant and animal sacrifices were big enough to atone for the sin in their lives. This was the problem under the Law of Moses.
Jesus, who fulfilled the Law, made a way for us, who were all at enmity with God, to become a part of God’s family, and enter his rest.
However, Jesus, who fulfilled the Law, made a way for us, who were all at enmity with God, to become a part of God’s family, and enter his rest. Even the happiest life on this earth is afflicted with many trials, but since Jesus paid our debt we are able to be at peace with God. This is what the Sabbath means now. He has promised us that we will abide with him where there is eternal peace and righteousness. This is what the Sabbath means in the future. Furthermore, because Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, we are able to enter God’s rest not by our works, but by our belief in Jesus’ perfected sacrifice for us.
Sabbath in Our Lives Today
The New Testament never mentions believers in Christ observing a weekly Sabbath in order to rest physically and mentally. It also doesn’t mention observing a weekly Sabbath in which we rest from our work to focus on our personal relationship with God.
Don’t get me wrong – these things are good ideas. We need regular rest in order to continue well in whatever work the Lord has given us to do. And every single day we should be set aside time to focus on our personal relationship with God. We need to remember what God’s done for us, how Jesus has saved us, and rejoice in the promises he’s made regarding our future.
But the Sabbath is a much larger than rest from work and so much more than regular intervals of personal devotion. So even as you engage in those other things, let me encourage you to not think of the Sabbath as a day that comes and goes. Rather, the Sabbath is an ongoing reality for every believer, and will ultimately be revealed when we are glorified in the presence of our Savior. We rest in our salvation that’s secure apart from our good works, for that is what we have in Christ. And we look forward to a future rest that will never fade when Jesus comes again. This is what the whole story of Scripture teaches. This is what clears up confusion.